What are we celebrating on the Fourth of July?
By Robert Jensen
with Rahul Mahajan
Published in History News Network · July, 2002
In 1776 American colonists fought for freedom against a mighty empire, an act of self-determination we still celebrate on the Fourth of July. But we also use the Fourth to maintain a mythology about our role in the world that, while mostly true in 1776, is wholly false 226 years later.
In 2002, we are the empire.
If the Fourth of July is to continue to have any meaning, we must transform it into a celebration of values that are truly universal, by making it a celebration of the right of self-determination of all peoples rather than another occasion to invoke a mythology that masks our true role in the world today.
To do so requires that we come to terms with a basic fact — from the time the United States had amassed enough power to do so, it began limiting the self-determination of others.
The methods of U.S. policymakers have evolved over time, but the underlying logic remains the same: The United States claims a special right to appropriate the resources of all the earth by military force or economic coercion so it can consume five times its share per capita of those resources, ignoring international law along the way.
It is that tragic reality, as well as the noble ideal, that U.S. citizens have an obligation to wrestle with on any Fourth of July, and especially now as our government continues to extend its power and domination in a so-called war on terrorism.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 is usually taken as a pivotal event in the American imperial project. While some Americans are aware that we ruled the Philippines for some time, few realize that we waged a brutal war against Filipinos, who believed that their liberation from Spain should have meant real liberation, including independence from American rule. At least 200,000 Filipinos were killed by American troops, and up to 1 million may have died in the course of the conquest.
Into the next century, the United States applied the same rules to attempts at self-determination in Latin America, routinely manipulating the politics of, plotting coups in, or invading countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti. Self-determination was fine, so long as the results were in line with the interests of U.S. business. Otherwise, call in the Marines.
The many contradictions of the American project are, of course, no secret. Even most schoolchildren know that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed that “all men are created equal” also owned slaves, and it is impossible to avoid the fact that the land base of the United States was acquired in the course of the almost-complete extermination of indigenous people. We know women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920, and that formal political equality for blacks was achieved only in our lifetime.
While many Americans have trouble coming to terms with that ugly history, most can acknowledge it — so long as the gaps between stated ideals and actual practices are seen as history, problems we have overcome.
Likewise, some will say that kind of grotesque imperial aggression also is safely in the past. Unfortunately, this isn’t ancient history; it is also the story of the post-World War II period — U.S. sponsored coups in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, the undermining of the Geneva agreements in the late 1950s and invasion of South Vietnam in the 1960s to prevent an independent socialist government, support for the terrorist Contra army in the 1980s until the Nicaraguan people finally voted the way the United States preferred.
OK, some will admit, even our recent history is not so pretty. But certainly in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we changed course. But again, the methods change and the game remains the same.
Take the recent case of Venezuela, where United States involvement in the attempted coup is clear. The National Endowment for Democracy — a private nonprofit front organization for the State Department already implicated in the use of money to sway elections (in Chile in 1988, Nicaragua in 1989, and Yugoslavia in 2000) — gave $877,000 in the past year to forces opposed to Hugo Chavez, whose populist policies had won him widespread backing among the country’s poor and the ire of the United States. More than $150,000 of that went to Carlos Ortega, leader of the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, who worked closely with coup leader Pedro Carmona Estanga.
Bush administration officials had met with disgruntled Venezuelan generals and businessmen in Washington in the weeks preceding the coup, and Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, Otto Reich, was reported to have been in contact with the civilian head of the junta on the day of the coup. When Venezuelans took to the streets in defense of their popular president and Chavez was restored to power, U.S. officials grudgingly acknowledged that he was freely elected (with 62 percent of the vote), although one told a reporter that “legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters.”
Beyond military and diplomatic interventions, there is economic coercion. Among the most visible in the past two decades has been the use of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to ensnare countries of the Global South in a “debt trap,” in which the country can’t keep up with the interest payments. Then comes the structural adjustment programs — cutting government salaries and spending for services such as health care, imposing user fees for education, and re-orienting industry to production for export. These programs give First World banks more power over these countries’ policies than the elected governments. “Free trade” agreements have much the same effect, using the threat of exclusion from the world economic system to force other governments to stop providing cheap medicine to their people, limit their control over corporations, and give up the basic rights of the people to determine policy. The recent G8 decision to use aid to force African nations to privatize water is simply the latest offensive.
So, this Fourth of July, we believe talk of self-determination has never been more important. But if the concept is to mean anything, it must mean that people in other countries are truly free to shape their own destinies.
And in another sense, it is a reminder that U.S. citizens have rights of self-determination themselves. It is true that our government responds mostly to the demands of concentrated wealth and power; it may seem that Washington calls the shots, but the game is directed from Wall Street. But it also is true that ordinary people have unparalleled political and expressive freedom in this country. And as that Declaration we celebrate reminds us, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
If we don’t rethink the Fourth — if it continues to be a day for unbridled assertion of American exceptionalism — it will inevitably be nothing more than a destructive force that encourages blind support for war, global inequality, and international power politics.