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The Origins of American Imperialism: An Interview with Stephen Kinzer

In 1898, the United States won a quick victory in the Spanish American War and liberated Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spanish colonial rule. But the war sparked the greatest foreign policy debate in American history as best minds of the age considered whether the United States should grab, “civilize,” and dominate foreign lands or leave the people of those countries to rule themselves.

Expansionists led by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge with the help of news baron William Randolph Hearst ultimately won the argument then, but a closely divided nation questioned the new imperialism as influential thinkers including Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, and Andrew Carnegie warned against foreign intervention and cited the terrible consequences of European empire, including the brutalizing of colonial subjects.

And it was a time when the United States forces evolved from liberators to occupiers who crushed the independence movement in the horrific Philippine American War (1899-1902), leaving over one hundred thousand Filipinos dead—mostly civilians—in a conflict fueled by a sense of American superiority and divine exceptionalism that presaged our future wars of intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Award-winning foreign correspondent and expert on foreign policy Stephen Kinzer chronicles this overlooked history in his new book The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (Henry Holt & Company). He covers the raging debate in detail over intervention based on extensive research of official documents, letters, diaries, and other resources. He stresses how this debate erupted on the role of the U.S. in the world and dominated news and discussions at the turn of the twentieth century.

Mr. Kinzer’s book appears at a time when America is again examining its role in the world, and the issues argued in this forgotten history are still relevant today—although these concerns likely will not garner anywhere near the wide attention they received almost 120 years ago.

The title of the book, The True Flag, comes from a speech by prominent anti-imperialist Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who served as a Union general, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of the Interior:

Let us raise the flag of our country—not as an emblem of reckless adventure and greedy conquest, of betrayed professions and broken pledges, of criminal aggressions and arbitrary rule over subject populations—but the old, the true flag, the flag of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the flag of government of, for, and by the people, the flag of national faith held sacred and of national honor unsullied, the flag of human rights and of good example to all nations, the flag of true civilization, peace, and good will to all men.

In his study of this period, Mr. Kinzer demonstrates the dangers and folly of a foreign policy of violent intervention and domination.

Mr. Kinzer, an award-winning journalist, worked as The New York Times’s bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua and as The Boston Globe’s Latin America correspondent. His other books include The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War; Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future; A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It; Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua;Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to IraqAll the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror; Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds; andBitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, with Stephen Schlesinger. Mr. Kinzer also serves as a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and writes a column on world affairs for The Boston Globe.

Mr. Kinzer talked about The True Flag by telephone from his office in Boston.

Robin Lindley: You’ve written widely on American foreign policy and diplomatic history. Now, in The True Flag, you examine the period of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. Your book could be entitled The Origins of American Imperialism, and you describe the tremendous debate over expansionist policies then. What sparked this book now?

Stephen Kinzer: All American foreign policy questions can be narrowed down to one sentence and, in fact you could narrow them down to one word, which is intervention. All of our major questions in the world now are about where we intervene and for what purposes and with what means.

We are the country that intervenes more frequently in more other countries that are farther away from our own borders than other countries. Why are we like this? How did we get this way? Where did it begin? I’ve always been intrigued by these questions. Often we look for the answers to these questions in the period after World War II when the U.S. truly became a global empire.

Actually, when I looked more deeply into the background of those questions, I saw that the crucial decision was made earlier, in the period around 1898 to 1900. Looking back at that time made it very clear to me how aware everybody involved was in the debate that would shape the future of the United States. Everybody debating the issue in 1899 in the U.S. Senate, for example, understood that he was not debating only one issue such as whether the U.S. could take the Philippines. Those senators and other opinion makers across the country, as one senator called it, were debating the greatest question that had ever been put before the American people.

In the history of American foreign policy, I realized this was the formative debate, the mother of all debates.

Robin Lindley: Didn’t the imperialist sentiment of this period, in a way, grow out of the westward continental expansion and the idea of Manifest Destiny?

Stephen Kinzer: Yes. I think you can see a continuity in the history of American expansionism. You could argue that the United States has been expanding since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Perhaps the history could best be understood as coming in three phases. First, the United States created a continental empire in North America by clearing native people and seizing a large part of Mexico. Then, in the period after 1898, we became an overseas empire. And then finally, after World War II, a global empire.

When the Census Bureau in 1890 declared that the American frontier was closed, that posed a dilemma for the United States. We had been expanding for so long and, in the 1890’s. there was a sense that we needed foreign markets for our goods and foreign raw materials. We had to face this question: What do we do after reaching California? Once we conquer North America, do we turn inward and do we do something different and stop trying to conquer other lands? Or do we continue overseas? That was the essence of this debate.

Robin Lindley: Your book illuminates this basically overlooked period in history. Most of us in school probably learned little of the Spanish American War except for the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Cuba and Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. And I think most Americans probably learn nothing of the brutal war waged by the U.S. in the Philippines that followed the victory over the Spain there.

Stephen Kinzer: I think you’re right, and it’s another example of how not just Americans but all people like to remember things that they did or their country did that put them in a good light.

We tend to forget episodes that don’t show us in the way that we like to think that we are. The Philippine War falls in that category. We left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dead in a horrifically brutal campaign. We had our first torture scandal. We had serious war crimes committed as a matter of official military policy. And yet very few Americans are even aware that this war ever happened. Actually, it’s been a huge scar on the minds of Filipinos and it’s well known in East Asia, but because it doesn’t fit into our narrative of what we do in the world, we’ve allowed it to fall out of our history books and our consciousness.

Robin Lindley: As I recall, this period was sanitized and glorious in our old schoolbooks. There was the Great White Fleet and a glorious new American Empire. We didn’t learn that there was an anti-imperialist movement. Your book is a corrective.

Stephen Kinzer: I recently photographed a monument in San Francisco to the veterans of the Spanish American War who were described in the plaque as having “extended the hand of friendship to alien people.” That is the narrative that Americans are told about this period. Our ignorance of what really happened feeds our puzzlement as to why we are not so beloved in the world. We are part of the view of our own history, and therefore people are surprised when people with more direct experience as victims of our foreign policy don’t look at us the way we look at ourselves.

Robin Lindley: And that seems to hold true for the general view of Theodore Roosevelt. He’s remembered as an energetic genius who wrote dozens of books and was devoted to the environment and progressive domestic policies. As you point out in your book, however, he was also a bloodthirsty militarist, a rabid imperialist and a racist when it came to non-white people in other lands. He was seen as insane by some detractors, including Mark Twain. I don’t think we usually get that view of Roosevelt.

Stephen Kinzer: I had a great deal of fun learning about the main characters in my book, Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt. I some ways, they’re very different. Theodore Roosevelt was a spoiled rich kid. He grew up looking at ships from his estate on Oyster Bay. He became fascinated with navies, as young boys sometimes do. He traveled to other countries as an aristocrat who got to know European capitals much more than he got to know anything about the way most Americans live. He liked to shoot animals. He had tremendous contempt for people in non-white countries and had no belief that they could rule themselves.

Mark Twain was very different. He also traveled widely but not to shoot animals. He really got to meet people. He had been in places like India and South Africa where the state of European imperialism was quite brutally clear. He had great sympathy for the native people that Roosevelt held in such contempt.

On the other hand, in some ways they were similar. Roosevelt and Twain were both prima donnas. They both created an image for themselves and invented themselves in a way. They were people that could never turn away from an interview or a mirror. In a sense they epitomized the vibe of the American soul during this period. Mark Twain believed that every human being was as good as every other human being and if the United States could produce people that could rule their country, then the Philippines and other countries could rule themselves too. Theodore Roosevelt thought this was nonsense: that people who were non-white had no way of ruling themselves and needed to be ruled by others.

We’re still debating that in our own minds. What do we want to do in the world? Americans want to guide the world, but we also want every country to guide itself. These are opposite impulses and we can’t do both of them. But we still hold them both in our minds and, in a way, Roosevelt and Twain represent that dichotomy.

Robin Lindley: They are two complex personalities. I believe that after his presidency, Roosevelt didn’t even mention the Philippine-American War in his memoirs. Do you think he was displaying some remorse?

Stephen Kinzer: Roosevelt had an interesting turn of mind in the period after he became president. As a vice president and as governor of New York, he was a forceful advocate of nation grabbing. He wanted the United States to annex possibly the entire world. When he became president, it was presumed that this impulse would guide him. There was speculation that he might take colonies in Africa or that he might try to join the race for slices of China. There was the possibility that he would try to take Mexico or Nicaragua or even Canada.

He didn’t do any of those things. I think the shock of what happened in the Philippines must have affected him. I never found an actual phrase where he and his friend Henry Cabot Lodge said that Americans would be greeted with flowers in the Philippines, but that was more or less the opinion that they transmitted to the American people—that the Philippine people would welcome us. Instead, we had to wage a horrifically brutal war to subjugate them.

This sobered Roosevelt. He began to understand the sorrows of empire. When he became president, he ordered one operation in which he seized land for the Panama Canal. After that, however, he turned his interest to other issues. He focused on controlling corporate power and protecting the natural environment.

I think he actually fit the pattern for an American president. They tend to start off with great enthusiasm for using American military and coercive power around the world. After that, they see the limitations, they see the blowback, they see the trouble it brings, so at the end of their terms they’re less likely to intervene than at the beginning. You see this in presidents from Roosevelt up to Bush and Obama.

Robin Lindley: You certainly see that pattern in recent administrations. And you look back at Roosevelt before the Spanish American war and he was eager to fight and wanted to see combat, which he did in Cuba. He was bloodthirsty. He said it was “a great day” when he killed a Spanish soldier who was apparently running away at San Juan Hill.

Stephen Kinzer: Roosevelt was a war lover. He had a fascination with war and believed that war was the only noble pursuit for a man or for a nation. I found a letter in which he speculated on the possibility that perhaps Germany could be baited into burning a few cities on the American East Coast because then we’d finally have an enemy that would rouse Americans to the necessity of creating a large military establishment. He wrote about wanting to participate in fighting against the Tatars in Russia or against the Aborigines in Australia. He was always looking for enemies and that certainly is a pattern in American history.

Robin Lindley: It seems that Roosevelt and his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge were drivers of this imperialist sentiment. And newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst supported expansionism and promoted the war against Spain. That press role strikes a chord today too.

Stephen Kinzer: The imperialist triumvirate that drove the United States to succumb to the imperial temptation in 1898 was comprised of three interesting figures.

Teddy Roosevelt was the public face of the expansionist project. Henry Cabot Lodge was the Mephistopheles in Washington that organized the project politically. William Randolph Hearst was the megaphone who sold Americans a diet of super-patriotic bunkum that drove them crazy. He understood something that editors understand to this day: If you want to have people buying newspapers or clicking on your story, you need a running story that unfolds every day, not just on one day. War is the best running story of all.

Hearst set out quite consciously to set the United States off to war to sell more newspapers. That he did splendidly. Hearst also understood something that is still true today about how to get Americans to go to war. He understood that Americans are a very compassion people who hate the idea of anybody suffering anywhere. Our leaders, therefore, use our people’s sympathy for the suffering of others. Whenever they want to go to war for any reason, they start feeding us images of poor, suffering people being brutalized by some evil tyrant. That’s enough to move Americans into thinking we need to go to war in some country.

We don’t stop to think usually whether we’re going to be able to improve the situation or what the long-term plan might be, but we’re very impulsive. And Hearst understood this. He filled his paper with articles about the brutalization of womanhood and other evils perpetrated in Cuba, and that created a public climate that allowed us to go to war. That’s like stories about Khaddaffi and Saddam and Assad that were heavy news in later years.

Robin Lindley: How do you see the role of Republican President McKinley at this time? It seems he was ambivalent about aggressive expansionism in foreign lands, but he eventually embraced a policy he called “benevolent assimilation.”

Stephen Kinzer: McKinley was known as a person who followed public opinion rather than trying to lead it. The Speaker of the House, Thomas Reed, famously said that McKinley “kept his ear so close to the ground, it was full of grasshoppers.”

McKinley sensed that Americans were caught up in the fever of expansionism and that to try to put a stop to it or to try to stand in its way would hurt him and his party politically. He saw that the popular thing to do would be to latch onto this bandwagon, and he did so. His explanation was that he was guided by God in a visitation in the White House one night in October 1898, but that night sounded a lot like Henry Cabot Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt.

Robin Lindley: Was it mainly commercial interests that propelled this imperialist policy? It seems that greed, profit, and the desire of businesses for new markets played a large role.

Stephen Kinzer: A confluence of factors drove the United States to make this epochal decision at the end of the nineteenth century.

Economics played a large role. When you read newspapers of that period, as I did while researching this book, you see that there is much written about what was then called glut. The argument was that American farms and factories were becoming so productive that they were producing more than Americans could consume. This was producing social rifts with strikes and labor conflict. People began to sense that there was a need to export some of social problems, and the way to do this would be to find foreign markets. In those days, that meant you had to take over foreign territories. That’s the way Europeans did it. You then would prevent other countries from trading with those colonies.

The United States saw the Philippines partly as a source of great raw materials and as a potential market for goods, but even more tantalizingly, as a potential springboard to the China market. In those days, the China market was held up as a great phantasm of tremendous prospects for wealth. Articles were appearing about how much cotton the Chinese would buy if they could be induced to make their clothes of cotton, or how many nails they could buy, or how much beef they could buy if they converted to American habits.

No doubt Lodge, in weaving the imperial project together, used the ambition of commercial interests as an important thread.

Robin Lindley: It may surprise some readers that so many great minds were on the anti-imperialist side of the debate: Booker T. Washington, Jane Addams, Carl Schurz, Mark Twain, and even the richest man in America, industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The debate was by no means one-sided and the imperialist impulse was not overwhelming.

Stephen Kinzer: Actually, the power of the anti-imperialist movement and the earnestness that many Americans took its arguments was something that I hadn’t realized. This episode has essentially fallen out of American history. There was a great debate that seized America. It was on the front page of every newspaper day after week after month. Every major political and intellectual figure in America took sides and it shaped the entire subsequent history of the United States.

All of my books are voyages of discovery and, in this book, my main discovery was that this debate ever happened. It’s a vitally important episode of American history that shaped who we are today but has fallen out of our history books. So the greatest satisfaction for me in writing this book is being able to recover this debate and hoping to make clear to Americans today who question, as I do, aspects of American policy. The idea that the United States should allow other nations to rule themselves and not try to project our military and coercive power around the world is very deeply rooted in American history.

Those of us who are trying to push America to a more prudent and restrained foreign policy are standing on the shoulders of titans—great figures of American history who first enunciated the view and to continue to make their argument is something quintessentially American.

Robin Lindley: To go back, our brutal Philippines campaign is shocking today. Apparently, the leader of the independence movement there, Emilio Aguinaldo, had a promise from the U. S. that, if his forces fought with the U.S. against the Spanish, the U.S. would assure Philippines independence. Instead, after liberating the Philippines from the Spanish with the helped of Aguinaldo’s forces, the U.S. turned on Aguinaldo and his “insurgents” in a horrific war.

Stephen Kinzer: The Americans were told that Filipinos has every reason to rebel against Spanish rule. After all, being portrayed as under a cruel Spanish master, Filipinos in rebellion seemed to us the equivalent of George Washington and the Continental Army fighting to overthrow British. Then, after we changed our ideas about what we wanted to do with the Philippines and decided we wanted to take the Philippines rather than grant them independence, we began to tell ourselves that we were a very different master from the Spanish.

You certainly can understand why the Filipinos wouldn’t want to be ruled by the Spanish because they were brutal and oppressive and far away and had evil intentions. We were told Filipinos would love to be ruled by Americans. They would realize Americans are benevolent and only want to help.

Americans were never able to grasp the idea that, for many Filipinos, being ruled by a foreign power was [anathema] no matter what power it was. These Filipino rebels were not willing to accept the exchange of one distant master for another. They wanted full independence. Americans were never able to see this. We deluded ourselves into believing that, although they hated being ruled by the Spanish, they would love being ruled by the Americans. This is the kind of self-delusion that characterized much of our approach to the world.

Robin Lindley: Racism also played a role in these interventions. Imperialists not only saw the U.S. mission as liberating Cuba and the Philippines, but they saw non-white people as inferior and primitive creatures who needed us to “civilize” them. Roosevelt called Filipinos “wild beasts.”

Stephen Kinzer: It was particularly vivid in Cuba. We were told when we entered the war there that the Cuban patriots were great heroes and the equivalent of the leaders of our American Revolution. They were lionized in the American press. That’s why we felt they should have the independence they were fighting for.

Then, after the war ended, our commanders in Cuba reported back the horrible realization that many of these leaders that we had been taught to admire was that they were black. That suddenly changed American opinion. We began to think that there might be a government in Cuba that would be partly black, and that certainly would have happened if we allowed Cuba to become independent.

Our racial attitudes at that time made it absolutely impossible for us to accept that result. That’s one reason that the United States refused to permit Cuba to become independent after 1898.

Robin Lindley: It’s interesting that some white supremacists were anti-imperialist because they were worried that we would bring more non-white, less-than-civilized immigrants into the United States.

Stephen Kinzer: You’re right. Racism was used on both sides of this argument. It’s easy to understand how imperialists viewed it because they believed that non-white people couldn’t govern themselves and needed white people’s help. But some anti-imperialists also were racist. They came from the south and they didn’t want the United States taking in people who were not white.

I do think that racial attitudes played a big role in this debate. Another example is the experience of Hawaii. Hawaii, with the connivance of the United States government, had a change of regime in 1893. A group of white American planters and their friends overthrew the Hawaiian government so that they could come into the United States and sell their sugar at a cheaper rate. But there was a change of administration in Washington. Grover Cleveland became president and he didn’t want to take in Hawaii under these conditions.

Hawaii had to become an independent nation—something these white settlers had never imagined. Their challenge was to find themselves a constitution which would look good to Americans in case they ever became a part of the U.S., but also would disenfranchise most of the population. They couldn’t have native people voting; otherwise they’d be voted out of office. They chose as their model the constitution of the state of Mississippi, which was ingeniously drawn up with all sorts of qualifications for voting so that it looked democratic while denying most people the vote. So you can say that the racism that permeated the United States definitely shaped our foreign.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for your insights on the role of race. I appreciate your comment on intervention in the book: “Violent intervention in other countries always produces unintended consequences.” That is writ large in the period you examine and in our foreign policy in the past two decades that has produced terrible blowback.

Stephen Kinzer: I think you’re right that our interventions have produced terrible unintended consequences. What I find even more puzzling is that we don’t seem to learn from these experiences. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of times we can crash into another country violently and have it come out terribly until we begin to reassess whether this is a good idea or not.

One reason I was so interested to write this book The True Flag is that I envy the debate they had in those days when the U.S. Senate convened for an epochal 32-day debate for this vital question of expansionism in the winter of 1899. Senators debated this great question: Should the United States try to push its power onto other people and other countries or how do we leave them alone and build up our own country?

We don’t have that debate today. We’re debating whether to send four thousand troops to Afghanistan for the new surge or should it be six thousand. We never pull back to have this larger debate and, if we ever did, it would probably sound a lot like debates that I write about in my book.

Robin Lindley: You have a wealth of good advice for the new administration. In a speech on July 6 in Warsaw, Trump asked if the West has the will to survive? What do you think of that remark from our new president.

Stephen Kinzer: The West has the will to survive, but do we could survive without trying to impose our will on others? The more we crash into other countries, the more we weaken ourselves. This is the lesson our interventions teach us. We can survive and thrive but we should pay more attention to building our own nation than trying to use our thousand-mile screwdriver to fix others. How’s that for a coda?

Robin Lindley: That’s quite fitting. At the close of The True Flag you go back to the words of George Washington. Your book reveals the wisdom of Washington’s warning to Americans: to avoid the “mischiefs of foreign intrigues.” Thank you for your thoughtful comments and your illuminating new book.