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Anti-Imperialism, Then and Now


Fred H. Harrington is a forgotten name to many, though there was a time when he was a big name in American letters. His academic specialty was American diplomatic history, which he taught at University of Wisconsin before becoming that school’s president in 1962. His writings, including his 1935 MISSISSIPPI VALLEY HISTORICAL REVIEW essay “The Anti-Imperialists: Too Few, Too Feeble”, shaped men such as William A. Williams and others who comprised the “Wisconsin School” of diplomatic history.

Why does a 1935 discussion of those who opposed US Imperialism between 1898 and 2000 matter today? Because, as I type this, plans are being made for US military action throughout the world. Perhaps because those plans are lower-profile than the run-up to the recent liberation, the masses aren’t thronged in the streets, protesting the Pentagon’s systemic destruction of strategically-positioned, mineral-rich cultures.

The danger in protesting the Iraqi war as if it were a singular action cannot be understated. Even if the invasion of Iraq had been “stopped” — neglected is the contention that the 1991 hostilities had never actually ended — what really would have changed in the Pentagon? We’d still have Rumsfeld spinning some delightfully dadaist swill about “the unknowable”, and there would still be “total information awareness”, and Washington would still be leveraging itself out to support its military-socialism habit. They would still, like needle junkies, search for veins to tap and rationales to support their actions.

And we who hate their wars and their fatuous rationales, in all likelihood, would fare no better than those who opposed aggression upon Spanish holdings. As Harrington asserts, “in approaching the anti-imperialist movement, it is well to bear in mind that it was based almost exclusively on grounds of abstract political principle. The anti-imperialists did not oppose colonial expansion for commercial, religious, or constitutional” reasons, but because they felt “expansion” ran counter to the principles in which the United States government finds its rhetorical ballast, or “legitimacy”. Government by, for, and about the people, in other words.

With the advantage of hindsight, it can be argued that the more internationalist anti-war protesters in the most recent case would’ve been better served by recycling the words and ideas of William Jennings Bryan, who saw aggression against Spain as an attempt to destroy “that self-evident truth that governments derive their just powers, not from superior force, but from the consent of the governed.” Or Grover Cleveland, some guy in the White House between Lincoln and FDR, who likened colonial aggrandizement to the abandonment of old landmarks.

History has proven right those who saw aggression against Spain as a prelude to “perpetual war for perpetual peace” [to borrow a fashionable phrase.] At this point, the military is ensconced in public life to a degree unimaginable to those whose “presidents” aren’t former generals. One of the greater utilities of Harrington’s essay is how it outlines the broad spectrum of opposition to the war, united in defense of the twained fates of anti-interventionism and national sovereignty. Andrew Carnegie opposed the wars, as did leaders of domestic agricultural concerns that would be threatened by cheap Filipino imports. And, as Harrington puts it, “the political elements represented in the movement fall into four distinct groups — the independents, the Gold democrats, the Bryan Democrats, and the regular Republicans,” including former President Harrison.

With such a broad coalition of support, why did the 1890s anti-Imperialist movement fail? Harrington attributes their lack of success to the extremity of their views and rhetoric, which ran counter to “the people being stirred by the thought of distant possessions,” a fervor that cooled with time. Harrington claims also that the “anti-imperialists were handicapped by the nature of their cause. They were forced to preach abnegation rather than indulgence, to urge the pride of renunciation as against the pride of glory and possession.” A brilliant point, and again, it’s applicable to the opposition of the recent cakewalk.

But Harrington saves his most trenchant criticism of those who opposed foreign wars for his conclusion. “Most tragic of all”, he writes, “was the failure to unite in support of a political leader. The majority of the great anti-imperialists showed no disposition to head a great protest movement. The one available champion of the cause,” the discredited William Jennings Bryan, “was absolutely unacceptable to many anti-imperialists. Men found themselves apologizing rather than fighting for the standard bearer for their cause.” Jesse, Ramsey, call your offices.

One can’t help but hear the echoes of mainstream opponents of the war scuttling to distance themselves from such as the International ANSWER apparatus. Harrington could’ve predicted such an end to an anti-war movement, “a great crusade without crusaders.” Those who opposed taking Spain on, the historian writes, “wavered every time they met the enemy” war machine and “suffered a rout from which they” — and the nation itself — “from which they would never recover.”

ANTHONY GANCARSKI is a regular CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at:


ANTHONY GANCARSKI is a regular CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at

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