Platform of the American Anti-Imperialist League Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1899, after the United States gained possession of Cuba during the Spanish-American War and moved toward occupation of the Philippines, the American Anti-Imperialist League took shape at a conference in Boston. In its charter, the group called the occupations counter to the American notions of liberty. The party argued that the American government, supposedly born of democratic ideals, was subjugating the peoples of these two nations. The document further encouraged the American people not to blindly support their government in this campaign and instead work to defeat any political candidate or party that advocated for what the league called “forcible subjugation” of other nations and peoples.

Summary Overview

In 1899, after the United States gained possession of Cuba during the Spanish-American War and moved toward occupation of the Philippines, the American Anti-Imperialist League took shape at a conference in Boston. In its charter, the group called the occupations counter to the American notions of liberty. The party argued that the American government, supposedly born of democratic ideals, was subjugating the peoples of these two nations. The document further encouraged the American people not to blindly support their government in this campaign and instead work to defeat any political candidate or party that advocated for what the league called “forcible subjugation” of other nations and peoples.

Defining Moment

Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spain possessed one of the world’s largest empires. The reach of the Spanish crown extended as far east as the Philippines and as far west as the Pacific coast of North America and South America. However, by the late nineteenth century, Spain’s empire had diminished significantly. Most of the Latin American colonies, for example, had freed themselves from Spanish rule. The once-vaunted Spanish Navy simply could not maintain control over nations that lay across the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Such was the case with Cuba, where a violent uprising, beginning in 1895, threatened not only the Spanish occupying forces but also US interests. Many American citizens lived and many American businesses operated in Cuba by the late 1890s, and the Spanish colony’s instability placed them at risk. On February 15, 1898, the US battleship Maine steamed into Havana Harbor both as a friendly visit to the Spanish government and to evacuate Americans from the city if the conflict escalated. That evening, the Maine exploded, killing 260 of the ship’s 374 officers and crew and sending the battleship to the floor of the harbor.

For nearly two decades, Americans had sympathized with the Cuban people in their struggle for independence from what many considered an authoritarian Spanish regime. After years of calls for intervention on behalf of the Cubans, the American government had an excuse to take action against Spain. As calls of “Remember the Maine!” inspired the country, the increasingly powerful American military went to war in Cuba. The Spanish-American War was brief, lasting less than a year. The first battle between the two foes occurred in Manila Bay in the Philippines, with the US Navy emerging victorious. A month later, American naval ships earned a lopsided victory at the Battle of Santiago, essentially breaking the back of the Spanish Navy in Cuba.

With Spain defeated in Cuba, attention turned to the Philippines, one of Spain’s other major holdings. After the American victory over the Spanish, Filipinos were free from Spain, but the United States then occupied their country, which was claimed as a US territory. Filipino revolutionaries clashed with American forces in an effort to establish the Philippines as an independent nation. Unlike the Cuba campaign, this conflict was brutal at times–some viewed the American occupation as more heavy-handed and bloody than Spanish rule.

As the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) continued, Americans remained largely supportive of their government’s efforts. However, in 1898, a group of prominent Americans convened in Boston to express their concerns over perceived American imperialism in a Pacific nation, particularly as the violence and bloodshed in the Philippines continued. In 1899, the group known as the American Anti-Imperialist League–which included former US president Grover Cleveland, author Mark Twain, and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie–officially formed as a political party and interest group. The league drafted its platform, seeking to halt the annexation of the Philippines to the United States.

Document Analysis

In this political tract, the American Anti-Imperialist League reminds readers that the United States was founded on anti-imperialist ideals. The authors state that the US government was operating in direct contradiction to those ideals by engaging in the “subjugation” of the people of the Philippines. Therefore, the league condemns the actions of the United States and calls upon the American people to join it in defeating any political candidate who endorses the US effort in the Philippines.

The league argues that the founders of the United States abhorred despotism and imperialism. Expressing “regret” that it had to remind the public of this point, the league invokes such figures as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The latter in particular, the league states, spoke out against forcing governance upon peoples that do not consent to that governance. Lincoln had argued that those who denied freedom and liberty to others did not deserve it themselves. If the United States succeeded in its efforts to defeat the insurrection and the developing self-government in the Philippines, the league argues, the American government would be guilty of betraying its own formative principles, outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Therefore, the league condemns the actions of the US government in the Philippines and calls for an immediate cessation of the violence in that nation. The authors recognize that such a condemnation will be seen by some as a refusal to show support for the government during time of “grave National peril,” but the league emphasizes that citizens must not give carte blanche support to the government to manage wartime activities. In reality, it says, the government should not be allowed to create a war and intimidate, censor, or suppress the people to ensure unanimous support for war.

According to the document, the US military participated in “ruthless slaughter” in the Philippines. In defining its anti-imperialist platform, the American Anti-Imperialist League strongly emphasizes this issue as it seeks support of its ideals and membership in its ranks. Because the violence in the Philippines resulted directly from American military occupation, the Philippines-American War was as destructive to the American way of life as the Civil War. The league notes that conflict threatened to tear apart the country; this war, if left unchecked, would destroy the country’s fundamental principles and ideals.

Because of the undemocratic and unjust nature of the war, the league argues, it was not necessary for Americans to rally around a government that had strayed from its founding principles. In fact, the document calls upon Americans to vote against political candidates who vote or act in support of not only the ongoing campaign in the Philippines, but also any effort to satisfy “un-American ends.”

Essential Themes

The party platform of the American Anti-Imperialist League served three essential purposes. First, it directly condemned the war in the Philippines, citing its brutality and antidemocratic goals. Second, it challenged Americans to rethink blind support of the government’s efforts, especially when those efforts ran counter to the nation’s fundamental principles. Third, the league wanted to use this document to gain supporters and even recruit members from the other two major parties.

The document argues that the government was not being completely honest about the Philippine-American War. Americans had heard of the violence, but had been told that it was the insurrectionists who had caused the brutality. The league openly disagreed with this position, claiming that the occupying American military had engaged in despotic behavior with regard to the Filipinos. Americans at home were also to blame for allowing themselves to believe that, with the Spanish removed from the Philippines, the US had a moral obligation to annex and colonize that nation.

Thus, the American Anti-Imperialist League challenged Americans not to blindly accept the government’s word on the Philippines war and to defy nondemocratic and imperialistic behavior. Through its platform, therefore, the group sought to gain more supporters, using the war as a rallying cry to generate the public to speak out against any situation in which the US government denied a population liberty and self-governance. The group represented an important, although ultimately minority voice, in American politics around the turn of the century, eventually fading into obscurity before disbanding in 1920.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Churchill, Bernardita Reyes. “The Philippine-American War (1899–1902).” NCCA. Philippines National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
  • Dolan, Edward F. The Spanish-American War. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century, 2001. Print.
  • Hernandez, Roger E. The Spanish-American War. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Print.
  • Ignacio, Abe, et al. The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Cartoons. San Francisco: T’Boli, 2004. Print.
  • Seymour, Richard. American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism. Chicago: Haymarket, 2012. Print.
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