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January 13, 2005

Recalling the Anti-Imperialist League


by Stephen Bender

"We deny that the obligation of all citizens to support their Government in times of grave National peril applies to the present situation. If an Administration may with impunity ignore the issues upon which it was chosen, deliberately create a condition of war anywhere on the face of the globe, debauch the civil service for spoils to promote the adventure, organize a truth-suppressing censorship and demand of all citizens a suspension of judgment and their unanimous support while it chooses to continue the fighting, representative government itself is imperiled…."

– from the platform of the Anti-Imperialist League, Boston, 1899

When Mugwumps Attack!

Within a few months of the American bombardment at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, a group of prominent New Englanders established the first American peace movement of national scope in response to a foreign war. It was called the Anti-Imperialist League. Although their members were derided as a collection of "mugwumps" – irascible political independents – their ranks would soon include such celebrated figures as Mark Twain, William James, and Andrew Carnegie. These notables would eventually expand their provincial and social base to include local leaguers from throughout the Midwest clear to the West Coast, ultimately including prominent members such as labor leader Samuel Gompers and progressive reformer Jane Addams. Eventually, the national League would number nearly 50,000, before commencing a decline in membership with the eventual "pacification" of the Philippines in 1901. In one form or another, the anti-imperialist movement that sprang from the Spanish-American War would continue public education campaigns until the Red Scare of the late 1910s.

While we can still learn a good bit from the League, some care should be taken assessing its legacy. Some of its prominent members made the "anti-imperial" argument by maintaining that "tropical people" were incapable of "self-government." This anachronistic stance allowed the advocates of aggression to don the mantle of the humanitarian bringing enlightened administration and democracy to the benighted many – a now-familiar neocon rhetorical device.

The League, however, also offered powerful, convincing (and most importantly, specifically American) arguments against the first full-fledged "counterinsurgency" war the United States ever fought. At the core, as pointed out in Robert L. Beisner's Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists 1898-1900, they believed "that it was wrong for the United States to forcibly impose its will on other peoples. No economic or diplomatic reasoning could justify slaughtering Filipinos who wanted their independence." The moral imagination of the day was stoked by the evident contradiction between America as the historical rebel against European royalty and America the wolfish devourer of Spain's imperium. In short, the shoe was on the other foot – pursuit of "Empire" was deemed "un-American."

This theme was further enunciated by a German immigrant from the Revolution of 1848, later a senator and eventual editor of Harper's Weekly, named Carl Schurz. Democracy, he thought, could not indefinitely "play the king over subject populations without creating in itself ways of thinking and habits of action most dangerous to its own vitality." The state, embodied in the policies of the president, would be emboldened "purposely and systematically … to keep the American people in ignorance of the true state of things at the seat of war, and by all sorts of deceitful tricks to deprive them of the knowledge required for the formulation of a correct judgment."

Samuel Gompers, the usually cautious head of the American Federation of Labor, put it more forcefully. "I propose stating as succinctly as possible the grounds of our opposition to the so-called policy of imperialism and expansion. We cannot annex the Philippines without a large increase in our standing army. A large standing army is repugnant to republican institutions and a menace to the liberty of our own people. If we annex the Philippines, we shall have to conquer the Filipinos by force of arms, and thereby deny to them what we claim to ourselves – the right to self-government."

Along with the famous pronouncements of Mark Twain, the eminent philosopher and psychologist William James was among the most disgusted and disappointed by the consequences of the Philippine war. "Could there be a more damning indictment of that whole bloated idol termed 'modern civilization' than this amounts to? Civilization is, then, the big, hollow, resounding, corrupting, sophisticating, confusing torrent of mere brutal momentum and irrationality that brings forth fruits like this?" Like Schurz, he was dismayed at the degree to which his fellow Americans had embraced imperialism and was stunned how "a nation's ideals [could] be changed in the twinkling of an eye." Exasperated, James thundered, "God damn the United States for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles!"

Platform of the Anti-Imperialist League

In order to get a better notion of the Anti-Imperialist League's rhetoric, below are excerpted passages from its platform. Recall that this was the largely "conservative" critique of imperialism and that even former Presidents Harrison and Cleveland lent their names to it.

"We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is 'criminal aggression' and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.

"We earnestly condemn the policy of the present National Administration in the Philippines. It seeks to extinguish the spirit of 1776 in those islands. We deplore the sacrifice of our soldiers and sailors, whose bravery deserves admiration even in an unjust war. We denounce the slaughter of the Filipinos as a needless horror. We protest against the extension of American sovereignty by Spanish methods.

"We demand the immediate cessation of the war against liberty, begun by Spain and continued by us. We urge that Congress be promptly convened to announce to the Filipinos our purpose to concede to them the independence for which they have so long fought and which of right is theirs.

"The United States have always protested against the doctrine of international law which permits the subjugation of the weak by the strong. A self-governing state cannot accept sovereignty over an unwilling people. The United States cannot act upon the ancient heresy that might makes right.

"Imperialists assume that with the destruction of self-government in the Philippines by American hands, all opposition here will cease. This is a grievous error. Much as we abhor the war of 'criminal aggression' in the Philippines, greatly as we regret that the blood of the Filipinos is on American hands, we more deeply resent the betrayal of American institutions at home. The real firing line is not in the suburbs of Manila. The foe is of our own household….

"We hold, with Abraham Lincoln, that 'no man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent.' When the white man governs himself, that is self-government, but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government – that is despotism.

"Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men in all lands. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God cannot long retain it."

Conscience, Not Ideology

Although separated by a century that has witnessed vast changes in American society, one might justly draw a few parallels between the political climate faced by the Anti-Imperialist League and the broadly defined "peace" movement today. Then, as now, an unaccountable president is capitalizing on a national tragedy to push through an unrelated agenda. (The explosion of the Maine in Havana's harbor – killing some 260 sailors – was the immediate catalyst for the invasion of Cuba and then the Philippines.)

Today, the medium from which most Americans get their news, television, plays much the same role as the "yellow press" of William Randolph Hearst – cheerleading for war. Then, as now, the argument justifying war started as a matter of self-defense, then morphed into a war for "freedom," and finally stood naked as a political and economic power grab. In fact, Jay Garner, the first proconsul of Iraq, made explicit the parallels. He said Iraq would serve the same purpose as the Philippines in that it would be an outpost for American troops and a place where resources could be exploited, just as the Philippines were a vital "coaling station."

While some anti-imperialists could be quite strident in denouncing American foreign policy, they nevertheless claimed the mantle of the true American heritage. Admittedly, for present-day critics of Empire, the legacy of the Cold War has made conjuring from history a convincing vision (or memory) of a non-interventionist America dramatically more difficult.

And yet, in spite of the passage of a half century of burgeoning Empire and all of the propaganda that has accompanied it, most Americans, when prodded, tend to bristle at the "policeman of the world" role or maintain that a more cooperative approach to international relations is preferable to an aggressive one. It goes without saying that before, during, and immediately after war, these rather consistent views are engulfed by the "rally 'round the flag" impulse. Still, there is an audience for appealing to American historical exceptionalism defined by, at least in part, skepticism toward war and conquest. Unfortunately, one can hardly expect this sentiment to coalesce if only two elected federal officials (Robert Byrd and Ron Paul) are willing to forthrightly and repeatedly make the unvarnished peace case in a mainstream political setting.

Another valuable example provided by the League relates to its quite cleverly catholic approach to membership. Started largely by disillusioned Republicans, the organization would include many Democrats, writers, and artists, along with some labor leaders, businessmen (steel magnate and "pacifist" Andrew Carnegie offered to buy the Philippines for $20 million and give it independence), and progressives. Anti-imperialism then was a matter of conscience, not ideology.

Anti-Imperialism Today

The end of the Cold War and the political climate in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has encouraged similarly curious bedfellows. Take, for instance, the collaboration between the ACLU and right-wing Republicans and libertarians in battling John Ashcroft's onslaughts. Similarly, interdenominational and interfaith organizing sprang up rapidly across the United States in the wake of 9/11 to fight against anti-Muslim prejudice. Less formally, one can also point out some significant overlap between antiwar libertarians, paleoconservatives, and left-liberals on relatively narrow questions such as the advisability of invading Iraq and one-sidedly supporting Israel. When one throws in the better part of the Catholic Church hierarchy along with mainline American Protestantism's refusal to sanction Gulf War II, one can begin to see the outlines of a movement in which ordinary persons of conscience from left, center, and right can coalesce around specific issues against the neocons.

A more formal, broad-based, non-sectarian movement against "imperialism" (interesting that this word rolled off the tongue of establishment Americans a century ago whereas today scarcely a public figure can utter it) might consider a few of the following features. As a strategic matter, as long as the Bush administration is able to play the "security" at home and "war" abroad cards, it will remain a hard row to hoe. This argument goes to the core of Americans' fundamental pragmatism – government's first duty is to protect the people, other considerations are secondary. Generally speaking, majorities of modern Americans are infrequently moved by pure moral argumentation devoid of a practical, results-based dimension. Critics of the "War on Terror" then should spend at least as much time arguing that the neocon drive for Empire will actually encourage and expand the threat of terrorism as they do pointing out its all too tragic moral costs.

While Americans need to be confronted with the death and destruction that is perpetrated in their name, war critics should recognize a few more nuances on occasion. College-educated left-libs who marched against the latest Iraq war – a hefty proportion of the demonstrators – might reflect on the fact that those who repeat the "support our troops" line may simply be expressing the hope that their friends and relatives don't get killed "over there." Parents, friends, and relatives who "support the troops" aren't necessarily uncritically swallowing the rah-rah propaganda. Rhetoric that continually makes no distinction between state policy and the country, between individual Americans and their leaders, and between democracy and Empire, will almost certainly fall flat.

The sending of hundreds of thousands of young men and women off to kill and be killed – in order to occupy a country that did not threaten us – was based on a pack of lies perhaps unique in the unsavory history of the American government's justifications for war. The Mesopotamian blitzkrieg conquered a nation that was depicted as "a threat to the world" more rapidly than Hitler subjugated Poland. And yet, this disconnect, among many others – if the presidential election is any indication – did not sufficiently stir the American public. But the war didn't end with the fall of Baghdad, as we know all too well. A look back at the Anti-Imperialist League offers a guide to moving forward today – if we're prepared to work together.

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Stephen Bender is a writer based in San Francisco. You can find more of his work at his website.

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