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In 'True Flag,' Kinzer Pinpoints Forgotten Moment To Explore Debate Over American Imperialism

Stephen Kinzer's "The True Flag." (Elizabeth Gillis/WBUR)closemore
Stephen Kinzer's "The True Flag." (Elizabeth Gillis/WBUR)

In 1898, the United States "suddenly found itself with the chance to rule faraway lands," Stephen Kinzer writes in his new book. "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire," focuses on the causes and consequences of "a ravenous 55 day spasm" when "the United States asserted control over five far-flung lands with a total of 11 million habitants: Guam, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico."

Assorted New Englanders might recognize Kinzer as a fellow graduate of Brookline High School or Boston University, from his Sunday byline in the Boston Globe, or from academic positions at BU and Brown University.

However, one need not be local in order to know who Kinzer is. He spent more than two decades at the New York Times in various capacities, including as the bureau chief for Managua, Bonn, Berlin and Istanbul. Furthermore, he is the author of eight previous books, including "The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War" and "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq."

Like any good scholar who recognizes the present in the past, Kinzer identifies much throughout “The True Flag” about the Spanish-American War that Americans would later experience in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Then as now, the American endeavor in the Philippines was marred by unrealistic time and troop requirements, unexpected civilian casualties, unwelcoming natives, mission creep and forms of what have come to be called counterinsurgency and even waterboarding, which contemporaries called the “water cure” and to which Mark Twain would raise what became a standard objection in the 2000s.

Interestingly, neither Twain nor Roosevelt — both of whom were American icons within their lifetimes — was at the peak of his career in 1898.

Roosevelt became a fanatical imperialist during his occupation of several offices throughout the 1880s and 1890s, not once he became president in 1900. Twain, meanwhile, had spent the 1890s living abroad and his last major work — "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court" — was a decade behind him when the United States attacked the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the Philippines.

While Twain was clearly better known, Roosevelt’s profile had spiked significantly thanks to his heavily self-promoted (and apparently exaggerated) heroics at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. The fact that the established author and the rising politician were on either extreme on the question of how heavy America’s international footprint should be made the intense debate on the matter all the more public.

Journalist and writer Stephen Kinzer. (Kursat Bayhan/AP File)
Journalist and writer Stephen Kinzer. (Kursat Bayhan/AP File)

Kinzer quotes Roosevelt as having fretted over "the queer lack of imperial instinct that our people show." Twain, on the other hand, was initially delighted at the prospect that the United States would “liberate an oppressed nation [Cuba] and bless it with freedom.” In a later speech, however, he said that when the United States “snatched the Philippines and butchered a poverty-stricken, priest-ridden nation of children, she stained the flag. That’s what we have today — a stained flag.”

To judge this book by its cover, it would seem that Roosevelt and Twain were in at least occasional verbal combat over the matter of overseas expansion, perhaps via a series of debates akin to those that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas undertook four decades earlier.

It was the case that the two directly spoke of each other: Roosevelt of his desire to “skin Mark Twain alive” and Twain of Roosevelt as “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.”

But that appears to be about it. The two evidently never engaged each other face to face or by way of point-counterpoint correspondence. (However, Twain did take a dig at Roosevelt when speaking at a 1901 dinner in New York City at which both were present.)

In fact, whole chapters of “The True Flag” pass without even a mention of Twain. In the chapters in which Kinzer does discuss him, it is for only a few or a handful of pages.

Compared to lesser-known but more active and influential anti-imperialist individuals and groups (e.g., the Boston-founded Anti-Imperialist League), Twain serves as more of a quotable bit player whose instantly recognizable name resonated with more people than those of ideological teammates such as Senators Carl Schurz and George Frisbie Hoar or even steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

It might have been useful for Kinzer to have included a section examining how much the debate over colonization resembled that over American expansion westward in the 19th century. Kinzer quotes several imperialists who argued that the taking of overseas territories was simply a continuation of what began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, was dubbed “Manifest Destiny” in the 1840s, and ended with the closing of the American frontier in 1890.

Those favoring colonization argued that the Constitution and consent of the governed were non-issues in instances of land acquisition at home and abroad, while anti-imperialists argued otherwise. Did anti-imperialists make similar arguments in regard to, for example, the mistreatment of Native Americans when that was an issue? Kinzer does not say.

These matters notwithstanding, “The True Flag” is succinct, thorough and enlightening. It is unfortunate that the episode on which it concentrates probably receives less attention than it should in high school and undergraduate surveys. As Kinzer makes clear, the United States might have been less likely to repeat its mistakes abroad if its leaders learned the lessons of the Spanish-American War.

Stephen Kinzer has upcoming readings on South End Library on Tuesday, March 14, Harvard Club of Cape Cod on Friday, March 17, Falmouth Historical Society on Sunday, March 19, and Boston Athenaeum on Tuesday, March 21.

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Blake Maddux Writer, The ARTery
Blake Maddux writes about nonfiction, popular music and stand-up comedy for several publications in the Boston area and on the North Shore.

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