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America’s New Anti-Imperialists | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

America’s New Anti-Imperialists

In 1898, the Anti-Imperialist League was established to oppose America's territorial expansion, especially the "liberation" of the Philippines from Spain. Long before a President talked of an "axis of evil" and "regime change," or before Trent Lott and John Ashcroft accused critics of aiding the enemy, President William McKinley and his men attacked members of the League for opposing an America that projected its ideals abroad by force.

Imperialism, League members argued, was unjust, unnecessary and harmful to America's national interests. The league had a diverse membership featuring many respected public figures like Mark Twain, historian and industrialist Charles Francis Adams, Harvard professor and writer William James, financier Andrew Carnegie, reform journalist and senator Carl Schurz and The Nation's founding editor and prominent abolitionist E.L. Godkin.

League members drew a dramatic contrast between America's proud history as the land of liberty and its brutal repression of the Filipinos' struggle for independence. Such militaristic tyranny, they argued in their national platform, would ultimately erode the country's "fundamental principles and noblest ideals."

As Charles Eliot Norton, a founding member of the League, said: "It is not that we would hold America back from playing her full part in the world's affairs, but that we believe that her part could be better accomplished by close adherence to those high principles which are ideally embodied in her institutions--by the establishment of her own democracy in such ways as to make it a symbol of noble self-government, and by exercising the influence of a great, unarmed and peaceful power on the affairs and the moral temper of the world."

Fast forward a hundred years and meet the "Committee for the Republic." The Committee, recently formed to ignite a discussion in the establishment about America's lurch toward empire, includes Republican former counsel to first President Bush C. Boyden Gray; former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman, Jr.; President of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development Stephen P. Cohen; William Nitze, son of Paul Nitze, the Reagan Administration's top arms control negotiator; and Washington businessman (and descendant of Revolutionary war patriot Patrick Henry) John B. Henry.

The Committee's draft manifesto includes language the Anti-Imperialist League would recognize: "Domestic liberty is the first casualty of adventurist foreign policy...To justify the high cost of maintaining rule over foreign territories and peoples, leaders are left with no choice but to deceive the people...America has begun to stray from its founding tradition of leading the world by example rather than by force."

Committee members say the group may create a nonprofit organization and will sponsor forums examining how imperial behavior weakened earlier republics, starting with the Roman Empire. "We want to have a great national debate about what our role in the world is," says Henry. The Committee is also considering ways to "educate Americans about the dangers of empire and the need to return to our founding traditions and values."

In my mind, these latter day anti-imperialists are charter members of the Coalition of the Rational--an embryonic idea I recently proposed to bring a broad, transpartisan group of concerned members of the establishment together to mobilize Americans in informed opposition to the Bush Administration's extremist undermining of our national security.

The Committee's creation is yet another sign of how mainstream members of the conservative establishment are waking up to George W's (mis)leading of the country into ruin. (Paleocons like Patrick Buchanan have also lined up against Bush's empire-building.) After all, imperialism is just as un-American today as it was at the turn of the century--or in 1776.

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