The Enemies Of Empire

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What intensified and prolonged the conflict was the fact that both sides professed to want liberty for the Filipinos: the anti-imperialists believed that for us, as democrats, to deny them immediate liberty was to stultify our own ideals; while the expansionists maintained that the hopelessly backward Islanders were to be granted eventual liberty after a sufficient but indefinite period of Yankee tutelage. On both sides, then, there was an appeal to conscience by sincere but profoundly ignorant American patriots who found themselves enmeshed in the toils and tangles of historical circumstances, including domestic party politics. Since a moral issue was involved, the other side was not only wrong, but wicked, and words like “blood lust” and “murderer” were hurled at the imperialists, while the antis were denounced as “cowards” and “traitors.” Nothing stirs the American people so deeply as a controversy in which both parties claim to be morally right: witness the battles over slavery, woman suffrage, and prohibition. In our day, “imperialism” has become a term battered almost beyond recognition in the cold war. But the central issue of 1898-1902what constitutes the consent of the governed, and who is qualified to give it—has never been more alive than today, as one former colonial possession after another struggles toward a precariously independent nationhood.

“You have a wolf by the cars in the Philippines. You cannot let go of him with either dignity or safety, and he will not be easy to tame,” said an anonymous American diplomat to one of our peace commissioners who was leaving for Paris in the fall of 1898. Even some of the expansionists themselves deplored our grip on the wolf in the first place, but were nevertheless extremely reluctant to let go. This was at once the strength and the weakness of the anti-imperialists’ case. The imperialists had to admit, in the words of one of their leaders, Ambassador Whitelaw Reid, that “it was perfectly true that the American people did not wish for more territory, and never dreamed of distant colonies.” Yet the grip on the wolf was an accomplished fact, and the practical difficulty of letting go with dignity and safety was the fatal flaw in the position into which the anti-imperialists found themselves maneuvered.

The clinching argument of the imperialists was “where once the flag goes up, it must never come down.” The crucial decisions that sent Dewey to Manila in the first place, and ordered troops to his support as early as May 4, even before the news of his victory had reached Washington, were the work of a small elite group in the Republican administration who had managed to convert a pliable President. In 1897, McKinley had told Carl Schurz, “Ah, you may be sure there will be no jingo nonsense under my administration.” But there was some truth in the popular conundrum: “Why is McKinley’s mind like an unmade bed? Answer: Because it has to be made up for him every time he wants to use it.” Theodore Roosevelt’s friend Henry Adams spoke of his “alarm and horror of seeing poor weak McKinley, in gaiety … plunge into an inevitable war to conquer the Philippines contrary to every profession or so-called principle of our lives and history.”

The ringleaders in the open conspiracy to move into the Orient via Hawaii and an isthmian canal, without ever consulting the American people, were two ardent disciples of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S.N., the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, namely—Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and the young and aggressive Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. It is one of the ironies of history that Captain Mahan himself was an anti-imperialist until the year 1885, and for precisely the reason most often advanced against his later followers: empire “would destroy free government.” By 1890, however, a study of British sea power had converted him to the belief that the United States could take “a larger part in external affairs without risk to their institutions and with benefit to the world at large.” Theodore Roosevelt, then a civil service commissioner, devoured Mahan’s book, and reviewed it with enthusiasm in the Atlantic Monthly, later proclaiming Mahan “the only great naval expert who also possessed in international matters the mind of a statesman of the first rank.”