What’s So “New” about Imperialism?

The Gilded Age was an age of New Imperialism. The age of empires began over five thousand years ago, so what was so “new” about imperialism, you ask? Well, there were new players: Germany, Japan, and the United States, to name three. And there were new technologies: industrial transport and communication opened up the interiors of Africa and India, as well as tying together the disparate islands of the Pacific.

New Sea Power

But one of the most puzzling aspects of New Imperialism was its doctrine: “Yes, we are here in your country, ruling your people, and pilfering your resources—but it is all meant to help you, not us.” Cue the rest of the world saying: “Are you kidding me?”

Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.
Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.

Well, no, the imperialists were not kidding. In fact, they wrote poetry about how much they were not kidding. In “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling famously instructed the Americans that it was their turn to play the game in 1899, after seizing Manila in the Spanish-American War.

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A comparison of two stanzas of different burdens at the turn of the twentieth century. Rudyard Kipling’s poem (1899) is one of the most famous defenses of “New Imperialism,” but African American editor Henry Theodore Johnson’s critique entitled “The Black Man’s Burden” (1899) reflects the reality of who bore the weight of colonization.

The people may hate you for it, Kipling was saying, but it is the Americans’ duty to colonize the Philippines and refashion the islands in the mold of Anglo-American civilization. African American editor Henry Theodore Johnson responded with “The Black Man’s Burden” (1899), which hit every note of opposition in the African American community, including: (1) the unnecessary nature of the war; to (2) how it fits into a long history of oppression of non-white peoples in the name of US expansion; and ends with (3) a reminder that Black Americans were already at war in their own country, not by their own choice. In the end, it would be African American regiments who would save the army in Cuba and serve in significant numbers in the Philippines, both in the US Army and in the Philippine Constabulary.

December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.
December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.

The authorities in the United States took up Kipling’s standard. They also believed the Philippines could be the Americans’ own foothold in Asia, an economic entrepôt to compete with the Great Powers in China. And, unlike those gauche Spaniards, the Americans would be enlightened rulers. President McKinley proclaimed:

…we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights….[The American military must] win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines…by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule. [emphasis mine]

William Howard Taft, the first civil governor of the Philippines (and eventual President of the United States), was credited with saying that the Filipinos would be our “Little Brown Brothers,” which—get this—was too generous for the tastes of most Americans. U.S. soldiers on the march in the Philippines sang in response: “He may be a brother of Big Bill Taft, but he ain’t no brother of mine.” (The ditty was eventually prohibited by officers because it did not make a great first impression, to say the least.)

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“It’s ‘up to’ them.” Uncle Sam gives the Filipinos the choice of either a soldier or a schoolteacher: the stick or the carrot. This Puck centerfold was published on 20 November 1901.

To be fair, there were some attempts at benevolence by the Americans. To name a few: the establishment of the first truly national and secular coeducational public school system in the islands; the creation of American university scholarships for the brightest Filipino youth; the building of ports, roads, telegraph lines, irrigation systems, hospitals, schools, and universities; the creation of a Filipino National Assembly; several Filipino Commissioners to advise the American governors; and a Supreme Court of the Philippines, led by a Filipino chief justice. This was not really democracy, but it was not the Belgian Congo, either.

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From left to right: The trench of dead Moro soldiers and civilians at Bud Dajo (1906); a demonstration of the “water cure” by the 35th Volunteer Infantry; and the news headlines about General Smith’s orders to kill all Filipinos capable of bearing arms, which he defined as over the age of ten.

Still, there were plenty of ugly aspects to American rule in the Philippines, as you can see above. Occupation is always dirty. There was the Moro War, the water cure, and the Howling Wilderness of Samar. And, of course, there were the double-standard economic policies of the insular regime. The Americans set up a system by which American goods were sold in the Philippines tariff-free, but Filipino goods were taxed twice, both when they were exported from the Philippines and when they arrived in the United States. Where did that tariff revenue go? To pay the tab of the American administration, of course.

(Side note: The only US Treasury money spent for civilian reconstruction in the Philippines was the million dollars paid to farmers to compensate for the lost of their water buffalo to the rinderpest epidemic. The disease wasn’t the Americans’ fault, but the loss of 90% of these beasts of burden would hold economic progress back. Note that the US did not reimburse loss of carabao to military action or even deliberate slaughter in counterinsurgency actions.)

The hypocrisy of New Imperialism also prompted English writer and politician Henry Labouchère to write his own version of the “Brown Man’s Burden,” which included this stanza:

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don’t hesitate to shoot.

Before you pat Labouchère on the back for his progressive skewering of Kipling’s motives, do know that he was a homophobic campaigner whose most lasting legacy was the Labouchère Amendment that made all sexual activity between men a crime. (This is the law that Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under.) And Labouchère was not the only anti-imperialist who might disappoint our modern sensibilities. Both Andrew Carnegie and William Jennings Bryan were anti-imperialists, but their opposition was actually based on racist visions of nationhood. Carnegie wanted us to only take land that would “produce Americans, and not foreign races,” and Bryan worried about Chinese and Filipino immigration “exciting a friction and a race prejudice” that would damage America’s homogeneity.

In fact, some of the most vociferous anti-imperialists were racist Southern Democrats, many of them ex-Confederates. A former major in the Confederate Army, Senator John W. Daniel is quoted in the Congressional Record as saying:

We are asked to annex to the United States a witch’s caldron. . . . We are not only asked to annex the caldron and make it a part of our great, broad, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, American land, but we are asked also to annex the contents and take this brew—mixed races, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Negritos—anybody who has come along in three hundred years, in all of their concatenations and colors; and the travelers who have been there tell us and have written in the books that they are not only of all hues and colors, but there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them. This mess of Asiatic pottage 7,000 miles from the United States, in a land that we can not colonize and can not inhabit, we are told today by the fortune of a righteous war waged for liberty, for the ascendency of the Declaration of Independence, for the gift of freedom to an adjoining State, we must take up and annex and combine with our own blood, and with our own people, and consecrate them with the oil of American citizenship.

Images of Carnegie, Bryan, and Twain from the public domain.

Before you despair, though, let’s move onto Mark Twain, who “updated” the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Howe’s abolitionist hymn, to more properly reflect what he felt Americans had been doing in the Philippines:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

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The American Flag as redesigned in 1901 by Mark Twain. Image found here.

And, if that was not enough, Twain redesigned the American flag to include skulls and crossbones instead of stars. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is a brilliant piece of political satire:

Shall we? That is, shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first? Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization-tools together, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade-Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion), and balance the books, and arrive at the profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sell out the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds?

Both Johnson and Twain give us some faith that not every American bought into the plunder-but-call-it-progress ideology of New Imperialism. But most did.

Featured image at the top of the page is the 20 March 1901 cover of Puck.

Might Have Known The Cat Had Claws: The Spanish-American War (Part 3)

[This is part 3 of a series on the Spanish-American War. Read Part I and Part II.]

By late April 1898, the United States and Spain had declared war against each other, but that did not mean an immediate start of hostilities—at least not in the Caribbean. These were not the days of “shock and awe,” when the moment a deadline had passed, bombers were already airborne and closing in on their target. For the Americans to launch a full-scale assault on the Spanish in Cuba took time. It took planning. Lots and lots of planning. In fact, it took two months to load men, horses, and supplies—including some rather noxious tinned beef—off the docks in Tampa, Florida.

A black and white photo taken in 1898 of soldiers loading a ship at Port Tampa during the Spanish American War.
A black and white photo taken in 1898 of soldiers loading a ship at Port Tampa during the Spanish American War.

At home Americans grew nervous: Spain was not the power it had once been, but neither was the US military going to set them quaking in their boots. American military spending in the 1890s was roughly a quarter of what it is today, as a percentage of our national output. The entire United States Army was was 27% smaller than today’s New York City Police Department, according to author Max Boot. How would the Yanks fare?

Then came the good news that Commodore Dewey had sunk the entire (rusty) Spanish fleet in Manila—in half a day! The Spanish surrendered shortly after noon. (See featured image.) This lopsided victory boosted morale across the United States and made long recruiting lines longer. Dewey became a new national hero: “Dewey” emerged as the 19th most popular baby name for boys in 1898; the Commodore’s image graced calendars and other memorabilia; and the man himself was promoted to admiral and awarded a custom-made $10,000 Tiffany sword cast in 22-karat gold. Sweet.

“The hero of the new era” by Udo J. Keppler in 4 October 1899 issue of Puck. Note the gold sword.

Despite all of this hoopla, the young volunteers still did not expect to end up in the Philippines like their hero—let alone to be sent to China to fight in the 1900 Boxer War—but that was exactly where many headed. Once the Americans decided to keep the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam for itself—and paid Spain $20 million for the lot—that’s when the soldiers were needed. And boy would they be needed. See, there had been an ongoing Philippine revolution again the Spanish, just like in Cuba, and the Filipinos did not want to trade one imperial overlord for another. So they fought back. (I’m simplifying greatly, but the Filipino side of the story will have to be told in a later post. It’s a great one.)

This was a classic case of mission creep. Americans believed they were fighting on the side of democracy, but where does that obligation stop? They did not want to kick the Spanish out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam only to let someone else waltz right in. (In terms of the Philippines, it is possible that Japan or Germany might have seen an opportunity there.)

Was not America the best country on earth, asked Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt, hero of San Juan Hill? Should we not “civilize” the Filipinos, asked Beveridge? Did we not have a duty to “benevolently assimilate” the islands and give them “the blessings of good and stable government,” asked President McKinley?

A 1900 Republican campaign poster for the US presidential election, with portraits of President William McKinley and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt at center. On the left side “Gone Democratic” shows the US in economic slump and Cuba shackled by Spain; on the right side “Gone Republican” shows the US prosperous and Cuba being educated under US tutelage.

Psst…that’s sorta against everything we fought our own revolution for, others said. Psst…that’s gonna be expensive, Andrew Carnegie said. Psst…what you’re talking about is killing innocent people to “win” your imperialist game, Mark Twain said. Where will your “civilized values” be then, Twain added? Actually, it was not a debate in hushed tones; it was a loud, raucous, fiery debate in the press, in Congress, and on Main Street. It was the election of 1900.

1900 Democratic campaign buttons, as photographed for the Political Memorabilia website.

This was the moment when America tipped into the twentieth century, suddenly anxious to prove itself as one of the big kids on the block. What would follow was painful for all involved. The Philippine-American War was less glorious and more ambiguous than advertised. It would cost almost 4200 American lives—which, as a proportion of the population, is more than the official death toll of the 2003-2011 Iraq War. The cost was far higher for the Filipinos—about 25,000 military deaths and an estimated 750,000 civilian deaths from war, starvation, and disease. That is one-tenth of the population of the islands. Financially, it was costly for everyone. The US would spend $400 million fighting the war, out of a total government outlay of $2 billion. That means that the initial stages of the war from 1899-1902 would cost Americans one-fifth, or twenty percent, of their total government spending in that period.

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Spending on the Philippine-American War was $400 million of a $2 billion total government budget, or one-fifth of total spending. And this only counts the period of official fighting, which lasted from February 1899 to July 1902. The war would not really be over until 1913. (In comparison, the total nuclear program in the Cold War was only eleven percent of government spending, according to public records.)

Though the Philippines was officially pacified in 1902, there would be American operations through 1913, especially in the southern islands. (There were some particularly nasty campaigns, too, and these will be the subject of later posts. Two of these are the backdrop for Sugar Moon: the Balangiga incident and the Pulahan War.)

New Sea Power

Even after these wars were over, America did not call Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam straight-up colonies. No, sir. We don’t like that word. It’s awkward, given our history. So we called them our “insular” (island) possessions. And then the question arose: does the Constitution follow the flag? Should our new insular mentees receive the full legal protections of the US Constitution? The answer might (or might not) surprise you. It was, “Not exactly.”

The Insular Cases (e.g. Downes v. Bidwell, 1901) in front of the Supreme Court decided that there was a difference between land that was destined for statehood (the American West) and land that wasn’t (the insular possessions). The “incorporated” land on the American continent would eventually graduate to statehood, and its people would be granted citizenship in the meantime. You might be surprised that Hawaii and Alaska were seen as “incorporated,” but remember that there were a lot of white settlers there. No one said it at the time, but the real litmus test of incorporation was race.

“Unincorporated” land would not get citizenship, free trade, or statehood. The people would still have natural liberties—religion, speech, equal protection, and property—just not political liberties. Secretary of War Elihu Root put it succinctly: “The Constitution follows the flag, but never quite catches up.”

San Juan, Puerto Rico, photographed in 1904.

The people of Puerto Rico were granted US citizenship in 1917, but because they were not stripped of Puerto Rican citizenship, their current status has a bit of an asterisk next to it. Full Constitutional protections do not kick in until a Puerto Rican moves to one of the fifty states or the District of Columbia. For example, Puerto Ricans, who are American nationals, do not have the right to vote in US congressional and presidential elections until they reside in the US. Guam was given similar citizenship rights as of 1950, but their government is actually less autonomous. The people of the Philippines were never granted US citizenship, though they are the only ones to have eventually received independence, in 1946.

One final issue that came out of this “insular” designation was economic. One possible benefit of being a part of the United States would be unencumbered trade with Americans. That, after all, had been the original point. But American producers wanted to sell their stuff to the islanders, not compete with cheap island costs of production. So they kept tariff walls up—something that would not have been possible if Philippine and Puerto Rican soil had been truly American, but was possible as “insular possessions.”

J. S. Pughe cartoon from 4 February 1903 Puck illustration that shows the varied trade agreements discussed for the different insular possessions. President Roosevelt is saying to Uncle Sam: “You’ve been fair to the other two. Now, keep the faith with this one.”

Eventually, free trade would be extended to the Philippines in 1913, only to be gradually stripped away in preparations for independence. Puerto Rico has free trade with the United States, but honestly everything else about its economic status is confusing as hell because of the legal limbo in which some US laws apply, others don’t, and Congress specifically guts PR in others. It is like playing Monopoly with your six-year old and letting him be the banker. Suddenly, Boardwalk is not allowed to charge rent anymore, just “because.” Actually, to call Congress as whimsical and arbitrary as a six-year old is an injustice to six-year olds everywhere.

See how this has led to the Puerto Rican debt crisis in this cheeky Jon Oliver treatment, or in a more elevated (but still outstanding) discussion at On the Media. Maybe Puerto Rico deserves debt restructuring merely for dealing with the insane legislation imposed upon it by the United States? And because they are Americans? We bailed out General Motors, and they only employ 200,000 Americans. Puerto Rico has 3.2 million Americans.

In the Philippines, things were moving more full circle. After kicking American military forces out of naval and air bases on Luzon in 1992, the Filipinos invited the U.S. back as guests on their own bases. This was both to fight Islamist terrorism in the southern islands and to bolster naval defense against the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Bilateral relations have grown more complicated since, but it is sort of like a family dispute, where disagreements today are affected by the baggage of shared history. With 350,000 US citizens living in the Philippines and over four million Americans of Filipino ancestry in the United States, connections span the Pacific. What better genre to talk about enduring family love than romance?

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