Mark Twain: Anti-war radical

Mark Twain’s autobiography has sat, mostly unpublished, for a century because Twain himself feared Americans would recoil at his unvarnished views: “From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out. There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now.” We’re now learning from Twain’s soon-to-be-released uncensored words that Twain considered US soldiers “uniformed assassins”:

Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, for example, were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.

In a passage removed by [his editor] Paine, Twain excoriates “the iniquitous [i.e., wicked] Cuban-Spanish War” and Gen. Leonard Wood’s “mephitic [i.e., poisonous and putrid] record” as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

He is similarly unsparing about the plutocrats and Wall Street luminaries of his day, who he argued had destroyed the innate generosity of Americans and replaced it with greed and selfishness. “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars,” Twain observes. “He pays taxes on two million and a half.”

If Twain was outraged by the relatively miniscule military misadventures of his age, it’s safe to say Twain would be devastated by events since JFK’s assassination, esp. the immensity and global reach of America’s military and the Pentagon’s massive budget — even as homeless people wander American streets looking for scraps to eat — and our long military occupations of Vietnam and Iraq, each of which left millions dead, parentless and/or homeless, and the corporatization of American life and governance.

Perhaps most depressingly, Mark Twain kept his most honest anger to himself for a century following his death! He could have made a difference by speaking loudly a century ago. How many times might anti-war activists have quoted Twain on “our uniformed assassins” in the 100 years since? Twain’s muscular anti-war statement might have helped Americans be more questioning and skeptical of our military and political leaders. Instead, we’ve become many times more monstrous than in Twain’s day.

Posted by James on Sunday, July 11, 2010