Review of: The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

With the notable exception of the Civil War, Americans have largely forgotten the wars waged outside of living recollection. Other than the War of 1812, perhaps no war has been so utterly expunged from our collective memory as the Spanish-American War of 1898, true-flagalthough this conflict occurred barely at the edge of that envelope: as of this writing the oldest still thriving human being was born in 1899. Still, when prompted how many could conjure up more than a caricature of buck-toothed Teddy Roosevelt bedecked with pince-nez and cowboy hat leading the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill? But although the “splendid little war” – as it was famously dubbed by John Hay – was little more than a minor military adventure fought and won over a brief four-month period, it was nevertheless highly consequential, as it marked the dawn of a new era of American overseas intervention and imperialism. In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer does a remarkable job of resurrecting the Spanish American War from the dustbin of our national amnesia and restoring its critical historical significance, despite an abysmal concluding chapter (more on this later!) that mars an otherwise fine work.

The United States has been an aggressive, expansionist, even predatory nation since its very foundation. What came to be called “manifest destiny” meant both the disenfranchisement of the aboriginal native peoples and the eviction – by force or treaty – of the British, French and Spanish that got in the way of the path “from sea to shining sea.” But except for some daydreams by antebellum Southerners of colonizing portions of Central America in order to extend slavery, Americans restrained themselves from overseas conquest and were passive observers of the late nineteenth century European rush to imperialism, as Britain, France and Germany competed for colonial empire. One of the most notable opponents of such restraint was Theodore Roosevelt, who actively called for a more internationalist – and interventionist – approach by the United States. As The True Flag neatly outlines, Roosevelt urged a war with Spain to divest her of her Caribbean colonies, turned himself into a hero once the war unfolded, and then used these events as a springboard to the vice-presidency. The assassination of President McKinley later put the nation’s most prominent imperialist into the Oval Office.

After five centuries, all that remained for Spain of the vast territory in the New World that Columbus had stumbled upon was a tiny toehold in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Americans were both hostile to Spain and sympathetic to the Cuban rebels who sought liberation. There was a growing cry for intervention.  In addition to Roosevelt, there was an eager cast of notables – Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, William Randolph Hearst, Alfred Thayer Mahan – urging action. President McKinley was at first a reluctant, albeit easily converted, warrior. When a likely mechanical malfunction caused an explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor with hundreds of fatalities, a rush to judgment blamed the disaster on a mine and with calls of “Remember the Maine” the United States went to war. It did not last very long. Vastly inferior Spanish forces in Cuba and in its faraway Pacific colony in the Philippines fell rapidly before American military might on land and sea. It had been more than three decades since the end of the Civil War, and while a new generation cheered this adventure, some veterans of the Union and the Confederacy even entered combat on the same side, a celebrated rapprochement by old enemies that added to the feel-good notions of righteousness that saw Spain finally expelled from the Americas and those it had long oppressed set free.  Most Americans, including its great intellectual icon, Mark Twain, championed the virtue of this crusade for justice and liberation. At first.

If for most, details of the Spanish-American War are murky, few even know that its immediate aftermath ignited another conflict – the Philippine-American War – of a much longer duration with far more casualties.   For an America seeking to expand its political power and economic reach on the world stage, the Philippines was a far greater prize than Cuba and there was a great reluctance to let her go once hostilities ended. Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo at first welcomed Americans as allies and liberators, but were later bitterly disappointed as the United States opted to simply replace Spain as a colonial overlord.  What followed was a long, ruthless, bloody war of oppression to crush Philippine resistance that turned out to be a tragic preview of American interventionism in the years to come. In what came to be a campaign of terror justified by race, national interests and necessity, combatants and civilians fell victim to American antiguerrilla efforts that included torture and murder. Water torture, a specialty of the Spanish, became a regular part of the American toolkit. As Kinzer notes: “This was the first time American soldiers had systematically brutalized a civilian population overseas.” [p194] As the result of the war, as well as attendant starvation and epidemics, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians died.

The stark evolution of Americans from liberators to oppressors spawned a wide movement at home of anti-imperialists, with Mark Twain as one of its most ardent spokesmen. Although he privately deemed it “rather poor poetry,” Roosevelt — a Social Darwinist at heart who justified a world order dominated by Eurocentric white supremacy over the “lesser races” – extolled Rudyard Kipling’s latest poem written to encourage annexation, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” which was to become a rallying cry for imperialism. It’s first stanza began [p120]:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Less famously, Twain countered this sentiment by rewriting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to reflect the rapacious nation we had become [p184]:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword,
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death is scored,
His lust is marching on.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not apply overseas, but the war in the Philippines grew very unpopular at home. Still, Roosevelt, who became President after McKinley’s assassination, vigorously pursued victory under the guise of offering enlightened civilization to the misguided brown people who otherwise spurned it. General Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur’s father) obliged with ruthless tenacity. His homeland devastated, a kidnapped and imprisoned Aguinaldo eventually gave in to his new colonizers. (He lived to witness the birth of Philippine independence in 1945 and then on to his nineties; during World War II he supported the Japanese occupiers who ousted the Americans.) Meanwhile, something called the Platt Amendment created an emasculated independent Cuba dominated by the United States that endured for decades. America also controlled Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii (annexed in 1898).  The United States was now indeed a power to be reckoned with on the world stage, but there were unintended consequences. The unsuccessful anti-imperialist movement withered away, and so too did an appetite for further conquest abroad; a war-weary public fell into isolationism just in time for the outbreak of World War I.

Kinzer’s well-written narrative puts the Spanish-American War into its appropriate historic context, something missing in most other treatments.  This was the same timeframe that saw the United States annex Hawaii, not long after supporting its white planter elite’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This was the same era that saw the British employ machine guns to mow down thousands of native Ndebele warriors in Rhodesia, and to create the first concentration camps for civilians in the South African Boer War.  These were the same years of the celebrated “Open Door Policy” in China, that asserted the right of the United States to prey upon Chinese markets as aggressively as their foreign counterparts, and to lend forces to put down Chinese nationals in the “Boxer Rebellion.” Like all events, this war and its aftermath did not occur in a vacuum.

Then the author nearly spoils it all with a dreadful concluding chapter that seeks to connect all subsequent American foreign engagement to the events of this period.  One could indeed argue with some conviction that the Spanish-American War represented a line that was crossed in American foreign policy that encouraged overseas interventionism and occupation justified by a vague and often unconvincing crusade of good intentions. With that and especially with the imbroglio of the Philippines in mind, one could perhaps draw a line to the quagmire of Vietnam, and especially to the late misadventure in Iraq.  Yet, Kinzer makes the mistake of painting all that followed with far too broad of a brush. Isolationism is not always the vindication of anti-imperialism, as he seems to posit, nor is interventionism always its antonym. For instance, the role the United States played, or failed to play, in the run-up to World War II had little to do with the issues of 1898.  There are many varieties of intervention, as well as isolation. History is nuance and complexity that always suffers when blurred with attempts to impose grand over-arching themes.  In his final chapter, the author tries too hard to connect all the dots as if it was one common image.  In this, he is ultimately unsuccessful. Still, the flaws of that last chapter should not deter anyone from reading The True Flag, an otherwise outstanding work that restores a long-overlooked chapter in American history to its appropriate prominence.

[NOTE: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition I received through an Early Reviewer’s program.]

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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