The release of the White House's targeted killing white paper has reignited an ongoing debate among liberals about President Obama's foreign policy, a debate that might actually beat "Is Obama really a liberal/Will Obama sell out progressives?" in terms of how much back-and-forth intense commenting it generates on left-leaning blogs like the Daily Kos.
Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarian writing at The Atlantic, and Alex Parenee, who combines satire and progressive commentary on Salon, both addressed the historical context of liberals and foreign policy. LBJ's "Great Society" coexisted with his escalation of the Vietnam War, FDR's "New Deal" coexisted with the Second World War, and Woodrow Wilson's "New Freedom" coexisted with the First World War. In each case, the welfare state's advocates advanced the causes of the warfare state. Especially in the cases of the First World War and the Vietnam War, moderate progressivism at home vanished--or was badly perverted--when going abroad.
The debate--or lack thereof--over imperialism in the first two decades of the 20th century further illuminates this tension among domestic progressives. The so-called "progressive" Teddy Roosevelt was an ardent nationalist and imperialist; although he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his promotion of international arbitration, he was brutal in his suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines.
The party platform of Teddy's self-created Progressive Party had absolutely nothing to say about the Philippines in 1912, likely a result of an inability to achieve consensus. The U.S. policy toward the Philippines was by no means a non-issue at the time, as the platforms of the Democratic and Republican Party both show.
The Republicans reaffirmed their commitment to the U.S.'s maintenance of imperial control, framing it as a settled debate:
The Philippine policy of the Republican party has been and is inspired by the belief that our duty toward the Filipino people is a national obligation which should remain entirely free from partisan polities.
This language reeks of the "everybody knows..." trope we always see today.
The Democrats reaffirmed their desire for Filipino independence, qualified by a contradictory desire for continued U.S. presence:
We reaffirm the position thrice announced by the Democracy in national convention assembled against a policy of imperialism and colonial exploitation in the Philippines or elsewhere. We condemn the experiment in imperialism as an inexcusable blunder, which has involved us in enormous expense, brought us weakness instead of strength, and laid our nation open to the charge of abandonment of the fundamental doctrine of self-government. We favor an immediate declaration of the nation's purpose to recognize the independence of the Philippine Islands as soon as a stable government can be established, such independence to be guaranteed by us until the neutralization of the islands can be secured by treaty with other Powers.
In recognizing the independence of the Philippines, our government should retain such land as may be necessary for coaling stations and naval bases.
Despite such commitments, anti-imperialism as a movement was never strong and was often fractured by competing visions—whether the U.S. should immediately withdraw from the Philippines or whether the U.S. should stay in the Philippines out of a sense of paternalistic obligation to establish a functioning self-government. The movement, as the following passage from the New York Post in 1902, displays had many births, many deaths, and unfortunately little public sway:
It is most provoking, we know, for Anti‐Imperialists to pretend that they are still alive. They have been killed so often. After 1899 we were to hear no more of them. In 1900 they were again pronounced dead, although, like the obstinate Irishman, they continued to protest that, if they were dead, they were not conscious of it. Last year the slain were slaughtered once more, and that time buried as well, with all due ceremony. Yet the impudent creatures have resumed activity during the past few months just as if their epitaphs had not been composed again and again.
When Wilson, another future Nobel Prize winner, gained office in 1912, he did, granted, move forward with the repeated Democratic desire to grant Filipino self-government; however, with words that seem all-too-familiar to political observers today, the Jones Law (or Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916) provided for full independence only "as soon as a stable government can be established,” with the U.S. maintaining the right to decide when that would be. Unfortunately, that would be thirty years and a Japanese occupation away.
Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy vision had little respect for the sovereignty and equality of other nations. In 1915, for instance, Wilson led an occupation of Haiti of Haiti to protect corporate interests and engaged in military campaigns in Mexico during its Revolution.
The activists who protested the Philippines took notice of the U.S. atrocities in Haiti. In 1921, as the Anti-Imperialist League was formally disbanding, activists from the League and members of the NAACP joined together to form the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society, centered around Oswald Garrison Villard's The Nation. They had some political supporters, like Senator William Borah of Idaho, but never attained a strong national presence. The occupation would continue until 1934.