Myth of the altruistic conqueror

February 23, 2010

Powerful governments have a long history of claiming that their aims are benevolent--to conceal darker purposes of colonialism and exploitation.

THE PRACTICE of cloaking military invasions in altruistic garb has a long history. In virtually every case, the clothing disguised the real flesh of the operation--conquest, colonization and economic exploitation.

In the late 16th century, geographer Richard Hakluyt, a British booster for North American colonization, claimed that the English would be welcomed as an alternative to Spain, which "governs in the Indies with all pride and tyranny," he wrote.

Hakluyt concluded: "The Queen of England, a prince of such clemency, shall seat upon that firm of America, and shall be reported throughout all that tract to use the natural people there with all humanity, courtesy and freedom, they will yield themselves to her government, and revolt clean from the Spaniard."

Modern translation: The native people will submit to our rule because we're nicer than the other conquerors.

Hakluyt's cousin, also named Richard, was a bit more blunt: "The ends of this voyage are these: 1, to plant Christian religion, 2, to traffic, 3, to conquer; or, to do all three."

The philosopher John Stuart Mill regarded the conquest of India to be "not only the purest in intention, but one of the most beneficent in act ever known to mankind." Never was there such a gap between "intentions" and results. India's wealth was drained away, its workers subject to forced labor, its textile industry destroyed, and its people subject to one devastating famine after another.

King Leopold of Belgium's conquest of the Congo was likewise justified as a humane venture. The International African Association was founded by Leopold in 1884 "for the purpose of promoting the civilization and commerce of Africa, and for other human and benevolent purposes," including stopping the slave trade.

Belgium's real goal was somewhat different. As E.D. Morel, the crusading activist who exposed King Leopold's murder of millions of Africans in the pursuit of profits, wrote:

Their one and only object was to get as much india-rubber out of it as they could in the shortest possible time, and to inflate their rubber shares on the stock exchange. And a perennial state of warfare all over the Congo was necessary to the accomplishment of that object...An act of political submission after the usual massacre of unarmed--in the modern sense--men by armed men did not suffice.

The community, clan or tribe, must produce india-rubber and continue to produce it, and must be fought and fought and fought again, tortured through its women, deprived of homesteads and foodstuffs; until broken, hunted, starving, fugitive, despairing, every capacity to resist demands, however outrageous, every shred of self-respect, had vanished. For 20 years in the Congo Free State, for 10 years (at least) in the French Congo this process continued, its victims being numbered by millions.


THE UNITED States has been particularly adept at presenting its long history of continental and foreign conquest as driven by the purest motives.

When the U.S. sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, occupied the country with troops, and claimed the Philippines as an American colony, it did so in the name of justice and liberty.

"It will be the duty of the commander of the forces of occupation," wrote President William McKinley in 1898, "to announce and proclaim in the most public manner that we come, not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights."

One U.S. senator praised Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino national movement against Spain, as the "George Washington of the Philippines."

All of this changed, however, when the Filipino resistance turned its weapons on the new occupiers. Admiral Dewey, who had called Aguinaldo "Don Emilio" and encouraged him to fight the Spanish, now claimed Aguinaldo's only interests were "revenge, plunder and pillage."

Over the next four years, the U.S. would conduct just such a war of plunder and pillage against the Filipino people. To start things off, U.S. troops massacred 3,000 Filipinos in Manila on a single day in 1899. The Chicago Tribune justified the slaughter on the grounds that "only by a crushing repulse of the Filipinos could our position be made secure. We are the trustees of civilization and peace throughout the islands."

Acting on these fine sentiments, Gen. Jake Smith conducted a scorched-earth campaign on the Island of Samar, ordering his soldiers to kill everyone over the age of 10.

The U.S. conducted an identical maneuver in Cuba, whipping up popular support for the conquest of the island (which the U.S. coveted for its sugar wealth and strategic location) by arousing indignation over Spain's brutal suppression of the Cuban national movement.

On the eve of its easy victory over a Spain already weakened by the war of national liberation conducted by Cubans themselves, the New York Times wrote an editorial that has a very modern ring to it. "We have promised the independence of the people of Cuba," the Times wrote, "and we shall keep our promise, but we shall be bound to see that this does not result in serious misrule."

In other words, democracy is permitted so long as the right people are elected.

The U.S., the editorial continued, "cannot surrender the power necessary to secure this. This suggestion will be met, no doubt, by the criticism that it is inconsistent with the theory of self-government by the majority of the actual inhabitants. But that theory, like all others, is subject to practical limitations."

What justifies the denial of democratic self-determination by the Cuban people? According to the Times, the Cuban people are "a mere fraction of the population the Island will contain...within a few years."

So since the population will grow larger, the current one should be denied the right to control its own country!

What's more, argues the editorial, the Cuban population is divided by the "passions of civil war," a condition that will make "civil disorder" and "probably civil war inevitable." It is therefore up to the U.S. to establish "self-government guided by equity and common sense." Finally, "the sacrifices of treasure and life that we have made clearly entitle us to fix the conditions under which the observance of these principles shall be secure, and to retain whatever power is requisite to enforce these conditions."


CAN WE take seriously the idea that great powers ever choose to intervene in the world based on offering help to those who need it? Do they draw up a list of the "neediest" places and act accordingly?

A much more plausible hypothesis is that powerful nations decide what must be done to put their economic and geo-strategic interests first, and then bring various excuses into play to justify their actions.

The Congo today is the most war-ravaged, devastated part of Africa. Yet there are no statesmen indignantly demanding that the U.S. intervene. For every country that the U.S. claims to be turning from a "failed state" to a "beacon of democracy" through its force of arms, there are two others in crisis that the U.S., for the time being, has no interest in invading.

The only logical conclusion to draw from this is that claims of benevolence and altruism are excuses to conceal different, more tarnished aims.

When we hear about noble intentions--the lies intended for public consumption--we should always remember the occasionally more honest words of planners and statesmen. Like those of George Kennan, who coined the containment doctrine toward the former USSR, in a 1948 memo:

We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives...

We should cease to talk about vague...unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Of course, no imperialist power can dispense with talk of altruism because sending young Americans off to slaughter and die for oil, profitable markets and empire doesn't sell very well.

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