Sunday, August 14, 2022


 Harry Targ 

It is also clear that justification for empire and military spending has necessitated the construction of an enemy, first the Soviet Union and international communism; then terrorism; and now China. The obverse of a demonic enemy requires a conception of self to justify the imperial project. That self historically has been various iterations of American exceptionalism, the indispensable nation, US humanitarianism, and implicitly or explicitly the superiority of the white race and western civilization. (Harry Targ, “United States foreign policy: yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” Monthly Review Online,  Oct 23, 2019)



Henry Luce, founder of the publishing empire of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, wrote in 1941 that the twentieth century was to be “the American Century.” Once the United States, in conjunction with the former Soviet Union and Great Britain, led the way to the defeat of fascism and militarism in Europe and Asia, he wrote, it could begin the process of promoting democracy and market economies everywhere. This vision of the United States as “the beacon of hope” for humankind would find its way into the foreign policy pronouncements and political rhetoric of virtually every president since the end of World War II.

President Reagan spoke about the US as “the city on the hill.” President Clinton rekindled the vision of the American Century when he proclaimed the US commitment to fight “rogue states” and to create “market democracies” around the world. George W. Bush declared that the United States represents what is good in the world. President Obama also claimed that the United States has a special role to play in the world. He and others from both political parties often refer to the US as the “indispensable nation.” And today, President Biden has argued that the United States has the responsibility to defend the “democracies” threatened by “authoritarian” regimes.

Supporters of US foreign policy believe that the United States has been motivated in its participation in international relations by altruism, by the vision of democratic values, and free markets. Some critics of this view, the “political realists,” however, claim that US foreign policy, like the foreign policy of all big powers, should be based upon their core interests defined as achieving power, not moral values. Policymakers err if they make policy based upon universal abstract principles and use those principles to justify foreign policy. More radical writers, in the tradition of the “historical revisionists” of the 1960s, have argued that US foreign policy has always been designed to serve the economic interests of the nation’s rulers. They remind us that the US has been an imperial power ever since the “new nation” swept across the North American continent, seized land held by its original settlers, and massacred those Native Americans who resisted the seizure and occupation of land. For these writers, the United States imperial vision turned global with the industrial revolution after the Civil War. By the 1890s the US began constructing an informal empire (from Cuba to the Philippines) that ultimately has stretched all across the globe.

From this last point of view, US foreign policy since World War II, with the struggle against the former Soviet Union and communism, to wars in Korea and Vietnam, to military and covert interventions in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Nicaragua, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq constitute the continual drive for US empire, largely to maximize economic gain. These theorists see historic links between the changes and growth in the capitalist economy and imperial policies overseas. It is not naïve ideas about promoting high principles that drives foreign policy but material, largely economic interests, that are the root cause of such policies.

On the Ideology of American Exceptionalism

Andrew Bacevich (“After the American Century,” Tom Dispatch, July 12, 2022) taking off from an earlier essay by David Bessner (Empire Burlesque,”  Harper’s, July, 2022), enriches our understanding of the ideology that served to justify the United States drive to global hegemony after World War Two.

In the Bacevich and Bessner essays the authors argue that the turning-point in the thinking of policymakers and political and cultural elites as to the goals of the United States in the world was inspired by the famous essay by Time/Life Magazine publisher Henry Luce. The essay entitled “The American Century,” appeared in Life magazine shortly before the entry of the United States into the World War. It urges policymakers and the citizenry to commit to creating a new century in which the model of the United States, its democracy, its economic system, and for Bacevich its religiosity, should serve as what would later be called “beacon,” “a city on the hill,” and the “US as the indispensable nation.”

Luce called on the United States to be prepared to replace Great Britain as the power to guide the world into the future and at the same time to preserve and promote democracy and free enterprise. He quoted a British diplomat and an Economist editorial proclaiming that Great Britain, an island nation of 50 million people, was prepared to follow the US lead in defeating Naziism on the continent and constructing a post-war world order overseen by the US. Above all, Luce made it clear that the United States, a wealthy country, should encourage the development of market economies, promote free trade, stimulate technological developments, and in these ways oppose state interference in economic life, for him exemplified by the Soviet Union globally and the New Deal domestically.


In contrast to Luce, Bacevich and Bessner argue that a wiser US foreign policy, should be based on a complementarity of the nation’s fundamental goal, its national interest, and a careful assessment of  its material resources to achieve it. National interest, not some messianic ideology should govern policy. Some “realist” scholars during the Cold War were critics of US policy because the vision of transforming the world, as Luce envisioned it, transcended careful and modest calculations of national interests and how to achieve them. The most distinguished realists, such as Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan became critics of the virulent anti-communism that drove the public discourse on US foreign policy. In this regard, envisioning an “American century” or promoting “the free world,” realists claimed, well exceeded the interests and/or the possibilities of United States foreign policy.

For example, prominent realist, George Kennan, referred in his essay, American Diplomacy 1900-1950, to the propensity of US leaders to embrace “moralism/legalism” when making foreign policy. Kennan traced that error back to John Hays’ (author of the “Open Door” Notes) 1898 warning to European nations that they should not carve up spheres of influence in China to the exclusion of the United States. For Kennan, leaders were incorrect to think that using threats and making grand declarations, would lead to positive results. In addition he critiqued other  “moralists/legalists” such as Theodore Roosevelt who saw the white man’s destiny to civilize the world or Woodrow Wilson’s desire to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Bacevich and Bessner develop a compelling critical narrative of the development of United States foreign policy beginning with Henry Luce’s dramatic call for an “American Century.” For them, the Henry Luce essay was the clarion call, that shaped the thinking and policymaking of every US administration about foreign policy since 1941.

Bringing Class Back In

What is lacking in these, otherwise valuable contributions to our understanding of the roots of United States foreign policy is the class character of that policy and the underlying material interests that have driven that policy at least since the industrial revolution. A compelling way to describe the “class struggle” elements of US foreign policy as the Cold War was about to begin is to compare the Luce essay, which promoted a global US economic presence, with a long-forgotten speech Vice President Henry Wallace made in the fall of 1942, after the World War began (“The Century of the Common Man May 8, 1942, Grand Ballroom, Commodore Hotel, New York, NY). Peter Dreier reminds us of the progressive vision in and around the Roosevelt Administration before and during World War II which was the basis of the struggles over the future of the US domestically and internationally after the war. 

What was clear in the comparison of the two speeches, Luce versus Wallace, was that the United States would have to choose between two paths after fascism was defeated. For Luce, altruistic words would be used to rationalize the pursuit of global hegemony and crushing worker rights at home. For Wallace, US policy should be to help build a multipolar, multicultural world based on the principles of economic and social justice embedded in the post-war Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This choice was not just about ideology but about economic interests. And it is this, economic interests at home and abroad, that the realists leave out of the story.

Henry Wallace and the Century of the Common Man

“Some have spoken of the "American Century." I say that the century on which we are entering -- the century which will come into being after this war -- can be and must be the century of the common man.” (Henry Wallace, “The Century of the Common Man.”).

In this speech Henry Wallace praises the evolution of human society over the course of several hundred years. Particularly, he alludes to  the Great Revolutions of the people, there were the American Revolution of 1775, the French Revolution of 1792, the Latin-American revolutions of the Bolivarian era, the German Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917].” This evolution involved the march of science, increased industrial progress, rising literacy, and broad access to education. He proclaimed that “everywhere the common people” were “on the march.”

Then Wallace addressed the main point of his argument, the freedom from want. And to that want, much work, he suggested, needed to be done. “But when we begin to think about the significance of freedom from want for the average man, then we know that the revolution of the past 150 years has not been completed, either here in the United States or any place else in the world. We know that this revolution cannot stop until freedom from want has actually been attained.”

The Political and Economic Contexts of the Luce and Wallace Statements

“Everywhere, reading and writing are accompanied by industrial progress, and industrial progress, sooner or later, inevitably brings a strong labor movement. From a long-time and fundamental point of view, there are no backward peoples which are lacking in mechanical sense. Russians, Chinese, and the Indians both of India and the Americas, all learn to read and write and operate machines just as well as your children or my children... They're learning to think and work together in labor movements, some of which may be extreme or a little impractical at first, but which eventually will settle down to serve effectively the interests of the common man.”

It is critical to remember that the historical contexts in which the Luce and Wallace statements appeared. The Luce essay appeared in Life magazine shortly before the United States entered World War II and Vice-President Wallace’s speech, for the most part a challenge to the Luce perspective, was presented after the US entered the war.

In both cases, the speeches were inextricably connected to intense political and economic struggle that characterized the 1930s. Of course, this context included a Great Depression; halting but then substantial programs to stimulate economic recovery (the New Deal); the mobilization of millions of workers who were demanding the right to form unions; the continued though tarnished reputation of a socialist alternative to capitalism, the former Soviet Union; vibrant Communist movements in the United States and around the world; and a broad-based “cultural front” of artists, intellectuals, trade unionists, anti-racists, and anti-fascists who envisioned a radically different post-World War from what preceded it.

It was no accident that the Luce speech referred to the world order that existed in the era of the British Empire and Wallace referred to the revolutionary ferment in the United States, Germany, France, Latin America, the Soviet Union, and China, and elsewhere in the Global South. Luce wanted to recreate the capitalist world order of the past while Wallace spoke to the creation of a revolutionary order that privileged the “common man” in the future. And the Vice-President specifically mentioned labor as a key player in his vision of a post-war world order.

 US Labor’s Vision of the Post-War Period: To Limit the Power of Capitalism at Home as well as Overseas

To more effectively prosecute the war effort leaders of the new vibrant and militant trade union confederation, The Congress of Labor Organizations (CIO) and the older American Federation of Labor (AFL) agreed to postpone “class struggles” at the workplace. With much protest from the rank and file the CIO signed a “no strike pledge” to be in effect for the duration of the war. In exchange, the Roosevelt Administration agreed to oppose efforts to bust unions and to establish price controls (along with wage freezes).

Leaders of the labor movement assumed that after the war, labor which had earned a right to collaborate with capital and the government in policymaking, would assume an ever-larger role in public policymaking. CIO militancy in the late 1930s, the organizing of four million industrial workers in key industries, such as steel, auto, electronics, railroads, meat packing, meant that labor would, while not overthrowing capital, be co-equal with capital. And this assertion of labor rights would parallel the anti-colonial struggles occurring throughout Asia and Africa. This was to be, in Henry Wallace’s words, “the century of the common man.”

 But, as was said above, the Luce vision was one of reestablishing the hegemony of capital over labor at home and abroad. The clash of visions could be seen in the turbulent year of 1946: on labor’s side the largest strike wave in American history driven by its demand to be part of economic planning, wage increases, and the right of all workers to choose to join unions; and on capital’s side demands on government to end price controls and establish laws limiting the rights of workers to form unions.

The turbulence, capital against labor at home, occurred as tensions rose between the United States and the former Soviet Union abroad. The Truman Administration embraced the Churchillian vision of “an iron curtain descending across Europe,” launching covert campaigns against Communist parties in Europe, preparing to enter the Greek Civil War on the side of its reactionary government, and beginning the campaign against “domestic communists.” The clarion call of a new era, in the spirit of Luce, was President Truman’s famous “Truman Doctrine” speech in March 1947, warning of the dangers of “international communism.” Domestically, the new Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, significantly weakening workers’ ability to form unions. It included a provision requiring union leaders to sign a pledge that were not “communists.”

Comparing  the competing Luce/Wallace visions of the post-war world suggests that the outcome, a clear victory of the Luce perspective, was about more than ideology-the American Century, American Exceptionalism, etc. It was about material interest. (See an example of the political economy explanation of US foreign policy below:

Was public policy to serve the interest of capitalism or would it serve the interest of labor? From this point of view ideology is a tool used by political and economic elites to argue for given policies, particularly in an increasingly centralized media and popular culture, rather than the roots causes of that policy. When Truman advisors were meeting in February, 1947 to discuss the “communist threat” to Greece, the Republican Senator from Michigan Arthur Vandenburg (a former isolationist) declared that the Republican Party would support a global mobilization against the Soviet Union (and one could surmise against labor militancy at home) but he advised the president to “scare hell out of the American people.” 

Celebrating the American century and identifying the threat to it abroad, “international communism” as manifested in the Soviet Union and China, and communism at home, as exemplified by a militant labor movement, constituted the conceptual tool for United States economic expansion on a global basis. And variants of this conceptual tool have been used ever since to secure support for United States foreign policy.

Henry Wallace, Henry Luce and United States Foreign Policy: a radio broadcast


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

US-China Relations and Global Empire

 Harry Targ

United States/Chinese Relations in the Twenty-First Century

In a speech on July 23, 2020 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Nixon opening to China in 1972 was a mistake.  “We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come: that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done.  We must not continue it and we must not return to it.” (Edward Wong, Steven Lee Myers, “Officials Push U.S.-China Relations Toward Point of No Return,” The New York Times, July 25, 2020).  If it is true that the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy toward China did in fact facilitate the weakening of socialism as a world force, why is the Secretary of State now calling “playing the China card” a mistake?


The Long Troubled United States Relations with China: US Globalism, the Open Door Notes, and the Centrality of China for Building a Global Empire

The developing United States obsession with China (leaving aside the super-exploitation of Chinese labor and profound anti-Chinese racism in the United States) has its roots in the rise of the US as a great power.  As historians such as William Appleman Williams have pointed out, the United States emerged as an industrial power on the world stage between the end of the Civil War and the 1890s.  Not only was the US economy experiencing industrialization, but private entrepreneurs were building a transcontinental railroad, with Chinese labor, to create a continental empire.  Coupled with industrialization and a vast transportation network, there were agricultural surpluses well beyond the consumer needs of persons in the United States.  Williams concluded that by the 1880s the United States, because of increased agricultural productivity, began to seek world markets for its goods.

Increasingly the industrial and agricultural revolutions in the United States were leading to increased competition with European imperial powers and the rising Japanese empire.  A sector of the United States political class, exemplified by former Secretary of the Navy and soon-to-be president Theodore Roosevelt, argued for the United States to develop a global vision and a naval military capability to facilitate becoming a global empire, particularly to challenge Europe. After diplomatic skirmishes with Great Britain over who should have dominant influence in Latin America, the United States entered the Cuban anti-colonial war against the Spanish empire in 1898.  (Over the subsequent years until 1959 the United States replaced Spain as the colonial overseer of Cuba).  In addition, the United States took Puerto Rico, reaffirmed its dominance over the Hawaiian Islands and seized control of the Philippines.  To further the globalization of US empire President Roosevelt was able to get Congressional support for a “two-ocean” navy.  The United States was on the road to becoming a world power.

But the lack of control of the political economy of China remained an obstacle to the completion of the imperial project.  The 4,000-year-old Chinese empire, with vast lands and people, and neighboring tributary countries, had begun to deconstruct in the nineteenth century.  The Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856 were carried out by Great Britain and later France; Germany and Russia joined in to force China to open its domestic markets to foreign capitalist penetration.  The imperial powers carved out concessions and spheres of influence in China.   Japan defeated China in the war of 1894-95 and annexed Taiwan. 

The devolution of the Qing Dynasty and expanding foreign presence led to movements within China of reform and resistance.   A secret martial arts society known as the Boxers rose up in 1899 to attack foreigners and foreign culture.  The Boxers were at first supported by the imperial court but eventually were defeated by an international army which marched to Beijing.  The US sent troops along with European powers and Japan.  The defeat of the Boxer Rebellion and its nationalist program solidified growing European and Japanese control over the vast Chinese empire.

Fearful of being frozen out of the vast potential Chinese market, President William McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay, issued two “notes” to European powers in 1899 and 1900 indicating that the United States would insist upon equal access to Chinese markets, even in areas of the country that had been seen as part of the “spheres of influence” of the colonial powers.  Traditional interpreters of United States foreign policy, such as George Kennan, regarded John Hay’s Open Door Notes as examples of typical US diplomatic bluster; empty threats that could not be backed up by economic or military power.  Williams in his classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, argues that the Notes were emblematic of the development of United States global imperial power.  


What had been the nineteenth century vision of US domination of Latin America, the Monroe Doctrine, was being applied to Asia as well.  The defeat of the Spanish, the occupation of the Philippines, the development of a two-ocean navy, burgeoning agricultural products, a vision of American exceptionalism often articulated by Theodore Roosevelt and spokespersons of both political parties, all made it clear that domination of China was to be a key global project of the twentieth century.

Revolution and Civil War, the Missionary Spirit, World War II, and the Victory of Communism in China

The Chinese state continued its steady decline after the Boxer Rebellion.  A democratic revolutionary movement led by Dr. Sun Yatsen emerged to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in the uprising of 1911.  The goal of the Kuomintang (KMT) was to establish a modern democratic republic and secure independence from the imperial powers.  The Qing dynasty collapsed but China soon fell into disunity and conflict among competing feudal warlords.

At the same time, the presence of Christian missionaries, many from the United States, continued to grow.  Several of these missionaries and their descendants would later influence US foreign policy toward China.  Pearl Buck, a popular American novelist, who wrote The Good Earth, would bring Chinese culture to a US audience.  Henry Luce, later the founder of the Time, Life, Fortune magazine empire was raised by a missionary family in China.  As an adult in the post-World War Two period, he would use his influence to shape US public opinion in support of Chinese nationalist forces against the Chinese communist movement.  In addition, Walter Judd, a powerful Republican congressman from Minnesota, who was influenced by his experience growing up in a missionary family in China, strongly advocated the emerging anti-communist US approach to China, particularly giving support to the KMT forces. 

The Russian revolution of 1917 helped spread Marxism in China.  In 1921, Chinese Marxists organized the Communist Party of China (CPC), which became affiliated with the Comintern, the “center” of international Communism in Moscow.  The early CPC leadership included Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu and well as Mao Zedong.  The Comintern urged the young CPC to enter into a coalition with the much larger KMT to advance the democratic revolution. 

After the death of Sun Yatsen in 1925, one of his deputies, Chiang Kai-shek, gained control of the KMT.  He was a military man who transformed the nationalist party to serve the interests of Chinese land owners and capitalists. He sought to solidify control of the growing nationalist movement into a political and fighting force that would defend the interests of wealthy Chinese.  He also wanted to secure the support of friends of China from missionary and political circles in the United States.

Chiang, aware of the rising popularity of communism and the party’s increasing membership among youth and urban intellectuals, launched a massive terror campaign in 1927 to exterminate Chinese communism. The terror campaign was vividly portrayed in Andre Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate.  Those communists who survived the urban arrests and massacres fled to the countryside to establish a base area.  In the course of fighting over years, the CPC built a strong guerrilla army, now largely peasant-based, to defeat the forces of Chiang. Since the Kuomintang defended the interests of the land owners, the Communist movement and its democratic reform program increasingly resonated with the rural population.

Japan invaded northeast China in 1931 and established the puppet state of Manchukuo.   In 1937 Japan launched all-out war on China and attacked the whole country.  Millions of Chinese civilians were killed in the course of this long, brutal war.  Chiang Kai-shek was forced by the desperate character of the invasion to establish a nationwide united front against the Japanese invasion with his communist adversaries.

During World War Two, US military forces arrived on the Chinese mainland as part of the alliance to fight the Japanese empire.  Despite the KMT/CPC truce, many observers reported that the KMT used the cease fire in the civil war to solidify their military position rather than to fight the Japanese. General Joseph Stillwell, a representative of President Roosevelt, warned the president that the Kuomintang was unpopular and that the US after the war should refrain from taking sides on any return to civil war. This view was confirmed by reports sent back to Washington by State Department Asia experts stationed in China. Later these experts would be castigated by Congress for being “soft on communism.”

After the Japanese were defeated in Asia, the United States resumed active support for the Kuomintang, including leaving troops in parts of China.  In 1946 the US allotted one billion dollars in assistance to Chiang’s forces.  Secretary of State George Marshall participated in a year’s negotiation in 1946 between the KMT and CPC to end the civil war.  Ultimately these negotiations failed and full-scale civil war resumed.   After three years of fighting, the civil war ended in October 1949 with the victory of the communist forces and the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The defeated KMT fled to and occupied the island of Taiwan. For US domestic purposes, Chiang's regime on Taiwan represented the "real" China. Thus, there would dawn a new era of US/Chinese relations because of “the fall of China.”

US Chinese Relations: Korea to Playing the China Card Today

1949 was an apocryphal year for the United States. The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in August and Chinese communist armies marched into Beijing, ending the thirty-year civil war in that country. The leader of the CPC, Mao Zedong, visited Moscow and signed a treaty of peace and friendship with the Soviet Union. From the vantage point of the historic vision of US empire, the fact that at least a quarter of humanity and one-third of the land mass of the globe was “communist” stimulated fear and generated a campaign of anti-communist hysteria at home and advocacy for an escalated arms race internationally.

Truman’s advisors prepared a policy document, National Security Document 68 (NSC 68) which called for a dramatic increase in military spending. NSC 68 also recommended each president, while preparing an annual federal budget, give the Department of Defense all it requests before allotting any federal dollars for non-defense programs. (As analysists would compelling argue in subsequent years, the US economy was stimulated to a significant degree by military spending creating what Andrew Bacevich would call “a permanent war economy”).

There was resistance to adopting the recommendations of NSC 68 from fiscal conservatives in the Truman Administration until war broke out in Korea and North Korean troops advanced south, thus launching the three-year Korean War (a status of war that exists until this day). Six months after the onset of the Korean War, United States/United Nations troops successfully pushed North Korean troops deep into the north.  Chinese troops then entered the war on the side of North Korea.  Chinese entrance into the Korean War was prompted by US military advances all the way to the Yalu River on the Chinese border, which China perceived as a prelude to invasion of China proper.  Many influential US policy makers, particularly General Douglas MacArthur, had been calling for direct war with China to end communist rule with the goal of establishing China as a Christian nation.

US policy toward China continued to be hostile even after a cease fire was achieved in Korea in 1953. Senator Joseph McCarthy campaigned loudly on the premise that “China fell to communism” because of traitors in the US State Department.  These state department personnel, the so-called “China hands,” had warned of the corruption of the KMT in reports to Washington during and after the world war; they were fired. And Vice President Nixon and leaders of both political parties launched a campaign to “keep China out of the United Nations.” President Truman and his successors refused to diplomatically recognize the new Chinese state, the People’s Republic of China.  (The United States had not recognized the Soviet Union until 1933, and it would not officially recognize the PRC until 1979).

It is important to add that China participated with countries of the Global South, many of which has recently achieved their independence from colonial occupiers, in establishing a Nonaligned Movement.  NAM was committed, not to East or West, but to equity between North and South, particularly as to economic development.  China, India, Ghana, Yugoslavia, and other countries met at Bandung in 1955 and formally established NAM in the early 1960s.  Their call was for peaceful coexistence and their program would include the adoption of a New International Economic Order.  China, therefore, was allied with the Soviet Union and the countries of the Global South.

Turmoil erupted elsewhere in Asia as well.  The French sought to reestablish their colonial rule in Vietnam.  And when that failed the United States stepped in to create and support an unpopular regime in South Vietnam, very much like the forces the US had supported in China and Korea.  As the Vietnam War escalated in the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese provided substantial military assistance and reconstruction projects to the North Vietnamese who were supporting their allies in the liberation struggle in the South. The Soviet Union also provided massive assistance to North Vietnam.  Despite this, some analysts and policymakers who became opponents of the Vietnam War, such as Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, claimed that the Vietnam policy was erroneously driven by an opposition to China.

So, in the context of a continued arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, an escalating war in Vietnam that was destroying the fabric of US society, liberation movements spreading in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the Sino/Soviet split, Richard Nixon, a preeminent advocate for isolating China, was elected president of the United States in 1968.  He had pledged to end the war in Vietnam.  While most observers of US politics did not trust Nixon, it seemed clear that the US war on Vietnam, given the ruptures in US society and the declining relative power of the US on the world stage, had to end.

Nixon and Kissinger Play the “China Card”

Beginning in 1969 President Richard Nixon, guided by his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, fashioned a new policy toward China; what became known as “playing the China card.”  It was motivated by a desire to push back and ultimately create regime change in the Soviet Union.  Cognizant of growing hostilities between the two large communist states, Nixon and Kissinger developed this plan to play one off against the other.  Central to this policy was launching a diplomatic process that led to the 1979 US formal diplomatic recognition of China. During the 1970s, the United States and China supported the same political allies in various parts of the world, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia for example. The split in the socialist world between the Soviet Union and China contributed to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of socialism, for a time, on the world stage.  Thus, from a US imperial point of view “playing the China card” worked.

So Why Is the United States Playing the China Card Differently and Returning to a Renewed Cold War?

The answer to this question, or more broadly why is United States foreign policy returning to a policy hostile to China, perhaps creating a “New Cold War,” has several parts.  First, as Alfred McCoy has described (In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, Haymarket Books, 2017), the United States, relatively speaking, is a declining power. As to economic growth, scientific and technological developments, productivity, and trade, the US, compared to China particularly, is experiencing stagnation or decline.  China has engaged in massive global projects in transportation, trade, and scientific advances and by 2030 based on many measures will advance beyond the US.

According to McCoy, the United States has embarked on a path to overcome its declining relative economic hegemony by increasingly investing in military advances: a space force, a new generation of nuclear weapons, cyber security, biometrics, and maintaining or enhancing a global military presence particularly in the Pacific (what Obama spokespersons called “the Asian pivot”). In other words, rather than accommodating to a new multipolar world in the 21st century, the United States is seeking to reestablish its global hegemony through military means.

Second, the United States is desperately seeking to overcome the ending of its monopoly on technological advances.  In computerization, transportation, pharmaceuticals, the US is challenging the legitimacy of Chinese innovations, claiming that China’s advances are derived not from its domestic creativity but from “pirating” from United States companies.  For example, the prestigious and influential mainstream Council on Foreign Relations issued a report last year entitled “Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge.”  The report warned that “…the United States risks falling behind its competitors, principally China.”  China is investing significantly in new technologies, the Council claims, which they predict will make China the biggest inventor by 2030.  Also, to achieve this goal they are “exploiting” the openness of the US by violating intellectual property rights and spying.  Therefore, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded, since technological innovation is linked to economic and military advantage and since US leadership in technology and science is at risk, the nation must recommit to rebuilding its scientific prowess.

Third, while the United States is engaged in efforts at regime change around the world and is using brutal economic sanctions to starve people into submission (such as in Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and 36 other countries victimized by economic sanctions), China is increasing its economic ties to these countries through investments, trade, and assistance; China also opposes US policies in international organizations.  In broad terms Chinese policy stands with the majority of countries in the Global South while the United States seeks to control developments there.

Fourth, although Trump’s foreign policy is designed to recreate a cold war, with China as the target, a policy also embraced by most Democrats, there is at the same time counter-pressure from sectors of the capitalist class who have ties to the Chinese economy: investment, global supply chains, and financial speculation. Moreover, China has substantial foreign investments and the government controls over $1 trillion of US debt.  For these sectors of US capital, economic ties with China remain economically critical as they do for transnational capital, such as pointed to by writers such as Jerry Harris (Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy, Clarity Press, 2016).

Consequently, while the trajectory of US policy is toward a return to cold war, there is some push back by economic and political elites as well.  As the New York Times article above put it, “In the United States, tycoons and business executives, who exercise enormous sway among politicians of both parties, will continue to push for a more moderate approach, as members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet who represent Wall Street interests have done.”

Fifth, American domestic politics provide the immediate cause of the transformation of US/China policy.  President Donald Trump’s popularity is declining dramatically because of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, its impact on the US economy, and the rise of racial tensions in the country. A classic antidote for politicians experiencing declining popularity is to construct an external enemy, an “other,” which can redirect the attention of the public from their personal troubles.  President Trump has sought to deflect the cause of the spreading pandemic onto the Chinese.  It is this external enemy that is the source of our domestic problems.  In this context the President is talking tough with the “enemy” of the United States, and, as Secretary of State Pompeo suggests, it is about time that the US government gives up illusions about working with China. Only a Trump administration, he suggested, would be capable of doing this (forget President Obama’s “Asian pivot”).

Finally, the ideological package of racism, white supremacy, and American Exceptionalism so prevalent in United States history has resurfaced in dramatic ways as the Trump administration and its allies have opposed nationwide protests against police violence and structural racism.  White supremacy at home is inextricably connected with American Exceptionalism abroad.  For example, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 claimed that the white race has been critical to civilization.  Years later Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration (and more recently President Barack Obama) spoke about the United States as the “indispensable nation,” a model of economics and politics for the world.  Pompeo continues this tradition claiming that the United States stands for a “free 21st century.”  This sense of omniscience has been basic to the ideological justification of United States imperial rule.

Each of these elements, from the changing shape of economic and military capabilities to political exigencies, to the pathologies of culture, require a peace and justice movement that stands for peaceful coexistence, demilitarization, building a world of economic justice and the rights of people to determine their own destiny, and inalterable opposition to racism, white supremacy, and exceptionalism of any kind.


A version of the above essay appeared in Duncan McFarland, ed. A China Reader, Changemaker, 2021.


Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Remembering the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

 Foreign Policy Lies

Lead to War

July 25, 2003

By Harry Targ

On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese armed motor boats attacked two U.S. naval vessels off the coast of North Vietnam. The administration of Lyndon Johnson defined the attacks as an unprovoked act of North Vietnamese aggression.

Two days later it was announced that another attack on U.S. ships in international waters had occurred and the U.S. responded with air attacks on North Vietnamese targets. President Johnson then took a resolution he had already prepared to the Congress of the United States. The so-called Gulf of Tonkin resolution declared that the Congress authorizes the president to do what he deemed necessary to defend U.S. national security in Southeast Asia. Only two Senators voted "no." Over the next three years the U.S. sent 500,000 troops to Vietnam to carry out a massive air and ground war in both the South and North of the country.

Within a year of the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incidents, evidence began to appear indicating that the August 2 attack was provoked. The two U.S. naval vessels were in North Vietnamese coastal waters orchestrating acts of sabotage in the Northern part of Vietnam. More serious, evidence pointed to the inescapable conclusion that the second attack on August 4 never occurred.

President Johnson's lies to the American people about the Gulf of Tonkin contributed to the devastating decisions to escalate a U.S. war in Vietnam that cost 57,000 U.S. troop deaths and upwards of three million Vietnamese deaths.

Forty years later, George W. Bush and his key aides put together a package of lies about Iraq- imports of uranium from Niger, purchases of aluminum rods which supposedly could be used for constructing nuclear weapons, development of biological and chemical weapons, and connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

As the Vietnamese and Iraqi cases show, foreign policies built on lies can lead to imperial wars, huge expenditures on the military, economic crises at home, and military casualties abroad.

The American people must insist that their leaders tell the truth about the U.S. role in the world.