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The Enemies Of Empire
To the question of acquiring new territories overseas, and owning colonies, one group of Americans answered with a resounding “No!”
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
We know, to the hour and minute, when this country reached the point of no return on its way to becoming a world power. It was at exactly 5:30 A.M., Manila time, on Sunday, May 1, 1898, when Commodore George Dewey, U.S.N., commanding the Asiatic Squadron of four small cruisers and two gunboats, coolly turned from his position on the bridge of his flagship Olympia, and said to its captain in words that were to echo across distant America: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The command loosed salvos of shells that swiftly crushed the decrepit fleet of the Spanish Admiral Montojo (two cruisers and seven small gunboats of an antiquated type), which had been huddling under the defenses of Manila. The battle was, in the words of the English historian Herbert W. Wilson, “a military execution rather than a real contest.”
Its effects on American foreign policy, however, were incalculable, and the end is not yet. Hawaii was swiftly annexed as a territory on July 7, 1898; and by the ratification of the Treaty of Paris ending the war on February 6, 1899, we found ourselves the sovereign rulers of all the Spanish colonial possessions in the Philippines, there to remain for the next forty-seven years. The Pacific Ocean was thenceforth to be regarded as “an American lake.” What we now often forget, however, is how many Americans were in those early days opposed to the idea of an American Empire. Sixty years ago imperialism, then defined as the raising of the flag by force over noncontiguous territory, and called by its friends “expansionism,” was the burning issue of the day. It was bitterly contested, largely on abstract moral grounds as a gross betrayal of American principles, by a small but tenacious band of New England reformers.
The hard core of the anti-imperialist movement, both at the start and at the finish, was composed of conservative Boston lawyers and bankers, many of them lineal descendants of the Pilgrims. They soon gathered about them a remarkable nationwide galaxy of literary lights, college presidents, leaders of industry and labor, editors, and politicians, constituting what has been called “the first great national propaganda organization of the twentieth century.” Their achievements were greater in the vigorous expression of their views than in practical politics. Yet they lost one of their major battles in the Senate by only one vote; for a time they threatened to endanger McKinley’s re-election in 1900; and there can be no doubt that their tireless needling of the American conscience about colonialism, which continued until 1920, hastened the eventual independence of the Philippines.
Crusades being somewhat out of fashion nowadays, it may be difficult to recover the fervor of these heirs of Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner as they denounced the extension of American rule by force in the Philippines, not because of what it might do to the Filipinos, but because of what they were convinced it was bound to do to American democratic ideals. They saw in the American seizure and retention of the Islands “the infamy of the doctrine that a people may be governed without their consent.” At least some of the Filipinos, under Emilio Aguinaldo, were not “consenting” to their “pacification” by our troops. A spineless administration in Washington, too much influenced by a group of jingoes in high places and by the yellow press, had liberated the Islanders from Spain only to try to enslave them again. This was rank apostasy from our professed principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Could it be that Aguinaldo was fighting for our principles, while we had succumbed to the evil colonial policy of defeated Spain?
The expansionists’ reply to this plea for democracy was the twin slogan: duty and destiny. It was, they said, the moral and religious duty of a civilized nation to accept the white man’s burden, imposed upon us, in this instance, by our own idealistic crusade to free the Spanish possessions from centuries of misrule. As a moral aristocrat among nations, blessed with so many special advantages, America must, as a matter of noblesse oblige, undertake a self-sacrificing mission of political education in a world of backward peoples. In the words of the archexpansionist Theodore Roosevelt: “Peace cannot be had until the civilized nations have expanded in some shape over the barbarous nations.” And besides, such expansion was inevitable. What John Hay called “cosmic tendency” and others invoked as Manifest Destiny (now enlarged to a global scale) was irresistibly impelling the onward march of the white men who spoke what Sir Cecil Spring-Rice called “God’s language.” Richard Croker, the boss of Tammany, remarked that “My idea of anti-imperialism is opposition to the fashion of shooting everybody who doesn’t speak English.”