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The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire

The following review of The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer appeared in Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review, April 2017.

That Stephen Kinzer, an outstanding foreign correspondent and world affairs columnist, had contemporary American foreign policy uppermost in mind when he wrote this book becomes evident on page 37 where, regarding the expansionists of 1898, he observes, “They realized, as have their successors, that the best way to bring Americans to support a foreign intervention is to frame it as a rescue of oppressed people.” Periodic reminders of his overriding concern, taking the form of asides to the reader, recur throughout the book, culminating in the eleventh and final chapter, “The Deep Hurt,” which serves as a conclusion. This chapter deals much more with the history of American expansion since the First World War than with Theodore Roosevelt or Mark Twain, putatively the central characters of the book. Kinzer observes in closing, “Deeply embedded assumptions guide American foreign policy. They make the United States different from other countries. No one who questions them is welcome in the corridors of power in Washington” (246).

In a manner that will surprise no informed student of American history, Kinzer traces the origins of the country’s one-dimensional foreign policy back to the Spanish-American War. He has read Walter LaFeber’s The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 and fully understands that the Spanish-American War did not initiate U.S. foreign expansion. Kinzer’s argument concerns the way in which the year 1898 witnessed the debut of the central debate about American foreign policy, and he is right to identify Roosevelt and Twain as its paramount turn-of-the-century antagonists. The subtitle, however, suggests a plan not realized in the book: to focus sharply on the salient roles of Roosevelt and Twain in the struggle for America’s soul at this fateful moment.

The book is actually much richer than a literal understanding of the subtitle would indicate. Kinzer has a magnificent roster of characters to work with on both sides of the debate. In addition to Roosevelt, numerous other expansionists appear in important roles, including Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst, Albert Beveridge, and John Hay. They are all protagonists of “the large policy” destined to be embraced with seeming definitiveness now by the United States. Kinzer sympathetically portrays Roosevelt’s presidency. After his ardent promotion of the American imperial project, “Theodore Rex” lost interest in it and instead sensibly pursued a progressive domestic agenda, according to Kinzer. In reality, though, Roosevelt’s warmongering days were far from over. He would play a uniformly aggressive role in promoting American intervention in the First World War, the desolate futility of which would strengthen for a generation “the small policy” of his earlier adversaries in the anti-imperialist movement.

Although Kinzer gives Twain co-star-billing in the book’s title, his actual appearance is much delayed, creating an imbalance in the narrative weighted too heavily toward the Roosevelt plot. Scattered references in the first eight chapters of the book constitute an inadequate introduction to Twain, who only becomes a significant figure in the ninth chapter. On the theme of anti-imperialism as well, the book is more comprehensive than the sub-title specifies. Carl Schurz, Andrew Carnegie, and George F. Hoar upstage Twain in the first two-thirds of the book. The major drama of these early chapters concerns another anti-imperialist, William Jennings Bryan. Fatal to the anti-imperialist cause were his crucial misjudgment in 1899 supporting America’s takeover of the Philippines and the feeble and unfocused presidential campaign that he made in 1900.

During most of the 1890s, Twain had been living in Europe, and Kinzer only begins to deal with him in a systematic way after his return to the United States on 15 October 1900. To explain Twain’s intransigent opposition to imperialism, Kinzer makes some very good, if well-known, points. Twain had welcomed the Spanish-American War as a crusade for the liberation of the downtrodden Cuban people. With the American land-grab negotiated in the warending Treaty of Paris, however, the Cubans shared the fate of the Puerto Ricans and Filipinos, and merely switched masters. Kinzer tells this oft-told story in a way that is in keeping with the literary excellence of the rest of the book.

A Twain book not mentioned by Kinzer, Following the Equator, reveals essential background about the origins of his intensely anti-imperialist views. In this travel book about a year-long trip that the Anglophile Twain took around the world in 1895 and 1896, he began by praising the British as ideal colonial administrators. By the end of the book, however, his attitude toward the British Empire had changed completely. What he saw in Africa, at the end of the trip described in Following the Equator, sickened him. The exploitation and slaughter of black people there by Cecil Rhodes and “his gang” were the last images in the book. These men, he thought, were nothing but robbers and murderers, who in their lust for the lands and resources of other people made imperialism a force for radical evil in the world. Within the next few years, particularly after the Boer War, Twain would come to think of British imperialism exclusively in terms of his experiences in Africa. Psychologically, British Africa prepared Twain to wage his battle against the American variety of imperialism, which in no way, he thought, constituted an exception to the enormities of the system generally.

Kinzer tries to be judicious in his analysis of the great American foreign policy debate between expansionists/internationalists on the one hand and anti-imperialists/isolationists on the other. His heart, though, clearly lies with the second group, and he closes with a series of remarks from Washington’s Farewell Address regarding the dangers of entangling alliances and standing armies. With the Spanish-American War, the American people began to forsake the maxims of the Farewell Address and by now they can scarcely recall them. The large policy has produced the sorrows of American empire, Kinzer concludes. In this volume, he makes an eloquent appeal for Americans to reconsider the bipartisan dogma that binds them to empire as a way of life.

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