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!”