How the Spanish-American War Helped Lay the Groundwork for American Empire

How the Spanish-American War Helped Lay the Groundwork for American Empire

The Large Policy

How the Spanish-American War laid the groundwork for American empire.


I have been through one war,” President William McKinley told a friend. “I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another.” Reluctant though he may have been to intervene in Cuban affairs, in the spring of 1898, barely a year into McKinley’s presidency, the United States did go to war with Spain, and American ships not only prowled the Caribbean but steamed into the Philippines’ Manila Bay, where Adm. George Dewey smashed the Spanish fleet. McKinley may have been unenthusiastic, but his young assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, was delighted. He’d been hoping for a war: “I think this country needs one,” he said. War builds character, Roosevelt thought, so he quickly finagled a military commission and raised a cavalry unit, famously called the “Rough Riders.” “Holy Godfrey, what fun!” Roosevelt exclaimed during the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Although the story of the Spanish-
American War has often been told, it just as often bears retelling, particularly when briskly chronicled by Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua, Germany, and Turkey, and the author of books such as The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War and All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. In his latest book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, Kinzer recounts the foreign-policy debate that took place at the dawn of the 20th century. But this was no ordinary debate; it was about American military intervention in countries on their behalf or, more to the point, at their expense. Capturing an ambivalent approach to foreign policy that has persisted into our own day, Kinzer observes that the United States is a country of both imperialists and isolationists. “We want to guide the world,” Kinzer writes, “but we also believe every nation should guide itself.”

In the 1890s, however, the imperialists mostly ran the show. Chief among them was Henry Cabot Lodge, who served as a US senator from Massachusetts for 32 years, beginning in 1892. As the manufacturer Edward Atkinson describes it, Lodge was “the Mephistopheles” who whispered in Roosevelt’s ear (not that the Hero of San Juan Hill wasn’t capable of a jolly belligerence on his own). A Harvard graduate proudly descended from Bay Colony settlers, Lodge was a remote and prickly man who believed himself to be concerned solely with the good of the nation. And that, of course, included its moneyed interests—but not just them, or so Lodge rationalized. For when he first spoke of supporting the insurgents in Cuba and defended the need for a war against Spain, he insisted that his intention was broadly humanitarian. “We represent the spirit of liberty and the spirt of the new time,” Lodge declared, “and Spain is over against us because she is medieval, cruel, dying.” America was new and vital, Spain old and moribund: Lodge couched his war cry in an appeal to youth—and to the nation’s golden future, even if it would be created by force.

Answering Lodge’s call was a long list of power brokers who would serve the country and themselves, in the Senate and in the pages of the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers, where they argued with exuberance that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would no longer insulate the United States, but rather would serve to carry a proud and powerful navy in search of raw materials, new markets, and far-flung military bases. Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, a book that would inspire Kaiser Wilhelm II, also helped to shape Lodge’s vision. “No nation, certainly no great nation, should henceforth maintain the policy of isolation,” Mahan had advised. “I am frankly an imperialist.” Unlike Lodge, Mahan didn’t mince words.

Neither did the consummate yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, who launched his own bellicose campaign against Spain in the pages of the New York Journal, which falsely alleged that the sinking of the USS Maine, anchored off the Cuban coast, had been the work of Spanish agents, even though the deadly explosion had likely been caused by an accident on the ship. Evidence didn’t deter Hearst, who continued to whip up his readers with fake news and to inflame Congress, which soon passed a resolution declaring that the United States would go to war with Spain if it didn’t get out of Cuba. Senator Henry Teller of Colorado insisted that a rider be attached to the resolution disclaiming any intention to annex Cuba. Lodge was unhappy with his colleague’s proposal but decided to let it go.

The subsequent “splendid little war” (as the incoming secretary of state, John Hay, called it) ended in just a few weeks, with disease killing more men than combat did. Lodge then vehemently pushed the Senate to ratify a peace treaty with Spain that would net the United States the islands of Puerto Rico, Guam, and, for a small price ($20 million), the Philippines—even though, in a matter of weeks, Filipino nationalists were rebelling against US troops in a horrific guerrilla war that would last over three years. “The Philippines mean a vast future trade and wealth and power,” Lodge said. But the issue wasn’t just the Philippines; empire beckoned. Lodge pushed successfully for the annexation of Hawaii as well. With his euphemistic phrase the “large policy,” he intended for the United States to gobble up as much of the world as possible.

The issue at hand for many US policy-makers was partly one of markets, as Lodge publicly acknowledged. Sanford Dole of Hawaii, for instance, had wanted to bring Hawaiian sugar to the United States. But there were other factors feeding the hunger for colonies. A number of US congressmen assumed, along with Christian missionaries, that their “little brown brothers” needed civilizing. Theodore Roosevelt was among them, declaring that “all men of sane and wholesome thought must dismiss with impatient contempt the plea that these continents should be reserved for the use of scattered savage tribes whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership.” Kelly Miller, a prominent black intellectual and anti-imperialist, summarized the policy bluntly: “It is a revival of racial arrogance.”

The 1890s also saw the country struggling to come to terms with a horrible economic depression (the Panic of 1893), a burgeoning labor force, the Homestead and Pullman strikes, the farmers’ movement, and a tide of freshly arrived immigrants. (Lodge supported an attempt to restrict immigration in order to avert “the lowering of a great race.”) And Americans had also gotten wind of some other bad news: According to the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who spoke at the newly convened American Historical Association in 1893, the frontier was now closed. But Turner had adapted the 1890 census data for his own ideological purposes; the actual data didn’t show any such thing as a “vanishing frontier.” Even so—and no matter how loudly Roosevelt thumped his barrel chest—many Americans believed open lands were a thing of the past, and sought to explore (and exploit) land beyond the continent.

Kinzer doesn’t supply this larger backdrop to US imperialism. His focus is narrower, and the story he tells is more harrowing for that reason, particularly when he turns his attention to the war in the Philippines. According to the insurgent Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo, Dewey promised the country independence in return for help defeating the Spanish; Dewey later denied making any such agreement. In early 1899, Congress debated the Treaty of Paris between the United States and Spain, whose terms authorized the indefinite American occupation of the Philippine Islands. An appalled Senator George Frisbie Hoar, also of Massachusetts, asked if the United States had the right to “impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution and your notions of freedom and notions of what is good!” Were human beings “to be won as spoils of war or prizes in battle”? Roosevelt considered Hoar’s position treasonous, and Lodge dismissed Thomas Jefferson as “supple, feminine, and illogical to the last degree.”

Roosevelt’s and Lodge’s arguments had thus not swayed all Americans. Arrayed against such vocal imperialists were the members of the American Anti-Imperialist 
League, founded in 1898, with former treasury secretary and abolitionist George Boutwell as its president. Meeting at Faneuil Hall (the “cradle of liberty”) in Boston, and sounding like the old-time reformers and abolitionists of the antebellum period, the anti-imperialists denounced the spirit of conquest that seemed to betray the American ideal of self-determination. “Let us once govern any considerable body of men without their consent,” Moorfield Storey declared, “and it is but a question of time how soon this Republic shares the fate of Rome!” Early in his career, Storey had been the private secretary of the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner. Joining the movement were Grover Cleveland, Samuel Gompers, and Andrew Carnegie, who immediately wrote a $10,000 check. “We are in full sympathy with the heroic struggles for liberty of the people in the Spanish Islands, and therefore we protest against depriving them of their rights by an exchange of masters,” the league declared.

To Roosevelt, the anti-imperialists were lacking in “the essential manliness of the American character.” But the Treaty of Paris would also mobilize a group of intellectuals who had supported the war, including Carnegie and Mark Twain, to oppose it. “Apparently we are not proposing to set the Filipinos free and give their islands to them, and apparently we are not proposing to hang the priests and confiscate their property,” Twain noted, joking only by half.

The Treaty of Paris passed, albeit just barely, and in a speech delivered in enemy territory (Boston), McKinley offered a few bromides about US foreign policy being humanitarian in nature and good for the “misguided Filipino”: “Did we need their consent to perform a great act for humanity?” he asked. In disgust, William James denounced McKinley’s policies as nothing more than “bald brutal piracy, impossible to dish up any longer in the cold potgrease of President McKinley’s cant.”

But with this speech, Kinzer points out, McKinley aired the principles that would guide US foreign policy henceforward, declaring that “the United States never goes abroad in search of selfish advantage; it seeks only to help less fortunate peoples, even if they cannot understand that they are being helped; and it always acts in accordance with noble ideals.” It was empire cloaked in the language of liberty. As one English journalist, writing at the turn of the century, noted, “That is what the unctuous rectitude of the Anglo-Saxon always ends in. He always begins by calling Heaven to witness his unselfish desire to help his neighbor, but he always ends by stealing his spoons!”

In 1899, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana, an ardent imperialist, toured the Philippines and reported back to the Senate that “this is the divine mission of America,” without which “the world would relapse into barbarism and night.” Meanwhile, more and more US soldiers were being sent to the Philippines—70,000 by early 1900. Newspapers “screamed” (Kinzer is fond of the word) stories about the atrocities perpetrated by these troops, including the torture and killing of civilians. This did little to change US policy. “Resistance must be stamped out!” Roosevelt insisted. “The first and all-important work to be done is to establish the supremacy of our flag.” The Anti-Imperialist League distributed 125,000 copies of an essay by Twain that read, as if in direct reply: “And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one…just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

McKinley took his reelection in 1900 to mean that the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines had no rights as secured by the US Constitution: no right to due process, free speech, a free press; no right to choose their own leaders; no protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The anti-imperialists took their objections to court, but the Supreme Court decided against them in the so-called “Insular Cases.” (“Insular” referred to the islands under consideration.) In the first of these, Downes v. Bidwell, the Court declared that “there may be territories subject to the jurisdiction of the United States which are not of the United States.” That is, the inhabitants of those islands were “alien races” without the rights of citizenship. The popular humorist Finley Peter Dunne created a character, Mr. Dooley, to mock the imperialists’ hyperbole. On the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Dooley was direct: “Th’ supreme coort follows th’ election returns.”

Aguinaldo was captured in 1901, and fearing the further destruction of his country, he publicly called for an end to the fighting. His surrender depressed the anti-imperialists, who realized they had failed—despite the bipartisan support of such odd bedfellows as Andrew Carnegie and Jane Addams, and despite an effective use of publicity, with their poems and broadsides frequently appearing in newspapers and pamphlets. They had celebrities and literati among their ranks: not just Twain but William Dean Howells, Ambrose Bierce, Booker T. Washington, and John Sherman (a former secretary of state and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s brother). But the word “anti-imperialist,” as William James noted, suggested to the ordinary citizen “a thin-haired being just waked up from the day before yesterday, brandishing the Declaration of Independence excitedly, and shrieking after a railroad train thundering towards its destination to turn upon its tracks and come back.”

The anti-imperialists, as Kinzer notes, were also divided internally. The Southern contingent—Democrats like the white supremacist Ben Tillman—opposed annexation because they wanted to keep the United States from injecting, as Tillman put it, “vitiated blood” into the body politic. Of course, this white-supremacist point of view wasn’t confined to the South, and although Kinzer celebrates the anti-imperialist proclamations of Gen. Carl Schurz, the Prussian-born former senator from Missouri, Schurz’s position in many ways resembled Tillman’s. In his 1899 speech “American Imperialism”—which Kinzer doesn’t quote—Schurz vigorously insisted that the peoples of the Caribbean, “under the influences of their tropical climate…will prove incapable of becoming assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon. They would, therefore, remain in the population of this republic a hopelessly heterogeneous element—in some respects more hopeless even than the colored people now living among us.”

Then there was the equivocal position of the spellbinder Democrat William Jennings Bryan, ostensibly an important anti-
imperialist, but who switched sides and helped persuade the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Paris. When Bryan ran against McKinley in 1900, he emphasized his economic policy, the “free silver” platform; leading anti-imperialists then split on whether to back him, for they considered the platform a “proven loser”—which it turned out to be. Thomas Reed, the anti-imperialist speaker of the House of Representatives, glumly observed that Bryan would “rather be wrong than president.” The disagreement over Bryan, Kinzer writes, marked “the beginning of the end for the American Anti-Imperialist League.” It didn’t help that most of its leaders were over 60, whereas the expansionists came to represent the vigor of a virile manifest destiny—
especially in the person of Roosevelt, now headed for the vice presidency, who proclaimed that “our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with eager eyes.”

The war in the Philippines, however, was far from over. Even after McKinley’s assassination, US soldiers continued to ravage the country, killing Filipinos, burning their villages, and laying waste to crops; after three years of such “counterinsurgency,” Kinzer writes, “Americans lost whatever national innocence had survived slavery, anti-Indian campaigns, and the Mexican War.” Twain and the anti-
imperialists had never seen any innocence to speak of: “Lust of conquest had long ago done its work…. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket,” Twain wrote.

At the end of 41 months, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians had died, and at least 20,000 insurgents—far more than had perished in the 350 years of Spanish rule. But, Kinzer argues, no lessons had been learned: US foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries may spring from an ambivalence to intervene in the world, but it continues to represent itself as benevolent when it does so for its own economic self-interest. Surveying the interventions overseen by every president from William Howard Taft to Barack Obama, Kinzer ends his book with a bird’s-eye view of the continuing debate between the anti-
imperialists and the proponents of American intervention, making a fierce plea for the United States to understand its past and its role in the world and strip itself of unctuous rectitude. “Nations lose their virtue when they repeatedly attack other nations,” Kinzer concludes. It seems a simple formulation—too simple, perhaps, and then again not well-heeded, or even refuted, when the attacking rich nation, wrapped in a mantle of self-righteousness, is stealing all the spoons.

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