23 March 2017

The large policy

Stephen Kinzer's The True Flag is being marketed as pop history, as you can tell from the subtitle assigning Mark Twain a starring role in the narrative even though he proves a latecomer to the debate over the "imperialist" turn in U.S. foreign policy at the end of the nineteenth century. Kinzer is a historian of American interventionism, having previously written a history of U.S. complicity in the Iranian counterrevolution of the 1950s and a survey of American actions overthrowing foreign governments. In his new book he goes to the start of the trouble, the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the American victors' acquisition of the Philippines the following year. Kinzer sensibly sees multiple motives behind the war. It was the first time that the media successfully whipped up a frenzy for what we now call humanitarian intervention, thanks to William Randolph Hearst's hyping of Spanish atrocities against Filipino and Cuban freedom fighters. For Hearst himself, and more so for Theodore Roosevelt war was an opportunity to prove their manhood and more, especially their potential as history-making figures. For other Americans the most important objective was turning Spanish colonies into American markets for surplus industrial product. For other still, including Kinzer's real mastermind, Henry Cabot Lodge, the war was part of what Lodge called "the large policy" of great-power assertiveness. For Lodge and Roosevelt the conquests from Spain had more strategic than mercantile value. The Philippines in particular, not to mention little Guam, would allow the U.S. to project naval power further into the Pacific than ever before. These contradictory motives made disillusionment inevitable when the humanitarians realized that, while Cuba received a sort of independence, the U.S. had no intention of liberating the Philippines at all. Instead, American troops settled in for a hard fight against many of the same freedom fighters who had been lionized in the U.S. press shortly before but now were portrayed as savage fanatics. According to Kinzer, the U.S. killed more Filipinos in four years than the Spanish had in centuries of colonial rule. Among the disillusioned was Twain, who was touring Europe when the war with Spain broke out and cheered the fall of one cruel empire, only to deplore the rise of a new one as a betrayal of fundamental American values.

The occupation of the Philippines provoked the rise of a sizable "anti-imperialist" movement in the U.S. Before Twain took the stage, the biggest celebrity on this side was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, while the movement's greatest hope was the defeated but still young 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Despite betraying the movement by voting to ratify the treaty that turned the Philippines over to the U.S. -- he justified his vote by arguing that the first priority was to get Spain out of the picture, but Kinzer thinks he was afraid of disqualifying himself from the 1900 presidential campaign by alienating jingoists -- he gave the anti-imperialists their best chance of changing the nation's course at the turn of the century as he insisted on self-government for the Philippines as soon as possible. As Kinzer tells it, the country's course might well have been changed if not for Bryan's ideological stubbornness. Though not a member of the Populist (or People's) party, Bryan embodied first-generation populism for many Americans who voted against him in 1896. He wanted to help farmers get credit and pay debts by increasing the money supply with more silver coins, but that idea outraged gold-standard conservatives who saw it as a recipe for inflation. Kinzer claims that Bryan could have dropped his demand for "free silver" by 1900, because the Klondike gold rush had increased gold reserves and put more money in circulation. The author stresses that the silver issue was a big turnoff for many of the anti-imperialists who might otherwise have voted for Bryan, and argues that the Democrat's insistence on free silver killed both his 1900 campaign and the country's best chance to strangle imperialism in its cradle. Bryan's alienation of anti-imperialist monetary conservatives demonstrates a point Kinzer will emphasize repeatedly in a final chapter taking the debate over imperialism/interventionism to the almost-present day: that debate never has run parallel to the conventional Democrat-Republican or Left-Right fault lines of American politics.

You can find anti-imperialists, anti-interventionists or "isolationists" in both parties and at both extremes, from conservative Republicans like Herbert Hoover and Robert A. Taft to demagogic populist Democrats like Huey Long, who talked of making repentant imperialist Smedley Butler his secretary of war if he became president. This only makes sense, for the motives behind anti-imperialism were as diverse as those behind U.S. expansionism. For some critics, ruling other countries blatantly contradicted this country's founding principles. For humanitarians, American atrocities in the Philippines were as outrageous, if not more so, than Spanish atrocities. For many others, incorporating colored peoples into the American polity to any extent -- see also the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 -- offended racist sensibilities. In our own time, Kinzer notes, you can find anti-interventionists on both the far left, as might be expected, and on the far right among alleged isolationists like Pat Buchanan or fanatic libertarians like Ron Paul, while an interventionist foreign policy seems to be a hallmark of centrism.  The simplest explanation for all this would be that where one stands on imperialism or interventionism is not a matter of ideology. Kinzer himself implies that interventionist impulses don't really rise to the level of ideology because there isn't really much thought involved in them.

We intervene because we see bad situations, not because we have a clear plan to improve them. At moments of crisis or decision, emotion overcomes sober reasoning -- and emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship.

The question then becomes whether the interventionist impulse is something incorrigible in the American character, or a particular strain of American character. Let me suggest that Americans go with their gut so often when they see "bad situations" because of their peculiar commitment to individualism. Americanism, as many Americans see it, teaches that each and every human life is precious. Combine that with the hedonist tendency that has only grown stronger since 1898 and the suffering of one person allegedly caused by political oppression becomes intolerable, as does inaction in the face of that suffering. The traditional utilitarian calculus of the greatest good for the greatest number seems cruel and inhumanly unemotional if it seems to acquiesce in -- or, as now seems inconceivable to many, require -- human suffering anywhere. Fortunately, this mentality is countered by a more conservative emotionalism with enough historical consciousness to realize that intervention can do more harm than good, as well as by an attitude defined less by a lack of emotion than a lack of empathy, honestly indifferent to other nations or other people. Their individualism is less empathetic and definitely not hedonist in character; it's not about guaranteeing life, much less comfort, to every person on world or even in your own country. All these attitudes can turn against interventionism, but there still may be a natural limit to the opposition to American interventionism and the related drive for U.S. hegemony. As Kinzer notes, supporters of the taking the Philippines often argued that those who claimed that one people could not rule another or take another's land really had to repudiate the whole American project from Jamestown forward. No critic of imperialism mentioned by Kinzer accepted that premise; instead of giving it all back to the Indians, they preferred a "go and sin no more" attitude. But I don't know if that really answers the implicit question which, put at a more abstract level, asks whether there can be progress without conquest and coercion. Put that way, it may not be so easy to dismiss the past with the promise that we ain't like that no more, since with progress obviously still to be made there's no guarantee that the future won't force the same choices on us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People need to accept the inevitable fact of humanity. We are a violent species. It has been such for as long as we can prove humans existed. We take land from others. We fight wars. This is simple a fact that we cannot seem to escape from. That being the case, I'd much rather be part of the empire than one of the tiny principalities that get crushed.