It should now be clear that we have serious problems. Our government, taking orders from corporate leaders, is spying on us and expanding its capabilities to use force while neglecting the necessities of life for most or all of the global population.
We the people urgently need democracy. We must take control of our future. So the first step is to understand to what extent do we currently have democracy. Where are we now?
We know that up until 1776 we were a colony of Great Britain and did not have democracy. Prior, in 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Spain and other European countries started displacing the indigenous peoples and taking colonies. Starting in this period, Monarchies of Europe were, in fits and starts, forming republics and gaining some degree of democracy. The US is a republic but we often call ourselves a democracy and claim to be spreading democracy throughout the world. Through popular struggles the people have made some very important gains in democracy and formed international organizations, like the United Nations, that have created declarations of human rights.
Our aspirations and image of democracy has grown significantly, but at the birth of our nation, the right to vote was very limited, Senators were selected by governors, we were killing the indigenous peoples to take land and enslaving people of Africa to work for the immigrants from Europe. To what extent is actual democracy still lagging behind our image?
In 1898 the US had spread across the entire continent and was on the verge of taking foreign lands. There were intense debates. We were to choose between being an example of democracy for the world or another empire, the first empire with the extreme hypocrisy of claiming that people should be free and govern themselves. The book, “The True Flag – Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire,” 2017 by Stephen Kinzer is a well researched and fascinating history of this US debate. I recommend reading it in full and have attached some excerpts to entice you.
The True Flag – Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire
2017 by Stephen Kinzer
How should the United States act in the world? Americans cannot decide. For more than a century we have debated with ourselves. We can’t even agree on the question.
Put one way: Should we defend our freedom, or turn inward and ignore growing threats?
Put differently: Should we charge violently into faraway lands, or allow others to work out their own destinies?
Our enthusiasm for foreign intervention seems to ebb and flow like the tides, or swing back and forth like a pendulum. At some moments we are a flame with righteous anger. Confident in our power, we launch wars and depose governments. Then, chastened, we retreat—until the cycle begins again.
America’s interventionist urge, however, is not truly cyclical. When we love the idea of intervening abroad and then hate it, we are not changing our minds. Both instincts coexist within us. Americans are imperialists and also isolationists. We want to guide the world, but we also believe every nation should guide itself. At different times, according to circumstances, these contrary impulses emerge in different proportions. Our inability to choose between them shapes our conflicted approach to the world.
Eminent figures have led the United States into conflicts from Indochina to Central America to the Middle East. Others rose to challenge them. They were debating the central question of our foreign policy: Should the United States intervene to shape the fate of other nations? Much of what they said was profound. None of it was original.
For generations, every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition. All are pale shadows of the first one.
Even before that debate broke out, the power of the United States was felt beyond North America. In 1805 a fleet dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson defeated a Barbary Coast pasha who was extorting money from American vessels entering the Mediterranean. Half a century later, President Millard Fillmore sent a fleet of “black ships” to force Japan to open its ports to American traders. Those were isolated episodes, though, and not part of a larger plan to spread American power. After both of them, troops returned home.
Civil war enveloped the United States from 1861 to 1865. Over the decades that followed, Americans concentrated on binding their national wounds and settling the West. Only after the frontier was officially declared closed in 1890 did some begin to think of the advantages that might lie in lands beyond their own continent. That brought the United States to the edge of the world stage.
In 1898, Americans plunged into the farthest-reaching debate in our history. It was arguably even more momentous than the debate over slavery, because its outcome affected many countries, not just one. Never has the question of intervention—how the United States should face the world—been so trenchantly argued. In the history of American foreign policy, this is the mother of all debates.
As the twentieth century dawned, the United States faced a fateful choice. It had to decide whether to join the race for colonies, territories, and dependencies that gripped European powers. Americans understood what was at stake. The United States had been a colony. It was founded on the principle that every nation must be ruled by “the consent of the governed.” Yet suddenly it found itself with the chance to rule faraway lands.
This prospect thrilled some Americans. It horrified others. Their debate gripped the United States. The country’s best-known political and intellectual leaders took sides. Only once before—in the period when the United States was founded—have so many brilliant Americans so eloquently debated a question so fraught with meaning for all humanity.
The two sides in this debate represent matched halves of the divided American soul. Should the United States project power into faraway lands? Yes, to guarantee our prosperity, save innocent lives, liberate the oppressed, and confront danger before it reaches our shores! No, intervention brings suffering and creates enemies!
Americans still cannot decide what the Puritan leader John Winthrop meant when he told his followers in 1630, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” He wanted us to build a virtuous society that would be a model for others! Wrong, he wanted us to set out into a sinful world and redeem it! Forced to choose between these two irreconcilable alternatives, Americans choose both.
The debate that captivated Americans in 1898 decisively shaped world history. Its themes resurface every time we argue about whether to intervene in a foreign conflict. Yet it has faded from memory.
Why has the United States intervened so often in foreign lands? How did we reach this point? What drove us to it? Often we seek answers to these questions in the period following World War II. That is the wrong place to look. America’s deep engagement with the world began earlier. The root of it—of everything the United States does and seeks in the world—lies in the debate that is the subject of this book.
All Americans, regardless of political perspective, can take inspiration from the titans who faced off in this debate. Their words are amazingly current. Every argument over America’s role in the world grows from this one. It all starts here.
White and Peaceful Wings
Where better to launch a patriotic uprising than Faneuil Hall in Boston? Colonists had gathered amid its Doric columns to protest the Boston Massacre and plot the overthrow of British rule. Abolitionists had denounced slavery from its stage. It is a lodestone of American liberty, a cathedral for freedom fighters.
That is why a handful of eminent Bostonians chose Faneuil Hall as the place to begin a new rebellion on the sunny afternoon of June 15, 1898. Like all Americans, they had been dizzied by the astonishing events of recent weeks. Their country had suddenly burst beyond its natural borders. American troops had landed in Cuba. American warships had bombarded Puerto Rico. An American expeditionary force was steaming toward the distant Philippine Islands. Hawaii seemed about to fall to American power. President William McKinley had called for two hundred thousand volunteers to fight in foreign wars. Fervor for the new idea of overseas expansion gripped the United States.
This appalled the organizers of the Faneuil Hall meeting. They could not bear to see their country setting out to capture foreign nations. That afternoon, they rose in protest.
Several hundred people turned out. “On all sides could be seen the well-known faces of leaders of good causes among us,” one newspaper reported. According to another, “Nearly all the settees on the floor were filled, while the benches in the gallery were well fringed with ladies.”
At three o’clock, Gamaliel Bradford, a prominent civic leader and proud descendant of the Pilgrim governor William Bradford, called the meeting to order. His speech was both a warning and a cry of pain.
Over the past year, Americans had grown enraged by the harshness of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba. Most cheered when Congress declared war on Spain. They were thrilled when President McKinley sent troops to help Cuban revolutionaries fighting to expel the Spanish. Before long, though, some in Washington suggested that instead of allowing Cuba to become independent, as promised, the United States should take the island and rule it. Then they began talking of seizing Puerto Rico and even the Philippines. Imperial fever had broken out and was spreading. This stirred Bostonians to bitter protest.
“We are not here to oppose the war,” Bradford told the Faneuil Hall crowd. “We are here to deal with a far graver issue, to insist that a war begun in the name of humanity shall not be turned into a war for empire, that an attempt to win for Cubans the right to govern themselves shall not be made an excuse for extending our sway of alien peoples without their consent.… We are to be a world power, but the question is whether we shall be a power for beneficence or malfeasance. Everything is against the policy of conquest.”
The next speaker was another New England patriarch, Charles Ames, a theologian and Unitarian pastor who had traveled the world promoting humanitarian causes. He warned that the moment the United States seized a foreign land, it would “sacrifice the principles on which the Republic was founded.”
The policy of imperialism threatens to change the temper of our people, and to put us into a permanent attitude of arrogance, testiness, and defiance towards other nations.… Once we enter the field of international conflict as a great military and naval power, we shall be one more bully among bullies. We shall only add one more to the list of oppressors of mankind.… Poor Christian as I am, it grieves and shames me to see a generation instructed by the Prince of Peace proposing to set him on a dunce’s stool and to crown him with a fool’s cap.
At the very moment that these words were shaking Faneuil Hall, debate on the same question—overseas expansion—was reaching a climax in Congress. It is a marvelous coincidence: the first anti-imperialist rally in American history was held on the same day that Congress voted, also for the first time, on whether the United States should take an overseas colony. That day—June 15, 1898—marked the beginning of a great political and ideological conflict.
The Faneuil Hall meeting was set to end at five o’clock. In Washington, the House of Representatives scheduled its decisive vote for precisely the same hour.
Every member of Congress understood that history was about to be made. President McKinley had decided that the United States should push its power into the Pacific Ocean and that, as a first step, it must seize the Hawaiian Islands. Some Americans found the idea intoxicating. Others despaired for the future of their country. One of them was the Speaker of the House, Thomas Reed, a figure so powerful that he was known as Czar.
Reed, a blunt-spoken Maine lawyer who had sought the Republican presidential nomination just two years before—and lost in part because of his anti-imperialist views—was repelled by the swaggering nationalism that had taken hold of Congress. Annexing Hawaii seemed to him not simply unwise but absurd. He told a friend that the United States might as well “annex the moon.” So deep was Reed’s anger, or depression, that he could not bring himself to preside over a vote that might lead to annexation. On the morning of June 15 he sent word that he would not appear.
Empire was the traditional way for rising states to expand their power, and in 1898 the American military had the means to make its imperial bid. Yet the United States had been founded through rebellion against a distant sovereign. It was pledged above all to the ideal of self-government. For a country that was once a colony to begin taking colonies of its own would be something new in modern history.
The most potent arguments against imperial expansion were drawn from American scripture. According to the Declaration of Independence, liberty is an inalienable right. The Constitution’s opening phrase is “We the People.” George Washington sounded much like an anti-imperialist when he asked, “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” So did Thomas Jefferson when he insisted, “If there be one principle more deeply written than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.” Abraham Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg that governments should be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Later he declared, “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.”
To all of this, the imperialists had a simple answer: times have changed. Past generations, they argued, could not have foreseen the race for colonies that consumed the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Nor could they have known how important it would be for the United States to control foreign markets in order to ensure stability at home. In 1863, Lincoln himself had admitted that “dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” The same principle, expansionists argued, applied in 1898.
One of Speaker Reed’s deputies gaveled the House of Representatives to order at midday on June 15. The debate began with due gravity.
“Since that fateful shot was fired at Sumter,” Representative Champ Clark of Missouri said as it began, “a greater question has not been debated in the American Congress.”
The first speakers argued that bringing Hawaii into the United States would be a step in the march of human progress. “This annexation is not a conquest or a subjugation of others, but a continuation of our established policy of opening lands to the colonial energy of the great colonizing nation of the century,” argued Richard Parker of New Jersey. To pass up such a chance, he concluded, would be “antediluvian and thorough stupidity.”
Edwin Ridgeley of Kansas agreed. “Civilization has ever moved westward, and we have every reason to believe that it will ever so continue,” he reasoned. “We need not, nor do I believe we will, enter into a conquest of force but, to the contrary, our higher civilization will be carried across the Pacific by the white and peaceful wings of our rapidly increasing commerce.”
Several congressmen asserted that the United States had no choice but to expand overseas because its farms and factories were producing more than Americans could consume and urgently needed foreign markets. “The United States is a great manufacturing nation,” William Alden Smith of Michigan reasoned. “Eventually we must find new markets for our energy and enterprise. Such desirable territory is fast passing under the control of other nations. Our history is filled with unaccepted opportunities. How much longer shall we hesitate?”
Congressmen not only declaimed on that fateful day, but also debated, sometimes with considerable wit. One of their arguments was over the role of American missionaries, who had arrived in Hawaii during the 1820s and set in motion the process that led to this debate. Albert Berry of Kentucky said Hawaiians had benefited immensely from their “influence and inspiration.”
“When the Americans sent missionaries there for the purpose of civilizing the natives,” he asserted, “they found them in an almost barbarous condition, and set to work to bring about a condition of civilization.”
That was too much for one opponent of annexation, John F. Fitzgerald of Massachusetts—the same “Honey Fitz” who would go on to become mayor of Boston and, more famously, grandfather to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. A Boston ditty held that “Honey Fitz can talk you blind / On any subject you can find.” This day, his subject was the role of missionaries.
“My colleague,” Fitzgerald said, “emphasized the pleasure that he felt in voting for annexation because of the fact that the islands had been redeemed from savagery by the devotion of American missionaries. In thinking the matter over, I have come to the conclusion that the native Hawaiian’s view of the Almighty and justice must be a little bit shaken when he sees these men, who pretend to be the exemplars of Christianity and honor, take possession of these islands by force, destroy the government that has existed for years, and set up a sovereignty for themselves.”
The day’s most vivid exchanges were about a delicate but serious matter: the extreme foreignness of native Hawaiians. Both sides used racial arguments. Annexationists said the islanders’ evident savagery made it urgent for a civilizing force to take their country and uplift them. Opponents countered that it would be madness to bring such savages into union with the United States, where they could corrupt white people.
“Hawaiian religion is the embodiment of bestiality and malignity that frequently lapses into crimes of lust and revenge,” reported one opponent of annexation, John Rhea of Kentucky. “The various legends of their gods abound in attributes of the most excessive animalism and cruelty. Lewdness, prostitution, and indecency are exalted into virtues.… There exists today upon those islands, Mr. Speaker, a population for the most part a mixture of Chinese with the islanders, thus making a homogenous whole of moral vipers and physical lepers.”
That brought Albert Berry back to his feet. “I want to say to the gentleman,” he retorted, “if he would look about the streets of the capital of Washington, he would see that there is more immorality south of Pennsylvania Avenue than there is in the whole of the Hawaiian Islands.”
“If I knew that to be true, I would blush to herald it on the floor of this House,” Rhea replied. “But I deny it, Mr. Speaker. I deny that here in the capital city of the greatest government in the world, American womanhood has fallen to such a standard. Oh, for shame that you should speak such words!”
“I did not know that the gentleman ever blushed,” Berry shot back. Expansionists in Congress and beyond were visionaries seized by a radically new idea of what America could and should be. They saw their critics as standing in the way of progress: small-minded, timid, paralyzed by fears, maddeningly unwilling to grasp the prize that history was offering. “A certain conservative class,” Freeman Knowles of South Dakota lamented, “would stand in the way of the glorious future and ultimate destiny of this Republic.”
The eloquence of annexationists was matched by that of their opponents. One after another, these doubters rose to warn against the imperial temptation. Some of their speeches suggest that they realized they were likely to lose that day’s vote on taking Hawaii. They knew, however, that this was only the opening skirmish in what would be a long struggle. They were speaking to Americans far beyond Washington—and far beyond 1898.
Time and again these troubled congressmen returned to their central theme: the American idea prohibits colonizing, annexing foreign lands, taking protectorates, or projecting military power overseas. Setting out to shape the fate of foreign nations, they argued, would not only require great military establishments and inevitably attract enemies, but also betray the essence of America’s commitment to human liberty. “We are treading on dangerous ground,” warned Adolph Meyer of Louisiana.
Meyer had been born into a family of German immigrants and was one of the few Jews in Congress. He had fought in the Confederate army, commanded Louisiana’s uniformed militia, and acquired a reputation as a forceful orator. On the afternoon of June 15, 1898, he lived up to it.
With monarchical governments, or governments only nominally republican but really despotic or monarchical, this system of colonies, however burdensome, however tending to conflict, may be pursued without a shock to their systems of government. But with us the case is different. Our whole system is founded on the right of the people—all the people—to participate in the Government.… Take this first fatal step and you cannot recall it. Much error we have corrected. Much that may hereafter be you can correct. But when this step is taken, you are irrevocably pledged to a system of colonialism and empire. There are no footsteps backward.
This was a debate over the very nature of freedom. Many Americans wished to see its blessings spread around the world. In 1898 they began disagreeing passionately on how to spread those blessings.
Anti-imperialists saw themselves as defenders of freedom because they wanted foreign peoples to rule themselves, not be ruled by Americans. They saw the seizure of faraway lands as blasphemy against what Herman Melville called “the great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!”
Expansionists found this preposterous. They believed that concepts like freedom, equality, and self-government had meaning only for developed, responsible nations—that is, nations populated and governed by white people. Others, they asserted, were too primitive to rule themselves and must be ruled by outsiders. By this logic, dusky lands could only be truly free when outsiders governed them. If natives did not realize how much they needed foreign rule, and resisted it, that was further proof of their backwardness.
No one promoted this view more colorfully or to greater effect than Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy. In a letter to his fellow imperialist Rudyard Kipling, Roosevelt scorned “the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.” As the national debate intensified, he came to embody America’s drive to project power overseas.
Mark Twain believed Roosevelt’s project would destroy the United States. Roosevelt and Twain moved in overlapping circles and knew each other, but geography separated them for years. Twain traveled and lived abroad for much of the 1890s. In Fiji, Australia, India, South Africa, and Mozambique, he had been appalled by the way white rulers treated natives. His frame of historical and cultural reference was far broader than Roosevelt’s. He saw nobility in many peoples, and found much to admire abroad—quite unlike Roosevelt, who believed that “the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as a man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife.” Instead of seeing the United States only from within, Twain compared it to other powers. He saw his own country rushing to repeat the follies he believed had corrupted Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. That way, he warned, lay war, oligarchy, militarism, and the suppression of freedom at home and abroad.
These adversaries—Roosevelt and Twain—were deliciously matched. Their views of life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart. World events divided them even before their direct confrontation began. When Germany seized the Chinese port of Kiaochow (later Tsingtao) in 1897, both men were outraged, but for different reasons. Twain opposed all foreign intervention in China; Roosevelt worried only that Germany was pulling ahead of the United States in the race for overseas concessions. Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of “Christian charity.” Twain pictured Christendom as “a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood.”
Even though Twain’s most famous novel, Huckleberry Finn, is full of coarse language and portrays a runaway rascal as a hero, Roosevelt acknowledged it as a classic. He did not care for much else that Twain wrote, however, and especially disliked A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain treated the Knights of the Round Table as objects of lusty satire. Roosevelt had revered them since childhood and was appalled.
Yet in intriguing ways, Roosevelt and Twain were remarkably similar. Both were fervent patriots who believed the United States had a sacred mission on earth—though they defined that mission quite differently. Both were writers and thinkers as well as activists. Most important, both were relentless self-promoters, born performers who carefully cultivated their public images. They loved to preach, reveled in the spotlight, and could not turn away from a crowd or a photographer. Acutely aware of each other’s popularity, neither publicly denounced the other. Among friends, though, both were free with their feelings. Roosevelt said he would like to “skin Mark Twain alive.” Twain considered Roosevelt “clearly insane” and “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.”
Roosevelt was not the conceptualizer or organizer or leader of the imperialist movement. Twain filled none of those roles for the anti-imperialists. Nonetheless they would become the most prominent, most admired, and most reviled spokesmen for their opposing causes. In mid-1898, Roosevelt was waiting impatiently for a chance to leap into history. Twain was planning his return to the United States. The stage was set for their confrontation.
Anti-imperialists enjoyed their country’s light footprint in the world. They hated war and believed liberty was America’s greatest gift to humanity. Imperialists considered war a purifying, invigorating, unifying force. In their imagined future, humanity would be guided by a virtuous United States and disciplined by American military power.
National unity, race, the meaning of liberty, the place of the United States in the world and in history—all of these grand themes shaped the debate that gripped Americans in 1898. At stake was nothing less than what kind of nation the United States would be in the twentieth century and beyond.
Anti-imperialists who convened at Faneuil Hall on that June 15 were abuzz with two pieces of exciting news. Reports had arrived from the Philippines that three days earlier, at a ceremony outside Manila, the Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo had unfurled a new flag, led a chorus in singing a newly composed national anthem, and proclaimed a new nation: the Philippine Republic. Filipinos had declared an end to three and a half centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
This electrified American anti-imperialists. They insisted that as a freedom-loving nation, the United States must immediately recognize Philippine independence. This development added urgency—and, in their eyes, immense moral weight—to the anti-imperial cause.
The day’s morning newspapers also carried reports of another thrilling declaration. The prairie firebrand William Jennings Bryan had delivered a powerful speech in Omaha that seemed certain to bring the debate over imperialism to the center of American life. Until this moment, no major political leader had spoken out against the rush to empire. Bryan had been the Democratic nominee for president in 1896 and was thought likely to run again in 1900. He was one of the most popular figures in the United States and arguably the country’s most spell binding orator.
Anti-imperialists in Boston immediately recognized the value of Bryan’s support. Many of them were prosperous businessmen, lawyers, professors, philosophers, and aesthetes. Bryan was the opposite: a barnstorming, rabble-rousing populist beloved by millions of farmers, immigrants, and poor people. His speech in Omaha echoed several that had been given in New England salons, but it was delivered to a huge crowd by one of the nation’s leading politicians. That took the anti-imperial cause into the American heartland.
Bryan began not with an exposition of history but with an apocalyptic warning rooted in his Christian fundamentalism: “Jehovah deals with nations as He deals with men—and for both, decrees that the wages of sin is death!”
History will vindicate the position taken by the United States in the war with Spain.… If, however, a contest undertaken for the sake of humanity degenerates into a war of conquest, we shall find it difficult to meet the charge of having added hypocrisy to greed.
Is our national character so weak that we cannot withstand the temptation to appropriate the first piece of land that comes within our reach? To inflict upon the enemy all possible harm is legitimate warfare, but shall we contemplate a scheme for the colonization of the Orient merely because our ships won a remarkable victory in the harbor of Manila? Our guns destroyed a Spanish fleet, but can they destroy that self-evident truth, that governments derive their just powers, not from superior force, but from the consent of the governed?
As organizers of the Faneuil Hall meeting took their places on the stage shortly before three o’clock that afternoon, they had reason to believe they were riding the crest of history. They could not imagine that Americans would wish to capture the Philippines after Filipino patriots had proclaimed independence, or that they would sully their national honor by seizing Puerto Rico, subjugating Cuba, or annexing Hawaii. The sudden emergence of Bryan as an ally seemed proof that multitudes were on their side.
When the anti-imperialist meeting was gaveled to order on the afternoon of June 15, the House of Representatives in Washington had been debating the annexation of Hawaii for several hours. By four thirty, both sessions were drawing to a close. The climactic speech in Boston was delivered by one of the city’s most eloquent lawyers, Moorfield Storey.
“How can we justify the annexation of Hawaii, whose people—outside the small fraction now kept in power by us—are notoriously opposed to it?” Storey demanded. “Let us once govern any considerable body of men without their consent, and it is but a question of time how soon this Republic shares the fate of Rome!”
After Storey finished, one of his comrades came to the podium and read a four-part resolution. This was a historic moment: the first time an anti-imperialist resolution was presented to a public meeting in the United States. It echoed through air that once carried the defiant words of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and later those of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
Resolved, that a war begun as an unselfish endeavor to fulfill a duty to humanity by ending the unhappy situation in Cuba must not be perverted into a war of conquest.
Resolved, that any annexation of territory as a result of this war would be a violation of the national faith pledged in the joint resolution of Congress which declared that the United States disclaimed “any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over Cuba except for the pacification thereof,” a disclaimer which was intended to mean that this country had no selfish purpose in making war and which, in spirit, applies to every other possession of Spain.
Resolved, that the mission of the United States is to help the world by an example of successful self-government, and that to abandon the principles and the policy under which we have prospered and embrace the doctrine and practices now called imperial is to enter the path which, with other great republics, has ended in the downfall of free institutions.
Resolved, that our first duty is to cure the evils in our own country.
Following a suggestion from the audience, a fifth clause was added, directing organizers of the meeting to name a committee charged with contacting like-minded groups in other cities—echoing the “committees of correspondence” of the revolutionary period, which were also organized at Faneuil Hall. The resolution was adopted by acclamation. This was the first time Americans had joined to oppose the idea of overseas expansion. It marked a portentous beginning.
As Bostonians approved their anti-imperialist resolution at Faneuil Hall, congressmen were making their fateful choice in Washington. All understood that although the immediate issue was Hawaii, the real question was immensely greater. It was nothing less than the future of the Republic: whether or not the United States should become a global military power and shape the fate of distant lands.
Late in the afternoon, at the same moment Moorfield Storey was speaking in Boston, Representative William Hepburn of Mississippi rose in Congress to deliver a speech that crystalized the pro-annexation position. “We have not a foot of territory that we have not taken from others,” he reminded his colleagues. This uncomfortable truth proved, he said, that expansion is the logical path to national greatness.
“Who dares to say that, even if we should enter into this new policy, the fate which befell the Roman Empire would be ours?” Hepburn asked. “Look at England. What would she be today if confined to her insular domain? What could she be? The mistress of the seas? Ah, no! One of the leading nations of the earth? Ah, no! Giving her laws, her literature, and her civilization to the rest of the world? Ah, no! She would have been powerless for this great end. Had there not been a Frederick the Great, who can say that the little Duchy of Brandenburg would have extended itself into the great German empire of today? This same ‘greed,’ this thirst for annexation, this desire for new territory, this passion for extending civilization, has blessed the earth.”
That brought William Terry of Arkansas to his feet. “A war solemnly declared for the cause of humanity, justice, and the vindication of the national honor and the national flag is being perverted from the plain and proper purposes for which it was authorized by Congress and endorsed by the American people,” Terry declared. “That flag, sir, in all its history, was never unjust in conquest and aggression. It has always been glorious and honored among all the nations of the earth, because wherever it floated, upon the land or upon the sea, it was recognized as the emblem and very symbol of freedom, humanity and justice.… Let us stand true to the lofty principles of those who gave it to our keeping.”
At five o’clock, congressmen began casting their votes. The margin was overwhelming. By 209 to 91, the House of Representatives voted, for the first time in its history, to endorse the seizure of an overseas territory. After the Senate acted and President McKinley signed, Hawaii would become American.
That day—June 15, 1898—marked the beginning of a debate that would soon consume the country. The American anti-imperialist movement was born at Faneuil Hall in Boston on the same afternoon Congress set the United States on its imperial path. Battle lines were drawn for an epic clash.
Lodge was vain, austere, and aloof. He spoke in a high-pitched, raspy voice that some compared to chalk screeching on a blackboard. Not only did he lack the common touch, he had no interest in cultivating it. Many saw him as an arrogant snob. He saw himself that way. From the beginning of his political career he realized that his character and personality would prevent him from ever winning the presidency. Yet only a president could lead the United States decisively toward empire.
In 1884, Lodge opposed the nomination of the corrupt James G. Blaine for the presidency. So did Roosevelt. The two men corresponded, met for dinner at Delmonico’s in New York City, and cemented their friendship at the Republican convention in Chicago. Both were Harvard graduates from wealthy families, limitlessly self-confident, who loved horseback riding, were drawn to the sea, considered war glorious, and felt enough energy within themselves to move the world. They failed to prevent Blaine’s nomination, but set out to become co-founders of the modern American empire.
Roosevelt welcomed Lodge’s friendship, which came at a crossroads in the younger man’s life. Earlier that year, Roosevelt had been shattered by the death of his mother and wife on the same day—February 14, 1884—and reacted by plunging into frenetic action. He bought a cattle ranch in North Dakota, hunted game, slept in tents, and gathered material for self-promoting books with evocative titles such as Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. It was therapy by playacting, the rich boy living out his fantasy of rugged life. When Roosevelt killed his first buffalo, according to one account, he “abandoned himself to complete hysteria,” dancing around the carcass while “whooping and shrieking.” For the rest of his life he rhapsodized about “the keen delight of hunting in lonely lands.”
Humbug, scorned Mark Twain. Nothing in Roosevelt’s public persona irritated him more than the “outdoorsman” image.
“He has no sympathy with any brand of nature study other than his own,” Twain wrote. “In a word, Mr. Roosevelt is not a naturalist, but a game killer. Of the real spirit of animal life, of their habits as discovered with quiet watching with no desire to kill, he knows nothing, and never will learn until he goes into the woods, leaving his pack of dogs, his rifle, his prejudice, and his present disposition behind him.”
Upon returning from a trip west in 1886, Roosevelt decided to run for mayor of New York. It was an ill-conceived campaign. He finished a poor third and retired to his Long Island estate at Oyster Bay to ruminate. Over the next two years he kept a low profile. Many thought his political career was over.
For the first but not the last time, Lodge intervened. Following the election of Benjamin Harrison as president in 1888, Lodge, who had just completed his first term as a congressman, relentlessly lobbied the new president to give Roosevelt a job in Washington. Harrison was reluctant, but in 1889 he finally agreed to name Roosevelt to the three-member Civil Service Commission.
Roosevelt and Lodge, living close to each other in Washington, became intimate friends as well as political partners. Together they wrote a book for young readers called Hero Tales from American History, a collection of idealized stories about Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, and other swashbucklers who exemplified “the stern and manly qualities which are essential to the well-being of a masterful race.” They spent countless hours discussing ways to awaken Americans to what they considered the call of destiny. Few others heard it.
“We fear no encroachments on our territory, nor are we tempted at present to encroach on that of others,” the Naval Policy Board reported in 1890. “We have no colonies, nor any desire to acquire them.”
This approach to the world bitterly frustrated Roosevelt. He considered fighting to be the only way for a man to prove himself. One of his Harvard friends wrote that “he would like above all to go to war with someone … he wants to be killing something all the time.” Later the philosopher and psychologist William James wrote that Roosevelt “gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves, and treats peace as a condition of blubberlike and swollen ignobility, fit only for huckstering weaklings, dwelling in grey twilight and heedless of the higher life.”
With America happily at peace during the 1890s, Roosevelt racked his brain to find a possible enemy. “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one,” he wrote in 1895. For a time he mused about fighting the “aboriginal owners” of Australia or Siberia, which seemed to him a glorious prospect because “the most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages.” Since no such war could be arranged, he began to imagine fighting a European power instead. Any would do.
“Frankly I don’t know that I should be sorry to see a bit of a spar with Germany,” he wrote to a friend. “The burning of New York and a few other seacoast cities would be a good object lesson in the need of an adequate system of coastal defenses.”
In 1892, Lodge won the job he coveted above all others and would hold until his death thirty-two years later: United States senator from Massachusetts. Roosevelt was an energetic civil service commissioner, but after a time he became bored with the job. In 1895 he returned to New York City to become president of the police board. He proved to be a zealous anti-corruption crusader and implacable enemy of Sunday drinking. His saloon smashing made great copy. Lodge saw the way to their grand goal becoming clearer.
“I do not say you are to be president tomorrow,” he wrote to Roosevelt. “I do not say it will be—I am sure that it may and can be.”
Lodge and Roosevelt wanted their country to strengthen its navy, project power, and rule far away lands, but neither man had a systematic plan to accomplish it. It took the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan to give order to their wild surmise.
Mahan had served in the navy during the Civil War and went on to command ships, but he was a poor captain, steering several of his vessels into collisions. Sometimes depression overwhelmed him so fully that he could not leave his cabin. Shore duty suited him better. In 1885 he secured appointment as a lecturer at the fledgling Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and the next year became its president. There he met Theodore Roosevelt, who came to the college to deliver a speech in which he used the word “war” sixty-seven times.
Roosevelt encouraged Mahan to collect his notes into a book. It emerged as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and it remains one of the most influential works of military history ever written in the United States. Mahan argued that control of the seas is always crucial to countries seeking to achieve or maintain far-reaching power. If the United States wished to join the scramble for the world’s wealth, he concluded, it would have to build warships and dispatch them to take distant islands, ports, peninsulas, and “strong places where a navy can be protected and refurnished.”
“I am frankly an imperialist, in the sense that I believe that no nation, certainly no great nation, should henceforth maintain the policy of isolation which fitted our early history,” Mahan wrote. “Imperialism, the extension of national authority over alien communities, is a dominant note in the world politics of today.”
Mahan’s book gave Lodge and Roosevelt the guide they had lacked, complete with historical detail that seemed to prove their case—though it did not explain the rise of land-based empires such as Russia or Germany. Mahan became the toast of Washington. He wrote articles and testified at congressional hearings. Until his book appeared, most Americans had thought of expansion as a movement within their own continent, to be accomplished with wagon trains and cavalry patrols. He encouraged them to look further.
“Captain Mahan has written distinctively the best and most important, and also most interesting, book on naval history which has been produced on either side of the water in many a long year,” Roosevelt wrote in the Atlantic. “Our greatest need is the need for a fighting fleet.… We need a large navy, composed not only of cruisers but containing also a full proportion of powerful battleships, able to meet those of any other nation.”
Mahan did not see power projection as simply an abstract good or an exercise of national ego. He promoted it above all as an answer to the central dilemma of American life. By the end of the nineteenth century, American farmers and factory owners had so fully mastered techniques of mass production that they were producing more than they could sell. They urgently needed new markets.
In 1893 the United States plunged into the worst depression its people had ever known. The collapse of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company shocked the over-leveraged economy and set off a panic. Hundreds of banks failed. Thousands of businesses collapsed. Millions lost jobs. Bitter strikes were brutally suppressed. Commodity prices plummeted, leaving many farm families destitute. Hordes of angry unemployed converged on Washington. Chaos threatened.
Business and political leaders saw only one way out of this crisis: overseas markets. These would be the safety valve by which explosive social pressures inside American society would be eased. During the mid-1890s, politicians, businessmen, and editorial writers focused continually on the theme of “glut” and the absolute necessity of finding new markets for American products. Mahan reminded them that overseas commerce would have to be protected, or imposed on unwilling nations, by naval power. He fused America’s commercial and strategic interests into a global strategy that captured many imaginations.
“The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth,” Lodge wrote. “As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march.”
Several times Lodge and Roosevelt saw encouraging glimmers of militarism in the United States. In 1891, Americans were roused to a fury by news that two American sailors had been stabbed to death in a fight outside the True Blue Saloon in Valparaiso, Chile. “We are actually at the mercy of a tenth-rate country!” Roosevelt fumed. Behind this manufactured crisis lay a desire to slap down the powerful Chilean navy and ensure access to nitrate deposits that were bringing profit to an American company, W. R. Grace. Finally, threatened with retaliation, Chile agreed to pay the United States a $75,000 indemnity.
In 1894 the United States sent five warships to intervene in a civil war in Brazil, breaking a blockade that prevented the unloading of American goods at Rio de Janeiro. A year later the United States declared its right to dictate the settlement of a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana. These episodes produced momentary bursts of martial pride. They were practice runs, psychic preparations for the explosion of American intervention that lay ahead.
As the presidential election of 1896 approached, the Republican candidate, Governor William McKinley of Ohio, was asked what the country needed in order to complete its recovery from depression. “We want a foreign market for our surplus products,” he replied simply. That was what businessmen wanted to hear. McKinley became the first American presidential candidate to receive large campaign donations from wealthy capitalists. Many were arranged by his close friend and political manager Mark Hanna, who had made a fortune in oil, steel, coal, and railroads. Captains of industry had rarely contributed to political campaigns. Hanna persuaded them that this time they must—to block demonic power in the form of William Jennings Bryan.
Few presidential candidates in American history have stirred as much emotion as Bryan. To the established classes he was a paragon of evil, promoter of radical policies certain to destroy the American economy. Masses of the poor and dispossessed idolized him. The 1896 presidential campaign framed class conflict more starkly than any in American history. It was the first presidential election in which big money played a decisive role. At its heart was the life-or-death debate over “free silver.”
Millions of Americans, especially farmers, were being crushed by debt or had already lost their land. They blamed the gold standard for keeping commodity prices low and mortgage interest rates crushingly high. Cheaper currency and easier money, they believed, would ease their burden. This they would achieve through what was called free silver, legalizing the coinage of silver at the same rate as gold even though its intrinsic value was far less. The result would be inflation, which they presumed would raise prices for their crops and make it easier for them to pay off their debts. To creditors and many others, this sounded like a recipe for wiping out established fortunes—robbing the rich to aid the poor.
Bryan promoted free silver with religious fervor. He arrived at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a little-known former congressman from Nebraska, just thirty-six years old and a most unlikely presidential candidate. In the space of less than an hour on the afternoon of July 9, he changed the course of the convention, the campaign, and American political history with one of the most famous speeches of the age. It was a ringing call for the Democratic Party to support “the struggling masses” against “idle holders of idle capital.”
There are those who believe that if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them. You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies.… We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”
The arena exploded. Bryan was borne through the aisles like a conquering hero. “Bedlam broke loose, delirium reigned supreme,” the Washington Post reported. Less than twenty-four hours later, delegates nominated Bryan as the Democratic candidate for president.
In a ravenous fifty-five-day spasm during the summer of 1898, 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.
After leaving Platt’s suite, Roosevelt descended to the sumptuous lobby and walked along carpeted hallways past salons where the New York elite gathered for drinks and gossip. No one can know whether a copy of the new issue of Century was lying on a table in one of those salons. Quite possibly, though, some conversation was being devoted to the slashing attack on imperialism by Carl Schurz that was the issue’s centerpiece. The article did not mention Roosevelt by name, but it signaled Schurz’s emergence as the colonel’s deepest ideological enemy.
We are told that as we have grown very rich and very powerful, the principles of policy embodied in Washington’s Farewell Address have become obsolete—that we have “new responsibilities,” “new duties,” and a peculiar “mission.” When we ask what these new responsibilities and duties require this Republic to do, the answer is that it should meddle more than heretofore with the concerns of the outside world for the purpose of “furthering the progress of civilization”; that it must adopt an “imperial policy” and make a beginning by keeping as American possessions the island colonies conquered from Spain.…
What, then, will follow if the United States commits this breach of faith? What could our answer be if the world should say of the American people that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, rapacious land-grabbers posing as unselfish champions of freedom and humanity, false pretenders who have proved the truth of all that has been said by their detractors as to their hypocrisy and greed, and whose word can never again be trusted?…
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 a false pretender? Such a loss of character, in itself a most deplorable moral calamity, would be followed by political consequences of a very serious nature.
“Jammed from top to bottom with a shouting, cheering throng, Carnegie Hall was the scene tonight of the great mass meeting that opened the campaign of Col. Roosevelt for governor of New York,” one newspaper reported. “The hall quickly filled, and so great was the jam outside that Col. Roosevelt and the other speakers had to have the aid of the police in forcing their way into the hall. Four overflow meetings were held.… Col. Roosevelt was received with a tremendous outburst of cheering. His speech was devoted almost wholly to national affairs. He asserted that the time had come when the nation must assume a new position among the nations of the world.”
One historian has called this speech a “soaring, chauvinist oration.” According to another, “It sounded more like the oratory of a Commander-in-Chief than plain gubernatorial rhetoric.” This was Roosevelt’s first coherent distillation of the potent beliefs that had shaped him and the modern United States, a clarion call for Americans to break out of their “fossilized isolation” and fulfill their “mighty mission.”
There comes a time in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, when it must face great responsibilities, whether it will or not. We have now reached that time. We cannot avoid facing the fact that we occupy a new place among the people of the world, and we have entered upon a new career.…
The guns of our warships in the tropic seas of the West and the remote East have awakened us to the knowledge of new duties. Our flag is a proud flag, and it stands for liberty and civilization. Where it has once floated, there must and shall be no return to tyranny or savagery. We are face to face with our destiny and we must meet it with a high and resolute courage. For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty. Let us live in the harness, striving mightily. Let us run the risk of wearing out rather than rusting out.… The only defense that is worth anything is the offensive. A peaceable man must not brawl, but when forced to fight, if he is worth his salt, he will defend himself by hitting and not parrying.
The high-water mark of American restraint in foreign affairs came during the presidency of Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover. Historians fault Hoover for his inaction after the stock market crash of 1929, but he was a genuine humanitarian who became the most resolutely anti-imperialist president in modern American history. His background was highly unusual. He was shaped by strong Quaker beliefs, extended stays in a dozen countries on engineering projects, and work directing food relief programs in Europe during and after World War I. As president he pursued modest and respectful foreign policies. In one speech he asserted that conflict in the world was the result not of the rebelliousness of ignorant natives, but of “the great inequalities and injustices of centuries.” He brought Americans the unwelcome news that in “a large part of the world,” the United States was seen as “a new imperial power intent upon dominating the destinies and freedoms of other people.” Soon after taking office he declared, “It ought not to be the policy of the United States to interfere by force to secure or maintain contracts between our citizens and foreign states.” No previous president had spoken like that. None has since.
Immediately after his election in 1928, Hoover set out on a tour of Latin America that lasted an astonishing seven weeks, accompanied by his wife, who spoke fluent Spanish. Later he withdrew United States Marines from Nicaragua, where they had been fighting nationalist guerrillas for twenty years. He signed a treaty that led to the withdrawal of American troops from Haiti. When Japan seized part of Manchuria in the fall and winter of 1931–32, he announced that the United States would not recognize the conquest—but would not send troops to reverse it. During his four years in office, he turned down appeals to intervene on behalf of American companies in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and Peru. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, is often credited with proclaiming the “good neighbor” policy toward Latin America, but both the idea and the phrase were originally Hoover’s. He is the sterling exemplar of the Republican Party’s rich anti-imperial tradition.
Hoover was not alone in proclaiming this creed. Senator William Borah, the Republican “Lion of Idaho” who succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Lodge died in 1924, was an outspoken opponent of U.S. intervention abroad. So was Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, a Democrat who was assassinated in 1935 while preparing his campaign for the presidency. Long had promised that if elected he would name the country’s most contrarian military hero, General Smedley Butler, as secretary of war.
Butler had spent decades leading invasions of other countries. He commanded troops in Cuba and the Philippines, fought the Boxers in China, helped overthrow the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras, directed occupations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, secured the Panamanian regime that gave Americans the right to build their canal, and won a Medal of Honor—the first of two—for valor in suppressing Mexican resistance at Veracruz. By the 1920s he was a living legend, a personification of “the large policy.” The Marine Corps decided to use his popularity as a recruiting tool and sent him on a speaking tour. It did not unfold as planned. Butler strayed far from his script. He not only failed to defend the policies for which he had fought, he denounced them. Marine commanders called him back to Washington and, by mutual agreement, he resigned from active duty. Freed from constraint, he began barnstorming the country on his own. In passionate speeches and articles, he said that serving as a marine commander had made him “a high-class muscle man for big business” and “a gangster for capitalism.”
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
By the time Butler reached his rhetorical peak, Franklin Roosevelt had won the presidency. Roosevelt turned out to be a halfhearted good neighbor to Latin America. In 1934 he signed a treaty with Cuba that annulled the hated Platt Amendment, which had provided a legal fig leaf for repeated interventions in the region. Later he resisted pressure to declare war on Mexico after President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the Mexican oil industry. He also, however, generously supported the hemisphere’s most repressive dictators, including Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Fulgencio Batistain Cuba, and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Like most other American presidents, Roosevelt was unable or unwilling to see that his foreign interventions were planting the seeds of anti-American rebellion.
Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was dominated by the cataclysm of World War II. In the early years of the war he, like Wilson a generation earlier, sought to keep American troops out, largely in response to public sentiment. Many Americans believed that the United States had no business joining the war. Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota spoke for them when he railed against the “rotten commercialism” that led American corporations to push their country into foreign wars. Congress passed resolutions opposing American intervention in conflicts that broke out in China, Spain, and Ethiopia. Ernest Hemingway, who had seen World War I, wrote that Americans “were fools to be sucked in once on a European war, and we should never be sucked in again.” This ethos remained strong, in Washington and across the United States, until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the excuse he wanted to enter the war.
With the nation mobilized, anti-interventionist passion naturally faded. It weakened further as Americans learned of horrific crimes committed by Japan and Germany. Intervention in foreign conflicts came to seem right and just.
Franklin Roosevelt, who had maintained a decent working relationship with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during World War II, died as the war was ending. Historians have speculated whether he might have been able to maintain that relationship, possibly averting the Cold War. Instead the inexperienced Harry Truman came to the presidency. He told Americans that they faced a new and relentless enemy bent on world domination, the Soviet Union, and had no choice but to fight back.
According to this narrative, Communism posed such a mortal threat to humanity that all means to resist it, anywhere in the world, were justified. The global economy had become heavily transnational, meaning that American business relied more than ever on access to global markets and resources. A new crop of leaders in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, saw the entire world as a battleground. This was “the large policy” for a modern age.
“The 20th century, if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American century,” the publisher Henry Luce famously wrote in 1941. “It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse.”