Who built the US empire? A labor history of North American and US empire-building focuses our attention on the interconnections between capitalist and state expansionism, migratory routes, systems of labor mobilization, segregation, and discipline, and the contested rights of citizens and colonial subjects. By taking us into the world of working people across North and South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, the essays in this double issue of Labor also illuminate the challenges that faced government and corporate leaders as they sought to create a well-oiled expansionist machine. Their dreams could not be realized without the labor of millions of workers who moved through the reworked geography of empire and, in various ways, either accommodated themselves to the new imperial power structures or struggled to resist them. The authors who have contributed to this issue transport us in time and place to consider, among others, the fears of seventeenth-century conscripted soldiers, the demands of Puerto Ricans to share in the social welfare policies of the New Deal, the lofty hopes of liberated factory workers in Korea, the vulnerabilities of migrant Filipinos in Guam, the frustrations of segregated and monitored Marshallese domestic workers and landscapers, and the desires of West Indian canal workers wanting a chance to defend the British Empire in the Great War. In doing so, they also challenge us to reinterpret the history of labor and the working class as well as the history of empire building.

Building on Labor’s prior collaborative projects—notably Workers across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History (2011) and Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises (2014)—this issue is part of a broader movement to explore the interconnections between the United States and the world, one that has itself been produced by a historical moment more keenly attuned to global processes. Whether one credits renewed attention to global capitalism and neoliberalism, heightened anxieties around national security in the post-9/11 world, or US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact is that the world around us is shaping historical discourse in myriad ways. Indeed, the intellectual shift toward a more global emphasis, which has become so manifest in historical writing, predates the twenty-first century. Diplomatic historians, of course, had long contributed terrific research and writing on the theme of US expansionism and global power. But in 1993 Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease edited an influential anthology, Cultures of United States Imperialism, which forcefully took the issue of US empire out of the diplomatic historian’s toolbox and made it a prime concern for cultural and social historians as well.1 An explosion of scholarship that approached the making of US power in new and creative ways soon followed: among many others in this trend, one thinks of Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti and Paul A. Kramer’s The Blood of Government. To be sure, there was sometimes a notable neglect of labor history in this scholarship. Yet together these approaches registered a problematizing of the nation-state–centered historical gaze and inspired more global methodologies.

The “new imperial” scholarship was also linked closely to the transnational turn in historical scholarship. Transnational methodologies are based on the premise that the history of a nation-state can never be contained successfully by static territorial boundaries. Since the early 1990s, scholars have increasingly focused on the ways that translocal and transregional forces generate nation-states themselves as well as these nation-states’ territorial borders. Since nation-states in the modern era have been connected to powerful expansionist forces such as imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism, it is not surprising that the historical discipline has become reoriented to examine in more sophisticated ways the connections between nations and the wider world. The case of the United States exemplifies these notions, created as it was by the imperialism of European powers as well as anticolonialist rebellion against them. By the late nineteenth century the United States, as a postcolonial society birthed by Europeans’ colonialist ambitions, had itself expanded across the North American continent and stood ready not only to defeat in warfare one of the oldest European empires but to acquire its territorial possessions. A mere fifty years later, by the mid-twentieth century, the United States emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation on earth, occupying or informally dominating more of the globe than any other country. The transnational and the imperial turns in historical writing are not synonymous; indeed, the history of US empire still centers around the US nation-state. Yet they are kindred spirits in the sense that imperial history problematizes the boundaries of the nation’s power by examining the shaping and limiting influences exerted on it by broad global processes. An imperial perspective also takes note of historical actors who are not themselves moving across boundaries and thus are not transnational. While the US imperial system flowed across borders and interacted with other empires, and while it often answered its need for labor by mobilizing migrants across large distances, it also relied often on people who did not move. Occupations of Puerto Rico, for example, or Korea required the support of local as well as transnational actors.

Just as the history of the United States is therefore inherently transnational and translocal, it is also bound up thoroughly with the labors of working men and women. The need for labor and the challenge of managing and disciplining that labor are central to every empire’s rise, and the global power of the United States is no exception. This issue argues powerfully for the centrality of labor and working-class men and women to the broader history of empire. Telling the story of the United States in the world from the perspective of labor and working-class history remaps our interpretation of empire building by demonstrating its deep connection to the migratory routes and protean life strategies of the global working class. A bottom-up history of the US and British empires does not require neglecting the strategies of elite officials but instead helps us better understand their policies and perspectives. Since labor management was the challenge at the heart of every political, military, or capitalist leader’s expansionist impulse, the in-depth research into working people’s experiences in this issue also illuminates the history of imperial officials. The expansionist aspirations of the United States or Britain required at times new strategies; at other times, old strategies were applied to new sites and new challenges. Thus for example US officials had to articulate their goals, devise new ways of managing labor, and confront new tensions between colonial subjecthood and the rights of citizens or between the demands of successful occupation and the hopes and expectations of workers.

Labor and working-class history has, as a discipline, been concerned with global processes (capitalism itself, immigration, proletarianization, etc.) that connected working people inherently to other regions and nations. The field has been enriched, for example, by scholarship that focused on circular migration and the introduction of diverse cultures and organizing strategies from around the world. We might think here of the early essays by Herbert Gutman, the internationalist perspective in David Montgomery’s writing, and the scholarship of immigration historians including Donna R. Gabaccia, John E. Bodnar, Hasia R. Diner, James R. Barrett, and Susan Glenn.2 Despite such influences, much of the work produced by the field since the early 1960s has centered on the United States as traditionally defined. After 2000 the field’s redefinition to include a more global emphasis could be seen in work by Marcel Van Der Linden, Leon Fink, Jana K. Lipman, Julie Greene, Cindy Hahamovitch, Moon-Ho Jung, and Harvey Neptune.3 Much though not all of this work centered around empire and global power. A signal moment in the development of labor and empire as a field came with Dan E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman’s efforts to bring scholars together, first to a session at the 2010 American Historical Association, then in a workshop in Toronto in 2012, and finally with the 2015 publication of their edited anthology Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism. That volume begins with a wide-ranging introductory essay by Bender and Lipman followed by articles covering diverse topics across the nineteenth- and twentieth-century US empire.

The articles in this double issue of Labor thus emerge from and reflect an exciting field of historical research and intellectual engagement, including new directions in transnational and imperial history and renewed engagement in both of these fields by labor historians. Together they demonstrate the inextricable connections between the history of US empire and the history of labor. The articles reveal dynamics in the logic of US empire that would not be visible in a top-down historical methodology. Furthermore, they demonstrate that what we think of as “US labor history” involved working people and sites of labor around the world. They challenge us not only to make global processes and interactions relevant to our narratives and interpretations of labor and working-class history but, more particularly, to realize the significance of imperial and colonial power relations in shaping that broader labor history. Five major themes weave through the essays as they engage with the labor history of empire. They draw our attention to the unfree labor of military service and its central role in building North American and US empire; struggles over citizenship in the unequal territories of the United States; the complex role of colonial and postcolonial subjects as migrant laborers; the labor tensions involved in US occupations; and labor migration as central to the logic of empire.

Military personnel straddle a complex zone between free and unfree labor; integrating their experiences into our conceptualization of labor and working-class history has become a promising area of research, though thus far much of it has focused on the post–World War II period.4 The authors in this issue push us to see the importance of military labor in earlier centuries. They demonstrate that soldiers’ labor proved critical to the creation of the nation-state in early North America, to the expansion of capitalism and the US empire in the nineteenth century, and to the building of US and British global power during World War I. John Donoghue examines the forced military labor that made British imperial expansion across North America possible. During the English Revolution, the English state’s heavy reliance upon forced labor generated major political conflicts as workers drew upon radical republicanism to protest impressment. Inspired by the Levellers and kindred groups, workers likened conscription to political tyranny and thus to slavery. Mutinies, riots, and fighting became common as workers fought to resist service on behalf of the crown in the Caribbean and North America. Donoghue writes that “endemic conflicts of this sort turned life for the maritime working classes into a kind of intermittent low grade warfare, where life-and-death struggles raged in the city streets, hidden in plain sight.” During the English campaign to colonize the West Indies, when officers swindled men out of their pay and forced them to work at plantation labor, mutinies and riots were answered with brutal torture and executions. In this context, when imperial expansion clashed against radical republicanism, workers’ protests sparked two major constitutional crises for the English state.

Moving to consider the late nineteenth century, A. Hope McGrath’s essay reminds us that military labor served crucially as a fulcrum connecting imperialism and expansionist capitalism. As McGrath notes, the trans-Mississippi West, like “colonial sectors” in other parts of the world, provided the natural resources that made capitalist and state expansion possible. Extracting those resources, however, required massive labor mobilization, and the military labor regime became central to that process. Soldiers built roads and laid telegraph lines, they surveyed and scouted new territories, and of course they labored at the violence needed to seize native people’s land. Like their sixteenth-century British counterparts, Gilded Age soldiers complained mightily about the working conditions and compared their lot to slavery. They resisted orders, they deserted, and they mutinied. They also demanded that officers respect their rights as citizens. Ironically, as McGrath notes, the nation’s emphasis on military service as patriotic duty has historically made it more difficult to see that soldiers in fact constituted an unfree labor force: “The ideal of the citizen-soldier and the frequent link between military experience and rights have obscured the fact that soldiers were workers.”

Afro-Caribbean canal employees in the era of World War I also experienced the proletarian nature of a soldier’s life when they were assigned tedious support activities rather than service at the front lines. And as Reena N. Goldthree notes, echoing again the historiography on Gilded Age soldiers, too often historians have neglected the labor history of the British West Indian Regiment (BWIR), seeing their activities merely as a reflection of their patriotism to the British crown. Yet not only did they labor as working men, but their enlistment by the thousands was linked to circum-Caribbean systems of labor migration generated by the Panama Canal construction project. In the end, a large fraction of the BWIR came from Panama, successfully building upon “islanders’ strategic use of geographic and occupational mobility to secure steady work during the volatile war years.” The grassroots activism of Caribbeans in Panama who demanded the right to enlist in the war profoundly shaped recruitment policies of the British military. Goldthree’s deep research and bottom-up approach illuminates for us a world far more complex than that of previous interpretations that have focused more on the role of British military officials or US business interests.

Important as military personnel have been in expanding the power of empires, the labor mobilizations required by US expansionism often involved other sources of migrants. Several of the articles in this issue examine colonial subjects who moved at the behest of the US government to other sites of empire. Micah Wright deftly considers Puerto Ricans caught between colonial subjecthood and citizenship while serving the US occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. Desperate for both professionals and manual laborers to support their occupation of the Dominican Republic, US officials recruited Puerto Ricans, thinking, in part, that they would serve as role models and help civilize Dominicans. Once in the Dominican Republic, however, many Puerto Ricans identified with the struggles of Dominicans who confronted US occupation as they themselves did. They became overrepresented in labor unions and other organizations resisting the US occupation. Simultaneously, however, Puerto Ricans began to feel the resentment of Dominicans who saw them as Yankee collaborators, and, in the process, US officials’ dreams—that Puerto Ricans would serve as symbols of American civilization and beneficence—were dashed. This case demonstrates the limitations of a strategy that relied upon colonial labor migrants for occupying another country. Puerto Ricans sought to follow the migratory routes of empire to achieve economic mobility but in the end were constrained by the contradictions of their own imperial subjecthood.

While Wright illuminates the liminal status of Puerto Ricans as occupiers, Emma Amador shifts our focus to the rights of Puerto Ricans and whether US social policies—particularly the Social Security Act of 1935—would be applied to Puerto Rico. Of powerful consequence here was the legacy of the Insular Cases at the turn of the twentieth century, when territories like Puerto Rico were declared to be “foreign in a domestic sense,” hence the Constitution would not of necessity follow the flag. This raised the issue of how and to what extent Puerto Ricans would receive the benefits of citizenship and thus become full social citizens. Amador also demonstrates the gendered nature of these debates. As the professionalization of social work led to greater economic and social mobility, female social workers became key activists in pushing for the extension of social policies to the island. These women traveled to the United States for training and this furthered their activism and organizational abilities. Finally, in 1939, US officials extended the Maternal and Child Welfare titles of the Social Security Act to Puerto Rico. Amador shows how this resulted not only from the activism of social workers but also from US racialized understandings of islanders combined with xenophobic anxieties about the increased migration of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland.

After World War II, as the Philippines acquired independence, Filipinos became what we might call postcolonial migrants, recruited by the tens of thousands to build barracks, maintain roads, or work as houseboys, carpenters, or laundry workers on sites of US empire across the Pacific. As Colleen Woods shows in her focus on Guam, these migrations relied heavily upon imperial formations established in previous decades. The expansion of US military power across the Pacific in the postwar period transformed the region’s geography while giving new life to earlier imperial migratory routes, racial segregations, and global inequalities. Filipinos on Guam complained of low wages, lack of recreational facilities, poor health care, and intrusive surveillance that clamped down on anyone protesting or even complaining. Woods argues that the analytic frame of imperial power relations is most useful for understanding the partnership between the US and Philippine governments and private corporations that made possible the exploitation of Filipino migrants’ labor. Although scholars studying the post-1974 Philippine labor migrations have focused upon neoliberal economic relations as causally central, Woods points instead to imperial relations decades earlier that confirmed and reinforced an unequal labor regime.

As the geography of US military, political, and economic power shifted rapidly at the end of World War II, occupation of territories became connected at times to the challenge of decolonization. Kornel S. Chang takes us to Korea, where factory workers’ high hopes upon achieving independence from Japan confronted US determination to mold a modern and efficient nation-state. Chang notes that most scholarship has examined the occupation period of 1945 to 1948 as merely a prelude to the coming Cold War conflict over the region. He frames it instead as an important moment of idealism and wide-ranging futures. Although US officials felt committed to labor rights and perceived themselves as liberators, they repeatedly found that their idealistic vision conflicted with their notions of US national interest. Furthermore, Korean workers and Communists (who had played an important role in building the Korean labor movement) themselves differed over strategies and long-term goals. These conflicting motivations and goals resulted in widespread conflicts and a quandary for US officials. Increasingly they equated the entire Korean labor movement with Communism and used this to justify the reintroduction of colonial forms of discipline and suppression. Ultimately, the Korean case demonstrates the challenge facing US officials as they sought to reconcile their roles as liberators in a decolonizing world with the demands of US global expansionism.

With Lauren Hirshberg’s essay, our focus remains on the Pacific and the building of US military power, but it moves forward in time to the heart of the Cold War. The US military took control over the Marshall Islands and turned Kwajalein into a missile range. Hirshberg explores the remarkable domestic containment that made US military power possible. In order to recruit knowledge workers to the islands, the United States created a utopian American suburb and then policed it to ensure that the purity of those suburban landscapes would not be endangered by other workers. Both US bachelors hired for manual labor and indigenous Marshallese service workers (who were moved to a separate island and commuted to Kwajalein each day) were seen as potential threats. Through a rigid segregation that banned Marshallese domestic servants, landscapers, and all other employees from being on Kwajalein after hours, the US military policed and protected their tropical American suburb. Yet the military also saw American bachelors as a potential threat to the sexual purity of their nuclear families. Although bachelors were allowed on the same island, they were carefully monitored to prevent intimate entanglements with members of the many nuclear families or, for that matter, with other bachelors. Hirshberg concludes by noting that such policies continue on Kwajalein even today to ensure nuclear family protection. Domestic containment as a strategy is not only intertwined with the need to police gender, sexuality, race, and class, but it also reflects the continuation of colonial strategies.

Finally, in a contribution to the journal’s Contemporary Affairs section, Aviva Chomsky tracks the connections between resource extraction, labor, and imperialism in the context of twenty-first-century Colombian coal mines. The coal in Cerrejón, Colombia, first became important to corporate interests, she points out, as a result of stricter environmental regulations in the United States: “First-world environmentalism inevitably operates in the context of empire.” Chomsky challenges us to see the interconnections between nature, environment, and imperial expansion as well as the impact exercised on working-class communities. Before the mining companies arrived in this region of northeastern Colombia, the local populations made their living through agriculture, hunting, or by migrating to nearby Venezuela for work. With such traditional sources of livelihood destroyed, they are reliant on a much more precarious source of employment. And while to some degree every article in this issue has explored the interconnections between an imperialist state and private capitalist interests, Chomsky’s article draws our attention to the informal empire of an economic enclave. The foreign interests that control mining in Cerrejón hold vast power over the region’s communities, and they are aided and abetted by the Colombian, US, and European governments. The absence of state sovereignty—or denationalization—in the area has fueled worker protests in the oil as well as the coal industry. Labor’s anti-imperialist nationalism could be seen in coal union president Igor Karel Díaz’s proclamation, quoted by Chomsky: “We will defeat the imperialist looting of our natural resources, the subcontracting of workers, privatizations, free trade, and . . . finally, be able to maintain and defend our sovereignty, allowing us to build a great and truly free nation.”

This project began with a Labor-sponsored conference hosted by Nelson Lichtenstein and his colleagues at the University of California–Santa Barbara in November 2014. We are grateful to him and to the many participants at Santa Barbara for their presentations, stimulating analyses, and useful feedback to paper presenters. We especially thank Paul Kramer, Alex Lichtenstein, Steve Striffler, and Aviva Chomsky, who worked with us as conference organizers, as well as Dana Frank, Andrew Zimmerman, Jana Lipman, Mary Renda, Amy Greenberg, Eileen Boris, and Eric Arnesen for their astute observations. Since the conference, Leon and I have worked closely together as coeditors (with painstaking assistance from Adam Mertz), reading and rereading manuscripts. With the hope that the essays assembled here will further spark new work in the field, we are proud to bring this special issue to our readers’ attention.

1

In Kaplan and Pease, see particularly Kaplan’s essay, “‘Left Alone with America’: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” 3–21.

4

For an important discussion of military labor in early America, see Way, “‘Black Service . . . White Money.’” For work on the twentieth century, see Phillips, War: What Is It Good For?; Bailey, America’s Army; Adams, Class and Race in the Frontier Army; and Greene, “Wages of Empire.” 

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