Few Americans have heard of George Frisbie Hoar. This is the story of a man who, after seeing most of his country's history first-hand, had the courage to denounce its imperial aspirations. He represents, in other words, the opposite of another familiar politician of our time.
Remembering The Words, the Things He Did
On the summery Friday afternoon of June 26th, 1908, crowds gathered together in front of Worcester City Hall. Massachusetts. As if to remind everyone there that an era was passing, only a few days, the former president Grover Cleveland had died. Thoughts were therefore already on the mortality of famous men and their memorials.
The attendees had come to dedicate a statute in honor of a locally-beloved political figure who had died four years earlier. The man's name was George Frisbie Hoar, a man who had been called a "crusader for the rescue of free thought in a free land."
The dedication ceremony commenced with a prayer by the Unitarian minister, Edward Everett Hale. The crowds fell into a respectful silence. "Father of life, Father of love" Hale said, "we thank Thee for him. We thank Thee for his life."
It was, sadly, a promise not kept and outside of that memorial, few people today have ever heard of this Republican New Englander. Admittedly, it's not a name most people today would recognize. For that reason, that memorial statute may seem as remote and as mysterious as Stonehenge.Father, we renew our vows and promises and hopes and petitions, that we may repeat his life, in remembering the words that he taught us — in remembering the things that he did. We cannot thank Thee in words for what he did for his State and for his Country.
Sad because this is a man with so much to tell us now.
His most famous speech was a condemnation of the imperialist approach to and the subjugation of the Philippines Islands. To understand that speech's importance to our time, it's essential to understand the parallels of two eras separated by a century.
An American Occupation
Understandable because the history points to an ugly truth about American imperialism.
And most Americans do not like to see their nation as an exploiter of the weaker nations.
At one time, the Philippines had been a Spanish colony since it was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan, in the service of the king of Spain. It had not always been a happy relationship, between rulers and the ruled.
In April 1898, America and Spain formally declared war and ended in the Philippines, after the decisive Battle of Manila Bay. After 327 years under Spanish rule, the native population led by the Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo declared its independence. The American military, however, seized possession of the capital, and thus the entire island chain, from the Spanish generals as they left.
So possession of the Pacific island chain had passed formally into American hands as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American war. The Treaty of Paris of that year ended the fighting and granted temporary American control over Cuba and unlimited colonial authority over the Philippine islands as well as Puerto Rico.
Although the Spanish had now departed, it was not the end of the problems. The peace turned out to be more difficult than the war.
The Filipino people- who had declared their independence- felt robbed when the Americans became their new overseers. For that reason, the American occupation of the Philippines proved to be exceedingly troublesome. In 1899, the low-level conflict broke out into full-scale war against American forces. The Filipino forces, though courageous, were heavily outgunned by the Americans and were forced to resort to an overt policy of guerrilla war.
According to at least one historian, Luzviminda Francisco, the initial battles were so impressive (at least from the American point of view) and the victories so one-sided that one commander of US forces declared that the war would be over in a matter of weeks. Those predictions of imminent victory against the insurgents proved to be ill-founded and an underestimation of the resourcefulness of a people under siege.
The American occupiers showed their open contempt for the natives and referred to the Filipinos as "niggers," "barbarians," and "savages," reflecting both the racist and imperialist attitudes of American society at large." In some ways, the treatment of the indigenous population was a repetition of the treatment of the Native American population a generation or two before.
Due to the imbalance of the two armies, modern historians have even used the word "genocide" to describe the war. A British witness to the carnage of the first battle of the war, commented, "This is not war; it is simply a massacre and murderous butchery."
Backlash Back HomeBack home, this policy was creating its own controversy. Progressives in the US denounced the very idea of America as an imperialist power. (Allegedly, President McKinley couldn't even find the Philippines the map.)
The Democratic populist from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, for example, in an August 1900 speech named "Against Imperialism" said that if the Republicans felt it was proper and right to oppress another nation's desire for independence and self-rule, then let them declare it openly. Make no bones about it.
Let them censure Thomas Jefferson, let them censure Lincoln and Washington.
But, he added, even if they could un-write the ideals of American greatest leaders, imperialism for America would be wrong.
If it were possible to obliterate every word written or spoken in defense of the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, a war of conquest would still leave its legacy of perpetual hatred, for it was God himself who placed in every human heart the love of liberty. He never made a race of people so low in the scale of civilization or intelligence that it would welcome a foreign master.
There would be, in the eyes of Bryan, a special kind of hell to pay for any nation that defies these indisputable moral laws.
Those who would have this nation enter upon a career of empire must consider not only the effect of imperialism on the Filipinos, but they must also calculate its effects upon our own nation. We cannot repudiate the principle of self-government in the Philippines without weakening that principle here.
The policy of might equaling right would eventually come home to the United States, he warned. The force needed to subjugate other nations would soon be turned to subjugate the American people too.
The result of the war for the Philippines was nothing short of a civilian and cultural catastrophe.
An estimated 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed in action. However, 200,000 civilians died (mostly from disease and hunger brought about by war.)
By 1902, after three years of fighting, the cost of the war soared to around 400 million dollars.
Of the approximately 125,000 US troops that served, 4,200 soldiers died and about 2,900 returned home wounded. Compare that to the earlier Spanish American war. That war cost significantly less at $250 million with 3,000 US lives lost.
(In the ten years of the Iraq war nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and more than 32,000 wounded but a reportedly cost of over $4 trillion dollars.)
All that misery and destruction in paradise was aimed at putting down a reactionary insurrection against oppression. It was, ironically, a war not unlike the one against the British empire which resulted in the creation of the United States.
It is no great surprise then that this war is rarely mentioned in most history textbooks.
The Price for Practical Statesmanship
In 1902, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts George Frisbie Hoar stood on the floor of the Senate and denounced the Congress and the occupation and imperial policy it had once applauded.
You have sacrificed nearly ten thousand American lives—the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established reconcentration camps. Your generals are coming home from their harvest bringing sheaves with them, in the shape of other thousands of sick and wounded and insane to drag out miserable lives, wrecked in body and mind.You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture.
Waterboarding. That's right.
It was, he implied, a policy based on world domination and the oppression of other nations and this ran directly against all that the US stood for since its creation.
Your practical statesmanship ... disdains to take George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or the soldiers of the Revolution or of the Civil War as models.
(Keep in mind that Hoar was born only a month after Thomas Jefferson died and was already a Massachusetts state senator when Lincoln came to the White House.)
This example of foreign policy, he observed, looked to the worst excesses of the Spanish rule as their model. Why would America remove one form of oppression only to replace it with a home-grown one? To imitate the atrocities of former Empires was was to contradict what the American ideal was all about.
Greeted as LiberatorsAs a student of American history, Hoar was aware that the founding fathers had witnessed the convulsions and imperial injustices of Europe. They, for this reason, rejected the entire premise of an American-based world empire.
The matter was not at all morally complicated. Hoar had earlier cited Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln said "No man was ever created good enough to own another." No nation was created good enough to own another.
To think otherwise was an arrogance found in kings and dictators, not champions of true democracy and self-determination. It was, he warned, bound to lead to trouble.
Hoar told that the Congressmen might believe their officers and soldiers were humane, but that was not always true. There was in some cases, he said, a mixture of American ingenuity and imperial cruelty.
And the effect was quite the opposite than what policy had intended.
Your practical statesmanship has succeeded in converting a people who three years ago were ready to kiss the hem of the garment of the American and to welcome him as a liberator, who thronged after your men when they landed on those islands with benediction and gratitude, into sullen and irreconcilable enemies, possessed of a hatred which centuries can not eradicate.
The practicality of this policy was, therefore, a dangerous illusion. What might have seemed expedient at the time will prove to be costly in many different ways. It would ultimately do more harm than good to the region and the people.
Might did not make right, no matter how much one might argue otherwise. As Lincoln also said, it was being on the right side of human history that made nations mighty. Hoar declared:
The practical statesmanship of the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule would have cost nothing but a few kind words. They would have bought for you the great title of liberator and benefactor.
A True Cost of Empire
Hoar also warned that by coming to the far away lands as occupiers under the pretense of liberators, America lost in a less obvious way too.
Another price we have paid as the result of your practical statesmanship. We have sold out the right, the old American right, to speak out the sympathy which is in our hearts for people who are desolate and oppressed everywhere on the face of the earth. This war, if you call it war, has gone on for three years. It will go on in some form for three hundred years, unless this policy be abandoned.
Even when peace eventually appeared in such a condition, it would be only a mirage.
You will undoubtedly have times of peace and quiet, or pretended submission. You will buy men with titles, or office, or salaries. You will intimidate cowards. You will get pretended and fawning submission. The land will smile and seem at peace. But the volcano will be there. The lava will break out again. You can never settle this thing until you settle it right.
Two months after Hoar's speech, on Independence Day 1902, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the "Philippine Organic Act". Under this law, Filipinos were given a token form of democracy- the kind that Hoar denounced.
The Witnesses who Returned
Ten years later, in 1913, as a new war loomed in Europe, the results of the Philippine nation-building experiment were less than satisfying. That is not to say that the American experiment was total failure. In terms of education, public improvements and agriculture and other things, American influence had brought many positive results.
We Americans are rather prone to look upon our work and pronounce it good, and to regard our own customs and institutions as the best in the world..This characteristic has arisen in great part from optimism bread up under peculiar pioneer conditions.
It was, in other words, an over-enthusiastic impulse not merely to settle a continent but to settle the entire world. Proud of our advancement at home, we wished to expand the idea to all nations. It couldn't all be written off as selfish grasping.
That view of American exceptionalism was certainly a charitable one. Most people saw it as mere imperialism. Still, said Robertson, it was arrogant
.. to speak of one people as uplifting another. There has been much useless and insipid vaporing about "the white man's burden,"as if the white man had a monopoly on everything that is good and desirable.
Paternalism, the idea that one country or race should rule over another (like a parent to child), was plainly apparent. To be real and lasting, the progress of any people had to be about seizing opportunities. But they themselves must be ready to take that step. The opportunity arises from the people themselves, said Robertson, The burden was therefore based on a wrong-headed assumption about the nature of progress.
Unquestionably, Robertson's was an enlightened view.
Another man, James H. Blount, wrote in great detail about the problems he had witnessed in the island nation.
As a participant, Blount had seen for himself the effects of new (and darker) expression of American policy. His journey had begun in Cuba, serving in the brief campaign of the Spanish-American War.
Later he was transferred to the Philippines a military officer from 1899-1901 and then as an American colonial official until 1905. For health reasons, he returned to the US where he gave speeches and wrote articles deploring the imperialist policies.
In 1913 he was the author of The American Occupation of the Philippines 1898-1912.″ called an "anti-Imperialist magnum opus."
It begins with this understatement.
To have gone out to the other side of the world with an army of invasion, and had a part, however small, in the subjugation of a strange people, and then to see a new government set up, and, as an official of that government, watch it work out through a number of years, is an unusual and interesting experience,
As a clear and concise repudiation of a failed policy, Blount's book begins with the observation that "all of our military and fiscal experts agree that having the Philippines on our hands is a grave strategic and economic mistake."
He blamed this unjust and poorly thought-out colonial experiment on "special interests in America" who had taken control of American foreign policy in order to enslave a nation and its people. He called upon the US government, to begin with a formal renunciation this policy.
What is needed is a formal legislative announcement that the governing of a remote and alien people is to have no permanent place in the purposes of our national life...
Until, Blount wrote, the American people are ready "to abandon the strange gods" which have led them to this new "definition of Liberty consistent with taxation without representation and unanimous protest by the governed," the essentials of the problem would not change much with time.
As far as the Filipinos themselves, Blount said, these "strange people" had proved themselves "brave and self-sacrificing in war, and gentle, generous, and tractable in peace, the right to pursue happiness in their own way, in lieu of somebody else’s way, as the spirit of our Constitution..."
It was not the failings or the stubbornness of the oppressed that had caused this problem, but Americans betraying of their highest ideals.
Of course, not Robertson, Blunt nor Bryan lived long enough to see that slow-motion justice.
As for George Frisbie Hoar, two years after delivering his famous speech, and after a lifetime of service to his country, the seventy-eight-year-old New Englander was dead.
This brings us back to our age which in some ways, even after a hundred years, seems
Why should it not? After all, the cliche holds true that since the US had never really formally and unequivocally denounced imperialist ambitions, it was bound to repeat its mistakes.
Namely in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Before the decision was made to invade and to occupy Iraq, politicians seemed to think the country was entering into totally unexplored policy territory. As we see, history could and should have offered us unrivaled advice.
But then, nobody, (least of all Dick Cheney, or any of the other Bush-era policy makers) bothered to consult the history books for lessons. They were not interested in taking the advice from allies, from experts of all kinds. Historians included.
In a March 2003 interview on Meet The Press, a month after the invasion had begun, the vice president told the American public that he was absolutely certain the American-led forces would be seen by the Iraqis as "liberators."
But by September, the after-glow was fading. The insurgents in the country were waging a guerrilla war using mortars, missiles, suicide attacks, snipers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, small arms fire (usually with assault rifles), and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). The attacks also included an act of sabotage on Iraqi infrastructure, which brought more misery to the nation.
In September, Dick Cheney was back on the same show, explaining things. He was asked again why there was so much open hostility directed at the occupying forces. Cheney was insistent:
I think the majority of Iraqis are thankful for the fact that the United States is there, that we came and we took down the Saddam Hussein government.
By that time, the President himself was admitting the main pretext for war was unfounded. There was, he admitted for the first time, no evidence that Saddam was linked to the September 11th attack. However in that speech, Bush still maintained that Iraqis had "trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses."
Three years later, a consensus of intelligence experts all agreed that again, this claim was also untrue. There was no evidence of an operational link and this view was supported by reports from an independent 9/11 Commission, by declassified Defense Department reports and by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Today, the best that Cheney, as the chief villain in this sad farce, can do is to cower behind additional lies, more misstatements of fact and twisting of the historical record.
And he blames his successor in the White House for trying, in as a dignified way to wrap up an inherited catastrophe.
Cheney's reaction isn't a surprise to anybody who has watched him over the years. As the inimitable Bill Clinton has said:
“Mr. Cheney has been incredibly adroit for the last six years or so attacking the administration for not doing an adequate job of cleaning up the mess that he made.”
The fact that people like the former vice-president can continue- even now- to confuse the uninformed masses is, our great grandfathers would have said, a shame for the entire nation. That history has taught this country not one thing about the use of power.
That ignominy is the price of our disregarding the things our great men did and the great things they once said.
To The Men who Inspire
The statue of George Frisbie Hoar still stands on the north side of the Worcester City Hall. Passersbys might look up and see the bespectacled sitting figure and wonder for a moment before rushing off.
Who could this man be?
The words at the base that honor the man seem- typical of the time- rather vague but grandiose. A salute to one man's "high ideals" and "imperishable contributions."
With a tip of the hat to the people of the town that donated the money for the memorial, the inscription reads "that the people for all time may be inspired by the memory of his personal virtue and public service."
Could these generous Worcester folk return, they would be dismayed to learn what caliber of men in public service inspire American citizens today.
As if to answer that despair, on the South side, we can read a quote by Hoar himself.
"I believe that, whatever clouds may darken the horizon, the world is growing better, that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today."
We can only hope that in this he will be an accurate prophet once again.
* * *
Back on that spring day in 1908, with the citizens of Worcester listening, the ladies in Edwardian finery and parasols, the men in elaborate mustaches and derbies, the governor of Massachusetts, Curtis Guild, Jr. said this of the late George Frisbie Hoar:
His first question was never "Is this thing expedient?" but "Is this thing right?" and his appeals for support were not to the leaders of faction, but straight to the conscience of the people.
In this respect, history found its near complete opposite to the long-silent Senator Hoar, in the person of Richard Bruce Cheney.