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Monday, April 21, 2008

Mark Twain's flag for the American colony in the Philippines...

Mark Twain was one of the most prominent opponents of the Philippine-American War and an outspoken anti-imperialist - an aspect of his biography that is probably as rarely mentioned in high school English classes as his critical views on religion.

After the 1898 war with Spain, the U.S. acquired various territories directly, including Cuba and Puerto Rico. Spain was unwilling to cede the Philippines, however, which had not been occupied by U.S. forces until after the armistice. Even then, U.S. forces only occupied Manila and its environs. Spain gave in to the offer of $20 million, however, and the islands became an American colony along with the Caribbean areas as a result of the Treaty of Paris. Cuba was denied independence until 1946. Unwilling to be subjugated by new masters, the Philippines declared independence. The Philippine-American War which followed lasted from 1899 to July 1902, but sporadic guerrilla warfare and rebellions for several more years, a phase called the "Philippine Insurrection." 4,000 American servicemen and at least five times as many Filipinos died in that conflict – far, far more than the several hundred Americans who died in the Spanish-American War. This war has almost totally disappeared from American historical memory, but reminders can still be seen, for example on the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Mark Twain initially supported both wars. He was living in Europe at the time and was more familiar with Boer War being fought by Britain and the Boxer rebellion being fought between China and a colonial coalition (including the United States). He believed the U.S. was, unlike the European powers in their colonies, fighting to liberate colonies from Spain. The rhetoric supported his opinion. McKinley had called annexation of foreign land "criminal aggression" and congress had passed resolution promising Cuban independence after the war.

In June of 1898 Mark Twain wrote in a letter: "I have never enjoyed a war – even in written history – as I am enjoying this one…It is a worthy thing to fight for one's freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man's. And I think this is the first time it has been done."

But his support for the war turned to opposition after reading the Treaty of Paris which ended the U.S. war with Spain. U.S. control of new colonies, the payment of $20 million, and the treaty's specific protection for Spanish landholders in Cuba were all factors which turned him against U.S. policy. He returned to the U.S. in October, 1900. Embarking in Europe, he told a reporter, using words much like those of anti-war activists today, that the war was, "a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extraction immensely greater."

His opinion got a lot of press in the context of the 1900 presidential campaign which revolved to some degree around the issue of imperialism. He advocated putting a miniature U.S. constitution in the Pacific, but "we have gone there to conquer, not to redeem." "And so I am an anti-imperialist." He soon joined the Anti-Imperialist League, which had been formed in 1898. With that organization, he went on to support the Russian Revolution (1905) and opposed Belgian control of Congo. He wrote and spoke on its behalf, but was not involved in the day to day work of the league, even after becoming the organization's vice president in 1901. He died in 1910.

His 1901 essay To the Person Sitting in Darkness was not an anti-American polemic, but a broad critique of western colonial imperialism. In it, he satirizes the colonial powers' claims to be bringing "civilization" to the "dark" corners of the globe. This and his other writings clearly show his disgust with American colonial-imperial policy and with atrocities committed during the insurrection. He mocked the American general Leonard Wood (who has a base named after him in Missouri) and praised the Filipino leader Aguinaldo.

It was in this sarcastic essay that he wrote, "And as for the flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily arranged. 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 cross-bones".

He had a clearer idea of the conflict than anti-imperialists of today do. He could openly and freely support Aguinaldo, while today's "progressives" are caught between a blundering, deadly and counter productive American foreign policy which they oppose on the one hand, and, in the Middle East, often an unsavory band of murderous criminals, terrorists, and ethnic nationalists which they cannot support on the other.

Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings, including To the Person Sitting in Darkness, have been collected in Zwick, Jim (Ed.): Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire. Anti-Imperialist Writings On the Philippine-American War. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, 1992. The information for the above commentary is from Zwick's introduction and Udo Sautter: Geschichte der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika.

(This article is reposted from the ProgBlog.)


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