The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism
US: Apr 2016
Once upon a time, the United States of America was a country that passionately defended the rights of small nations to self-determination, resisted overseas military entanglements, and considered military spending an atrocious misuse of public dollars.
Then, something changed. Toward the end of the 19th century, public sentiment in the United States began to shift from rejecting the impulses which drove other powerful nations in pursuit of empire and conquest, to a desire to build a global empire of its own.
At the heart of this shift was John Hay, a well-to-do American statesman, journalist and businessman who began his career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and ended it as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. While he at first resisted the turn toward American imperialism, he would eventually play a role as one of the chief architects of the country’s new politics.
Among the many spectators to this shift was Samuel Clemens, best known to the contemporary world by his literary pseudonym of Mark Twain.
Historian and biographer Mark Zwonitzer has chronicled the final years of these two figures, and the times they lived through, in his new tome The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism.
John Hay was a central party to the American shift toward imperialism, while Sam Clemens was an outspoken observer. Clemens comes across as quite a bit of a huckster; a man who was fastidiously obsessed with his own self-promotion, and embittered with his unrelenting financial struggles. It’s not entirely clear why Zwonitzer chose to put these two into dialogue with each other; they were old friends, but had fairly little engagement with each other during these final years. Clemens was a restrained opponent of imperialism, to be sure; he struggled with his conscience as America sent soldiers overseas on what were, increasingly obviously, wars of conquest.
Yet Clemens also suffered from a tendency to slip into debt, and fastidiously followed a policy of avoiding public commentary that might upset potential fans (and their wallets). Indeed, his fans included the most outspoken proponents and opponents of imperialism alike. When he eventually did speak out—- now and then, when his anger and conscience escaped the tight leash of his fiscal acumen—- he was brushed off as a comedian who should leave the serious issues to serious people.
A Period of American Transformation
Zwonitzer has passionately and meticulously researched and presented the period. At times his meticulousness is excessive, and he dwells too long on topics of little interest to the reader or the broader narrative. It’s enough to know that Clemens lost his fortune in a hopeless investment on a failed scheme to design a new model of printing press; the reader does not need pages of details on the scheme and on the design specifics of the failed printing press patent. Sometimes less is more, as they say, and while Zwonitzer’s attention to detail is impressive, there are moments when he would have been better served to avoid detailed detours from the book’s principal themes.
There are other moments when this excess of detail could have been more judiciously applied: for example, the assassination of President William McKinley (which is glossed over far too quickly) or the eventual fate of America’s colonial war of occupation in the Philippines.
But these are minor quibbles. What the book does do, exquisitely, is conjure a sense of the time, and of the growing thirst for global empire that characterized many American politicians of the period, especially Republicans (little has changed, one might argue). The United States was shifting from an ardent defender of the principles of republicanism and of autonomy for small nations against the predations of powerful empires, to a scheming and jealous state that was envious of those other empires, and desperately thirsty to be considered the equal to the world’s major powers.
This was also the moment that would set the stage for a half century of world wars: one in which nations that had known relative peace for many years were lured by the romance of militarism and in which national, colonial expansion was seen as an inherent right, loosely tangled up in the new evolutionary theories of the period (which were themselves being co-opted by racist rationales of colonialism).
The Spanish Empire was crumbling, and Americans greedily eyed Cuba and its remaining Caribbean colonies. The British were quietly—and in violation of treaty, argued the Americans—expanding into Venezuela. American business interests, meanwhile, backed up with US marines, had engineered a part-coup, part-invasion of then-independent Hawaii. The indigenous queen had abdicated to prevent her people being slaughtered by US troops in a fight she did not believe they could win, and the provisional government, allied with militaristic conspirators in the US, worked ardently to convince the reticent—and partly horrified—US Congress to formalize the annexation of the islands.
When war with Spain finally broke out over Cuba, the US had to strike the Spanish fleet first in the Philippines, and then decided it might as well keep those islands too. But the long-suffering Filipinos had other ideas, and the Philippines turned into the first overseas military nightmare of many for the US in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, further across the Pacific, China offered an attractive lure as well. Other European powers were invading and massacring and carving it up; why shouldn’t the US as well, argued a coalition of merchants and missionaries.
The Anglo-American Century
America’s imperial century came near to starting very differently. Toward the close of the 19th century many Americans were spoiling for a fight—any fight. America’s leadership—administrative, intellectual, journalistic, and even military—was torn, divided into two very different camps. Those who had experienced the carnage and bloodshed of the Civil War were determined to prevent another war at any cost; they remembered the horror of military slaughter (not to mention the commercial devastation that accompanied it). A younger generation, however, had little memory of the conflict and felt deprived of the opportunity to be war heroes. This camp was led by war-mongerers like the young Theodore Roosevelt and his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and they exploited every opportunity to stoke conflict and pick a fight with any country that so much as hinted at disrespect toward the US.
Their first effort to pick a fight came with England. The British were brushing off a boundary dispute with Venezuela, and sneakily encroaching closer to the gold mines in that country; they were also championing the Canadian cause in a variety of border and resource disputes north of the US. Lodge and his supporters, pointing to the Monroe Doctrine, which held that no European power had the right to encroach on or interfere with territory in the Americas (excepting that which they already possessed), raged for war with England.
England brushed off America’s concerns for good reason: a war with the mother country would probably have ended in disaster for the US. The country had barely grown its military since the Civil War, and indeed as tensions grew it resorted to refitting old naval vessels that had been retired since that conflict.
It was Hay (among others) who, as American ambassador to England, worked assiduously to de-escalate tensions with England, much to Lodge and Roosevelt’s ire. England, for its part, was torn between a desire to trump the upstart Americans and a sense that maybe they could be used for the British Empire’s larger geopolitical designs.
With men like Hay firmly and effectively averting a potential war with England, the American war party turned its sights on Spain. That country was struggling to hold on to its few remaining overseas colonies—particularly Cuba, which was in the throes of a long-running homegrown insurgency. News of the brutal and repressive Spanish treatment of its Cuban colonists stirred emotions in the US, and Roosevelt began plotting plans for war with the Spanish Empire, a much weaker target than the British.
War finally came, despite the firm efforts of men like Hay and President McKinley to avert conflict. The mysterious bombing of the US battleship USS Maine, for which responsibility was never determined (Spanish rebels desiring an American intervention? Spanish troops contemptuous of America’s presence in their harbour? American agents wanting to stoke a war? Onboard accident owing to the close proximity of fire and explosives on the ship?) gave the war party in the US its advantage. England came out, to everyone’s surprise, as a cheerleader for the Americans.
This, too, was partly the work of Hay, who’d been working not only to avert conflict with Britain but to promote the concept of Anglo-American solidarity. This appealed to British imperial interests—they were growing concerned about the military ambitions of the German empire—and especially to a growing tendency to see geopolitical struggles in racialized terms. Men like Roosevelt also adhered to this perspective—war and conflict were the product of the natural Anglo-Saxon striving for racial superiority in the world, they believed.
The signal contribution of Hay, then, might be seen as a voice of reason who helped to coax the British toward an Anglo-American alliance that paid off handsomely for both countries in the 20th century. Hay himself was an elite, classist supporter of the Republican party (he stumbled into his ambassadorship, thanks to having supported William McKinley for the presidency against a Democratic populist who advocated income taxes and labour rights), but he was generally against war, while working effectively to promote American interests once war appeared inevitable.
Clemens (Mark Twain) comes across as a bit of a bystander in all this. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why Zwonitzer chose to put these two characters into dialogue with each other. Perhaps it was felt that a book about a relatively unknown American diplomat would be insufficient to attract the attention of readers (not at all true: Hay’s story is a fascinating one). Either way, Clemens plays more of a supporting role. He rants and rages in the background of the events being described, but his principal focus during this period is recovering his squandered financial fortunes, through new writing projects and capitalizing on reprints of his classics. But his story, in this book at least, is far less interesting than that of Hay, who would eventually become all-important Secretary of State for two administrations.
There’s a character who plays a more central role than Clemens in this telling, and that’s Theodore Roosevelt. A frenetic, self-righteous character who flew from passion to passion, Roosevelt was a champion of the nationalist, empire-building sentiment that caused older, wiser generations to hesitate at first. Why should other nations get to conquer lands and build empires, but not the United States? demanded Roosevelt. If it was war that made a man, why were America’s young men denied the opportunity?
He was also a racist (as were many of his peers). Why were the superior white races of America (demanded Roosevelt) denied their chance to carry out the ‘White Man’s Burden’ and rule what he and his supporters considered to be less civilized races? The fact that Roosevelt would later come to be described as a ‘progressive’ illustrates just what a different sensibility held sway at the time.
Roosevelt and his war-mongers would get their chance. Despite McKinley and Hay’s desperate efforts to let Spain sort out its own problems in the colonies, the Spanish regime proved to be as arrogant as it was inept and brutal, and when the US battleship USS Maine was mysteriously destroyed in Cuba (where it was ostensibly monitoring Spain’s efforts to put down a Cuban insurgency and protecting American lives and property) it was proof positive for many fence-sitters that Spain was incapable of imposing stability in its colonies off the American coasts. Unable to hold back the militarists any more, the US declared war and thanks to its growing (but hitherto untried) naval power, it quickly crushed the Spanish fleet.
The ground wars took longer, and as (almost) always proved to be America’s undoing in the end. Roosevelt resigned his commission as second in charge of the US Navy in order to pursue personal glory leading a volunteer cavalry regiment in Cuba. Although the truth of his ‘heroic’ endeavors is a matter of fervent debate and dispute, the tall tales he industriously invented and spread about his exploits would fuel his political career. American troops quickly seized the island and sidelined Cuba’s own revolutionary armies (who had been fighting against Spanish colonial rule for years), imposing their own form of quasi-imperial influence over the island until Fidel Castro’s successful revolution half a century later.
The US also demanded and received control of Puerto Rico from Spain in the ensuing peace conference. And so the empire grew.
The matter of the Philippines was more problematic. Although the US navy destroyed Spanish sea power quickly and effectively off the coast of the Philippines, the Americans hadn’t put much thought into what they would do next. Spanish garrisons still controlled the islands, and US ships didn’t have sufficient ground forces to invade. Instead, they struck a deal with Filipino rebel groups that had been fighting their own war for independence from Spain, providing them arms and promising to support the cause of Filipino independence if they would fight the Spaniards for them. The Filipinos exceeded all expectations and quickly trumped the Spaniards. Indeed, Filipino rebels were threatening to march into Manila just as Spain surrendered to the US and sought peace terms.
America’s increasingly imperialist leadership in Washington quickly changed tunes: instead of honouring their purported agreements with the Filipino rebels, US troops occupied Manila and the US revoked its support (indeed, denied it ever gave it) for Filipino independence. Conflict inevitably broke out between the two short-lived allies; Americans aghast that the non-white Filipinos thought they were actually capable of civilized self-government and Filipinos furious at America’s treachery.
What ensued was the first of America’s many bloody overseas ground wars in a century that would see far too many of them. American troops eventually engaged in wholesale genocide against the Filipinos, with US commanding officers authorizing the murder, rape and torture of local populations and wholesale destruction of villages in rebellious areas. News of the rapacious war crimes (even though this preceded the sort of international conflict conventions that exist today) eventually stoked controversy in the US, although popular opinion was on the side of the troops.
The testimony of one officer who was court-martialed for his actions reveals the scale of the slaughter. A Major Waller, charged with murdering innocent and defenseless civilians without trial on the Philippine island of Samar, defended himself by saying he was only following orders. His commanding officer, he told the court, “instructed him to kill and burn; said that the more he killed and burned the better pleased he would be; that it was no time to take prisoners, and that he was to make Samar a howling wilderness. Major Waller said he asked Gen. Smith to define the age limit for killing and he replied ‘Everything over ten.’”
The major was acquitted; the general returned home to a triumphant reception of ten thousand Americans.
Roosevelt’s politics—like many American leaders at the time—were driven by deeply held racist convictions. Zwonitzer traces the development of this thought through intellectuals and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other mentors who shaped Roosevelt’s ideas. Roosevelt believed, Zwonitzer explains, “that the world’s superior political system evolved from the system of governing of the freedom-worshipping democratically inclined light-skinned killers in Germania to the Magna Carta and then to the apotheosis, the American Constitution with a government of, by, and for the people who were white and men and, as Theodore’s southern ancestors would have it, worthy.”
By the time he became involved in politics, “Theodore Roosevelt’s obsession with race was no longer merely academic or literary,” writes Zwonitzer. “He believed himself to be engaged in the actual and current innings of history’s long-running race struggle.”
The Statesman and the Storyteller offers a searing and sobering exploration of how America’s imperialist century opened: just as brutally as it would end. American imperialism is not over yet, of course, but public sentiment on America’s overseas role has shifted, and that itself is a dramatic change from the situation faced by Roosevelt, Hay and Clemens at the turn of the 20th century.
The book offers lessons galore. But it also offers an engaging and compelling portrait of two men’s journey into an old age in which they both enjoyed a sort of wise elder status in their country: Hay at the reigns of government, Clemens at the reigns of the public conscience.
The struggle many prominent (and everyday) Americans feel between the imperatives of state and the imperatives of conscience—and their difficulties in reconciling the two—continues. But understanding how that history manifested at the outset of the 20th century is an important first step toward building a world in which the pragmatic sentiments of statespersons and the idealistic sentiments of storytellers may eventually converge.
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