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

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

by Stephen Kinzer

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The bestselling author of Overthrow and The Brothers brings to life the forgotten political debate that set America’s interventionist course in the world for the twentieth century and beyond.

How should the United States act in the world? Americans cannot decide. Sometimes we burn with righteous anger, launching foreign wars and deposing governments. Then we retreat—until the cycle begins again.

No matter how often we debate this question, none of what we say is original. Every argument is a pale shadow of the first and greatest debate, which erupted more than a century ago. Its themes resurface every time Americans argue whether to intervene in a foreign country.

Revealing a piece of forgotten history, Stephen Kinzer transports us to the dawn of the twentieth century, when the United States first found itself with the chance to dominate faraway lands. That prospect thrilled some Americans. It horrified others. Their debate gripped the nation.

The country’s best-known political and intellectual leaders took sides. Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst pushed for imperial expansion; Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Andrew Carnegie preached restraint. Only once before—in the period when the United States was founded—have so many brilliant Americans so eloquently debated a question so fraught with meaning for all humanity.

All Americans, regardless of political perspective, can take inspiration from the titans who faced off in this epic confrontation. Their words are amazingly current. Every argument over America’s role in the world grows from this one. It all starts in The True Flag.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627792165
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/24/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

STEPHEN KINZER is the author of The Brothers, Reset, Overthrow, All the Shah’s Men, and other books. An award-winning foreign correspondent, he served as Latin America correspondent for the Boston Globe and as the New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua, Germany, and Turkey. He is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and writes a column on world affairs for the Boston Globe. He lives in Boston.

Read an Excerpt

The True Flag

Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire

By Stephen Kinzer

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Kinzer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-217-2


White and Peaceful Wings

Where better to launch a patriotic uprising than Faneuil Hall in Boston? Colonists had gathered amid its Doric columns to protest the Boston Massacre and plot the overthrow of British rule. Abolitionists had denounced slavery from its stage. It is a lodestone of American liberty, a cathedral for freedom fighters.

That is why a handful of eminent Bostonians chose Faneuil Hall as the place to begin a new rebellion on the sunny afternoon of June 15, 1898. Like all Americans, they had been dizzied by the astonishing events of recent weeks. Their country had suddenly burst beyond its natural borders. American troops had landed in Cuba. American warships had bombarded Puerto Rico. An American expeditionary force was steaming toward the distant Philippine Islands. Hawaii seemed about to fall to American power. President William McKinley had called for two hundred thousand volunteers to fight in foreign wars. Fervor for the new idea of overseas expansion gripped the United States.

This appalled the organizers of the Faneuil Hall meeting. They could not bear to see their country setting out to capture foreign nations. That afternoon, they rose in protest.

Several hundred people turned out. "On all sides could be seen the well-known faces of leaders of good causes among us," one newspaper reported. According to another, "Nearly all the settees on the floor were filled, while the benches in the gallery were well fringed with ladies."

At three o'clock, Gamaliel Bradford, a prominent civic leader and proud descendant of the Pilgrim governor William Bradford, called the meeting to order. His speech was both a warning and a cry of pain.

Over the past year, Americans had grown enraged by the harshness of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba. Most cheered when Congress declared war on Spain. They were thrilled when President McKinley sent troops to help Cuban revolutionaries fighting to expel the Spanish. Before long, though, some in Washington suggested that instead of allowing Cuba to become independent, as promised, the United States should take the island and rule it. Then they began talking of seizing Puerto Rico and even the Philippines. Imperial fever had broken out and was spreading. This stirred Bostonians to bitter protest.

"We are not here to oppose the war," Bradford told the Faneuil Hall crowd. "We are here to deal with a far graver issue, to insist that a war begun in the name of humanity shall not be turned into a war for empire, that an attempt to win for Cubans the right to govern themselves shall not be made an excuse for extending our sway of alien peoples without their consent. ... We are to be a world power, but the question is whether we shall be a power for beneficence or malfeasance. Everything is against the policy of conquest."

The next speaker was another New England patriarch, Charles Ames, a theologian and Unitarian pastor who had traveled the world promoting humanitarian causes. He warned that the moment the United States seized a foreign land, it would "sacrifice the principles on which the Republic was founded."

The policy of imperialism threatens to change the temper of our people, and to put us into a permanent attitude of arrogance, testiness, and defiance towards other nations. ... Once we enter the field of international conflict as a great military and naval power, we shall be one more bully among bullies. We shall only add one more to the list of oppressors of mankind. ... Poor Christian as I am, it grieves and shames me to see a generation instructed by the Prince of Peace proposing to set him on a dunce's stool and to crown him with a fool's cap.

At the very moment that these words were shaking Faneuil Hall, debate on the same question — overseas expansion — was reaching a climax in Congress. It is a marvelous coincidence: the first anti-imperialist rally in American history was held on the same day that Congress voted, also for the first time, on whether the United States should take an overseas colony. That day — June 15, 1898 — marked the beginning of a great political and ideological conflict.

The Faneuil Hall meeting was set to end at five o'clock. In Washington, the House of Representatives scheduled its decisive vote for precisely the same hour.

* * *

Every member of Congress understood that history was about to be made. President McKinley had decided that the United States should push its power into the Pacific Ocean and that, as a first step, it must seize the Hawaiian Islands. Some Americans found the idea intoxicating. Others despaired for the future of their country. One of them was the Speaker of the House, Thomas Reed, a figure so powerful that he was known as Czar.

Reed, a blunt-spoken Maine lawyer who had sought the Republican presidential nomination just two years before — and lost in part because of his anti-imperialist views — was repelled by the swaggering nationalism that had taken hold of Congress. Annexing Hawaii seemed to him not simply unwise but absurd. He told a friend that the United States might as well "annex the moon." So deep was Reed's anger, or depression, that he could not bring himself to preside over a vote that might lead to annexation. On the morning of June 15 he sent word that he would not appear.

Empire was the traditional way for rising states to expand their power, and in 1898 the American military had the means to make its imperial bid. Yet the United States had been founded through rebellion against a distant sovereign. It was pledged above all to the ideal of self-government. For a country that was once a colony to begin taking colonies of its own would be something new in modern history.

The most potent arguments against imperial expansion were drawn from American scripture. According to the Declaration of Independence, liberty is an inalienable right. The Constitution's opening phrase is "We the People." George Washington sounded much like an anti-imperialist when he asked, "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?" So did Thomas Jefferson when he insisted, "If there be one principle more deeply written than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest." Abraham Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg that governments should be "of the people, by the people, for the people." Later he declared, "No man is good enough to govern another man without the other's consent."

To all of this, the imperialists had a simple answer: times have changed. Past generations, they argued, could not have foreseen the race for colonies that consumed the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Nor could they have known how important it would be for the United States to control foreign markets in order to ensure stability at home. In 1863, Lincoln himself had admitted that "dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." The same principle, expansionists argued, applied in 1898.

One of Speaker Reed's deputies gaveled the House of Representatives to order at midday on June 15. The debate began with due gravity.

"Since that fateful shot was fired at Sumter," Representative Champ Clark of Missouri said as it began, "a greater question has not been debated in the American Congress."

The first speakers argued that bringing Hawaii into the United States would be a step in the march of human progress. "This annexation is not a conquest or a subjugation of others, but a continuation of our established policy of opening lands to the colonial energy of the great colonizing nation of the century," argued Richard Parker of New Jersey. To pass up such a chance, he concluded, would be "antediluvian and thorough stupidity."

Edwin Ridgeley of Kansas agreed. "Civilization has ever moved westward, and we have every reason to believe that it will ever so continue," he reasoned. "We need not, nor do I believe we will, enter into a conquest of force but, to the contrary, our higher civilization will be carried across the Pacific by the white and peaceful wings of our rapidly increasing commerce."

Several congressmen asserted that the United States had no choice but to expand overseas because its farms and factories were producing more than Americans could consume and urgently needed foreign markets. "The United States is a great manufacturing nation," William Alden Smith of Michigan reasoned. "Eventually we must find new markets for our energy and enterprise. Such desirable territory is fast passing under the control of other nations. Our history is filled with unaccepted opportunities. How much longer shall we hesitate?"

Congressmen not only declaimed on that fateful day, but also debated, sometimes with considerable wit. One of their arguments was over the role of American missionaries, who had arrived in Hawaii during the 1820s and set in motion the process that led to this debate. Albert Berry of Kentucky said Hawaiians had benefited immensely from their "influence and inspiration."

"When the Americans sent missionaries there for the purpose of civilizing the natives," he asserted, "they found them in an almost barbarous condition, and set to work to bring about a condition of civilization."

That was too much for one opponent of annexation, John F. Fitzgerald of Massachusetts — the same "Honey Fitz" who would go on to become mayor of Boston and, more famously, grandfather to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. A Boston ditty held that "Honey Fitz can talk you blind / On any subject you can find." This day, his subject was the role of missionaries.

"My colleague," Fitzgerald said, "emphasized the pleasure that he felt in voting for annexation because of the fact that the islands had been redeemed from savagery by the devotion of American missionaries. In thinking the matter over, I have come to the conclusion that the native Hawaiian's view of the Almighty and justice must be a little bit shaken when he sees these men, who pretend to be the exemplars of Christianity and honor, take possession of these islands by force, destroy the government that has existed for years, and set up a sovereignty for themselves."

The day's most vivid exchanges were about a delicate but serious matter: the extreme foreignness of native Hawaiians. Both sides used racial arguments. Annexationists said the islanders' evident savagery made it urgent for a civilizing force to take their country and uplift them. Opponents countered that it would be madness to bring such savages into union with the United States, where they could corrupt white people.

"Hawaiian religion is the embodiment of bestiality and malignity that frequently lapses into crimes of lust and revenge," reported one opponent of annexation, John Rhea of Kentucky. "The various legends of their gods abound in attributes of the most excessive animalism and cruelty. Lewdness, prostitution, and indecency are exalted into virtues. ... There exists today upon those islands, Mr. Speaker, a population for the most part a mixture of Chinese with the islanders, thus making a homogenous whole of moral vipers and physical lepers."

That brought Albert Berry back to his feet. "I want to say to the gentleman," he retorted, "if he would look about the streets of the capital of Washington, he would see that there is more immorality south of Pennsylvania Avenue than there is in the whole of the Hawaiian Islands."

"If I knew that to be true, I would blush to herald it on the floor of this House," Rhea replied. "But I deny it, Mr. Speaker. I deny that here in the capital city of the greatest government in the world, American womanhood has fallen to such a standard. Oh, for shame that you should speak such words!"

"I did not know that the gentleman ever blushed," Berry shot back.

Expansionists in Congress and beyond were visionaries seized by a radically new idea of what America could and should be. They saw their critics as standing in the way of progress: small-minded, timid, paralyzed by fears, maddeningly unwilling to grasp the prize that history was offering. "A certain conservative class," Freeman Knowles of South Dakota lamented, "would stand in the way of the glorious future and ultimate destiny of this Republic."

The eloquence of annexationists was matched by that of their opponents. One after another, these doubters rose to warn against the imperial temptation. Some of their speeches suggest that they realized they were likely to lose that day's vote on taking Hawaii. They knew, however, that this was only the opening skirmish in what would be a long struggle. They were speaking to Americans far beyond Washington — and far beyond 1898.

Time and again these troubled congressmen returned to their central theme: the American idea prohibits colonizing, annexing foreign lands, taking protectorates, or projecting military power overseas. Setting out to shape the fate of foreign nations, they argued, would not only require great military establishments and inevitably attract enemies, but also betray the essence of America's commitment to human liberty. "We are treading on dangerous ground," warned Adolph Meyer of Louisiana.

Meyer had been born into a family of German immigrants and was one of the few Jews in Congress. He had fought in the Confederate army, commanded Louisiana's uniformed militia, and acquired a reputation as a forceful orator. On the afternoon of June 15, 1898, he lived up to it.

With monarchical governments, or governments only nominally republican but really despotic or monarchical, this system of colonies, however burdensome, however tending to conflict, may be pursued without a shock to their systems of government. But with us the case is different. Our whole system is founded on the right of the people — all the people — to participate in the Government. ... Take this first fatal step and you cannot recall it. Much error we have corrected. Much that may hereafter be you can correct. But when this step is taken, you are irrevocably pledged to a system of colonialism and empire. There are no footsteps backward.

This was a debate over the very nature of freedom. Many Americans wished to see its blessings spread around the world. In 1898 they began disagreeing passionately on how to spread those blessings.

Anti-imperialists saw themselves as defenders of freedom because they wanted foreign peoples to rule themselves, not be ruled by Americans. They saw the seizure of faraway lands as blasphemy against what Herman Melville called "the great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!"

Expansionists found this preposterous. They believed that concepts like freedom, equality, and self-government had meaning only for developed, responsible nations — that is, nations populated and governed by white people. Others, they asserted, were too primitive to rule themselves and must be ruled by outsiders. By this logic, dusky lands could only be truly free when outsiders governed them. If natives did not realize how much they needed foreign rule, and resisted it, that was further proof of their backwardness.

No one promoted this view more colorfully or to greater effect than Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy. In a letter to his fellow imperialist Rudyard Kipling, Roosevelt scorned "the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting." As the national debate intensified, he came to embody America's drive to project power overseas.

Mark Twain believed Roosevelt's project would destroy the United States.

Roosevelt and Twain moved in overlapping circles and knew each other, but geography separated them for years. Twain traveled and lived abroad for much of the 1890s. In Fiji, Australia, India, South Africa, and Mozambique, he had been appalled by the way white rulers treated natives. His frame of historical and cultural reference was far broader than Roosevelt's. He saw nobility in many peoples, and found much to admire abroad — quite unlike Roosevelt, who believed that "the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as a man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife." Instead of seeing the United States only from within, Twain compared it to other powers. He saw his own country rushing to repeat the follies he believed had corrupted Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. That way, he warned, lay war, oligarchy, militarism, and the suppression of freedom at home and abroad.

These adversaries — Roosevelt and Twain — were deliciously matched. Their views of life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart. World events divided them even before their direct confrontation began. When Germany seized the Chinese port of Kiaochow (later Tsingtao) in 1897, both men were outraged, but for different reasons. Twain opposed all foreign intervention in China; Roosevelt worried only that Germany was pulling ahead of the United States in the race for overseas concessions. Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of "Christian charity." Twain pictured Christendom as "a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood."


Excerpted from The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer. Copyright © 2017 Stephen Kinzer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. White and Peaceful Wings

2. There May Be an Explosion

3. The Great Day of My Life

4. Islands or Canned Goods

5. If They Resist, What Shall We Do?

6. Stinkpot

7. I Turn Green in Bed at Midnight

8. What a Choice for a Patriotic American!

9. The Constitution Does Not Apply

10. You Will Get Used to It

11. The Deep Hurt




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