An American radical

Cambridge. I like coming to Cambridge not so much to see Harvard but to visit my old friend Daniel Boone Schirmer.  He turned 90 this year, and is wheelchair-bound.  A thin line of mourning marks his handsome Pilgrim face, but his blue eyes are undiminished in their brightness.  Last year, he lost his wife Peggy, the love of his life, the woman, he says, “who taught me how to become a better man.”

Talking to Boone is like being in the presence of Mark Twain’s generation. That generation, which organized the Anti-Imperialist League, spoke against the assimilation of the Philippines as an American colony. Their children campaigned against the Vietnam War in the ‘60s, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren rallied against the US invasion of Iraq.  As out of place as they may seem in today’s imperial America, these progressive Americans, the best of America’s public intellectuals, have not lost their voice and passion.  They continue to speak out against the lies of their politicians and the abuse of libertarian values in order to justify invading other nations.

As a young couple, Boone and Peggy spent a lifetime organizing the working class, and fighting for an America that was faithful to the ideals of the exemplary republic the Founding Fathers imagined it to be.  As they saw it, this had to be a socialist America – rich and egalitarian, a beacon of freedom but not aggressive. They had looked up to the Soviet Union as a model of what a strong country could be, but this changed after Soviet troops overran Hungary.  Like many activists all over the world, they quit party work over the issue of Hungary, but remained radical in their politics.

Boone recounts he was the oldest in his class when in the mid-sixties he registered for a Ph.D. in history at Boston University.  He got his doctorate in 1971, with a thesis on the social and political origins of the Anti-Imperialist League.  The Philippines was the key issue in those campaigns of the anti-imperialist movement, which was centered in Massachusetts.  Out of this thesis emerged the book, “Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War,” which became an instant classic in the ‘70s because of the uncanny parallelism between the Philippine-American War and the Vietnam War.  While the Anti-Imperialist League eventually fell apart, the American protest against the Vietnam War hugely contributed to US withdrawal from Indochina in 1975.

But memory is short when you are the world’s lone superpower.  After only one generation, American troops are back abroad, “defending democracy” and protecting American interests at the expense of other peoples’ sovereign rights.  Last year, at the height of the protest against the war in Iraq, Boone’s friends issued a limited edition of “Republic or Empire,” to remind Americans, in the powerful words of Howard Zinn’s preface, “about us, our country, our violence and our hypocrisy, our movements of protest, our political maneuverings and moral anguish, our despair, our bit of hope that history, which so often repeats itself, also, sometimes, leaps in a new direction.”

Boone correctly saw the connection between American security interests in the Pacific and American support for the Marcos dictatorship. This partnership was firmly anchored on the presence of American bases in the Philippines.  With some friends, Boone established the Friends of the Filipino People, which took upon itself the task of informing the American people of their government’s complicity in human rights violations and oppression under Marcos.

It was during this time that I first met Boone.  In one of his visits to Manila in the late ‘70s, he was with Peggy.  We invited them to a party at our house in the University of the Philippines.  He still remembers the occasion.  The singing and merrymaking that evening seemed to belie the harshness of that period.

Boone rejoiced when the Marcos regime came down in 1986, but he was ecstatic when the last American ship left Subic Naval Base in 1991.  He felt that his mission had been accomplished, and that he could fade quietly.  Sometime later, he wrote me, asking if I had any use for his lifetime Filipiniana collection.  He mobilized his friends to help him choose and pack the books, and he raised the freight money himself. Today, these finest and rarest of books on the Philippines form part of the Third World Studies Library at UP.  “These books belong to your country,” he wrote, “and I was happy to have collected them for you; I hope your students can use them.”

On our first day in Cambridge last Monday, my wife Karina and I were strolling along Mt. Auburn St. when suddenly I was gripped by something familiar. Boone lives near here, I said.  I had meant to check the phone book for his address, little knowing that my feet would take me to him on the very first hour of my American visit.

And there he was by the kitchen, blankly scanning the front page of The NY Times, as if he had never left the breakfast table from the last time I saw him in 1998.  He looked up and studied our faces, and smiled.  “Welcome, my old friends,” he said with great affection, as he held out his frail arms.  He remembers our names.  In the next instant, he was almost apologetic that Peggy wasn’t there to welcome us. His loss seemed boundless. “We were married for 65 years, and we fought only once — soon after we married.  For four months she gave me the silent treatment so I could wake up from my illusions as a male supremacist.” Boone was far from fading; the old wit was there.  For three days, I walked to his small wooden house, and sat at this American radical’s feet while he talked about his life.

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