Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World

Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World

by David Vine
Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World

Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World

by David Vine



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From Italy to the Indian Ocean, from Japan to Honduras, a far-reaching examination of the perils of American military bases overseas

American military bases encircle the globe. More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. still stations its troops at nearly a thousand locations in foreign lands. These bases are usually taken for granted or overlooked entirely, a little-noticed part of the Pentagon's vast operations. But in an eye-opening account, Base Nation shows that the worldwide network of bases brings with it a panoply of ills—and actually makes the nation less safe in the long run.

As David Vine demonstrates, the overseas bases raise geopolitical tensions and provoke widespread antipathy towards the United States. They also undermine American democratic ideals, pushing the U.S. into partnerships with dictators and perpetuating a system of second-class citizenship in territories like Guam. They breed sexual violence, destroy the environment, and damage local economies. And their financial cost is staggering: though the Pentagon underplays the numbers, Vine's accounting proves that the bill approaches $100 billion per year.
For many decades, the need for overseas bases has been a quasi-religious dictum of U.S. foreign policy. But in recent years, a bipartisan coalition has finally started to question this conventional wisdom. With the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan and ending thirteen years of war, there is no better time to re-examine the tenets of our military strategy. Base Nation is an essential contribution to that debate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627791700
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Series: American Empire Project
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 495,291
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

David Vine is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia and an associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.

David Vine
is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia and an associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Base Nation

How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World

By David Vine

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 David Vine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-170-0


The Birth of Base Nation

The base nation as we know it was born on September 2, 1940. It is a vastly underappreciated moment, generally treated as a small detail in World War II history books. But it was then, with the flash of a pen, that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the transformation of the United States from one of the world's major powers into a global superpower of unparalleled military might.

On that momentous day, more than a year before the United States entered the war, Roosevelt informed Congress that he was authorizing an agreement with Britain: the country would provide its nearly bankrupt ally with fifty World War I–era destroyers in exchange for U.S. control over a collection of air and naval bases in Britain's colonies.

Although such a pact should have required congressional approval, Roosevelt simply declared it done. Under what became known as the "destroyers-for-bases" agreement, the United States acquired ninety-nine-year leases and near-sovereign powers over bases in the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Thomas, Antigua, Aruba-Curaçao, Trinidad, and British Guiana, plus temporary access to bases in Bermuda and Newfoundland. Roosevelt called the agreement "the most important action in the reinforcement of our national security since the Louisiana Purchase." Whether the deal was quite so important to national security is questionable. But in terms of its transformative effect, there was little exaggeration in comparing the acquisition of these bases to the 1803 treaty that nearly doubled the nation's size. The leases' ninety-nine-year length reflected similarly grand ambitions: President Roosevelt intended to cement the global power of the United States for at least a century to come.

The roots of Roosevelt's remarkable decision stretch back to the era surrounding the Louisiana Purchase. Beginning shortly after independence and continuing through the 1800s, the United States built up a small but significant collection of extraterritorial bases. This collection reflected the unabashedly imperial dreams of U.S. leaders and allowed the United States to join the ranks of the world's most powerful countries by the turn of the twentieth century.

The unprecedented profusion of U.S. bases that emerged from World War II, however, represented a quantitative and qualitative shift in the nature of American power, transforming the country's relationship with the rest of the world. By war's end, the size, geographic reach, and total number of U.S. bases had expanded dramatically. Never before had so many U.S. troops been permanently stationed overseas. Never before had U.S. leaders thought about national defense as requiring the permanent deployment of military force so far from U.S. borders. After World War II, the United States commanded an unparalleled global military presence, unmatched by any prior people, nation, or empire in history.


Since the days of ancient Egypt, Rome, and China, military bases — especially bases abroad — have been a key foundation for imperial control over lands and people. The Egyptian Middle Kingdom positioned military strongholds on the borders of its empire, while fortified cities were the norm across the fertile Middle East from Babylon to Jerusalem. The acropolis, which we now think of as the hilltop home of the Parthenon in Athens, originally referred to mountaintop citadels of the kind that appear from Israel's Masada to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Rome, too, was an acropolis, and the Romans built temporary "Caesar's camps" and castra stativa — permanent bases — across the reaches of their empire. Some Roman fortresses later provided foundations for the castles built by England's Norman invaders. The Tower of London, one of Britain's iconic symbols, was originally a foreign base built by William the Conqueror shortly after 1066. When Columbus first sailed to the Americas, he ordered the construction of a fort on the island of Hispaniola, in today's Haiti, using the splintered timbers of the Santa Maria. On the Genoese sailor's second voyage, in 1494, he anchored in the bay he called Puerto Grande and we now call Guantánamo.

Today, across the Americas, tourists still visit the remains of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British bases that followed Columbus's first fort in Hispaniola. These tourist attractions are monuments to bygone empires and to the role that such fortifications played in the colonization of the Americas. France established its first bases near Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1562, and on the St. Johns River in Florida in 1564. The Spanish followed in Florida, San Juan, and Havana. Britain set up its own bases in North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, and well beyond as its colonial power peaked in North America shortly before the American Revolution.

While scholars generally identify Guantánamo Bay as the first U.S. military base abroad, they strangely overlook bases created shortly after independence. Hundreds of frontier forts helped enable the westward expansion of the United States, and they were built on land that was very much abroad at the time. Fort Harmar, built in 1785 in the Northwest Territory, was the first. Others appeared in today's Ohio and Indiana, including Forts Deposit, Defiance, Hamilton, Wayne, Washington, and Knox. Each of these bases helped waves of U.S. settlers move into the lands of Native American nations, pushing Indians progressively westward. By 1802, there was a chain of U.S. forts from the Great Lakes to New Orleans. Native American groups' support for Britain in the War of 1812 brought only more displacement, expropriation, and base building.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson announced his "Indian removal policy," aimed at forcing all native groups to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River and relocate to the west. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was initially supposed to mark the "very western edge of civilization" and the "permanent Indian frontier." However, by protecting the start of the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, it only furthered the westward migration of Euro-American settlers, miners, traders, and farmers. The Army soon became what one historian has called the "advance agent" and "pry bar" of U.S. conquest. A rapidly growing collection of western forts beyond Fort Leavenworth provided more iron for that pry bar and marked the line of westward expansion. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were sixty major forts west of the Mississippi River and 138 army posts in the western territories.

As Euro-American migration continued, the young nation soon seized more than half of Mexico: some 550,000 square miles of land, including all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, and most of Arizona. It acquired the Oregon Territory from Britain and absorbed the Republic of Texas. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase added yet more Mexican land, a swath of territory in Arizona and New Mexico larger than today's entire state of West Virginia. Scores of new Army bases — from Texas's Fort Bliss to Arizona's Fort Huachuca, from the Presidio in San Francisco to the Vancouver Barracks in Oregon Country — quickly followed, assisting in the expansion.

With conquest across the continent complete, U.S. bases protected the continuing stream of Euro-Americans heading westward and battled the few remaining unconquered Indian nations. Elsewhere, the military established new bases to quell anti-Chinese riots along the construction route for the Union Pacific railroad. When major Native armed resistance ended, the U.S. government began consolidating many of the frontier forts and turned its attention outside the North American continent.


When most people think about the expansion of the United States beyond North America — and the bases that went with that expansion — they generally look to 1898's Spanish-American War. Again, however, expansion beyond the continent and the roots of our base nation go back much farther. During 1798's Quasi-War with France, for instance, a hundred years before the Spanish-American conflict, U.S. Navy frigates operated from ports on several Caribbean islands. The Barbary Wars of 1801–5 and 1815 likewise saw U.S. Marines capture and temporarily occupy the fortress and port of Derna (marking the first U.S. occupation of Middle Eastern lands). Through the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. Navy used temporary bases to support military operations around the globe, in Taiwan, Uruguay, Japan, Holland, Mexico, Ecuador, China, Panama, and Korea.

Even more significant than these temporary outposts were fleet stations that the Navy established in key strategic locations across five continents after the end of the War of 1812. These patrol bases appeared at ports in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; in Valparaiso, Chile, and Luanda, Angola; in Magdalena Bay, Mexico, and Panama City, Panama; on Portugal's Cape Verde and Spain's Balearic Islands; and in Hong Kong and Macau. The bases were positioned, as two prominent military analysts explain, "close to the 'nexus of US security and economic interests,' namely, important overseas markets." While these modest "leasehold bases" generally supported relatively small fleets and used rented warehouse and repair facilities, they reflected and foreshadowed U.S. aspirations to global power.

These aspirations became clearer with the start of a "pivot" toward Asia: not the much-discussed recent effort by the Obama administration, but its original, pre–Civil War antecedent. In 1842, President John Tyler grew interested in establishing Pacific naval bases, and within two years, the country had opened up five Chinese ports to U.S. trade and military forces with the help of one of the many European and American "unequal treaties" imposed on China. Two base experts explain that although the treaties did not officially create bases, "they guaranteed forward access to US naval vessels, and enabled the Navy to purchase and establish warehouse facilities in any" of the ports. In total, the Tyler administration opened sixty-nine ports to U.S. military forces and trade.

Commodore Matthew Perry accomplished much the same in Japan and Okinawa (which was then an independent kingdom) a century before their post–World War II occupation. In 1853, for fifty dollars, Perry purchased a plot of land on the island now known as Chi Chi Jima, near Iwo Jima in the western Pacific. He wanted the island to become a U.S. coaling station — necessary for new steam-powered military and commercial steamship travel operations. Perry also created the first U.S. military base in Okinawa. Although it lasted only a year, Perry used the base to help create additional U.S. enclaves and impose favorable treaties on Okinawa and Japan. After the Civil War, U.S. officials further increased the nation's Pacific presence and power by claiming and annexing Jarvis, Baker, Howland's, and Midway Islands to mine guano deposits and serve as coaling stations.

The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 led to the occupation of a former indigenous Tlingit and Russian fort in Sitka and the establishment of four more bases in the new territory along the northern edge of Asia. By 1888, the United States had signed agreements to lease naval stations in the Kingdom of Samoa and in the Hawaiian Kingdom's Pearl Harbor. After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, the United States annexed the islands of Hawaii in 1898 and the newly renamed American Samoa in 1899. Naval bases appeared almost immediately.

Meanwhile, in 1898 the United States declared war on Spain after the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine provided a pretext for intervening in Cuban efforts to win independence from the Spanish empire. The Navy decided that Cuba's Guantánamo Bay would make a good naval coaling station. Occupation of the bay helped U.S. forces seize control of the island and install a government to American liking. Others also saw the long-term advantages of Guantánamo: the New York Times declared, "the fine harbor there will make a good American base." From Guantánamo Bay, the military launched its invasion of Puerto Rico, soon annexing that island and the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island thousands of miles off in the Pacific.

In 1903, U.S. officials pressured Cuban leaders into accepting thinly disguised U.S. rule in exchange for Cuba's official independence and the withdrawal of most (though not all) U.S. troops. The U.S.-penned Platt Amendment allowed the United States to invade Cuba at will to ensure stability and so-called independence, prevented Cuba from making treaties with other governments, and permitted the construction of U.S. "coaling or naval stations." The two governments also signed a lease giving the U.S. military "complete jurisdiction and control" over forty-five square miles of Guantánamo Bay — an area bigger than Washington, D.C. Tellingly, the "lease" had no termination date, which effectively meant that Cuba had ceded the territory to its northern neighbor. In exchange, the United States agreed to build a fence, prevent commercial or industrial activities within the base, and pay a meager yearly fee of $2,000.

Cuban leaders would eventually annul the Platt Amendment, but U.S. officials insisted on a new treaty to hold on to Guantánamo Bay. The treaty continued the terms of the original lease and stipulated that Cuba could never force the United States to leave. Renters everywhere only wish they had such eviction-proof leases.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States thus had a collection of overseas bases matched in size and global scope by only a few European colonial powers. This base network pales in comparison to what would emerge from World War II. But in displaying American leaders' ambitions for further economic, political, and military power, it presaged the base nation to come.


One of the leaders responsible for the expansion of nineteenth-century bases outside North America was the man who came to be known as the "prophet" of the U.S. Navy, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. A historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-French competition for global preeminence, Mahan argued that great powers require strong navies capable of protecting a country's commercial shipping and opening foreign markets to trade. And to have a strong navy, he held, a country needed a far-flung network of support bases. Under his influence, Navy officials pushed for the creation of ever more coaling and repair stations. In 1900, Navy warships steamed westward to crush the Boxer Rebellion and further open Chinese markets to U.S. businesses. Soon the U.S. Navy, which had become the world's second largest, established regular patrols from bases in Hong Kong, Hankow, and Shanghai.

In 1903, the same year U.S. officials secured access to Guantánamo Bay, they did much the same in Panama. A treaty imposed on the newly independent country gave the United States what amounted to sovereign rights in perpetuity across 553 square miles that became the Panama Canal Zone. The treaty also authorized other extensive powers, including land expropriation outside the Canal Zone and the authority to build bases. Panama would eventually host fourteen. As in Cuba, Panama's constitution allowed the United States to intervene militarily, and between 1856 and 1989, the U.S. military invaded twenty-four times. With prominent U.S. bases occupying their land and enabling easy intervention, Panama and Cuba were effectively colonies.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the military continued its pattern of intervention. In Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, U.S. troops were active on an almost yearly basis. Each of these interventions and the often years-long occupations that followed involved the creation of bases for occupying American troops. Nicaragua alone, for instance, had at least eight U.S. garrisons stationed on its land between 1930 and 1932.

Still, at the end of these Latin American occupations, the U.S. military packed up and went home. The same was true at the end of World War I, when the military closed its bases at war's end and brought hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops home (only in the U.S. Virgin Islands, bought from Denmark in 1917, did the military leave a small submarine base and communication outpost).


Excerpted from Base Nation by David Vine. Copyright © 2015 David Vine. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1. The Birth of Base Nation 17
2. From Little Americas to Lily Pads 45

3. The Displaced 63
4. The Colonial Present 83
5. Befriending Dictators 97
6. In Bed with the Mob 115
7. Toxic Environments 135

8. Everyone Serves 151
9. Sex for Sale 163
10. Militarized Masculinity 181

11. The Bill 195
12. "We're Profiteers" 215
13. The MilCon Con 233

14. "Masters of Extortion" 255
15. "It's Enough" 277
16. The Lily Pad Strategy 299
17. True Security 321

Author's Note 339
Notes 341
Online Resources 390
Acknowledgments 396
Index 405

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