November 30, 2002, will mark the 92nd anniversary of the death
of American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, more commonly known
as Mark Twain. While many are familiar with Twain for his fiction,
most notably Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, his political writings comprise a significant and important
part of his work. Twain's incisive and scathing speeches, essays,
and sketches on America's imperialistic and militaristic practices
and the support drummed up for them in the name of patriotism
drew widespread attention both in this country and abroad.
Today, as the United States stands poised on the brink of a war
clearly intended to advance the interests of American imperialism,
Twain's words from almost 100 years ago appear startlingly relevant.
While it's impossible to offer a comprehensive description of
his political views in a brief article, an examination of just
two areas the United States' role in the Spanish-American
War and Twain's feelings on patriotism is highly instructive.
U.S. Imperialism in the Spanish-American War
In 1901, Twain became vice president of the Anti-Imperialist
League, an organization that opposed America's seizure of Spain's
empire during the Spanish-American War. This conflict, described
by scholar Jim Zwick as "a one-sided slaughter designed to
make the United States a world imperial power," served as
a touchstone for much of Twain's anti-imperialist writing. Despite
propaganda to the contrary, the McKinley administration's primary
motivation for the war was a desire to gain control over Spain's
territories. After tacitly allowing Spain to be blamed for the
mysterious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in the Havana harbor
(despite the Navy's own inability to find any evidence for this
claim), McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which rapidly
acceded to them all. However, the United States declared war anyway,
and soon seized much of Spain's empire including Cuba,
Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines.
The terms of Spain's surrender written in the Treaty of Paris
in 1899 included a $20 million U.S. payment for the Philippines,
which Spain did not actually control. In fact, members of the
two-year-old powerful Filipino independence movement, led by Emilio
Aguinaldo, had played an instrumental role in helping the U.S.
capture Manila believing that America would in turn continue
to support its fledgling independent democratic government. Instead,
the United States betrayed its promises to Aguinaldo and his followers
and proceeded to wage a brutal war in the Philippines to fully
subjugate it to total U.S. control (the war continued for more
than a decade after its "official" end in 1902).
Twain initially supported the Spanish-American War, believing
it was motivated by a desire to help the Philippines become "as
free as ourselves, [and] give them a government and a country
of their own." But after studying the Treaty of Paris, he
changed his mind - an opinion he announced soon after his return
to the United States in 1900 after a decade abroad. In an interview
given to the New York Herald in October of 1900, Twain
said: "I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to
subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to
conquer, not to redeem. . . . It should, it seems to me, be our
pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal
with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am
an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its
talons on any other land."
These comments marked the beginning of Twain's intense personal
opposition to U.S. imperialism, maintained through his role in
the Anti-Imperialist League and other efforts until his death
in 1910. Despite earning frequent censure for his views, Twain
true to form was unafraid to stick his neck out
when stating his beliefs. In fact, Zwick notes, Twain "consistently
opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared
by many of the league's leaders."
Soon afterwards, Twain wrote "To the Person Sitting in Darkness,"
which Zwick describes as one of his most popular and influential
anti-imperialist essays. It was "an acid indictment of the
brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American
capitalist governments were committing all over the world."
Twain ironically borrowed the title from the book of Matthew in
the New Testament; the "person sitting in darkness"
was a term then used frequently by missionaries when referring
to the so-called uncivilized populations in lands being conquered.
In this lengthy satirical piece, Twain described the imperialist
powers' process of using war and other means to force "heathen"
nations to swallow the "blessings-of-civilization" as
a highly profitable game: "There is more money in it, more
territory, more sovereignty, and other kinds of emolument, than
there is in any other game that is played." The problem,
Twain noted dryly, was that the game was being played increasingly
badly, with such thinly veiled excuses for the wars waged that
even the "barbarians" being conquered were beginning
to get suspicious. Twain cited atrocities committed and the obviously
imperialistic motives behind a series of wars as evidence of this
increasing clumsiness. He then censured the United States for
giving in to the temptation to attack Spain, driven by desire
for "rich winnings . . . a fortune transmissible forever
to the children of the flag." In describing his country's
behavior, Twain noted: "The Person Sitting in Darkness is
almost sure to say: 'There is something curious about this - curious
and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the
captive free, and one that takes a once-captive's new freedom
away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found
it on; then kills him to get his land.'"
Twain's bitterness about America's rapacious and greed-driven
role in the war is patently clear. "And as for a flag for
the Philippine Province, it is easily managed," he said.
"We can have a special one our States do it; we can
have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black
and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones." Believing
that the United States had fallen to a new low in its actions,
Twain said the following in the Baltimore News about America's
purchase of the Philippines: "We claim to be a democratic
people - a square-dealing people - but we have bought our way
into the Society of Sceptred Thieves by paying $20,000,000 to
a country that didn't own it for an island group that we had no
right to purchase. . . . We are now on a par with the rest of
them. We dare to turn what should be a benevolent protectorate
into an autocratic monarchy!"
While many dismissed Twain's concerns, the Spanish-American War
can today be seen as marking a turning point in U.S. foreign policy.
Zwick writes: "With the defeat of Spain and the conquest
of the Philippines, the United States obtained its first taste
of 'world power' status. From 1898 to 1901, the size of the standing
army was nearly quadrupled and, for the first time in U.S. history,
overseas deployment of U.S. troops was institutionalized in the
Army Bill of 1901." Later that year, Twain accurately predicted
the "global policeman" role that the United States would
acquire, comparing the U.S. government to a prairie dog that must
"stand sentinel" over the rest of the world, continually
examining the horizon for anything suspicious at which to bark.
Though not penned by Twain, the platform of the Anti-Imperialist
League which grew to half a million members, including
many leaders famous at the turn of the last century included
among its arguments a series of statements that are eerily relevant
to the situation facing the United States today. About the war
being waged in the Philippines, it read:
We deny that the obligation of all citizens to support their
government in times of grave national peril applies to the present
situation. If an administration may with impunity ignore the
issues upon which it was chosen, deliberately create a condition
of war anywhere on the face of the globe, debauch the civil
service for spoils to promote the adventure, organize a truth-suppressing
censorship, and demand of all citizens a suspension of judgement
and their unanimous support while it chooses to continue the
fighting, representative government itself is imperiled.
Another league document, titled "To the American People,"
noted that the U.S. president had taken on the role of a despot
in relation to the Philippines, and pointed to the nefarious role
Congress had played in allowing this to happen. Again, the parallels
to our current situation are striking: "Congress has abdicated
its function, has given these people into the President's hands,
and has adjourned without attempting to deal with the questions
presented by the islands," it read. "Already it has
learned that free government is hard and absolutism easy
a dangerous lesson in a Republic. Liberty and absolutism cannot
exist together." The paper exhorted Americans to examine
the situation closely for themselves and take appropriate
action. "We urge all lovers of freedom to organize in defense
of human rights now threatened by the greatest free government
in history. . . . Right is higher than might. Let every citizen
study the facts and make his conclusion known, combining with
his neighbor to influence Congress to stand true to the principles
of the Declaration by which this government was founded and under
which it has grown so great. The gravest danger our country has
known till now has come from a denial of those principles."
The True Patriot
In light of Twain's frequently voiced views about patriotism
or what passed for patriotism it's not difficult
to imagine what he might think about such actions as the U.S.
Patriot Act and the Bush administration's strong-armed behavior
towards those who resist its agenda. Many contemporary journalists
are decrying this as well. For example, in a recent article discussing
the United States' impending attack on Iraq, Arundhati Roy writes,
"Close to one year after the war against terror was officially
flagged off in the ruins of Afghanistan, in country after country
freedoms are being curtailed in the name of protecting freedom,
civil liberties are being suspended in the name of protecting
democracy. All kinds of dissent is [sic] being defined as 'terrorism.'"
Similar views were preached in Twain's day, and he objected to
them strenuously pointing out that informed dissent and
civil disobedience form the heart of true patriotism. In a notebook
sketch, Twain described patriotism this way:
The soul and substance of what customarily ranks as patriotism
is moral cowardice and always has been. In any civic crisis
of a great and dangerous sort the common herd is not privately
anxious about the rights and wrongs of the matter, it is only
anxious to be on the winning side. . . .
There are two kinds of patriotism - monarchical patriotism
and republican patriotism. In the one case the government and
the king may rightfully furnish you their notions of patriotism;
in the other, neither the government nor the entire nation is
privileged to dictate to any individual what the form of his
patriotism shall be. The gospel of the monarchical patriotism
is: "The King can do no wrong." We have adopted it
with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording:
"Our country, right or wrong!" We have thrown away
the most valuable asset we had: the individual's right to oppose
both flag and country when he (just he, by himself) believed
them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it
all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable
True patriotism, Twain argued, involves not only self-respect
and confidence, but teaching citizens to act and think for themselves.
"It is this self-thinking that goes to make up the true public
opinion. We say we have public opinion in America. We have none.
We only think second hand . . . . The only opinions most of us
have . . . are the opinions derived second hand from certain men
who seek to influence us to their way of thinking, and their way
of thinking is generally in a direction that will subserve their
own private ends or the ends of the party which they represent.
So, you see, we have no citizenship, and our so-called patriotism
is a patriotism that is employed for the benefit of political
parties and is made a party cry."
Again, the relevance of Twain's words are only too clear today,
and some journalists are adjuring us to wake up before it's too
late. For example, in a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Jay Bookman writes: "This war, should it come, is intended
to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged
global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary
policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan 10 years or more
in the making, carried out by those who believe the United States
must seize the opportunity for global domination, even if it means
becoming the 'American imperialists' that our enemies always claimed
And in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times, Robert
Scheer writes: "Imperialist greed is what 'regime change'
in Iraq and 'anticipatory self-defense' are all about, and all
of the rest of the Bush administration's talk about security and
democracy is a bunch of malarkey." Like Twain, Scheer points
to the danger in the United States' heedless pursuit of an imperialist
agenda. "Having just fought to free themselves from one of
history's great empires, this nation's founding fathers fiercely
and repeatedly warned of the risks of imperial ambitions. Because
of this, most Americans, whether liberal or conservative, grasp
the fundamental truth that foreign entanglements destabilize,
backfire and cost too much in lives and dollars. Instead of exploiting
our natural patriotism to fight a nonsensical war, our government
should forego the temptations of empire."
We ignore their words like Twain's at our peril.
Information sources: http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/twain/index.html;
The Guardian, September 27, 2002; Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
September 29, 2002; Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2002.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org)