Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to separate from the U.S. Empire provides a good opportunity to review a bit of U.S. history to remind ourselves how it is that the United States abandoned its heritage of limited government and ended up embracing imperialism and interventionism.
The big turning point was the Spanish American War in 1898. While the United States had expanded across the continent as part of what became known as “Manifest Destiny” prior to that time, the country had nonetheless resisted the siren song of empire, which had long gripped European and Asian countries.
Through most of the 1800s, the U.S. government had a small-sized army and navy, which, for the most part, engaged in relatively small battles, such as against Indians, Barbary Pirates, and the Mexican army. The big exception was the Civil War, which entailed a massive military establishment, but one that was mostly dismantled at the conclusion of the war.
The founding foreign policy of the United States was summed up by people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams: America would not enter into alliances with other countries, as European and Asian countries were prone to do, and it would not intervene in the wars, crises, and conflicts that occurred in foreign lands. America’s role, they said, would be to build a model society of freedom here at home to serve as a model for the world — and also to serve as a sanctuary for people who escaped tyranny, oppression, or starvation around the world.
Another important component in all this was the antipathy that the Founding Fathers had toward standing armies. (See here.) The reason they were so opposed to a massive military establishment is because of the grave threat that it poses to the freedom and well-being of the citizenry.
All that began to change in 1898, which was about the same time that progressives began battling to turn the United States in the direction of socialism and paternalism, as with such programs as Social Security, public (i.e., government) schooling, maximum-hour legislation, and minimum-wage laws.
It was in that year that Cuba and the Philippines initiated wars of independence from the Spanish Empire. In an abandonment of its founding principles against foreign interventionism, the U.S. government came to the assistance of the rebelling colonies. Securing a declaration of war from Congress, which is what the Constitution requires before a president can wage war, President William McKinley stated that the United States just wanted to help the suffering colonies win their independence from Spain.
It was a lie, one that would perhaps be used as a model for the Vietnam War’s Gulf of Tonkin lie and the Iraq WMD lie many decades later. In actuality, U.S. officials were committed to turning America in a new direction — one in which the United States became a world empire, just like the Spanish Empire and the British Empire, starting with acquiring colonies that had belonged to Spain.
That’s when the never-ending U.S. obsession with Cuba began. After Spain was defeated, U.S. troops occupied the country and ran it, just as they would end up doing in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a century later. When they ended their occupation, they forced the Cubans to agree that the U.S. government could intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it wanted. The U.S. government also forced Cuban officials to lease Cuban territory for a pittance to the U.S. government for a military base. That’s how the United States ended up with Gitmo, which would ultimately be converted into a torture-and-indefinite prison as part of the U.S. government’s “war on terrorism.”
The Filipinos were not as docile as the Cubans. They decided to continue fighting. The way they figured it was that they had not fought for independence from Spain just to become a colony of a country that now wanted to become an empire. So, a brutal war broke out between U.S. troops and Filipino rebels, one in which tens of thousands of Filipinos were tortured, imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps, executed, or simply massacred. Among the most popular forms of torture that U.S. troops employed against Filipino prisoners was waterboarding, which would come back into vogue more than a century later as part of the U.S. government’s war on terrorism. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States ended up with such colonies as Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, an island that was located more than 7,000 miles away from California.
The imperialist notion was that the only way that America could become “great” was by becoming an empire, even if that entailed the brutal treatment of tens of thousands of who were resisting the takeover of their countries. That notion was, of course, contrary to the founding principles of America, which held that the greatness of America lay in a small limited government republic and a liberated private sector, one in which private Americans were free to travel and trade around the world. Of course, such freedom of commerce came to an end when the era of empire in the 20th century ushered in such programs as sanctions and embargoes.
The move toward empire gradually expanded, with thousands of military installations both here and abroad, regime-change operations that installed pro-U.S. regimes into power, a vast military-industrial complex, foreign aid, foreign wars, foreign interventions, the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state, and, of course, the embrace of foreign interventionism.
Those are the roots of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Africa, the old Cold War, the New Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Chile, Guatemala, Iran, the war on terrorism, wars of aggression, the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, torture, assassination, indefinite detention, and all the rest that has come with U.S. empire and intervention. It shows what happens to a once-great nation that abandons its founding principles of liberty and limited government.