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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.”
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 1898-1902—what 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.”
Mahan’s advice to Roosevelt in May, 1897, was: “Do nothing unrighteous; but take the [Hawaiian] islands first, and solve afterwards.” The Roosevelt of 1898, described by William James as “still mentally in the Sturm und Drang period of early adolescence,” needed little urging. He had been frustrated by President Cleveland’s blocking of the annexation of Hawaii, but with the advent of a Republican administration his hopes were high. He was, however, soon indignant over the hesitancy of President McKinley, who, he said, “has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” Behind McKinley stirred the powerful boss Mark Hanna, senator from Ohio, who flatly opposed the coming Spanish war at a Gridiron dinner on March 26, 1898, less than three weeks before it was declared. Introduced by the toastmaster at the same dinner as “At least one man connected with this administration who is not afraid to fight,” Theodore Roosevelt, by that time in the Navy Department, declared: “We will have this war for the freedom of Cuba, Senator Hanna, in spite of the timidity of commercial interests.” As William James put it, “Roosevelt gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves, and treats peace as a condition of blubberlike and swollen ignobility, fit only for huckstering weaklings, dwelling in gray twilight and heedless of the higher life. … One foe is as good as another, for aught he tells us.”
Roosevelt’s superior, Secretary John D. Long, seems to have had few inklings of what was to come, and “every time his back was turned,” says David S. Barry, “Roosevelt would issue some kind of order in the line of military preparedness....” On February 25, 1898, Long went home early, and as Acting Secretary of the Navy for a few hours, Roosevelt proceeded to send his momentous cable to Dewey in Hong Kong specifying “offensive operations in the Philipine [ sic ] islands.” Next morning Long found that “in his precipitate way,” his assistant had “come very near causing more of an explosion than happened to the Maine … He has gone at things like a bull in a china shop.” Roosevelt was never again left in charge of the Navy Department for even part of a day, but his order to Dewey was not rescinded. Long seems to have thought he was dealing merely with a young subordinate who was unduly impetuous, rather than with the representative of a coterie with an elaborate imperialist philosophy and the determination to do something about it. Roosevelt was showing what a man of daring with a plan, influential associates, amenable superiors, and a little brief authority could do in the making of American foreign policy.
That the American people were unprepared for the new possessions supposedly “flung into their arms by Dewey’s guns” is a gross understatement of the facts. McKinley freely confessed that, before consulting a globe, he could not have told “within two thousand miles” where the Philippines were. Incredible as it may seem to us, Dewey’s staff did not include a public relations officer, and the presence of two newspapermen on board the revenue cutter McCulloch was a pure accident.
The public’s state of bewilderment, after the first delirious celebrations of Dewey’s bloodless victory had subsided, was best expressed by Finley Peter Dunne, editor of the Chicago Journal, whose Mr. Dooley conversed with his friend Mr. Hennessy “On the Philippines.”
“I know what I’d do if I was Mack,” said Mr. Hennessy, “I’d hist a flag over th’ Ph’lipeens, an’ I’d take in th’ whole lot iv thim.”
“An’ yet,” said Mr. Dooley, “‘tis not more thin two months since ye larned whether they were islands or canned goods … If yer son Packy was to ask ye where th’ Ph’lipeens is, cud ye give him anny good idea whether they was in Rooshia or jus’ west iv th’ thracks?”
“Mebbe I cudden’t,” said Mr. Hennessy, haughtily, “but I’m f’r taking thim in, annyhow.”
Not everyone in the country, however, went along with the bulk of the press and the expansionist-led administration. One month and one day after Dewey’s triumph, the first recorded protest was made against “the insane and wicked ambition which is driving this country to ruin … and a slavery worse for Massachusetts, at least, than that of the Negro.” It came in the form, classically correct for a proper Bostonian, of a letter to the editor of the Evening Transcript of June 2, 1898, entitled “A Cry for Help.” It was written by Gamaliel Bradford, father of the wellknown biographer. He was a seventh-generation descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth, a retired banker, a Republican mugwump (he had deserted Blaine for Cleveland in 1884), and the author of several thousand letters to the newspapers in behalf of various reforms. His offer to join with any others who would help him in securing Boston’s traditional Cradle of Liberty, Faneuil Hall, resulted in the first public meeting “to protest against the adoption of a so-called imperial policy by the United States.”
Bradford was soon joined by another Pilgrim descendant, Erving Winslow, who was to prove the most undiscourageable of all the anti-imperialists, and by the able Boston lawyer Moorfield Storey, who was to become the acknowledged long-time champion of the movement. Presiding at the June 15 meeting that he had convened, Bradford took good care to say that its purpose was not to oppose “the vigorous prosecution of the war,” but rather to check “the rush of reckless and unbridled ambition for dominion” evident in “a certain faction in Congress,” which might turn “a war of liberation into a war of conquest.” Storey laid down what was to be the most enduring plank in the anti-imperialist platform when he declared: “When Rome began her career of conquest, the Roman Republic began to decline … Let us once govern any considerable body of men without their consent, and it is a question of time how soon this republic shares the fate of Rome.” The Evening Transcript spoke of the meeting as “a solemn warning against surrendering to the madness of the hour”; but Lodge depicted it to Roosevelt (en route to Cuba with his Rough Riders) as “a very comic incident.”
The strange mixture of popular war hysteria, whipped up for their own purposes by Joseph Pulitzer of the World and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal, and the as-yet-unshaken confidence of many intellectuals in the pacific intentions of McKinley was vividly portrayed and analyzed by the philosopher William James in a letter written to his French friend François Pillon, just before James left his house in Cambridge to attend the Faneuil Hall meeting:
A curious episode of history, showing how a nation’s ideals can be changed in the twinkling of an eye, by a succession of outward events partly accidental. It is quite possible that, without the explosion of the Maine, we should still be at peace … The actual declaration of war by Congress, however, was a case of psychologie des foules, a genuine hysteric stampede at the last moment … Our Executive has behaved very well. The European nations of the Continent cannot believe that our pretense of humanity, and our disclaiming of all ideas of conquest, is sincere. It has been absolutely sincere! The self-conscious feeling of our people has been entirely based in a sense of philanthropic duty … But here comes in the psychologic factor: once the excitement of action gets loose, the taxes levied, the victories achieved, etc., the old human instincts will get into play with all their old strength, and the ambition and sense of mastery which our nation has will set up new demands. We shall never take Cuba … But Porto Rico, and even the Philippines, are not so sure. We had supposed ourselves (with all our crudity and barbarity in certain ways) a better nation morally than the rest, safe at home, and without the old savage ambition, destined to exert great international influence by throwing in our “moral weight,” etc. Dreams! Human Nature is everywhere the same, and at the least temptation all the old military passions rise, and sweep everything before them … It all shows by what short steps progress is made …
It soon became evident that William James had not overestimated the immense task facing the small band of anti-imperialists: no less than the complete reversal of public opinion in the face of easy victories, promised spoils, and a flag-waving press. For one thing, during the summer of 1898, history was being made at a furious pace. Whether one accepts the John Hay version, “a splendid little war,” or “a jolly war,” or the London Saturday Review’s estimate, “never a more shabby war,” it was decidedly a short one. In less than four months it was all over but the disposition of “the waifs of the world deposited on our doorsteps.” At a foreign policy conference at Saratoga Springs, New York, on August 18, 1898, just five days after the armistice, Carl Schurz, who had embarked upon a one-man crusade to impress McKinley, delivered a vigorous anti-imperialist address in which, ironically, he used against Senator Lodge and his fellow expansionists “the very principles which Lodge was to exalt so extravagantly twenty years later in the fight against the Covenant of the League of Nations.” A delegation from the Saratoga conference, with Samuel Gompers as one of its members, waited upon McKinley but was received only with suave hospitality.
To the public in the fall of 1898 the President offered the image of a sorely tried pacifist in doubt about the propriety of retaining the Philippines, even speculating that “if old Dewey had just sailed away after he had smashed the Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.” But his every action was in line with what Lodge called “our large policy” of complete possession. McKinley packed the peace commission virtually four-to-one in favor of expansionism (three of them senators who would later have to vote on their own work), and gave them ever more sweeping instructions about what was to be demanded of the Spaniards, even though his Cabinet was divided on the issue. How he arrived at his final decision to tell the peace commission to demand “the whole archipelago or none” was told by the President himself on November 21, 1899, to a committee representing the General Missionary Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church, then in session in Washington. Surely it is one of the most amazing descriptions of the workings of a Chief Executive’s conscience in the field of foreign policy that has ever been recorded.
The delegation was about to leave the White House, when McKinley turned to them, and said earnestly:
Hold a moment longer! Not quite yet, gentlemen! Before you go I would like to say just a word about the Philippine business. I have been criticized a good deal about the Philippines, but don’t deserve it. The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them. … I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps, also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States [pointing to a large map on the wall of his office], and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!
The anti-imperialists’ first battle, for the mind of the President as the chief architect of the nation’s foreign policy, was thus lost to higher authority before it had hardly begun. But the country might still be persuaded to reject McKinley’s Philippine policy. On November 19, 1898, in the Boston office of Edward Atkinson, retired textile manufacturer—later to become notorious because of the Postmaster General’s closing of the mails to his publications—the Anti-Imperialist League was organized. Its object was: “to oppose, by every legitimate means, the acquisition of the Philippine Islands, or of any colonies away from our shores, by the United States.”
The only thing more remarkable than the high quality of the League’s adherents was their extreme diversity. As its perpetual secretary, Erving Winslow, remarked: “We must in our organization stand shoulder to shoulder: Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Populist, Gold-Man, Silver-Man, and Mugwump, for the one momentous, vital, paramount issue, Anti-Imperialism and the preservation of the Republic.” Such advice, however, was not always easy to follow, since the anti-imperialist leader in the Senate, George F. Hoar, regular Republican, had once called the Mugwumps “the vilest set of political assassins that ever disgraced this or any other country.”
Besides every shade in the country’s political spectrum, the League’s ever-lengthening list of vice presidents, many of whom lent only their names to the movement, included every variety of American reformer: municipal, civil service, social welfare, singletaxer, free-trader, pacifist, and prohibitionist. Education furnished a long list of college presidents: Eliot, Jordan, Rogers, Alderman, Stanley Hall, Schurman, King, and Faunce, with such distinguished teachers as Charles Eliot Norton, George Herbert Palmer, William Graham Sumner, Felix Adler, William James, John Dewey, and Franklin H. Giddings. From industry and finance came the extremely active donor Andrew Carnegie, and Richard T. Crane and George Foster Peabody. The contribution of “interest” groups (beet sugar and tobacco), which wanted no Philippine competition, was remarkably small.
At the peak of the League’s activities in 1899, it claimed thirty thousand members and “half a million contributors” in branches located in a dozen large cities from Boston to Portland, Oregon. One of its conferences, in Chicago on October 17-18, 1899, attracted ten thousand delegates; and by 1900 the League claimed to have distributed four hundred thousand pieces of literature. This spreading of its work enhanced its prestige, no doubt, but it proved to be a handicap in exerting political influence. For what leader could be found who could win and keep the confidence of quite so many kinds of followers?
The first political battle fought by the anti-imperialists was the one in which they came the closest to victory: the heated conflict over the ratification of the treaty of peace with Spain in January and February, 1899. The only controversial section in the document was the article providing for the cession of the whole Philippine archipelago to the United States. As Peace Commissioner Whitelaw Reid put it: he and his associates were accused of “overdoing the business, looking after the interests of the country too thoroughly …” Since a two-thirds vote was required for ratification in a Senate composed of forty-six Republicans, thirty-four Democrats, and ten members of minor parties, it was evident that a substantial number of Democratic senators would have to be won over.
Fresh from his discharge from the Army, William Jennings Bryan announced in an interview at Savannah, Georgia, on December 13, 1898, that although he was firmly anti-imperialist, he believed that the treaty should be ratified and the issue of imperialism settled by resolution at a later date. The less politically minded anti-imperialists (Carnegie, Schurz, and Storey) regarded this as a sacrifice of principle in order to secure a campaign issue to go along with free silver (which they detested) in the election of 1900. Ten Democratic senators helped to ratify the treaty by only one vote more than the necessary two thirds, and although two or three of them may have been swayed by the outbreak of fighting, two days earlier, between Filipino and American soldiers, Bryan has generally been credited with influencing the key votes. Many senators were undoubtedly influenced by Lodge’s argument that failure to ratify would be a repudiation of McKinley and a continuation of the war. If there could have been a clear-cut decision regarding the retention of the Philippines, “the imperialists,” says the diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey, “would almost certainly have failed to obtain a two-thirds majority.” A few days later the Bacon amendment, pledging ultimate independence to the Filipinos, resulted in a tie vote, decided in the negative by the vote of Vice President Garret A. Hobart.
Despite this setback, the movement grew, rather than declined, as the 1900 election approached, although Bryan had created an amount of distrust in the minds of the “true” anti-imperialists, which led to talk of a third-party ticket designed to split the McKinley vote. Bryan agreed to make anti-imperialism “the paramount issue” of his campaign, and was finally endorsed by the League’s Liberty Congress in Indianapolis in August, 1900. But many of the anti-imperialists refused to stomach Bryan’s continued insistence upon free silver, and either voted for McKinley or held aloof from both candidates. Bryan secured fewer votes in 1900 than in 1896, and his defeat “marked the end of anti-imperialism as an important factor in American politics.”
Political failure did not prevent literary success for the cause, although most of the blows struck by the pen came too late to turn the tide of public opinion. The one man whose emotional response to imperialism became enduring literature was the poet William Vaughn Moody. He risked his position as teacher of English at the University of Chicago by publishing several anti-imperialist poems in the Atlantic Monthly. In contrast to its noble sacrifices in the Civil War, Moody saw his country engaged in “ignoble battle,” but protested:
Warning the country’s leaders to “tempt not our weakness, our cupidity,” the poet declares that “save we let the island men go free,” our soldiers will have died in vain. In a shorter poem entitled “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines,” (Atlantic Monthly, February, 1901), Moody makes use of the poignant contradiction between the honor due to the fallen and the dishonor of his cause:
Moody’s language was mild and temperate compared with that of his fellow Chicagoan, the novelist Henry Blake Fuller, who became convinced that McKinley’s policies were not only ignorant and stupid but actually vicious. Fuller addressed the President:
A much saner poetic approach was that of Ernest Crosby, president of the New York branch of the movement, whose Whitmanesque lines ran:
Mark Twain was one literary figure who was won over from the opposition, in part by the urging of his friend William Dean Howells. “I left these shores at Vancouver [on his way to Vienna],” he wrote, “a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.” But gradually Twain began to see the Philippines in a different light, for early in 1900 he wrote to Joseph Twichell: “Apparently we are not proposing to set the Filipinos free and give their islands to them … If these things are so, the war out there has no interest for me.” From the day of Twain’s triumphant return to this country in October, 1900, he joined forces with Howells in a steady barrage of articles, interviews, petitions, and pamphlets in behalf of anti-imperialism. The League made extensive use on cards of his “salutation-speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” in which he said:
I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, & the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass.
At a welcoming dinner for the young English war correspondent Winston Spencer Churchill in the WaIdorf-Astoria Hotel on December 13, 1900, Mark Twain introduced the half-English, half-American speaker with these words: “I think that England sinned when she got herself into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided, just as we have sinned in getting into a similar war in the Philippines … yes, we are kin. And now that we are also kin in sin, there is nothing more to be desired. The harmony is complete, the blend is perfect—like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honor to present to you.”
One of the most effective presentations of the case for anti-imperialism was made by the peppery Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner under the striking title, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” but it was buried in the Yale Law Journal for January, 1899. Logic in terms of political theory, however, proved a poor match for the logic of events. Professor Richard Hofstadter has acutely observed that the Spanish-American War was fought because the American people wanted “not so much the freedom of Cuba as a war for the freedom of Cuba.” Once war was under way, in the opinion of the late Vice President Charles G. Dawes, who was a close McKinley associate, “the retention of the Philippines was inevitable. … No man, or no party, could have prevented it.” Yet in the sober judgment of Samuel Flagg Bemis, “looking back on those years of adolescent irresponsibility, we can now see the acquisition of the Philippines, the climax of American expansion, as a great national aberration.”
But it was in vain that the anti-imperialists of that era cited the words of Abraham Lincoln: “No man is good enough to govern another without that other’s consent.” The missing premise in the arguments of both sides was the lack of adequate knowledge of the Filipinos and their capacity for solving their immediate political problems. The anti-imperialists saw them as ready and able to govern themselves democratically; the imperialists were just as convinced that they were mostly untutored barbarians. Neither side had enough facts, and as a result both substituted passion for logic.
The anti-imperialists saw the whole problem as a simple matter of political morality, which could never be settled until settled “right.” By their indefatigable agitating they administered such a shock to sensitive American consciences that the burden of guilt could not be lifted. In time it came to be assumed that the pledge of Philippine independence defeated by a single vote in 1899 had, morally speaking, been given.
What the imperialists, notably Theodore Roosevelt, could never grasp was the Filipinos’ yearning for self-government. Both sides entertained illusions: the imperialists saw a mirage of untold wealth in trade with the Orient, which did not materialize; the anti-imperialists foresaw “tyranny at home” as the sure result of “tyranny abroad.” The latter were also incorrect in their belief that their opponents would never “let go” of the archipelago, although it was not until 1935 that the Commonwealth was established, with complete independence promised in 1946. The promise was kept, and the Philippines became “the first colony ever to be surrendered voluntarily.”
The annual reports of the Anti-Imperialist League, which continued until its nineteenth and last meeting in 1917, make melancholy reading as the necrology lengthened and the budgets shrank. Treasurer Greene declared doggedly: “Anti-Imperialists are not quitters”; but when Erving Winslow died in 1923, Moorfield Storey wrote: “Almost everybody who belonged to the League is dead, and the young men do not take up the work. I am still its representative, but I have no followers.”
One of the striking characteristics of the League in its heyday was the lack of contact between its zealous leaders in America and the Filipinos in whose behalf they were enduring a steady rain of epithets: little Americans, seditionists, cowards, and traitors. But the Filipinos had subtle ways of showing their appreciation. Long before they were allowed the privilege of self-government, they named the square directly in front of the Malacañang Palace in Manila, the official residence of the American Governor General, La Liga Anti-Imperialistica.