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J.G. Wright

A Page of American Imperialism

(June 1936)

From New International, Vol.3 No.3, June 1936, pp.86-89.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido & Einde O’Callaghan. [A]
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AS LATE AS the year 1896 an English historian like Bryce was able to announce in his well-known work, The American Commonwealth, that the same thing could be said about American foreign policy as about the snakes in Iceland: there was no such creature.

In 1898 the United States was a world power conducting a colonial policy with the perfect consciousness of her major imperialist interests.

The factual history of this seemingly astounding transformation is very simple and quite transparent. But the American, i.e., capitalist school of historians persists in pretending that it was sheer coincidence that America entered the Spanish war to emancipate “little” Cuba and concluded it by a bloody subjugation of the Philippines. The liberal historian Beard (a very “critical” man) does not go beyond a mild surmise that a “number of active politicians had early perceived the wider implications of a war with Spain”; and he denies that there is any reason for even “believing that all who sat at the President’s inner council table had at the time any such definite imperial design.”

The Spanish-American war is vaguely explained, as a rule, by the hysteria drummed by the “yellow press” (Hearst, Pulitzer and Co.). Says a Professor at Clark University: “The newspaper press of the time inflamed popular passion till almost any lie received currency.” (A.L.P. Dennis, Adventures in American Diplomacy, p. 63.) “Certain newspapers, notably those owned by William Randolph Hearst, fanned the flames.” (L.B. Shippee, Recent American History, p.238.)

But, of course, they all insist that there was no connection at all between a campaign in the press, and the policy pursued by the government. “No considerable group of people or politicians talked of annexation or conquest.” (F.L. Paxson, Recent History of the US, p. 275.) A Harvard historian, Archibald C. Coolidge, remarks blandly: “It was not merely that the Americans had a natural sympathy for the insurgents as a people striving to free themselves from tyranny, but they were tired of a commotion at their very door.” (A.C. Coolidge, US As a World Power, p.128.) And Chester Lloyd Jones ably sums up as follows:

“At the end of the century the US came into conflict with Spain the result of which made her a holder of both Caribbean and Asiatic colonies. This war, however, was a development of no conscious imperialism, and one but slightly, if at all, connected with the movement for increased colonial holdings in which the European powers had been engaged.” (Jones, Caribbean Interests of the US, p.19.)

And to prove that the American people were acting from no selfish motives, Congress proclaimed that it had no annexations in mind, passing the Teller resolution to this effect, after a week’s debate on McKinley’s war message (April 18, 1898). [1]

The authority from Harvard tells us that “This self-denying ordinance was voted in a moment of excitement, and in all sincerity.” (Coolidge, op. cit., p.129.)

And another authority swears, “This ... resolution gave the war the appearance of altruism and was undoubtedly sincerely approved by the great majority of Americans.” (A.L.P. Dennis, op. cit., p.75.)

To introduce a slightly sour note into this symphony of excitement, altruism and sincerity, we quote from still another authority. Months before the battleship Maine was sunk (on September 21, 1897), one, Theodore Roosevelt, the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wrote to another gentleman not unknown to Harvard, Henry Cabot Lodge, that in the event of war: “Our Asiatic squadron should blockade and if possible take Manila.” Lodge, replying a little later, remarks with satisfaction: “Unless I am utterly and profoundly mistaken, the Administration is now fully committed to the large policy that we both desire.” (Our emphasis.) They at least seemed to know what was at stake, and how to get it.

As we already know, an uprising flared up in Cuba. Spain was very sorry, and very ready to conciliate. Suddenly the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor.

“Remember the Maine!
“To Hell with Spain!”

To hell with peace talk. The war was on.

No sooner were hostilities declared, than, strange to tell, a national uprising immediately flared in the Philippines – far, far away on the Pacific Ocean, and belonging to Spain. Through a mysterious coincidence, the American “Asiatic” Fleet happened to be nearby. Battleships and revolutions have an affinity. Since the Americans did not want to have their ships blown up, there was nothing to do except to attack Manila and blow up the Spanish fleet ... although, as a newspaper wit remarked at the time, the American people “didn’t know whether they [the Philippines] were islands or canned goods”.

The American people were dumbfounded.

“Astonishment bordering upon bewilderment seized the American public ... that it [the war] should have reverberations in the Orient was beyond comprehension. Slowly it was understood that freeing Cuba was not a simple proposition.” (L.B. Shippee, op. cit., p.244.)

Such a slow and complex proposition deserves a little attention. We shall try to establish a few facts about this happy coincidence. Everybody knows what Dewey did, once he got to Manila and fired another shot that “was heard around the world”. But who got Dewey to Manila? Who timed the long, long journey so nicely? None other than our frank correspondent, the mere Assistant Secretary.

“The vessels on the Asiatic station had recently received a new commander, after a fortunate selection which was less due to merit than to politics. Assistant Secretary Roosevelt was responsible for the detail of George Dewey to the post ...” (F.L. Paxson, op. cit., p.279.)

Obviously, we are dealing with people who are fortunate in everything they do!

But let us hear more about Roosevelt’s “own” actions:

In advance of the message of April 11 [McKinley’s war message to Congress] he [T.R. himself] had taken the responsibility of ordering Dewey to proceed to Hong Kong there to clean ship and outfit, and thence in the event of war to proceed to Manila ...” (Ibid.)

When Dewey, who was appointed not so much on merit as because of “political considerations”, arrived in Hong Kong, he was shocked by the news that the eventuality had become a fact.

“Three days after the beginning of the war, on April 24, a British proclamation of neutrality made it impossible for Dewey to continue at Hong Kong. The war itself had brought into operation the orders he had received from Secretary Roosevelt.” (Ibid., p.276.)

This is corroborated by L.B. Shippee who says:

“In accordance with plans worked out largely [!!!] by Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Commodore Dewey commanding the Asiatic squadron, proceeded from his station at Hong Kong to the Philippines. There was little else to do: Dewey could not remain at Hong Kong without being interned for the duration of the war; the only alternatives were making for a home post, thousands of miles away, or striking at and securing some position upon enemy territory ...” (Recent American History, p.244.)

But Dewey apparently did more than he was instructed. For in addition to “cleaning ships, etc.”, he somehow got in touch with Aguinaldo, who was the leader of the previous native revolt against Spanish rule. Dewey made a deal with Aguinaldo. There has been a considerable controversy over this deal.

“Even today just what sort of arrangement was made between Dewey and Filipinos is in doubt.” (L.B. Shippee, op. cit., p.257.)

It is generally agreed that it was an unfortunate misunderstanding. Aguinaldo insists that Dewey had promised him independence for the Philippines. Dewey on his part violently denies this. True, a misguided historian like N.W. Stephenson asserts rashly that Aguinaldo set up a nominal republic which “Dewey recognized as if it were an actual state.” (A History of the American People, p.989.) But as Archibald C. Coolidge correctly points out:

“The American government ... gave Aguinaldo no promise whatever. Indeed, Admiral Dewey and the consul at Hong Kong could in no wise commit the administration in a matter of such importance.” (US As a World Power, p.153.)

The entire trouble arose as a result of the fact that the negotiations were carried on by word of mouth through an interpreter. We can not do better than quote Archibald again:

“There has been much heated discussion about the extent to which the Americans committed themselves to the support of Aguinaldo in their original compact with him ... In trying to reconcile the different versions of what was agreed upon, it must be remembered that the negotiating was done through an interpreter. Translations of this kind, with the best of intentions and every precaution are notoriously unsafe ... We have no proof that the words exchanged between Aguinaldo and Mr. Wildman in Hong Kong, in May 1898, were correctly rendered from one to the other. Who knows whether the interpreter even tried to be exact? And admitting he did, a misunderstanding is easy to conceive.” [2] (Ibid., p.153.)

One thing is clear: Aguinaldo was left with the consoling thought that “misunderstandings” of this sort must have played a considerable role in the history of capitalist expansion.

Thanks to this misunderstanding the Filipinos fought and died for the rule of the Yankee imperialists while thinking that they were fighting for their own independence.

Aguinaldo and his Filipinos were very badly needed. The American imperialists had a few difficulties to overcome before their plans could be smoothly realized. First, there were the dumb and pathetic “Populists” and “Democrats”, who unfortunately had too many votes in Congress, and who had to be led by their noses carefully, lest they upset the apple-cart. They made enough trouble as it was with their “altruistic” revolution, which made Whitelaw Reid foam at his mouth. But worse yet, McKinley, the figurehead as President, was in a constant panic lest somehow the entire sincerity and altruism should plop into the open. He was constantly getting down on his knees and praying, while others, like Roosevelt, were working away like beavers to provide against every possible contingency. Small wonder that our frank Assistant Secretary lost his temper and barked: “McKinley had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

True, Lodge kept hammering away, prodding and planning. Porto Rico was already secure, but the Philippines were not quite so safe. In May 1898 (and a merry month it must have been!) he writes to Theodore, who was then aching to become a real Rough Rider, that there was no hurry about Cuba but that substantial land and naval forces should be rushed to Philippines. (Cf., Beard, Rise of American Civilisation, p.375.)

But one cannot do everything at once ... not even if one happens to be an imperialist par excellence, as all these gentlemen were. One has to wait for “consequences”, and the “needs” that they engender.

“The immediate consequence of Dewey’s victory at Manila was a need for an occupying army ... the fleet was destroyed but Dewey had no troops to grasp the fruits of victory ...” Emilio Aguinaldo was brought to the islands (what foresight!) “for the purpose of keeping the revolt alive.” (F.L. Paxson, op. cit., p.277)

In short, no Filipinos “revolting” – no fruits to be plucked! But, fortunately they were there to fight. Dewey made sure of that by bringing Aguinaldo on a warship. He also supplied him with money and ammunition. Meanwhile, McKinley made speeches. Said he: “There is a very general feeling that the United States, whatever it might prefer as to the Philippines, is in a situation where it cannot let go”. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hay first proceeded to write remarkable diplomatic documents in which he said that the Philippine Islands must be allowed to remain with Spain, only to understand suddenly (on June 3, 1898) that this would have to be “modified” because “the insurgents there have become an important factor in the situation and must have just consideration in any terms of settlement”. And finally, (thank God), Lodge’s instructions were carried out. General Merrill set sail with “an advance guard of two regiments” and arrived at Manila with “instructions to ignore Aguinaldo and establish a provisional government under American auspices.” (N.W. Stephenson, A History of the American People, p.982.)

When we consider the difficulties under which this phase of American history was made, we stand aghast. One unforeseen difficulty after another! No sooner was Dewey really equipped to “grasp the fruits of victory”, than the war unfortunately came to an end, that is to say, an armistice had been signed. (Lodge had warned that there was no hurry about Cuba, but even Roosevelt, it seems, was fallible.)

However, this was a mere technicality. Due to faulty communications the news did not arrive in time, and three days after the signing of the armistice, Merill stormed Manila. Of course, the Filipino army was already there. But “Aguinaldo was induced to withdraw from Manila, pending the completion of the treaty.” (Ibid., p.982.)

The inefficient Spaniards raised a howl, insisting that an armistice was an armistice, no matter what sorts of faulty communications obtained, let alone “misunderstandings”. But the American government flatly refused to accede the demand that the status quo of August 12 be restored. However, it was ready to be broad-minded. The American government accepted the “principle” that the islands had not been conquered. The Spaniards collected $20,000,000. But no doubt, the enlightened American Commissioners all felt that it was not the money but the principle that counted. This Commission was composed of Day (first Secretary of State under McKinley), Davis (Senator from Minnesota), Frye (Senator from Maine), and Whitelaw Reid (editor of the New York Tribune) – all these men are admitted even by capitalist historians to have been “avowed imperialists”. No one was more qualified to settle the war than those who started it Besides, no one else could be trusted.

It transpired during the negotiations that Aguinaldo and his friends had entirely false notions on many subjects, their own importance included. “The insurgents, moreover, represented a relatively small group.” (L.B. Shippee, op. cit., p.252.) And F.L. Paxson is able to say with a sigh of relief and sorrow in retrospect that: “The date of victory at Manila marks the entry of the United States against its will upon an imperial course.” (Recent History of the US, p. 277.)

When the unenlightened Filipinos finally realized what had happened to them “against their will”, they tried to turn their guns against the Americans. And the unwilling Americans proceeded to teach them a few things about American concentration camps and American methods of civilizing backward people. Aguinaldo himself was finally captured in February 1901. Perhaps by then he was no longer capable of becoming astonished. After all, accidents can happen. But these are merely the flowers, the berries are still ahead.

If it was not another misunderstanding, it was certainly at least an accident that during this self-same Spanish-American War a revolution broke out ... this time in the Hawaiian Islands, also in the Pacific Ocean, but, it is true, not the property of Spain. Yet, on the other hand, of tremendous naval importance.

Coolidge, the historian, informs us that according to the opponents of imperialism in the United States, “the revolution by which the Queen had been overthrown was a usurpation of power by a handful of foreigners who would never have succeeded but for the landing of American troops” (p.134).

The anti-imperialists were not merely muck-raking. In 1893, a Committee of Public Safety “largely [!!!] composed of Americans and having the support of the American Minister Mr. Stevens, seized control of the government in Honolulu” and overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. (A.L.P. Dennis, Adventures in American Dipplomacy, p.103.)

Said the Minister Mr. Stevens at the time (1893) : “The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the US to pluck it.” The eloquent Minister was a connoisseur of fruit, but he was mistaken in his “golden hour”. Cleveland was then president, a man of inadequate girth and vision – a “larger” man was needed to herd the recalcitrant petty bourgeois in Congress.

Said McKinley in 1898: “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” The accommodating press screamed about the designs of the Japanese (to say nothing of the Germans) on Hawaii. “Extravagant tales”, comments one historian. Even more extravagant Congressmen yelled that American speculators had purchased $5,000,000 of Hawaiian bonds at 30 cents on the dollar and it was they who wanted to annex Hawaii so that the United States treasury would have to assume the responsibility for the worthless Hawaiian paper. Of all creatures, the petty bourgeois is the most extravagant! Sober men (Republicans) pointed out that the “Hawaiian Islands were necessary to the defense of the Philippines which in turn were necessary to defend American interests in the Far East.” (Beard, op. cit., p. 375.) And sobriety carried the day.

“The annexation was carried out during the excitement of the Spanish War, not by treaty – for fear that the necessary two-thirds majority could not be secured in the Senate – but by joint resolution of the two Houses of Congress.” (Coolidge, op. cit., p.135.)

As a matter of fact, it was impossible to secure the two-thirds vote of the Senate, and that is why recourse was had to the device of 1845. McKinley signed the “joint resolution of annexation” on July 7 (a few days after General Merrill had reached Manila).

All of which entitles American historians to say in chorus: “Another unforeseen [?] result of the war affected the Hawaiian Islands.” (L.B. Shippee, op. cit., p.248.)

The Peace of Paris, December 10, 1898, liquidated completely the colonial empire of Spain, the empire that had been crumbling to pieces, while so many hungry mouths were slavering. American imperialists took practically everything: Cuba, Porto Rico, the Philippines (3,000 odd islands), Guam, etc. What an extraordinary and choice selection! An astounding harvest, plucked in one “Golden War”! “Internationally there was astonishment at the outcome.” (L.B. Shippee, op. cit., p.245.) “To the greater part of Europe the war itself, and the course which it took came as an unpleasant surprise.” (Coolidge, op. cit., p.130.)

They have good reasons to gloat. A single glance at a map is sufficient to make clear that here was no accidental colonial grab – like that perpetrated by the German imperialists in their day, or by Mussolini and his crew today – but a painstaking, fully considered, consciously planned and executed preparation of US imperialism for its struggle for the richest colonial prize in the world – the outlets of the Orient fronting the Pacific Ocean.

“They gave the Americans a stronger strategic position in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean sea, coaling stations in the Pacific, and a base of operations in the Far East.” (Coolidge, op. cit., p.130.)

The Philippines are strategically located in respect to the most developed section of China, its southern section (Canton), just as Japan is located strategically in respect to Northern China and Manchuria. At the same time the Philippines provide a “base of operations” in the struggle for the Dutch Indies, and (whisper it!) India itself.

The Hawaiian Islands are a midway base en route to the Far East, of vital naval and military importance. Between the Hawaiian Islands, Asia and Australia there is nothing except the Islands of Fiji. Therefore, as Mahan, the American naval expert states, “the Hawaii are of utmost importance”. As far back as 1892, when England and France toyed with the idea of plucking the Hawaiian “pear”, the US government flatly declared that it would not tolerate the colonization of these islands by any European power, and would intervene with force of arms, if need be.

Porto Rico flanks the British and French possessions in the Antilles.

And as for Cuba – “the Pearl of the Antilles” – let us have an expert’s appraisal of a jewel like that!

“A glance at the map is enough to convince anyone of the unique importance of this island to the United States. Strategically it commands at one end the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico – the outlet to the huge Mississippi Valley – and at the other it fronts on the Caribbean Sea, and any future isthmian canal.” (Coolidge, op. cit., p.124. In 1908!)

American imperialists could not take the bull by the horns and set to the task of solving the question of the Panama Canal, that is, of a direct route to Asia, unless they had first seized Cuba and Porto Rico, unless they had beforehand guaranteed their key harbors to the Orient, and had established their “interests in the Far East” that must henceforth be so preciously protected.

After the Spanish-American War, “it [the United States] was now in a situation, as well as in a mood, to take up the canal question with an energy it had never before shown.” (Coolidge, op. cit., p.275.)

“The lessons of the Spanish-American War were clearly before the American people: a canal was an urgent necessity both from a naval and commercial point of view.” (A.L.P. Dennis, op. cit., p.157.)

In the above article we have dealt with the ways and means whereby the American imperialists prepared for a big job. In the next article we shall deal with their methods of actually building the “big ditch”. [3]



1. The text of the Teller resolution:

“That the US hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercize sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said Island except for the pacification thereof and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the Island to its people.”

2. The capitalist historians are greatly fetched by this explanation and do not tire of playing with it.

“Probably, however, the Filipinos, forced [?] to carry on much of their intercourse through interpreters, allowed their expectation to color their view of the agreement, since all Americans involved in the matter deposed that no promises of any kind were made.” (L.B. Shippee, Recent American History, p.257.)

3. Publication of The New International was suspended before the publication of the next issue as the Workers Party entered the Socialist Party. So far we have been unable to find out whether the second part was ever published. – ETOL

Transcriber’s note

A. The best online chronology of the 1898 Spanish-American War is to be found in the Library of Congress’ presentation The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War. In addition the following short overview can be consulted with profit: Hobart Spalding, U.S. imperialism and 1898, Monthly Review, 50 (7) December 1998. The best online source on the subsequent Filipino Insurrection (1899-1902), in which American soldiers massacred more than a quarter of a million civilians, is the website The Philippine-American War. An excellent article comparing the Philippine-American War (celebrated by the British Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling in his February 1899 poem The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands) with the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and U.S. Imperialism, by The Editors, Monthly Review, Vol.55, No.6. November 2003. The best book on the rise of the Anti-Imperialist League in the United States due to the American atrocities in the Philippines is available online: Daniel B. Schirmer, Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War, Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1972; Revised Edition, 2003. Jim Zwick's www.boondocksnet.com website is a crucial source for materials on the Philippine-American War, contemporary responses to Kipling's White Man's Burden, and Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings.

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