An Imperial Moment

An Imperial Moment

In previous times of war fever, clear voices have called for a return to US ideals.


The United States has arrived at an imperial moment in its history, but it is not the first time.

Long before a President talked about an “axis of evil” and “regime change,” a President talked of going “to war for humanity’s sake,” in order to liberate Cuba and the Philippines from Spain. Both were taken, and a string of other colonies followed: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and Panama–a country we created in order to occupy it. There was, President McKinley said of his decision to declare war, “nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate and uplift 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.”

Long before Trent Lott and John Ashcroft accused Bush Administration opponents of aiding the enemy, McKinley’s men shouted down the small group of Mugwumps and members of the Anti-Imperialist League, who were opposed to an America that projected its ideals abroad by force without considering the consequences. “If we ever come to nothing as a nation,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his colleague-in-arms, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, “it will be because the treachery of Carl Schurz, [Harvard] President Eliot, and the Evening Post and the futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type, bears its legitimate fruit in producing a flabby, timid type of character, which eats away the great fighting features of our race.”

Long before September 11, when Americans hung flags on mailboxes and highway overpasses and pasted them to the bumpers of their cars, audiences at theaters and music halls sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” after each performance. The conflict with Spain, John Hay said, would be “a splendid little war.”

It is not the first time. And if those voices raised against imperialism were not adequately heard a hundred years ago, it is time to let them speak again.

On the Need to Follow Our Constitutional Principles

“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 wise 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.”
      –Charles Eliot Norton, professor of fine arts, Harvard

“I would gladly pay twenty millions today to restore our republic to its first principles.”
      –Andrew Carnegie,
      explaining why he would buy the Philippines from the
      United States in order to give the islands their independence

On the Need to Address Our Own National Problems

“Nations and communities don’t die from disorders external to them; dangerous decay is internal. The trouble with Rome wasn’t in the colonies and the empire; it was in the Senate and the forum.”
      –Charles Francis Adams Jr., historian, industrialist

“The serious question for the people of this country to consider is what effect the imperial policy will have upon ourselves if we permit it to be established.”
      –Frederick Gookin

On the Power of Christian Fundamentalists

“The Kingdom of Heaven is to come as a grain of mustard seed, not as a thirteen-inch shell.”
      –The Rev. H.P. Faunce, Baptist minister

On the Evils of a Permanent Military Establishment

“A wretched fatuity that so-called patriotism which will not remember that we are the envy of the whole world for the priceless privilege of being exempt from the oppressive burden of warlike preparations.”
      –Carl Schurz, reform journalist and senator

On American Hypocrisy

“Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole; and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked–but not enough, in my judgment, to make any considerable risk advisable. The People that Sit in Darkness are getting to be too scarce–too scarce and too shy. And such darkness as is now left is really of but an indifferent quality, and not dark enough for the game. The most of those People that Sit in Darkness have been furnished with more light than was good for them or profitable for us. We have been injudicious…. Is it, perhaps, possible that there are two kinds of Civilization–one for home consumption and one for the heathen market?”
      –Mark Twain,
      “To the Person Sitting in Darkness”

On the Loss of National Virtue

“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 least temptation all the old military passions rise, and sweep everything before them.”
      –William James

“God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct…. We can destroy their [Filipino] ideals but we can’t give them ours.”
      –William James, on American annexation
      of the Philippines and the guerrilla war it engendered

On the Failure to Lead by Example

“If we turn this war, which was heralded to the world as a war of humanity, in any sense into a war of conquest, we shall forever forfeit the confidence of mankind.”
      –Carl Schurz

“The United States has lost her unique position as a leader in the progress of civilization and has taken up her place simply as one of the grasping and selfish nations of the present day.”
      –Charles Eliot Norton

On the Limitations of Free Speech

“He who, as a lover of his country, jealous of her liberty and mindful of the lessons of history, dares oppose these schemes of Colonial power, is in danger of being denounced as a traitor, and held up as an object of public contumely and scorn.”
      –Tennant Lommax, Democratic politician

“To be popular is easy; to be right when right is unpopular, is noble…. I repudiate with scorn the immoral doctrine, ‘Our country, right or wrong.'”
      –Andrew Carnegie

On the Role of the Press

“They rely mostly on large sales, and for large sales on sensational news. Now nothing does so much to keep sensational news coming in over the considerable period of time as war…. Next to war they welcome the Promise of war.”
      –E.L. Godkin, editor of The Nation

“The Cost of a National Crime,” “The Hell of War and Its Penalties,” “Criminal Aggression”   –titles of three pamphlets sent by Edward Atkinson, a founder of the Anti-Imperialist League, to American troops in the field in the Philippines, as a test of free speech. Postmaster Charles Smith declared the pamphlets “seditious” and had them removed from the mail.

On the Dangers of Success

“If all these imaginings are in vain, and our success is a rapid and bloodless one as the most sanguine can hope, such a victory is more dangerous than defeat. In the intoxication of such a success, we would reach out for fresh territory, and to our present difficulties would be added an agitation for the annexation of new regions which, unfit to govern themselves, would govern us. We would be fairly launched upon a policy of military aggression, of territorial expansion, of standing armies and growing navies, which is inconsistent with the continuance of our institutions. God grant that such calamities are not in store for us.”
      –Moorfield Storey, president of the Anti-Imperialist League

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