January 21, 2007

Dominion Over the World (IV): A "Splendid People" Set Out for Empire

Part I: Iraq Is the Democrats' War, Too

Part II: Why the Stories We Tell Matter So much

Part III: The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony

We come now to two particular views of American history, both of which are fundamentally mistaken. The errors are significant in themselves, and they are even more significant because of a critical truth they obscure.

The first error occurs on the conservative side of the political spectrum. It consists of the view that the history of America's economic growth to superpower status is largely the triumph of untrammeled free enterprise, and that it resulted from the operations of a free market almost entirely independent of government. As we shall see, besides being factually false -- business became inextricably and increasingly intertwined with government beginning in the late nineteenth century (very often, as the result of vested business interests' own urgent supplications for such involvement) -- this ignores the huge influence that nominally private business has had on public policy generally, and on foreign policy more particularly.

The other error occurs on the liberal side of the political spectrum. It consists of the view that an increasingly centralized and more powerful federal government can be pursued for allegedly "positive" ends domestically, without having serious implications for foreign policy. We shall see that this view is also factually false. In its most critical respects, the Progressive movement (from 1900 up to World War I) was a nationalist movement, and that nationalism fed directly into overseas expansionism and militarism. These are not separate issues, but the same issue, as we shall explore. Moreover, contrary to many people's views (including many of today's liberals and progressives, who appear to be woefully ignorant of this period in our history, which allows them to bestow undeserved praise upon its achievements, that is, praise from the perspective of their own policy preferences), the Progressive movement in many ways culminated in the triumph of already-vested big business interests. It was, as Gabriel Kolko titled his pathbreaking book, The Triumph of Conservatism, not "progressivism." I will examine these errors, on the right and the left, in more detail later in this series.

Both of these erroneous views result in the same blind spot: those who subscribe to these fictional views of the United States are unable to see or understand the forces that led us into more than a century of virtually unceasing war. They are thus unable to chart a new direction for us now, at the very moment when we appear determined to embark upon yet another century of war. If we do not understand how we arrived at this moment, we will be unable to choose a radically different way of conducting ourselves at home and abroad. At present, there are no national political leaders prepared to challenge the forces that have resulted in endless carnage and destruction, and most of our leaders continue to support them enthusiastically.

Some time ago, I offered excerpts from Barbara Tuchman's wonderful book, The Proud Tower, A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914. In that earlier essay, I focused on Tuchman's portrait of Thomas B. Reed, who was Speaker of the House during the critical decade of the 1890s. That was the decisive period for America, and for Reed: the moment when we consciously embarked on a course of expansion overseas, and of empire. Reed would have none of it:
"Reed regarded the Hearst-fabricated furor over Spain's oppression with contempt and Republican espousal of Cuba's cause as hypocrisy. He saw his party losing its moral integrity and becoming a party of political expediency in response to the ignorant clamor of the mob." Reed even wrote a magazine piece, "to argue against expansion--in an article whose title, 'Empire Can Wait,' became a rallying cry for the opponents of Hawaii's annexation. It spoke the awful name; as yet the outright words 'empire' and 'imperialism' which connoted the scramble for Africa then at its peak among the European powers, had not been used in the United States."

Tragically for the United States, and for all of us still today, Reed ultimately lost this battle...
The story of the annexation of Hawaii is very useful as a precursor of the larger theme to come. It reveals how certain business interests played a critical role -- and also how the idea of economic expansion became irrevocably tied to the idea of ideological expansion. These are the two interlinked aspects of the Open Door policy discussed in Part III of this series.

Tuchman writes:
In 1890, when the last armed conflict between Indians and whites in the United States took place at Wounded Knee Creek and the Census Bureau declared there was no longer a land frontier, a further test was shaping for Reed. In that year Captain A.T. Mahan, president of the Naval War College, announced in the Atlantic Monthly, "Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward."

A quiet, tight-lipped naval officer with one of the most forceful minds of his time, Alfred Thayer Mahan had selected himself to fill the country's need of "a voice to speak constantly of our external interests." Few Americans were aware that the United States had external interests and a large number believed she ought not to have them. The immediate issue was annexation of Hawaii. A naval coaling base at Pearl Harbor had been acquired in 1887, but the main impulse for annexation of the Islands came from American property interests there which were dominated by Judge Dole and the sugar trust. With the support of the United States Marines they engineered a revolt against the native Hawaiian government in January, 1893; Judge Dole became President Dole and promptly negotiated a treaty of annexation with the American Minister which President Harrison hurriedly sent to the Senate in February. Having been defeated for re-election by former President Cleveland, who was due to be inaugurated on March 4, Harrison asked for immediate action by the Senate in the hope of obtaining ratification before the new President could take office. The procedure was too raw and the Senate balked.


The motive of the annexationists had been economic self-interest. It took Mahan to transform the issue into one of national and fateful importance. In the same March that Cleveland recalled the treaty, Mahan published an article in the Forum entitled "Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power," in which he declared that command of the seas was the chief element in the power and prosperity of nations and it was therefore "imperative to take possession, when it can righteously be done, of such maritime positions as contribute to secure command." Hawaii "fixes the attention of the strategist"; it occupies a position of "unique importance ... powerfully influencing the commercial and military control of the Pacific." In another article published by the Atlantic Monthly in the same month, Mahan argued the imperative need, for the future of American sea power, of the proposed Isthmian Canal.


Theodore Roosevelt, who as the author at twenty-four of a book on The Naval War of 1812 had been invited to speak at the Naval War College, heard and became a disciple of Mahan. When [Mahan's] The Influence of Sea Power on History was published he read it "straight through" and wrote to Mahan that he was convinced it would become "a naval classic."


Roosevelt, still on the Civil Service Commission, was not yet widely heard, but his friend and political mentor, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was the principal political voice in Washington of Mahan's views. ...

"It is sea power which is essential to every splendid people," Lodge declaimed in the Senate on March 2, 1895. He had a map of the Pacific set up with Britain's bases marked by very visible red crosses and he used a pointer as he talked to make Mahan's point about the vital position of Hawaii. The effect was dramatic and reinforced by the speaker being, as he wrote to his mother, "in desperate earnest." Hawaii must be acquired and the Canal built. "We are a great people; we control this continent; we are dominant in this hemisphere; we have too great an inheritance to be trifled with or parted with. It is ours to guard and extend." ... In an accompanying article that month in the Forum, Lodge stated flatly that once the Canal was built, "the island of Cuba will become a necessity" to the United States. He did not say how the necessity was to be made good; whether the United States was to buy the island from Spain or simply take it. He offered the opinion, however, that small states belonged to the past and that expansion was a movement that made for "civilization and the advancement of the race."

At this juncture History lent a hand. On February 24, 1895, the Cuban people rose in insurrection against Spanish rule and on March 8 a Spanish gunboat chased and fired on an American merchant vessel, the Alliance, which it supposed to be bent on a filibustering errand. This "insult to our flag," as it was called, evoked a burst of comments from prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which showed that Lodge had not been speaking only for himself. The American appetite for new territory was making itself felt. Senator Morgan of Alabama, Democratic chairman of the Committee, said the solution was clear: "Cuba should become an American colony." Reed's colleague but not his friend, Senator Frye of Maine, agreed that "we certainly ought to have the island in order to round out our possessions" and added with simple candor: "If we cannot buy it, I for one, should like an opportunity to acquire it by conquest." Another Republican, Senator Cullom of Illinois, expressed even more plainly what was moving inside the American people. "It is time some one woke up," he said, "and realized the necessity of annexing some property -- we want all this northern hemisphere." It was not, in 1895, necessary to disguise aggressiveness as something else.


Annexation of Hawaii was formally ratified on July 7 [1898], four days after the war in Cuba was brought to an end by a naval battle off Santiago. ... With the surrender of Santiago two weeks later, Spanish rule came to an end, defeated, not by the Cuban insurgents, but by the United States. When it came to negotiation of peace terms, all the passion lavished during the past three years on the cause of Cuban liberty, all the Congressional resolutions favoring recognition of an independent Cuban Republic and disclaiming intention to annex it proved a serious obstacle to Senator Lodge's "necessity." To take Cuba as the fruit of conquest was impossible, however alluring its strategic and mercantile advantages, but a smaller island, Porto Rico, at least was available. Required to renounce Cuba and cede the smaller neighbor, Spain was eliminated from the Western Hemisphere. The degree of Cuba's independence and nature of her relations with the United States was left to be worked out in the presence of an American occupation force. The result was the Platt Amendment of 1901, establishing a virtual American protectorate.
Here is another interesting perspective on the annexation of Hawaii, one that I doubt is taught in many American schoolrooms:
Poka Laenui pledges his allegiance to the sovereign nation of Hawaii, not to the United States government.

"To understand how and why, you will need to know the history of Hawaii, particularly that part dealing with the 'annexation' of Hawaii to the United States," wrote Laenui, a director of the Institute for the Advancement of Hawaiian Affairs. "You will also have to understand something about growing up in Hawaii and the sense of betrayal and anger one feels at learning the history.["]


Hawaii was a proud and independent nation when Capt. James Cook waded ashore in 1778. Hawaiians had run their own affairs for some 2,000 years. The kingdom signed trade and peace treaties with the United States, England and other foreign nations, each recognizing Hawaii's independence.


The United States was the biggest market for Hawaii's sugar. The transplanted planters longed for Hawaii to become part of the United States so they wouldn't have to worry about tariffs. The U.S. minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens, was anxious to annex the islands as well.

Sensing this, Queen Liliuokalani was on the verge of imposing a new Constitution shifting power back to the monarchy - but she never got the chance.

On Jan. 16, 1893, U.S. Marines landed in Honolulu armed with Howitzer cannons and carbines. A group of 18 men - mostly American sugar farmers - staged a coup, proclaiming themselves the "provisional government" of Hawaii. Stevens gave immediate recognition to them as Hawaii's true government.

Imprisoned in Iolani Palace, Queen Liliuokalani issued a statement: "I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister, his excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu. ... Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said force, yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall undo the action of its representative and reinstate me."

Cleveland refused to approve the annexation of Hawaii. Soon, however, he was out of office, and President William McKinley gave it his blessing.
And not long thereafter, with Woodrow Wilson and the full entrance of the United States onto the global stage and into the "war to end all wars," Lodge's "splendid people" considered the entire world to be their domain, a course from which we have yet to turn back.