The popular maxim “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” continually springs to mind while reading historian Stephen Kinzer’s new book, “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.” Its 11 chapters are peppered with contemporary parallels, from descriptions of disquietingly Trump-like “hyper-masculine nationalism” to voter disgust with presidential candidates William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan (“Rarely have partisans of opposing candidates voted with less enthusiasm”). Roosevelt, Twain, William Randolph Hearst, Booker T. Washington, Jane Addams, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers and a young Winston Churchill all parade across the book’s engrossing pages. .
Focusing on a period in 1898 and 1899, Kinzer depicts “the first great debate over American expansionism” and whether a democratic, constitutional republic should project its military power overseas into Cuba and the Philippines — a scenario repeated throughout 20th- and 21st-century interventions in Vietnam, Central America and Iraq. “That was and is the greatest question we’ve ever faced,” Kinzer writes, “and we’re still wrestling with it.”
The Boston Globe columnist and international relations professor has authored several widely praised books about military and political coups, the Dulles brothers and America’s position in the Middle East. “The True Flag” takes its title from an eloquent 1899 speech by German-born US Senator and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, one of several once-famous figures Kinzer resurrects from history’s dustbin: “Let us raise high … the old, the true flag, the flag of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the flag of the government of, for, and by the people.”
Pasadena Weekly: I’m a lifelong history geek, but I hadn’t read about this debate. Nor was I familiar with Carl Schurz.
Stephen Kinzer: I hate to say that neither was I. He must have been one of the most interesting immigrants to the US in the 19th century. His speeches about imperialism are so trenchant, so well argued. … I was very familiar with the story of the Spanish American War, and I had written, read and taught about how the United States took Cuba, the Philippines and those other islands [Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam]. But what I had never realized is that Americans did not make this decision simply; the entire country was caught up in this huge debate over whether this was a good idea. Every major political and intellectual figure in the country took sides, and the decision was made with very close margins.
Many people today don’t realize we went to war in the Philippines.’
Absolutely correct. The Philippine War is a great example of a conflict that we forget because it doesn’t make us seem the way that we like to think that we are. We imagine that the people in the target countries will also forget. In fact, memories of these interventions fester and burn in people’s hearts and souls, and the blowback sometimes comes back generations later. Just a few months ago there was quite a kerfluffle when the president of the Philippines announced that he didn’t want to be friends with the United States anymore, he wanted to pull out of some security arrangement with the US. To my surprise, nobody in the major American press outlets pointed out that at the press conference where he made this rant, he was waving around a photograph that showed US marines standing around a pit full of Filipino children and women they had just killed. He used the memory of this episode — a photo taken more than 100 years ago — to justify a major strategic decision he’s making today.
You show how the torture debate has been raging since then. Did reports about the “water cure” — waterboarding — and General Smith’s Samar campaign shock the public like Mai Lai and Abu Ghraib did later?
Yes. The Philippine War was the first time that American soldiers were sent out to shoot people who honestly believed that they were fighting for their own freedom. That fact, and the emergence of the torture scandal, represented a loss of innocence for Americans.
It was surprising to read Mark Twain’s descriptions of Teddy Roosevelt: “We have never had a President before who was destitute of self-respect & of respect for his high office … who was not a gentleman … a bully.” That sounds like criticisms leveled at Trump.
[Chuckles] Twain was wicked in his anti-imperialist writings. He wanted to replace the stars on the American flag with skull and crossbones. He said American soldiers in the Philippines were doing a bandit’s work under a polluted flag.
Roosevelt worked hard to establish national parks, but his racism and sense of entitlement here are repulsive.
I think something happened with Theodore Roosevelt that’s happened with many presidents, right up through Obama. Roosevelt was one of the great nation-grabbers of history, and when he suddenly became president after the assassination of his predecessor, it seemed like terrible news for any country upon which he had ever cast a covetous eye. Instead, with the exception of his first intervention to create the republic of Panama (so he could build the canal) … he lost interest in foreign intervention after he began to see the repercussions, the sorrows of empire. He began turning his attention to other areas, like natural resources and controlling excesses of big business. This is a pattern you see with a lot of presidents.
What hope can be taken from that pattern and applied to current circumstances?
One thing I’m trying to accomplish with this book is to send a message to everyone in the United States today who is unhappy with the direction of our foreign policy: You are in a rich and noble tradition. Some of the most outstanding and far-sighted Americans over the last 120 years have been fighting this fight and had an effect, although it has not been [immediate]. … I’ve tried to rescue this reality from historical amnesia.
Some of the book’s most fascinating characters are less iconic — like Henry Cabot Lodge, whom you describe as Roosevelt’s “Mephistopholes.” Do you think Lodge would have aligned himself with the neocon movement?
Lodge was certainly an unrelenting expansionist. He was really the mastermind behind the project; Theodore Roosevelt was more the public face. He wanted the US to dominate the world, and he was willing to use whatever tactics were necessary. He was an extreme militant in that sense, but highly successful.
You write that William Jennings Bryan “delivered the nation into the hands of the very imperialists against whom he so eloquently railed.” His choices still offer instructive lessons for contemporary activists and leaders; it’s fascinating to contemplate what directions America might have taken had he thought strategically and not insisted on keeping the “free silver” platform.
It is remarkable, and it’s something that we’ve learned again recently, which is that elections matter. It really is important who wins and what their platforms are. I think Bryan was a committed anti-imperialist, and he was highly articulate. On the other hand, I think he had a fundamental lack of political vision, which is what led him to embrace policies certain to lead to his defeat because they were economically threatening to many Americans. In the process, he carried the anti-imperialist movement down to defeat.
You quote an 1899 speech by Yale professor William Graham Sumner: “The great foe of democracy now and in the near future is plutocracy.” That sounds like one of Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches.
That quote is so relevant today. And it has been proven exactly true, as he predicted. I’ve had to dig those out of obscure manuscripts, old newspapers and magazines; some come from the Congressional Record. It was fun to get to know some of these characters and try to bring them back to life for a new generation.
Stephen Kinzer discusses and signs “The True Flag” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. Info: (626) 449-5320. stephenkinzer.com, vromansbookstore.com