'The True Flag' traces America's leap into empire-building in summer 1898

Avarice and arrogance, cloaked in rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, prompted an expensive foreign war that proved more intractable than any American had expected.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire By Stephen Kinzer Henry Holt and Co. 320 pp.

Not long before America assumed control of the Philippines in 1898, President William McKinley admitted that he had no idea where the islands were actually located. “I could not have told you where those darned islands were within 1000 miles,” he said. This pesky lack of knowledge did not stop McKinley from believing that America had a divine duty to annex and control the Philippines, wherever they might be.

The American presence in the Philippines was just one reflection of a newly awakened hunger for expansion. Over a stretch of 55 days in the summer of 1898, America gained control over the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico. All of these overseas acquisitions occasioned intensely bitter domestic debate between proponents and opponents of American aggression overseas. Even the terms were contested – was this new policy rapacious imperialism or humanitarian intervention, and were its critics cloistered isolationists or sensible anti-imperialists?

Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer’s new book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, is an important and lucid analysis of what he rightly calls “the mother of all debates” in the history of American foreign policy. The essential arguments on both sides were refined and sharpened in the conflict surrounding these first international forays – disputes over later interventions, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, recycled the same basic script.

The opponents of costly foreign wars could summon some illustrious supporters from American history. George Washington had asked, “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” Thomas Jefferson seemed to agree: “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.” The founding fathers, of course, rejected the colonial overreach of the British, arguing that the consent of the governed legitimized the fledgling American nation. Over a century later, many Americans still had the strong sense that accumulating distant colonies was contrary to the founding principles of our Republic. The orator William Jennings Bryan cautioned against expansion in language that echoed the Declaration of Independence: “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?”

Many Americans trusted guns over principles. Theodore Roosevelt was eager for a foreign war of any sort. He wrote in 1895: “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” The Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wanted to expand the international market for American-produced goods, and conquering other countries was a straightforward way of securing lucrative markets. Much of the rhetoric framed American interventions as humanitarian. Kinzer puts it well: “Expansionists of 1898 … realized, as have their successors, that the best way to bring Americans to support a foreign intervention is to frame it as a rescue of oppressed people.”

This is not to say that there were no genuinely humanitarian motives among the initial supporters of American intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, both of which were under the sway of Spain’s fading imperial power at the end of the 19th century. Mark Twain initially supported American efforts to help both nations toward freedom, but his enthusiasm curdled when he saw the intention of many politicians was not to remove so much as supplant the Spaniards. At the start of the American-Philippine war in 1899, the Philippines had a president, a Congress, a constitution, a national anthem, and a flag. There was no plausible argument that America was helping the people of the Philippines to resist foreign domination – the Spaniards were gone, and the Americans were now the ones attempting to subdue a sovereign and independent country.

Theodore Roosevelt, however, held such incredibly racist views of the local Filipinos that he believed any arguments that invoked the idea of liberty or the consent of the governed simply did not apply because the Filipinos were “utterly unfit for self-government and show no signs of becoming fit.” Rudyard Kipling chimed in with his famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden” which was occasioned by the conflict with the Philippines and presented its inhabitants as “half-devil and half-child.”  Other proponents of expansion made the accurate but irrelevant point that America had already stolen huge tracts of land from Native Americans and Mexico. Why stop now?

As war in the Philippines dragged on and reports of horrific cruelty by American soldiers surfaced, popular support for the war faltered. Intellectuals and public figures from William James to Andrew Carnegie continued to voice their eloquent and outraged opposition to the war and the vision of America it represented. Carnegie even offered to buy the Philippines himself for $20 million in order to grant the islands their independence. But the basic template was already established: avarice and arrogance, cloaked in rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, prompted an expensive foreign war that proved more intractable than any American had expected.

Kinzer is an incisive historian of American foreign policy, and he argues convincingly that America remains confused and divided over the relative merits of the two approaches to foreign intervention exemplified by this conflict. However eloquent the partisans of colonial overreach, however, the moral and historical facts converge on a single conclusion. In the words of Mark Twain, “There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket.”

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