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From Draft NOtices, September-October 2002

Mark Twain: Words for Our Times

— Marion Morgan

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 word, Patriotism.

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 we were."

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:; 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 (


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