God’s Arbiters, by Susan K. Harris

Once upon a time, there was a large, wealthy and powerful country that wanted to help a smaller, struggling, powerless country find a pathway into a more stable, democratic, freedom-loving and civilized future. The powerful nation believed that its ways were enlightened and progressive, motivated by the blessings and wisdom of Christendom; it considered the ways of the smaller nation superstitious, backward, unstable and violent.

Meanwhile, in smoky rooms removed from public inspection, certain wealthy leaders of industry pursued their own secret agendas—mainly the opening up of markets for expanding capitalist interests and the plundering of rich natural resources hidden away in the hinterlands of the much less technologically savvy nation, which they aimed to occupy and plunder. All these manipulations, of course, were masked by the propaganda of moral duty and "benevolent assimilation," terms much exploited at the time.

Does any of this sound familiar? I'm describing, perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. relationship with the Philippines just over a century ago. It involved the first of many major American interventions in Asia, during which atrocities and injustices took place under the banner of Christian civilization. Sadly, as Susan K. Harris points out in this intriguing study of America's rise as an imperial power, hardly any Americans today know about those events of yesteryear. The American annexation of the Philippines has been historically subsumed into the Spanish American War, which is itself nearly lost to the hazy selection processes of our collective memory. (The annexation of Hawaii at around the same time is another sad tale that nobody seems to know about.) When we think of these events at all, it still tends to be in terms of a "benevolent" intention to "uplift" and "Christianize" the "native" or "primitive" peoples—strategies that are still very much in play these days.