Republic or empire?


Republic or Empire?
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

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. 

That remark, highlighting the connection between the economy and world order, offers insight into the treaty debate on the league by bringing into sharper focus the position of the Republican reservationists, not mentioned by Lears. This influential group, which included former Secretary of State Elihu Root and virtually every major US foreign policy figure of the 1920s, shared Wilson’s view of the need for international stability. 

Believing the league had serious but correctable flaws, this group advocated US membership with reservations. Rebuffed by Wilson in their efforts to forge a compromise, they abandoned the league and sought international stability by other means. By 1931, it was clear that the means available were not up to the task. However, not until 1941, the eve of the American entry into World
War II, was the public prepared to place more robust instruments in the hands of US foreign-policy-makers. 

This occasioned a momentous and irreversible shift, the results of which are everywhere visible today, and prompts two final comments. First, the record is crystal clear that economic considerations were a fundamental cause of this shift. Second, those who now argue against intervention and empire must examine the economic forces driving US foreign policy if they hope to be taken seriously. It is this dimension that seems to have escaped Jackson Lears.


Lears Replies

Furman’s Corner, N.J.

I’m a bit puzzled by Mr. Van Meter’s
letter. He seems to think I was pretending to provide a detailed account of the rise of an imperialist foreign policy in the United States without paying any attention to economics. That would indeed have been a major blunder. But I was not writing a history of American empire; I was reviewing an intellectual history of the isolationist tradition in early twentieth-century American thought. Some isolationists, notably Eugene Debs, were acutely aware of the importance of the capitalist drive for overseas markets and investment opportunities. But nearly all, including Debs, focused their arguments on a more encompassing question: What happens to republican
ideals and practices when a republic becomes an empire? Their arguments were moral and political, and only occasionally economic.

This was how they engaged the two most prominent advocates of foreign military intervention, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who also focused on political and moral ideals rather than economic interests. (Whatever his role in bringing about the
Spanish-American War, McKinley was never a significant voice in public debate about empire—the subject of Nichols’s book and my review.) The idealist idiom was of course the characteristic rhetorical gambit of American imperialists (then as now), who wrapped the aims of capital in robes of righteousness.

Isolationists were forced to challenge that righteous stance with whatever weapons were available. They could attack the scramble for empire as piracy and plunder, but they were unable to broaden the terrain of debate to include systemic accounts of overseas economic interests. Roosevelt and other imperial ideologues had raised the stakes in the rhetorical battle by identifying empire as the fulfillment of American ideals, and the isolationists could stay in the game only by replying in kind, with the argument that imperialism was in fact a betrayal of those
ideals. Still, they managed to pose unanswerable questions and to demonstrate time and again that an empire was something very different from a republic. That, as Nichols makes clear, is why isolationism is such a valuable American tradition—too valuable to be left to the likes of Pat Buchanan.


Gray Grizzlies Join the Fights Ahead!

Lopez Island, Wash.

I am not sure where “Methuselah,” a k a  Del Roy, intended to go if the right had won the election [“Letters,” Nov. 12]. But he should remember (he was 19 at the time) what Churchill said to Parliament on a possible Nazi invasion: “We shall fight on the beaches…we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…. We shall never surrender.” I was 17 and living in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. It stiffened our resolve, and that of the British. So Del, let’s start the Gray Grizzlies and fight any way we can.


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