Reconstituting the Postwar US Empire: The US Military System and Global Anti-base Resistance Movements

AHA Session 217
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Susan Lisa Carruthers, Rutgers University at Newark
Susan Lisa Carruthers, Rutgers University at Newark

Session Abstract

This panel examines the emergence of the US military empire and the possibilities and limits of resistance movements organized in opposition.  At the end of World War II, as former colonial empires rapidly decolonized and the US assumed responsibilities for dismantling the Axis powers, the US emerged as the undisputed world power.  Defining itself against older empires, the US celebrated its liberal virtues that included a distaste for territorial acquisition, support of the right to self-determination, and a desire to protect the world from communist insurrection.  Against even a professed reluctance to maintain standing armies in the prewar period, the US consolidated a global circuit of military bases that secured US hegemony over a growing capitalist world-economy.  These bases not only fulfilled its liberal values but anchored the postwar form of US imperialism, which manifested in anticommunist wars in Korea and Vietnam, clandestine interventions in extra-national affairs, and continuing engagements in the Middle East after the Cold War.

Using the category of empire, which acknowledges the unequal distribution of power across national boundaries, this panel brings into conversation studies of militarism in seemingly disconnected times and locations.  We begin during World War II in US-occupied Italy and postwar Okinawa, where military administrations encouraged cultural and economic engagements friendly to US prerogatives.  We then examine the contemporary moment in Okinawa and the Middle East where the US strategy of maintaining bases continues to reproduce US dominance without the complete retention of administrative powers.  Collectively, we ask: What role did the US military play in postwar US imperialism and what imperial forms are characteristic to the postwar period?  How did US militarism proceed and what role did culture play in enabling it?  In what ways did anti-base movements reproduce or overturn the dynamics encouraged within the US military base system?

The panel’s engagement with the above questions offers two intellectual contributions.  First, by connecting case studies not normally considered together, our panel generates discussions of similarities in US military strategy or occupation experiences.  We see this panel as an opportunity to bridge not only divisions produced when the nation-state is taken as the foundational unit of analysis but also particularities emerging from specific temporal or local contexts.  Among the commonalities this panel suggests is the extent to which US militarism is inseparable from the economic and cultural realms even if recognizable impacts are in the realm of politics and diplomacy.  Second, our discussion of the heterogeneous anti-base movements mobilizing against the US encourages broader generalizations about anticolonial resistance.  We hope that our attempt to identify common characteristics in anti-bases resistance advances studies of collective action that recognize both the changing nature of alliances and internal divisions defined by race, gender, class, sex, and nation.  In this way, our panel contributes not only to the themes of the 2017 American Historical Association annual conference, “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience” but also to the writing of global, transnational histories.

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