U.S. Military Bases and Empire. (Review of the Month)

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The Bases of Empire

Empires throughout human history have relied on foreign military bases to enforce their rule, and in this respect at least, Pax Americana is no different than Pax Romana or Pax Britannica. "The principal method by which Rome established her political supremacy in her world," wrote historian Arnold Toynbee in his America and the World Revolution (1962),

was by taking her weaker neighbors under her wing and protecting them against her and their stronger neighbors. Rome's relation with these protegees of hers was a treaty relation. Juridically they retained their previous status of sovereign independence. The most that Rome asked of them in terms of territory was the cessation, here and there, of a patch of ground for the plantation of a Roman fortress to provide for the common security of Rome's allies and Rome herself.

At least this is the way Rome started out. But as time passed, "the vast territories of Rome's one-time allies," originally secured by this system of Roman military bases, "became just as much a part of the Roman Empire as the less extensive territories of Rome's one time enemies which Rome had deliberately and overtly annexed" (pp. 105-106).

Britain, in its heyday as the leading capitalist power in the nineteenth century, ruled over a vast colonial empire secured by a global system of military bases. As Robert Harkavy has explained in his important work, Great Power Competition for Overseas Bases (1982), these were deployed in four networks along sea corridors dominated by British naval power: (1) the Mediterranean through Suez to India; (2) South Asia, the Far East, and the Pacific; (3) North America and the Caribbean; and (4) West Africa and the South Atlantic, At the British Empire's peak these military bases were located in more than thirty-five separate countries/colonies. Although British hegemony declined rapidly in the early twentieth century; its bases were retained as long as the empire itself continued, and its base system even expanded briefly during the Second World War. In the immediate aftermath of the war, however, the British Empire crumbled, and the great majority of bases had to be relinquished.

The fall of the British Empire was accompanied by the rise of another, as the United States took Britain's place as the hegemonic power of the capitalist world economy. The United States emerged from the Second World War with the most extensive system of military bases that the world had ever seen. According to James Blaker, former Senior Advisor to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this overseas basing system at the end of the Second World War consisted of over thirty thousand installations located at two thousand base sites residing in around one hundred countries and areas, and stretching from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. U.S. military bases were spread over all the continents and the islands in between. "Next to the U.S. nuclear monopoly," Blaker writes, "there was no more universally recognized symbol of the nation's superpower status than its overseas basing system." (*)

The official stance of the United States toward these military bases after the war was that they should be retained to whatever extent possible, and further bases should be acquired. At the Potsdam Conference on August 7, 1945, President Harry Truman declared:

Though the United States wants no profit or selfish advantage out of this war, we are going to maintain the military bases necessary for the complete protection of our interests and of world peace. Bases which our military experts deem to be essential for our protection we will acquire. We will acquire them by arrangements consistent with the United Nations Charter. (+)

Nevertheless, the dominant trend from the end of the Second World War until the Korean War was the reduction of the number of U.S. overseas bases. "Half the wartime basing structure," according to Blaker, "was gone within two years of V-J Day, and half of what had been maintained until 1947 had been dismantled by 1949" (P. …