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1898 Redux

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Message Lawrence Velvel
December 20, 2006

Re: 1898 Redux.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

This post is being written on Wednesday, December 20th. It will be typed today and will be posted today or tomorrow. For three reasons, it is being written though information on the subject it covers is less complete than one would like. One of the reasons is that our law school will be closed from December 23rd to January 1st. So there will be nobody to type and post the blog during that time. I myself, as often mentioned, do not type and can barely turn on a computer (which is an improvement over the recent situation of not even being able to turn one on), so I am dependent on MSL's office staff for all this. Another reason is I have been reading again -- this time in a biography of William Jennings Bryan -- about the dispute over American imperialism that began with the Spanish American War. It was then that America made the decision for imperialism that it still follows and that has become so disastrous and in need of change today. Lastly, and most crucially, we are on the verge of another expansion of our imperialistic actions, sponsored by the White House and the wacked out John McCain, a man who is not necessarily what he pretends to be.

We have been hearing recently about a projected (McCainian) expansion of the number of troops in Iraq. It is as if November 7th never occurred. We have likewise been hearing about a possible expansion of the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, the better to fight terrorism all over the world in the future. But what is at stake, one thinks, is not really "merely" an expansion of the number of troops in Iraq and/or the size of our ground combat arms. These expansions, rather, and especially the one regarding the size of the Army and Marine Corps, constitute an unconsidered decision to continue along the imperialistic trail we have been on since 1898. For unless we intend to intervene all over the world, why do we need a bigger army and more marines? Shall we contemplate invading Iran, Syria, North Korea, countries in Africa or the Middle East where there is terrorism, civil war and genocide, Venezuela, and wherever? Unless we wish to contemplate such things, there is no need for a bigger army.

Two points from history are relevant here. One is that during, after and because of the Spanish American War, many leading citizens began to warn us of the kind of people we would become if we went down the imperialist road. These leaders included Bryan, Carl Schurz, Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland, Charles Francis Adams, William James, Benjamin Harrison and others. We went down the imperialist road and we became the kind of people these opponents said we would become. We are militarized, uncaring of life elsewhere, bigoted against opponents, always looking for a fight while pretending to peace, and persuaded that we have the greater word of God. Conditioned to think war is the answer, we accordingly inflate small threats into supposedly gigantic ones justifying significant wars-- as if terrorism, which has existed since at least the 1800s, is a threat the size of WWII or the size of Stalin's challenge afterwards. As a people we listen to the siren song of geopolitical numbskulls like Bush, Cheney, Johnson and their ilk, until, as it did to the Japanese and the Germans, stupidity overtakes us in the form of disaster. Another way to say the same thing might be to say that we follow the militarized lead of politicians who are tools of wealthy corporations that make gigantic sums from war and that contribute mightily to there being two Americas economically.

The philosophy we have followed for 100 years and more is, in reality, the one at stake now. If we unconsideringly do what numbskulls like Bush and McCain want us to do, we implicitly may once again, as around 1900, set the course for a century, set a course that most probably will end in our semi-destruction or a partial dictatorship. Such has been the end, after all, of most empires. Only Britain seems to have avoided such an end, albeit only by giving up empire - - and, indeed, it would not have survived Hitler but for the United States.

If this country is to be reasonably safe, we need to give up this crap about marching in anywhere and everywhere and having armed forces big enough to do it. We are going to have to concede that most of the time the solutions, if any, will be better reached by peaceful means, as painful as the incompetence and delay of the politicians and so-called diplomatists truly are. We are going to have to give up imperialism and militarism in favor of diplomacy abroad and improving our own nation in all the ways it desperately needs improvement at home.

As said here recently, there are countries in whose defense we should join. We are tied to them by long time considerations of values, economics, morals and interest. We have mutual defense treaties with some of them and maybe should have such treaties with others. They are -- not surprisingly in view of their many similarities with us -- generally capable of themselves handling most, though not all, threats they could face. But agreeing that we should, if necessary, join in the defense of Britain, France, Israel, Japan, etc. is far different from standing as the imperialist knight errant ready to rush to the rescue of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Indonesia or a host of other third world nations.

It was said of Truman that he made a mistake, and invited attack by North Korea, when he in effect said there was a line that we would defend and excluded South Korea. Maybe. Maybe not. In any event, our choice is between drawing a line on the one hand and being ready to militarily rush anywhere and everywhere on the other. This, when considered, is not really a difficult choice to anyone who thinkingly wishes America well. The problem with the wackos like Bush and McCain is that they do not thinkingly wish America well. And Bush, particularly, does not want the rest of us to think either. Would you want us to think if you spoke to God and made decisions in your gut? Considerations of long term strategic goals have no places in the mindset of such a character nor of those who follow his lead. Their view is only of immediate tactics, and their view of tactics is driven by militarism.

There is a second point from history that is relevant to all this. It comes from Lincoln. He once said, roughly, that if all the armies of Europe were to land on our shores led by Napoleon, they could never water their horses in the Ohio unless we destroyed ourselves. That is pertinent today. There is no terrorist group or groups and no nation or nations that can overcome us if we do not destroy ourselves by endless adventuring around the globe sponsored by Bush and his successors. If we engage in those adventures our people will be ever more split. As with Viet Nam there will ultimately be marches in the street, bombings of buildings and maybe more and worse as people who do not belong to the small Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith class get ever more fed up with sending their kids to war or going to war themselves. (By the way, as we saw in Viet Nam, the insane Rangelian idea of a draft promotes rather than prevents a Johnsonian, Nixonian, Bushian ability to make war whenever and wherever, because a bigger army is available upon Executive order, is available at the stroke of a pen.) There is nothing like war to cause a nation to split apart, ultimately violently, which was a road we partially traveled during Viet Nam and down which other countries, including republics and democracies, have traveled in the past. Whether we are going to travel such a road is very possibly at stake right now, as the Congress begins, in 2007, to determine whether to go along with Bush and McCain and ignore November 7th. One fears the truth is that even a Democratic Congress lacks the courage to say "Stop. No more money for war in Iraq except to defend troops while they immediately withdraw. And as for you, Bush, impeachment is the order of the day."

As it turns out, it was roughly about the time of the Spanish American War that we began the huge decline in voting that led to today's failure of roughly half or more of our citizens to vote in presidential elections. The corrupt politics of the Gilded Age had much to do with leading to this. People realized that they could do little to improve the situation by voting. And so, one might say, paraphrasing Lincoln's Second Inaugural, imperialism came. And stayed. We face a similar problem today, when we start with an already low percentage of voters in the population. The pols and the big money boys want to reverse November 7th by executive fiat. If they succeed, what will be the point of voting in the future? All that can stop them now are the Democrats. Are the Democrats up to it? We shall see. One fears they are not unless there is a two to five million man and woman protest march on Washington. Maybe people who believe in peace better start planning that march.

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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