Who can doubt that the United States is an imperial power? It is an informal one, to be sure, not colonial in the sense of using military forces and colonial administrators to run territory acquired by the imperial power but rather, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has observed, one “richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread wide around the luckless planet.”
But there was a time when the President, in the person of Theodore Roosevelt, along with influential cabinet ministers and strategic thinkers, believed that the imperial vocation, in the overt, traditional sense, was now to be America’s. As the freshman senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1895,
[Americans] have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion (Westward—as Washington taught!) unequalled by any people in the nineteenth century…. From the Rio Grande to the Arctic Ocean there should be but one flag and one country.
Warren Zimmermann, a former US ambassador to Yugoslavia during the administration of Bush senior and author of Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers, has written an engrossing and timely history of five men who embraced the imperialist ethic. In addition to Roosevelt and Cabot Lodge, they are John Hay, once Lincoln’s private secretary and later secretary of state under both McKinley and Roosevelt; Captain—later Admiral—Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval theorist who wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, surely the most widely read work on naval strategy ever written; and Elihu Root, an accomplished lawyer who served as secretary of war under both McKinley and Roosevelt and as secretary of state under Roosevelt, and who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on international law.
America’s victory in the Spanish-American War, the centerpiece of Zimmermann’s book, was, in Roosevelt’s words, the “first great triumph in what will be a world movement.” For well over a generation before that “splendid little war,” as John Hay famously called it, the United States had acquired no foreign lands. What happened to the country to create a climate that let these early imperialists impose their views on such a cautious president as William McKinley?
With the end of the Civil War and with the Confederate states back in the Union, the United States was once again a continental country. But, as Zimmermann points out, it was not a continental nation in the governmental sense. Only ten of the thirty-six states lay west of the Mississippi. The western lands—except for Kansas, Texas, Nevada, California, and Oregon—were “territories,” not states.
Much of the energy that had earlier fueled expansionary energies from Jefferson to Polk in acquiring territory from France, Spain, and Mexico was now spent in the winning of the Far West. In the thirty-three years following Lincoln’s death, all the states (except for New Mexico and Arizona, which would join the union in 1912) were settled and incorporated into continental America. This momentous change …
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