01/07/2008 08:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Memo to Fred Thompson: America Has an Empire

At ABC's debate last Saturday night, Fred Thompson asked Ron Paul whom the United States had invaded before Iraq and Afghanistan. The other candidates and the audience were having a grand time at Paul's expense. He had said terrorists attacked the US not because we are rich and free but because of the way the most powerful nation on earth treats other people. So Fred, how about this as a short list to answer your question:
  • Invasion, occupation and annexation of numerous sovereign Native American nations.
  • Invasions of Canada in 1775 and 1812.
  • Invasion, occupation and annexation of 52% of Mexico, comprising today's Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and parts of Wyoming in 1848.
  • Invasion and occupation of the Philippines from 1898-1942.
  • Occupation and annexation of Hawaii 1893-1898.
  • Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1918.
  • LBJ's invasion by ground troops of Vietnam in 1965.
  • LBJ's invasion of the Dominican Republic one month later in 1965.
  • Reagan's deployment of troops to Lebanon in 1982.
  • Reagan's laughable invasion of Grenada two days after 241 American marines were killed in Beirut in 1983.
  • Bush Sr.'s invasion of Panama in 1989.

As I said, that's the short list. It doesn't mention CIA-backed coups overthrowing democracies in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. It's been the reverse of 1776: overthrowing democrats to install monarchs and dictators.

Thompson was specifically asking what invasions had taken place in the Middle East that riled up extremists to take revenge on the U.S., as Paul was alleging. First off, many Middle Eastern extremists are not as narrowly focused on their region as Thompson thinks. Osama bin Laden has more than once referred to American involvement in Vietnam as a motivation. Secondly, Paul told Thompson the reaction was to Middle East dictators the U.S. had propped up against the interests of their peoples.

It does not always take invasion and occupation to exercise control. Nor is invasion always the preferred method. The Romans, British and other great empires lacked the resources to invade and directly run every territory under their control. They sometimes relied on surrogate leaders drawn from local populations such as King Herod in Roman Palestine and King Faisal in British Iraq.

That's how the US has run most of its interests abroad: installing and maintaining dictators in Latin America, Africa and Asia, though at times invasion and direct rule has been deemed necessary. Afghanistan and Iraq are only the latest examples.

Ron Paul is wrong on a lot of issues, but not this one. He had the guts to face a ridiculing audience and panel of candidates to try to deliver a basic history lesson to people who need it. The derision with which he was met was a bad sign of how far we have to go for these historical facts to be accepted as a legitimate debating point.

Americans do seem to have a hard time coming to terms with empire.

A few months ago I had a conversation with Gore Vidal about this. I will be posting my interview with him soon on the Huffington Post.

In the book I am writing with former Senator Mike Gravel, that will be published by Seven Stories Press in May, we confront Americans' reluctance to recognize the effects of U.S. power abroad by providing a detailed history of the interconnected growth of U.S. territory, presidential power and the American arms industry from the beginning of the Republic until today.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog here on the 100th anniversary of Teddy Roosevelt's launching of the Great White Fleet. It was a so-called "peace mission" of white battleships bristling with cannon calling into ports on every continent except Antarctica in a circumnavigation of the globe. The U.S. sailors were feted everywhere they went. Why? Was it from fear of what America could do to these nations, or hope for what the U.S. could do for them? Perhaps that hadn't been delineated yet, despite the ongoing brutal repression of the lingering Philippines insurgency at the time.

I suggested in the blog that some American political and business leaders may not have focused solely on the promise of great riches and power in store for America's impending global empire, but may have submerged their naked ambition in the enterprise into the myths of American progress and democracy on offer for the world, perhaps to assuage their conscience.

Some readers thought I had given America's early imperial leaders a break and should have nailed them for their naked aggression. Seen objectively there is little doubt that the altruistic slogans of spreading Christianity or democracy -- from the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq -- seem like covers for brute economic and political interests.

But it is presumptuous to know what goes on in an individual's mind. Listening to Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain ridiculing Ron Paul at that ABC debate it occurred to me they may be ignorant enough of history to delude themselves into believing that America is an exception: that its scouring of the world for resources, markets and political power is somehow different from the British or the Romans or countless other empires. They are wrong, but how do we know for sure they know that?

We do know that Ron Paul deserves credit for bringing up the obvious in a hostile environment. Maybe some day historical fact will seep into the mainstream and at least be seriously debated.