Let's Hope We Do Better in Iraq than We Did in Cuba
Prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898, American sentiments were inflamed by the tyrannical behavior of the Spanish overlords of Cuba and the Phillippines. One U.S. Senator declared that the Cuban population was "struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst management of which I ever had knowledge." American pre-war intentions were largely centered on the liberation of both Cuba and the Phillippines. Even though Spain had unquestioned legal authority over the two lands, the U.S. decided to ignore that barrier. As historian Warren Zimmerman recently noted, the American invasion of Spain's territories constituted the first acknowledgment that "a country's sovereignty cannot protect it from outside intervention on human rights grounds."
Once the conquest of the Spanish forces in Cuba and the Phillippines succeeded,
however, American involvement in those islands followed the grim logic of replacing
one brutal colonial power with another. In Cuba, the rebels whose cause we had
ostensibly vindicated were shunted aside in a power grab by American interests.
Although Cuba was never formally declared an American colony, Congressional
legislation ensured the right of the U.S. government to intervene in Cuban affairs
whenever and for whatever reason it chose. American mastery of the island nation
was masked by the high-flown phrases which dictators often deploy for constitutional
cover. The Platt Amendment, passed in 1901, stated that American intervention
was aimed only at the "preservation of Cuban independence, [and] the maintenance
of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual
liberty." In fact, the power to direct the affairs of Cuba was liberally
exercised by subsequent American administrations.
The American behavior after winning the war in the Phillippines was even more egregious. Commodore Dewey vanquished a latter-day Spanish armada in Manila. But the U.S. government did not leave the country in the hands of the native insurrectionists whose struggle the U.S. had taken up. To the contrary, Washington decided to wage a campaign of terror and widely-administered (and amply documented) torture to destroy the Filipino freedom fighters. More than three years of bloody struggle were needed until U.S. forces had finally overcome the people whose liberation they espoused. Unlike the indirect suzerainty the U.S. exercised in Cuba, the Phillippines became an American territory, not achieving the freedom for which the U.S. had initially invaded until after Work War II, half a century later.
History is more unheeded Cassandra than directive Nostradamus. It can warn
of dangers, but can never actually predict. The anticipated American subjugation
of Iraq will occur in vastly different circumstances than previous U.S. occupations.
But it is worth remembering that the best of American intentions for both Cuba
and the Phillippines were tragically wrenched into an unintended, and quite
extended, colonial burden. In terms of the wasted lives of thousands of Americans,
Cubans, and Filipinos, the cost was horrific. The economic price tag for the
occupation was also enormous. In the long run, however, the worst consequence
may have been the moral cost of American interventions reflected in an imperialist
mirror in which much of the world still see us.