Teddy Roosevelt vs. Mark Twain: A Brief History of American Intervensionism
Christopher Lydon in Conversation with Stephen Kinzer
This interview comes from Open Source, a weekly program about arts, ideas and politics.
Why are Americans everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn?
Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our regime change interventions in the world—from Guatemala to the Middle East—and in book after book he has sharpened the question: How did our country, born in proud rebellion against the British Empire, become the mightiest empire of them all, taking on the sorrows, the burdens, the expenses that come with having most of a thousand military bases around the globe?
And how has the instinct to intervene persisted through so many bitter mistakes and losses—from the first destabilization of democratic Iran in the 1950s to Vietnam in the 60s to Iraq yesterday and Afghanistan today? In Stephen Kinzer’s new book called The True Flag, the short answer to the big question is there’s a conflict in our blood. We are isolationists to the bone and incurably drawn to trouble, too. Once upon a time, the biggest names in the country President Teddy Roosevelt and his arch enemy Mark Twain argued this difference at the top of their lungs. Steve Kinzer would love to surface their argument again.
Christopher Lydon: Once upon a time, Steve Kinzer, Americans argued fiercely in public places, newspapers, on the floors of Congress, about our role in the world. Now we just play the game—deeply conflicted. Let’s make it an argument again. How would you begin?
Steve Kinzer: The first anti-imperialist meeting in American history was held on June 15, 1898 in Faneuil Hall in Boston. It drew quite a large crowd and passionate speakers denounced what seemed to be America’s proximate leap into overseas empire. Here’s one of the speeches that day from Reverend Charles Ames who was a Unitarian pastor and theologian: “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 toward 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.” That is an argument that was made more than 120 years ago, and it’s still valid.
CL: Not only is it still valid, it’s embodied in our man Donald Trump. I mean, here’s a guy who says no more disastrous wars in the Middle East and by the way I’m going to bomb the hell out of ISIS.
SK: I think that Trump actually reflects something that’s deep in our American soul when it comes to foreign policy. We have a conflicted view. Americans really do want to run the world but we also want everyone to run their own countries. These are conflicting views. You can’t hold both of them. But we do. We’re isolationist and we’re imperialist. We’ve never even figured out what John Winthrop meant back in 1630 when he said, “We shall be as a city upon a hill and the eyes of all people are upon us.” So did he mean we should go out into the sinful world and redeem it? Or did he mean we should construct a virtuous society at home and hope others would follow our example? We’re still wrestling with this. I’m just looking at a poll taken in 2014 by the Pew Research Center. Think about this: Americans are asked whether they agree with this statement or not. The United States is not doing enough to solve the world’s problems. Most agree. Now the United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own. Majority agree. Trump is an embodiment of something that’s very deep in us—and it’s this conflicted approach to the world.
CL: So unlike the Brits. We’re heir to their Empire in a certain way. But we’re totally unlike them: Lawrence of Arabia or any number of scholars, writers, people who learned to love the desert, master the languages of the world, live forever in Afghanistan—and know it. We don’t produce those people.
SK: We never wanted to have a colonial service because we wanted to pretend we don’t have colonies. As a result, when we do effectively take over countries, the only institution we have to run them is the army. So the military becomes the face of the United States. The other colonial powers largely set out to become colonial powers. Our Empire was so sudden and accidental. We didn’t prepare for it. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re even having trouble acknowledging that it exists.
CL: Yeah, the Brits make that same excuse. The British Empire was invented in a moment of forgetfulness or something. But they are cut out for it in a certain awful way. And we clearly are not it seems to me.
SK: The British produced a whole group of people who were committed to moving to another country for life and understanding that country. That’s why Britain was able to control a huge population like India’s with barely a thousand civil servants. It’s because they had an understanding of these places. Now, that was diabolical in many ways—but the American expansionist experience has been very different and that’s why it’s brought us so much grief.
CL: Pat Moynihan used to say that the British ran India with a smaller civil service than the New York City welfare department.
SK: And probably got a lot more money back from it.
CL: Go back to Faneuil Hall, as you say Brother Ames, a Unitarian Brahmin—there were Brahmins on both sides of this fight. The one that we know too little about is Henry Cabot Lodge, himself—the US senator famous for blocking the League of Nations later. He was also the grandfather of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in my time. The man that JFK defeated and then sent to Vietnam as his ambassador. I mean these people come into the present time. But what drove one of the great imperialists—maybe the leader of them—Henry Cabot Lodge?
SK: Well, let me place Lodge in the larger picture of the story I’m telling. So I’m interested in going to the question of: why the United States got to this point of being the world’s champion of intervention? How did we become the country that intervenes in more places, further away from our own shores, more often than any other country? Historians sometimes look for the answer in the period after World War II. I feel that it comes much earlier back, in 1898 and 1899, when we made our first burst of overseas expansion. Now there have been books about that period—the Spanish-American War, how we got involved in Cuba, how we took the Philippines—but what I had never realized is that we didn’t make this decision easily. The entire United States was caught up in a huge argument over whether this was a good idea. Should we stop at the geographical borders of North America or—having expanded effectively ever since the Pilgrims—should we just keep going?
This debate captured the attention of the entire country. The US Senate debated it for 32 days with Henry Cabot Lodge, one of the principal figures. So what I’m trying to do is recover this debate for the modern age. Lodge and others in the Senate were making arguments that we are hearing over and over again today. The Senate debate of 1899 over whether we should begin taking foreign colonies are exactly the ones we made when we tried to decide whether to intervene in Vietnam or Central America or Iraq. They’re made much more articulately by the senators in those days. But there’s nothing new. This is really the mother of all debates in the history of American foreign policy.
CL: Let’s hear it. The case for it.
SK: Well here’s Henry Cabot Lodge: “I do not believe that this nation was raised up for nothing. I have faith that it has a great mission in the world, a mission of good, a mission of freedom.”
CL: Is that missionary talk? In Iraq people could easily say: “Well it’s about the oil, right?” But what was driving that passion.
SK: Anything that is good for the United States, that improves the power, the influence and the wealth of the United States, is by definition good for everyone in the world. It will probably be good for them to be directly under our influence. But even if it isn’t, it will certainly be good for them if the world evolves into a system that the United States dominates. This is the view that makes you justify all sorts of intervention around the world. Now, in the anti-imperialist movement—which was a huge factor in American life—there were a series of arguments made as to why this was a terrible idea. The main one centered on the American ideal. ‘We the People’ is the first phrase in our Constitution. The principle of our government is that legitimacy derives from consent of the governed. Lincoln spoke about the government of, by and for the people. So, how could the United States justify setting out to rule other peoples against their will?
I give you two answers from that debate. Here’s one from Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana who was one of the leading imperialists: “The opposition tells us that we ought not to govern a people without their consent. I answer the rule of liberty, that all just government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self-government.” Effectively, what he’s saying is that white people can govern themselves; darker people need to be governed by white people. Now President McKinley had a very difficult task in trying to square this circle. It was under his administration for the first time in history that Americans had to go and shoot down people in a faraway land who honestly believed that they were fighting for their own country’s freedom and independence. How could you justify that in the light of American ideals? President McKinley made a trip to Boston—the heart of enemy territory because it was the center of the anti-imperialist league. And at this big speech at Mechanic’s Hall with two thousand people present, he offered what I think is also a wonderfully contemporary explanation for why this was okay to do. This is what McKinley said: “Did we need their consent to perform a great act for humanity. We had it in every aspiration of their minds in every hope of their hearts.”
CL: Wow—Beveridge sounds like the forebear of George W. Bush. We’ve got to do this to free these people for God’s gift of freedom.
SK: Yeah. They actually used these arguments. Now, whether these are actually at the core of their rationale changes from generation to generation. But it’s striking to me how the same arguments recur.
CL: What strikes me as you speak though is that it’s a stuck argument, it’s hanging there eternally. It was tipped one way by WWII another way by Vietnam, but we’re still doing it. Shouldn’t we have resolved this argument in some fashion?
SK: I think there’s something very deep in the American soul that makes this argument difficult to resolve. Americans have a drive to conquer, to win, to dominate. And the idea of sitting back and allowing history to unfold anywhere else in the world seems inimical to our activist mentality. So we would like to think that this argument at one point becomes resolved particularly because of our experiences.
But even now we are listening to arguments from Washington suggesting that we want more intense confrontation with Iran. We want to escalate our military involvement in Syria. You would think that just after Libya and Iraq we might be thinking twice about these things. But here’s one pattern that I notice in presidents that I think may also apply to Trump. It’s this: they come into office very enthusiastic about the use of American military power. They think it’s a great tool. But, as the years pass they begin to see the trouble it brings the blowback—the sorrows of empire—and they become markedly less enthusiastic.
So Roosevelt became president of course after an assassination and woe to any country upon which the US had ever cast a covetous eye. You now had the greatest nation grabber in American history as president. But he didn’t grab any nations. After the one intervention in Panama to create the canal, he turned his attention to other matters like environmental protection and fighting big business. He could have annexed Guatemala or parts of Africa or taken slices of China, but he began to realize, after being such a fierce imperialist, how negative this is not only for the target countries but for the United States. Go right up to Obama–
CL: –I was going to say it sounds like the education of Barack Obama.
SK: Now I think you’re going to see the same pattern with Trump. And in a way it’s encouraging to see that the light goes on. But you’d like to think that it wouldn’t take years in the presidency to learn the lesson that all of your predecessors have already painfully learned.
CL: So in the present moment how did you come to be maybe the only newspaper columnist that I read who said wait a sec. Listen again to Donald Trump.
SK: I admire some of what Trump has said. The only problem, of course, is that he has said the opposite of everything that I admire and I really don’t know what tweet is coming up next. I like the idea that in some areas Trump seems to be wanting to take a fresh look at American foreign policy, but I’m depressed that actually in many ways he seems to be embracing some of the same tropes. If he wants to take a fresh look at Russia and ask whether Russia really threatens our vital interests or might be more valuable as a cooperating partner—I think that’s great. But why isn’t he taking a fresh look at other countries? If that’s going to be a pattern, it’s fine. Let’s look again at our relationship with Pakistan or Cuba or Iran or Israel or Saudi Arabia. But he’s not doing that. It’s just a one off. So I don’t see any overarching willingness to challenge what I consider to be destructive patterns of American foreign policy; and in some ways looks it looks like Trump may even want to escalate the kinds of conflicts he sometimes said he wanted to de-escalate. So we don’t know where we’re going.
CL: What’s driving him? What’s informing him? So fragmentary, and as you say often contradictory.
SK: I think he has certain stereotypes in his mind—and this can be quite dangerous, if you think you already know things. I believe in a strong executive who makes decisions by himself. But you have to make those decisions after listening to people who are well-informed and serious experts. And I don’t get the sense that any of that’s happening right now in the White House. So challenge the fundamental principles of American foreign policy—that’s fine with me. But you have to be careful when you do this. You have to understand what the reactions are going to be and have your own reactions to those reactions planned out in advance. The international order is a delicately framed edifice and if you pull one toothpick out it has repercussions. So just think that through before you do it. And that doesn’t seem to be a principle of this administration.
CL: What do you make of his fundamental impulse to challenge the intelligence agencies. The security doctrine. There’s something in that that I like: somebody is talking back.
SK: It’s true. And the answer that he wouldn’t want to believe the CIA because they’re the ones who said it was a slam dunk that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq I thought was very telling. The CIA and the so-called intelligence community may have underestimated the damage that was done in terms of credibility by the fact that they dragged us into a horrible war in Iraq for which we’re still paying such a high price with that guarantee that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I think skepticism is justified. On the other hand, I don’t think it makes sense to be undermining your own team. He stood in front of that wall of heroes the CIA and started making jokes about how he won the election and how many people had turned out at the inauguration. It’s just so tone deaf that I think he unnecessarily provokes forces that let’s face it have considerable power both in ways that we know and in ways that we don’t know.
CL: Back to 1898 in the days when the best minds of the country, famous people, were all embroiled in this argument. I think of it sometimes as an unresolved argument between William James—philosopher, psychologist, the biggest name on the Harvard campus at the time—an argument he had with his student Teddy Roosevelt who he thought was over-boisterous, a famous guy who built himself up, a boxer, a sort of recovered athlete. And William James distrusted him when he was an undergraduate. I think that argument between them is still going on. You also locate it with Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain as a kind of personal—not feud—but dispute.
SK: So Mark Twain was one of the other great discoveries I made when writing this book. The main discovery of the book is that this huge debate ever happened. But the next biggest discovery I made was that Mark Twain was not the figure we’re often taught. So he’s not just the gentle grandfather rocking on the front porch and making wisecracks that everybody loves. His anti-imperialism was better. It was vituperative.
He said that American soldiers fighting foreign wars were using a polluted musket to fight under a bandit’s flag. He wanted to change the American flag so that the stars would become skull and crossbones symbols. And listen to this comment about Teddy Roosevelt—and I swear this was not written this week, it was written 120 years ago. “We have never had a president before who was destitute of self-respect and of respect for his high office; we’ve had no president before who was not a gentleman; we’ve had no president before who was intended for a butcher, a dive keeper or a bully.” So that was Mark Twain talking about Theodore Roosevelt. So they had very different personalities in some ways. Roosevelt believed that war was really the only manly pursuit, always wanted to be killing something. Mark Twain was very different. He had traveled much more widely. He had been in places like South Africa and the Pacific Islands where he’d seen the actual results of European colonialism. He sympathized greatly with the natives. He even sympathized with the Chinese in the Boxer Rebellion who were portrayed here as savages devoted to raping nuns. He said: “The Chinese have been villainously dealt with by the sceptered thieves of Europe. I hope they chase the foreigners out and keep them out for good.”
The two of them had this antagonism—but in some ways they were similar. Both Roosevelt and Mark Twain were thinkers and writers, in addition to activists. But more important, they were relentless self-promoters. These were two guys that created their own image and were publicity-hungry, could never turn away from a crowd or an interview or a photographer. Mark Twain considered Roosevelt, as he said, clearly insane, and “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.” Roosevelt replied by saying that, “he would like to skin Mark Twain alive.” So although they respected each other’s popularity and didn’t denounce each other in public eye as soon as they were away from the public eye they were telling friends and writing down what they thought of each other. And they really do represent not only two poles of the great argument that shook the country around the dawn of the 20th century but two poles of that same argument that continues to divide our psyche today.
CL: You remind me of a thought: John Kerry is somehow in the middle of this impasse. I mean… the most famous remark on the Vietnam War in the Fulbright hearings: “Who’s going to the be the last man sent to die for a mistake.” Strange—almost a miracle—he becomes chairman of that committee in his Senate career. And never held a hearing on Iraq—where he clearly made the wrong vote at a huge price. If you could only liberate the argument in that man’s head about American intervention you’d have the story.
SK: That’s why I say that the view that Americans have a pendulum swing essentially in their interventionist impulse is seductive—but I don’t think that’s correct. It seems that way. So, on the surface, there are times when we become filled with righteous indignation and anger; and we charge into countries and overthrow regimes. Then trouble begins. Everything falls apart. Restraint, for a time… Until the cycle begins again. But, actually, the two impulses constantly co-exist within us. And I think you’re right that Kerry is just one exemple. Trump is another. Most of our political leaders are. Obama was the same way. He seemed to articulate the views for non-intervention–
CL: “We don’t do dumb wars.”
SK: Exactly. We like to aim before we shoot. And in his longer interviews he seemed quite trenchant in understanding the perils of the interventions—and yet, he continued to carry them out as president. I still believe there is a constituency out there in the United States for a different kind of foreign policy, but we’ve never had the political leadership or intellectual leadership that could frame it. And that’s why I find the story I tell in this book so interesting. That was the last time when there was coherent national movement challenging the idea of American power projection around the world. And that’s why that story is particularly fascinating and it’s so relevant today.
CL: Fascinating to write it—I’m sure. It’s fascinating to read, too—and be reminded. Thank you. Thank you for your work. Really. A series of books now that chronicle this thing in so many different details.