Republic or Empire?
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Nation readers weary of witnessing the agonies of an empire in crisis should welcome “Pariah’s Progress” [Sept. 17], Jackson Lears’s illuminating review of Christopher McKnight Nichols’s new study of twentieth-century anti-interventionist and anti-imperialist advocacy. Unfortunately, Lears, a gifted and influential scholar, has been surprisingly careless in depicting the decisions and initiatives that provoked those responses.
Four decisions bear citing: (1) the 1898 decision to go to war with Spain; (2) the 1898 annexation of the Philippines; (3) the 1917 intervention in the European War; and (4) the 1919 proposal to join the League of Nations.
On the first two, Lears repeats the perennially popular but dangerously wrongheaded view that war with Spain and the annexation of the Philippines were driven by Theodore Roosevelt and his “large policy cronies.” Absent is any mention of the principal “decider” on both questions, President McKinley. More than four decades ago, Walter LaFeber and Thomas McCormick argued persuasively that McKinley took the country to war on his own terms; that he framed the issue as one of restoring political stability to Cuba, which was seen as imperative if the US economy was to recover from the depression of the 1890s.
That wrenching experience, which severely tested the country’s political and social fabric, also forms the context for understanding McKinley’s decision to annex the Philippines. As is clear from the record of his discussion with his peace commissioners, the importance of Manila for seizing commercial opportunities in China was central and reflected the perceived need for expanding US markets as a hedge against a future economic downturn. The record also reveals that McKinley had no enthusiasm for new territory as such.
And what of Theodore Roosevelt? Although the president valued his young assistant secretary of the Navy’s energy and intelligence, Roosevelt was not part of McKinley’s inner circle on policy matters.
Lears is also misleading about US intervention in World War I. He speaks of “Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world ‘safe for democracy,’” leaving uninformed readers with the impression that rhetoric used to rally the country in 1917 fully encompassed the forces behind the president’s decision. But the record shows that the impact of the European War on the US economy—evidenced in part by the precipitous collapse of the cotton market—formed the essential context for administration decision-making. In response to the sharp market disruptions in 1914, Wilson bent the rules of officially proclaimed US neutrality so as to link the US economy to the Allied war effort. This resulted in almost unprecedented prosperity. It also ensured that US ships would become targets for German submarine attacks, propelling Wilson to call for intervention.
Concurrently, economic disruptions caused by the war drove home the lesson that international peace and stability were essential for an economy increasingly intertwined with world markets. It then became imperative to ensure against a repeat of the breakdown of peace in 1914. The upshot was not only the idea of a League of Nations but also the realization that implementing that idea would require a seat at the peace conference. Wilson could claim this seat only if the country participated in the war. Thus, in 1917, as in 1898, economics must be seen as an essential part of what has driven the United States toward war and empire.
Although Wilson preferred to speak in the idiom of idealism, evidence suggests that he understood the connection between the League of Nations and the US economy. In a conversation with a trusted senior adviser after he had lost the fight for US participation in the league, Wilson observed that, setting aside idealism, he believed the league offered the only way to stabilize and rehabilitate the world that US welfare and prosperity depended on.