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Remember the Maine!

Bush's "Splendid Little War"

In a class last night, I found myself dealing with the crisis of the 1890s. Economic uncertainty and growing anger against the railroads, the banks, and the Trusts. Widespread beliefs that the Senate and most of politics had become a millionaires club following a bitter and divisive presidential election in 1896. A new mass "yellow" press screaming headlines about colonial wars in Africa and the Near East where Britain and the European powers were fighting to both spread and protect "civilization" to and from exotic barbarians motivated by "heathen" religious fanaticism.

And then the Cuban war against the Spanish empire, the election year of 1898, and what Secretary of State John Hay called the "splendid little war" to " liberate" Cuba that helped Republicans win an election that they would have won anyway, sent a message to the world as loud as a Sousa March that the U.S. was in the great game of global Manifest Destiny, and ended with the colonization of the Philippines thousands of miles from Cuba.

I also mentioned that Spain had offered virtually every concession imaginable to keep out of a war they knew they couldn't even dream of winning, but McKinley went to war anyway and the Democrats, who had co-opted the Populists two years earlier in the Bryan campaign, joined the march, so as not to be considered disloyal. William Jennings Bryan became a cheerleader for Cuba libre, later advising Democrats not to vote against the treaty annexing the Philippines in 1898, flip-flopping to oppose the treaty in 1900, and losing the election to McKinley and Spanish-American war hero--thanks to the press--Theodore Roosevelt.

Then the parallels with the present situation began to become overwhelming for both the students and me. Little had changed in Cuba, where there had been a rebellion against Spain after the Civil War and a second rebellion in 1895--little except U.S. investments. Saddam Hussein was still around in Iraq, where he had been for decades, still having chemical and bacteriological weapons, which he had when he used then against Iran with, to be very charitable, Reagan administration toleration, in 1980s.

His regime and his country were much weaker than they had been in 1991, hadn't invaded anybody this time, and, with all his blustering, were making concessions as fast as they could, at least as bargaining points, to keep from being forced into a war that would destroy them. Just as McKinley had been gung ho since his election to go back to the Gold Standard, the highest tariffs imaginable, and other hardline Republican policies while he tried to picture himself as a friend of labor-management cooperation, Bush had been trying since his election to return to hardline Reaganism, whatever psychological meaning that might have for his relationship with his father, while talking about "compassionate conservatism" and speaking a few words in Spanish to show his sympathy with minorities.

Of course there were also great differences. McKinley, in explaining the annexation of the Philippines had said that he had done it to "Christianize them" (Spain had brought Catholicism to the islands centuries before, but McKinley didn't have to be so fussy about details with the yellow press). Bush would never say such a thing about Iraq, although his spokesmen would accuse a secular dictatorship in Baghdad of helping to train a network of religious terrorists who would like to overthrow them, even though that made as much sense as Spanish agents blowing up the Maine in Havana Harbor when their government was doing everything in its power to prevent a war with the United States. When Congressman Jim McDermott raised a more modest version of that point abroad, the administration in the tradition of globalism, democracy, and of course Voltaire, told him to shut up and come home.

There isn't any evidence that the Bush administration will use a war against Iraq to launch an invasion of Indonesia, although both countries have (for idealists) Muslim religious beliefs and (for materialists) oil. Of course, the colonization of the Philippines was to be a commercial port and military base for involvement in the great China market or great China Barbecue (the road to Peking was through Manila for the U.S. and for all the powers two years later over the corpses of many "Boxer" barbarous rebels trying to drive foreigners and civilization out of their country). Who knows in what direction where turning Iraq into a protectorate with privatized oil would lead? Toward Iran or the oil-rich former Soviet republics?

The greatest potential similarity of course is that most of what happened in 1898 was a fait accompli that set the stage for generations of gunboat diplomacy in the Caribbean and Central America, whose bitter residue remains until this day. The bloody war against Filipino guerillas that produced the righteous anger and cynicism of Mark Twain (whose tone I am trying to emulate a bit in this essay), William Howard Taft's adventures as colonial governor of the Philippines (particularly his compelling Filipinos to hold Fourth of July rallies and arresting those Nationalists who spoke at the rallies for Filipino independence), scholarly reevaluations that affirmed over and over again that the war had little to do with what McKinley said it was about, all became part of a history whose only "happy ending" for U.S. Progressives was Theodore Roosevelt's accession to the presidency after McKinley's assassination.

Of course, the gunboat diplomacy of the colonial powers that the U.S. joined with the Spanish-American War was a major part of the context of international rivalries and military interventions that were very cheap in Africa, China, Latin America, and the Near East, creating a psychology among all the colonial powers that wars could be won cheaply. The Bosnian crisis of 1914 was to change all that. Today, the Bush administration is playing a much more dangerous game in the short run, given that India, Pakistan, and Israel are nuclear powers and very unstable. In the medium run, it may very well be embarking upon a policy of Bomber Diplomacy that will produce cheap victories at the outset but create both a psychology and policy of military intervention that will produce a catastrophic great war. That is why it must be criticized aggressively and immediately before it becomes a fait accompli