Learning from the Anti-Imperialists of Old

I was recently looking into public statements made by American anti-imperialists at the end of the nineteenth century, and I came across the platform of the Anti-Imperialist League (AIL). The AIL was a remarkable organization that formed in opposition to the annexation of the Philippines following the war with Spain. Like other antiwar and anti-imperialist organizations in our country’s history, they were unsuccessful in their original goal, but their resistance to the establishment of an overseas empire has inspired me for a long time and I have found many parallels between their campaign and the one that we fight today to bring an end to America’s endless wars. The AIL platform pulls no punches. They didn’t just view the conquest of the Philippines as unnecessary, but they also considered it a betrayal of core American principles of self-determination and self-government:

We insist that the subjugation of any people is "criminal aggression" and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.

The platform was in many respects one of the most fervent statements of antiwar American exceptionalism that was ever produced.

One of the most striking passages in the platform is this statement:

We deny that the obligation of all citizens to support their Government in times of grave National peril applies to the present situation. If an Administration may with impunity ignore the issues upon which it was chosen, deliberately create a condition of war anywhere on the face of the globe [bold mine-DL], debauch the civil service for spoils to promote the adventure, organize a truth­-suppressing censorship and demand of all citizens a suspension of judgment and their unanimous support while it chooses to continue the fighting, representative government itself is imperiled.

The war that the AIL opposed was the Philippine War, a remarkably nasty conflict that the U.S. fought against an indigenous insurgency. The war foreshadowed our later disastrous misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. At least 200,000 civilians were killed during the war, and U.S. forces were guilty of numerous war crimes against the civilian population. Like other colonial expansionist wars, it was ugly and unjust. It speaks volumes that some of the modern neo-imperialists that have cheered on our unnecessary wars in the twenty-first century looked back to this one as a model to be emulated. The AIL’s opposition to the war was more than justified on moral grounds, but they were also making a critical point about the corrupting effects that imperialism and overseas expansion would have on republican government. If the government could plunge itself into a new war, as the U.S. did in the Philippines in 1899, and then demand that the people throw their support behind it, the government would be dictating policy to the people rather than carrying out their will. Instead of a government that works for the people, this forces the people to endorse whatever the government has already done.

We see the same thing now every time that a president chooses to initiate hostilities against another country without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress. We see it again with the expansive definition of presidential war powers that successive presidents have used to justify launching attacks whenever and wherever they wish. U.S. forces are put in harm’s way, and then their “self-defense” becomes a potentially limitless justification for additional uses of force. The U.S. can establish an illegal and unauthorized military presence in another country, and then the president will treat the local opposition to that presence as an excuse to continue and possibly even increase it. This may not be the same as the formal colonialism that the AIL was protesting, but in practice it means that the U.S. fights wars that the American people never agreed to, don’t support, and want to end.