The Siren Song of American Imperialism

U.S. troops pose with dead Moro rebels, Philippines, 1906

W.J. Astore

Introduction: In September 2012, I wrote the following piece on U.S. imperialism, inspired by an old sound recording.  It came to mind as I read a review in The Nation of a new book by Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.  Its reviewer, Brenda Wineapple, notes the terrible toll of America’s “splendid little war” against Spain in 1898, followed by the campaign to conquer and control (or, to use the expression from those days, to “civilize”) the Filipino people.  Here’s an excerpt from her review:

The war in the Philippines, however, was far from over. Even after McKinley’s assassination, US soldiers continued to ravage the country, killing Filipinos, burning their villages, and laying waste to crops; after three years of such “counterinsurgency,” Kinzer writes, “Americans lost whatever national innocence had survived slavery, anti-Indian campaigns, and the Mexican War.” Twain and the anti-
imperialists had never seen any innocence to speak of: “Lust of conquest had long ago done its work…. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket,” Twain wrote.

At the end of 41 months, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians had died, and at least 20,000 insurgents—far more than had perished in the 350 years of Spanish rule. But, Kinzer argues, no lessons had been learned: US foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries may spring from an ambivalence to intervene in the world, but it continues to represent itself as benevolent when it does so for its own economic self-interest.

She and Stephen Kinzer mention President William Howard Taft, which brings me again to my article from 2012.  I can still faintly hear Taft’s voice, emerging from my friend’s old phonograph horn, telling Americans how they had to embrace “the ignorant masses” of the Philippines.  How deadly that embrace would prove for so many Filipinos …

The Siren Song of American Imperialism (2012)

Considering the scale of our mistakes over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we as a country truly want to pursue a leaner, smarter, more effective foreign policy, the first step we must take is to stop listening to the siren song of our own imperial rhetoric. We need to stop posing as benevolent caregivers and start being more honest with ourselves.

And that honesty extends to our own history. The French have a saying that translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The appropriateness of that saying was brought home to me last week when a good friend of mine played an old campaign speech of William Howard Taft. In 1908, when he was running for president to succeed Teddy Roosevelt, Taft recorded several speeches on Edison-era cylinders. Fortunately for me, my friend collects vintage Edison phonographs and cylinders.

As I stood in front of the large trumpet-like horn of the player, Taft’s voice came alive for me. As Taft sought to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines, it occurred to me that the rhetoric he was using a century ago was the same as that of Presidents Bush and Obama in justifying our most recent foreign misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taft, as we shall see, was if anything more direct and honest than our most recent commanders-in-chief.

The thrust of Taft’s speech was that Americans were lifting up the benighted and “ignorant masses” of the Philippines. In Taft’s words, we were involved “in a great missionary work that does our nation honor,” one that “is certain to promote … the influence of Christian civilization.” Evidence of our progress included improvements to Filipino infrastructure such as the building of harbors, roads, and railroads. More evidence included our role in building up Filipino police forces to improve internal security. Education was also cited as decreasing “the dense ignorance of the ninety percent.”

Having portrayed our presence in the Philippines as purely benevolent and disinterested, Taft ended with a rousing dismissal of critics who were advocating what today would be termed “cutting and running.” To relinquish the “burden” of our civilizing mission in the Philippines, Taft concluded, would be “cowardly.”

Considering Taft’s rhetoric and comparing it to that of Bush and Obama, it’s clear that little has changed in one hundred years. It’s true that we no longer talk openly about spreading “Christian” civilization. And we’re more circumspect about portraying native peoples as “dense” and “ignorant.” But other than that, our imperial rhetoric hasn’t changed at all. Our presidents still praise our country as being motivated entirely by benevolence; as evidence of our generosity and “progress,” they still tout infrastructure built and native police forces trained; and they still dismiss critics of our imperial efforts as misguided (at best) or cowardly (of the worst kind of “cut and run” variety).

But the truth is that it’s tragically hard to win hearts and minds overseas when we don’t even recognize what’s in our own hearts and minds. We venture forth on “civilizing” missions when our own culture could use some civilizing. We think we’re pure of heart, but “civilizing” missions based on military occupation inevitably contain a heart of darkness.

Whether it’s the presidential election of 1908 or our current one of 2012, we’ve heard enough speeches about how great and noble and honorable we are. To chart a new course, let’s educate our own “ignorant natives” in the USA before we try to cure ignorance elsewhere. Let’s rebuild our own crumbling infrastructure. Let’s tame our own passions. And let’s reconnect with a virtue that, though not unique to Christianity, was then and is now closely associated with it. The virtue? Humility.

To put this in words that may have resonated with Taft, the self-styled “Christian missionary,” let’s first work on removing the beam from our own eye before focusing on the motes in the eyes of others. For it’s only after removing our own beam that we’ll succeed in charting a smarter foreign policy — as well as a far less hypocritical one.

To paraphrase Taft, it would be cowardly indeed to lay down the burden of removing that beam until our purpose is achieved.