William Graham Sumner on War and Peace

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In
1965 I edited and wrote the introduction to William Graham Sumner's
work, The Conquest of the United States by Spain and Other Essays
(Regnery). While there is still no comprehensive, modern biography
of him he was remarkably prescient about the vast bloodletting and
worldwide anarchy to come in the 20th Century, the bloodiest
in recorded history. And given our current government's contempt
for the constitution, its failed and amateurish foreign policies,
the baneful influence of neoconservative living room militarists,
an endless and futile drug war, and the efforts to infuse our secular,
generally tolerant society with strands of religious absolutism,
Sumner long ago predicted that long after he and his generation
were gone, the nation would have a vastly strengthened and centralized
government, unaccountable bureaucracies, unbridled militarism and
its alliance with arms makers and what retired Marine Colonel James
A. Donovan once aptly described as a "blind enthusiasm for
military actions."

Nothing
is more worthwhile recalling today than his excoriation of American
imperialism, which speaks directly to our times. While fellow Darwinians
were sanctioning expansion and military adventurism as a corollary
of the "struggle for existence" and "most favored
races," Sumner turned angrily against the new aggressive spirit
in the country following the Spanish-American War and the invasion
of the Philippines and its bloody, four year war that left 250,000
Filipinos and more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead and 3,000 wounded.
After the peace treaty ending the Spanish American War was signed
in 1898, transforming the Caribbean into an American lake, Sumner
was unimpressed. His essay, The Conquest of the United States
by Spain is a searing and thoroughgoing condemnation of American
imperialism. It may be the most acute and thoroughgoing criticism
ever written by an American. "My patriotism," he wrote,
"is outraged by the notion that the United States never was
a great nation until in a petty three months campaign it knocked
to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain."
The invasion of the Philippines, a third-rate guerilla war reminiscent
of later wars in Vietnam and Iraq, outraged Sumner in part because
both required a powerful central government since it imposed more
"burdens than benefits" while the resulting militarism
inevitably seriously threatened free government, not to mention
loss of U.S. troops and countries and civic structures often left
shattered, their future uncertain.

He
and other anti-imperialists were denounced in the 1900 Republican
platform as "copperheads," much as pre-Iraq War extremists
tended to label antiwar critics as virtual traitors. Teddy Roosevelt,
the war lover, once called him a liar to which the imperturbable
Sumner replied caustically that if he ever voted for T.R., "I
shall be disgraced forever." Then there was the arch-imperialist
and premature neoconservative Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana
who thundered at the turn of the 20th century, "[God],
has made us the "master organizers of the world…He has marked
the American people as His chosen nation to firmly lead in the regeneration
of the world… We are trustees of the world's progress, guardians
of its righteous peace." Nonsense, Sumner roared. "Grand
platitudes," he scoffed. And, of course, he accurately predicted
what lay ahead for unsuspecting Americans: "war, debt, taxation,
diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army
and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery." With it
would arise a legacy of political rulers who would always be able
to find a war "whenever they [thought] it [was] the time for
us to have another." Before American's entry into World War
I, wars erupted with Great Britain, native Indians, Mexico and Spain
and the Philippines. After the war there were interventions in Panama,
Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba. Following
World War II, which left at least 50 million dead and many millions
crippled in mind and body, there were interventions in Guatemala,
Iran, Korea, El Salvador, Grenada, Nicaragua and Haiti and Panama
again, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile by proxy and now Iraq — and
if our militarists have their way, in Iran and Syria. Now there
are U.S. soldiers and "advisors" stationed in some 130
nations.

Imperialism,
Sumner argued, led to chauvinism, an aggressive outgrowth of mindless
patriotism manufactured by the arrogant truculence of men and women
relying on emotional sloganeering ("Support Our Troops in Iraq")
and threats against dissenters and traditional civil liberties (what
George Orwell once called "orthodox sniffery" – or
are you loyal?). Who can disagree with Sumner's credo that, the
20th century would bring a "frightful effusion of
blood in revolution and war?"

More
than all else, his importance lies in the fact that he anticipated
the lethal rise of false utopianism, highly sophisticated mass propaganda
techniques, two world wars, concentration camps and gulags, religious
and nationalistic hatreds that have murdered many millions of human
beings in the 20th century and threaten to reoccur in
this century.

Sadly,
though, Sumner (1840–1910) has been largely forgotten. Few
read him anymore or discuss and debate his views. Four years after
he died of a stroke in 1914, E.L. Godkin, The Nation's irrepressible
editor wrote that Sumner's vigorous and biting prose ("like
a strong wind – it exhilarates") was still effective, still relevant,
still capable or provoking intelligent and rational debate.

When
he died in 1910 his views were beginning to fade. The rise of an
American empire in the Caribbean and Pacific left Sumner a lonely,
carping, bitter, critic and scholar, an individualistic anomaly
of his time. And yet to his everlasting credit he sensed correctly
what lay ahead. Shortly before his death he wrote, "I have
lived through the best years of this country's history. The next
generations are going to see war and social calamities. I am glad
I don't have to live on into them."

March
19, 2004

Murray
Polner’s [send
him mail
] most recent book was
Disarmed
and Dangerous
,
a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, co-written with Jim O'Grady.
He has appeared in the New
York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal,
Antiwar.com, LewRockwell.com and many religious and secular publication.

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