Ambrose Bierce: Warlike America
Member of the Anti-Imperialist League
From Warlike America (1900)
In a speech at Huntsville, Alabama, President McKinley said:
“We are not a military people. We are not dedicated to arms. We love peace, and the United States never goes to war except for peace, and only where it can have it in no other way. We have never gone to war for conquest, for exploitation or territory, but always for liberty and humanity, and in our recent war with Spain the people of the whole United States as one man marched with the flag for the honor of the nation, to relieve the oppressed people in Cuba.”
The American people are a singularly “cantankerous” people. True, we are not “military,” but that was not what the president meant to affirm; he meant that we are not “warlike,” which is a very different thing. The Germans are military, the North American Indians are warlike. To be warlike is to be fond of war; to be military is to cultivate the arts and sciences of war, to make the arts of peace subservient to them, to maintain a powerful standing army, with armaments of high efficiency. A people may be both warlike and military, or it may be either and not the other. The distinction was evidently not in the president’s mind, for he said that we love peace, that we go to war only to assure it, and so forth. What are the facts?
There have been four generations of politically independent Americans. Each of the four fought a war of magnitude, not counting the small affairs and the “continuous performance” against the Indians. There were the War of 1812 against Great Britain, the war against Mexico, the war among ourselves, the war against Spain. We may say that all these were fought to assure peace, and that is true – peace on our terms. No war is undertaken for any other purpose. It was for that that Alexander invaded Asia and Hannibal Italy. It was for that that the Turks laid siege to Vienna. It was for that that Napoleon overran Europe.
It seems that “we have never gone to war for conquest, for exploitation, nor for territory;” we have the word of a president for that. Observe, now, how Providence overrules the intentions of the truly good for their advantage. We went to war with Mexico for peace, humanity and honor, yet emerged from the contest with an extension of territory beyond the dreams of political avarice. We went to war with Spain for the relief of an oppressed people, and at the close found ourselves in possession of vast and rich insular dependencies and with a pretty tight grasp upon the country for relief of whose oppressed people we took up arms. We could hardly have profited more had “territorial aggrandizement” been the spirit of our purpose and the heart of our hope.