Twenty months ago, when the Bush Administration was steering the country toward war in Iraq, we noted a parallel with another military misadventure, the Spanish-American War, in which Cuba and the Philippines were both invaded [see “An Imperial Moment,” December 23, 2002]. A small group of unheeded dissidents, calling themselves the Anti-Imperialist League, warned against the war, which marked a sharp break with the country’s anticolonial tradition. Now, as the war has dragged on, other surprisingly exact parallels have appeared. Some concern merely ridiculous or embarrassing events. Others point to long-enduring pathologies of American foreign policy.
The ridiculous shows up as crude jingoism. This time round, when European nations criticized American intervention in Iraq, the jingoes called for renaming french fries “freedom fries.” Meanwhile, flags have become a fashion statement and a good way to promote sales. During the Spanish-American War, the superpatriots called for a boycott of imported fashions. Back then, too, France was singled out. “Patriotic Women,” read an Indianapolis News headline, “They Will Not Buy Anything that Is Manufactured in France.” Spanish-flag toilet paper went on sale, and business looked for other ways to capitalize on military imperialism. “The window dresser who is ever alert for novelty will not allow the disaster to the battleship Maine to pass without getting an idea out of it for a window display,” the Chicago Dry Goods Reporter suggested to retailers in March 1898.
In those days, too, the prowar bias of the press had its critics and analysts. E.L. Godkin, founding editor of this magazine and an important press critic, observed that because public passions were easily aroused in foreign affairs, the press “made the moderate ground difficult for a diplomatist.” Clearly, the influence of sensational, jingoist coverage on more balanced news outfits did not begin with the influence of Fox News over CNN and MSNBC.
Another aspect of coverage that has an uncanny similarity with today’s is the influence of exiles on press coverage. In our day, it has been Ahmad Chalabi and members of his defectors organization, the Iraqi National Congress, who coached both the press and our government with bogus evidence on weapons of mass destruction. The Spanish-American War equivalent was the Cuban Junta, an exile group that orchestrated unfavorable news about the Spanish in Cuba. The Junta planted sympathizers on at least two journals, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Washington Star, and spoon-fed stories to reporters across the country. The daily 4 o’clock Junta press meeting in New York was known as the Peanut Club. “No matter what the leanings of his paper,” said Horatio Rubens, a New York lawyer who brought peanuts for reporters to munch on while collecting their news, “I know of none who was not personally sympathetic to Cuba in her trouble.”
Not only the sensationalistic yellow press purveyed these stories. Many “respectable” organs of journalism provided made-up news. Among them was the New York Times, whose sins included an interview with a Spanish insurgent general. We cannot be sure the encounter took place, as many predecessors to Jayson Blair did their reporting from Havana hotel rooms, but the Timesman certainly used bogus quotes, to wit, “Tears were rolling down the bronzed cheeks of the brave soldier as he proceeded. ‘Go back and tell them, Señor,’ he continued, ‘that every Cuban patriot stands with breast bared for the foeman’s steel.'” But soon an astute observer noted that this stilted boast had a startling resemblance to lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s then-popular The Pirates of Penzance: “When the foeman bares his steel,/ Tarantara! Tarantara!”
The most disheartening parallel is that in both adventures, more than a century apart, the United States wound up at odds with the very people it promised to save. Cubans and Filipinos expected liberation. They got American occupation instead. When the Filipinos resisted, we used brutal force, burning villages, killing women and children. Gen. Frederick Funston, who won a medal of honor for his work, said the Filipinos who resisted American colonization were “an illiterate, semi-savage people, who are waging war, not against tyranny, but against Anglo-Saxon order and decency.” After imposing a government, US pro-consuls instituted an English-language educational system that airbrushed out the ugly facts of colonization. “To this day,” wrote Philippine historian Renato Constantino in the 1960s, “our histories still gloss over the atrocities committed by American occupation troops such as the water cure and reconcentration camps.”
Despite some restiveness, the Cubans mostly bided their time. In the meantime the United States took steps to incorporate the island into its economic system and passed the Platt Amendment. In Senator Platt’s legislative handiwork, America reserved the right to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs. The law states, “The Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.” Latin Americans had admired the United States throughout the nineteenth century. But by the time the US military government went home in 1902, the region was wary and fearful of its imperious northern neighbor.
The parallels are not unlimited. President McKinley was reluctant to go to war. He had served with the Union in the Civil War and understood the terrible bloody reality of battle. George W. Bush, so quick on the trigger, had no such experience. And it will not be so easy to rewrite history this time. America’s foes increase and are better equipped to tell their side of the story.
One more point of continuity deserves mention. Through the Platt Amendment the United States gave itself a permanent base at Guantánamo. This is where prisoners of America’s latest imperial enterprise have been held incommunicado. Guantánamo was chosen for its legal peculiarity. Neither under Cuban jurisdiction nor unambiguously under US jurisdiction, it was used by the Bush Administration as a sort of legal no-man’s land for the incarceration and abuse of prisoners. Such was the gift, passed down from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first, of one American imperial campaign to another.