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Friday, August 27, 2010

The anti-imperialist tradition

A few weeks ago, writing on American imperialism, I promised a post on the anti-imperialist tradition. Here it is, drawing on a remarkable book from that fateful year 1968, Twelve Against Empire, The Anti-Imperialists, 189801900, by Robert Beisner. The war against Spain in 1898 was brief but eventful, resulting not only in the liberation of Cuba (which was promptly turned into an American protectorate), but also in the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. This momentous change in American life provoked enormous debate. It turned out to be the start of something big.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr., the older brother of my alter ego Henry, had fought for four years in the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War, but like many of his contemporaries, he had seen enough of conflict. Watching the escalating pressure to become a world power, he complained in his private journal that the drumbeat of "Expansion, World-Power, Inferior Races, Calivinizatin, Duty-and-Destiny twaddle and humbug" were unbearable. "The clergymen have all got hold of the idea of Duty," he wrote; "we have a Mission; it is a distinct Call of the Almighty. They want to go out, and have this Great Nation impart the blessing of Liberty and the Gospel to the Inferior Races, who wait for us, ass for their Messiah;--only we must remember to take with us lots of shot-guns to keep those other Superior Races,--all wolves in sheep's clothing--away from our flock. they would devour them;--but we won't. Oh no!--such ideas are 'pessimistic'; you should have more faith in the American people!" In December 1898 he spoke out publicly against imperialism, but sadly, he could not in 1900 bring himself to support the anti-imperialist Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, because of Bryan's positions on economic issues. Having lived through the postwar disillusionment of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, Adams had no patience with further crusades and wanted the United States to start living up to its ideals at home. I expect that attitude to revive during the next five years or so.

Carl Schurz was a true nineteenth-century citizen of the Atlantic World. Born in Germany in 1829, he had to flee his native land after the failure of the Revolution of 1848 and come to the United States. Joining the fledgling Republican Party, he became a key figure in the wooing of his fellow German-Americans, and was sufficiently prominent by 1861 for Lincoln to make him Minister to Spain. Returning after a short tour, he was commissioned in the Union Army and became a very unlucky general in the Army of the Potomac. He became the great postwar reformer of the Gilded Age--sadly I cannot think of a single Senator or Representative who publicly opposes our own rampant corruption as forthrightly as he--and was driven to vote for Cleveland against James G. Blaine in 1884. He objected to imperialism on other grounds: that the establishment of tyranny over foreign lands would inevitably create tyranny at home, just as it had in Rome. That prophecy has never fully proven out in the United States, but a century of our world role has created a large bureaucracy that operates largely in complete secrecy--a trend that has once again accelerated in the last two Administrations. Watergate was in many ways a response to that development, but George W. Bush carried out even worse abuses, in some respects, unscathed.

Andrew Carnegie had come from Scotland and was obviously a great and well-rewarded believer in the free enterprise system, but he had never had any patience with foreign expansion either, and in 1885 he penned words with chilling resonance today.

"The American people are satisfied that the worst native government in the world is better for its people than the best government which any foreign power can supply; that governmental interference upon the part of a so-called civilized power, in the affairs of the most barbarous tribe upon earth, is injurious to that tribe, and never under any circumstances whatever can it prove beneficial, either for the underdeveloped race or for the intruder. They are further satisfied that, in the end, more speed is made in developing and improving backward races by proving to them through example the advantages of Democratic institutions than is possible through violent interference. The man in America who should preach that the nation should interfere with distant races for their civilization, and for their own good, would be voted either a fool or a hypocrite."

I was recently reminded that Carnegie might not be so wrong about the American people, even today. Last week I was contacted by the producer of a statewide morning radio talk show in Mississippi as a result of the scurrilous email still circulating under my name. This time, however--in contrast to three similar previous occurrences--the producer had actually done a web search. They knew that I hadn't read it, but after reading a little of historyunfolding.com, they wanted to interview me anyway, even though the station is usually extremely conservative. The host was a guest host, and we talked very courteously for 90 minutes about American foreign policy, the Kennedy assassination, and other matters of interest. I had expressed my skepticism about our ability to do any real good in Afghanistan, and we took three calls on that subject. All the callers clearly agreed with me 100%. The news this week emphasizes once again the inherent absurdity of that enterprise, since it turns out that the high official who was arrested by the special American-Afghan anti-corruption unit after falling victim to a sting, only to be released at the order of President Karzai, has also been taking money from the CIA. The American people can see that in this case at least, American imperialism has gone too far. No high official in Washington, however, seems to get it.


Anonymous said...

An institution, once established tends to take on a life of its own and to perpetuate itself. Power hungry people seek the reins of power for power's sake and expand that power by every means. Over time their successors build on that tradition. This infestation spreads to all parts to the society as "The rot starts at the top". Really according to generational theory such attitudes really come from the bottom, from the masses.

The American project just kept showing more disrespect for rights of its own citizens and foreigners over time with interludes like FDR and Kennedy/Johnson(only internally, not abroad as wars continued). The patriot might say that having such a position as a Great Power demands taking on responsibility, a "policing" role to create order, if only for economic stability, others might see this as a cynical grab for power by industrialists. Whatever the case may be, it exhausts a country's resources to create and maintain, even begrudgingly over decades and centuries, an empire, de facto or de jure. This can be seen repeatedly in history. It is a basic law, as in physics and its consequences of failure and collapse are inevitable.

Anonymous said...


The above is educational video (11 minutes) is certainly of general interest in terms of history and culture and where we are headed.

Marco González Ambriz said...

The Mexican War wasn`t imperialistic? What about your failed attempts at annexing Canada?
And don't even get me started on the Native Americans!
I'm getting really tired of Americans claiming that it wasn't until 1898 that their country became an expansionist empire. The truth is that you have always been racist warmongers, and hypocrites to boot.

Anonymous said...

David , It would certainly be nice if your prediction came true i.e. that in the next five years the citizens of the USA demanded that their Govt. return to American values or at least honoured their own Constitution.

Bozon said...


Great new essay.
Just a note on missionary zeal.

I sense perhaps, in small part, if not a reply, at least an implied comment, on my reference to Howard's essay, "Empires, Nations, and Wars", and the importance, among missionary imperialists, of missionary rather than economic initiatives. If not, well and good. It was not the strongest motive, admittedly and obviously.

If so, fair enough, re the British, and American missionary agendas.

I would point out, also, however, that this 'slighted' but authentic missionary zeal, which Howard noted, occurred contemporaneously with an abolitionism, which Americans, who can be forgiven, on the other hand, seldom tire of overemphasizing, in context.