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Mark Twain and American Anti-Imperialism

Returning to the United States in October 1900 from nearly ten years living abroad, Mark Twain made what the New York Sun called a “startling” announcement. “I am an anti-imperialist,” he declared. “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” With that statement, he launched an often intense personal campaign against the Philippine-American War and U.S. imperialism. Within months he was made a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, the organized opposition to the war, and he held that post until he died in April 1910.

Mark Twain’s turn-of-the-century protest reminds us that the long-standing U.S.-Philippine relationship was not always widely accepted within the United States. He and his associates in the Anti-Imperialist League saw the war not only as a tragedy for the Filipinos but as a threat to America’s democratic and anti-colonial political traditions. The United States was, after all, a republic formed by a revolution against an empire, a revolution that held liberty and self-government as fundamental ideals.

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Then, in 1898, the United States intervened in Cuba’s revolution for independence from Spain. The resulting “splendid little war,” as John Hay, the U.S. ambassador to England, described the three-month Spanish-American War, closed with a treaty ceding to the United States control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Spain was paid twenty million dollars for the Philippines.

Like many Americans, Twain thought that the war with Spain was fought solely to free Cuba from Spanish oppression, and he supported it for that reason. But when he read the Treaty of Paris that concluded the war he learned that the U.S. government had no intention of freeing any of the other Spanish colonies. Interviewed in October 1900 about his anti-imperialist stance, he explained, “I thought it would be a great thing to give a whole lot of freedom to the Filipinos, but I guess now that it’s better to let them give it to themselves.” He later called the $20 million payment for the Philippines the United States’ “entrance fee into society — the Society of Sceptred Thieves.”

When it purchased the Philippines, the United States held only Manila and its suburbs. The Filipinos, who had been fighting for their independence since 1896, controlled the rest of the country. With the Treaty of Paris still pending before the Senate, U.S. troops fired on a group of Filipinos in February 1899, and the war began. Or, as Mark Twain put it in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” his first major satire of the war: “What we wanted, in the interest of Progress and Civilization, was the Archipelago, unencumbered by patriots struggling for independence; and War was what we needed. We clinched our opportunity.” The war officially lasted for more than three years; skirmishes and local rebellions continued throughout the islands long afterwards.

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Mark Twain described the war as “a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.” This statement was not the only omen of Vietnam to come from the United States’ first protracted war in Asia. In a practice later repeated in Vietnam, U.S. Army officials tried to placate growing concern about the war within the United States by releasing casualty figures that purportedly showed that victory was imminent. In “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Twain quoted a recently released War Department report: “During the last ten months our losses have been 268 killed and 750 wounded; Filipino loss, three thousand two hundred and twenty-seven killed, and 694 wounded.” [Emphasis added by Twain.]

Twain’s essay was ostensibly directed to the “persons sitting in darkness” in China, South Africa and the Philippines who were then having “Progress and Civilization” conferred upon them by the “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust.” “We must stand ready to grab the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Twain commented at this point in his narrative, “for he will swoon away at this confession, saying: ‘Good God, those “niggers” spare their wounded, and the Americans massacre theirs!’” “Do not wince at the word [“niggers”],” Twain wrote in another essay; “I note that many of our people out there use it to describe the Filipino.” Within the United States, too, editorial cartoons frequently portrayed Filipinos as stereotyped blacks. Paternalistic cartoons depicted Filipinos as black children being carried off to a school by a U.S. soldier or lectured to in a classroom presided over by President McKinley. The reality during the war was often more brutal. A U.S. soldier writing home in early 1899 declared, “Our fighting blood was up and we all wanted to kill ‘niggers.’… This shooting human being beats rabbit hunting all to pieces.”

Mark Twain turned such racist sentiments around to argue that the Filipinos were more civilized than the Americans who sought to rule them. When the Filipino army was accused of torturing and killing prisoners, Twain replied: “I wish to put the real blame where it belongs. The pupils were not worse than the friars who taught them these things. And they were not worse than were our Christian Ku-Klux gangs of a former time, nor than are our church-going negro-burners of today. And these native-American torturers and assassins have not the Katipunan’s excuse: for they had no teachers, they invented their brutalities themselves.” In February 1899, Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” was published in the United States. Written as if from one Anglo-Saxon nation to another — and published on the eve of war in the Philippines while the Treaty of Paris was being debated in the U.S. Senate — it urged the United States to accept its responsibilities as an imperialist power. Two years of war later, Twain remarked: “The White Man’s Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man’s?”

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Eight years before the war began, José Rizal, the martyred 19th-century Filipino nationalist, wrote: “Patriotism is a crime only in imperialist countries because then it is only a beautiful name for exploitation.” Mark Twain held similar views. In an April 1902 speech, he commented on the U.S. Philippine Commission’s new treason act that made advocacy of Philippine independence a crime punishable by a year’s imprisonment. “On these terms, I would rather be a traitor than an archangel,” he declared. “On these terms, I am quite willing to be called a traitor — quite willing to wear that honourable badge — and not willing to be affronted with the title of Patriot and classed with the Funstons when so help me God I have not done anything to deserve it.” His casual reference to General Frederick Funston was particularly meaningful to his audience. During a widely publicized speech delivered in New York City just one month earlier, Funston was cheered when he called for anti-imperialist writers to be “hanged for treason.”

In what might now be considered an Orwellian reversal of the meaning of the date, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the war over on July 4, 1902. His symbolic use of that date was neither the first nor the last time the Fourth of July would mark significant events in the “shared history” of the United States and the Philippines. On July 4, 1901, the first civilian U.S. government was established in the Philippines, and on July 4, 1946, the Philippines were finally granted independence.

The anti-imperialists also marked the holiday year after year, but with protests against the continuing U.S. occupation of the Philippines. On July 4, 1901, the Anti-Imperialist League published an address to the American people in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Signed by Mark Twain and some fifty other leaders of the League, this statement drew a stark contrast between the constitutional republic founded after the revolution of 1776 and the arbitrary rule established in the Philippines. “Ours is the policy of liberty,” the League asserted. “Ours is the cause for which the American revolution was fought.” To Mark Twain and his associates, anti-imperialism was the fundamental principle upon which the country was founded. They believed, as The Nation commented in May of 1902, that “anti-imperialism is only another name for old-fashioned Americanism.”

Mark Twain’s opposition to the war did not end with Roosevelt’s premature declaration that the war was over. In March of 1906 he was roused by newspaper reports of the massacre of 900 Muslim Filipinos who had been cornered in the volcanic basin of Mount Dajo. Commanded by Major General Leonard Wood, who was later appointed Governor General of the Philippines, U.S. troops stationed on the rim of the volcano fired down on the Filipinos for four days until all 900 were dead — including women and children. Twain wrote that “General Wood was present and looking on. His order had been, ‘Kill or capture those savages.’ Apparently our little army considered that the ‘or’ left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years, in our army out there — the taste of Christian butchers.”

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In a private journal entry from 1908, Mark Twain’s pessimism about the course his country had taken was clear: “We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had: the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he (just he, by himself) believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word, Patriotism.” In its place the United States had adopted the “gospel” of the European monarchies: “The King can do no wrong.” “We have adopted it,” he wrote, “with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’”

With the defeat of Spain and the conquest of the Philippines, the United States was launched as a world power. In a passage that reads like a 1901 vision of the Central Intelligence Agency, Twain wrote that “the government thenceforth made the sly and treacherous betrayal of weak republics its amusement, and the stealing of their lands and the assassination of their liberties its trade.” The country also lost its self-respect, he observed, “but after a little ceased to be troubled by this detail.”

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Mark Twain and American Anti-Imperialism. (2021, Feb 10). Retrieved February 7, 2023, from