Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Imperialism - Or Not

Many nations have built empires over the centuries: the Persians, Greeks, and Romans did it in ancient times; the Spanish and British did it in more recent centuries. An empire is a collection of kingdoms or countries, under the leadership or control of the imperial nation.

The United States, however, did not get into the empire-building business. Having worked to gain its independence from an imperial power, the United States asserted, in the words of the Monroe Doctrine, that its role would be to prevent imperial interference in, or takeovers of, independent nations.

To be sure, history books typically make the claim that, while the United States did not build a traditional empire, it did engage in economic imperialism. While this claim is impressive, it is also specious. The trade relations which the United States formed during the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century were largely voluntary and mutually beneficial.

The results of the Spanish-American War in 1898, a bit of the alleged American imperialism, were in fact deliberate steps to prevent the formation of an empire. Discussions of the territories involved - Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines - centered around the notion that these entities were to be put on a path to independence.

Newspapers inside the U.S. at the time reveal that discussions of sovereignty for these former Spanish colonies were front and center. On June 11, 1904, The New York Times, under the headline "President Planning Filipino Home Rule," published the following:

Secretary Taft received the Philippine Commissioners at the War Department today, and in the course of a speech intimated that in the even of Mr. Roosevelt being elected President the Filipinos might soon enjoy home rule.

Taft was, at the time, Secretary of War, but had served as Governor-General of the Philippines until late 1903. Roosevelt was at the time finishing up McKinley's term, and would soon be elected to the Presidency on his own. There was a strong anti-imperialist movement in the United States, and leaders of that movement, including Lyman Abbott, lobbied the government to ensure that the Philippines would not become part of an American empire, but instead would be independent.

The fact that Dr. Abbott, the acknowledged champion of the idea "The Philippines for the Filipinos," comes here at this time as the invited guest of the President, and that he publicly declares that he aims to set in motion public sentiment favorable to the self-government of the Philippines, however, is taken to mean that he believes the President may be won over to this view in question, and there is a disposition to expect that not long after Roosevelt enters on his term as President of the United States in his own right by virtue of his election, should the November election result favorably to him, he will take a position indicating the ultimate relinquishment of the Philippines as an absolute dependency.

As it turned out, it took a little longer to grant full sovereignty to the Philippines. Woodrow Wilson's racist views delayed the matter, as did World War One and World War Two. But in 1934, Congress approved a measure to put the Philippines on a ten-year path to independence, and despite the hardship of WWII in the Pacific, the United States kept that promise, and the Philippines did indeed become a free nation because of America's work in liberating it from the Japanese.

But the eventual granting of Philippine independence was already a foregone conclusion in 1904. The New York Times continues:

It is known that in this view of the expedient disposition of the problem Secretary Taft share the hope that there may be ultimate self-government by the Filipinos.

Thus it becomes clear that the United States, far from engaging in any form of imperialism, worked in fact to establish the Philippines as an independent nation-state, a goal clearly articulated by American policy makers in the late 1890's, written into law by Congress in 1934, and realized in the 1940's. As Dinesh D'Souza writes:

The United States was itself once a colony of Great Britain. After World War II, the United States used its influence to compel Britain and France to grant independence to many of their colonies, giving America an anti-colonial reputation. Even now Americans don't think of themselves as colonialists; on the contrary, we see ourselves as champions of self-government and liberty.

Not only the Philippines, but also Cuba established itself as an independent nation-state after the Spanish-American War. Again, voices inside the United States prevented the formation of an empire.