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Mark Twain was the most prominent opponent of the Philippine-American War. In its annual report for 1910, the year he died, the Anti-Imperialist League noted that he “employed in the cause of Anti-Imperialism and in behalf of the Filipino those wonderful weapons of satire which were so absolutely at his command, and the members of the League were able to appreciate what is not yet justly understood: that, more than a brilliant humorist, he was a passionate and zealous reformer.” What was “not yet justly understood” in 1910 remains so today. Nearly eclipsed by his deserved but overwhelming reputation as a humorist, Mark Twain’s writings on the war are among his least known. His relationship with the Anti-Imperialist League has received even less attention.(1)
The Philippine-American War, the United States’ first protracted war in Asia, marked the beginning of what Henry Luce would later name the “American Century.” When it purchased the Philippines from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States held only Manila and its suburbs. The Filipinos, having waged a successful revolution for independence, controlled the rest of the country. To become a major power in Asia, with a naval coaling station in the Philippines providing easier access to the seemingly unlimited commercial markets in China, the United States first had to defeat the Filipinos’ poorly armed but popular army and abolish their newly established republic. The war that accomplished this feat officially lasted from February 1899 to July 1902, but regional guerrilla warfare and sporadic rebellions continued well into the next decade. Known at the time as the “Philippine Insurrection,” this war lasted longer, involved more U.S. troops, cost more lives and had a more significant impact on the United States than the three-month Spanish-American War that preceded it.
The conquest of the Philippines was part of a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy. Central and South America had long been within its sphere of influence, but the annexation of the Philippines was the country’s first major step into Asia as a world power. Supported by the rapid development of an integrated commercial and military route from the eastern seaboard of the United States to its Asian possession, the archipelago was to be the logistical hub for U.S. commercial expansion in Asia. From 1898 to 1903 the United States formally annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines and acquired the Panama Canal Zone to facilitate trade between the oceans. “Thus the old America passes away,” a jubilant contemporary historian observed, “behold a new America appears, and her face is toward the Pacific!”(2)
Supporters of imperialism hailed it as essential for economic expansion and justified it as “the white man’s burden” of extending civilization to peoples considered incapable of governing themselves. Senator Albert Beveridge balanced these themes with remarkable dexterity: “The Philippines are ours forever. . . . And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.”(3)
Many others, however, viewed the creation of an empire as a threat to the country’s democratic and anticolonial political traditions. The opposition was organized by the Anti-Imperialist League, which was founded in Boston in November 1898 and soon had branches throughout the country. Its leaders ardently supported the Filipinos, but they consistently described Filipino goals as a secondary concern. Their first priority was to defend their own democratic republic from the new “un-American” policy of imperialism. Citing such documents as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, they argued that imperialism was an adoption of the “government without representation” the country had fought two wars to end.
Although they came late in the debate, Mark Twain’s statements against the war made an important contribution to the anti-imperialist movement. His most influential article, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” was published shortly after William McKinley was reelected in a contest widely viewed as a “referendum on imperialism.” The essay sparked an intense controversy that revitalized the movement and restored some of the momentum it had lost following the election. The country’s leading anti-imperialist newspaper, the Springfield Republican (Mass.), editorialized that “Mark Twain has suddenly become the most influential anti-imperialist and the most dreaded critic of the sacrosanct person in the White House that the country contains.” His writings on the war are not only those of a great literary figure, they are those of a great anti-imperialist whose protest had a potent political impact.
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