Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Is the American Empire in retreat?


Rockport History Book Club

Is the American Empire in retreat?

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


K. Moran, New York Times

Wednesday, December 1, 2021. [Moved back one week to avoid conflict with Thanksgiving.] Is the American Empire in retreat? Roman troops met their match in German forests and Parthian deserts, and there was decay at home, and suddenly, the Roman Empire was gone. America saw the limits of empire as helicopters lifted escapees from the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975, and then again in a dramatic exodus from Kabul in 2021. We keep learning that our military power can destroy but it cannot build. China is growing and aiming at world-wide supremacy, and Russia is straining to recover its super-power. At home there are signs of decay, as our democracy is challenged, millions resist cures for a pandemic and our spirit is tested. Is this the twilight of American ascendance? [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

There will be no later meeting in December.

Is the American Empire in Retreat?  Perhaps we should ask ourselves “Is there an ‘American Empire?’” Toward the end of the 19th century, we got started on old-style empire building, attacking Spain’s Cuba and the Philippine Islands, but today we have millions all over the world who look to America for leadership, or, in the case of China and Russia, competition and opposition. Iran views us as an opponent but knows that we hold the keys to its success or failure.

After 20 years of gigantic effort and many billions of dollars, we lost our bid to make Afghanistan a thriving, self-sustaining nation. The so-called “winners”, the leaders of that nation now are a pitiful excuse, and it is left to world health organizations, and the U.S. to head off mass starvation there.

Look at the empires that have come and gone.

The Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire lasted from 550 to 330 BC. It ruled over 44% of the world’s population one historian claimed.  This empire ended when Alexander defeated Darius III at the Battle of Issus in Southern Anatolia.

Roman Empire    after about 1000 years, it ended 476CE….( or 1453). In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon selected 476 CE, a date most often mentioned by historians.  That date was when Odoacer, the Germanic king of the Torcilingi, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor to rule the western part of the Roman Empire. The eastern half became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). That fell in 1453 CE which explains why some consider that the Roman Empire lasted until then.

Why did the Roman Empire finally fall? The Vandal hordes swept down into the empire in repeated raids. The Roman army had grown soft and flabby from too much peace, too many troops spread too far from Rome, and poor leadership. Some say the rise of Christianity was instrumental.

Another factor was that Rome’s distant territories were too far away to control adequately, and perhaps too many subjects in the distant lands felt little or no allegiance to Rome. And then there was lead. Water pipes used all over Rome were made of lead, and also food containers and perhaps too many fell ill of lead poisoning

Economic factors are also often cited as a major cause of the fall of Rome.  Some of the major factors were inflation, over-taxation, and feudalism. Perhaps also the wholesale hoarding of bullion by Roman citizens, the widespread looting of the Roman treasury by barbarians, and a massive trade deficit with the eastern regions of the empire. These issues combined to escalate financial stress during the empire's last days.

The Umayyad Caliphate lasted from 661 to 750 CE. Several caliphates sprang up after the death of Mohammed, At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 4,300,000 sq mi, making it one of the largest empires in history in terms of area. The dynasty in most of the Islamic world was eventually overthrown by a rebellion led by the Abbasids in 750. Survivors of the dynasty established themselves in Cordoba which, in the form of an emirate and then a caliphate, became a world center of science, medicine, philosophy and invention during the Islamic Golden Age.

The Russian Empire began in 1721 and lasted until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Building upon the remains of the former Mongol, Persian and Swedish empires, it became one of the largest in world history, The rise of the Russian Empire coincided with the decline of neighboring rival powers: the Swedish Empire, the Polish–Lithuanian CommonwealthPersia, the Ottoman Empire, and Qing China, and then collapsed when the Soviet Union got its birth.  However, as we talk about “The American Empire” we can all look back at the Cold War competition all over the world between American Capitalism and Russian Communism. 

The Ottoman Empire began in the late 1200s to 1920. The Ottoman Empire was first established in the northwestern region of present-day Anatolia, in the late 1200s. By the mid-14th century, the Ottomans had made their way west and taken control of the Balkans. Just 100 years later, the Ottoman Empire helped overthrow the remnants of the Roman Empire, and by the 17th century the Ottoman Empire had expanded into areas of western Asia, southeastern and central Europe, northern and northeastern Africa, and the Caucasus. In total, at its most expansive reach, the Ottoman Empire covered 2 million square miles and controlled a population of approximately 15 million. It is remembered as one of the largest and most powerful empires in human history.

The Ottoman Empire fought against Great Britain, the United States, France, and Russia during the fighting. When the war ended, the empire was dismantled. Historical records indicate that the Ottoman Empire officially ended in 1922.

The British Empire End of 16th c. to 1956. Perhaps we can relate most to this vast collection of 23% of the world’s population and 24% of the world’s total land area, and our own nation sprang from that! This empire began at the end of the 16th century, following the successes of the Portuguese and the Spanish, whose empires began when men took their ships far from home and discovered the riches of Africa and North and South America.

Spain and Portugal were growing tremendously wealthy from exploiting the far lands, and then England, France and the Netherlands jumped in. 

The end came for the British Empire with the end of World War II. World leadership passed to the United States, and then in 1947, India achieved independence from the British Empire.  Then came the Suez Crisis of 1956. It dramatically showed that the two major players in the world were the USSR and the USA. The UK was being pushed aside. After that came the 1960s when all Africa threw off colonialism. One by one, Belgium, France, Spain, the UK, and Portugal lost their colonies. Germany had lost hers as a result of World War I.

The Mongol Empire of the 13th and 14th centuries was the largest contiguous land empire in history and the second largest empire by landmass, second only to the British Empire. Originating in Mongolia in East Asia under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire at its height stretched from the Sea of Japan to parts of Eastern Europe, extending northward into parts of the Arctic; eastward and southward into the Indian subcontinentMainland Southeast Asia and the Iranian Plateau; and westward as far as the Levant and the Carpathian Mountains.

The empire began to come apart under the grandsons, and then there was a dispute as to whether the Golden Horde, the nomadic, steppe-based lifestyle would become sedentary. Much blood was shed, and the empire finally split under Ogedeid, ToluiChagatai,  JochiMöngke Khan, then Ariq Böke and Kublai Khan and was overtaken by Chinese and Russian forces, some parts lasting until 1687.

When you read about these guys, ripping and slashing their way across what is now Russia, down to present-day Israel, and all over China, fighting wherever they went, you can see that there is little that can happen today that hasn’t already happened.

Spanish Empire 1492-1976. The Spanish Empire was a colonial empire governed by Spain and its predecessor states between 1492 and 1976. One of the largest empires in history, it was, in conjunction with the Portuguese, the first to usher in the European Age of Discovery. They controlled vast portions of the Americas, the archipelago of Philippines, various islands in the Pacific and territories in Western Europe and Africa. It was one of the world's most powerful empires of the early modern period, and they shipped tons and tons of gold and silver back home, and then discovered “black gold” or the wealth of African slaves, brought to the New World to generate more untold wealth for investors back home.

Spain experienced its greatest territorial losses during the early 19th century, when its colonies in the Americas began fighting for independence. By the year 1900 Spain had also lost its colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific, and it was left with only its African possessions. In Spanish America among the legacies of its relationship with Iberia, Spanish is the dominant language, Catholicism the main religion, and political traditions of representative government can be traced to the Spanish Constitution of 1812.

So, is America entering its twilight?

Digesting all those centuries of empire, it all comes down to people.  The British Empire, like the Spanish Empire before it, grew dramatically from riches that came from half a world away. People in South America mining gold and silver and Spanish galleons carrying it back to Cadiz and Seville. Or the British East India Company shipping goods from India, Ceylon and Persia, the human contribution paid for at a tiny fraction of its worth.

America got a taste of the old style of Empire in the Spanish-American War, but that was not our style. We discovered that our style of “Empire” was becoming the benevolent rich man at the end of the block. We came to the aid of nations in trouble in World Wars I and II, we sent soldiers to help fight, and we sent billions of dollars to feed starving people and help them fight.  When World War II ended in 1945, we created The Marshall Plan to help the nations devastated by the war. We have been shipping more billions of dollars to other nations ever since, and it has been good for winning supporters around the world and creating markets for American products.

We are still the “benevolent rich man”, and that model has worked for us all through the Cold War. Americans were welcomed all over the world, and for the most part, we were “benevolent”.  We really did act out of good will, not greed or selfishness. Mostly. 

My service in the U.S. Navy from 1953 to 1987 exposed me to people all over the world, and living in Iran, Italy, the USSR and Japan put my family and me right up against the feelings of foreigners in those places, as well as all the foreigners we met working outside their own countries. We had a chance to hear what our opponents, like the Russians and Chinese, thought of us, as well as to observe that  often it showed admiration and respect.

The presidency of Donald Trump seems to me to have exposed a different, harsh, and un-friendly view of America.  Other nations got to see this when Trump appeared before our NATO allies and chastised them for their failure to spend “their share” of funds to maintain the organization.

Trump’s child-like admiration of Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea alarmed observers all over the world, and that was followed by his behavior toward Saudi Arabia.

The picture some of us Americans got of Trump and his foreign policy was like the picture foreign observers got:  The “benevolent” rich man had become a scowling, scolding skinflint, who seemed to admire only dictators and fabulously rich Arabs.

And here in America we now have some 70 million fellow countrymen who think Trump, and his foreign policy, and his leadership model of “America—or me—first” and lack of empathy or collegial spirit… is just fine.  And if maintaining such a leader means eliminating millions of voters for the opposition, that’s all right.

So, if that many Americans admire such features in a leader, yes, I think America is stumbling into its twilight.


Sam Coulbourn






There will be no later meeting in December.


Women defense workers, World War II

Wednesday, January 26, 2022. World War II at Home.  World War II raged from the jungles of Burma to the steppes of Russia, all over the world.  But this is a look at the Home Front, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to children collecting tin cans and lead toothpaste tubes, paper and even jars of grease for “The War Effort”. It includes the movement of many thousands of Black Americans from menial jobs in the South to better paying jobs in the North, working in defense plants.  Millions of women also joined the work force as men went to fight overseas. Also, how Hollywood helped with patriotic films and propaganda cartoons, as well as War Bond drives. [Proposed by Cindy Grove].

Landing of Pedro Cabral in future Brazil, 1500. Painting by Oscar da Silva, 1922.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022. History of South America.South America has a rich history, from Incas and other indigenous peoples to colonization by Spanish, Portuguese, and other European nations, onward to monarchy in Argentina, slavery, and struggling democracies. It’s the history of Machu Pichu, exploration and exploitation of the Amazon, Simon Bolivar, Pedro Cabral, Juan Peron, Hugo Chavez, Augusto Pinochet, The Falklands War, Shining Path.  Select any period, any nation or group, and let us learn together. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

A Dangerous Stir


Wednesday, March 30, 2022.  Reconstruction, 1865-77 Abraham Lincoln had a clear picture of what should be done after the end of the War Between the States, but his assassination meant that Andrew Johnson, the Democrat who succeeded him, would be President. Read about this dangerous, murderous time in our history as we sought to regain the 11 Confederate States in the Union.  Read about the growth of white supremacist organizations, and the different ways that America handled the end of slavery, and welcoming (?) millions of newly freed Africans to America.  [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Trials of historical significance. Read about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (1945-46), or the Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951), Burning of the Reichstag trial (1933), or the Trial of Galileo Galilei (1633), Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms, (1521) (not what it sounds like), the Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato (399 BC), or many more. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]



Henry Ford

 Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Immigrants to America who have made a difference. Read and tell us the story of an immigrant to the U.S. who has brought a wondrous addition to his/her new nation. Perhaps the newcomers started a family of creative Americans; perhaps they themselves made important advances. Look at Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin, Audrey Hepburn, Chinua Achebe, Cary Grant, Irving Berlin, Nikola Tesla, more. [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith.]


Lincoln Assassination

Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Assassinations and executions of leaders. Read the stories of how famous people were assassinated and what came after. From modern times--- Anwar Sadat, Olaf Palme, Yitzhak Rabin, Aldo Moro, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, or Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, or Franz Ferdinand, King of Albania, Nicholas II of Russia, or earlier-- Henry VI, James III, Henry III, Julius Caesar. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]


Ironclad USS Monitor, 1862

Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Game changing maritime inventions. Read about the days of ships propelled by sail, oars, coal or oil, paddle wheelers, steam engines, or warships like dreadnought, submarines, aircraft carriers, or torpedoes, propellers, chronometers, sextants, etc. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]


Wednesday, July 27, 2022.   How Should We Deal With China?  Let's dig into the history of China and try to learn how the United States should approach China, in terms of human rights, trade policy, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Global Warming, Nuclear Weapon Proliferation, autonomous weapons, public health, and much more.  We are tremendously interdependent: should we continue to view China as an Opponent? [Proposed by Walt Frederick]