Empire, United States

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Empire, United States

For most of its history the United States was an expansionist power that acquired considerable territory through treaty, conquest, and annexation. However, except for one period at the end of the twentieth century, the United States did not follow the classic patterns of colonialism and imperialism. Furthermore, the nation has traditionally identified itself as an anti-imperial power that was committed to self-determination and the promotion of democracy, equality, and individual liberty.

Proponents of America's global role have often credited the United States with being the leading opponent of colonialism. Opponents of American foreign policy have argued that the United States developed a less overt form of imperialism that provides the same degree of control and reward as traditional colonialism but avoids the costs of empire because territory is not under the formal control of the United States. In the post-World War II era there has been increased debate about the actions of the United States, even as scholars have begun to redefine the concepts of empire and colonialism in order to account for the preponderance of American power in the post-Cold War era.


The United States as a country was founded on the basis of anticolonialism and self-determination. Nonetheless, the American colonists, and later the American people, saw their western border as ill-defined, and most accepted that it was proper for the United States to expand westward. This created a dichotomy in which the nation expounded the virtues of democracy and anticolonialism yet often behaved as a colonial power as new territories were acquired. The opposing sentiments of anti-imperialism and expansionism that emerged from the American Revolution would continue to influence American policy throughout the nation's history. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, U.S. anticolonialism came to be expressed on two levels: the domestic level and the level of foreign policy.

During the early period of the country, American policy was expansionistic, but not in the traditional colonial sense. Colonialism was based on the notion of foreign sovereignty: that another state had political, economic, and military control over a territory. Colonial powers sought colonies that would be economically profitable but also politically subservient to the mother country.

In contrast to traditional colonialism, successive American administrations sought to acquire territory through diplomatic means and then bind those areas to the United States by allowing them to become full political and economic participants in the nation through the process of statehood. Sovereignty, instead of being concentrated in the hands of the colonizing country, would be divided between the federal government and the state governments under the American system. American politicians, leading public figures, and newspapers asserted that the American system actually spread liberty and democracy. There was also a notion of divine right in American expansion that would later be codified in the doctrine of manifest destiny (the notion that the population of the United States was predestined to expand to the natural borders of the country). This represented an effort to reconcile the fact that the nation was acquiring new territories, but the peoples of these areas (usually indigenous peoples) often had little choice over incorporation into the United States.

As the United States expanded across the continent, it adopted a foreign policy that was designed to distinguish America from the European empires. American foreign policy was also crafted to bolster the American economy instead of the nation's geostrategic position. Isolationism was the core U.S. foreign policy for most of the early period of the nation's history. In his farewell address, President George Washington (1732–1799) warned his successors not to enter into "permanent" alliances with other states. However, the United States did vigorously promote its economic interests through a series of commercial treaties with other states.

One reason for American anticolonialism in the early days of the country was the inability of successive administrations to gain legal access to markets controlled by the colonial powers. Because it found itself shut off from trade with Spanish or French colonies, the United States supported a range of independence movements. Yet Washington's admonishment against formal alliances constrained the ability and willingness of American politicians to provide aid in the struggle against Spain.

In the 1820s Congressman Henry Clay (1777–1852) advocated a broad inter-American alliance against the colonial powers, but Secretary of State (and later president) John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) instead argued in favor of diplomatic support for independence movements, but not military assistance. Adams's position became the favored one and would be codified in the Monroe Doctrine (1823), in which the United States pledged to block efforts at new colonization in the Western Hemisphere in exchange for its own noninterference in European affairs. The Monroe Doctrine was one of the strongest early American expressions of anticolonialism, but it also demonstrated the dichotomous nature of U.S. policy since the United States would oppose some colonial ventures but accept others, including British efforts in Canada.

The Monroe Doctrine did acknowledge the right of existing countries in the Western Hemisphere to consolidate their regimes, and the subsequent American acquisitions of territories, including those from the Mexican-American War and the purchase of areas such as Alaska, were justified on this basis. In addition, Americans noted that their territorial gains were not overseas empires, but part of a contiguous expansion of a political union of states. This union was asserted to be different from a formal empire. Yet concurrent with anticolonial actions, the United States also engaged in quasi imperialism. For instance, the colony of Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society in 1821 as a semiprivate enterprise, and over the next twenty years various states, including Virginia and Mississippi, also attempted to develop colonies in the region. These colonies ultimately merged into a commonwealth and declared their independence in 1847 (although the United States did not formally recognize Liberian independence until 1862).


The United States engaged in a variety of forms of informal imperialism in the nineteenth century, and these would lay the foundation for later U.S. actions in the twentieth century. American settlers frequently encroached upon the territory of other sovereign countries. A pattern developed that would be replicated throughout the period of manifest destiny and would also be followed as the United States acquired possessions such as Hawaii. As part of a broader pattern of westward migration, Americans would settle in areas under foreign sovereignty. These areas might include territory that was formally a part of another nation, such as Mexico or Hawaii, or that had been granted autonomy by treaty with Washington, as was the case for most of the Native American nations. As more Americans settled in these areas, they would begin to agitate for self-government or annexation to the United States.

Texas provides an example of this trend. In the 1820s large numbers of Americans began to settle in Texas. The volume of immigration was such that the Mexican government forbade additional American settlers in 1830. Within two years armed conflict broke out between the Americans and the Mexican government. This conflict culminated in a rebellion and Texan independence in 1836. After a brief period as a sovereign republic, Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845. A similar pattern occurred in Hawaii, where American missionary efforts beginning in 1820 and an American-led insurrection in 1893 led to formal annexation of the island kingdom in 1898. Native Americans also continuously found themselves forced from their territory as American settlers moved in and then demanded union with the United States.

The United States also practiced a more subtle form of colonialism: cultural imperialism. Concurrent with the settlement of Americans in continental territories was the advance of American culture, technology, and economic systems. Within the territory that became the United States, the advance of American culture eroded local societies and traditions and undermined the will and ability of people to resist U.S. expansion. American cultural imperialism would also have a profound impact on those areas that did not become part of the United States. For example, American missionaries were active throughout the Pacific region and in Africa. In addition to bringing the Christian gospel, these missionaries also brought Western ideals, cultural traditions, and language, in addition to a range of devastating diseases.

One of the most dramatic and far-reaching instances of American cultural imperialism in the nineteenth century was the dispatch of Commodore Matthew Perry's (1794–1858) two expeditions to Japan in 1853 and 1854. These two missions were sent in an effort to force the Japanese to open their country to Western trade, and Perry's missions had the impact of prompting the Japanese to launch a massive effort to industrialize and develop in order to compete with the Western powers. On one level, the missions can be viewed as anticolonial since Perry did not attempt to acquire territory, and was not authorized to do so. However, the missions had a major impact on Japanese culture in a manner that foreshadowed the globalization trends of the twentieth century (they also spurred Japan's later emergence as an imperial power). The United States would pursue a similar policy toward China by pressuring the Chinese government to open the country to American commercial interests (this open-door policy would further be applied to the imperial powers that had carved China into spheres of influence). The United States would also use military force to ensure Chinese compliance with its open-door policy during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.


For a brief period the constraining influences of isolationism and anticolonialism were abandoned, and the United States engaged in direct imperialism and the acquisition of colonies. There was a range of motivations that propelled this short-lived effort at formal colonialism. By the 1890s the frontier in the continental United States had begun to close, and Americans began to look beyond the territorial confines of the United States for economic and other opportunities. This would include emigration to Alaska and various areas of the Pacific and Caribbean. In addition, the growing popularity of the inherently racist social Darwinism meant that many Americans accepted the notion that they were destined to rule over other peoples. Compounding these trends was a missionary impulse that convinced many in the country of the necessity of taking a more proactive role in the world to civilize and uplift native peoples and protect them from the worst ravages of European imperialism.

In the later stages of the nineteenth century, imperialism became a domestic political issue. In 1885 President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908), a Democrat, announced that the party would oppose future expansion or the acquisition of new territory. Cleveland resisted efforts to annex Hawaii, and after he left office following his second term in 1896 his successor as leader of the party, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), became noted for his opposition to an expansionist foreign policy. The next Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), frequently authorized military expeditions to support his foreign policies, which were paradoxically rooted in idealism, support for international law, and self-determination. Wilson's use of realist policies, including military interventions, to pursue idealistic goals foreshadowed the rise of internationalism within some circles of the Democratic Party and paralleled the internationalist wing of the Republican Party.

A growing number of elites in the United States also sought to operationalize the theories of naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914). Mahan argued for the need to create and maintain a powerful naval force to protect American commercial and political interests abroad. However, to maintain such a navy, the United States would need ports for refueling and repair around the globe. Mahan's arguments were diametrically opposed to traditional American isolationism, and he urged a more proactive role for the United States in the global arena. Adherents of Mahan's theories included such prominent figures as future president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924), a powerful member of the U.S. Senate. The Pacific Ocean was of particular importance to Mahan's supporters because many perceived that the centuries-old westward movement of Americans would continue into the region. When U.S. Marines supported the American-led insurrection in Hawaii in 1893, it marked the onset of the nation's imperial moment.

Victory in the Spanish-American War (1898) allowed the United States to acquire several colonies, including Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. It also led to U.S. occupation of other areas, such as Cuba, and it ignited a vigorous debate in the United States over imperialism. While pro-imperial advocates, including Roosevelt and Indiana senator Albert Beveridge (1862–1927), extolled the virtues of American expansion and the duty of the United States to promote its values and ideals among other people, a range of opponents to American colonization also emerged. Ardent anti-imperialists, including Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), and William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), formed the Anti-Imperialist League in 1899 to oppose U.S. expansion.

Among the foremost concerns of the anti-imperialists was the incompatibility of democracy and empire. They argued that a nation that promoted self-determination and individual freedom could not also engage in imperialism. Anti-imperialists were particularly upset over the military campaign waged by the United States against Filipino insurgents who sought independence. The anti-imperialists noted that the Filipinos were fighting against a colonial power in the same fashion that Americans had once fought against the British. Many anti-imperialists also had less noble reasons for opposition to imperialism, including a fear of immigration from newly acquired territories and a belief that annexation of such territories would undercut American values and ideals because the inhabitants of these regions were perceived to be inferior to Americans.

Initially, American public and political opinion seemed to be on the side of the imperialists. In addition to the direct annexation of territory, the U.S. Congress enacted the Platt Amendment (1901), which reduced Cuba to the status of an American protectorate and gave the United States the right to intervene militarily. In their efforts to increase circulation, the leading newspapers of the day openly supported and even encouraged expansion by exaggerating stories and news items in a jingoistic style that came to be known as yellow journalism.

Following the assassination of President William McKinley (1843–1901), Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent imperialist, became chief executive. Roosevelt undertook a number of actions to expand American influence, particularly in the Caribbean. He envisioned the Caribbean as an "American Lake" and frequently used American power to further U.S. interests. Roosevelt's policies and style, as well as his willingness to use military force and the threat of military action, would be replicated by successive American presidents both in the Caribbean and the broader world.

A keen student of history, Roosevelt realized that the United States could avoid the costs and problems of empire by avoiding direct annexation of territory through the implementation of some of Mahan's theories. Instead of stationing large numbers of troops in economic or strategic areas, the United States could use its naval power to force regimes to comply with American demands and interests. This would allow the United States to develop spheres of influence around the world without the cost of maintaining a military garrison or a civil service. In addition, the policy meant that the United States could avoid charges from both domestic and international audiences that it was forming an empire. Roosevelt's strategy was a modification of British gunboat diplomacy, but it was based on the same premise: install a friendly regime and use a combination of naval power and rapidly deployable troops, such as the U.S. Marines, to support the local government.

This indirect form of imperialism would be repeatedly utilized throughout the twentieth century. There was a range of military interventions in the Caribbean throughout the early 1900s. In spite of pledges to formulate and implement a less intrusive foreign policy, presidents from both parties utilized military interventions in order to secure American interests. The major modification to the strategy of using military intervention to maintain spheres of influence would be the post-World War II rise of covert operations to replace overt military deployments.


In both world wars the United States rallied public opinion against the nation's enemies by issuing appeals against imperialism. During World War I the administration of Woodrow Wilson claimed to be fighting in order to "make the world safe for democracy." The administration also contended that it was on the side of the enlightened, liberal empires (France and Great Britain) against the repressive empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary. During World War II the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) portrayed itself as fighting the fascist empires of Germany and Italy.

In the aftermath of both conflicts the United States did seek to promote self-determination and democracy. It also supported decolonization. Following World War I the Wilson administration worked to have the colonies of the former Central Powers taken over by the Allies with the expectation that these territories would be transitioned to self-rule. Instead, the Allies, including Japan, Great Britain, and France, proved unwilling to decolonize many of the areas entrusted to them. After World War II the United States would press for complete decolonization.

Many scholars contend that after World War II the American empire transitioned from a regional colonial system, based on spheres of influence and protectorates, to a quasi-imperial system with global reach. Others argue that the United States was not only not an imperial power, but that it defeated the last multistate empire, the Soviet Union, and was chiefly responsible for the rise of democracy in the post-Cold War era.

American foreign policy did radically change after World War II as the twin constraints of isolationism and the avoidance of permanent alliances both dissipated. In an effort to avoid the experiences of the post World War I era, first the Roosevelt administration and then the Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) administration embraced an internationalism that accepted a substantial role for the United States in world affairs. The result was the formation of a consensus on foreign policy that was remarkably stable throughout the Cold War, but which also laid the foundation for charges of neo-imperialism against the United States. Central to the charges of a new American imperialism was the degree of economic and military power the United States exercised during the Cold War. Even the staunchest critics of U.S. policy did not argue that the country was following the traditional paths of the empires of Europe; instead they asserted that the United States had developed a less direct but still pervasive system of control over other states.

In the aftermath of World War II the Soviet Union developed an empire that mirrored the traditional colonial entities of the nineteenth century. The Soviets directly annexed some countries, while others were treated as satellite states and were controlled from Moscow through military and political means. Most Soviet bloc states were economically dependent on Moscow, as colonies had been previously, although some strategically important allies, such as Cuba, were actually subsidized by the Soviets. Significantly, the Soviets concentrated mainly on their periphery, and it was only as the Cold War wore on that Moscow made serious bids to increase its global presence.

In contrast, the United States exerted a much more powerful influence on world affairs in the immediate post-World War II era. Unlike the Soviet empire, the United States has often been characterized as an empire of the willing or as an informal coalition. This characterization refers to the preference that many states had for American primacy as opposed to Soviet domination. This phenomenon was particularly true of Western Europe and the economically developed, established democracies of the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others. For these countries, the United States offered military and economic assistance that was critical in efforts to rebuild after World War II. In return, the countries surrendered a degree of autonomy on security and economic issues. However, when they disagreed with the United States they often saw little in the way of sanctions or punishments from America. France's with drawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966 or disagreements over U.S. involvement in Vietnam are frequently cited as examples of the willingness of the United States to tolerate dissent within its coalition. Nonetheless, there were deep differences between how the United States treated allies that were economically and militarily developed and those states that were less developed.

Those countries that sided with the United States during the Cold War can be divided into three categories. First, there were the allies. Although the United States often exerted economic or diplomatic pressure on allies to develop consensus, these were states that the United States treated more or less as political equals and involved in decision-making and global strategy. Examples of allies included Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan. Second, there were a number of states that were associates or partners of the United States. These countries agreed with the United States on most issues, but were more willing to oppose American policies and often used the superpower conflict to extract concessions from both the United States and the Soviet Union. Examples of associates included Brazil, Mexico, and Pakistan. Third, and finally, were the client states. These regimes owed their existence to U.S. support, and the United States often had to provide significant military or economic aid to ensure their survival. This dependency provided the United States with a high degree of control over these countries. States in this category included Iran, Nicaragua, and South Vietnam. These differences among countries resulted from the implementation of the core principles of American Cold War policy.

American foreign policy in the Cold War period was based on four principles: containment of the Soviet Union; the promotion of free trade; the spread of democracy; and support for multilateral international organizations. Central to post-World War II American foreign and security policy was the containment of the Soviet Union. To successive administrations of both parties, the Soviets represented a global challenge that threatened world domination. As such, all other aspects of foreign, economic, and security policy were secondary to containment. In 1945 the United States had the world's largest economy and needed export markets; therefore, polices were enacted to promote free trade, which was seen as a way to open markets. The establishment of liberal democracies was tied to the longstanding belief that democracies were less likely to go to war with each other, and democracy was seen as a bulwark against communism. Finally, multilateralism, in the form of such international institutions as the United Nations, the World Bank, or NATO, was promoted as a way to lessen the costs of global leadership and to share the burden of containment.

Each of the four goals was laudable, but their implementation was uneven and often exacerbated global inequities. For instance, National Security Council memorandum 68 (1950) enshrined the doctrine of containment in foreign policy, and it specifically repudiated colonialism. Nonetheless, the United States supported ongoing French colonialism in Indochina and British imperialism in Africa as a means to counter Soviet influence in those regions. The United States sought decolonization but was also fearful of creating vacuums that would allow for Soviet expansion. The goal of containment repeatedly led the United States to support anti-free trade and antidemocratic regimes, as long as they were anti-Soviet.

In addition, the free trade policies of the United States promoted global commerce, but they were also designed to enhance the U.S. economy. A range of economic and aid programs was implemented that mainly benefited the United States and other developed economies. One result was the continuation of unequal patterns of trade that often replicated colonial patterns. This system of trade involved the export of resources, ranging from foodstuffs to mineral resources, in exchange for the import of manufactured goods by lesser-developed states. The postwar period also witnessed the rise of multinational corporations that actively lobbied to develop policies that enhanced themselves, even at the expense of people in developing countries. Critics of the postwar global economic system argued that the unequal flow of goods and services forced lesser-developed countries into a state of dependency on the developed world (a concept known as dependency theory).

Successive American administrations also offered support to undemocratic regimes in return for anti-Soviet policies. Hence, American support for democracy was tempered by containment policies. The United States even undertook a number of covert operations in places such as Iran (1954), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973) to replace regimes that were considered antagonistic to the United States. These actions reinforced notions that the United States was acting in an imperialistic fashion and treating countries as if they were quasi colonies.

American actions toward countries during the Cold War reflected the different status of those states. America's allies and partners were far less likely to face punitive actions when they disagreed with the United States than were America's client states. Nevertheless, the United States did exercise a high degree of control and influence over all three categories of associated nations. In the end, this was because the United States was not a traditional imperial power. The United States used economic and military rewards, incentives, and punishments to exercise its power, instead of formal conquest and colonization.

Furthermore, the spread of American influence was aided by the nation's soft power—the attractiveness of its culture, ideals, and values. American political norms and values came to be embraced by the majority of the world's nations, even if its individual policy actions were often criticized. Colonialism, based on external sovereignty of territory, did not adequately describe the American global presence because its control and influence over other states was based less on direct sovereignty and more on indirect, subtle forms of influence. In this regard, the nation behaved more like a hegemon and less like a global empire.

A hegemon is a state that has the ability to set and enforce the rules of the international system. During the Cold War, the United States behaved like a hegemonic power, although its reach was rebuffed by some actors, mainly the Soviet bloc and some members of the nonaligned movement. By developing international institutions that reflected American preferences, including the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization), and NATO, the United States was able to promote its values and interests, all the while sharing the burden of its superpower status among its allies, associates, and client states.

Because of the hegemonic potential of the United States, it did not have to formally colonize states to ensure their economic compliance or political pliancy. Furthermore, the perceived threat of Soviet expansion added incentives for many states to cooperate with the United States as members of an empire of the willing. During the Cold War, scholars identified the United States as a benign hegemon—a country that had the military and economic power to dominate the world, but whose actions benefited the majority of states in the international system.


With the end of the Cold War, the Soviet threat diminished. In addition, the economic power of the United States declined in relative terms as other economies grew faster than that of America. The result was that explicit U.S. political and economic leadership declined. Countries had less incentive to ally themselves with the United States on global issues. As a result, during the 1990s there emerged a range of issues that divided the United States from even some of its formerly close allies. Many scholars and public officials around the world began to predict that the United States was in decline and had lost any hegemonic potential it may have possessed during the Cold War.


Thomas Jefferson negotiates the sale of the Louisiana Purchase from the French for fifteen million dollars
The American Colonization Society establishes the colony of Liberia, followed by other efforts by several American states to establish colonies in West Africa
The United States adopts the Monroe Doctrine, which attempts to limit new European expansion into the Americas; in return, the United States agrees not to interfere in European affairs
American settlers in Texas rebel against Mexican rule and create the Republic of Texas
The United States annexes Texas
Disputes over the border between Mexico and Texas lead to the Mexican-American War
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexican-American War, with Mexico agreeing to give up much of the Southwest and California for fifteen million dollars
Russia sells Alaska to the United States
The United States supports a rebellion in Hawaii
The United States annexes Hawaii, seeing Pearl Harbor as a strategic military base
The Spanish-American War begins in April, though the fighting only lasts until August when the Spanish ask for a truce. The Treaty of Paris formally ends the Spanish-American War, and the United States gains control of the former Spanish colonies of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Cuba is declared independent, but occupied by the United States until 1902
Prominent Americans, including Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and Samuel Gompers, found the Anti-Imperialist League, opposing the expansion of the United States
The U.S. Congress passes the Platt Amendment, making a protectorate of Cuba and retaining the right to intervene militarily in Cuban affairs
The United States supports independence for Panama in exchange for the right to build a canal through the country
President Theodore Roosevelt develops the "Roosevelt Corollary," suggesting the United States has the obligation to aid smaller countries in the Western Hemisphere when threatened with economic troubles. Using this principle, the United States takes over the finances of the Dominican Republic in 1905, intervenes in Haiti in 1915, and sends the military into Nicaragua on several occasions in the early 1900s
After WWI, the United States advocates decolonization, suggesting that the victorious Central Powers, including France, Great Britain, and Japan, transition their colonies to self-rule
With the end of WWII, the United States looks to sustain influence by creating collations of similar-minded democracies, large and small, to balance the Soviet Union's expanding empire
To fight the perceived Soviet Communist threat, the United States covertly replaces leaders in Iran (1954), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973) with governments more friendly to the United States

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the United States remains the world's most powerful country in economic and military terms. Whether it can force its will on other states is a more open question, which strikes at the heart of contemporary charges of neo-imperialism. The series of military actions at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s demonstrated that the United States remained the world's leading military power. However, the United States found less global support for its military operations. The soft power of the United States remained considerable, although increasingly other populations were less attracted to the political and philosophical aspects of American culture, and more drawn to materialism and consumerism. In many areas of the world this trend created a backlash against what was perceived to be American cultural imperialism and the subsequent undermining of local customs, traditions, and values.

International disagreements over the "war on terror" and the 2003 invasion of Iraq also demonstrated that the United States was not able to set new rules for the international system (including the effort to promote a doctrine of preemptive military strikes—the Bush Doctrine). By 2004 the broad effort to promote multilateralism, which had been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since World War II, had been seriously undermined by the Bush Doctrine and the war in Iraq. Combined with other actions, including rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and opposition to the creation of an International Criminal Court, the policies of the late 1990s and early 2000s eroded American soft power and undermined the nation's ability to exert global leadership.

Critics of the United States argue that it continues to pursue neo-imperial policies designed to bolster the nation's global power. The United States has demonstrated that it is unwilling to surrender or share any significant degree of sovereignty with international bodies. When other countries or international institutions support American policies, the United States embraces them. When there is opposition to U.S. actions, the nation ignores them. Supporters of the United States continue to assert that the nation promotes policies that uplift peoples and is willing to bare the costs necessary to provide global security. In either case, the United States clearly is the most powerful country in the contemporary world, but it is a nation that falls short of empire or hegemony.

see also Anti-Americanism.


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