July 08, 2007

Mark Twain and Cuba

When the US entered the war against Spain (the Spanish-American War to some) in 1898, America’s most noted author was in Europe, where he actively opposed the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902).

Mark Twain originally supported the war against Spain, considering it a just and noble cause to help liberate people fighting for independence. In a letter of June 1898 to Joseph H. Twitchell he wrote, “I have never enjoyed a war—even in written history—as I am enjoying this one… It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s. And I think this is the first time it has been done.”

Just over two years later, in a speech at the Lotos Club on November 10 1900, he expressed his disappointment with the war in the Philippines, and reasserted his belief in the righteousness of helping liberate Cuba: “Now, we have fought a righteous war since I have been gone, and that is rare in history—a righteous war is so rare that it is almost unknown in history; but by the grace of that war we set Cuba free, and we joined her to those three or four free nations that exist on this earth; and we started out to set those poor Filipinos free too, and why, why, why that most righteous purpose of ours has apparently miscarried I suppose I never shall know.”

On his return to the US in October, 1900, he said to a reporter, “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

A close reading of the Treaty of Paris (which ended the war) gave Twain a shocking new perspective; the approaching “imperialist” nature of the world’s emerging new superpower. He opposed imperialist expansion in Europe, and considered this a sad and disturbing turn of events.

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris,” he’s quoted in the New York Herald, October 16, 1900, “and I have seen that we do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.

We have also pledged the power of this country to maintain and protect the abominable system established in the Philippines by the Friars.

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

Twain became deeply troubled by what he viewed as a sudden turn in American foreign policy, but he was much more disturbed by Vermont Senator Redfield Proctor’s defense of the US Army’s use of the “water cure” torture on a Filipino priest. The man accused of ordering the torture was Captain Cornelius Brownell. During his court martial, Brownell admitted openly to having administered the water cure “by my order several times to different natives.” On January 28 1903, Senator Proctor defended the practice as legitimate.

Attempting to write his views about the act and its defense on the floor of the US Senate, Twain found himself so disturbed by the details that he was not able to write about it. He later described the soldiers involved in this act, and the politicians that defended them as “Christian butchers.”

“It is by the goodness of God,” he wrote in Following the Equator, “that in our country we have those three precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience – and the prudence never to practice any of them.”

Peace.

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