Photo Credit: Delphine Ménard / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Inca empire has long fascinated me: young, brash and stunningly successful, this mighty South American kingdom vanished virtually overnight. Recent developments make me wonder whether the United States empire faces a similar implosion.

Some of the parallels — admittedly far from perfect — are nonetheless remarkable.

The Inca empire rose up (and declined) with spectacular speed, starting in the early fifteenth century and unifying its territories in just one hundred years. At its peak in 1533, the kingdom was the largest in the world, stretching some 3,400 miles from Quito to Santiago. As a multi-cultural entity with some 12 million inhabitants, it had more than 100 ethnic groups speaking over 30 different languages.

Its military was huge, highly trained, well organized and versatile. It boasted some 200,000 soldiers who were posted far from home to keep regional allegiances at bay. Its garrisons were amply stocked so military conquest did not lead to plundering and pillaging. In addition to maintaining control of the territories under their purview, the army was called upon to engage in civic service, transporting food and materials to needy regions in times of war, drought, famine or other natural disasters.

The Inca system of roads and bridges was among the most elaborate of any ancient culture. The empire constructed over 15,000 miles of paved roads over rugged terrain, and the north-to-south Royal Andes highway was longer than the longest Roman road.

The communication network through this mountainous topography was efficient and amazingly rapid. Professional messengers, chosen from among the fittest young men, lived in cabins along the roads. Running in relays, they could cover between 150-250 miles per day. 

Agriculture was advanced and technologically innovative. The Incas built a complicated and extensive system of irrigation canals, cisterns and hillside terraces, which ingeniously released heat on cold nights and retained moisture during dry seasons. These covered about one million hectares by the 1400s and, even in inhospitable climates, could feed a vast empire. 

Economic productivity was consistently high and surplus goods – both agricultural and artisanal – were stored along the roads and near population centers, to be delivered to the locals in times of scarcity. In return for their labor, citizens were assured of basic needs for clothing, food, health care and education. The redistribution of wealth was carefully planned and socially-minded, ensuring a decent, if modest standard of living for all. 

By the beginning of the 1500s, however, the Inca empire was starting to weaken. It was beset by internal political strife, marked by a bloody battle for the throne between Atahualpa and his half-brother Waskar, and by agitation at the edges of its overextended borders, with the northern territories in periodic rebellion.

Worse, a pandemic had struck. European diseases were spreading quickly from Central America. Smallpox killed the Inca emperor Wayna Qhapaq in 1528 (father of Atahualpa and Waskar). Gradually, it decimated the indigenous population, with some estimates placing the death rate as high as 65%-90%.

Nonetheless, the sudden end of this vast, once-mighty empire seems bizarre.

It was brought to its knees, in the span of a single year, by the illiterate adventurer Francisco Pizarro (1471-1541). A seeker of personal fame and fortune, he was a man without convictions, without morals or religious scruples, a liar who routinely double-crossed his allies and trusted only the innermost circle of his family.

On Nov. 15, 1532, Pizarro arrived in the company of 168 soldiers, including 62 cavalries. His rival Atahualpa was surrounded by 80,000 troops. That evening, Pizarro held a celebratory dinner in honor of his host but abducted Atahualpa the following night. The imprisoned emperor remained a hostage for the next eight months while an enormous cache of gold and silver was amassed to secure his release. As soon as the ransom was paid, Pizarro executed Atahualpa. Things went from bad to worse and the capital Cuzco fell, with barely a struggle, into Spanish hands exactly one year later on Nov. 15, 1533.

How was such a quick and ignominious end possible? How could so few Spaniards, even with their superior weaponry, prevail? How could 80,000 nearby troops (never mind the 200,000 soldiers stationed throughout the kingdom) fail to rout a small band of mercenaries? 

Many scholars have probed these questions. Most recently, historian Jared Diamond has marshaled brilliant arguments for “the set of proximate factors that resulted in Europeans colonizing the New World instead of the Native Americans’ colonizing Europe.” The advantages the Spaniards had were numerous and overwhelming: technology (the invention of steel, fashioned into swords, armor and guns); agriculture (specifically, the domestication of horses, useful both in peace and in war); health (the development of immunities to diseases); and literacy (the dissemination of information about earlier exploits in the Americas). 

In hindsight, the Incas were doomed.

But in 1532, they did not have the benefit of hindsight, so I still ask myself: why didn’t they fight back during those first few days, weeks, even months? Why didn’t the generals come up with a plan to rescue the emperor, even if it meant breaking the chain of command? Why didn’t the leadership look to sacrificing some part of its vast standing army? Why didn’t the general population, for that matter, just rise up and squash the invaders to death? 

The answer is an eternal mystery. We can only conjecture.

But clearly, the Incas had lost their will, their courage, their vision and, arguably, their common sense. Worse, they had lost faith in the ideals and values of their own way of life, which was — with all its terrible faults — still preferable to the Spanish colonization to come.

So what can history teach us?

Like the Incas, we are a young country that has risen in wealth and power with astonishing rapidity. We are home to a vast array of ethnic groups, representing some 350 different languages. 

Like the Incas, we have built a worldwide “realm of influence.” Our military is huge, sophisticated and well funded, with some 1.3 million active-duty personnel. The Department of Defense budget in 2019 was $700 billion, and our overall military spending is approximately the size of the 10 next-largest military budgets in the world combined. We have stationed outposts of our military around the globe, and in addition to waging war and controlling foreign territories, the army regularly assists with disaster relief both domestically and abroad (Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti).

Our communications and technology are cutting-edge. In the 1950s, we constructed a modern system of interstate highways spanning more than 41,000 miles, costing over $26 billion. In the 1960s, we invented the internet.

Our agricultural prowess is second to none. Early industrial age inventions, like the McCormick reaper, led to the mechanization of farming in the twentieth century and to the mass production of food. Entrusted with the storage and distribution of water in 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation oversaw the construction of more than 8,000 dams and reservoirs; some, like the massive Hoover Dam of 1936, required hitherto unparalleled feats of engineering.

Our economic productivity remains high and our overall wealth is staggering. Our GDP in 2019 was $21.5 trillion (compared to China’s $14 trillion), and since 1871 we have steadily maintained our historic position as the world’s largest economy. For at least half a century (1932-1980), we made serious strides towards creating a stable, large, well-to-do American middle class, with relatively high wages for workers and a safety net against the hazards of poverty. 

Like the Incas, we are now in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 180,000 lives. The most recent projections from the well-regarded Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict between 300,000 and 600,000 deaths by the end of this year. The federal response to the health crisis has been pathetic or ineffective.

Like the Incas, we now live in the shadow of a would-be conqueror who is virtually illiterate, who lacks morality and empathy, who is single-mindedly focused on personal wealth and fame, who is a habitual liar, who betrays and dismisses colleagues, and who trusts only his closest family.

And like the Incas, we have lost our way as a society. Our American “can-do” spirit has yielded to perplexity in the face of contemporary problems, to an inability to find or to enact creative solutions, to a general paralysis of will. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to know how this gradual dissolution happened and why.

But the quandary brings me to the continuing demonstrations on our streets. Triggered by the murder of George Floyd, these loud protests against injustice, inhumanity and inequality are manifestations of a new, nationwide, inter-generational, interracial pushback. They are the voice of the voiceless. And they offer a glimmer of hope that we might be more than passive bystanders in the formation of our own future.

Let us remember that the Incas did not need to be conquered by Pizarro. They could have resisted. Their military could have resisted. Their population could have resisted. 

Let us remember that we need not be “dominated.” That we can resist. That our population is resisting. That our military is resisting. That the president’s use of the army to break up a peaceful demonstration in our own capital was reversed by his own defense secretary, who ordered the units back home. That, as the Los Angeles Times headline succinctly proclaimed: “Trump finds an unexpected center of resistance: the Pentagon.”

Let us remember that we have our own ideals, originating in principles that are worth preserving. That our imperial aspirations may be wrong but our democratic culture, with all of its terrible faults, should be nurtured and improved. That our current system is clearly preferable to the darkness of tyranny.

Let us not be afraid to write our own story.

Stefania de Kenessey is the composer of “Bonfire of the Vanities: The Opera,” an updated and reimagined version of the novel by Tom Wolfe where both the New York Stock Exchange and American capitalism finally collapse. She is a professor of music at The New School.