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

Image of The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire
Release Date: 
January 23, 2017
Henry Holt and Co.
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Theodore Roosevelt richly deserves his reputation as a one of the nation’s greatest presidents. The legislative accomplishments of his administration fully justify his position as the fourth figure on Mount Rushmore.

Although most historians also recognize him as idiosyncratic and even somewhat peculiar, few doubted his tireless skill in winning public approval. At the same time, however, TR was an impulsive, bellicose, and confrontational figure. When, in the Spanish-American War, he led his own troop of volunteers up San Juan Hill (actually fought on Kettle Hill), Roosevelt consecrated the American empire. Roosevelt was an imperialist. It was engrained in his lifeblood. The instincts of the great Bull Moose were often conflicted, but they were never in doubt. He knew that expansion of the Pax Americana was the manly thing to do.

In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, Stephen Kinzer introduces us to Roosevelt as the chief protagonist during America’s critical debate over imperialist expansion shortly before the turn of the 20th century.

In 1898, United States troops and ships swiftly overpowered the Spanish military without even considering what might be done with the former Spanish colonies after the war. Congress debated the Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Spanish colonies to the United States, and it became the measure of the nation’s aspirations for empire. Would we follow the Europeans and spread our military and commercial sovereignty the world over?

Roosevelt was not alone among imperialist leaders. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led the movement’s legislative branch in Congress. The third original member of the expansionist triumvirate was William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, who saw increased circulation as sufficient reason to fabricate excuses for an attack on the Spanish garrison in Cuba.

The expansionist clique shared the public stage with anti-imperialists. Former Senator Carl Schurz, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and Booker T. Washington were among the outspoken opponents of what was termed “the large policy.” They matched the proponents of colonialization in eloquence.

Kinzer’s book presents the views of the opposing sides in this public debate by reprinting their hyperbolic speeches at great length. Their language was florid and their content ignored the practical impact of either governing colonies spread around the world or leaving our global economic interests unprotected.

After the Treaty of Paris was narrowly ratified in the Senate by one vote, the Philippines exploded into guerilla warfare—only a taste of what America would experience later in the century in Vietnam. The imperialist faction redoubled their attack on their opponents, invoking patriotism, jingoism, and racist formulae based on the “White Man’s Burden.”

Kinzer’s tale ends when Vice President Roosevelt—the most expansive exponent of imperialism—ascended to the presidency after William McKinley’s assassination. Curiously, during his almost eight years in the White House Roosevelt did not engage in any foreign military annexations, focusing instead on domestic issues and building the Panama Canal. Kinzer suggests he might simply have tired of schemes of conquest.

In his final chapter, Kinzer presents his own views on the debate, reporting on all of American foreign policy in the 20th century. Needless to say, it is an awesome mission to complete in less than 25 pages. Kinzer’s experience as a newspaper journalist is evident in his staccato collection of paragraphs without much cohesive analysis. Kinzer comes out strongly in support of the anti-interventionists, not a surprising result in light of our misadventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Kinzer’s book offers a notable introduction to the literature of the great debate between expansionists and anti-imperialists. He tells the story well, at times with the style of a novelist. Few Americans know the history he relates of the brutality of the Philippine Insurrection that gave us waterboarding and mass murder throughout the villages of the archipelago.

Although America would experience brief isolationist periods in the decades to come, it would never change course away from economic and military imperialism. We know that ultimately the imperialists prevailed and few lasting lessons were learned. The debate continues. What is America’s proper role in world affairs? Are we destined to continue to use military force to make the world safe for American commerce?