First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

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"We were sure that we would win, that we should score the first great triumph in a mighty world-movement."—Theodore Roosevelt, 1904 Americans like to think they have no imperial past. In fact, the United States became an imperial nation within five short years a century ago (1898-1903), exploding onto the international scene with the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and (indirectly) Panama. How did the nation become a player in world politics so suddenly-and what inspired the move toward imperialism in the first place? The renowned diplomat and writer Warren Zimmermann seeks answers in the lives and relationships of five remarkable figures: the hyper-energetic Theodore Roosevelt, the ascetic naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan, the bigoted and wily Henry Cabot Lodge, the self-doubting moderate Secretary of State John Hay, and the hard-edged corporate lawyer turned colonial administrator Elihu Root. Faced with difficult choices, these extraordinary men, all close friends, instituted new political and diplomatic policies with intermittent audacity, arrogance, generosity, paternalism, and vision. Zimmermann's discerning account of these five men also examines the ways they exploited the readiness of the American people to support a surge of expansion overseas. He makes it clear why no discussion of America's international responsibilities today can be complete without understanding how the United States claimed its global powers a century ago.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Excellent . . . An engrossing and timely history of five men who embraced the imperialist ethic." —James Chace, The New York Review of Books

"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." —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"Riveting . . . [First Great Triumph] is essential background for anyone interested in how the United States arrived at its present place in the world . . . [and] a fascinating visit to an era that has received far too little attention." —Richard Holbrooke, Foreign Affairs

The New York Times Book Review
Reflections on our imperial past and the history of our relations with the rest of the world may well be in order at this moment in our national history. Warren Zimmerman has provided us with an excellent place to begin.
Publishers Weekly
Like Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, Zimmermann's account takes its readers deep into a small, captivating circle of figures instrumental in shaping American thought and history: in this case, the five men most responsible for making the United States a major player on the international stage at the start of the 20th century. The key players are Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge (Republican senator from Massachusetts), John Hay (enigmatic secretary of state to McKinley and TR), Elihu Root (hard-edged New York corporate attorney, later to serve as a gruffly paternalistic colonial administrator), and naval strategist Admiral Alfred T. Mahan. Mahan, perhaps the least well-known of the five, emerges as the group's touchstone. An ardent admirer of the standing British fleet and the British colonial system it helped police, Mahan believed the United States should institute similar military might to help administer an American world view. He aggressively lobbied for the establishment and maintenance of a large, well-funded navy and for strict enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, with U.S. domination of such strategically important outposts as Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. In this fascinating and engaging account, Zimmermann (Origins of Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers), a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia), does a brilliant job of showing how Mahan's views enabled the United States to bootstrap up to the status of world colonial power within the short space of just five years, from 1898 to 1903. Illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.) Forecast: The readers who made The Metaphysical Club and Theodore Rex bestsellers are the ideal audience for this outstanding history; if they learn of the book, expect healthy sales. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
During the Cold War, political scientists and foreign policy theorists largely ignored historical events before 1945 when searching for the underlying roots of American foreign policy. Those earlier periods, with the occasional exception of the failed foreign policy efforts of Woodrow Wilson, were ignored or treated as colorful sideshows. Analysis was focused on the Cold War, which often was presented as if it had sprung without historical context directly out of the Truman administration's response to the Soviet challenge right after World War II. American foreign policy was viewed simply as the sum of its Cold War components. Events before World War II were reserved for specialists and historians, something that hardly existed for most Americans — without relevance to the modern era.

As it turns out — and as many historians knew all along — the United States always had a foreign policy, with underlying themes and motives that grew organically out of the domestic American experience. American foreign policy did not start in 1945, or even 1917. A central political struggle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson concerned relations with Britain and France, as both David McCullough and Joseph Ellis reminded us. There had been the Monroe Doctrine, the Spanish-American War, several near-wars with the British, the annexation of Hawaii, the conquest of the Philippines, the Open Door policy toward China, and much more. To be sure, these events were all part of any basic American history course. But too few Americans study history, and in any case, these events were usually presented merely as a sideshow to the grand sweep of America's domestic history.

Library Journal
America's preeminence as a superpower has its roots in how corporate lawyer Elihu Root, naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan, U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Hay, and politician Theodore Roosevelt led the nation in articulating and shaping American imperialism. A career diplomat and a former ambassador to Yugoslavia, Zimmermann (Columbia Univ. and Johns Hopkins; Origins of a Catastrophe) argues that the "consequences right up to today" of American expansionism between the 1880s and 1910s "owes a great deal to" the five fathers of modern American imperialism. Part one comprises the biographies of these architects of an aggressive imperialist policy, and part two narrates mainly the war against Spain and TR's presidency. Zimmermann admirably presents complex individuals and their extremely complex historical era in a manner accessible to the layperson. This readable, richly detailed, scholarly work, based on primary and secondary sources, is rewarding to readers who want more than an introductory historical treatment of the origins of today's American foreign policy. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vigorous history of America's rise to global power in the closing years of the 19th century. Ambassador to Yugoslavia during the first Bush administration-Origins of a Catastrophe (1996) details his experiences there-Zimmerman is no stranger to power politics and saber rattling. He opens this lucid account by noting that modern Americans do not much like to think of their country as having an imperialist past. Indeed, he writes, imperialism "was not very popular in 1898 either," so that two of the chief architects of America's global expansion, Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, resorted to euphemisms such as "Americanism" and "large policy." Whatever they called it, Roosevelt and Lodge, along with naval strategist Alfred Mahan, Secretary of State John Hay, and lawyer-administrator Elihu Root (later Secretary of War and of State), developed an encompassing policy that first led to the acquisition of huge chunks of territory by defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. This was so resounding a victory, Zimmerman observes, that the issue was not what the Spanish were willing to concede, "but what the Americans would demand." What they took was nearly direct economic control of places such as the Philippines and Cuba. To one degree or another, the author notes, all these men operated under conceptions of manifest destiny and a variant of social Darwinism that considered it the white man's burden (Kipling wrote the poem of that title after an argument with Roosevelt) to rule the world, a goal that could be achieved only through war. Zimmerman examines the legacy of those attitudes in light of subsequent history, observing pointedly, "Many in Congress still remainwedded to triumphal rhetoric about the primacy of U.S. power without doing much to make that power relevant or acceptable to others." An intelligent, highly readable contribution to the historical literature, usefully updating such standard texts as Howard K. Beale's Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (1956).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374528935
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/28/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 987,382
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Warren Zimmermann spent thirty-three years as an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, serving in France, Austria, Spain, Switzerland, Venezuela, the Soviet Union, and as our last ambassador to Yugoslavia. He has taught at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities and is the author of Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers, which won the American Academy of Diplomacy Book Award in 1997. His work has appeared in The New York Review of Books, Newsweek, The National Interest, and national newspapers. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C., area.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Rising Empire

For Theodore Roosevelt, February 22, 1909, was one of the most satisfying days of his presidency. He was only ten days away from turning over the presidential mandate to his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, and only two months away from departing on safari to Africa. What was occupying him on February 22 was the return of the Great White Fleet, the sixteen first-class battleships that he had sent around the world as a show of American power. He had seen them off on December 9, 1907, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Fourteen and a half months later he was back at Hampton Roads aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower to watch them come home from the longest cruise ever taken by any navy, nearly forty-five thousand miles.

The naval towns of Hampton and Norfolk were jubilant in expectation, their buildings arrayed with bunting and banners. Out in the bay, hundreds of steamers, yachts, and other pleasure boats of all sizes and varieties braved squalls to await the great ships. Emerging out of the mist and rain, they looked ghostly and strange in their brilliant white, set off by the black smoke from their three tall funnels. In fact, they were the navy's last white ships; while they were at sea, the Navy Department had begun the conversion to the less visible, more war-effective battleship gray. The white ships sailed in one by one in a column seven miles long, each flying three large ensigns. Simultaneously they fired a twenty-one-gun salute to the president, then each repeated the salute individually as it passed the Mayflower.

In top hat and frock coat, Roosevelt visited each divisionflagship in the harbor and addressed the crews. Aboard the Connecticut, the fleet's flagship, he told the assembled sailors:

Over a year has passed since you steamed out of this harbor, and over the world's rim, and this morning the hearts of all who saw you thrilled with pride as the hulls of the mighty warships lifted above the horizon. You have been in the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres; four times you have crossed the line; you have steamed through all the great oceans; you have touched the coast of every continent.

As a war machine the fleet comes back in better shape than it went out. In addition, you, the officers and men of this formidable fighting force, have shown yourselves the best of all possible ambassadors and heralds of peace. . . . We are proud of all the ships and all the men in this whole fleet, and we welcome you home to the country whose good repute among nations has been raised by what you have done.

In attendance on a navy yacht were members of the House and Senate Naval Affairs committees. Their presence was a quiet triumph for Roosevelt, since in 1907 the chairman of the Senate committee, Eugene Hale of Maine, had tried to block the cruise by withholding funds. East Coast congressmen feared that a Pacific mission for the fleet would undercut its primary objective of protecting America's Atlantic coast. President William McKinley, Roosevelt's predecessor, would undoubtedly have conciliated this point of view. But Roosevelt ignored it, telling the senators he had enough money to get the fleet into the Pacific; it would just have to stay there if they failed to appropriate funds to bring it home.

This episode, which Roosevelt relished telling in his memoirs, illustrated the growing power of the presidency over Congress, which had dominated American politics since the Civil War. Roosevelt did not customarily disregard Congress — he relied heavily on his closest friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts — but his two terms had marked the resurgence of a strong executive.

One important absentee at Hampton Roads was greatly missed by the president, Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, its only four-star, who had been planning to attend but was ill with sciatica. Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the navy in the McKinley administration, had lifted Dewey from an obscure post to the command of the Asiatic Squadron. Dewey had thus been positioned to destroy the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay at the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Another absentee was Admiral Robley "Fighting Bob" Evans, who had commanded the Great White Fleet at the outset but had to retire for health reasons before it crossed the Pacific. Evans also had a distinguished war record. In 1898 in the victorious Battle of Santiago Bay, off Cuba, he had skippered the Iowa, to which the Spanish commander, Vice Admiral Pascual Cervera, had been brought as a prisoner. Evans had given Cervera full honors, and his sailors had cheered the vanquished Spaniard, moving him to bow his head for a full minute in gratitude and surrender.

The itinerary of the fleet recapitulated the distance the United States had come in the decade since the Spanish-American War. From Chesapeake Bay the battleships had steamed south to the Caribbean, which had become an American lake with the ejection of Spain from Cuba and Puerto Rico. They had then moved down the east coast of South America, through the Strait of Magellan, and up the west coast, stopping along the way in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico.

The call at Valparaíso, Chile, would have stirred memories for Admiral Evans. In 1891, as captain of the gunboat Yorktown, he had dealt with a near war between Chile and the United States over the killing of two American sailors in a Valparaiso bar. One reason that the Harrison administration decided to settle the incident by diplomacy was its fear that the Chilean Navy might be superior to the American one. But by the time of Evans's visit with the Great White Fleet, that shocking disparity had been erased. The naval buildup now guaranteed American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Elihu Root, first as the secretary of war in charge of administering Cuba and Puerto Rico, then as a secretary of state who took Latin America seriously, had given political solidity to that dominance. Because of Roosevelt's aggressive diplomacy in wresting Panama from Colombia, a canal was under construction that would make the Caribbean central in saving future fleets from the long voyage around the Horn.

Even without the canal, which was not to open until 1914, the United States already had a two-ocean navy, the second strongest in the world behind Great Britain's. The difference with 1898 was dramatic. The naval victory in Cuba had been won with only four first-class battleships; these all were now supplanted by twenty brand-new vessels of the most modern fighting class. The military strategist Alfred T. Mahan had convinced American policy makers that naval power was the supreme expression of military supremacy and the proof of a nation's greatness.

The fleet's cruise also demonstrated, as Roosevelt put it, that "the Pacific was as much our home waters as the Atlantic." The ships had visited Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, China, the Philippines, and Japan. Both Hawaii and the Philippines had become American colonies in 1898, the former by peaceful annexation, the latter by military victory. China was a growing focus of interest and the subject of the Open Door policy of John Hay, secretary of state under McKinley and Roosevelt. Japan, the emerging great power in Asia, was a principal reason for Roosevelt's dispatch of the fleet: He wanted to impress the Japanese with American strength while persuading them of his peaceful intentions. To his satisfaction, the reception in Yokohama had been friendly, warm, and highly respectful.

The fleet had left the Pacific for the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, passed through the Suez Canal, steamed across the Mediterranean (units of it stopping to assist victims of a major earthquake in Sicily), and come home across the Atlantic. The cruise not only impressed the world with America's newfound military strength but excited the imagination of Americans as well. A million people had turned out in San Francisco to welcome the ships before their voyage across the Pacific. This enthusiasm laid the basis for a cherished objective of Roosevelt's: steady congressional funding of new battleships. Most important of all, the circumnavigation of the Great White Fleet gave substance to Roosevelt's assertion: "We have definitely taken our place among the great world powers."

Roosevelt noted in his autobiography that the day the fleet returned to Hampton Roads was George Washington's birthday. The first president, though remembered for his warning against U.S. entanglement in European affairs, was, like Roosevelt, an advocate of empire. In 1783 he referred to the United States as a "new empire" and a "rising empire," and three years later he said: "However unimportant America may be considered at present . . . there will assuredly come a day, when this country will have some weight in the scale of Empires." That day came in 1898, when the United States burst upon the world scene with a spectacular series of conquests.

On April 25, 1898, two months after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Bay, the United States went to war with Spain over Cuba. On May 1, some eight thousand miles away in the Philippines, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet off Manila. On June 21 the U.S. Navy, a thousand miles to the east, seized the tiny Spanish-held island of Guam, with its fine harbor. The zigzag pattern of conquest continued from the Caribbean to the Pacific and back. On July 1, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, attired in a brass-buttoned uniform he had just bought from Brooks Brothers, led his Rough Riders in an exuberant charge — on foot — up San Juan Hill, in eastern Cuba. Routing an overmatched Spanish force, the American soldiers took the heights overlooking Santiago Bay, where, two days later, the U.S. Navy won the battle for Cuba by capturing Admiral Cervera's entire squadron. On July 7, President McKinley, exulting in the expansionist fervor, annexed Hawaii, which had been under the de facto control of American sugar planters since 1893. On August 13, Manila fell to Dewey. The next day, the U.S. Army took control of the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico after an efficient nine-day campaign launched almost as an afterthought to the action in Cuba.

On December 10, by the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded to the United States the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, none of which had been an important prewar objective for the United States. Spain also renounced sovereignty over Cuba, which had been the principal U.S. target, thus opening the island to American military rule. And so by force of arms the United States in only a few months gained territorial possessions on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of its continental mass.

Copyright © 2002 Warren Zimmermann

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Rising Empire 3
Pt. 1 The Music Makers 15
1 The Expansionist Impulse 17
2 The Favor of Fortune 40
3 A Pen-and-Ink Sailor 85
4 A Lawyer's Duty 123
5 Dauntless Intolerance 149
6 So Brilliant and Aggressive a Man 188
Pt. 2 Imperial America 231
7 Island Fortress, Cuban Blood 233
8 The Supreme Triumphs of War 268
9 Jingoes and Goo-goos 313
10 The White Man's Burdens 362
11 The Imperial Presidency 418
12 America's Century 475
Notes 505
Bibliography 537
Acknowledgments 549
Index 553
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