The Anti-Imperialist Farmer

Historian Kathleen Mapes talks with Ed and Brian about the anti-imperialist stance of America’s sugar beet farmers at the turn of the 20th Century – one that rested less on idealism than the prominent sugar industries of those new colonial possessions.

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**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this show. There may be small differences between the audio above and the text.**

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about the mythology surrounding American farming throughout our history and the impact of that mythology on our politics and economy. In the first part of the show, we look at how the farm lobby took shape in the early decades of the 20th century. We’re going to turn now to one specific instance of how some farmers managed to influence US foreign policy.

ED: The story concerns sugar, and it begins with the sugar beet. Now, unlike sugar cane, beets flourish in chilly places, and in the late 1890s, sugar beet farming took off across the American Midwest, and a lot of midwesterners saw this as the future of their agriculture.

BRIAN: There was just one problem. In 1898, the US won the Spanish-American War. It had suddenly acquired an overseas empire– Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. American beet growers worried that cheap sugar from the new colonies would swamp the US market just as their own industry was getting off the ground.

ED: These farmers made their case to lawmakers, and they won some victories, but by the 1920s, things weren’t looking good. Sugar prices were falling, and by 1929 had bottomed out– just in time for the Great Depression. It was, of course, a major crisis. But at the same time, the beleaguered beet farmers saw a door opening.

KATHLEEN MAPES: And the door opening was a door opening to say, we are going to stop Philippine sugar from coming into the United States.

BRIAN: This is Kathleen Mapes, a historian at SUNY Geneseo.

KATHLEEN MAPES: They point to fact that factories are closing down in the United States, and this industry simply cannot survive with all of this sugar coming from Cuba and sugar coming from the Philippines.

BRIAN: What the beet farmers wanted was high tariffs on Cuban and Philippine sugar. That would bump up the cost of imported sugar on the US market, making it easier for domestic sugar beet farmers to compete. It was something they’d been clamoring for since 1898, and with the Depression highlighting the need for government help, they thought they might finally get what they wanted. So when Congress convened hearings to consider raising tariffs, beet farmers and factory owners lined up to testify.

KATHLEEN MAPES: And they weren’t shy about using very racialized language to describe US grown sugar beet as basically the sugar of civilized nations. This was the sugar of the future, versus cane sugar, which they saw as really the sugar of the past.

ED: They talked about coolie laborers who lived in misery, overworked and underpaid. It was little wonder, they said, that sugar could be produced so cheaply overseas. And wasn’t it unfair to allow hardworking American farmers to be run out of business by what were essentially slave plantations in the tropics?

BRIAN: But there was one obvious problem with framing the tariff debate as a showdown between American farmers and foreign workers. By 1929, American beet farmers depended on foreign workers. The US had started a guest worker program during World War I, and by the ’20s, much of the beet farms labor force was Mexican. Skeptical congressmen pointed out the hypocrisy of demanding protection from foreign labor in Cuba while relying on it in Michigan.

ED: The beet farmers’ foreign labor argument ran into another problem, too. A lot of their testimony had focused on Philippine sugar, which was more of a threat at the time than Cuban sugar. But the Philippines, unlike Cuba, was not a foreign country. It was legally part of the United States. To a lot of American politicians, it didn’t make sense to put a tariff on one part of the US to protect another part of the US.

KATHLEEN MAPES: Congress responds by basically saying, there is no way that we are going to impose a tariff on the Philippines as long as the Philippines remain part of the United States. So the sugar beet industry says, great. Then the Philippines should no longer be a part of the United States.

BRIAN: They become advocates for liberation.

KATHLEEN MAPES: They do. They become perhaps the strong advocates.

BRIAN: Within a few years, those farmers in Michigan had won the day. In the early 1930s, Congress passed measures providing for Philippine independence in 10 years time. That legislation included serious restrictions on the amount of Philippine sugar that would be allowed into the US duty-free. Americans who’d followed the debate had no trouble connecting those restrictions to the sugar beet industry’s political muscle.

KATHLEEN MAPES: The Washington Post carried an editorial heralding the act as quote, “fake independence,” charging that, quote, “instead of proceeding from a whole-hearted desire to give them liberty, it arises from a desire to restrict Philippine immigration and products, particularly sugar. The hand is the hand of Uncle Sam, but the voice is sugar.”

BRIAN: Many Filipinos were just as critical. If the Philippines were independent, it would lose its privileged trade status with the US. Trade would shrivel, and that would be disastrous. After all, in the 1930s, 90% of Philippine products were exported to the US. Most of that, sugar. Independence on these terms was too much of a gamble. So in 1933, the Philippine legislature actually rejected the American offer of independence.

ED: Fighting American agricultural interests, however, was a battle that Filipino leaders could not win. A year later, their legislature approved independence, hoping to negotiate better trade terms down the road.

BRIAN: Back in the US, beet farmers celebrated. They’d finally won their decades-long battle against that barbaric Philippine sugar. And while the Filipinos had won independence, many of them saw it as a Pyrrhic victory. As one leading Manila newspaper warned, one more such victory, and we are undone.

ED: Helping us tell that story was Kathleen Mapes, a historian at SUNY Geneseo. Her book is Sweet Tyranny– Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics.