Blogs > Liberty and Power > TERMS OF DISENGAGEMENT, 12-19-03

Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


Jim Zwick has an excellent site, with the unclear-on-the-concept name of, dedicated to the history of the American Anti-Imperialist League. The historical documents archived on the site are particularly valuable, but the essays by Zwick and others are also worthwhile (though I have significant disagreements with them), especially for those of us interested in issues of liberty and power. The arguably successful, in my view (more on that below), pre-Cold War American opposition to US imperialism is probably the best historical model we have for our own opposition to US military global hegemonism (for want of a better term). A good introduction to the history of the League is Zwick's"Imperialists and Anti-Imperialists: The Roots of American Non-Intervention Movements":

"The Spanish-American War of 1898 proved to be a watershed for those in the U.S. who were advocating commercial and military expansion. It not only led to the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, but at the height of the patriotic fever surrounding the war Congress put aside its opposition to the formal annexation of Hawaii, a valuable commercial and military outpost on the route to Asia."

Donald Boudreaux in"The Socialist Origins of the Pledge" (below) explains that Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge of allegiance in 1892 as a contribution to the Dewey-ist education centralization movement. Zwick follows-up:

"…[A]nti-imperialists were frequently portrayed as traitors to their country. The pressures they faced were tremendous in an era when 'patriotic' conformity was being established as the norm. It was during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars, for example, that saluting the flag and other 'patriotic exercises' first became mandatory in many of the nation's schools. In New York State the legislation requiring this was passed just two days before the Spanish-American War began."

I disagree with the conclusion of Zwick's essay, that the Anti-Imperialists"ultimately lost the turn-of-the-century debate about imperialism." The imperialism that the Anti-Imperialists were united in opposing was classical imperialism, i.e. colonialism - a policy decisively rejected by the US government. (The high price Americans paid for the Pacific colonies during World War II is a good demonstration of the dangers of imperialism, and without imperialism maybe we could have skipped the Cuban missile crisis's nuclear war near-miss.) Now let's cut loose Puerto Rico, Guam, and the dozen other dependencies, or make them states, and we can move on from that ugly era. Ultimately, the Anti-Imperialist League split into the hard and soft anti-(classical) imperialists, with many of the latter joining the interventionist bureaucracy. Mission accomplished.

If a neo-League were being organized today, I would argue that the central mission should be the closing of all US military bases overseas. Even some of the hegemonist proponents of military modernization want foreign bases downsized (along with increased resources for US-based force projection), so obviously closing foreign bases wouldn't end the quest for global hegemony. And, in fact, closing all bases almost certainly won't happen - just as the US government still has 14 leftover dependencies, but isn't fighting wars to add more. But even the closure of the majority of overseas bases would be a huge step towards normalcy, and if nothing else it would help keep things like Saudi power struggles from spilling over onto American civilians (and can we close those bases in Central Asia yesterday, please?).

A number of brainy jingoists have recently approvingly suggested that the US government is an empire, which would make"imperialism" and"anti-imperialism" valid contemporary terms. Here's British immigrant Niall Ferguson, writing in Foreign Affairs ("Hegemony or Empire?"):

"…[T]he very concept of 'hegemony' is really just a way to avoid talking about empire, 'empire' being a word to which most Americans remain averse. But 'empire' has never exclusively meant direct rule over foreign territories without any political representation of their inhabitants. Students of imperial history have a far more sophisticated conceptual framework than that. During the imperial age, for example, British colonial administrators such as Frederick Lugard clearly understood the distinction between 'direct' and 'indirect' rule; large parts of the British Empire in Asia and Africa were ruled indirectly, through the agency of local potentates rather than British governors."

But it seems to me that the very fact that Ferguson has to explain that"empire" doesn't exclusively mean direct rule suggests that the word implies direct rule, so it's a poor choice to describe a policy that essentially rejects direct rule."Imperialism" is even more problematic than"empire," since it brings to mind the Cold War-era Leninist implication of commercial monopoly or oligopoly and/or international trade and investment, along with direct or indirect rule. And then there's" cultural imperialism," which is hard to distinguish from international popularity."Anti-Imperialist" is even worse than the other terms, since it's so negative. The National Liberty Congress of Anti-Imperialists (1900) got back to zero by adding to their name what they did want. Ditching"anti" altogether,"Republic Clubs" were set up for Anti-Imperialist members of the Republican Party:

"Many Anti-Imperialist Republicans are unwilling to join a Democratic club, but would gladly join an organization based on the paramount issue of Anti-Imperialism. Such an organization in each community will greatly help to emphasize the issue of Empire versus Republic and keep it before the people as the leading question.


"The success of such an organization will largely depend on the name given the club. The one presented on the enclosed pamphlet -- Republic Club -- has much to commend it. Over against clubs of Rough Riders -- riding roughly over the Republic, and for the establishment of an Empire -- let us put up REPUBLIC CLUBS, and state as the one and only qualification for membership, OPPOSITION TO THE OVERTHROW OF THE REPUBLIC AND THE ERECTION OF AN EMPIRE. …[T]he evil is clearly marked -- it is the overthrow of the Republic if the voters at the polls ratify the Puerto Rican law and the President's similar policy in the Philippines; therefore,"Republic Club" raises the specific question at issue. …"

If"anti-imperialist" leaves much to be desired, there's not an obvious other choice. At we get emails from proponents of the principles of the power of positive thinking (new letters file posted today) criticizing the site's name - tell us what you're pro-, not what you're anti- - and from others saying that we must be (strict) pacifists, or that we're hypocritical if not. And"anti-interventionist" and"anti-hegemonist" just sound weird."Non-interventionist" seems kind of vague, but at least"non" is less anti than"anti."

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