Mark Twain on American Imperialism

With the long U.S. involvement in the Philippines about to end. The Atlantic, through the eyes of Mark Twain, looks bark at the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, a war that many Americans saw as not only a calamity for the Filipinos but also a betrayal of our anti-imperial past. Twain’s angry essay serves to remind us that some of the assumptions that drove U. S. foreign policy in the Cold War—foremost among them that we should spread our way of life to the world—go back to a time before communism, and might therefore live on into a world without communism

IN SEPTEMBER OF 1901 EDWIN WILDMAN, A WAR CORrespondent, sent Mark Twain a copy of Aguinaldo, his biography of Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino guerrilla leader and the President of the new Philippine Republic, which U.S. soldiers were then about the business of crushing. Wildman hoped for an endorsement of his book by Twain, who was not only America’s most famous author but also a vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League—an organization of intellectuals and educators founded to protest U.S. annexation of the Philippines. Twain had just finished work on an essay called “The United States of Lyncherdom,” and the reader can easily see the continuity of outrage between that piece and the review-essay printed below.

Unfortunately for Wild man, Twain’s appreciation did not find its way into print. Twain finished it, but in February of 1902 carved out a slice (including the excerpt from Wildman’s narrative which begins on page 62) to complete a third piece, “A Defence of General Funston,” which was of course no defense but a satiric excoriation of the officer who had captured Aguinaldo by resorting to an ignoble trick. So his review of Aguinaldo was never published. What looked to be an uncompleted manuscript under tht title sat in the Twain papers at the University of California at Berkeley for decades. Finally, in 1989, Jim Zwick, an independent researcher compiling an anthology of Twain’s writings on the Philippine-American War, noticed that four pages in the Funston piece had canceled page numbers corresponding to the pages missing from the “Aguinaldo” typescript. He restored the pages, and, ninety-one years too late to help sales of Wildman’s book. The Atlantic, which first published one of Twain’s stories in 1874, is pleased to present this previously unpublished essay.

In “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” which was distributed as a card by the New England Anti-Imperialist League, Twain wrote: “I bring you the stately matron called CHRISTENDOM—returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria. South Africa and the Philippines; with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocricies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.”

That the European branch of “Christendom” could not look in that glass for the horrors it had perpetrated while spreading “pity and science and progress,” in Joseph Conrad’s words, to the peoples Rudyard Kipling called “lesser breeds without the law” was taken for granted by Americans in the 1890s. They were imperialist powers; we were a republic. By definition, by tradition, by the pull of our heritage as an anticolonial people conceived in a revolution against an empire, we could not be imperialists. Then Cuban rebels launched an insurrection against Spanish colonial rule in Cuba, the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor, and the United States sent troops to Cuba to aid the rebels. Was this imperialism? Mark Twain didn’t think so. “It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s freedom,” he wrote to a friend; “it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s. And I think this is the first time it has been done.” But in the course of fighting the Spanish Empire, Admiral George Dewey sank the Spanish Meet in Manila Bay, in May of 1898, and the Philippines, a Spanish possession for over 300 years, was ceded for the sum of $20 million to the United States in the treaty ending the Spanish-American War. The United States was now the equal of the imperialist European powers: at last it had an overseas possession of its own. It was, as Twain said in a speech introducing the twenty-six-year-old Winston Churchill to a New York audience, “kin in sin” to the Europeans—and the nation’s most celebrated writer was stirred to years of passionate dissent.

In “The Philippine Incident,” Twain re-created the scene at President William McKinley’s Cabinet meeting as word arrived of Dewey’s victory.

Several questions were placed before the cabinet.

First. What is Manila? A town, continent, archipelago, or what? This was found difficult. Some members believed it was one of these things, some another. The President reserved his opinion.

Second. Where was it? Some members thought it was somewhere, some thought it was elsewhere, others thought not. Again the President declined to commit himself.

A rebellion parallel to the one in Cuba had been going on against the Spanish authorities in the Philippines since 1896, but the native peoples of the islands were deemed incapable of self-rule, so in an act of “benevolent assimilation,” to use McKinley’s contemporary euphemism, the United States absorbed the Philippines and, in February of 1899, began a war of suppression against the Filipino “rebels” led by Emilio Aguinaldo.

Twain described the war as “a mess, a quagmire.” It was not the only foreshadowing of Vietnam and the Cold War to come out of a conflict that Twain and his associates in the Anti-Imperialist League saw as serving the twined interests of the “trusts” and the armed services, a pre-Cold War version of the military-industrial complex.

“I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land,” Twain wrote. And he imagined a “person sitting in darkness” in the Philippines trying to understand how the United States had gone from playing the democratic “American Game” in Cuba to playing the imperialistic “European Game” in the Philippines. The person says to himself, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Eighty-odd years later the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes would still be using the two-Americas trope to explain how it was that a nation free and democratic at home could so often act so wantonly abroad, and particularly among the countries of a hemisphere that it treated as its own.

The Philippine-American War lasted officially until July of 1902, although fighting dragged on; perhaps as many as a million Filipinos died in combat and from warrelated diseases. The fundamental question raised by the war, in Twain’s view, was this: “Shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest?”

Aguinaldo tracks the life story of a man Twain compared to George Washington and Joan of Arc, and it relates the circumstances under which he was caught. Readers will be curious to know what happened to him after his capture. The rest of his story is simply told. After being held under house arrest until the war was over, he retired to his village in Kawit and managed his family’s plantations there for decades. In the 1930s he ran for the presidency of the Philippines, which by then had been promised independence by the United States, but he lost, and returned to obscurity. During the Second World War his understandable aversion to the United States led the Filipino George Washington briefly to become a Filipino Benedict Arnold, broadcasting Japanese propaganda to the besieged U.S. forces on Corregidor under the command of Douglas MacArthur, whose father, Arthur, as U.S. commander in the Philippines, had personally approved General Funston’s treacherous plan. Aguinaldo was not prosecuted after the war, and on Philippine Independence Day, July 4, 1946, he appeared in a parade carrying the revolutionary flag that he had first raised in 1898, against the Spanish. For almost half a century he had worn a black bow tie, in mourning for the Philippine Republic of 1899. That day he took it off. He lived until 1964, dying just short of his ninety-fifth birthday.

Sometime this year the United States is scheduled to withdraw from Subic Bay, which became its principal naval installation in the Philippines in 1901, the year Twain’s essay was written.