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America’s Turn toward Empire


The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire by Stephen Kinzer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017; 320 pages)

Sen. Mark Hanna, a Republican from Ohio and President William McKinley’s campaign manager, couldn’t contain himself. How could the delegates to the Republican National Convention not see through the man wearing a sombrero as streamers rained down from the ceiling? He was dangerous. “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the presidency?” he said presciently to a delegate after the man’s triumphant entrance to the convention. “What harm can he do as Governor of New York compared to the damage he will do as president if McKinley should die?”

The man Hanna referred to was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, the newly nominated vice president of the United States in the campaign of 1900. Hanna believed Teddy was deranged. A man who loved war and associated peace with weakness. A man who, with the help of his lifelong friend Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, would use the Spanish-American War to make the United States into a brutal overseas colonizer and inaugurate the American century of global hegemony.

In The True Flag, former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer tells a personality-driven tale of how Roosevelt and Lodge persuaded the American public to betray their anti-imperial ideals — always more imagined than real — in favor of the “large policy,” or U.S expansion beyond its shores, over the objections of a nascent anti-imperialist movement. The isolationists, led by industrialist Andrew Carnegie; America’s most famous writer, Mark Twain; and Carl Schurz, a former abolitionist who was once secretary of the Interior under Rutherford B. Hayes, would struggle in vain to stop the outright theft of nations “liberated” by Uncle Sam during the Spanish-American War.

Kinzer wisely rescues the forgotten Schurz from historical oblivion. The author of the maxim — “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right” — he was the movement’s conscience and best propagandist. He would lose the argument, as Kinzer skillfully recounts, outmaneuvered in Congress by the wily Lodge and in public by the demagogic Roosevelt.

“He wants to be killing something all the time.”

Fear of Roosevelt wasn’t just confined to Hanna. Twain, who would slowly emerge as a fierce anti-imperialist during this period of U.S. expansion, thought Roosevelt was “clearly insane” as well as “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.” Through Roosevelt’s own words and those of his friends and enemies, Twain’s appraisal proved correct.

Roosevelt, a sport killer of animals, was bloodthirsty. A Harvard friend wrote that “he wants to be killing something all the time.” Before the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt was bored with peace. “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one,” he wrote. At first, he wanted to fight indigenous people in faraway lands because “the most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages.” Then he spoke of fighting the Germans, welcoming an attack for its educational value. “The burning of New York and a few other seacoast cities,” he wrote a friend, “would be a good object lesson in the need of an adequate system of coastal defenses.”

For Roosevelt and Lodge, America was ready to rule the world, and they found their instruction manual in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. In his classic work of naval history, Mahan argued that powerful countries controlled the seas and used naval might to open markets and secure them. This was the right book at the right time. After the Depression of 1893 and the resulting social strife, many business and political leaders argued America needed overseas markets to sell its surplus products. Roosevelt and Lodge agreed, and Mahan showed them the way.

On February 15, 1898, the two men got the opportunity for America’s rush toward overseas empire when an explosion ripped through the USS Maine anchored in Havana, Cuba. The warship had been sent by McKinley as a warning to the Spanish Empire to tread lightly in Cuba, whose people wanted independence. The yellow press, led by William Randolph Hearst, whipped up war frenzy by declaring the explosion the work of a Spanish mine. (The cause of the explosion was later determined to be the triggering of the ship’s ordnance by sparks from a coal bunker.) The expansionists used Spanish atrocities — both real and fabricated — as an argument for humanitarian intervention to oust Spain from Cuba. “We are there because we represent the spirit of liberty and the spirit of the new time,” declared Lodge during a Senate speech.

War beckoned, but the anti-imperialists shrewdly amended Lodge’s war resolution, which demanded that Spain free Cuba or face U.S. military power. The amendment written by Henry Teller from Colorado stated that the United States had no imperial motives behind its intervention. On April 19, 1898, the war resolution, along with the Teller Amendment, passed both houses of Congress. McKinley signed it the next day. Within seven days’ time, a dying empire and a rising empire had declared war on each other.

“Holy Godfrey, what fun!”

Roosevelt, however, was no chicken hawk. After war broke out, he resigned his post as assistant secretary of the Navy to Lodge’s chagrin and was commissioned by the territorial governor of Arizona as a lieutenant colonel. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” were born.

On July 1, 1898, he would cement his legend, commanding his Rough Riders up a hill under enemy fire in what became known as the Battle of San Juan Hill. During the fight, he exclaimed, “Holy Godfrey, what fun!” Upon arriving home after his victory, Roosevelt once again gave the public a glimpse of his warlike mindset. As reporters and well-wishers swarmed him on Long Island, he said, brandishing a pistol, “When I took it to Cuba I made a vow to kill at least one Spaniard with it, and I did.” The crowds ate it up.

The United States would go on to demolish Spanish forces and establish its rule over Spain’s former subjects. “In a ravenous fifty-five-day spasm during the summer of 1898,” writes Kinzer, “the United States asserted control over five far-flung lands with a total of 11 million inhabitants: Guam, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Never in history has a nation leaped so suddenly to overseas empire.” The question now was what would the United States do with its newfound possessions: liberate them or make them American subjects?

During the summer of 1898, the anti-imperialist movement began to stir, supported financially and ideologically by Carnegie. On June 15, 1898, the isolationists packed into Boston’s Faneuil Hall to, in the words of Gamaliel Bradford, “insist that a war begun in the name of humanity shall not be turned into a war for empire.” In an August 1898 essay, Carnegie challenged Americans to forgo empire. “Are we to practice independence and preach subordination,” he wrote, “to teach rebellion in our books yet stamp it out with our swords, to sow the seed of revolt and expect the harvest of loyalty?” In another essay a month later, Shurz lamented that American imperialism would give aid and comfort to democracy’s detractors. “Will not those appear right who say that democratic government is not only no guaranty of peace, but that it is capable of the worst kind of war, the war of conquest, and of resorting to that kind of war, too, as a hypocrite and false pretender?”

Principled arguments failed, however. On December 10, 1898, the anti-imperialist movement received its first of two crippling blows. The United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris. For $20 million, Spain ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States while forfeiting sovereignty over Cuba. Then came the coup de grâce on February 6, 1889, when the Senate voted 57 to 27 to ratify the Treaty of Paris — more than the required two-thirds majority. The anti-imperialist movement campaigned hard against annexation, losing by only two votes.

Two days before the treaty’s ratification, the already simmering Philippine islands exploded in violence. Led by Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino nationalists weren’t about to let Uncle Sam slide into the role of occupier without a fight. The Philippine-American War had begun.

“We never asked their consent.”

According to Kinzer, the presidential campaign of 1900 could have been a referendum on American imperialism as violence in the Philippines worsened. The contest pitted the incumbent McKinley, a convert to expansionism, against the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a passionate anti-imperialist and free-silver enthusiast. If Bryant had won, he would very likely have acceded to the desire of the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico for independence. Unable to drop his commitment to free silver, however, Bryan lost badly as his monetary policy divided the anti-imperialist movement, whose leaders were mainly prosperous northeasterners, such as Carnegie. But even if Bryan had dropped the free-silver plank from the party platform, Roosevelt and the imperialists probably would have won. They had the more pragmatic and historically accurate arguments for expansion.

During the campaign, it was the vice presidential nominee, Roosevelt who hit the trail to make the case for the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket. Overseas expansion was a core issue, and Roosevelt honestly and chillingly described why he was an imperialist. In one speech, he spoke of being “for expansion and anything else that will tend to benefit the American laborer and manufacturer” by opening up foreign markets for American surplus goods protected by U.S. naval might.

In another, he said that the Republican Party’s large policy was “only imperialistic in the sense that Jefferson’s policy in Louisiana was imperialistic, only military in the sense that Jackson’s policy toward the Seminoles or Custer’s toward the Sioux embodied militarism.” Like many who believed in Anglo-Saxon superiority, Roosevelt saw other races as inferior and, if they were lucky, could be taught civilization by the white man’s “benevolent assimilation.”

Imperialists were fond of throwing the true nature of U.S. foreign policy into the faces of their opponents, noting the westward expansion of the country and its violent annexing of Indian and Mexican land and ruling it without the consent of the original inhabitants. And they were right: What makes crossing an ocean to conquer foreign lands any more ghastly than subduing a large swath of North America that wasn’t U.S. soil? It’s an answer the anti-imperialists as well as even Kinzer, whose anti-imperial sympathies shine through the pages, never adequately answer. The United States was an imperialist nation long before its exploits during the Spanish-American War. The difference at the turn of the 20th century was that America didn’t just want to dominate the Western Hemisphere. Now it wanted dominion over the world.

It is then no surprise, then, that the McKinley administration didn’t believe the Constitution followed the flag. For the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Gaum, and the Philippines, the Bill of Rights didn’t exist. The Supreme Court agreed in a series of 1901 rulings known as the “insular cases,” which gave judicial blessing to the idea that the United States could rule foreign countries by decree. Instead of being governed by the Constitution, those people existed under something approximating martial law, according to Kinzer.  

In the Philippines, the result was the dehumanization, slaughter, and torture of the islands’ peoples. “It is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing with civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is force, violence, and brutality, and we give it to them,” wrote one reporter for the Philadelphia Ledger approvingly.

In 41 months of war, writes Kinzer, the U.S. military captured Aguinaldo and killed an estimated 20,000 “insurgents” fighting for their freedom. Hundreds of thousands of civilians also died because of the war, mostly from disease. More than 4,200 American combatants would die, as well as the commander in chief: on September 6, 1901, an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The 28-year-old unemployed steelworker’s motive: American crimes in the Philippines. “Now look!” exclaimed Sen. Mark Hanna on the funeral train back to Washington. “That damned cowboy is president of the United States!”

“The stars replaced by the skull and cross-bone”

For Twain, all was lost.

“It was impossible to save the Great Republic,” he wrote privately. “She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work.” American atrocities led Twain to bitterly propose a new flag for the Philippine Islands under U.S. military control. “We can have a special one — our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bone,” wrote Twain.

That black flag full of skulls and crossbones now flies over the U.S. Capitol, and it isn’t coming down any time soon. The United States is an empire with no recognizable domestic opposition. The imperialist Theodore Roosevelt was right: many Americans believe it is the right of the U.S. government to rule the world. But the anti-imperialists such as Carnegie, Schurz, and Twain were also correct. Empire will be our undoing, for it is not a reflection of our greatness and benevolence, but of our weakness and savagery.

Kinzer has written an important book on a well-trod area of American history because it’s a reminder that large segments of the American population were ardent anti-imperialists and that isolationism wasn’t always a dirty word. Instead, anti-imperialists, as Kinzer notes, “were conservatives who looked back to old virtues, not ahead to global power.” Whether Americans can rediscover and recapture their founding philosophy of noninterventionism remains to be seen. If they don’t, a reckoning is coming, and it’s long overdue.

This article was originally published in the August 2017 edition of of Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, and others. He is managing editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.