Stephen Kinzer opens his latest book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, with an enduring, important question: “How should the United States act in the world?” Before offering his answer, he argues that “Americans are imperialists and also isolationists… Both instincts coexist within us.”
He’s right about this, but he’s wrong about when America gave in to its imperialist “instincts.”
Kinzer contends that “as the 20th century dawned, the United States faced a fateful choice…whether to join the race for colonies, territories and dependencies that gripped European powers.” He concludes that Americans chose the path of empire “with astonishing suddenness in the spring of 1898” by annexing Hawaii, and then taking Cuba and the Philippines from Spain.
The annexation of Hawaii, according to Kinzer, was “the first time in its history” that Congress would “endorse the seizure of an overseas territory.” This was “a radically new idea of what America could and should be,” in Kinzer’s assessment.
Kinzer’s argument hangs on that modifier “overseas,” as if acquiring territory in the Pacific and the Caribbean, on the one hand, is somehow different from acquiring the Louisiana Territory, Florida, Texas, and what was once northern Mexico, while stretching America from “sea to shining sea,” on the other. This distinction is, at best, slight.
This book uses Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt as the main exponents of the anti-imperialist and imperialist camps. “Roosevelt,” Kinzer writes, “came to embody America’s drive to project power overseas,” while “Twain believed Roosevelt’s project would destroy the United States.”
The True Flag makes it clear whom his heroes and villains are. Roosevelt is labeled a “bucktoothed,” “hyperactive” “warmonger,” while Twain and other anti-imperialists are “freethinking” and “enlightened.”
Yet Roosevelt and supporters of the Spanish-American War believed they were liberating oppressed peoples, and they were. “We have driven Spanish tyranny from the [Philippine] islands,” Roosevelt declared, warning that if tyranny were “replaced by savage anarchy, our work has been for harm and not for good.”
Twain and opponents of the war worried about what would follow the liberation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Their worries proved well-founded. Twain argued that Washington should have “destroyed the Spanish fleet,” brought our armada home, and then “allowed the Filipino citizens to set up the form of government they might prefer.”
Of course, that would raise the question of whether these liberated lands could govern themselves. Kinzer concedes, “Fears that Cuba was not ready for self-government had some basis.” Moreover, expelling Spain and then declaring victory would have created a vacuum other powers were eager to fill. Germany’s influence was growing in the Pacific and the Caribbean, as Edmund Morris details in his history of Roosevelt.
Whether good or bad, wrong or right—and Kinzer clearly leans toward empire being inherently malignant—America’s imperial impulse is as old as America. But don’t take my word for it.
In 1776, Adam Smith concluded that Americans were “employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire which will become one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.” Niall Ferguson adds in Colossus: “There were no more self-confident imperialists than the Founding Fathers themselves.”
As Robert Kagan argues in Dangerous Nation, the impetus for expansion was grafted into the very fiber of the republic. He writes:
In the new liberal and commercial order…embodied in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a government constructed by the people for the purpose of protecting their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness could not easily stand in the way of their efforts to acquire and settle new lands… The federal government itself risked losing popular support if it hemmed in its citizens… There was scarcely an American in a position of influence in the early years of the republic who did not envision the day when the United States would stretch across the entire expanse of the continent, not only westward but also northward into Canada and southward into Mexico.
All told, America’s nineteenth-century growth spurts included acquisitions in the central third of North America, Florida, Texas, Oregon, Mexico, the Pacific (the Howland, Baker, and Midway islands), and the massive chunk of earth known as Alaska. All of these came before 1898—the year when, according to Kinzer, “a suddenly-ambitious America” burst onto the global stage.
America gave in to its imperial “instincts” from the very beginning. Kinzer even notes that the imperialist camp made this point. He includes a quote from Senator Thomas Platt who observed, “We have been for a whole century annexing territory.” Yet, Kinzer glosses over this—trying to make a distinction between America’s “overseas” expansion at the dawn of the twentieth century and continental expansion throughout the nineteenth century.
To his credit, Kinzer identifies an enduring challenge for the United States. “Our enthusiasm for foreign intervention seems to ebb and flow,” he observes. “At some moments, we are aflame with righteous anger. Confident in our power, we launch wars and depose governments. Then, chastened, we retreat—until the cycle begins again.”
Again, this cycle began long before the twentieth century. Of the 300-plus cases of US military intervention tallied by the Congressional Research Service, 103 occurred before 1900. Some of these were launched to defend US interests, some to punish aggression, some for humanitarian purposes, some to preserve order. And some remind us that America sometimes chooses the wrong course in this broken world. As Providence’s declaration on faith and foreign policy observes, “America’s leadership is imperfect.” That said, America’s wrong turns on the global stage do not invalidate the justness of interventions that have protected the American people, served humanity, promoted freedom, and nurtured a liberal international order.
While much of the preceding boils down to a difference of opinion about Kinzer’s fine-point distinction between America’s “overseas” expansion and continental expansion, the conclusion of The True Flag includes some head-scratching assertions.
Kinzer reports that President George H.W. Bush “ordered an invasion to depose the government of Panama,” “decided to base thousands of US troops on Saudi soil” and “sent soldiers to intervene in a civil war raging in Somalia”; that President Bill Clinton framed “foreign wars as missions of mercy” to give them “an appealing patina”; that Clinton’s “success in wresting the province of Kosovo away from Serbia” was used by Moscow “to justify ripping apart other once-sovereign nations”; that President George W. Bush responded to 9/11 “not by targeted attacks on the bombers and their enablers, but with a full-scale assault on Afghanistan”; that President Barack Obama “ordered military operations to destroy the regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.”
Clinton’s decision to intervene in Haiti and the Balkans was indeed about mercy. There were no spoils of conquest. In Haiti, as in Panama, a military junta had prevented a democratically elected president from serving and, in the process, had caused great suffering. Upon arriving, US troops fed, sheltered, and cared for the Haitian people. In Bosnia and Kosovo, US-led NATO airstrikes and peacekeeping deployments followed years of Serbian militias systematically “cleansing” parts of Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo of non-Serbs—erasing 250,000 people. The only thing that stopped the killing was America’s military. Clinton didn’t “wrest” Kosovo from Serbia; Slobodan Milosevic lost the moral and political authority to keep it. Moreover, Poland and the Baltics in the 1930s, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, and South Korea during the Cold War, and Georgia and Ukraine in the 2000s remind us that Moscow has never needed justifications before assaulting sovereign nations.
Kinzer neglects to mention that George W. Bush launched a war in Afghanistan precisely because al-Qaeda’s “enablers” were the men who ran Afghanistan. The beliefs, actions, enemies, objectives, and territory of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were one in the same. Thus, targeting one but not the other would be a fruitless exercise, as Washington learned in 1998.
Finally, Obama authorized airstrikes in Libya to protect Qaddafi’s subjects from being exterminated, according to Qaddafi, like “rats” and “cockroaches.” The US and NATO took him at his word, secured UN authorization for a no-fly zone and dismantled Qaddafi’s military infrastructure. Once that infrastructure of fear was gone, Qaddafi’s regime collapsed.
This is not a defense of empire or of every US intervention. However, it is a defense of the notion that some interventions are necessary—and a counter to the notion that America became expansionist in 1898.
Kinzer’s vision of how America should act in the world is noble but naïve. The natural order of the world, regrettably, is not orderly. There are no police to enforce the rules, deter or punish aggression, settle disputes, or keep the peace. Those tasks fall to power-projecting nations like the US.
America began carrying out those tasks—and building an empire—long before 1898. Kinzer, it seems, is yearning for a mythical America.
Photo Credit: Theodore Roosevelt speaking in Lodi, NJ while campaigning for the presidential nomination on May 23, 1912. Photo by P. Thompson, via Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Houghton Library, Harvard University and on Flickr.