John T. Flynn on American imperialism

From Part 3: “The Good Fascism: America,” in As We Go Marching, published in 1944Forgive the length, but this is important. Key bits bolded for your convenience:

Embarked, as we seem to be, upon a career of militarism, we shall, like every other country, have to find the means when the war ends of obtaining the consent of the people to the burdens that go along with the blessings it confers upon its favored groups and regions. Powerful resistance to it will always be active, and the effective means of combating this resistance will have to be found. Inevitably, having surrendered to militarism as an economic device, we will do what other countries have done: we will keep alive the fears of our people of the aggressive ambitions of other countries and we will ourselves embark upon imperialistic enterprises of our own.

Two words have come into extensive use since the present war began. One is “isolationism”; the other is “internationalism.” Curiously internationalism has come to be a synonym for interventionism. Intervention was a word used to describe the policy of those who insisted that America should intervene in the European war. There were many lifelong and sincere internationalists—men who were warm supporters of the League of Nations or similar plans for world co-operation—who were opposed to American entry into the war. The two words represent wholly different ideas.

Imperialism, too, has come to describe a kind of internationalism, so that one who opposes it is scornfully called an isolationist. Imperialism is an institution under which one nation asserts the right to seize the land or at least to control the government or resources of another people. It is an assertion of stark, bold aggression. It is, of course, international in the sense that the aggressor nation crosses its own borders and enters the boundaries of another nation and what results is an international clash—a clash between two nations. It is international in the sense that war is international. An imperialist nation, therefore, is one which acquires interests as a result of its aggression in territories outside of its own boundaries. These interests by their very nature bring the aggressor nation into clash with other nations across whose aggressive ambitions it cuts. We have clashes between Germany and England and France and Japan over their respective aggressive ambitions in Asia. We have clashes between Germany and Russia over their respective ambitions in the Balkans; between Italy and France over their hostile objectives in northern Africa, and so on. This is internationalism in a sense, in that all the activities of an aggressor are on the international stage. But it is a malignant internationalism. 

There is another internationalism which finds its extremist view in the dreams of those who look for the Parliament of Man and the Federation of the World. Pacifists, for instance, who see in the possibility of a world government the hope of world peace are internationalists of this type, and they look upon imperialism as its greatest foe. A curious confusion has arisen out of all this, which should be simple enough to understand. There are several nations which have engaged in extensive imperialist aggression. As a result these nations have colonies all over the world. Having gotten possession of their prizes and acquired a kind of semi-legal claim upon them and having perfected a kind of international tolerance for them through a sort of squatter’s sovereignty, they are now interested in preserving the status quo. This status quo is the result of aggression, is a continuing assertion of aggression, an assertion of malignant internationalism. Now they appeal to this other benevolent type of internationalism to establish a world order in which they, all leagued together, will preserve a world which they have divided among themselves and in which the combined forces and might of the allied aggressors will hold for each what they have. This benevolent internationalism is taken over by the aggressors as the mask behind which the malignant internationalism will be perpetuated and protected. And it is now offered to the world in all the phrases of benevolence and as a dream of world peace.

I have outlined these views chiefly for the purpose of clearing up the ideas and the meaning of words which I am using here. I wish to speak of imperialism and internationalism, but I want to be sure that the two ideas are kept separate and are understood.

I do not see how any thoughtful person watching the movement of affairs in America can doubt that we are moving in the direction of both imperialism and internationalism and that this internationalism is curiously, indeed incredibly, mixed up with the wholly contradictory idea of autarchy. Who can doubt that with the planned economy which is being fabricated for the United States, similar to the planned economies already existing in other countries, we will have an autarchy like our international neighbors and allies? As we have seen, autarchy is very nearly the last word in isolationism—a nation enclosed in a completely planned and managed economic system, whose planning must be protected as of necessity from the impact of external economies. These planned economies will all be brought together into a great international planned economy the members of which will be autarchial states. The problem will be to maintain the isolated autarchial system in each constituent state and to unite all these autarchies in an international economy. This is not the place to discuss the feasibility of this hybrid system. But I throw the idea out here for the benefit of those who think they see a world order based, at least roughly, on the league of American states in the United States of America. The union of the American states was a union of free economies from which all possibility of autarchy was banished by the terms of the Constitution. If tomorrow these states of ours, despite their long union, could be transformed into self- planned autarchies, this union would not last half-a-dozen years. Yet it is an administration in Washington which from the beginning has been struggling toward autarchy here, and which broke up the London Economic Conference in 1933 because it threatened our own autarchial arrangements, which now calls itself a great international regime and actually smears its critics as “isolationists.”

And now of imperialism. This is, of course, nothing more, as I have said, than a form of bald and naked assertion of might. Its origin in the human mind is by no means clear. It does not find its roots wholly in the greed of the merchant adventurers or in the ambitions of military leaders or the dreams of dynasts for extension of their glory. It has had an abundance of support at the hands of gentlemen who hold themselves out as philosophers. Certainly it is unnecessary here to repeat the innumerable declarations made by British historians, philosophers, poets, and publicists in support of Britain’s divine right to seize land anywhere. There is not a statement that has ever been made by a German imperialist that cannot be matched from the pen of a highly respected and highly honored British imperialist. You will find an acquisitive industrialist like Rhodes saying “We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” But you can also find a liberal statesman like Earl Grey saying “In so far as an Englishman differs from a Swede or a Belgian he believes he represents a more perfectly developed standard of general excellence — and even those nations like ourselves in mind and sentiment — German and Scandinavian—we regard as not so excellent as ourselves.” And a scholar like Ruskin, who spent so much time weeping over the poor, could say that England “must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able; seizing every rod of waste ground she can set her foot upon and then teaching these her colonies that their chief virtue is fidelity to their country and that their first aim is to advance the power of England by land and sea.”

But we need not go to England. Professor Washburn Hopkins of Yale said in 1900, when America was considering her first feeble steps in imperialism, “What seems criminal aggression in a large nation against a weak one is justifiable if it conduces to the advantage of the race,” and with characteristic American piety he called this the “higher morality.” We need not suppose that the seeds of this dangerous and malignant philosophy do not lurk deeply in our own national nature. America broke very definitely with her great democratic tradition in 1900 when she decided to hold the Philippine Islands. This was an assertion of power, the power of conquest, the right based wholly on might. At the time some of America’s most distinguished men, statesmen like Senator George Hoar, for instance, warned America that she was introducing a poisonous organism into her system, that she was throwing away principles of human justice which she had asserted with complete confidence and belief in the past, and that, furthermore, she was pushing her western frontier like a long, thin salient into the Orient where every cat-and-dog fight in the future between aggressor nations of Europe and Asia might involve her in a war.

The Philippines turned out to be a very bad bargain from the point of view of imperialist profit, which is the basis on which we remained there, though the bargain was wrapped up in moral gold paper. It was more than thirty years later that we decided to leave the Islands, fixing five years as a period of our departure. But we were too late. We are at war, and we are at war in Asia because we possessed the Philippine Islands. That was the break with our great tradition, and that break had the approval of the American people in 1900 when the presidential campaign was fought almost exclusively on that issue. 

Americans of today can hardly realize the nature of the chauvinistic elation which came to us as a result of our new colonial world. I listened to almost all the debates in Congress on that subject. For the first time in our history men began to roll under their tongues the phrase “American empire.” It would be an interesting example of verbal statistics if someone were to go through those debates and number the times the imperialists of that day referred with growing pride to the great American “empire.” The advocates of that policy scoffed at the attempts to apply the principles of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution to our new situation. There was no end of statements by the leaders of the day calling attention to the fact that the new American empire had outgrown these simple-minded illusions of the fathers who uttered them. The world had changed and grown and America had expanded and was now an empire. There was a great deal of solid pride in that fact.

As an example of this let me quote what one of the leaders in this movement had to say. Senator Albert Beveridge, on January 9, 1900,made his first speech in the Senate. He began it with this extraordinary sentence:

The times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever — country belonging to the United States — as the Constitution calls them, 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 one 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. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out our regrets, like slaves whipped to their burdens, but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people to lead in the regeneration of the world.

Here is the whole complex gospel. Our duty under God to lead in the regeneration of the world on one side, and to stay in the archipelago “beyond which are China’s illimitable markets.” He told the Senate that the Pacific is “our ocean” although half a dozen other large nations had extensive territories along that ocean. And then the senator proceeded with a dramatic and eloquent catalogue of the magnificent resources, extent, and wealth of the Philippine Islands “beyond which lies China’s trade” which he valued at $285,- 738,000 of which we were getting only 9 per cent and of which “under God,” as we “regenerate the world,” we should get 50 per cent. Lifting his arm aloft, holding a lump of gold in his hand, he exclaimed dramatically: “I have a nugget of pure gold picked up in its present form on the banks of a Philippine creek. I have gold dust washed out by the crude process of careless natives from the sands of a Philippine stream.” And then he said that it must be our great objective “to establish the supremacy of the American race throughout the Pacific and throughout the East to the end of time.” Self-government for Asiatics, people with savage blood, Oriental blood, Malay blood, and Spanish example — this was not to be thought of. He prophesied that “self-government and the internal development of the country have been the dominant notes of our first century; administration and development of other lands will be the dominant notes of our second century.” And he ended with this rhetorical flourish:

This question is elemental. It is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic people for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle contemplation and self-administration. No! He has made us the master organizers of this world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress, to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. . . . And of all our race He has marked the American people as the chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America. . . . We are the trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. The judgment of the Master is upon us: “Ye have been faithful over few things. I will make you ruler over many things.”

When the senator had finished this strange melange of world duty, world glory, world opportunity, regeneration of savage and senile peoples, 50 per cent of the trade of China and gold nuggets on the banks of streams, imperial destiny and treasure, the venerable Senator Hoar of Massachusetts, who had been shocked at the spectacle of the eloquent young senator summoning America to her imperial destiny and duty and holding aloft a torch of gold to light the way, rose in the Senate and said:

I could hear much calculated to excite the imagination of the youth charmed by the dream of empire. . . . I could think as this brave young republic of ours listened to what the senator had to say of but one sentence:

“And the Devil taketh Him up into an exceeding high mountain and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.

“And the Devil said unto Him, ‘All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’

“Then saith Jesus unto him: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.'”

But, alas, the American people did not make the reply to Senator Beveridge that Jesus made to the devil. Indeed as Beveridge ended his address he was greeted with “long and continued applause” in good earnest and senators crowded around him to shake his hand. I have chosen the Beveridge statement because it was the clearest and most eloquent of numerous speeches made in the House and Senate at the time. For instance, Representative Gibson of Tennessee said what others were saying on the stump and in the pulpit:

Our race has a mission. No devout student of history can misread it. We are the preachers of a new evangel of government; we are the missionaries of a new and higher civilization; we are the apostles of the New World to the Old; and a part of our mission is to evangelize Asia and the islands of the sea.

But this was to be only a beginning, as the congressman made abundantly clear. He continued:

The progress of our race can never be stayed. You can never fix its bounds. No one continent can suffice it. No one ocean can satisfy it. No one zone can contain it. No one hemisphere can circumscribe its powers and activities.

The world is its area and the lands of the world its only boundary. Its destiny is to dominate the entire face of the earth, to include all races and all countries and all lands and all continents.

The Springfield Republican lamented that the religious press of the country was almost a unit in support of the imperialism of which these gentlemen were the spokesmen. Dean Farrar said that “imperialism is a natural evolution of vital and aggressive Christianity.” These were not the utterances of black reactionaries. Beveridge became a leader of the rising progressive movement. And here is a singular collection of views from one who can by no stretch of the imagination be called a reactionary. 

Related:

Time, “American Malvern”

Father Edward Duff, S.J., “Social Thought of the World Council of Churches

Thomas C. Leonard, “American Economic Reform in the Progressive Era: Its Foundational Beliefs and Their Relation to Eugenics

Unqualified Reservations, on conservatives and the “conquest of America by Massachussets”

 

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