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America's Colonial Empire? That Was No Accident


October 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 


In March 1897 President William McKinley took office as conflict loomed between the United States and Spain over the Spanish colony of Cuba. The new president firmly opposed both war and territorial acquisition. "We want no wars of conquest," he said in his inaugural address. "We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed."

Famous last words. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, the United States had fought its "splendid little war" against Spain (the phrase was Secretary of State John Hay's) as well as a vicious three-year anti-guerrilla war in the Philippines, and taken possession of a colonial empire. Along the way, the United States emerged as a world power, a role that needless to say has continued to grow as the decades have passed. How did a country isolated on its side of the Atlantic, with virtually no army or navy and, more important, no imperial ambitions, acquire the attributes of nascent superpowerdom in so short a time?

"First Great Triumph" is Warren Zimmermann's readable and cogent answer to that question. A former senior career foreign service officer whose last post was ambassador to Yugoslavia, Mr. Zimmermann specifically credits five men (McKinley decidedly not among them) for the vision, determination and political skill that first gave the United States its global ambition. His book is a history of the American rise to power and a collective biography of Mr. Zimmermann's five heroes: Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the Navy and later president; Alfred T. Mahan, the naval strategist; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts; Secretary of State John Hay; and the first American colonial administrator, Elihu Root.

In some respects "The First Great Triumph" tells a familiar tale. After all, no American who was half paying attention in high school missed the sinking of the Maine, the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill or McKinley's midnight agony of decision over the Philippines — all of them elements of this American saga.

What gives Mr. Zimmermann's book its special character is his singling out of Roosevelt, Lodge and company as "the fathers of American imperialism" and showing how their vision of the nation was transformed into reality. And that makes for a good story, full of craggy individualists and events that retain their power to amaze. Mr. Zimmerman moreover has a point of view, namely that American imperialism was not, as other historians have believed, an accident, a reluctant byproduct of events. It was there from the beginning.

"The emergence of the United States as a world power was a culmination, not an aberration," Mr. Zimmermann writes in his concluding chapter. The near-simultaneous imperial leaps into the Caribbean and the Pacific in 1898 and thereafter were the logical next steps in an expansionism that began with the 18th-century moves into Tennessee and Ohio. It's no accident in fact that before he became a public figure, Roosevelt wrote a four-volume history, "The Winning of the West," which told the stories of the frontiersmen who settled the territories just west of the original 13 colonies between 1769 and 1807. "He saw American history as the history of expansion," Mr. Zimmermann writes, and unlike McKinley himself, Roosevelt had none of the anticolonial squeamishness about expansion that Americans feel today.

In Roosevelt's case, the pro-expansion sentiment was of a piece with a love of war as "romantic, ennobling and purifying" and a racist condescension toward "inferior" peoples that are appalling by today's standards. The other figures in Mr. Zimmermann's account shared Roosevelt's basic views — Mahan and Lodge most enthusiastically, Hay and Root with occasional hesitation.

There were other figures with other points of view, especially the anti-imperialist camp that emerged from the same Eastern elite as Roosevelt himself, and Mr. Zimmermann gives lively accounts of the disagreements between the two camps. But his book is devoted mostly to an account of why the imperialist camp not only won the battle over policy but was bound to win. He reminds us of some famous moments that reveal the sheer temerity of the imperialist party, as, for example, when Roosevelt, a mere assistant secretary of the Navy, waited for his boss to leave the office before sending a cable ordering the Pacific fleet under George Dewey to sail to Hong Kong to be in position for an attack on the Spanish fleet in Manila Harbor.

But in Mr. Zimmermann's account of this fascinating time, the main advantage enjoyed by Roosevelt, Lodge and company was that it pressed in the direction where history was tending in any case. That meant, in the first instance, replacing the tottering Spanish empire in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and then, imposing colonial rule in the newly seized territories rather than granting them independence. Mr. Zimmerman gives detailed accounts of the second of these decisions, in Puerto Rico, the Philippines and in Cuba, which was controlled by the United States even though it did gain nominal independence in 1902. Among the factors going into the imperialist decision was the belief that if the United States didn't take the Philippines itself, another country, most likely Japan or Germany would have.

If the Cuban and Philippine revolutions against Spanish rule "had succeeded even in the absence of American support, as would probably have been the case, two weak independent countries would have emerged as a prey to domestic division and foreign penetration," Mr. Zimmermann contends. Mr. Zimmermann is not blind either to the costs of empire, including the heritage of animosity toward the United States in Cuba, or to the racist impulsiveness of the more ardent members of the imperialist camp. But in the end, he is an enthusiast for Roosevelt, Lodge and company, believing that the American rise to power is what preserved the world from Nazism and Communism, and that without the five men under his purview, our history would have been different and not as good.

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