The Anti-Imperialist League and the Battle Against Empire


The United States was born in revolution and in an anti-colonial revolt. Sadly we turned our back on this and became an empire ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, Americans and others, as a result of our quest for power. This is a sad legacy. It does not negate the legitimate accomplishments of this country, of which there are many. But we should be much more cognizant of the American quest for empire.

The US is a country that was born in liberty and it should stand for these ideals. We were not supposed to be an empire.

(From Mises)

In April 1898 the United States went to war with Spain for the stated purpose of liberating Cuba from Spanish control. Several months later, when the war had ended, Cuba had been transformed into an American protectorate, and Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines had become American possessions.

When the US government decided not to grant independence to the Philippines, Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo determined to resist American occupying forces. The result was a brutal guerrilla war that stretched on for years. Some 200,000 Filipinos lost their lives, either directly from the fighting or as a result of a cholera epidemic traceable to the war.

That American forces were engaged in a colonial war to suppress another people’s independence led to a great deal of soul-searching among important American thinkers, writers, and journalists. What eventually became the American Anti-Imperialist League began at a June 1898 meeting at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, where people concerned about the colonial policy that the US government may choose to adopt in the wake of the war gathered to speak out against the transformation of the United States into an imperial power. The League was formally established that November, dedicating its energies to propagating the anti-imperialist message by means of lectures, public meetings, and the printed word…

…Atkinson, like Storey, was for laissez faire — an important strain in anti-imperialist thought. Here was the old liberal tradition in all its wonderful consistency: in favor of private property and peace, and against looting and empire. George E. McNeill put it more simply: “Wealth is not so rapidly gained by killing Filipinos as by making shoes.” Andrew Carnegie even offered to purchase the independence of the Philippines with a check for $20 million — the amount the US government had paid Spain for the islands. The New York Times denounced the offer as “wicked.” (Is the New York Times ever right about anything?)

At the same time, labor leaders like Samuel Gompers belonged to the league, as did other people who by some standards belong to the Left, like Jane Addams and William James. It was a cross-ideological organization against empire.

And yet, for all their tireless work, the anti-imperialists by and large failed to spark the national discussion about the role of the US government in the world that we have needed to engage in ever since. Today, that debate takes place only between neoconservatives and realists, both of whom agree on the need for some kind of major US military presence over much of the globe. Not only is nonintervention not even considered, but it is also enough to get you written out of polite society — what are you, some kind of extremist?

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