There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.
–Mark Twain (“To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” 1901)
The USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor 120 years ago this month, killing 261 and kick-starting the Spanish-American War. The cause of the February 15, 1898 explosion was likely accidental, but those favoring increased American support for Cuba’s independence struggle against Spain were quick to capitalize. Their patriotic “Remember the Maine — to Hell with Spain!” rallying cry ramped up pressure on President McKinley to seek retribution, and within two months war was declared.
Twain was a leading member of the Anti-Imperialist League, an organization founded in June 1898 as the U.S. was sweeping to victory in a “splendid little war” (coined by Secretary of State John Hay) against Spain. The AIL interpreted American enthusiasm for the war as a violation of the nation’s founding principles and a dangerous precedent. After the U.S. took over from Spain in Guam and Puerto Rico and then chose to rule the Philippines rather than promote self-government there, the AIL felt that their worst fears had been realized. Twain’s “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” pamphlet was perhaps his most famous attack on what he regarded as burgeoning imperialism and, given the Emancipation Proclamation just a half century earlier, shameless hypocrisy.
In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, Stephen Kinzer describes the Spanish-American War as a watershed moment for the U.S. and the world. The opportunity to dominate faraway lands plunged the nation into the farthest-reaching and longest-running debate in American history, says Kinzer, the two sides representing “matched halves of the divided American soul.” Fanned by the fake news of the day, the inflammatory “yellow journalism” practiced by the competing Pulitzer and Hearst news empires, the debate polarized Main Street America and reached fistfight levels in Congress. As assistant secretary of the Navy under McKinley, Roosevelt aggressively promoted U.S. involvement in the war, then resigned in July in order to lead his volunteer Rough Riders into battle — this iconic story told in Mark Lee Gardner’s recent Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill. Roosevelt continued to promote his “Speak softly and carry a big stick” approach to foreign policy while vice president under McKinley in 1901; when he took over after McKinley’s assassination, Twain was a relentless adversary of the new president’s policies and his blustering, “bully pulpit” style: “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience . . . ”
In his new biography, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, Robert W. Merry argues that the rise of the U.S. to world power status owes less to Roosevelt’s bluster than it does to McKinley’s quiet competence. Merry portrays McKinley as a conscientious worker, a details man, an effective administrator-in-chief running a White House that “never questioned whose hand was on the tiller of the national destiny or whose judgment would prevail as government officials grappled with the challenge of molding unfolding events into American greatness.” Moreover, says Merry, just as the Spanish-American War offers us lessons today about American imperialism, so the contrast between McKinley and Roosevelt offers us a chance to reflect about leadership. McKinley’s quiet, methodical personality and style have earned him a place well down the list of important presidents, while Roosevelt’s personality — “impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance” — has earned him a place near the top. Put differently, over “the American century” the nation has developed not only a taste for imperialist politics but imperial style:
We have come to regard true presidential greatness as consisting of boldness, brashness, directness, and flamboyance. It is difficult for many in the television era to see anything approaching greatness in a man lacking those traits, a man whose leadership was more of the hidden hand variety.