Mark his words,
By Mark Engler
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It was autumn, electoral
campaigns were in full swing, and US intervention abroad
represented a crucial issue separating the political
candidates. Amid the excitement, one of America's
foremost literary personalities made a homecoming that
was both celebrated and politically charged.
writer was Mark Twain, and the year was 1900. The United
States was engaged in an intense debate over its
military action in the Philippines, a country that it
had recently bought for US$20 million at the conclusion
of the Spanish-American War. Twain, who had been living
abroad for nearly 10 years, brought back with him a
prescient analysis of the situation.
he had supported the war. "I said to myself, Here are a
people who have suffered," Twain explained, echoing the
White House's rationale for action. "We can make them as
free as ourselves, give them a government and country of
their own, put a miniature of the American constitution
afloat ... start a brand-new republic to take its place
among the free nations of the world.
"But I have
thought some more, since then," he said. Upon reading
the 1898 Treaty of Paris and questioning the official
motives for war, Twain concluded: "We have gone there to
conquer, not to redeem.
"And so I am an
anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put
its talons on any other land."
By the turn of
the century, Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, had
already established his place among America's most
revered authors. He had never hesitated to weigh in
about politics. ("Suppose you were an idiot and suppose
you were a member of Congress," he famously quipped.
"But I repeat myself.") As Twain scholar Jim Zwick has
documented, anti-imperialism became a cause to which the
writer would make one of the most serious political
commitments of his life.
about US involvement in the Pacific grew throughout the
first decade of the new century. President Theodore
Roosevelt declared an official end to war in the
Philippines on July 4, 1902, but the United States would
maintain a military presence there for decades, facing
frequent skirmishes. As Twain had warned, "We have got
into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step
renders the difficulty of extrication immensely
The writer was offended that an
ostensible fight for independence had ended with a close
US guard over Philippine assets, charging that "Uncle
Sam paid that $20 million for his entrance fee into
society - the Society of Sceptered Thieves."
when apologists for the White House, such as General
Frederick Funston argued that anti-imperialist critics
should be "hanged for treason", Twain retorted that he
was "quite willing to be called a traitor - quite
willing to wear that honorable badge - and not willing
to be affronted with the title of patriot and classed
with the Funstons when, so help me God, I have not done
anything to deserve it".
Needless to say, if
Mark Twain were alive today, he would not be surprised
to see that George W Bush professes his admiration for
"Theodore Rex", nor that the president recently pointed
to the Philippines as a model for Iraqi "liberation".
While Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" with
top-gun bravado some six months ago, the US military has
only been drawn deeper into the occupation of Iraq. The
official "peace toll" of US soldiers killed reached 100
in mid-October. And with the Bush administration
resisting European demands for timely elections, there
is no exit in sight.
Few have been more
enthusiastic about the US occupation than firms with
close ties to the White House, such as Halliburton and
Bechtel, which have received billions of dollars in
well-publicized no-bid contracts.
reminiscent, the administration has also cultivated a
"with us or against us" culture that labels dissenters
as unpatriotic, or worse. In one recent incident,
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested that
criticism of the war in Iraq helps terrorists.
challenging US militarism, Twain was not acting alone.
He was backed by the Anti-Imperialist League, an
organization that said Roosevelt's brand of expansionism
violated the nation's core beliefs in freedom and
liberty. Today more than ever, we do well to honor the
tradition of Americans who oppose the creation of
empires - ours or anyone else's.
And as for
Iraq, we should remember Mark Twain's sentiments
regarding the people of the Philippines. "I thought it
would be a great thing to give [them] a whole lot of
freedom," he said, "but I guess now that it's better to
let them give it to themselves."
Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a
commentator for Foreign Policy in Focus. Research
assistance for this article was provided by Jason
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times
Online feature that allows guest writers to have their
say. Please click here if you are interested in