The Rise (and Fall?) of the “American Empire”: 1945-Present

Rise of Wests, Part II: America… [Word.]

By Matthew Greenfield, M.Ed., and YOU

The above is not merely an attempt to connect to the youth of today. I need your help in completing the title of this sequel, the second of two parts of the “Rise Saga.” This book, especially the second part, focuses on not just how we got to now, but also—hopefully—on where we’ll go from here.

Defining this nation is tricky. In the first part of the “Rise” series, defining nation was relatively easy: France defined itself as a nation of the French, descended from the Franks. England defined itself as the nation of the English, descended from the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Germany defined itself as a nation of Germans, descended from the Teutonic tribes. As we saw on the last episode, this “gave Rise” to increasingly-intense feelings of nationalism which soon plunged the whole continent and then the whole world into the most destructive conflict ever seen… twice.

From the rubble of the second worldwide conflict (WWII) emerged a new “empire,” the superpower of the United States of America, the nation in which we currently find ourselves. Regardless of how long you’ve been here, it is practically guaranteed in the United States that your people have not been here long. “Americans” are not a nationality, like the above European nations: few of us go back more than a few centuries here. The vast majority of the American population is descended from immigrants, so it’s not possible to define “America” as “the nation of the [Native] Americans.” (We then ignore, of course, the nations of Canada to the north and Latin America to the south—are they not “Americans” as well, living on the American continents?)

Any time I have asked students to define America in a word, I’ve received vague nouns which usually amount to the same concept: “Freedom.” “Independence.” “Liberty.” Any noun like that is too simple. If America is the “nation of Freedom,” then that freedom is certainly not absolute: Americans are not free to do anything they want, or else this would not be an organized nation at all, but a band of 300+ million anarchists wandering across the American wilds.

As such, I need a verb. Your word to fill in the blank in the title should not be a noun, as nouns are static. Verbs do; they are the engines of a sentence. So, in the simple two-word sentence defining the “American Empire” of the past, of today, and of the future, your essential contribution, and perhaps the single most important assignment of the whole semester, will be in your claim that “America… [is verb]ing.”

Choose wisely: this verb will guide the rest of the course. Every time you read about the next “emperor”* below, you’ll re-visit this home page—and mentally fill in that “[Word]” above with your verb.

Thanks in advance for helping me finish this book.

Chapter 1: “Emperor” Truman

Chapter 2: “Emperor” Eisenhower

Chapter 3: “Emperor” Kennedy

Chapter 4: “Emperor Johnson II”

Chapter 5: “Emperor” Nixon

Chapter 6: “Emperors” Ford & Carter

Chapter 7: “Emperors” Reagan & “Bush I”

Chapter 8: “Emperors” Clinton & “Bush II”

Chapter 9: Emperors” Obama, Trump, & Biden

*an emperor by any other name

Before we break down the career of the first of a dozen or so “emperors” that we’ll examine this semester, allow me to explain and justify the title. For the scope and timeline of this book, I drew inspiration from Suetonius’s classic text about the history of the Roman Empire, Twelve Caesars, but calling U.S. presidents “caesars” (German: Kaiser; Russian: Tsar) didn’t quite fit. Thirteen American Caesars sounds like a bad rock band.

So… “American Emperor.” Like Napoleon and the early Roman emperors, I use the term “emperor” metaphorically. The term comes from the Latin for someone who commands and, as the Commander-in-Chief does just that, I thought the word fitting. We will certainly focus on the role of Army’s Commander for most of these leaders.

Secondly, and more importantly, my choice of the term “empire” matches with the new position of the United States at the end of the Second World War. This new global leadership position might be called a “superpower” rank. What makes (or made) the American Empire an empire? Some historians refer to the expansion of territory of the United States, especially as a result of warfare over territorial claims (the continuous “Indian Wars”; the Mexican-American War of the 1840s; the Spanish-American War of the 1890s). However, in my mind what made and makes the U.S. a “superpower” is that super-power that seems more from the world of science fiction than science fact: the atomic bomb. The U.S. is exceptional as the country that had and has the most nuclear bombs on the planet, and is unique in being the only country to ever actually use these weapons directly against an enemy nation’s people, as we’ll soon see.

Thirdly, it seems to me—thoroughly from the outside of the political arena—that U.S. presidents are seen, especially in retrospect, as a symbol of the “Zeitgeist” (a German phrase roughly translated as “spirit of the times”). Occasionally, as with the deified Roman emperors, the American president seems elevated to a demi-god status by a nostalgic and aging American populace. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the American people occasionally condemn a president and attempt to erase his name from the record of their memories, as happened with the more infamous Roman emperors.

As we race towards the present era, you will hopefully observe, in talking about this history with your older family members, that presidents serve as convenient bookmarks of time, marking chapters one wants to re-read with nostalgia, or for chapters one wants to skip due to regret or shame. The bookmarks reveal more about the readers, in any case.

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