Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, published earlier this year, drew me to a correspondent turned historian who has, through nine books, never lost the habit of commenting on our present circumstance. I read True Flag as a good occasion for Kinzer’s first retrospective, as I liked to see it. The body of work merits it. This thought shaped our lengthy exchange last month.
In Part 1 of our talk, published September 11, we focused on Kinzer’s strategy as an historian—how he went at history, how he makes use of it (in some ways as scholars of conventional academic training cannot). In the conclusion that follows, we turned toward current events—an inevitability when two former correspondents sit side by side for several hours. The Iran nuclear accord, “Russiagate,” the Pentagon budget, the prospects for an alternative foreign policy—Kinzer weighed in sensibly and usefully on all these topics. After we spoke, he published an especially germane piece in The Boston Globe. “America’s slow-motion military coup” is a courageous assertion that, under President Trump, foreign policy is now openly the Pentagon’s prerogative.
The current, fallen state of the American press—a perennial pebble in my shoe—was something I was especially eager to take up with a 23-year veteran of The New York Times. “I hate the idea that the press is on somebody’s team. We are not on the government’s team. In fact, the opposite should be true,” Kinzer said. “Whenever there’s a narrative that’s so widely shared by all factions in Washington, the job of the press should be the opposite of what they’re doing now. Their job should be to look under the rug and see what’s there, to question the narrative. Instead, the press jumps on it.”
What he said.
As I drove home from my encounter with Stephen Kinzer, two thoughts lingered and linger still, as if they were professorial truths that fully open out only after they’ve had time to sink in. One concerns language. It is bracing, to put the point mildly, to read of how plainly spoken were those who first began the debate about American conduct abroad. One is castigated as extremist today if one speaks anything like so frankly and directly of events, policies, and those behind them. A lesson emerges: There should be no shrinking from such criticism. A rhetoric of plainspoken candor and clarity is an asset of great value, to be defended against all efforts to continue running the fog machine that imposes a culture of obfuscation and unreality upon us.
The second point concerns what lies behind us. Those who oppose America’s foreign policies as squarely against the principles on which this nation was founded and still professes are never so alone as they are nearly always made to assume. There are many friends alive in the pages of the better history books. They comprise an alternative tradition. They give us a past. They practically beckon forward with their words and deeds, just as they do in True Flag. Too seldom do those alive now call upon these friends. This is to miss a source of strength and determination.