The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt, 2017), 306pp. + 18 illustrations.
Contrary to what the subtitle suggests, Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag is not limited to the views of Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt on American imperialism, but instead expands into a full-fledged narrative of the imperialism debate in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Previous literature on the topic has appeared in two waves, with one peak in the 1960s and 1970s, triggered by the contemporary debate on the Vietnam War, and a recent “mini-surge” of two academic studies on the subject. Kinzer’s book, however, is the first one directed at a general, non-academic audience, with the narrative flow uninterrupted by footnote numbers. There are notes in the back, to be sure, but these are quite discouraging to use because the attribution consists of page numbers and the repetition of brief in-text quotations. References and bibliography also show that Kinzer’s book is not based on archival research.
Nevertheless, the author has to be credited for producing an eminently readable account of this debate, which he characterizes—never shy of superlatives—as the “farthest-reaching debate in our history” and “the mother of all debates” on foreign policy (2). In intellectual stature, Kinzer likens the imperialism debate to those between the nation’s founders in the late 18th century. It was supposedly the first time when Americans, united in their belief that their country had a global mission, disagreed about the means to implement that mission: Should they go abroad in order to spread their way of life and democracy and even to build an empire or should they perfect the “city upon a hill” at home so that others might voluntarily emulate the superior American example? This debate, Kinzer claims, has been raging at the core of U.S. foreign policy beliefs ever since. In the final chapter, he provides an overview of the debates that followed in the 20th century, emphasizing “a central truth that runs through the history of American anti-imperialism: while the broad center, built on alliances among political parties, the press, and multinational corporations, promotes overseas intervention, dissenters” on the left and the right of the political spectrum “question its value” (243). Kinzer uses the examples of Barack Obama and Herbert Hoover’s anti-interventionism to underline this point. It is also obvious throughout the book that its author’s sympathies are clearly with the anti-imperialist tradition.
Nevertheless, the premise that this debate only started after the Spanish-American War of 1898 is exaggerated. It is actually as old as the republic itself, and Kinzer himself ends the book with citing what he considers the good advice of the republic’s first president, George Washington, on avoiding “permanent alliances,” “overgrown military establishments” and “projects of hostility” (250). In the next generation, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously warned that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet another generation later, a debate raged about the war against Mexico, especially about the question of whether the United States should annex formerly Mexican territory. In that round, congressman and future president Abraham Lincoln made his mark as one of the fiercest critics of an aggressive and expansionist approach to Mexico. And finally, when an opportunity arose to annex Santo Domingo (the later Dominican Republic) after the Civil War, a small version of the later imperialism debate erupted, with many of the same arguments and even protagonists of 1898.
The premise that this debate only started after the Spanish-American War of 1898 is exaggerated. It is actually as old as the republic itself, and Kinzer himself ends the book with citing what he considers the good advice of the republic’s first president, George Washington, on avoiding “permanent alliances,” “overgrown military establishments” and “projects of hostility.”
Although Kinzer exaggerates the novelty of the debate, he is right not only about its importance, but also about the fact that it mirrors and foreshadows similar “great debates” in American history, from the one on American entry into the Second World War, to the one on Vietnam, and on the recent interventions across the Middle East. This model of contestation furnishes the rationale for The True Flag. Particularly noticeable here is Kinzer’s argument that interventionism and reticence (the deceptive term “isolationism” actually does not always fit the complexity of such debates) are not cyclical or “pendulum swings,” as another analyst of U.S. foreign policy has labeled the two extremes. Instead, Kinzer asserts, “[w]hen 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. … 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” (1).
Following a chronological structure, Kinzer tells the story of the imperialism debate for a general, non-academic audience in an accessible and engaging fashion. Particularly the latter is no small achievement, considering that the core of the story consists of politicians and opinion leaders giving long speeches and writing extensive tracts. These texts contained long historical excursions as well as abstract legal and constitutional arguments about what a democracy like the United States could and could not do with recently acquired territories. Kinzer uses primarily two related devices to make his story accessible and engaging, by personalizing the issues and by emphasizing the stark (and frequently exaggerated—more on that below!) contrast between both camps and their opinions. He relates the imperialism debate through prominent personalities, provides biographical background as explanation for the respective position on the issues, and—most importantly—juxtaposes the main protagonists in frequently shifting combinations. Underlining the personalization, Kinzer writes at one point: “What giants arose to face each other!” (71) and he praises the “truly stellar group” of anti-imperialists at another (95). As both the subtitle and the book cover suggest, one such juxtaposition is that between Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, between the young, blustering, and hyper-masculine propagandist of empire and of the monumental struggle between civilization and “barbarism” and the older, intellectual, and acerbic satirist of modern American life who refrained from publishing all his anti-imperialist writings because he knew “that some of his rants were too extreme for public consumption” (186).
Through several chapters, Kinzer details how deeply entwined Roosevelt’s life and career were with the progress of American empire. One of his closest advisors and fellow advocates of a “large” foreign policy was Henry Cabot Lodge, the junior Senator from Massachusetts, and both were captivated by the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, propagandist for a large navy. These men, the author argues, were central in orchestrating the annexation of Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and especially the Philippines after the war against Spain that had actually been waged over the liberation of Cuba from Spanish rule. When that war broke out, Roosevelt resigned from his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to lead a regiment, the famed “Rough Riders.” His heroic exploits in Cuba helped him become governor of New York upon his return. “Never before,” emphasizes Kinzer, “had anyone campaigned for governor of an American state on a platform urging overseas expansion” (77). Analyzing that campaign, the author uses another juxtaposition, this time between Roosevelt and the German-American Carl Schurz who had been an abolitionist, served in the Civil War and now explicitly campaigned against the Rough Rider because of his foreign policy views.
Kinzer tells the story of the imperialism debate for a general, non-academic audience in an accessible and engaging fashion. Particularly the latter is no small achievement, considering that the core of the story consists of politicians and opinion leaders giving long speeches and writing extensive tracts. These texts contained long historical excursions as well as abstract legal and constitutional arguments about what a democracy like the United States could and could not do with recently acquired territories.
The book’s core consists of two chapters covering the Senate debate on the Treaty of Paris between the United States and Spain, which stipulated cession of the Philippines in exchange for $20 million. This particular discussion is a fitting climax for the book because the necessary two-thirds majority was by no means assured. Kinzer does a good job in relaying the uncertainty and doubts, as well as the dramatically narrow result. There are more personal pairings in these chapters, for example between the junior Indiana Republican Albert Jeremiah Beveridge, who quickly became one of the most outspoken imperialists, and George Frisbie Hoar, senior Republican Senator from Massachusetts, who went against his party’s prevailing opinion. The villain at the heart of these two chapters, however, is the leader of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan. Although Bryan delivered passionate speeches against overseas expansion, he advised Democratic Senators to ratify the treaty. He wanted to continue opposing imperialism after ratification and to turn it into a campaign issue in the presidential election of 1900. This tactic—and patronage for a few Southern Democrats who voted for the treaty—may have been crucial in creating the necessary majority for the treaty.
Kinzer shares the bitterness that non-Democratic anti-imperialists exhibited towards “their own Judas” (124). He dismisses Bryan’s fears of being labeled unpatriotic and instead seems to favor the argument that Bryan acted out of political motives, in order to exploit the issue of “imperialism.” Yet, the question of patriotism is not that easily cast aside. After all, even though overseas annexation was implicit in the treaty, it was first and foremost a peace treaty. A rejection would have technically prolonged the state of war between the United States and Spain. Secondly, by the time of the vote, war had broken out in the Philippines between U.S. forces and Filipino forces under Emilio Aguinaldo. These circumstances clearly raised problems for the leader of the opposition.
Kinzer further blames Bryan for confusing the election of 1900 by clinging to the free coinage of silver, an economic doctrine that was anathema to elite establishment members of the anti-imperialist movement, the most prominent individuals in the campaign. This particular controversy prevented the movement from agreeing on a common political strategy for the presidential election, thereby facilitating the re-election of President William McKinley. Fusing the money and expansion issues “deprived Americans of the chance to cast a clear-cut vote on the question of overseas expansion,” Kinzer asserts (171). He heightens the drama by adding that “Bryan might have set the United States on a profoundly different course as it entered the twentieth century” (171-2). This claim presupposes, of course, that an exclusive foreign policy election would have ended in an anti-imperialist triumph. It is unclear how Kinzer can imply this when he himself conceded just a few pages earlier that the war in the Philippines had triggered a “’rally ‘round the flag effect’” (155).
Although the election ended in a triumphant victory for the imperialist Republicans, Kinzer shows that the drama continued. In 1901-1902, the Supreme Court heard the “insular cases” on the central question of whether the Constitution actually allowed for the rule over subject territories. Once again, the question was decided in favor of the imperialists with “excruciatingly narrow margins” (201). The debate was also rekindled in 1902 when reports of torture and massacres led to the establishment of an investigative congressional committee. By having himself named committee chairman, however, Senator Lodge did his part to defuse a potentially explosive issue.
While these events—and the decline of the Anti-Imperialist League—seemed to confirm the triumph of imperialism, Kinzer also tackles the puzzling observation that the country suddenly lost its appetite for further “grabbing nations” (228). Once again, he uses Roosevelt to illustrate this change of heart. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated, but even this ardent imperialist refrained from further annexations abroad. Instead, during a period of tension with Japan in 1907, he even conceded that the Philippines “could become a ‘heel of Achilles’ for the United States”—an ominous warning borne out by events early in the Second World War (229). Kinzer credits this turnaround to the anti-imperialist movement: “Its arguments did not carry the day when they were first made,” he insists, “but they left an imprint” (228).
After all the imperialist victories between 1898 and 1902, this conclusion seems surprising and unexplained. A simple explanation might be, of course, that no golden opportunity presented itself again after the Spanish-American War. That war had been initiated with the purpose of “liberating” Cuba, rather than annexing colonies, and Americans may simply have been satisfied with the ultimate “rewards” because they believed their president that fate had dropped these islands in their lap. But by the same token, they may not have been interested in being more proactive and aggressive in finding further targets for expansion.
Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated, but even this ardent imperialist refrained from further annexations abroad. Instead, during a period of tension with Japan in 1907, he even conceded that the Philippines “could become a ‘heel of Achilles’ for the United States”—an ominous warning borne out by events early in the Second World War.
Perhaps, though, there is a more satisfactory explanation that also explains the further development of U.S. foreign policy—and that is the idea of informal control or empire. Kinzer himself only touches upon this change when he mentions the 1902 Platt Amendment, which turned Cuba into a virtual protectorate of the United States. While the author acknowledges that the amendment “became a template for American dominance of weak countries” (191), he fails to make more of the fact that such tools of informal empire increasingly replaced colonial rule. The latter was not only expensive, as the war in the Philippines proved, it was also difficult to harmonize with the country’s traditions and the anti-imperialists who invoked them.
A look at another signature foreign policy instrument of the period, the “Open Door,” reinforces this hypothesis. In 1899 and 1900, the U.S. government sent two notes to European governments, asking them to permit equal access to American imports into their respective spheres of influence in China and to respect that country’s territorial and political integrity. This policy allowed Americans to reconcile their reputed ideals as guardians of other countries’ independence with their interest in market penetration and domination. Revisionist authors have claimed that the Open Door notes became the blueprint for U.S. foreign policy and informal imperialism in the 20th century. More importantly for our purposes, the notes were also welcomed by anti-imperialists at the time, e.g., by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie who also plays a prominent role in Kinzer’s book. Perhaps, then, the Open Door notes and similar measures of informal empire explain why the “great debate” ended early in the 20th century—not as a victory of anti-imperialist ideas and ideals, but as a compromise between imperialists and their opponents on more informal means of exerting control abroad.
Kinzer’s omission of this particular discussion raises more fundamental questions about his evaluation of the anti-imperialists. If at least some of them had no problem with informal arrangements of domination and even exploitation, how principled and categorical was their opposition to empire? In fact, most anti-imperialists’ first concern was for the soul and fate of their own country, not its fateful impact on others. Some were not too troubled about the plight of the Filipinos, as long as their own country did not abandon its principles in dealing with them. And then there were those anti-imperialists who were perfectly willing to make exceptions to their principles. Senator Hoar, for example, saw no problem in annexing Hawaii, whereas Andrew Carnegie was positively enthusiastic about taking Puerto Rico. In fact, he argued for more territorial acquisitions in the Caribbean. While such exceptions demonstrate how anti-imperialism could be tempered by pragmatism, the more crucial question that Kinzer fails to tackle is how non-aggressive and “anti-imperialist” these opponents of Philippine annexation truly were. In part, the author may have decided to omit such discussions because the resulting nuances would have undermined one of his most important devices to recreate the narrative’s drama—the stark and irreconcilable contrast between two poles in U.S. foreign policy.
This contest between “good and evil” creates another near blind spot in the book. While Kinzer acknowledges the role of racism in the imperialism debate, he spends only two pages on it (137-8), which does not do justice to the central role of racial prejudice. In addition to that, Kinzer attributes racism exclusively to the imperialist side and to Southern Democrats among the anti-imperialists. This is not the whole story, however. As Eric T. Love has rightly pointed out, racism had long been the strongest argument in dissuading Americans from seeking empire when its opponents invoked fears of uncontrolled immigration, contamination, and miscegenation. This was still true in the imperialism debate when even some former abolitionists were not above deploying racist arguments because they knew that they appealed to contemporary audiences. Also here, Kinzer prioritizes the stark contrast over actually existing shades of grey.
This contest between “good and evil” creates another near blind spot in the book. While Kinzer acknowledges the role of racism in the imperialism debate, he spends only two pages on it, which does not do justice to the central role of racial prejudice. In addition to that, Kinzer attributes racism exclusively to the imperialist side and to Southern Democrats among the anti-imperialists. This is not the whole story, however.
As much as this personalization makes for interesting reading of what might otherwise have been a dull intellectual history, it generates a few more problems by emphasizing individuals over structures. Thus, when Kinzer analyzes the origins of American imperialism before the Spanish-American War, he advances the by now rather outdated impression that it all came down to the work of a dedicated cabal of individuals, at whose heart were Roosevelt, Lodge, and Mahan (64). By the same token, Kinzer perpetuates the view of President McKinley as a weak chief executive, a “consummate equivocator” (83) who had to be led by public opinion to war against Spain and to the decision to retain the Philippines. More recently, though, scholarly discussion of McKinley has been more nuanced, painting him as a more decisive chief executive who liked to portray his own decisions as an accurate reflection of public opinion. When analyzing his speeches on a tour of the American West before the Philippine decision, for example, it seems indeed more likely that McKinley subtly guided public opinion in order to get the outcome he desired—perhaps most famously through his vacuous alliteration: “Duty determines destiny.” In that same speech, the president implored his listeners that “we must accept all obligations which the war … imposed on us.” The audience was in no doubt that one of these “obligations” was to hold on to the Philippines.
Most importantly of all, though, McKinley was a key contributor to muddying the waters and obscuring the battle lines between imperialists and anti-imperialists—something that may actually have been more crucial in the elections of 1900 than Bryan’s maneuvers, which Kinzer singles out as key. Looking at the party platforms, it is possible to conclude that Americans were no longer able to clearly distinguish between the Republicans and the Democrats because both promised some kind of U.S. influence and control in the interim and neither was offering immediate independence. In this regard, McKinley was the “moderate” imperialist to Roosevelt’s or Beveridge’s blustering types—nuances again that are missing in Kinzer’s personalized account of stark contrasts.
Finally, the personalization of the debate leads Kinzer to sweeping and generalizing statements about what the majority of Americans wanted; statements that can sometimes be quite at odds with one another in the space of just a few pages. To give just a few examples, during the treaty fight in the Senate, Kinzer claims that “many Americans were having second thoughts about the expansionist project” (110), without providing any concrete evidence. During the summer of 1899, Kinzer adds elsewhere, the best anti-imperialist speeches “turned many Americans against imperialism” (154). In the fall of the same year, however, “good news from the front… brought a new surge of support for the Philippine War” (156), a statement equally sweeping and unsubstantiated. Even more confusingly, Kinzer claims that the outcome of the 1902 debates on torture demonstrated that “[t]he idea of overseas empire had taken root in the American soul” (225). Yet, he equally argues that Roosevelt’s behavior as president, at roughly the same time, symbolized his and the country’s desire “to move on” (228). Such statements are not only sweeping, but also potentially contradictory. While it is admittedly difficult to ascertain late 19th-century public opinion in the absence of opinion polls, this difficulty ought to be all the more reason to abstain from sweeping statements about what most Americans wanted.
The book’s main strengths are also its main weaknesses. The personalization of the issues and arguments recreates contemporary drama and lends an interesting biographical context to what might otherwise have been dry theoretical and constitutional debates about the domestic impact of imperialism. On the other hand, personalization also lends itself to a certain simplification of the debate as well as the perpetuation of some traditional stereotypes about the influence of a handful of individuals on U.S. foreign policy.
Ironically, then, the book’s main strengths are also its main weaknesses. The personalization of the issues and arguments recreates contemporary drama and lends an interesting biographical context to what might otherwise have been dry theoretical and constitutional debates about the domestic impact of imperialism. On the other hand, personalization also lends itself to a certain simplification of the debate as well as the perpetuation of some traditional stereotypes about the influence of a handful of individuals on U.S. foreign policy. The dramatic contrasting of both camps also obscures important shades of grey between the respective poles, which ultimately helps us understand why the imperialism debate seems to have been won by the imperialists, but paradoxically without leading to more overseas expansion.
On balance, though, despite the shortcomings and generalizations that most academic historians would be prone to criticize, Stephen Kinzer has pulled off the feat of writing the first popular and very engaging account of the imperialism debate—a debate, as he rightly points out, that has been reenacted time and again in relation to American engagement with the world.