When I started reading The True Flag, Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, I got only a few pages in before thinking, “I’ve read him for years. Why not try to meet?” The result was an interview, the first half of which follows.
The book is a revelation for its rich detail and “dolly in” camera’s eye on events now a century and more in the past. Subtitled Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, Kinzer’s book relates the story of a 32-day period in 1899 when the question before Americans was astonishingly large and stark: Shall we be an empire or shall we resist the temptation and make history another way? Twain and TR marked the poles of this debate, but the book is a proscenium through which pass most of the important figures who were part of the debate.
There is no surprise ending to give away, is there?
If you are anything like this reader, you will marvel at the superbly blunt language used by those who took up the imperial question when it first arose in the American story. Our discourse is cotton wool by comparison. One would be thrown in the street, an outcast kook, were one to speak or write in the terms senators and other grands personnages of the time took for granted as ordinary, state-your-case exchange. A point of sadness arises. Where is this debate today? What has become of us? Where is the argument? “We’re not having it,” Kinzer remarked during our conversation. “We only debate whether the next surge in Afghanistan should have 3,000 troops or 6,000. We never pull back and have the larger debate about what our role in the world should be.”
This is the point of Kinzer’s work, he told me when I asked: He writes of the past to comment on the present. “I would love to stimulate a debate something like that epic debate that the Senate had for 32 days in 1899,” he said.
This is Kinzer’s ninth book. He co-authored his first, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1982), with Stephen Schlesinger. It is a history of the illegal toppling of Jacobo Árbenz as Guatemala’s elected president in 1954. Kinzer memorably treated the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh in All the Shah’s Men (2003) and numerous other cases in a sort of grotesque catalogue of American interventions, his 2006 Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.
I rank The True Flag with what I heretofore considered Kinzer’s best, The Brothers (2013), a biography of John Foster and Allen Dulles that leaves you asking: Do I laugh or cry in the face of their reckless insanities? (Both, is the best answer I can manage.) Among the singular features of the new book is its position: The True Flag begins at the beginning, tying all the rest together as if they are one (which Kinzer tells me they indeed are). Were I a museum curator, I would consider this interview a kind of retrospective, and what Kinzer does in The True Flag is the origin of the thought.