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Journal of American History Review of The Education of an Anti-imperialist: Robert La Folette and U.S. Expansion

This is a review that appeared in The Journal of American History, volume 101, number 2, September 2014, pp. 612-613. The full text of the review is posted here with the publisher’s permission.

When scholars are asked to rank the greatest U.S. senators, Robert M. La Follette regularly tops the list. His influence spans the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in ways comparable only to the influence of Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan. Alongside Roosevelt and Bryan, “Fighting Bob” blazed an independent political career that engaged the period’s public debate about reform at home and imperialism abroad.

Richard Drake examines La Follette’s foreign policy philosophy, sketched over the course of his intellectual upbringing as a Republican and through his gradual conversion to radicalism. In terms of foreign policy, La Follette is most familiar as an opponent of U.S. entry into World War I, but Drake’s analysis pinpoints other notable moments in La Follette’s life that complicate his reputation and partiality for disagreement. What stands out most is La Follette’s affection for President William McKinley—a fondness as much due to McKinley’s reticence to engage Spain in war as it was a matter of pragmatic politics. Although he was an outspoken anti-imperialist in later years, La Follette remained silent in 1899 when McKinley proclaimed a policy of benevolent assimilation. Drake shows readers just how typical a Republican politician La Follette was in his early career, given his admiration for Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine, James Garfield, and Thomas Reed.

Unlike the anti-imperialists who opposed the Philippine-American War (1899–1913), La Follette embraced McKinley’s, and later Roosevelt’s, foreign policies. The turning point in his support for America’s imperial experiment was the “dollar diplomacy” of President William Howard Taft. Dollar diplomacy created an informal imperialism that enfeebled foreign nations through the pressures of credit and finance. As a progressive who fought plutocrats for pressurizing the working classes, La Follette viewed dollar diplomacy as a plutocratic foreign policy. Unlike the Philippine experiment, which he could rationalize as a civilizing mission, Taft’s policy only enriched the American tycoons. Thus began La Follette’s growing rift with the Republican party, and his closer relations with the Democrats. Those also broke down, however, when Woodrow Wilson ordered the invasion of Mexico and later when the United States entered World War I.

La Follette’s “education,” in Drake’s view, is a learned appreciation of representative government, seeing participation as the lynchpin to national sovereignty. Republicanism, whether achieved though revolution—in the case of the United States—or gradually taught to lesser civilizations—in the case of Cuba and the Philippines after 1898—is naturally anti-imperial, La Follette believed, because it safeguards human liberty in the institutions of democracy. Once it became clear to him that U.S. foreign policies (including those of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge) intended to make dependencies of Latin American republics or the broader colonized world after World War I, he balked. Even with progressive presidents who made concessions to labor and democracy at home, La Follette imagined that they served the nefarious interests of corporations and elite robber barons when drawing up foreign policy.

For diplomatic historians Drake makes a superb contribution to understanding the myriad expressions of American anti-imperialism, and for historians of the Progressive Era the work builds on Nancy C. Unger’s 2008 biography Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer.

  • © The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: [email protected].

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