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Mark Twain and American Anti-Imperialism

Returning to the United States in October 1900 from nearly ten years living abroad, Mark Twain made what the New York Sun called a “startling” announcement. “I am an anti-imperialist,” he declared. “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” With that statement, he launched an often intense personal campaign against the Philippine-American War and U.S. imperialism. Within months he was made a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, the organized opposition to the war, and he held that post until he died in April 1910.

Mark Twain’s turn-of-the-century protest reminds us that the long-standing U.S.-Philippine relationship was not always widely accepted within the United States. He and his associates in the Anti-Imperialist League saw the war not only as a tragedy for the Filipinos but as a threat to America’s democratic and anti-colonial political traditions. The United States was, after all, a republic formed by a revolution against an empire, a revolution that held liberty and self-government as fundamental ideals.

Then, in 1898, the United States intervened in Cuba’s revolution for independence from Spain. The resulting “splendid little war,” as John Hay, the U.S. ambassador to England, described the three-month Spanish-American War, closed with a treaty ceding to the United States control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Spain was paid twenty million dollars for the Philippines.

Like many Americans, Twain thought that the war with Spain was fought solely to free Cuba from Spanish oppression, and he supported it for that reason. But when he read the Treaty of Paris that concluded the war he learned that the U.S. government had no intention of freeing any of the other Spanish colonies. Interviewed in October 1900 about his anti-imperialist stance, he explained, “I thought it would be a great thing to give a whole lot of freedom to the Filipinos, but I guess now that it’s better to let them give it to themselves.” He later called the $20 million payment for the Philippines the United States’ “entrance fee into society -- the Society of Sceptred Thieves.”

When it purchased the Philippines, the United States held only Manila and its suburbs. The Filipinos, who had been fighting for their independence since 1896, controlled the rest of the country. With the Treaty of Paris still pending before the Senate, U.S. troops fired on a group of Filipinos in February 1899, and the...

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