Empire and Isolationism: Stephen Kinzer's The True Flag

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The True Flag, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire by Stephen Kinzer. Henry Holt and Company: New York. 307 pages. $28.00

Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller

If one needs or wants to learn of beginnings in an interesting chapter in the history of American Foreign Policy, or wants to have a broader sense of it and the history that follows, one might want to read the recently published The True Flag… from Stephen Kinzer, Academic Fellow and American Foreign Correspondent. Here one will find an account of Theodore Roosevelt’s time and place during The Spanish American War (1898) and the colonizations of The Philippines, Cuba, and Hawaii. Roosevelt had a long career in the public limelight with there being different interests on his part. This book also does not cover everything, but as told Roosevelt was an influential soldier and Commander in Chief who fought for American expansion. This though is not just about Roosevelt and Mark Twain, being a larger tale about the debates over the role of American Empire at the turn of the last century. Twain and others were compelled to be part of thisdebate.

One might want to remember that Theodore Roosevelt (1859-1919) was the 26th American President (Sept. 14, 1901-March 4, 1909) having replaced President William McKinley (March 4, 1901-September 14, 1901), for whom he was a Vice President, when McKinley was assassinated. They were both Republicans who beat the “Isolationists” as the ballot boxes. This tale is also about his influential allies and conspirators Massachusetts’s Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) and Publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951).

Having guided America through the assassination of an American President, Roosevelt was a belligerent presence and a powerful leader on the world stage fighting for the American Way of Life. Not everybody liked the first Roosevelt though. Unusual in appearance there are stillunflattering cartoons of him, like the one on the cover, that remain to this day.

As recounted, one of his detractors was Mark Twain (1835-1910), also traveler, who grew disenfranchised with Roosevelt’s foreign policy. He was originally in favor of The Spanish American War, but grew to realize that America had become Imperialistic like the other countries of The Old World that we had seceded from. The ideals expressed during The American Revolution and Civil War were not being adhered to in our foreign policy. One sees here the role the literary illuminati can play as detractors against a government and press which might have lost sight of it’s ideals in the efforts to protect the nation. Roosevelt, a Naturalist who lived through the loss of some who were dear to him, had seen Survival of the Fittest in action as a hunter. Twain saw hypocrisy, but reveled in American privileges that had been defended.  Kinzer reminds that Twain lost, and the isolationists lost, with the next century going on to become The American Century due to our initial distance from the conflicts in Europe and the choice to play a decisive role winning them there. Some political leaders still try to be isolationists, but they often lose at being so.

Kinzer, however, has become disillusioned with the American military entrenchments that presently exist. He quotes George Washington on the matter instead of Twain at the end of this historical story. All three might not now still be enough.  Twain however is on the front cover on this one, having written in The Innocents Abroad:  “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” (p.512, The Innocents Abroad, Signet Classic). This story in this treatment is bigger than the three of them.

Sadly, some still go to foreign lands to meet exotic people and kill them off. Twain, and probably the assembled in this tale, as thankfully shown, would probably not find many situations where that would be funny.  Some do still think this is necessary, but this book might help. It is also not clear if this history will shed a great deal of light or provide lessons for the current impasseand entrenchment we find in The Middle East. Some things, though, have changed.