In a previous post, while summarizing a tiny bit of the history of the NATO era, I felt obliged to add this aside:
“I’m no fan nor apologist for U.S. imperialism.”
One reason I felt the need to squeeze that in there is that I have just finished an excellent book about a period that the author describes as “the birth of American empire.”
The book is “The True Flag.” The author is Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has focused over recent years on writing books about the history of U.S. interventions abroad.
“Interventions” is too polite a term. Since its founding, our dear nation has constantly expanded its size and its reach, first at the expense of the native population who were subjected to a virtual genocide of astonishingly brutal, high-handed and racist proportions, then at the expense of Mexico (how seldom, when we think about California or the southwestern states do we think to ourselves “that’s territory we took from Mexico in a war of conquest and not all that long ago.”)
In the past hundred or so years, we have continued to expand U.S. control, in faraway places, by various means such as CIA-engineered coups but also by direct application of military force. These “interventions” were justified in the name of things like fighting the spread of communism or promoting the spread of democracy, helping the weak out of generosity of our hearts, although in plenty of cases the reality was that U.S. acted to overthrow democratically elected leaders who were insufficiently friendly to U.S. “interests” in favor of dictators who were friendlier. (Here’s one effort to catalog U.S. interventions. The numbers are staggering.)
The only real moments of democracy in such places as Iran and Guatemala were snuffed out by U.S. intervention. Kinzer has done book-length treatments of those two. I don’t know if Kinzer has made a general statement of this magnitude and sweep. Others, mostly notorious lefties, have made the case fairly explicitly. Most Americans are encouraged to stick to a happier, falser version of the story.
But the big picture that emerges from our history of covert and overt overthrows of governments around the world is this: Without stating so explicitly (although there have been official policy statements that have come close), the United States has arrogated to itself the authority to go anywhere in the world, do anything in its bag of tricks, to overtly or covertly remove the government of any nation if that government is insufficiently responsive to U.S. wants and needs, and replace it with one more responsive.
If another country did that (and others have, over history, when they were at the height of their own imperial period) we would know what to call them. When our country does it, we use different terminology, like American exceptionalism, which means whatever we need it to mean. In the context above it means that there are rules that apply to others but that we are excepted from that rule. Because why? Because our motives are so pure?
It also seems that many, perhaps most Americans are so invested in believing a fundamentally different and happier and more altruistic and freedom-loving tale of what our country is up to in the world that it gets in the way of facing the historical reality.
1898: a war of conquest
Kinzer’s latest book, “The True Flag,” is about the conflict we call the “Spanish-American War” of 1898, a war of conquest in which the United States picked up control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam.
The war was justified on the false grounds that Spain had blown up the U.S. naval cruiser the U.S.S. Maine on the coast of Cuba. Over the past century, it has become clearer and clearer that Spain did not blow up the Maine, although some still believe it did. It’s almost impossible for anyone not motivated by U.S. exceptionalism to believe that that’s what the war was about.
The larger reality of the case, reflected in Kinzer’s book, is that, having expanded the original 13 colonies into a rich and enormous nation from sea to shining sea, many important U.S. leaders were ready to acquire a far-flung global empire. Spain was a weak, dying empire. We were a rising empire. Cuba, just off the coast of Florida, was ripe for the picking. We just needed an excuse.
Kinzer identifies three Americans who successfully campaigned for the war: Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst famously played up the claim about the Maine and campaigned for the war in one of the famous elements of so-called “yellow journalism”; the influential Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, who was the least flamboyant but the most important of the three jingoes; and Teddy Roosevelt, who, before the war, had held no position higher than assistant Navy secretary.
TR was the least known in advance of the Spanish-American war and the least influential of the three in getting us into the war, but gained the most out of it. He resigned his sub-Cabinet post, formed and financed his own regiment nicknamed the “Rough Riders,” and, with Lodge and Hearst’s newspapers promoting him, came home a hero, setting off a series of events that culminated in him being one of the four presidential faces (along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln) carved into Mount Rushmore.
TR: a raging imperialist
TR has his likable qualities, and some career accomplishments that deserve respect, but he was a raging American imperialist who hated to think he might go his whole life and never get into a war. When he managed to get into one, he gleefully shouted “Holy Godfrey, what fun!” After Cuba fell under U.S. control, he actively (but unsuccessfully) campaigned for a Congressional Medal of Honor for himself, writing to Lodge: “I do wish you would get that Medal of Honor for me. I think I earned it. I don’t ask it as a favor. I ask it as a right.”
If America were really what it likes to think it is, “liberated” Cuba would have been given real independence. Instead it was run as a phony nation-state but an unofficial U.S. colony, until Fidel Castro took it over and turned it into an unofficial Soviet colony.
Flushed with victory, Lodge did seize the moment to ask the Senate to annex Hawaii, where the indigenous monarchy had been overthrown a few years earlier at the behest of white planters. It was done, and Hawaii remained essentially a U.S. colony until statehood in 1959. Anti-imperialists in Congress demanded a vote among Hawaiians before annexation could be legalized, but that notion was defeated.
The case of the Philippines
The saddest and most brutal tale connected with this episode was the treatment of the Philippines, which had fought for decades for its independence from Spain and had an indigenous movement to secure independence since 1896 led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo had been exiled by the Spanish. The U.S. arranged to transport him back to the island nation and resume his fight against Spain rule, with the understanding that the Philippines would become independent.
But, after Spain was defeated, the United States kept it as a colony. Aguinaldo and his forces resisted that plan, which led to a disgraceful, bloody U.S. campaign of conquest that lasted until 1913.
President William McKinley, viewed as one of America’s most religious presidents, prayed for guidance and (according to himself) God told him to drive the “Spanish butchers out of our hemisphere.” He also prayed for guidance on whether to grant the Filipinos independence, and God told him not to do it.
McKinley explained thusly why the U.S. had to control the Philippines: “They were unfit for self-government … there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”
He left out the part about hunting down and killing those who preferred independence. This is a brutal, horrible tale about which, for reasons that seem obvious to me, most Americans prefer not to know.
Albert Beveridge, a rising star of Indiana politics at the time who would later become a leading progressive in the U.S. Senate, explained why the Filipinos should be grateful, in an 1898 speech:
The Opposition tells us that we ought not to govern a people without their consent. I answer: The rule of liberty that all just government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self-government. We govern the Indians without their consent, we govern our territories without their consent, we govern our children without their consent. How do they know what our government would be without their consent? Would not the people of the Philippines prefer the just, humane, civilizing government of this Republic to the savage, bloody rule of pillage and extortion from which we have rescued them?
‘The large policy’
Rather than using obvious terms like imperialism or colonialism, Lodge coined the term “the large policy” for what America was up to in this period. Lodge was influenced by the then-very influential writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who wrote that naval power was the key to successful world power.
From Mahan, the “large policy” crowd learned that a global power needed to control islands that could serve as “coaling stations” as their naval vessels crossed the big oceans (so big battleships could replenish their supply of coal). Guam was a tiny, thinly populated Spanish-controlled island between Hawaii and Asia, not too far from China and Japan.
Someone decided it would be dandy U.S. territory to have as a coaling station for the growing U.S. empire. U.S. Navy Secretary John Long, dispatching some ships to help the U.S. war in the Philippines, sent secret orders to one commander, telling him to stop in Guam on the way. Kinzer quotes the orders:
On your way, you are hereby ordered to stop at the Spanish island of Guam. Use such force as may be necessary to capture the port of Guam, making prisoners of the governor and other officials and any officials and other armed forces that may be there. … These operations on the island of Guam should not occupy more than one or two days.
It went exactly as ordered. The 56 Spanish troops on the island didn’t even know there was a war on. With no ability to resist, they surrendered. Guam became an American colony and maintains the status of a U.S. “territory” to this day, the same status that Puerto Rico, also taken in the larger war, maintains.
Back to 1898. My disgust with the cruelty of U.S. imperialism in this period must not get in the way of acknowledging big-name, rich, important, brilliant opponents of the policy — including the magnate Andrew Carnegie ,who generously supported the resistance; civil rights leader Booker T. Washington; pioneering social worker Jane Addams; labor leader Samuel Gompers; former president Grover Cleveland; three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan; philosopher William James; former Civil War general, former senator, diplomat, Cabinet member and writer Carl Schurz (who should be more famous than he is); and author Mark Twain, who came to the movement late because he was living abroad during the main action, but then harpooned the imperialists so brilliantly that Kinzer got Twain’s name into the subtitle of the book: “Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the birth of American Empire.”
Twain wrote that Teddy Roosevelt was “clearly insane.” TR, presumably not trying to prove Twain’s characterization, announced that he would like to “skin Mark Twin alive.”
Pinned hopes on Bryan
With all those big names joining together, they thought they could at least get McKinley voted out of the White House in 1900 and end the savagery in the Philippines, especially since one of the anti-imperialists, Bryan, was again the Democratic nominee. Apparently much of the country was turning against the war, and Kinzer seems to believe that Bryan might have won if he had stuck to the anti-imperialist theme, but Bryan couldn’t bring himself to give up on the “coinage of silver” idea on which he had run and lost in 1896.
Of course, Bryan lost. McKinley chose war hero Teddy Roosevelt as his running mate and the assassination of McKinley made TR president. In 1904, running for a term in his own right, Roosevelt publicly repudiated the suggestion that the war that spread U.S. control from Cuba to the Philippines was imperialistic. Replied Roosevelt, that recent war was “only imperialistic if the Louisiana purchase and the Indian removal policies were imperialistic.” Good argument.
Kinzer ends with this summation, which strikes me as a summation of not only this book but of the body of his historical work:
Nations lose their virtue when they repeatedly attack other nations. That loss, as Washington predicted, has cost the United States its felicity. We can regain it only by understanding our own national interests more clearly. It is late for the United States to change its course in the world – but not too late.