Esta página no está disponible en español.

The News & Observer Raleigh, NC

The Eagle Takes Flight

Louis D. Rubin Jr.

February 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The News & Observer Pub. Co. All rights reserved. 

A little more than a century ago, the United States of America fought and won a war with Spain and thereby acquired a colonial empire. We took over Puerto Rico and Guam, paid $20 million for the Philippine Islands and received the right to oversee the "sovereignty" of Cuba. That same year, 1898, we also annexed the Hawaiian Islands.

Industrially and financially, the American republic's rise to major status had already become apparent, but it took the events of 1898 to make the world realize that the United States was a first-class power. The swiftness with which the U.S. Navy demolished Spanish fleets at Manila Bay and off Santiago de Cuba astounded the nations of Europe and alarmed some of them.

At a time when Americans are re-examining our global role, the story of our nation's first muscle-flexing on the international scene merits retelling. Warren Zimmermann, a longtime foreign service officer, chronicles it through an engaging group biography of five officials whom he calls "the fathers of American imperialism."

John Hay was secretary of state under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Alfred T. Mahan was the naval strategist whose writings on sea power provided the theory and no small part of the impetus for overseas expansion. Elihu Root was Roosevelt's secretary of war and then of state; it was Root who developed the legal and administrative framework for colonial rule. Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was a skilled congressional manipulator, a powerful advocate of expansionism and a Grade-A bigot.

Boldest of all was Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy under McKinley, then second in command of the Rough Riders in Cuba, then vice president and, after McKinley's assassination in 1901, president of the United States for seven decisive years.

T.R. may not have been an original thinker; he was not always consistent; some of his views were on the bizarre side; and he was a shameless self-promoter. But he provided his nation with its first real presidential leadership since Lincoln's day. Though a pragmatic politician, he genuinely believed in his own high ideals, and more than any other public figure, he prepared his country for the crucial role it was to fulfill in the years ahead.

Zimmermann underscores the complexity of his sometimes shameful story when he writes: "It was in large part because of America's actions as a great power that the 20th century was not the 'Century of the Third Reich' or the 'Century of the Glorious Victory of World Communism.' " If so, most of all it was T.R. who steered the nation in that direction.

By no means was the imperialistic urge -- the Blessings-of-Civilization Trust, as Mark Twain, an anti-imperialist, scathingly termed it -- an act of disinterested benevolence. However corrupt and inefficient was Spanish colonial rule, and however widespread American sympathy for the Cuban revolutionists, the attitudes that made imperialism possible included a strong dose of racism; a contempt for the supposed lesser breeds without the law; suspicion of Roman Catholicism in Latin America and the Philippines; and the conviction that America's destiny lay in domination of others. (No small part of the opposition to imperialism was also based on the supposed need to avoid contamination from inferior peoples.)

The rhetoric of imperialism had much to say about freedom and independence; but both in Cuba and the Philippines, the native revolutionary governments which for years had been battling Spanish colonial rule were denied participation in the peace conference. Commerce did not so much follow as precede the flag. Foreign trade meant financial investment, which required protection, which in turn required a large navy, which to function effectively required coaling stations throughout the globe. At the same time, the financial community of the Northeast opposed a war with Spain, fearing the effect of the resultant disruption on trade and overseas investments.

At the heart of expansionism was the conviction that America's commercial and military interests required that an inter-ocean canal be constructed across Central America. The outbreak of war with Spain and the need for the battleship Oregon to circumnavigate the entire South American continent to join the blockade of the Spanish fleet at Santiago ended any doubt of its desirability. The only question remaining was where to dig it. The choice of Panama rather than Nicaragua, and the high-handed manipulations by Theodore Roosevelt to snatch the isthmus from a recalcitrant Colombia's grasp, have been oft-chronicled. Zimmermann quotes Sen. S.I. Hayakawa during the debate over returning the Canal to Panama in 1977: "We stole it fair and square."

To protect the approaches to the canal, the Caribbean Sea needed to be converted into an American lake; thus the annexation of Puerto Rico, the base at Guantanamo, and later excursions into Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and elsewhere. To safeguard trade with the Philippines and the Orient in general, Hawaii, Guam, Wake and Samoa were required. And so on.

This engrossing story, especially as it involves the five remarkable Americans who were so important to its happening in just the way it did, has been set forth very well indeed by Warren Zimmermann, who concludes his narrative with a thoughtful assessment of what it has all meant, and what its ramifications have been for us, and indeed still are.

It should be emphasized that in Zimmermann's words, this book is not a "revisionist diatribe against the use of American power to keep weaker peoples down," any more than it is "a saga of triumphant America" led by a group of heroes. The reality of America's emergence into a major world power is a complex story, and those whose doings are here described, in particular Teddy Roosevelt, were greatly complex people. What happened in our country's era of imperial adventuring -- which, it must be said, was at no time entirely whole-souled -- was not always either admirable or lovely. Yet in retrospect it would be difficult to see it as other than inevitable.

I am a little surprised, especially considering the author's background in our foreign service, that he has so little to say about the impact of the War of 1898 and the abrupt debut of the United States as a world power upon the diplomacy of Europe, in particular on Germany and Great Britain. An account of the excitement, alarms, adjustments and resulting realignments would have furnished an additional intriguing chapter to an interesting and well-written book.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback