Roo­sevelt and the de­bate over Amer­i­can em­pire.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Den­nis Drabelle is a for­mer con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor of Book World.

Am­brose Bierce mocked it as the Yanko Spanko War. Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed op­posed it. So did two for­mer pres­i­dents, Grover Cleve­land and Ben­jamin Har­ri­son, as well as a once-and-fu­ture can­di­date for that of­fice, Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan. But they couldn’t over­come the war­mon­gers, led by As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of the Navy Theodore Roo­sevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent, Wil­liam McKin­ley. The Span­ish-Amer­i­can War, as it is less sar­don­ically known, came and went dur­ing a few months in 1898.

For­mer New York Times for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Stephen Kinzer’s pep­pery new book, “The True Flag,” is about what hap­pened next, af­ter a se­ries of easy vic­to­ries in var­i­ous sec­tors of the Span­ish Em­pire left the United States hold­ing Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philip­pines. The ques­tion of what to do with those farflung is­lands, Kinzer as­serts, gen­er­ated a de­bate the likes of which had not been seen since “the pe­riod when the United States was founded.”

You may have no­ticed that although Mark Twain’s name ap­pears in the book’s sub­ti­tle, I didn’t list him among the war’s prom­i­nent op­po­nents. That’s be­cause he — along with an­other renowned an­ti­im­pe­ri­al­ist, steel mag­nate An­drew Carnegie — sup­ported the in­va­sion of Cuba, which was billed as a hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion to lib­er­ate an op­pressed peo­ple from Span­ish rule.

In be­stow­ing their ap­proval, the world’s most fa­mous writer and its rich­est ty­coon dis­counted less-sa­vory mo­tives. A crush on war­fare was one, with Roo­sevelt the most besotted swain of all. Com­bat makes boys into men, he in­sisted, and keeps a na­tion from go­ing soft. Other rea­sons in­cluded open­ing up new mar­kets for Amer­i­can com­merce, gain­ing ad­mit­tance to the club of colo­nial pow­ers and spread­ing Amer­i­can val­ues. The last two mo­tives, how­ever, were hard to square with each other. How could a na­tion founded on prin­ci­pled Theodore Roo­sevelt, cen­ter, with mem­bers of the Rough Rid­ers in Cuba dur­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War in 1898. Roo­sevelt thought that such wars kept a na­tion strong. re­bel­lion against colo­nial rule turn around and ac­quire colonies of its own? The an­swer given by Lodge and com­pany was a form of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism: We’re so rich and right­eous that we have a duty to make our in­fe­ri­ors more like us.

The first cli­max of “The True Flag” is the Se­nate de­bate on the Treaty of Paris, by which ti­tle to the cap­tured is­lands would pass from Spain to the United States. The anti-im­pe­ri­al­ists seemed to have the edge, not least be­cause, un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion, a treaty takes ef­fect only if rat­i­fied by at least two-thirds of the vot­ing sen­a­tors.

Then a bomb­shell hit. Bryan came out in fa­vor of rat­i­fi­ca­tion. He was pre­par­ing to run for pres­i­dent again, and the war had won pop­u­lar ac­claim as a sym­bol of Amer­ica’s com­ing of age. Bryan also suf­fered from wish­ful think­ing. He con­vinced him­self that the best way for the for­mer Span­ish pos­ses­sions to stand on their own was first to be seized and out­fit­ted with train­ing wheels by the United States. Ob­servers dif­fered as to whether the Great Com­moner’s de­fec­tion cost the anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist side a mere seven votes or as many as 15, but it seems clear that the treaty owed its two-vote mar­gin of vic­tory to what one his­to­rian called “the baf­fling fig­ure of Mr. Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan.”

Two years later, Bryan had a chance to make amends. He was run­ning for pres­i­dent, and in the mean­time bloody up­ris­ings in the Philip­pines had eroded Amer­i­can sup­port for re­tain­ing the is­lands. Bryan op­posed the con­tin­ued oc­cu­pa­tion, and it was widely thought that the only thing block­ing his path to the White House was free sil­ver. If Bryan could bring him­self to jet­ti­son that lost cause, the rea­son­ing went, he would ap­peal to big busi­ness, deny McKin­ley a sec­ond term and check U.S. im­pe­ri­al­ism. But free sil­ver, as ar­tic­u­lated in the per­fer­vid “Cross of Gold” speech, had been the mak­ing of Bryan as a na­tional politi­cian, and he couldn’t bear to let it go. His stub­born­ness cost him the elec­tion, prov­ing that Bryan, in the words of the un­fail­ingly witty Speaker Reed, would “rather be wrong than pres­i­dent.”

Which brings up one of the most strik­ing fea­tures of the war and its af­ter­math: the num­ber of catch­phrases it in­spired. Yel­low­press lord Wil­liam Randolph Hearst re­put­edly ca­bled one of his pho­tog­ra­phers, “You fur­nish the pic­tures and I’ll fur­nish the war.” Rud­yard Ki­pling jus­ti­fied this and other, sim­i­lar wars as “the white man’s bur­den.” Back home af­ter his tri­umph on San Juan Hill, Roo­sevelt said he felt “as big and strong as a bull moose.” Sec­re­tary of State John Hay summed up the con­flict as “a splen­did lit­tle war.” As Filipinos con­tin­ued to re­sist, Henry Adams wrote to a friend, “I turn green in bed at mid­night if I think of the hor­ror of a year’s war­fare in the Philip­pines.”

No sin­gle re­mark of Twain’s stands out, but he de­nounced Amer­i­can em­pire-build­ing of­ten and scathingly, un­ruf­fled by ac­cu­sa­tions that he was spout­ing trea­son. To my mind, how­ever, the most damn­ing in­dict­ment was brought by Chief Jus­tice Melville Fuller in a 1901 case about whether the United States could legally sub­ject the oc­cu­pied is­lands to what was es­sen­tially mar­tial law:

“The idea that this coun­try may ac­quire ter­ri­to­ries any­where upon the earth, by con­quest or treaty, and hold them as mere colonies or prov­inces — the peo­ple in­hab­it­ing them to en­joy only such rights as Congress chooses to ac­cord to them — is wholly in­con­sis­tent with the spirit and ge­nius, as well as with the words, of the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

It re­mains to be said that Fuller was writ­ing in dis­sent; by a 5-to-4 vote, the court ruled in fa­vor of the govern­ment.

Kinzer gets a bit car­ried away in his last chap­ter, “The Deep Hurt,” a pot­ted sur­vey of the in­ter­ven­tions and in­va­sions launched by the United States in the cen­tury-plus since 1898. It’s more ser­mon than his­tory, and most read­ers will al­ready be well aware of the author’s ex­am­ples from their own mem­o­ries or pre­vi­ous read­ing.

What Kinzer does ex­traor­di­nar­ily well, how­ever, is to re­mind us how eas­ily the piv­otal de­ci­sions — the treaty vote, the Supreme Court case and oth­ers — could have gone the other way. If one jus­tice or three sen­a­tors had switched sides, or if Bryan had been less of a “baf­fling fig­ure,” the United States might have be­come a very dif­fer­ent coun­try.


THE TRUE FLAG Theodore Roo­sevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of Amer­i­can Em­pire By Stephen Kinzer Henry Holt. 306 pp. $28

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