Empire: “The True Flag” Revisits an Old American Debate

A caricature of a president whose favorite saying was "Bully!" Versus a president who is one.

You may catch the scent of something familiar in Stephen Kinzer’s engaging new examination of the grand debate over America’s global expansion in the late 19th century. The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire covers the period between June 1898 and September 1901, when Americans eager to annex overseas lands faced opposition from those who found that idea abhorrent. The fractious era began on the day that an anti-imperialist movement was launched at Boston’s Faneuil Hall while simultaneously, in Washington, DC, the US House of Representatives endorsed the seizure of Hawaii. The era effectively ended when Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency following William McKinley‘s assassination. It’s a distant story, but as Kinzer presents it, it’s deeply relevant for 2017 readers living in a divided nation.

The concept of manifest destiny accustomed Americans to the idea of a nation spreading “from sea to shining sea.” But the notion of snatching overseas territories was problematic from the start. After all, America itself had once been an overseas colony — and fought fiercely to gain its independence. No wonder some Americans found ignominy in the idea of doing unto foreign territories what Britain had done unto America. Regardless, as the 20th century approached, the US gained control of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines; it also established Cuba as an American protectorate. For some Americans, an age of empire was just fine.

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Twain and Teddy spar on the cover of Kinzer's new study.
Twain and Teddy spar on the cover.

Kinzer seems justified in designating Roosevelt as the major player in the pro-imperialist ranks. Groomed for national leadership by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, TR gained popularity as a politician largely due to his devotion to the expansionist cause. His image as a glamorous adventurer grew when he fought, famously, with the Rough Riders in Cuba in June 1898. During his successful bid for governor of New York later that year, he campaigned on a pro-imperialist platform, (Never mind that American expansionism played little, if any, part in the day-to-day governance of the state.) In 1900, when McKinley ran for a second term, TR agreed to be his running mate. They won in a landslide.

As for Kinzer’s decision to single out Mark Twain in the book’s subtitle as TR’s chief adversary, the eminent novelist and humorist certainly was an outspoken opponent of America’s overseas adventures. But others on the anti-expansionist side — those not as flashily appealing to 2017 readers as the salty Twain — were equally important to the movement, such as former Missouri Senator Carl Schurz, industrialist Andrew Carnegie and three-time Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Carnegie comes off especially well. He’s described as “a colossal figure legendary for his ability to achieve the impossible.” On the other hand, Bryan, who wavered in his support for the anti-expansionist cause to protect his political ambitions, comes off poorly.

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Joining Roosevelt and Lodge in the pro-expansionist camp were McKinley and, for a time, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose personal dislike for Roosevelt figured in his eventual turning away from the cause. Generally, American business leaders seeking overseas markets favored the idea of grasping for far-flung territories; so did Christian organizations whose missionaries, Kinzer writes, “swooned at the prospect of saving millions of lost souls for Christ.” (That little more ink is devoted to the role played by missionary leaders in the pro-imperialist argument is one of the book’s few disappointments.)

Imperialism vs. isolationism.

The idea of business leaders allied with Christian conversion squads will seem perfectly understandable to 21st century readers. But consider the coalition that allied themselves with Twain, Carnegie and Bryan in the opposing camp. Among the staunch opponents of overseas expansion were major leaders and spokesmen for African Americans (Booker T. Washington) and organized labor (Samuel Gompers); such men of letters as novelist William Dean Howells and philosopher William James; and such women as the pioneering social worker and suffrage advocate Jane Addams. Another was Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” — where “from sea to shining sea” comes from. Later, she wrote an anti-imperialist song called “In the Philippines.”

Americans’ support for overseas interference fluctuated during the period Kinzer examines. Even Twain originally supported involving US troops in Cuba. He saw them as valiantly working to liberate the island from Spanish rule. It was only when he realized that America wanted primarily to serve its own interests that he turned face. Later, when Filipinos began fighting Americans and dying for their independence, America’s grip on that territory seemed less desirable to the general public. It didn’t help boosters for the Philippine-American War when reports surfaced that US forces had subjected prisoners to the deadly “water cure” — a form of torture akin to waterboarding.

Eventually, Americans subdued Filipino freedom fighters once and for all. And, with TR’s succession to the presidency, the anti-imperialist movement became a lost cause.

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Except, says Kinzer, maybe it didn’t. While the US retained its hold on territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean, there were — remarkably — no subsequent American excursions to seize territory elsewhere. Once he was president, Roosevelt promptly began focusing on other matters:

By pushing the question of overseas expansion so insistently to the center of national debate, anti-imperialists led many Americans to doubt the idea of conquest. Their movement, it turned out, had not completely failed. Its arguments did not carry the day when they were first made, but they left an imprint.

In the book’s final chapter, Kinzer looks at the legacy of this enormous fin de siècle controversy. He traces the ways in which two opposing American impulses — one favoring foreign intervention, one favoring isolationism — have waxed and waned from TR’s presidency through Barack Obama’s. The idea that America may advance its interests abroad through “humanitarian” support for beleaguered peoples has much in common with the rationalizations for land-grabbing more than a century ago. We also know that avarice is not, obviously, going to disappear from the American psyche anytime soon. At the very moment I write this, reports of Donald Trump telling the CIA that he favors stealing oil from countries in the Middle East is causing an unsurprising stir.

The True Flag reminds us that unrelenting resistance to greed and injustice can eventually make a difference, even when the cause seems hopeless in the short run. It may be small comfort to battle on, knowing that you may only be making an “imprint.” But as Kinzer’s history suggests, an imprint can sometimes deepen and widen into something formidable, sometimes with surprising swiftness.