Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
In April 1898 the United States went to war with Spain for the stated purpose of liberating Cuba from Spanish control. Several months later, when the war had ended, Cuba had been transformed into an American protectorate, and Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines had become American possessions.
When the US government decided not to grant independence to the Philippines, Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo determined to resist American occupying forces. The result was a brutal guerrilla war that stretched on for years. Some 200,000 Filipinos lost their lives, either directly from the fighting or as a result of a cholera epidemic traceable to the war.
That American forces were engaged in a colonial war to suppress another people's independence led to a great deal of soul-searching among important American thinkers, writers, and journalists. What eventually became the American Anti-Imperialist League began at a June 1898 meeting at Boston's Faneuil Hall, where people concerned about the colonial policy that the US government may choose to adopt in the wake of the war gathered to speak out against the transformation of the United States into an imperial power. The League was formally established that November, dedicating its energies to propagating the anti-imperialist message by means of lectures, public meetings, and the printed word.
Those who later became anti-imperialists could be found both among supporters and opponents of the Spanish-American War of 1898. William Jennings Bryan was a good example of the former, and Moorfield Storey of the latter. It is on this latter group of anti-imperialists that I wish to dwell for a moment, since what they had to say about war is liable to sound eerily familiar.
Storey was quite an interesting figure: an accomplished lawyer and graduate of Harvard Law School as well as president of the American Bar Association, he was a supporter of laissez faire and a well-known advocate of the gold standard and free trade. Storey, who was white, was also the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1909 until 1915. He spoke at the Boston meeting presided over by Bradford, and went on to become both a vice president of the New England Anti-Imperialist League and, later, president of the national organization.
Now consider Storey's words in April 1898, on the eve of the Spanish-American War, for it was these sentiments that animated his and so many others' anti-imperialist work:
Carl Schurz, who among other things was the first German-born American to serve in the US Senate, was likewise deeply involved in the league as an officer as well as firmly opposed to the Spanish-American War. He wrote in April 1898,
Schurz recalled a verse from James Russell Lowell, writing about the Mexican War of 1846–48:
"Again in our own time," Schurz reported, "we hear with the old persistency the same old plea to the voters of the nation to be loyal to the country, right or wrong. And when we probe the matter – nor is much probing necessary – we find that we are being urged to be loyal not to the country right or wrong, but to President McKinley right or wrong." To fit the present situation, Schurz suggested amending Lowell's lines to read,
We can fill in Lowell's verse today easily enough.
Among the best-known members of the Anti-Imperialist League was Mark Twain, who served as vice president from 1901 until his death in 1910. One of Twain's most compelling antiwar writings, a short story called "The War Prayer," was considered too radical to be published in Twain's lifetime. "I don't think the prayer will be published in my time," Twain said. "None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth."
"The War Prayer" was a vivid commentary on the misappropriation of religion on behalf of nationalistic causes. It begins with a church service in which the pastor calls down the blessings of God upon American military forces and concludes with, "Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!"
A frail old man makes his way into the church and, waving the pastor aside, explains that he has spoken with God Himself, who wishes to hear the other half of that prayer – the half that was only in their hearts and uttered but implicitly.
The story ends abruptly, with the people considering the man a lunatic – and, presumably, carrying on as before.
It is sometimes said of the anti-imperialists that they cared more about the effects that colonialism would have on the character of America and Americans than they did about its effects on the peoples who were held as colonies. This is not entirely fair to the anti-imperialists, who were genuinely horrified at the treatment the Filipinos received at the hands of American forces and who sought to investigate conditions there.
The Nation's E.L. Godkin, for instance, declared that the US government had substituted "keen effective slaughter for Spanish old-fashioned, clumsy slaughter." William James was astonished that his country could "puke up its ancient soul … in five minutes." Andrew Carnegie wrote to a friend who favored expansion: "It is a matter of congratulation … that you have about finished your work of civilizing the Fillipinos [sic]. It is thought that about 8000 of them have been completely civilized and sent to Heaven. I hope you like it."
In 1901, the League passed a resolution instructing its executive committee "to use its best efforts in promoting a petition to the President of the United States that General Aguinaldo should be permitted to come to this country under safe conduct, to state the case of his people before the American Congress and nation." Needless to say, Theodore Roosevelt ignored this appeal.
Over the next several years the League focused on discovering and disseminating the truth about the fate of the Filipinos under American occupation. They publicized firsthand testimonies of tortures like the "water cure" that US forces employed. Thus according to Private A.F. Miller of the Thirty-second United States Volunteers,
George Kennan, the special investigator of the Outlook, wrote in 1901:
These were the kinds of things the anti-imperialists wanted to bring into the public eye.
By and large, however, the American public was unmoved. One anti-imperialist writer pondered the meaning of this indifference:
Some were in fact quite hostile to the league and its mission. According to the commander of the New York chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, all league members should have their citizenship stripped from them and be "denied the protection of the flag they dishonor." Teddy Roosevelt described the anti-imperialists as "simply unhung traitors, and … liars, slanderers and scandalmongers to boot."
The league carried on all the same. Edward Atkinson, who had been involved in the league since the Faneuil Hall meeting, actually inquired with the War Department to get a list of soldiers serving in the Philippines in order to send them some of his antiwar writings. He wrote:
He never heard back.
So he went ahead and sent some at least to a limited group of officers and American officials and others in the Philippines, as a start. The Postmaster General ordered that all Atkinson pamphlets heading for Manila be seized from the mails. Atkinson then thanked the government for all the attention, pointing out that interest in his pamphlets had risen dramatically throughout the country. He wrote,
Some sectors of the league were reluctant to support Atkinson's activities, though some individual anti-imperialists did, as did the league's Chicago branch. But he continued his work, observing in 1899 that his latest pamphlet was his "strongest bid yet for a limited residence in Fort Warren."
As early as 1896, Atkinson had written to the New York Evening Post with a suggestion for a petition to be drawn up to the US Congress along the following lines:
Atkinson, like Storey, was for laissez faire – an important strain in anti-imperialist thought. Here was the old liberal tradition in all its wonderful consistency: in favor of private property and peace, and against looting and empire. George E. McNeill put it more simply: "Wealth is not so rapidly gained by killing Filipinos as by making shoes." Andrew Carnegie even offered to purchase the independence of the Philippines with a check for $20 million – the amount the US government had paid Spain for the islands. The New York Times denounced the offer as "wicked." (Is the New York Times ever right about anything?)
At the same time, labor leaders like Samuel Gompers belonged to the league, as did other people who by some standards belong to the Left, like Jane Addams and William James. It was a cross-ideological organization against empire.
And yet, for all their tireless work, the anti-imperialists by and large failed to spark the national discussion about the role of the US government in the world that we have needed to engage in ever since. Today, that debate takes place only between neoconservatives and realists, both of whom agree on the need for some kind of major US military presence over much of the globe. Not only is nonintervention not even considered, but it is also enough to get you written out of polite society – what are you, some kind of extremist?
(It may be worth considering someday exactly what opinions do get you branded an extremist, and what don't. It's evidently all right to favor incinerating innocent people in all kinds of scenarios, from Hiroshima to Vietnam – no one who favored those things has since been considered beyond the pale in mainstream political and media circles – but if you resolutely refuse to incinerate anyone, you're selfish and irresponsible, and so of course will not appear on television alongside such luminaries as Newt Gingrich and Joe Biden, in whose selflessness and statesmanship you are unworthy to bask.)
In Freedom and Federalism (1959), Old Right journalist Felix Morley suggested that the process of empire-building was
Morley, a co-founder of Human Events newspaper, added that empire-building amounted to
(Ah, the old days, when it was only forty.)
States have successfully managed to persuade their subject populations that they themselves are the state, and therefore that any insult to the honor of the state is an insult to them as well, any questioning of its behavior or intentions a slap in their very own faces. It becomes second nature for many people to root for their state in a way that does violence to reason and fact. They will defend the most contorted, ludicrous claims – claims they themselves would have dismissed with scorn had they come from Saddam Hussein or the 1980s Soviet Union – if necessary to vindicate the honor of the men who rule them.
The few noble exceptions aside, just flip through a few modern right-wing magazines to see what I mean. It is impossible to speak sensibly about foreign policy when a third of the population (at least) is absolutely committed to digging up anything it can find to vindicate arguments even its own leaders no longer bother to defend. How is conversation possible with someone who contends that hundreds of thousands of casualties, a Shiite-dominated regime, and regional chaos were worth it because we found a negligible amount of chemical agent in Saddam's Iraq?
President Polk, he is our country – that was bad enough. President McKinley, he is our country – that was much worse. But what genuine American patriot, in the sense to which Moorfield Storey referred, could bring himself to say, "George W. Bush, he is our country"? That alone reminds us of how important it is to oppose empire with every ideological tool at our disposal.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his master’s, M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. His nine books include the critically acclaimed study The Church Confronts Modernity (2004) and two New York Times bestsellers: Meltdown and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.
Articles by Woods
Beware of Obamanomics
Tooth Fairy Economics
Symposium on Federalism, War, and Reconstruction: Introduction
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: IndyTruth does not make legal copyright claims to its original content, on the principle that readers should be able to freely spread information for educational purposes. If you repost anything, please respect our hard work by crediting the author and linking to the original source.