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The Anti-Imperialist League and the Battle Against Empire

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:

This Club [the Massachusetts Reform Club] never met under circumstances more calculated to create the gravest anxiety in every patriotic man than tonight, and by patriotic man I do not mean him who measures his country’s greatness by the extent of her territory, the size of her armies, the strength of her fleets, or even by the insolence with which she tramples upon her weaker neighbors, but him who knows that the true greatness of a nation, as of a man, depends upon its character, its sense of justice, its self-restraint, its magnanimity, in a word upon its possession of those qualities which distinguish George Washington from the prize-fighter — the highest type of man from the highest type of beast.

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,

The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to the opprobrious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is, as to “loving and faithfully serving his country,” at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.

Schurz recalled a verse from James Russell Lowell, writing about the Mexican War of 1846–48:

The side of our country must ollers be took.

An’ President Polk, you know, he is our country.

“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,

The side of our country must ollers be took,

An’ Mister McKinley, you know, he is our country.

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.

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

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,

this is the way we give them the water cure; lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.

George Kennan, the special investigator of the Outlook, wrote in 1901:

The Spaniard used the torture of water, throughout the islands, as a means of obtaining information; but they used it sparingly, and only when it appeared evident that the victim was culpable. Americans seldom do things by halves. We come from here and announce our intention of freeing the people from three or four hundred years of oppression, and say “We are strong and powerful and grand.” Then to resort to inquisitorial methods, and use them without discrimination, is unworthy of us and will recoil on us as a nation. It is painful and humiliating to have to confess that in some of our dealings with the Filipinos we seem to be following more or less closely the example of Spain. We have established a penal colony; we have burned native villages near which there has been an ambush or an attack by insurgent guerillas; we kill the wounded; we resort to torture as a means of obtaining information.

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:

What is the significance of such silence? Do we realize that amidst all the sunshine of our rich, prosperous life we are being weighed in the balance of a true civilization, of eternal justice — and are being found wanting? It is the product of arbitrary government authority without justice, force from which the lifeblood of righteousness and truth has run out.

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:

In this morning’s paper a correspondent of the Boston Herald states that the Departments are going to “expose” the Anti-Imperialist League and others who have as alleged stirred up discontent among the troops in Manila. I do not think the Executive Committee of the Anti-Imperialist League has yet taken any active measures to inform the troops of the facts and conditions there. The suggestion is, however, a valuable one and I have sent to Washington today to get specific addresses of officers and soldiers to the number of five or six hundred so that I may send them my pamphlets, giving them my assurance of sympathy. I shall place the same lists in charge of the Executive Committee of the League to keep up the supply.

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,

I think the members of the Cabinet have graduated from an asylum for the imbecile and feeble-minded. They have evidently found out their blunder because the Administration papers suddenly ceased their attacks on me all on the same day, and I miss the free advertisement. I am now trying to stir them up again to provoke another attack.

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:

It is requested that an act may be passed to the effect that any citizen of the United States who proposes to force this country into a war with Great Britain or with any other country on a dispute about boundaries or any other similar issue, shall be immediately conscripted or entered upon the army roll for service from the beginning to the end of any such war when it shall occur. It is suggested that Senators of the United States shall be assigned to the position of general officers in this addition to the army upon the ground that their military capacity must certainly be equal to their political intelligence…. It is next suggested that Representatives in Congress shall be assigned to the command of brigades…. Of course, men who in high public position have … expressed such an earnest desire to assert and defend the honor of the country at any cost, would most enthusiastically vote for this enactment and would immediately enroll themselves for active service in the field.

This proposal for the immediate enrollment of the Jingo army will at once develop the sincerity of purpose of the advocates of aggression and violence by their enlistment. An indirect but great benefit would then ensue by the removal of these persons from the high positions in which they have proved their incapacity to deal with questions of peace, order and industry and to given them the opportunity to exert and prove their military prowess.

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

essentially mystical. It must somehow foster the impression that a man is great in the degree that his nation is great; that a German as such is superior to a Belgian as such; an Englishman, to an Irishman; an American, to a Mexican: merely because the first-named countries are in each case more powerful than their comparatives. And people who have no individual stature whatsoever are willing to accept this poisonous nonsense because it gives them a sense of importance without the trouble of any personal effort.

Morley, a co-founder of Human Events newspaper, added that empire-building amounted to

an application of mob psychology to the sphere of world politics, and how well it works is seen by considering the emotional satisfaction many English long derived from referring to “the Empire on which the sun never sets.” Some Americans now get the same sort of lift from the fact that the Stars and Stripes now floats over detachments of “our boys” in forty foreign countries.

(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.

[First published in 2006. An earlier version of this essay was delivered on October 28, 2006.]

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