Isn’t it amazing how America’s turn toward empire in 1898 is a gift that keeps on giving? Today, Puerto Rico, one of the colonies the United States acquired in the Spanish-American War, is defaulting on part of its massive debt. Having failed so far to convince its overseers in Congress to permit the colony to declare bankruptcy, the Puerto Rican government is at a loss as to how it is going to cope with a massive debt that it simply cannot repay.
It will be amusing to watch the reaction of American statists to events as they unfold in Puerto Rico. Remember what the statists keep saying: That the U.S. government’s own ever-mounting debt doesn’t really matter because “we owe it to ourselves.” Try telling that to Puerto Rican officials, Puerto Rican taxpayers, and the bondholders that are demanding their money.
Don’t forget what the statists do every time the U.S. debt ceiling is reached: they go into paroxysms of anguish, and despair over the thought that the federal government might have to reduce its high level of spending on its welfare-warfare state programs. They exclaim that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, thereby enabling the already deeply indebted federal government to incur even more debt, the sky will fall in.
Just recently, the members of Congress, including the Republicans, agreed to another budget deal that has the federal government spending vastly more than what it brings in with taxes. The deficit between taxes and spending will mean adding larger additional amounts to the already existing mountain of U.S. government debt. The statists, especially those in the mainstream press, went gaga with exhortations of approval over the deal.
If you want to see why libertarians keep emphasizing that this is a very bad and a very dangerous road to be travelling, keep watch over what happens in Puerto Rico. It’s not going to be pretty, just as a similar situation in Greece has proven to be rather ugly.
The real issue, though, is why Puerto Rico even belongs to the United States. The answer is rooted in empire and intervention. And the fact that Puerto Rico’s debt problems are a matter for the United States to resolve just goes to show how America’s turn toward empire and intervention in 1898 continues to reverberate negatively today.
I’m referring, of course, to the Spanish American War in 1898. Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, all of which were colonies of the Spanish Empire, were fighting for independence. The U.S. government came to their assistance under the pretense of helping them achieve their independence but as soon as the war was won, the U.S. government, in a major turn toward empire, decided to make them colonies of the United States.
That’s how the U.S. government acquired its base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a base that more than 100 years later has been turned into a place of shame and infamy by the Pentagon and the CIA. As soon as the war against Spain was over, U.S. forces installed a puppet regime in Cuba, forced it to sign the perpetual Guantanamo lease, and demanded that U.S. officials have ultimate say over how Cuba would be run.
In other words, an imperial colony, just like Cuba’s status had been under the Spanish Empire. Thus began the decades-long U.S. obsession with controlling Cuba and treating it as a U.S. colony.
It was no different with the Philippines, only in that country people fought back, just as they had against Spanish troops. In quelling their quest for independence from the United States, U.S. forces killed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, depending on whose estimates are used. Presaging the U.S. war in Vietnam, U.S. troops destroyed entire villages and subjected countless Filipinos to the “water cure,” the form of torture that today is called “waterboarding.”
Recall that when President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to provoke the Japanese into attacking the United States, he stationed U.S. troops in the Philippines to serve as bait for the Japanese. Hardly anyone then or now asked an important question: What in the world were U.S. troops doing in the Philippines rather than stationed in the United States? The answer stretches back to the turn toward empire that took place in 1898 and the resulting acquisition of the Philippines as a U.S. colony.
Of course, to be totally accurate about the turn toward empire, we probably should go back to the U.S. government’s acquisition of Hawaii, a chain of islands thousands of miles away from American shores. In 1893, a group of U.S. citizens backed by a contingent of U.S. Marines overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom of Queen Liliuokalani. Five years later, the U.S. government annexed the islands. That’s what enabled FDR in 1941 to station U.S. troops and aircraft carriers in Hawaii — 2,400 miles from American shores — as bait for the Japanese to attack.
One of the greatest essays you’ll ever read is “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” by William Graham Sumner. It can be read here in three different formats — pdf, epub, and Kindle. Sumner pointed out that while the United States had defeated Spain in the war, in actuality it was Spain that had won because the United States would inevitably become like the Spanish Empire and like all other empires in history. The turn toward empire and intervention, Sumner argued, would ultimately change the nature of America’s government and America’s society.
Spain was the first, for a long time the greatest, of the modern imperialistic states. The United States, by its historical origin, its traditions, and its principles, is the chief representative of the revolt and reaction against that kind of a state. I intend to show that, by the line of action now proposed to us, which we call expansion and imperialism, we are throwing away some of the most important elements of the American symbol and are adopting some of the most important elements of the Spanish symbol. We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies….
Here is another point in regard to which the conservative elements in the country are making a great mistake to allow all this militarism and imperialism to go on without protest. It will be established as a rule that, whenever political ascendency is threatened, it can be established again by a little war, filling the minds of the people with glory and diverting their attention from their own interests….
The expansionists have recognized this fact by already casting the Constitution aside. The military men, of course, have been the first to do this. It is of the essence of militarism that under it military men learn to despise constitutions, to sneer at parliaments, and to look with contempt on civilians….
I submit that it is a strange incongruity to utter grand platitudes about the blessings of liberty, etc., which we are going to impart to these people, and to begin by refusing to extend the Constitution over them, and still more, by throwing the Constitution into the gutter here at home. If you take away the Constitution, what is American liberty and all the rest? Nothing but a lot of phrases.
What should Congress do about Puerto Rico? The same thing that it should do about the U.S. military base at Guantanamo. Let them go.