The Birth of the Imperial Presidency

How America’s late-nineteenth-century conquest of Cuba and the Philippines still haunts our foreign policy.

Here we go again. As Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency, the stage is set for a new and impassioned debate about America’s purpose abroad. Should it retreat from Asia and Europe, leaving other powers to settle their own scores? Or should it seek to remain Mr. Big abroad, setting the rules of the game for everyone else?

For the most part, this debate has been presented as one taking place on the right, where neoconservatives are facing off against opponents of intervention. But there is a long-standing and somewhat overlooked tradition on the left that similarly views American incursions abroad with apprehension. In the 1990s, when, in the name of liberal humanitarian intervention, Bill Clinton’s administration declared war on the marauding Serbs in Yugoslavia, the Democrats’ long-held unease about involvement in foreign wars began to dissipate. Even the lessons of the Iraq War weren’t enough to stop President Barack Obama from going to war in Libya in 2011 on humanitarian grounds, at the urging of Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power. Today, it might only take a Sherrod Brown or Elizabeth Warren reviving anti-imperial traditions, especially if the Trump administration, as part of its crusade against Islam, were to enmesh the U.S. in a new war against Iran.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire by Stephen Kinzer Henry Holt, 320 pp.The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire
by Stephen Kinzer
Henry Holt, 320 pp.

Stephen Kinzer’s newest book, The True Flag, thus arrives at an opportune moment. Kinzer, a longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times and now senior fellow of international and public affairs at Brown University and a columnist for the Boston Globe, has written several books in recent years about American foreign policy during the past century, notably a study of the conservative brothers John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, who dominated foreign affairs in the 1950s and early ’60s.

In The True Flag, Kinzer examines the impassioned debates about America’s rise to global power during the Gilded Age, devoting as much attention to the doughty opponents of the move from republic to empire—Mark Twain, Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, and Andrew Carnegie—as he does to its proponents. He vividly conveys the sense of high drama that ensued, as America debated the prospect of conquering foreign territories. Many of the ills that have afflicted our foreign policy can be detected in that initial push for empire that took place in the late 1890s, when a small cohort of figures such as William McKinley, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt championed a new manifest destiny abroad. Impelled by an uneasy mixture of military, racial, and pecuniary motives, they sought to supplant the infirm Spanish empire by annexing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

No one did more to make the U.S. a world power than Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Elected in 1892, Lodge wanted to promote what he called “the large policy.” His instrument was Theodore Roosevelt, whom he urged William McKinley to appoint as assistant secretary of the navy. According to Kinzer, Roosevelt and Lodge became intimate friends as well as partners, spending “countless hours discussing ways to awaken Americans to what they considered the call of destiny.” Indeed, Roosevelt’s credo was that “the only defense that is worth anything is the offensive.” Once William Randolph Hearst, the proprietor of the New York Journal, signed on to their crusade, the stage was set for conflict. According to Kinzer, “these three willful men—Lodge, Roosevelt, and Hearst—joined to reshape the world”—and they largely did.

In his 1897 inaugural address, McKinley declared, “We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.” He didn’t avoid it for very long. The victorious engagement—for it never constituted more than a few scattered skirmishes—in Cuba, where Roosevelt had led the Rough Riders in battle, prompted a patriotic burst of pride. Lodge wanted to take advantage of it. He asked that the Senate approve the annexation of Hawaii, which Grover Cleveland had blocked in 1893. By a lopsided vote, Congress approved annexation, attaching the measure to a war revenue bill. According to Kinzer, “In a ravenous fifty-five-day spasm during the summer of 1898, the United States asserted control over five far-flung lands with a total of 11 million inhabitants: Guam, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.”

These moves prompted the rise of a national anti-imperialist movement, including groups such as the Colored National Anti-Imperialist League. Kinzer notes that “one reason Americans began backing away from their promise to grant independence to Cuba was their growing realization that any elected government there would be at least partly black.”

Cleveland began speaking out against what he called “schemes of imperialism” that constituted “dangerous perversions of our national mission.” Carl Schurz, a former Union general, secretary of the interior, and U.S. senator, took Roosevelt on directly, asserting that his policies would open up the American people to the accusation that “they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, capacious land-grabbers posing as unselfish champions of freedom and humanity, false pretenders who have proved the truth of all that has been said by their detractors as to their hypocrisy and greed.” Roosevelt would have none of this. “If we ever come to nothing as a nation,” he wrote to Lodge, “it will be because . . . [of] Carl Schurz . . . and the futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration . . . which eats away the great fighting features of our race.”

The fight between the two sides centered on the Treaty of Paris, which McKinley submitted to the Senate in January 1899 and which vouchsafed America’s formal control over the formerly Spanish territories—a tale Kinzer masterfully recounts. In the end, McKinley prevailed, but in 1901 the Senate would wriggle out of its promise not to annex Cuba by passing the Platt Amendment, which gave the island formal independence but under such onerous conditions that freedom remained an illusion.

Senate approval of the Paris Treaty, however, triggered an uprising in the Philippines, where rebels had assumed that the U.S. would seek to terminate, not replace, the Spanish empire. The staunch imperialist Senator Albert J. Beveridge went on a fact-finding tour and concluded that American soldiers were destined to triumph because they were the “Saxon type” and had “racial virtue in their veins.” The “water cure,” a form of waterboarding, became the preferred method of torture. Twain, who had been living in London, had grown to despise the British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and compared him to McKinley, declaring, “I wish to God the public would lynch both these frauds.” For his part, Henry Cabot Lodge pioneered the myth that the anti-imperialists were not only defeatist but also encouraged the killing of American soldiers. To subjugate the rebels, the Army resorted to scorched-earth methods that included massacres and burning down entire villages. It is difficult not to trace a direct line from the shameful measures that were employed in the Philippines to Vietnam and Iraq. According to Kinzer, 120,000 American soldiers fought in the forty-one-month Philippine War, but “more Filipinos were killed or died as a result of mistreatment than in three and a half centuries of Spanish rule.”

These atrocities, when revealed, triggered an outcry, but the anti-imperialists were clearly on the losing side. The Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, captured in a raid by American forces, issued a declaration accepting American power. A supine Supreme Court ruled in 1901 that it was perfectly legal for Washington
to rule foreign territories with extra-constitutional measures.

The imperial presidency was born.

The modern American presidency has been decisively forged by war. Almost every conflict, from World War I to the war on terrorism, has seen an expansion of both the domestic and foreign powers of the executive. Kinzer argues that American interventions abroad multiply our enemies and are extremely costly, approvingly quoting Lord Salisbury’s observation that England should not invent a chimerical Russian threat in India: “It has generally been acknowledged to be madness to go to war for an idea, but if anything is yet more unsatisfactory to go to war against a nightmare.” Kinzer concludes by urging, “It is late for the United States to change its course in the world—but not too late.”

Kinzer is deft in highlighting the glaring gap between American ideals and practices, whether it was in launching a coup in Iran in 1953 or invading Iraq in 2003. But humanitarian intervention was successful in the Balkans in the 1990s, and the larger question that hovers over Kinzer’s exhortation is a potent one: Would retreat really be in America’s interests? Or would it merely introduce fresh turmoil abroad by demolishing the liberal order that, for all its faults, has promoted prosperity and peace not only in America but also in Europe and Asia? In the next four years, we may find out.

Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.