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

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

The bestselling author of Overthrow and The Brothers brings to life the forgotten political debate that set America’s interventionist course in the world for the twentieth century and beyond.How should the United States act in the world? Americans cannot decide. Sometimes we burn with righteous anger, launching foreign wars and deposing governments. Then we retreat—until t...

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Title:The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire
Author:Stephen Kinzer
Rating:
ISBN:1627792163
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:320 pages

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

  • Matt
    Nov 19, 2016

    The internal debate within the United States about how the country should act around the world, to either avoid or intervene in foreign entanglements, has been going on for over a century. However, neither the arguments nor the situations that bring them on have changed over that time. Stephen Kinzer in his book

    looks at when this debate began back at the turn of the 20th Century when the United States looked beyond the Americas in the “Age of Imperialism”.

    The political and militar

    The internal debate within the United States about how the country should act around the world, to either avoid or intervene in foreign entanglements, has been going on for over a century. However, neither the arguments nor the situations that bring them on have changed over that time. Stephen Kinzer in his book

    looks at when this debate began back at the turn of the 20th Century when the United States looked beyond the Americas in the “Age of Imperialism”.

    The political and military history before, during, and after the Spanish-American War both inside and outside the United States was Kinzer’s focus throughout the book. Within this framework, Kinzer introduced organizations and individuals that opposed the actions and outcomes promoted by those more familiar to history, namely Theodore Roosevelt, as the United States was transformed into a “colonial” power. Yet, while this book is about the beginning of a century long debate it is more the story of those who through 1898 and 1901 argued against and tried to prevent the decisions and actions that today we read as history.

    Although the names of Roosevelt and Mark Twain catch the eye on the cover, in reality Kinzer’s focus was on other important figures on either side of the debate. The biggest promoter of “expansionist” policy was Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s long-time friend, who gladly let his friend become figure that history would remember. However, Lodge’s fellow senator from Massachusetts, George Frisbie Hoar was one of the fiercest opponents and critics of the “expansionist” policy that Lodge and Roosevelt promoted. One of the enigmatic figures of the time was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who openly advocated and supported war in Cuba but then turned against the expansion when the United States fought the insurrection in the Philippines. Businessman Andrew Carnegie was one of many prominent individuals who founded the American Anti-Imperialist League to work against the United States ruling foreign territory. Amongst those working with Carnegie were former President Grover Cleveland and imminent labor leader, Samuel Gompers, but the strangest bedfellow was William Jennings Bryan. In Bryan, many believed they had the person in the political sphere that could stem the tide against the “expansionist” agenda but were twice stunned by the decisions he made when it was time to make a stand.

    Kinzer throughout the book would follow the exploits and opinions of both Roosevelt and Twain during the period covered, however there was is a stark difference amount of coverage each has in which Roosevelt is in the clear majority. It wasn’t that Kinzer chose not to invest page space to Twain, it was that he did not have the material to do so. Throughout most of the period covered, 1898-1901, Twain was in Europe and out of the social and political landscape of the United States. However, once Twain stepped back onto U.S. soil his pen became a weapon in the cause against imperialism that Kinzer documents very well. Unfortunately for both the reader and Kinzer, Twain only becomes prominent in the last third of the book whereas Roosevelt’s presence is throughout. This imbalance of page space between the books’ two important figures was created because of marketing, but do not let it create a false impression of favoritism by Kinzer on one side or another.

    History records that those opposed to the United States’ overseas expansion lost, however ever since the arguments they used have been a part of the foreign policy debate that has influenced history ever since.

    gives the reader a look into events and arguments that have shaped the debate around the question “How should the United States act in the world?” since it began almost 120 years ago. This book is a fantastic general history of an era and political atmosphere that impacts us still today, and is a quick easy read for those interested in the topic.

  • Dominic
    Feb 10, 2017

    The Spanish-American War is the most important war Americans don't remember. In "The True Flag," Stephen Kinzer, a longtime scholar on the history of American interventionism, argues that this was the war that really pushed America onto the stage as a global power. Not only did America seize overseas territories in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba, but the debate surrounding the war shaped the discourse on U.S. foreign policy for decades to come.

    Despite the title of the book, this book isn

    The Spanish-American War is the most important war Americans don't remember. In "The True Flag," Stephen Kinzer, a longtime scholar on the history of American interventionism, argues that this was the war that really pushed America onto the stage as a global power. Not only did America seize overseas territories in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba, but the debate surrounding the war shaped the discourse on U.S. foreign policy for decades to come.

    Despite the title of the book, this book isn't so much about Roosevelt and Twain as it is about the broader intellectual debate about America's role in the world from the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898 to Roosevelt's ascension to the presidency in 1901, which essentially killed the anti-imperialist movement. Kinzer does an excellent job chronicling the key actors and how their arguments changed as the world around them changed. In particular, Kinzer excels at situating speeches and arguments in historical context. As much time as he spends with elites of the era, he also tries to show how the average American might have viewed the debate (as it turns out, often through the eyes of Mr. Dooley, a popular comic strip at the time).

    Usually, these types of books make a passing nod to how history is relevant to today. This is mostly for marketing purposes, to convince readers that the book will give them greater insight into the world around them. In interviews, Kinzer has claimed that the history of the Spanish-American War is directly relevant to the debates about globalization that dominated the 2016 election. In the case of "The True Flag," he's absolutely right. However, unlike most books of this sort, Kinzer doesn't just mention the historical relevance in a sentence or two in the epilogue. He actually spends the last chapter chronicling the history of American interventionism during the 20th and 21st century, as well as how the debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists evolved over time. He notes that many of the American same assumptions undergirding the imperialists of Roosevelt's time remain prevalent amongst the foreign policy elite. It's a thought provoking look at both how far we've come since 1898, but also how little we've learned.

    Whereas the ending of "The True Flag" does an excellent job covering the consequences of the Spanish-American War for American foreign policy, it doesn't provide a denouement for the personalities that dominated the debate. Despite having Roosevelt and Twain's names in the title, the end of the book doesn't tell you anything about their lives after Roosevelt's ascension to the presidency. Granted, any student of history probably knows about Teddy Roosevelt's 1912 campaign and death in 1920. However, I found this somewhat disappointing because the book introduced me to several intriguing historical characters, including Carl Schurz, but I had to go to Wikipedia to find out what happened to them after 1902. This certainly isn't a big problem with the book, but more a caution that this book is probably best suited to readers who already possess a passing familiarity with late 19th/early 20th century American history.

    I highly recommend this book for readers interested in U.S. history and foreign policy.

    [Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]

  • Garp83
    Jan 17, 2017

    Review of: The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

    by Stan Prager (1-17-17)

    With the notable exception of the Civil War, Americans have largely forgotten the wars waged outside of living recollection. Other than the War of 1812, perhaps no war has been so utterly expunged from our collective memory as the Spanish-American War of 1898, although this conflict occurred barely at the edge of that envelope: as of this writing the oldest still t

    Review of: The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

    by Stan Prager (1-17-17)

    With the notable exception of the Civil War, Americans have largely forgotten the wars waged outside of living recollection. Other than the War of 1812, perhaps no war has been so utterly expunged from our collective memory as the Spanish-American War of 1898, although this conflict occurred barely at the edge of that envelope: as of this writing the oldest still thriving human being was born in 1899. Still, when prompted how many could conjure up more than a caricature of buck-toothed Teddy Roosevelt bedecked with pince-nez and cowboy hat leading the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill? But although the “splendid little war” – as it was famously dubbed by John Hay – was little more than a minor military adventure fought and won over a brief four-month period, it was nevertheless highly consequential, as it marked the dawn of a new era of American overseas intervention and imperialism. In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer does a remarkable job of resurrecting the Spanish American War from the dustbin of our national amnesia and restoring its critical historical significance, despite an abysmal concluding chapter (more on this later!) that mars an otherwise fine work.

    The United States has been an aggressive, expansionist, even predatory nation since its very foundation. What came to be called “manifest destiny” meant both the disenfranchisement of the aboriginal native peoples and the eviction – by force or treaty – of the British, French and Spanish that got in the way of the path “from sea to shining sea.” But except for some daydreams by antebellum Southerners of colonizing portions of Central America in order to extend slavery, Americans restrained themselves from overseas conquest and were passive observers of the late nineteenth century European rush to imperialism, as Britain, France and Germany competed for colonial empire. One of the most notable opponents of such restraint was Theodore Roosevelt, who actively called for a more internationalist – and interventionist – approach by the United States. As The True Flag neatly outlines, Roosevelt urged a war with Spain to divest her of her Caribbean colonies, turned himself into a hero once the war unfolded, and then used these events as a springboard to the vice-presidency. The assassination of President McKinley later put the nation’s most prominent imperialist into the Oval Office.

    After five centuries, all that remained for Spain of the vast territory in the New World that Columbus had stumbled upon was a tiny toehold in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Americans were both hostile to Spain and sympathetic to the Cuban rebels who sought liberation. There was a growing cry for intervention. In addition to Roosevelt, there was an eager cast of notables – Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, William Randolph Heart, Alfred Thayer Mahan – urging action. President McKinley was at first a reluctant, albeit easily converted, warrior. When a likely mechanical malfunction caused an explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor with hundreds of fatalities, a rush to judgment blamed the disaster on a mine and with calls of “Remember the Maine” the United States went to war. It did not last very long. Vastly inferior Spanish forces in Cuba and in its faraway Pacific colony in the Philippines fell rapidly before American military might on land and sea. It had been more than three decades since the end of the Civil War, and while a new generation cheered this adventure, some veterans of the Union and the Confederacy even entered combat on the same side, a celebrated rapprochement by old enemies that added to the feel-good notions of righteousness that saw Spain finally expelled from the Americas and those it had long oppressed set free. Most Americans, including its great intellectual icon, Mark Twain, championed the virtue of this crusade for justice and liberation. At first.

    If for most, details of the Spanish-American War are murky, few even know that its immediate aftermath ignited another conflict – the Philippine-American War – of a much longer duration with far more casualties. For an America seeking to expand its political power and economic reach on the world stage, the Philippines was a far greater prize than Cuba and there was a great reluctance to let her go once hostilities ended. Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo at first welcomed Americans as allies and liberators, but were later bitterly disappointed as the United States opted to simply replace Spain as a colonial overlord. What followed was a long, ruthless, bloody war of oppression to crush Philippine resistance that turned out to be a tragic preview of American interventionism in the years to come. In what came to be a campaign of terror justified by race, national interests and necessity, combatants and civilians fell victim to American antiguerrilla efforts that included torture and murder. Water torture, a specialty of the Spanish, became a regular part of the American toolkit. As Kinzer notes: “This was the first time American soldiers had systematically brutalized a civilian population overseas.” [p194] As the result of the war, as well as attendant starvation and epidemics, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians died.

    The stark evolution of Americans from liberators to oppressors spawned a wide movement at home of anti-imperialists, with Mark Twain as one of its most ardent spokesmen. Although he privately deemed it “rather poor poetry,” Roosevelt -- a Social Darwinist at heart who justified a world order dominated by Eurocentric white supremacy over the “lesser races” – extolled Rudyard Kipling’s latest poem written to encourage annexation, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” which was to become a rallying cry for imperialism. It’s first stanza began [p120]:

    Take up the White Man's burden—

    Send forth the best ye breed—

    Go bind your sons to exile

    To serve your captives' need;

    To wait in heavy harness,

    On fluttered folk and wild—

    Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

    Half-devil and half-child.

    Less famously, Twain countered this sentiment by rewriting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to reflect the rapacious nation we had become [p184]:

    Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword,

    He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;

    He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death is scored,

    His lust is marching on.

    The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not apply overseas, but the war in the Philippines grew very unpopular at home. Still, Roosevelt, who became President after McKinley’s assassination, vigorously pursued victory under the guise of offering enlightened civilization to the misguided brown people who otherwise spurned it. General Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur’s father) obliged with ruthless tenacity. His homeland devastated, a kidnapped and imprisoned Aguinaldo eventually gave in to his new colonizers. (He lived to witness the birth of Philippine independence in 1945 and then on to his nineties; during World War II he supported the Japanese occupiers who ousted the Americans.) Meanwhile, something called the Platt Amendment created an emasculated independent Cuba dominated by the United States that endured for decades. America also controlled Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii (annexed in 1898). The United States was now indeed a power to be reckoned with on the world stage, but there were unintended consequences. The unsuccessful anti-imperialist movement withered away, and so too did an appetite for further conquest abroad; a war-weary public fell into isolationism just in time for the outbreak of World War I.

    Kinzer’s well-written narrative puts the Spanish-American War into its appropriate historic context, something missing in most other treatments. This was the same timeframe that saw the United States annex Hawaii, not long after supporting its white planter elite’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This was the same era that saw the British employ machine guns to mow down thousands of native Ndebele warriors in Rhodesia, and to create the first concentration camps for civilians in the South African Boer War. These were the same years of the celebrated “Open Door Policy” in China, that asserted the right of the United States to prey upon Chinese markets as aggressively as their foreign counterparts, and to lend forces to put down Chinese nationals in the “Boxer Rebellion.” Like all events, this war and its aftermath did not occur in a vacuum.

    Then the author nearly spoils it all with a dreadful penultimate chapter that seeks to connect all subsequent American foreign engagement to the events of this period. One could indeed argue with some conviction that the Spanish-American War represented a line that was crossed in American foreign policy that encouraged overseas interventionism and occupation justified by a vague and often unconvincing crusade of good intentions. With that and especially with the imbroglio of the Philippines in mind, one could perhaps draw a line to the quagmire of Vietnam, and especially to the late misadventure in Iraq. Yet, Kinzer makes the mistake of painting all that followed with far too broad of a brush. Isolationism is not always the vindication of anti-imperialism, as he seems to posit, nor is interventionism always its antonym. For instance, the role the United States played, or failed to play, in the run-up to World War II had little to do with the issues of 1898. There are many varieties of intervention, as well as isolation. History is nuance and complexity that always suffers when blurred with attempts to impose grand over-arching themes. In his final chapter, the author tries too hard to connect all the dots as if it was one common image. In this, he is ultimately unsuccessful. Still, the flaws of that last chapter should not deter anyone from reading The True Flag, an otherwise outstanding work that restores a long-overlooked chapter in American history to its appropriate prominence.

    [NOTE: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition I received through an Early Reviewer’s program.]

    My review of "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire," by Stephen Kinzer, is live on my book blog …

  • Christopher
    Jan 24, 2017

    How the United States should act in the world is a question that has animated Americans for the last few years. Amazingly though, this question was foremost on Americans' minds at the beginning of the 20th century as well. In fact, as Mr. Kinzer rightly points out in this wonderful book, the questions of America's global role that were first raised starting with the Spanish-American War of 1898 have stayed with us to the present time and have never been satisfactorily answered.

    What this book do

    How the United States should act in the world is a question that has animated Americans for the last few years. Amazingly though, this question was foremost on Americans' minds at the beginning of the 20th century as well. In fact, as Mr. Kinzer rightly points out in this wonderful book, the questions of America's global role that were first raised starting with the Spanish-American War of 1898 have stayed with us to the present time and have never been satisfactorily answered.

    What this book does is shine a light on an often forgotten bit of American history, where America rushed into the project of empire-building like the European powers of the same era around the world. What this book does best though is reveal the strong anti-imperialist feeling that many Americans shared and almost prevailed at times. And though the anti-imperialists may have lost their political fights, their legacy has animated debates about American foreign policy ever since. As just one example, many Americans know the phrase, "My country, right or wrong." But what most Americans don't know is the full quote, "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right," was said by Carl Schurz, a German immigrant to America who became a citizen, became a U.S. Senator, and a leader of the anti-imperialist movement during this period. Mr. Kinzer also does a great job of showing the imperialist side, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, but led in the background by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. It shows how their partnership was crucial to the imperialist cause and how they triumphed in the short-term, but never settled the debate.

    However, this book is not without its faults. For starters, the subtitle,

    , is misleading. Mark Twain barely makes an appearance throughout the book until the last three chapters, but by this time in the story, it's too late as America has taken colonies and beaten off anti-imperialists at every corner. Really, there were other anti-imperialist leaders, like Carl Schurz and Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, who did far more for the movement. Twain just wrote the best anti-imperialist materials after the fact. Also, in the concluding chapter, Mr. Kinzer tries to draw larger lessons from this period. While agree with him that this period of history should offer cautionary lessons to today's interventionists, I do not agree with him that every intervention is bound to have significant blowback.

    in her academic work

    shows how third-party enforcement of peace deals to end a civil war are more successful than peace deals that have no third-party enforcement. Can there be blowback? Of course. But that doesn't mean all interventions are unsuccessful, as Mr. Kinzer implies.

    Overall, this book was an incredibly enjoyable read. Mr. Kinzer's narrative moves at a quick pace and illuminates a little know period of our history that reverberates into the modern day. I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in American history and the debates about America's global power.

  • Ran
    Jan 30, 2017

    Stephen Kinzer asks, "How should the United States act in the world?" He continues that the United States has been having this debate since the Spanish-American War (1898) and the acquisition of Spanish-dominated lands including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam (U.S. territories following ratification of the Treaty of Paris 1898). Kinzer focuses on the Anti-/Imperialist debate within Congress while detailing the press reports' of events outside of the United States. He is particularl

    Stephen Kinzer asks, "How should the United States act in the world?" He continues that the United States has been having this debate since the Spanish-American War (1898) and the acquisition of Spanish-dominated lands including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam (U.S. territories following ratification of the Treaty of Paris 1898). Kinzer focuses on the Anti-/Imperialist debate within Congress while detailing the press reports' of events outside of the United States. He is particularly intrigued by Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain as figureheads of this American debate, but also includes specific details of how the Anti-Imperalists lost the war against Imperialism marginally yet from within (thanks to William Jennings Bryan).

    Kinzer writes a really approachable book on U.S. foreign policy through international, national, and local lenses as well as gender and race (though those portions are somewhat smaller than his overarching political analysis). And it's a prescient discussion because we still struggle as a nation with interventionism today, which Kinzer rightly points out through other expansionist guises including: "liberal internationalism," "democracy promotion," "the freedom agenda," or "humanitarian intervention." I thoroughly enjoyed his writing even if I think the foundation of his argument is a little unstable. I would prefer he state that this debate is the most

    rather than the

    surrounding

    expansionism. One need not look further than the acquisition of Louisiana or "manifest destiny" to find that statement is not true. For the purposes of this book - beyond the continental - I understand why he has framed his argument in this manner.

  • Mal Warwick
    Feb 08, 2017

    In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, award-winning journalist and author Stephen Kinzer recalls the four-year period 1898-1902, when the United States made its debut as a world power. The central event in this story was the U.S. seizure of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and the annexation of Hawaii, all in 1898.

    The central question in U.S. foreign policy

    Drawing on the newspapers and magazines of the times and on historical archives

    In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, award-winning journalist and author Stephen Kinzer recalls the four-year period 1898-1902, when the United States made its debut as a world power. The central event in this story was the U.S. seizure of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and the annexation of Hawaii, all in 1898.

    The central question in U.S. foreign policy

    Drawing on the newspapers and magazines of the times and on historical archives, Kinzer recalls the debates surrounding these events in colorful detail. His stated aim is to examine the central question of U.S. foreign policy: “Should we defend our freedom, or turn inward and ignore growing threats? Put differently: Should we charge violently into faraway lands, or allow others to work out their own destinies?” Kinzer’s thesis is that American entry into war with Spain in 1898 marked the crucial turning point in this debate. That brief, inglorious conflict represented the advent of the U.S. as a world power.

    Mark Twain vs. Teddy Roosevelt?

    To bring focus to his story, the author casts a spotlight on the debate between President Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The book’s subtitle frames this picture. As Kinzer writes, the two were “deliciously matched. Their views on life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart . . . Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of ‘Christian charity.’ Twain pictured Christendom as ‘a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood.’” Unfortunately, the emphasis on these two men is misleading. Others played much larger roles in the crucial years of 1898-1900 than Twain did. He came into the picture later, as Kinzer himself clearly explains.

    The two sides of the debate

    Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House.

    Kinzer depicts Teddy Roosevelt as bloodthirsty and racist to the core. In the 1890s, “Roosevelt racked his brain to find a possible enemy. ‘I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.’ he wrote in 1895.” Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst gave him the war he craved, Lodge from his seat in the U.S. Senate and Hearst by manipulating public opinion through his influential newspaper chain. As Kinzer makes clear, Lodge was the driving force in Roosevelt’s career. It was he who persuaded President McKinley to name the young New Yorker assistant secretary of the Navy, then gained him the nomination as Governor of New York, and later maneuvered him into the Vice Presidency. From there, of course, Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency upon McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Lodge viewed Roosevelt as his agent to lead the nation onto the world stage. The two men were in touch on a daily basis throughout these crucial years.

    The Anti-Imperialist League

    Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Undoubtedly, “[t]his was the most popular war in American history . . . Americans had their first taste of overseas conquest, and they loved it.” But the sentiment was hardly universal. An Anti-Imperialist League spread nationwide from its base in New England, led by Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, and Grover Cleveland. As Kinzer shows, the force these men represented was powerful. Debate erupted nationwide and greatly intensified as the U.S. grabbed the Philippines and went to war with its independence movement. In the U.S. Senate, the treaty to approve the acquisition of the Philippines was debated furiously for months and was only approved by the narrowest of margins—and then only because William Jennings Bryan changed sides at the last minute, swaying several Senators to switch and robbing the opponents of the treaty of a likely victory.

    When did the U.S. become an imperialist nation?

    Most Americans date the beginning of what has come to be called the American empire to the Spanish-American War of 1898, as Kinzer does in his book. At any rate, that’s the story we’re taught as children. Truth to tell, however, the United States has been an imperialist nation (in the contemporary sense of the term) since the origins of our republic. Thomas Jefferson famously purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, doubling the size of the young nation. Then-General Andrew Jackson ousted the Spanish from Florida in 1818. James K. Polk led the U.S. into war with Mexico in 1846, adding an additional one-third to our territory and extending our reach to the Pacific Ocean. And none of this acknowledges our country’s genocidal wars against the Native American peoples who had lived on this land for at least 12,000 years before Europeans arrived. If these actions don’t constitute imperialism, the term means little. From time to time Kinzer quotes individuals who acknowledged this during those crucial years, so he doesn’t entirely overlook this history. But he fails to emphasize what surely is the most significant evidence that the foreign policy debate he writes about did not emerge whole in 1898.

  • Nick
    Feb 22, 2017

    I loved Kinzer's first-hand account of the Sandinista revolution from his perch as The New York Times's bureau chief in Nicaragua, and was interested in his take on American intervention abroad. In The True Flag, he argues that foreign intervention has weakened the moral authority that was once the foundation of America's political identity. Kinzer quotes a senator from 1899 posing "the greatest question that has ever been presented to the American people": Does intervention in other countries s

    I loved Kinzer's first-hand account of the Sandinista revolution from his perch as The New York Times's bureau chief in Nicaragua, and was interested in his take on American intervention abroad. In The True Flag, he argues that foreign intervention has weakened the moral authority that was once the foundation of America's political identity. Kinzer quotes a senator from 1899 posing "the greatest question that has ever been presented to the American people": Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and contribute to global stability or does it undermine both?

    90% of the book is dedicated to the anti-imperialist movement of the late 1890s and micro-biographies of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Kinzer paints Theodore Rex as a self-serving opportunist and blustering bully (like Trump), not the war hero I remember learning about in school. The book details the botched U.S. takeover and occupancy of the Philippines as a harbinger of American missteps and overreaches abroad in the 20th century.

    I agree with Kinzer that unilateral foreign military intervention is inconsistent with our constitution (how can we justify taking the liberty of others?), but also recognize that our military installations around the world and naval strength help protect our commercial interests and promote global capitalism and better living standards. I thought the writing was somewhat weak but The True Flag made me reconsider my thinking on foreign policy.

  • Rob
    Feb 18, 2017

    At a moment when Americans are hotly debating their country’s role in the world, Kinzer takes us back to the origins of the modern debate. This battle of imperialists (Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hurst) and anti-imperialists (Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie) at the end of the 19th century is a riveting story. Although the author’s liberal slant is a little distracting – he sides with Twain, opposing the Treaty of Paris – it’s well-written and a good

    At a moment when Americans are hotly debating their country’s role in the world, Kinzer takes us back to the origins of the modern debate. This battle of imperialists (Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hurst) and anti-imperialists (Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie) at the end of the 19th century is a riveting story. Although the author’s liberal slant is a little distracting – he sides with Twain, opposing the Treaty of Paris – it’s well-written and a good look at America’s first adventure planting its flag on foreign soils.

  • Romanette
    Feb 20, 2017

    Stephen Kinzer has set out to document a key moment in the history of US imperialism, the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent domination of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and (en passant) Hawaii. Perhaps to satisfy his publishers, however, he has chosen to tell the story in terms of personalities, especially those of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, although Twain was out of the country throughout much of the critical period. Nonetheless, in the introduction and a long co

    Stephen Kinzer has set out to document a key moment in the history of US imperialism, the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent domination of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and (en passant) Hawaii. Perhaps to satisfy his publishers, however, he has chosen to tell the story in terms of personalities, especially those of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, although Twain was out of the country throughout much of the critical period. Nonetheless, in the introduction and a long concluding chapter, he is able to extend his discussion of the politics of US interventionism up to the present. Unfortunately, this choice of narrative structure and didactic purpose leads him away from the cultural and political roots of US imperialism, particularly the white supremacy that has driven US expansionism from the start. It also leads him away from examining the continuing US control over Puerto Rico and Guam.

    Of course the founding premise of African slavery on the American continent was that blacks were primitive, incapable of learning, heathen, even barbarous, which fitted them only for a life of service at the will of their white owners. And the experience of the New Echota Cherokees, who gave up hunting and gathering for agriculture, who developed a written language and adopted western dress, who created a government of laws, yet nevertheless were driven out of their homes by the US Army on behalf of gold-seeking settlers, showed that race rather than civilization was determinative. Manifest destiny, the special mission of the US to spread its culture and values across the continent, motivated filibusters to seize territory and power in Texas, California and Nicaragua, all at that time part of the Spanish Empire. The Mexican War in 1847 was an opportunistic war of territorial expansion, and the dark skins of Mexicans figured prominently in war propaganda.

    Kinzer devotes one paragraph to this history, while describing the philosophy of Cabot Lodge, a Republican senator from Massachusetts, the book's true protagonist on the imperialist side of the debate. He also allows Lodge an extended quote, abridged here: "It has been stated over and over again that we have done great wrong in taking these islands without the consent of the governed.... We took Louisiana without the consent of the governed, and ruled it without their consent so long as we saw fit.... Then came the Mexican war and by the treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo we received a great cession of territory from Mexico.... There were many Mexicans living within the ceded territory. We never asked their consent.... I would have [this nation] fulfill what I think is its manifest destiny."

    The Civil War briefly interrupted US expansion. The abolitionist movement was the base of the anti-imperialist movement (as it was of the women's suffrage movement and the prohibition movement), and the book's true protagonists on the anti-imperial side came from it: George Frisbie Hoar, the other senator from Massachusetts; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant and Civil War general. Kinzer devotes about three pages to the "key role" played by race in the debate over the treaty ending the Spanish-American War. The anti-imperialist Booker T. Washington castigated President McKinley to his face for using the Army and Navy abroad while failing to control white violence in the South. On the other hand, anti-imperialist Sen. "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman of South Carolina opposed the annexation of "islands inhabited by ten millions of the colored race, one-half or more of whom are barbarians of the lowest type." The jingo press had lauded the Cuban revolutionaries until it discovered that the rebel army was largely non-white.

    But the white supremacy of Theodore Roosevelt is not quite the same as the racism of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt said that it was the "expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries" which had by conquest created civilized nations. From where comes this crusader mentality? From where comes his desire to test his "manliness" through slaughter? One might suggest guilt feelings over his father's hiring a substitute during the Civil War, or pure narcissism, except for the fact that he shares these traits with the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities during the suppression of the Philippine rebellion. Kinzer tells us about these people and their actions, but not much about the influences that brought them about. And Kinzer's conclusion is not even an echo of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown) -- racist, imperialist violence is as American as cherry pie -- but that American exceptionalism is so exceptional that we don't know whether to congratulate ourselves or kill you.

    Kinzer spends two pages on the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning in 1901 that defined the constitutional rights of inhabitants of the territories newly acquired from Spain. In those cases, the Court distinguished these territories from previous territorial acquisitions on the grounds that they were never intended for occupation by white settlers and incorporation as states of the union. "If these possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible." And here Kinzer leaves us, with a comment that the vote was 5-4, one more close vote in a series that made the war, the treaty, and the colonial government possible.

    But what he fails to tell us is that a major rationale for the decision was Chief Justice Taney's opinion in the Dred Scott case, in particular his conclusion that slaves can never be citizens. "[Taney] held that [Scott] was not included under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and therefore could claim 'none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States;' ... that the African race was not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted the Declaration of Independence." The Fourteenth Amendment had been passed to overrule Dred Scott, but the new territories were to be subject to the plenary power of Congress under Article IV. Thereafter Congress granted constitutional rights to residents of the territories piecemeal; US citizens travelling from the mainland lost those rights which had not yet been granted.

    After World War II, in the era of decolonization, Congress granted independence to the Philippines and authorized Puerto Rico to create a home-rule constitution. This new constitution stated that the government it established was created by the people of Puerto Rico in an exercise of popular sovereignty, creating a Commonwealth that was freely associated with the US. It was adopted by the people of Puerto Rico and accepted by the US Congress, and on that basis the US reported to the UN that Puerto Rico had become a self-governing territory. Yet in 2016, in a decision written by Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court upheld the decision in the Insular Cases that the source of Puerto Rican law was the US Congress acting under Article IV. And in another 2016 decision, the Court held that Puerto Rico did not have authority to create its own bankruptcy laws, but instead had to accept the financial control board established by Congress. And so "may for a time be impossible" has now stretched for 120 years.

    If this were an ordinary book, there would be more good things to say about it. We meet William Jennings Bryan, the Hamlet of the anti-imperialists, who was more concerned about making common cause with Andrew Carnegie than with defeating the treaty. We meet William Randolph Hearst, the Iago of the imperialists, who recognized the power of the media to mobilize public opinion around falsehood to advance his personal interest. We meet Arthur MacArthur, the US commander in the Philippines, father of Douglas. We meet William Howard Taft, civilian governor of the Philippines, on his way to becoming an interventionist President of the US and arch-conservative Chief Justice on the Supreme Court. But the book asserts that this was the critical moment in history when the US gave up republican virtue for military power; more is expected of it.

  • Steven Z.
    Feb 21, 2017

    Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country. Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawa

    Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country. Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawaii to Iraq to install governments that it could control. If there is a theme to Kinzer’s books it is that the United States has conducted a series of forays into foreign countries that reek of imperialism and have not turned out well. His latest effort, THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE follows the same theme and tries to bring about an understanding of why and how the United States began its journey towards empire.

    From the outset Kinzer describes a conflicted American approach toward foreign policy. It appears that Americans cannot make up their minds on which course to follow: Should we pursue imperialism or isolationism? Do we want to guide the world or let every nation guide itself? This inability to decide has played itself out from the end of the nineteenth century until today as we try and figure out what avenue to take following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its ramifications. Kinzer argues that “for generations every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition,” however, “all are pale shadows of the first one” that began in 1898 is developed in THE TRUE FLAG. Kinzer zeroes in on one of the most far reaching debates in American history that was fostered by the Spanish American War, not the Second World War as most believe; should the United States intervene in foreign lands, a debate that is ever prescient today.

    Following the results of the war against Spain, the United States found itself in possession of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and was about to annex the Hawaiian islands, leading to a fever of empire among many Americans in and out of government. Kinzer traces the political machinations that resulted in the new American Empire. He also takes the reader behind the scenes that resulted in decisions that led to what President McKinley termed “benevolent assimilation” for the Philippines, or a more accurate description, a race war to subdue Filipino guerillas led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Kinzer has full command of the history of the period politically, militarily, and economically. He has extensive knowledge of the secondary and primary materials, and writes with a clear and snappy prose that maintains reader interest.

    What separates Kinzer’s narrative and analysis from other studies dealing with this topic is his focus on the debate over American expansionism that created the Anti-Imperialist League to offset the arguments of the imperialists in and out of Congress. He provides a blend of both arguments integrating a great many heated speeches and articles that the protagonists engaged in and produced, even describing a fist fight in the Senate between the senators from South Carolina over a vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris. Kinzer focuses on a number of important historical characters that include; Theodore Roosevelt who used the Spanish-American War as a vehicle to advance politically; Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong believer in the “large policy” of imperialism as the Senator from Massachusetts; William Randolph Hearst whose newspaper helped incite the war, and would later turn against imperialism as he sought a political career; President William McKinley who supposedly received divine guidance to pursue his expansionist agenda; Mark Twain, writer and satirist who initially favored expansion, then became the “eviscerating bard” against empire; William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” commoner from the Midwest who was defeated three times for the presidency; Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, but opposition to imperialism for him was almost a religious cause; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who fought in the Civil War and served as Secretary of the Interior among many important positions during his career.

    Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kinzer’s narrative discusses the two opportunities that Bryan had to stem the imperialist tide. Bryan was an avid opponent of expansion from the moral perspective, but he would cave to political ambition on two occasions. The first, during the debate in Congress over the Treaty of Paris which would cap America’s territorial aggrandizement from the war. At the last minute Bryan decided to support the treaty and America’s possession of the Philippines. Second, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1900 he refused to leave out his “free silver” plank from the convention platform and concentrate on the anti-imperialist message. By not doing so he scared away eastern business opponents of expansion and a number of allies in the Democratic Party. The result was the passage of the treaty and the reelection of McKinley.

    Another fascinating aspect of the book is Kinzer’s treatment of Mark Twain. Kinzer offers a detailed discussion of Twain’s arrival from Europe on October 15, 1900 in the midst of the imperialism debate and his transition to his anti-imperialism stance. A number of Twain’s writings and comments are presented and analyzed and compared with those of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ascendancy to the presidency after McKinley is assassinated, effectively kills the Anti-Imperialism League. Twain’s writings detail his disgust for events in the Philippines and the disaster that ensued. Twain is presented along with other famous writers and poets whose anger at expansion and its results knew no bounds. However, the work of Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley character, written with an Irish workman’s accent is probably more important in that it reached the illiterate masses, while others appealed to the social and political elite.

    Kinzer’s narrative packs a great deal into 250 pages and it is a fast read. However, do not evaluate this book by its length because it presents an excellent synthesis and analysis of the important events, personalities, and policies of the 1898-1902 period as America debated if it should become an empire, the type of debate that was missing in the United States as we contemplated invading Iraq in 2003. A war that we are still paying for today. In the end many of the predictions set forth by the anti-imperialists have come to pass, just examine American foreign policy since the end of World War II. We as Americans must answer the question: “Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and constitute global stability, or does it undermine both?” (229)