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Debating the very nature of freedom

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The nation was founded amid resentment toward colonialism, steeled by a belief in self-rule, and cautioned by generations of statesmen to be wary of overseas entanglements. But in the last years of the 19th century the United States was hungry for influence around the globe, for markets abroad, for moral authority worldwide, so the adolescent nation embarked on one of the most fateful debates in its history.

In the outcome of this debate, which began with the run-up to the Spanish-American War and ramped up after its conclusion, rested the answer to several vital questions: Should the United States be an imperial power? Should its boundaries expand beyond the continent? Could it reconcile its anti-colonial heritage with its appetite for colonies? Was isolationism the one true religion of American foreign policy?

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Into this thicket strode a generation of powerful political leaders, intellectuals, and public officials whose only equal may have been the Founders themselves. Amid the gripping story of this argument and its portentous consequences, Stephen Kinzer trails Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, William Randolph Hearst, Alfred Thayer Mahan, William Jennings Bryan, and two unforgettable men of Massachusetts, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald.

“This,’’ Kinzer writes as he opens his story, “was a debate over the very nature of freedom.’’ Consider the questions raised: Should faraway lands be left to rule themselves? Or would they be better off as part of a nation that would extend the blessings of freedom to them? Twain embraced the former, Roosevelt the latter. Their struggle is one of the main themes of “The True Flag.’’

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Kinzer portrays both men as patriots, thinkers, and, in many cases, self-promoters. But while Roosevelt saw colonialism as “Christian Charity,’’ Twain saw Christendom as “a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood.’’

This searing national argument was triggered by the opportunities to acquire the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii. “Never in history has a nation leaped so suddenly to overseas empire,’’ Kinzer explains. This displeased Twain and delighted Roosevelt. Indeed, the Roosevelt who emerges from these pages, like the one increasingly portrayed in American letters, is less the philosopher than the pugilist. William James wrote that Roosevelt “gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society.’’

Kinzer does an admirable job of portraying American ambivalence, particularly in New England, where thinkers like Professor Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard charged that the nation had been “forced to turn back from the way of civilization to the way of barbarism.’’

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Twain began as an advocate of the takeovers — which drew some violent opposition by residents — but swiftly changed his mind. Booker T. Washington warned that the rhetoric of freedom employed in the defense of imperialism ignored what he called “a cancer growing at the heart of this Republic.’’ Labor leader Samuel Gompers worried Americans were “becoming a nation of conquerors.’’

There are many fine elements in this book, including the delicious detail that Secretary of State John Hay was having an affair with Lodge’s wife as the two men were conferring on the Philippines treaty. There is also perhaps the best quote of this publishing season, from Cushman Davis, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered as a commentary on the furious lobbying — promises of patronage and other emoluments — on the treaty: “You cannot open your stinkpot in my presence.’’

Amid all this, McKinley delivered a speech in Boston that established American foreign policy principles for a generation, arguing that the United States was acting “under the providence of God and in the name of human progress and civilization.’’

Kinzer reserves special scorn for Bryan, nominated by the Democrats for the second time for president in 1900. A strong anti-imperialist, he insisted on including the free conversion of silver — a disputed economic strategy aimed at helping struggling farmers reap more for their crops — in his platform. This was an issue that had propelled him to the center of American life four years earlier. However, it ended up diluting the importance of anti-imperialism and helped to defeat his cause and his campaign.

What followed was the assassination of McKinley, catapulting to the presidency imperialism’s greatest advocate, Roosevelt himself; a fistfight in the Senate; reports of atrocities in the Philippines; and horrific accusations against an American general whose nickname was “Howling Wilderness.’’

The imperialists won — and then backed off and backed away. This debate would continue but, as Kinzer, an ardent anti-interventionist, concludes, anti-imperialists “decisively influenced American history by helping to assure that the first burst of American annexation would be the last.’’

THE TRUE FLAG:

Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire

By Stephen Kinzer

Holt, 320 pp., $28

David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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