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.”1
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.2 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 was marked by a famous address before the America Historical Association in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner, who described “the essence of America,” as Zimmermann puts it, as a pushing back of the western frontier. For Turner, the frontier was now closed. Later, in articles and in his book The Frontier in American History, Turner stressed the implications for continental America:
That these energies of expansion will no longer operate would be a rash prediction; and the demands for a vigorous foreign policy, for an interoceanic canal, for a revival of our power upon the seas, and for the extension of American influence to outlying islands and adjoining countries, are indications that the movement will continue.
Turner’s thesis powerfully affected Theodore Roosevelt.
But Turner’s views help to explain why one of the most eager expansionists, William H. Seward, secretary of state under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, was frustrated in his efforts to acquire new territories beyond the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He himself recognized that his vision of expansion might be premature. “Give me fifty, forty, thirty more years of life,” he told a Boston audience in 1867, “and I will engage to give you the possession of the American continent and the control of the world.” Seward made overtures to acquire in the Western Hemisphere British Columbia and French Guiana, and the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Haiti, Culebra, Puerto Rico, and St. Bartholomew. None of these efforts was successful, largely because Congress refused to approve them.
Following Seward, President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to take over the Dominican Republic, but failed to get Congress to go along with his scheme. In the 1880s, James G. Blaine, secretary of state under James A. Garfield (1881) and Benjamin Harrison (1889– 1893), identified Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico as three islands “of value enough to be taken.” He made a deal with Germany for joint control over Samoa, and, like many of his predecessors, expected that Canada would be joined to the Union. None of the expansionist policies that Seward, Grant, or Blaine advocated was a result of any response to a serious foreign threat.
With an America growing ever more powerful, why were the expansionists frustrated? In his provocative book From Wealth to Power, Fareed Zakaria points out that after the Civil War, the United States was widely recognized as among the world’s great economic powers, but its interests remained those of a minor power.3 As Zakaria sees it, the reason that the executive branch of the government was denied the power to expand overseas was that Congress had great power during this period. Furthermore, the bureaucracy, the State Department and the army, which could have pushed an imperialist program, were weak relative to both Congress and the president.
Again and again, while presidents and their secretaries of state tried to convert America’s rising power into influence abroad, they could not get Congress to approve of increases in the strength of the military and the bureaucracy. Congress refused to enact civil service or military reform. The Senate turned down several annexation projects that the White House proposed, including the purchase of British Columbia. America became, in Zakaria’s definition, “an unusual great power—a strong nation but a weak state.”
The felt need for foreign markets, at least for agricultural products, somewhat subsided as the US domestic market grew after the Civil War. Zimmermann shows that even while exports grew, foreign trade declined as a proportion of the expanding gross national product. As the shift from agriculture to industry became more pronounced, the American economy became less dependent on the world market. Moreover, the home market seemed capable of becoming larger and larger so long as the protective tariff for industry was in place.4
Still, Zimmermann writes, exports tripled between 1860 and 1897, exceeding imports in most years. In 1893 the United States was the second-largest world trading nation after Great Britain. By this time a new group of imperialists was arriving on the scene, Mahan and Lodge preeminent among them. They took the financial and industrial crisis of 1892 and 1893 as evidence that foreign markets were now more than ever necessary to the economy and therefore the United States must expand its continental trade. Coaling stations in the Pacific, which Mahan saw as vital to the continued growth of a trading nation, would make it easier to penetrate the great China market; hence, the attraction of acquiring Hawaii and then the Philippines.
Yet the promise of immense riches from the Asian mainland was never quite fulfilled. Most businessmen did not automatically favor territorial expansion. They supported intervention in Cuba and later in other Caribbean and Central American countries only when these nations were unable to pay their debts to American banks and corporations. What American businessmen sought above all was stability. They were willing to justify military intervention only when no other recourse was available to guarantee that their markets and interests abroad would not be disturbed by local violence. But if violence got out of hand, then the business leaders would be happy to see US troops restore order.
Zimmermann argues that imperialism was tangible proof that the United States was a world power. “Manifest destiny,” the phrase first used in 1839 by a journalist named John O’Sullivan to justify overland expansion, reflected the idea of American exceptionalism—that the United States was not like the nations of the old world, but was chosen by God for a special destiny. When the United States expanded, seeking new territories by force, intimidation, or treaty, its leaders coupled their quest for security and economic well-being with a belief in America’s own moral superiority. As Zimmermann shows, they saw the US as an example to the world and a crusader for a Jeffersonian “empire of liberty.”
The notion of manifest destiny was reinforced by Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection. By the 1880s “social Darwinism”—the application of Darwin’s biological theories to human society—was used to justify the superiority of American capitalism by the superiority of the so-called Anglo-Saxon race. The evangelical preacher Josiah Strong in 1885 wrote a best seller entitled Our Country, arguing that “the wonderful progress of the United States as well as the character of its people, are the results of natural selection.” With its biological advantages, Strong predicted, the Anglo-Saxon race “will spread itself over the earth.”
During McKinley’s presidency, Albert Beveridge, a progressive senator from Indiana, declared that God
has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America…. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.
Harvard’s Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, dean of the Lawrence Scientific School, taught that white supremacy derived from the racial heritage of England. The distinguished Harvard historian Francis Parkman believed that Anglo-Saxon superiority was the key to the British victory over the French in Canada. James K. Hosmer at Johns Hopkins contended that “English institutions, English speech, English thought, are to become the main features of the political, social and intellectual life of mankind.” Zimmermann observes that “racially tolerant scholars, like William James at Harvard, were the exception, not the rule.”
The cultural atmosphere, in which ideas of manifest destiny, social Darwinism, and racial inequality were prominent, stimulated the imperialist appetite. But the overwhelming justification that imperialists offered for American expansion overseas was the quest for American security. Here, Zimmermann writes, the influence of Mahan, Lodge, and Roosevelt was central. A scholar more than a sailor, Mahan, though a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, spent little time at sea. His fame rested on his thesis that the United States should go beyond a navy that was largely used to defend its shores and create an offensive naval force that would extend American influence overseas. He wanted a new American doctrine that no foreign state should acquire a base within three thousand miles of San Francisco. As president of the Naval War College, he successfully urged a naval buildup to achieve these ends in the late 1880s. The White House, urged on by Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Lodge, agreed to launch a program of naval building. Mahan’s masterwork, The Influence of Sea Power on History, was read widely abroad; Kaiser Wilhelm II was a fan of Mahan’s, and ordered that his book be placed on board all German ships. By 1898 the United States had the world’s third most powerful navy after Britain’s and Germany’s.
Mahan was a frank imperialist, though he was not particularly interested in acquiring and administering territory. His aim was strategic. He was eager to get enough bases and coaling stations in the Caribbean and the Pacific to be able to control the Western Hemisphere and to have unimpeded access to Asia.
These goals were precisely those favored by Roosevelt and Lodge, men whose deep friendship was founded on a shared view of the world and America’s place in it. From an old Boston family, a former editor of the North American Review, Cabot Lodge was elected senator in 1893. He was not only a close friend of Roosevelt’s, but also a shrewd political counselor. It was Lodge who lobbied President Harrison to make Roosevelt a Civil Service commissioner who would carry out reforms of a system that had become lax and corrupted by cronyism. Lodge urged TR to accept the position of New York City police commissioner; he lobbied McKinley to appoint him assistant secretary of the navy, and he then persuaded Roosevelt to accept the vice-presidential nomination as McKinley’s running mate in the presidential election of 1900. McKinley was assassinated in 1901; TR was thrust into the White House.
Lodge, like Roosevelt, was pleased at America’s entry into war with Spain for the liberation of Cuba. Sympathetic to the Cuban rebels who had been fighting for years against the Spanish colonial army, Lodge contended that it was “no answer to say to me that [the Cuban rebels] cannot set up a government, if they win, as good as our government. They will set up a better one than Spain gives them.” This did not mean that the Cubans would be allowed to do whatever they chose to. Lodge had the Boston patrician’s sense of paternalism; he believed an independent Cuba should be supervised by the US. Similarly, while he believed in “every effort to secure to labor its fair and full share of the profits earned by the combination of labor and capital,” he did not want the poor to take matters into their own hands.
A brilliant tactician in the Senate and later the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and finally Senate majority leader, Lodge was a tough and determined man. Perhaps the best portrait of him is provided by Roosevelt’s friend the novelist Owen Wister. Trying to imagine how John Singleton Copley would have painted Lodge, Wister wrote:
It is unmitigated Boston that you see recorded; the eye of a robust, stiff-necked race of seventeenth and eighteenth century dissenters, with its plain living, high thinking, dauntless intolerance, bleak bad manners, suppression of feeling, tenacity in its stern beliefs, and its cantankerousness, stares down at you with cold disapprobation.
Lodge was the quintessential conservative internationalist, committed to a strong military and to aggressive diplomacy, fully determined to make the United States one of the world’s great powers.
Lodge, Mahan, Hay, and Root all helped to accomplish Theodore Roosevelt’s main goal—to make the United States a global power. To do so would not only require a world-class fleet but also the right occasion to demonstrate the American navy’s mastery of the seas. The sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, finally forced the reluctant McKinley to declare war on Spain for the liberation of Cuba, giving the US Navy a chance to show off its newly acquired power.
Since the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, American leaders had viewed Cuba as a vital strategic asset for control of the Caribbean. The brutality of the Spanish army in Cuba in putting down the insurrectionists who were fighting for Cuban independence aroused great sympathy for the rebels in the United States. Lodge had for years been in touch with the rebels; citing the strategic and economic value of Cuba for America, Zimmermann writes that
he publicly advocated Cuba’s independence from Spain. He despised the “unsmiling” Spanish as “a broken race” and hated their country, right down to its “brutal, savage, and disgusting” bullfights.
With Roosevelt installed as assistant secretary of the navy in April 1897, Lodge and Roosevelt pushed hard to modernize the navy and make plans for a possible war with Spain. John Davis Long, the sixty-three-year-old secretary of the navy, was an amiable politician who had no qualifications for running the department except for his old friendship with McKinley; he was somewhat intimidated by TR’s expert knowledge of naval matters. (TR had written an excellent history of the naval war of 1812.) At the same time, Long was alarmed at Roosevelt’s activism.
Roosevelt soon dug out hawkish war plans that Mahan had once commissioned while at the War College. He took advantage of Secretary Long’s lengthy summer vacation in 1897 to present a plan for a war against Spain. In any war with Spain, TR proposed using cruisers to harass the Spanish coast, sending the main fleet to Key West for an attack on Cuba, and blockading and possibly capturing Manila. Military action in the Philippines was not designed to annex the islands but to use the islands’ occupation as a bargaining chip with Madrid to force the Spanish to give up Cuba.
There was no proof that the Spanish were responsible for blowing up the Maine, but Roosevelt did not hesitate to use the explosion to send a cable to George Dewey, the commander of the Asiatic Squadron, ordering him to proceed to Hong Kong, prevent the Spanish squadron from leaving the Asian coast, and then prepare for offensive operations in the Philippine islands.
In addition to American fury at the sinking of the Maine, Americans were justifiably outraged by the behavior of the Spanish forces in putting down the insurgency. A few weeks after the Maine disaster, Senator Redfield Proctor, Republican from Vermont, gave a speech to the Senate reporting on his recent visit to Cuba. He described the pitiful condition of the 400,000 Cubans who had been displaced by the Spanish and put into camps. Proctor concluded that the entire native population of Cuba was “struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst management of which I ever had knowledge.”
This speech, accompanied by the reports of Spanish atrocities in the tabloid press, especially in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, put human rights—or moral rights, as they were then called—in the forefront of American hostility to Spain.
McKinley, a veteran of the Civil War, once said, “I have been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another.” But he was also a cautious politician who was reluctant to challenge public opinion. Most businessmen did not favor the war, which they thought might upset the economy. Only when it seemed that Spanish government of the island would be more unstable than an independent Cuba controlled by the United States did business interests rally to the war cries of Roosevelt and Lodge.
By April 5, the Madrid government made a concession—it would accept an immediate cease-fire on condition that the American navy move its fleet north of Key West. But it was too late. When Washington asked Madrid if Spain was prepared to recognize Cuban sovereignty, the answer was no. McKinley felt that he now had no alternative, and his war message was read by clerks to the House of Representatives on April 11, 1898.
McKinley’s official defense of American intervention was that America’s troops were fighting
in the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries now existing there, and which the parties to the conflict are either unable or unwilling to stop or mitigate.
For the first time in its history, Zimmermann observes, the United States government recognized that “a country’s sovereignty cannot protect it from outside intervention on human rights grounds.” Nowhere in his speech, however, did McKinley call for Cuban independence. Cuban rebels would not be allowed to dictate American policy.
The Spanish-American War gave Roosevelt a national reputation. He recruited his own volunteer army of Rough Riders, a name borrowed from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Among them were cowboys, frontiersmen, Harvard quarterbacks, and Ivy League tennis stars, as well as hunters, sheriffs, New York City policemen, Indian fighters, and Indians. TR and his irregulars mounted a charge up Kettle Hill and took part in the battle for San Juan Hill. He returned home a hero, and therefore an ideal vice-presidential candidate in McKinley’s 1900 reelection campaign.
But Zimmermann shows that there was never any serious question of annexing Cuba. McKinley and Roosevelt wanted to control Cuba’s destiny without actually administering the island. This was accomplished by the Platt Amendment, passed by the Senate in February 1901, whose key provisions were drawn up by Secretary of War Elihu Root. Article III declared that
the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individ- ual liberty….
In going beyond the Monroe Doctrine, which was designed to keep Europeans out of the hemisphere, Root’s formula now gave Washington the right to intervene there. Over the next decade that was exactly what America did. Under a lease that has no termination date, the US Navy constructed a base at Guantánamo Bay that now mainly serves as a prison for suspected terrorists.
The conquest of the Philippines was another matter. Here as well Zimmermann finds no evidence of intent to annex the islands. When Commodore Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila he seemed to believe that the native Philippine insurrectionists would govern the island. But largely for strategic reasons—the fear that an independent Philippines would fall prey to the German or Japanese fleets that were active in the western Pacific—Washington decided to crush the rebellion.
More than three years—between 1899 and 1902—were needed to subdue what the Filipinos saw as a war for independence. Once again, Root developed a strategy of combining military power with civil pacification, but the war was marked by atrocities on both sides. It is true, Zimmermann writes, that Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the insurrectionists, as well as his senior officers, “insisted that American prisoners be treated humanely, and with some notable exceptions, they were.” The exceptions, however, were barbaric—some American prisoners were buried alive with their heads coated with molasses to attract ants.
General Arthur MacArthur (General Douglas MacArthur’s father) ordered that civilians be herded into “protected zones,” outside which the army could treat everyone as the enemy. Torture became commonplace during searches for information or weapons. American soldiers used the so-called water cure in which, according to a witness,
the victim is laid flat on his back and held down by his tormentors. Then a bamboo tube is thrust into his mouth and some dirty water, the filthier the better, is poured down his unwilling throat.
One of the most brutal officers was General Jacob Smith, a veteran of the army’s massacre of the Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890. Zimmermann quotes his orders:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.
When asked the minimum age of a person capable of bearing arms, Smith reportedly said: “Ten years of age.”
As growing evidence of American atrocities came to light, Root ordered courts-martial for officers accused of using the water cure and pressed for military trials for mid-level officers involved in other brutal acts. By 1902, Root sent out a strong instruction to the military commander in the Philippines that stated, “Nothing can justify or will be held to justify, the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.”
Yet even after the war ended in September 1902, Root argued that acts of cruel and inhuman treatment “were few and far between—exceptions in a uniform course of self-restraint, humanity, and kindness.” As has often been the case since, the urge to justify high-minded American actions and continuing power blotted out ugly facts. The islands remained under American control until the Japanese invasion in 1941, and became independent only in 1946.
Roosevelt never publicly expressed regret for suppressing the Filipino insurrection; but he wrote in 1901 to a New York lawyer of his doubts about the justice of a colonial vocation for the United States:
While I have never varied in my feeling that we had to hold the Philippines, I have varied very much in my feelings whether we were to be considered fortunate or unfortunate in having to hold them, and I most earnestly hope that the trend of events will as speedily as may be justify us in leaving them.
As for the Caribbean, he wrote, “Barring the possible necessity of fortifying the Isthmian canal, or getting a naval station, I hope it will not become our duty to take a foot of soil south of us.”
Roosevelt’s imperialistic rhetoric did not lead to the US acquisition of new territories during his presidency. With the exception of the Canal Zone, no new colonies came under the flag of the United States. But Roosevelt and his successors—most notably Woodrow Wilson—demanded stability in the Western Hemisphere and in other countries that became American client- states—whether in the Philippines, South Vietnam, Nationalist China, or the Caribbean and Central America. As Max Boot recently showed in his book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power,5 US forces occupied several Caribbean countries, began to carry out reforms there, and then departed, leaving the countries to the control of local dictators. In concluding his excellent book, Zimmermann observes that American leaders for the most part did not comprehend that “regimes not based on popular consent are inherently unstable…[and that] stability is usually served best by supporting democratic values and institutions.” Neither TR nor those who followed him, he writes, dealt successfully with “the contradiction inherent in the joint pursuit of democracy, a dynamic concept, and stability, a static one.” As America enters a new imperial age, this contradiction bedevils us still.
November 21, 2002
See Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “America and Empire,” in The Cycles of American History (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), p. 141. ↩
In Theodore Roosevelt’s ambitious work The Winning of the West, published in four volumes between 1889 and 1897, his subject was the conquest and settlement between 1769 and 1807 of the lands west of the original thirteen states and east of the Mississippi. Roosevelt saw American history as one of expansion: first from the Old World to the New, then to the Mississippi, and then to the Pacific Ocean. He had planned a sequel that would deal with the incorporation of Florida, Oregon, Texas, California, and New Mexico. ↩
See Fareed Zakaria, From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role (Princeton University Press, 1998), Chapters 1 and 2. ↩
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his essay “America and Empire,” points out that the “growth of manufacturing after the Civil War persuaded some people that industrial independence was secure and that America could now compete in the world market. Those most eager for foreign markets were most determined on tariff reduction.” In his 1888 State of the Union message Grover Cleveland argued vainly that Congress must cooperate in lowering the tariff. ↩