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Redfield Proctor vs. Mark Twain on American Imperialism, 1898–1906

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


When a Cuban revolutionary movement began against Spain in 1895, Americans, heavily invested in Cuba’s sugar industry, took notice. In February 1898, President William McKinley dispatched the U.S. warship Maine to Cuban waters. The unexplained explosion of the Maine, the yellow press, and accounts of Spanish atrocities in Cuba all led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Public opinion in the United States was divided over this conflict. On March 17, 1898, Senator Redfield Proctor of Vermont gave a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate concerning conditions he found in Cuba shortly after the sinking of the Maine. Mark Twain, the celebrated American author, commented extensively on U.S. actions overseas and became one of the most prominent members of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who were the two authors in the documents?
  2. Briefly describe the context for the Spanish-American War.

Source A: “Cuban Reconcentration Policy and its Effects—A Speech by Redfield Proctor, U.S. Senator”

Vocabulary Text
trocha(n): trench Everything seems to go on much as usual in Havana. Quiet prevails and except for the frequent squads of [Spanish] soldiers marching to guard and police duty and their abounding presence in all public places, one sees little signs of war. Outside Havana all is changed. . . . It is desolation and distress, misery and starvation. Every town and village is surrounded by a trocha. . . [with] a barbed wire fence on the outer side of the trench. . . .
From all the surrounding country the people have been driven into these fortified towns and held there to subsist as they can. . . .
Every man, woman and child and every domestic animal, wherever their [the Spaniards’] columns have reached, is under guard and within their so-called fortifications. To describe one place is to describe all. To repeat, it is neither peace nor war.
It is concentration and desolation. This is the “pacified” condition of the four western provinces.
Weyler: Capitan General of the Spanish Government of Cuba, nicknamed “the butcher.” Given full power in 1896 to put down the Cuban insurgency against Spanish rule and to restore profitability in the sugar trade, Weyler aimed to separate the insurgents from civilians by placing the latter into safe havens where they would be under the control and protection of Spanish troops.

reconcentrados(n): Cubans held in concentration camps
All the country people . . . about 400,000 in number, remaining outside the fortified towns when Weyler’s order was made, were driven into these towns, and these are the reconcentrados. They were the peasantry, many of them farmers, some land-owners, others renting lands. . . . Even a small patch [of land] in that fruitful clime will support a family. . . .
The first clause of Weyler’s order reads as follows: “I order and command:
“First-All the inhabitants of the country now outside of the line of fortifications of the towns shall within the period of eight days concentrate themselves in the town so occupied by the troops. Any individual who after the expiration of this period is found in the uninhabited parts will be considered a rebel and tried as such [hung].” . . .
guerilla(n): Spanish government irregular troop Many doubtless did not learn of this order. Others failed to grasp its terrible meaning. Its execution was left largely to the guerillas to drive in all that had not obeyed, and I was informed that in many cases a torch was applied to their homes with no notice, and the inmates fled with such clothing as they might have on, their [livestock] and their belongings being appropriated by the guerillas.
When they reached the town they were allowed to build huts of palm leaves in the suburbs and vacant places within the trochas, and were left to live if they could. Their huts are about ten by fifteen feet in size; and for want of space are usually crowded together very closely. They have no floor but the ground, and no furniture, and after a year’s wear but little clothing. . . .
emaciated(adj): abnormally thin or weak; often from illness or starvation With large families or with more than one in this little space, the commonest sanitary provisions are impossible. . . . Torn from their homes, with foul earth, foul air, foul water and foul food, or none, what wonder that one-half have died and that one-quarter of the living are so diseased that they cannot be saved. . . . Little children are still walking about with arms and chests terribly emaciated, eyes swollen and abdomen bloated to three times the natural size. The physicians say these cases are hopeless.
Deaths in the streets have not been uncommon.
. . .
These people were independent and self-supporting before Weyler’s order. They are not beggars even now. There are plenty of professional beggars in every town among the regular residents, but these country people, the reconcentrados, have not learned the art. . . .
I went to Cuba with a strong conviction that the picture had been overdrawn; that a few cases of starvation and suffering had inspired and stimulated the press correspondents, and that they had given free play to a strong, natural and highly cultivated imagination.
I could not believe that out of a population of one million six hundred thousand, 200,000 had died within these Spanish forts, practically prison walls, within a few months past, from actual starvation and disease caused by insufficient and improper food.
My inquiries were entirely outside of sensational sources. They were made by our medical officers, of our consuls . . . but every time came the answer that the case had not been overstated. . . .
When will the need for this help [from America] end? Not until peace comes and the reconcentrados can go back to their country, rebuild their homes, reclaim their tillage plots . . . and until they can be free from danger of molestation in so doing.
alcalde(n): mayor Until then the American people must, in the meantime, care for them. It is true that the alcaldes, other authorities and relief committees are now trying to do something, and desire, I believe, to do the best they can. But the problem is beyond their means and capacity and the work is one to which they are not accustomed.


Source B: Various Writings, Mark Twain

Vocabulary Text
“Mark Twain Home, An Anti-Imperialist,”New York Herald New York, 10/15/1900 (Excerpt)
I left these shores . . . a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines . . . ? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.

I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which [we] had addressed ourselves.

But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, 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. . . .
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.
Boston Herald transcript of a 1900 speech (Excerpt)
Now, we have fought a righteous war since I have been gone . . . 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 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.
“To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” February 1901 (Excerpt)
There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . . .
And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one—our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.
wanton(adj): unprovoked; wicked Another essay on the American flag, 1901 (Excerpt)
I am not finding fault with this use of our flag; for . . . I have swung around, now, and joined the nation in the conviction that nothing can sully a flag. I [believed] the illusion that a flag was a thing which must be sacredly guarded against shameful uses and unclean contacts, lest it suffer pollution; and so when it was sent out to the Philippines to float over a wanton war and a robbing expedition I supposed it was polluted. . . . But I stand corrected. I concede and acknowledge that it was only the government that sent it on such an errand that was polluted. . . . For our flag could not well stand pollution, never having been used to it, but it is different with the administration.
cablegram(n): the army’s official report transmitted to President Theodore Roosevelt

Moros(n): a Muslim people group of the Philippines
“Comments on the Moro Massacre” by Mark Twain March 12, 1906 (Excerpt published posthumously)

[The substance of (the cablegram) was:] A tribe of Moros, dark-skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater . . . as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them, their presence in that position was a menace. Our commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, ordered a reconnaissance. It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred, counting women and children; that their crater bowl was . . . very difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery. Then General Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order carried out. Our troops climbed the heights by devious and difficult trails, and even took some artillery with them. . . . Apparently the contending parties were about equal as to number—six hundred men on our side, on the edge of the bowl; six hundred men, women and children in the bottom of the bowl. Depth of the bowl, 50 feet. . . .

The battle began [continuing for a day and a half] . . . our forces firing down into the crater with their artillery and their deadly small arms . . . ; the savages furiously returning the fire . . . [probably with] knives and clubs mainly; also ineffectual trade-muskets when they had any. . . .

General Wood was present and looking on. His order had been. “Kill or capture those savages.” Apparently our little army considered that the “or” left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years . . . the taste of Christian butchers. . . .

There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and . . . thirty-two wounded. . . . The enemy numbered six hundred—including women and children—and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How did Proctor describe the “pacified” condition of the people who once lived in the countryside surrounding Havana? Why did he use quotation marks on the term “pacified”?
  2. To what extent did Proctor seem to sympathize with the peasantry in their current living conditions? Offer evidence to support your response.
  3. Describe the living conditions of the reconcentrados. Who was to blame for their miserable situation?
  4. What did Proctor think about the descriptions he heard regarding the situation in Cuba before he saw it himself?
  5. Once Proctor had seen the terrible conditions of the reconcentrados, what did he say is the responsibility of the United States? What clues did he give regarding how the United States should help the people?
  6. According to Mark Twain, what are some arguments that favor imperialism? What arguments persuaded him to change his mind?
  7. Why did Twain say that the conflict in Cuba was a “righteous war”? Do you think he was sarcastic or sincere in this description of the war in Cuba?
  8. Summarize in your own words Twain’s attitude toward the war in the Philippines. Explain your answer.
  9. Explain Twain’s distinction between the flag and the administration. To what extent was he using sarcasm or irony here? Who or what was to blame for what Twain called the “wanton war and robbing expedition”?
  10. Explain the irony of Twain’s concluding statement.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Compare the two authors’ arguments. To what extent do these points of view support or oppose each other?
  2. To what extent do the arguments in these sources on the role of the United States in the world still apply today?

Source A (Proctor): “Cuban Reconcentration Policy and Its Effects—A Speech by Redfield Proctor, U.S. Senator” (Contributed by Larry Daley), Speech of Senator Redfield Proctor March 17, 1898 taken from Clara Barton’s 1899, The Red Cross (Washington DC: American National Red Cross, 1899) 534–539

Source B (Twain): “World of 1898: The Spanish-American War” (Hispanic Division, Library of Congress)

“Comments on the Moro Massacre” by Mark Twain 1906