One can say that the first wave of imperial “neocons” was not the group that got the U.S. into the Iraq War (2003) but the group described by Warren Zimmerman in his classic book on the rise of the American Empire from the 1890s onwards:
First Great Triumph
How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power.
“Americans like to pretend that they have no imperial past,” Warren Zimmermann tells us in First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. But they do.
The United States had been expanding its borders from the moment of its birth, though its reach had been confined to the North American continent until 1898, when American soldiers and sailors joined Cuban and Filipino rebels in a successful war against Spain. When the war was won, the United States acquired a “protectorate” in Cuba and annexed Hawaii, the Philippine Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. “In 15 weeks,” Zimmermann notes, “the United States had gained island possessions on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of its continental mass. It had put under its protection and control more than 10 million people: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Indians, Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese and the polyethnic peoples of the Philippine archipelago.”
John Hay, at the time the American ambassador to Britain, writing to his friend Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba, referred to the war against Spain as “a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave.” He hoped that the war’s aftermath would be concluded “with that fine good nature, which is, after all, the distinguishing trait of the American character.” More than a century later, we are still asking ourselves just how splendid that little war and its consequences really were.
Zimmermann, a career diplomat and a former United States ambassador to Yugoslavia, begins his brilliantly readable book about the war and its aftermath with biographical sketches of the five men — Alfred T. Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay and Elihu Root — who played a leading role in making “their country a world power.”
Ironically, it turns out that any reader of Joseph Conrad’s (died in 1924) famous novel Nostromo from 1904 would have encountered the “manifesto” of the American Empire, very clearly enunciated by one of the characters in the novel:
“Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of God’s universe. We shall be giving the word for everything; industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound (i.e., Canada/Greenland), and beyond too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth.
“We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it—and neither can we, I guess.”Joseph Conrad, Nostromo, Penguin Books, 2007, pages 62/63
The political stances of Conrad which seem so denunciatory of imperialism here in Nostromo seem very disrespectful of Africans in his Heart of Darkness as Chinua Achebe (Nigerian novelist, author of Things Fall Apart) and other Africans have shown and decried. Thus one sees layer upon layer of contradiction both in American empire-mongering and Conrad’s anticipation of it in his novel Nostromo.