Recalling the Anti-Imperialist League

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“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

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

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
. 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
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

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.

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.”

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.


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.

24, 2005

Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can
find more of his work at his

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