By 1899, the United States was involved in its first war in Asia. Three others were to follow in the course of the next century: against Japan, North Korea and China, and, finally, Viet Nam. But our first Asian war was against the Filipinos.
At the end of the Spanish-American War, we collected Puerto Rico as a colony, set up a protectorate over Cuba, and annexed the Hawaiian Islands. President William McKinley also forced Spain to cede the Philippine Islands. To the American people, McKinley explained that, almost against his will, he had been led to make the decision to annex: “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and christianize them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” McKinley was either unaware of or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, by most accounts, already Christians. In reality, the annexation of the Philippines was the centerpiece of the “large policy” pushed by the imperialist cabal to enlist the United States in the ranks of the great powers. To encourage the Americans in their new role, Rudyard Kipling, the British imperialist writer, composed a poem urging them to “take up the White Man’s Burden.”
There was a problem, however. When the war with Spain started, Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the Philippine independence movement, had been brought to the islands by Commodore Dewey himself. Aguinaldo had raised an army of Filipino troops who had acquitted themselves well against the Spanish forces. But they had fought side by side with the Americans to gain their independence from Spain, not to change imperial masters. With the Spaniards gone, the Filipinos prepared a constitution for their new country — while McKinley prepared to conquer it. Hostilities broke out in February 1899, and an American army of 60,000 men was sent halfway across the globe to subdue a native people.
Probably a majority of Americans joined in the fun of the faraway war. But thoughtful citizens wondered what this strange adventure would mean for the republic.
To protest the war with Spain, the Anti-Imperialist League had been formed. It included some of the most distinguished figures in politics, business, journalism, and education. Most were also, not by accident, believers in the classical-liberal, laissez-faire vision of American society and staunch advocates of free enterprise, small government, low taxes, and the gold standard. Now the league turned its efforts to ending the war against the Philippines and stopping the annexation of the islands. What was occurring, they warned, was a revolution. While most Americans remained seemingly unaware or unconcerned, the U.S. was entering onto the road of imperialism, which, the League declared, “is hostile to liberty and tends towards militarism, an evil from which it is our glory to be free.” The “large policy” of global expansion would mean never-ending war and preparation for war; and that would mean ever-increasing government control and ever-higher taxes.
Carl Schurz, leader of the German-American community, had come here to escape militarism and arbitrary government in his native country. He pointed out the consequences of the new dispensation: “Every American farmer and workingman, when going to his toil, will, like his European brother, have to carry a fully-armed soldier on his back.” Edward Atkinson, who was head of a Boston insurance company as well as a radical libertarian, produced a series of pamphlets, including “The Cost of a National Crime,” detailing the U. S. military oppression of the Filipinos as well as the burgeoning cost of the war to peaceful American taxpayers. E. L. Godkin, editor of The Nation , at the time the country’s leading classical-liberal magazine, accused the imperialists of wanting to make America into “a great nation” in the European style, and thus prove that Washington and Jefferson had been a pair of “old fools.” Andrew Carnegie critiqued the doctrine that annexation of the Philippines was somehow required for American prosperity. And Mark Twain weighed in with sardonic blasts at a marauding American government that was betraying the principles it allegedly upheld. For their pains, the opponents of the war were smeared as contemptible “traitors” by the establishment press, led by The New York Times .
The anti-imperialists gained powerful ammunition for their attacks when letters from American soldiers to their families at home detailed — often with naive pride — the atrocities being committed by U. S. troops. Prisoners were routinely shot, whole villages burned down, civilians, including children, killed in batches of hundreds — all with the knowledge of — and usually under the direction of — commanding officers. Soon the Filipino victims were in the tens of thousands, and the number of American casualties far outnumbered those of the Spanish-American War itself. Americans in the Philippines were conducting themselves worse than the Spaniards ever had in Cuba. People wondered: How did we ever get ourselves into such a mess? The anti-imperialists pointed out that this was how the British were acting in the Sudan, the Italians in Abyssinia, the Germans in Southwest Africa. It was part of the price of empire.
The dirty war went on until, in March 1901, Aguinaldo was captured and the Filipino fighters surrendered. But now America was an Asiatic power, plunged into the maelstrom of the imperialist struggle in the Far East. Secretary of State John Hay proclaimed the “Open Door” policy in China: American diplomatic, political, and, if necessary, military power would be applied to force free trade throughout China. Our advance base in the Philippines and our wide-ranging Chinese policy would obviously entail conflict with powers already there. Already, at the Navy Department, they were beginning to talk of the coming “inevitable” war with Japan.
We began to meddle in world affairs — or, as the imperialists put it, to assume our “global responsibilities” in ways our leaders had studiously avoided before. We took part in international conferences; we dispatched troops to China to join those of the other powers in putting down the Boxer Rebellion of Chinese patriots; we sailed our shining new navy around the world to show that we too had become a world power; and our government became a promoter of overseas investment and foreign trade on a grand scale and at taxpayers’ expense. In Washington, the bureaucracies expanded at the State Department, the Navy Department, and elsewhere, filled with bright young men steeped in the new vision of America’s global destiny. More and more, the American wealth machine was diverted to furnishing the underpinnings of world power.
When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he was succeed as president by one of the country’s prime imperialists. Theodore Roosevelt was a politician of the new breed through and through. With great insight, H. L. Mencken later compared him with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Both loved big armies and, especially, navies, Mencken wrote, and both believed in strong government both at home and abroad; no one ever heard either of them ever speak of the rights of man, only of the duties of citizens to the state. Interestingly, Teddy Roosevelt was a boyhood hero of a later American president — Lyndon Johnson — who admired his “toughness.”
A good deal of that reputation for “toughness” derived from the Perdicaris affair in 1904. This episode showed for the first time how an instant “success” overseas could be used by a president for his own political advantage. A Republican convention was meeting in Chicago, without much enthusiasm, to renominate Roosevelt for president. Ion Perdicaris was a wealthy merchant living in Morocco. Allegedly an American citizen, he had been seized by a Moroccan chieftain named Raisuli and held for ransom. Roosevelt rushed American warships to Tangiers, and the famous, curt message was telegraphed to the Sultan: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
When the Republican convention heard the news, it went wild with patriotic fervor. The only problem was that the State Department had already informed Roosevelt that Perdicaris was no longer an American citizen, having registered as a Greek subject in Athens for business reasons. Moreover, arrangements had already been made to free him. Roosevelt was aware of all of this; but the political gain from deceiving the public was too tempting. In time, other presidents would learn the same trick of projecting American power overseas simply to give their personal popularity a much-needed boost.
In 1912, Woodrow Wilson was elected president in a three-way election. Wilson was a “progressive,” a leader in the movement that advocated using the full power of government to create “real democracy” at home. But Wilson’s horizons were much broader than the United States. Preaching the gospel of “making the world safe for democracy,” he aimed to extend the progressive creed to the ends of the earth. More than Franklin Roosevelt himself, Woodrow Wilson is the patron saint of the “exporting democracy” clique in America today.
Even before the crisis came, Wilson announced his new revelation:
It is America’s duty and privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder to lift the burdens of mankind in the future and show the paths of freedom to all the world. America is henceforth to stand for the assertion of the right of one nation to serve the other nations of the world.
Soon America had its chance to serve. In 1914, Europe went to war, the bloodiest and costliest war in history up to that time.
The First World War was triggered by the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, by a Bosnian Serb. But the war’s twisted roots went back for decades in the dark and complex diplomacy of the great powers. By 1914, Europe was an armed camp, divided into two great opposing blocks: the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and England, and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and a less-than-reliable Italy. All the powers had vast armies and navies, equipped with the latest, most expensive weapons modern technology could produce.
When they heard of the murder of the Archduke (and of his wife Sophie), the Austrians decided to put an end, once and for all, to the Serbian threat to their tottering empire. They felt secure in the support of a powerful Germany. But Serbia was the protégé of Russia and the key to Russia’s designs in the Balkans. And Russia was allied with France, which in turn was linked to Britain by a “cordial understanding,” or Entente Cordiale. In the last weeks of July, halfhearted peace proposals were swept aside, as mutual fear gripped the European leaders and the orders were issued to mobilize the great armies. Ultimatums and declarations of war followed each other in rapid succession. By August 4, 1914, the European powers were at war and their armies were on the march.