Reviewed by Michael Drohan

July 4, 2023


The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State by David Vine.  (University of California Press, 2021. 464 pp.)


Since the foundation of the United States as an independent country,  it has been at war in every year bar 11. These wars have all been war of aggression although throughout its history there have been rare attacks on the US such as Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001. Author David Vine analyses this nearly continuous prosecution of war through the lens of military bases and their evolution throughout US history.  Vine teaches at American University. He is co-founder of the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition. He is also the author of Base Nation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2017).

Behind and beyond the installation of bases outside the initial 13 colonies as “forts” to the present base policy of the formation of so-called “lily pad” bases is the thrust for building and maintaining an unchallengeable empire. Gradually the US was building a world empire reaching its peak in 1991 when the US became the hegemonic imperial power in the world after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So in a sense, this book could be described as a history of US imperialism and its peculiarities that distinguish it from other empires in history.  It is essential reading for any student of imperialism and for anyone who opposes the horrors of empire.

In the continental formation and expansion of the US empire, what they called forts, which really were military bases, played a crucial role. Vine investigates the countless wars pursued by the examination of the over 400 geographical locations which still bear the name of “fort” such as Fort Laramie, Fort Lauderdale and so on. The forts provided military protection for the settlers as they moved West and robbed the land and homes of the native peoples. The forts also played an essential role as the growing US empire attacked and gradually overtook other empires which had stakes in the now continental US such as Spain, France, England and Russia.

From early in the 19th century, the now independent US began to spread its wings and ambitions beyond the continental US. In 1898 in the Spanish-American War, the US succeeded in ousting Spain from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and quickly established bases such as Guantanamo in Cuba and Subic Bay in the Philippines. But even before the Spanish-American War, the US had eyes on the expansion of its empire to the entire Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 more or less articulated this mission as it warned the then existent empires of Europe to take their eyes off expansion  in the Western Hemisphere.

The First World War  and especially the Second World War marked a crucial turning point in the nature of imperialism and the development of what might be called a covert global US empire. The US had its eyes on the  imperial possessions of Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium and the key to their acquisition was the demand that they give up their “colonies.” The decolonization policies embraced by President Franklin Roosevelt  as World War II came to an end were the expression of this project.

The first coup by Roosevelt in this direction was his Destroyers for Bases deal with Churchill in 1940. In exchange for 50 World War 1-era naval destroyers, most of which turned out to be duds,  the US got bases in Newfoundland, Trinidad, Bermuda, Bahamas, Antigua, St. Lucia, Jamaica and British Guiana; eight in all. Through these bases, the US was enabled to keep the ambitions of Hitler from gaining a foothold in the Atlantic Ocean.

The US, through these bases, had seen the light that the future of empire lay not in the possession of colonies. When he received an offer to buy Trinidad FDR turned it down replying “Trinidad? No thanks. What a problem you have there with a scrambled population.”( p. 167). The decolonization policy pursued and demanded by the US after the war seems to have been just a ploy in the pursuit of empire by other means. It turned out that the US was rather selective in its “decolonization” demands. This became clear in the agreement with President Salazar of Portugal where in exchange for a military base in the Azores, FDR did not demand that Portugal divest from its main African colonies in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. Similar hypocrisy was shown in agreements with Franco of Spain. It was simply that old-fashioned colonies were costly and without them the US could pursue the expansion of its neo-colonial empire all the while denying its imperialist ambitions.

Perhaps the most egregious case of the hypocrisy of the US empire in regard to colonialism is the case of Vietnam. After the final defeat of the French colonial empire in Vietnam in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu and their imminent withdrawal, the US virtually took over the colonial struggle of the French, albeit in a disguised fashion of deniability and covertness. This led to  almost 20 years of war with the loss of millions of Vietnamese lives. The reasons given for all-out war in Vietnam was the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, a fraudulent claim of attack by North Vietnam on a US carrier. The war ended in an inglorious US defeat and an early message that the US empire was in trouble.

The war came to an ending in no small part because of popular resistance and opposition in the US, not least by the draftees into the war who numbered over 50,000. But it had another message for the empire builders which was “end the draft” and could also lessen the resistance to imperial wars.  The US armed forces then became a volunteer force and relieved the Pentagon from much popular protest against its exploits around the world.

After World War II, the US had many bases all over Europe both in  allied countries and in the defeated Axis states. Their presence after the war was explained by a need for defense against the Soviet/Communist threat. To further disguise its imperial essence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed to incorporate them all. In the postwar era, the bases in Europe and elsewhere were largely composed of military personnel, largely male. Soon widespread resistance to US bases developed due to disorderly troop conduct such as drunkenness and abuse of women. The resistance took the form of signboards demanding “Yankees Go Home” and similar slogans. But once more the Pentagon saved the day by accommodating entire families on bases and building massive little base cities with all the amenities and even luxuries of home. The taxpayer, of course, picked up the tab in gargantuan military budgets, all of which were justified  as necessary to keep Communism at bay. These bases  run from end to end of the Eurasian landmass, Vine explains. They are the infrastructure of a global empire.

At the end of the First World War, the victorious powers, Britain and France took over the Middle Eastern territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. For a long time Britain and France had their eyes on these dependencies because of the discovery and importance of petroleum. They divided the spoils and got the blessing of the League of Nations. They named them “Protectorates”, in effect, colonies. Perhaps the most deleterious measure was the establishment of a settler colony of Jewish immigrants which Great Britain established in Palestine. It was and remains a severe irritant to the Arab-Muslim world and a severe threat to world peace. After the Second World War the US muscled in, gaining access to the oil deposits of the Middle East, especially through alliances with the Saudi dictatorial regime. Resistance to the imperial penetration of the US in the Middle East came to a head in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and later in the attack on the Twin Towers in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Rather than treating the latter attack as a criminal act to be pursued in the World Court, the US turned to war, first in Afghanistan in October 2001 and then in Iraq in March 2003. Vine explains that these wars were facilitated by the bases that the US had established all over the Middle East but especially on the island of Diego Garcia. The main result of these disastrous wars has been vast destruction in both these countries and the rise of fierce armed resistance in the shape of various radical Islamic movements, labelled terrorist organizations by the US and the West.

One might have thought that the adventures of the US empire in the Middle East might have taught the empire of the futility of its pursuit of ruling the world through wars, occupation and bases. Alas, no.

The US empire has now set its sights on China, establishing bases in all the countries surrounding China but especially in the Philippines where it has established four new bases in recent years. Both the Trump and Biden presidencies have shown increased hostility to China and seem ready to abandon the policy of accepting that Taiwan is part of the One China. The US empire, hidden as always, is not about to accept a challenger to its hegemony. There are  frightening resemblances to the rivalry  between declining Britain and rising Germany before the First World War.

In the latter part of the book, Vine explores the latter-day interest of the US empire in Africa. Vast resources of gold, diamonds, rare metals and petroleum are beckoning. In the case of Africa, a new type of presence and control has been developed through what Vine calls “lily-pad” bases. He explains “lily-pad bases are relatively small, secretive, strategically located military installations. The name suggests a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad toward its prey” (p. 293). They are usually in remote locations far from major population centers in order to minimize local protest. The US has such bases in nearly every country in Africa and they are involved in numerous conflicts especially against Al Shabazz in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Vine’s conclusion from his survey of the US imperial wars is not encouraging. The US economy has become dependent on military spending and wars even as it strangles social programs. He quotes a NATO official, Major Tim Elliott, “God forbid that peace should break out” (p.314). The Pentagon and the military overall, octopus-style, has wound its tentacles around US society  in such a way that industry, Congress, the universities and each state are beholden to it.


-Michael Drohan has a B.S in Physics, Chemistry and Math from University College Dublin and a Ph.D in Political Economy from Bradford University, UK. Taught Physics at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya and Economics at Penn State University, Duquesne and Edinboro U. of Pa. Specialization is the political economy of underdevelopment using a Marxist analysis. He is also a political activist involved in anti-war movements and nuclear abolition from an anti-imperialist perspective.