Friday, January 20, 2006


On January 16, 1899, Yale professor William Graham Sumner, a libertarian and author of many books and articles about social evolution, attacked American imperialism in a speech titled “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” that was later published in the Yale Law Journal. To Sumner, imperialism and militarism are antithetical to liberty. For such criticism and other writings, he earned the label as the greatest foe of American imperialism.

The year before, America went to war with Spain, a war that actually started when some Cuban rebels agitated for independence from Spain. The rebels resorted to terrorism as to which the Spanish authorities responded with equally harsh counter insurgency measures. American “yellow press” downplayed the atrocities of the rebels (they were actaully cheered as “freedom fighters” in today’s lingo) while caricaturing the Spaniards as despots of the Old World.

The war was in fact in accord with America’s plan to take on its global role and join the other imperialist powers in the rush for territory around the world. Commodore Dewey was then dispatched to proceed to the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, while American forces were routing the Spaniards in Cuba. That the Spanish-American War lasted only three months was testimony to America’s emerging global stature at that time. It was “a splendid little war,” the US Secretary of State described it. The quick triumph elated the American public in the belief that it was also a victory for the American way of life. It was against this backdrop, William Graham Sumner spoke against American imperialism, spoiling in effect the public euphoria.

A month after Sumner’s speech, or in February 1899, hostilities between the Filipino independence movement led by Aguinaldo and the American forces broke out. But unlike the war America won against a former world power Spain, the Philippine-American War was not splendid at all; it was a dirty big war. During the conflict, Americans employed torture and other atrocities such as the burning of villages and forcible zoning in derogation of the American ideal or of the mission to “Christianize and civilize” the “benighted savage.” Around 60,000 American forces (certainly a massive contingent by comparative count today) were sent to the Islands to defeat the “insurgents.” About a quarter of a million Filipinos, mostly civilians, died as a result. However, ideologues and yellow journalism manipulated information to suit America’s imperialist aspirations.

The criticism of Sumner resonates today in the face of some serious accusations by reputable individuals and institutions that the Bush administration has, among other things: manipulated intelligence information to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the name of national security as well as supposedly to spread freedom and democracy in the region; used or authorized the use of torture and other inhuman treatments of suspected terrorists; spied on American citizens in violation of fundamental privacy right as part of the anti-terrorism campaign and caused undue “collateral damage” against thousands of civilians and properties. While denying some of these charges, the Bush government justifies those that it admits as being necessitated by post-9/11 America.

The following excerpts taken from Sumner’ speech deserve some reflection today:

There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do. The English, who really have more to boast of in this respect than anybody else, talk least about it, but the Phariseeism with which they correct and instruct other people has made them hated all over the globe. The French believe themselves the guardians of the highest and purest culture, and that the eyes of all mankind are fixed on Paris, whence they expect oracles of thought and taste. The Germans regard themselves as charged with a mission, especially to us Americans, to save us from egoism and materialism. The Russians, in their books and newspapers, talk about the civilizing mission of Russia in language that might be translated from some of the finest paragraphs in our imperialistic newspapers. The first principle of Mohammedanism is that we Christians are dogs and infidels, fit only to be enslaved or butchered by Moslems. It is a corollary that wherever Mohammedanism extends it carries, in the belief of its votaries, the highest blessings, and that the whole human race would be enormously elevated if Mohammedanism should supplant Christianity everywhere. To come, last, to Spain, the Spaniards have, for centuries, considered themselves the most zealous and self-sacrificing Christians, especially charged by the Almighty, on this account, to spread true religion and civilization over the globe. They think themselves free and noble, leaders in refinement and the sentiments of personal honor, and they despise us as sordid money-grabbers and heretics. I could bring you passages from peninsular authors of the first rank about the grand rule of Spain and Portugal in spreading freedom and truth. Now each nation laughs at all the others when it observes these manifestations of national vanity. You may rely upon it that they are all ridiculous by virtue of these pretensions, including ourselves. The point is that each of them repudiates the standards of the others, and the outlying nations, which are to be civilized, hate all the standards of civilized men. We assume that what we like and practice, and what we think better, must come as a welcome blessing to Spanish-Americans and Filipinos. This is grossly and obviously untrue. They hate our ways. They are hostile to our ideas. Our religion, language, institutions, and manners offend them. They like their own ways, and if we appear amongst them as rulers, there will be social discord in all the great departments of social interest. The most important thing which we shall inherit from the Spaniards will be the task of suppressing rebellions. If the United States takes out of the hands of Spain her mission, on the ground that Spain is not executing it well, and if this nation in its turn attempts to be school-mistress to others, it will shrivel up into the same vanity and self-conceit of which Spain now presents an example. To read our current literature one would think that we were already well on the way to it. Now, the great reason why all these enterprises which begin by saying to somebody else, We know what is good for you better than you know yourself and we are going to make you do it, are false and wrong is that they violate liberty; or, to turn the same statement into other words, the reason why liberty, of which we Americans talk so much, is a good thing is that it means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way, while we do the same. If we believe in liberty, as an American principle, why do we not stand by it? Why are we going to throw it away to enter upon a Spanish policy of dominion and regulation?


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January 23, 2006 7:59 AM  

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