The poem’s full title is “The White Man’s Burden: 1899, The United States and the Philippine Islands.” Written at the end of 1898, it contains an exhortation to Americans to pick up the burden of Imperialism and to take over from Spain the rule of the Philippine Islands, which the United States had just captured in the Spanish-American War. Many Americans intensely disliked the idea of an American empire. Imperialism was associated in many American minds with the corrupt politics of European nations such as Great Britain, France, and Spain; to such minds the United States represented a new start in human history—“the last, best hope of man,” as Lincoln had said—and therefore the United States should not make the same mistakes that other nations had made. Mark Twain, for example, declared that if the United States took over the Philippines and suppressed native independence movements there, the American flag’s colors should be changed from red, white, and blue to black and white, and the field of stars should bear instead a skull and crossbones.
There were, however, a number of Americans, Theodore Roosevelt most prominent among them, who believed that it was America’s obvious fate, its “manifest destiny,” to take up responsibility for less technologically advanced peoples, to help them progress to a higher stage of civilization. Rudyard Kipling, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, wrote for these Americans “The White Man’s Burden.” Roosevelt received an advance copy of the poem and sent it on to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge with a note calling the poem “rather...
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