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William Graham Sumner on War and Peace

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