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The Forefathers of Imperialism

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
January 5, 2003
Los Angeles Times

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First Great Triumph
How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power
Warren Zimmermann
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 562 pp., $30

Warren Zimmermann's "First Great Triumph," an account of the imperialist era in American foreign policy at the turn of the 20th century, is one of the most readable and important books on American foreign policy in recent years. Zimmermann, a distinguished U.S. diplomat who did his best to warn the world about the looming Yugoslav wars, combines formidable scholarship with a sense of narrative drama and a firsthand knowledge of the politics of American foreign policy. With Iraq, Afghanistan and a war on terror preoccupying United States foreign policy, Zimmermann's book is a timely and gripping account of another critical period in American history that leaves readers better prepared to understand the dangers that face us.

Zimmermann's basic approach to his material is reminiscent of the way African gamekeepers have identified a "big five" group of animals for tourists to look out for on safari (the big five are lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo). Zimmermann's big five are the men who made America an imperial power 100 years ago. Leading his group is Theodore Roosevelt, who shot and stuffed many specimens of the African big five and is one of the most famous figures in American history. The other four, though somewhat less well known, all played key roles in American and world history.

Henry Cabot Lodge, who defeated Woodrow Wilson and blocked Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles to keep America out of the League of Nations, is shown rising from a young Boston politician to a national leader of the imperialist movement. The group also includes John Hay, Abraham Lincoln's confidential assistant and later ambassador to Britain and secretary of State, and Elihu Root, the New York lawyer who succeeded Hay as secretary of State and later helped to start the Carnegie Endowment and the Council on Foreign Relations. In highlighting Root's role, Zimmermann does justice to an important historical figure who is almost entirely forgotten by nonspecialists today. The final place in this core group belongs to Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose 1890 book, "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783," is the most important work of strategic thought ever written by an American.

Zimmermann sets himself the demanding task of combining short biographical studies of these men with two broader areas of concentration: a general history of the imperialistic foreign policy they struggled to shape and an intellectual and cultural history of the imperialist movement in American foreign policy.

Americans like being powerful but mostly do not like to think of their country as an empire. Zimmermann's big five set themselves against that taboo, proudly and openly advocating that the United States had both the right and the duty to conquer foreign lands and to impose American rule on other people. They grounded their call for imperial expansion in a rhetoric of racial superiority that, although normal for American discourse of the time, makes for grim reading today. It is disconcerting to be reminded just how racist the American public rhetoric of the imperial period was; Zimmermann does a commendable job of differentiating the degrees of racism among the big five without either concealing or sensationalizing racial prejudice in their work.

Racism aside, of course, it is amazing how little has changed in the American foreign policy debate since 1900. We no longer call for the annexation of foreign territory, but Americans are still divided between those who passionately believe that it is our right and even our duty to impose some kind of civilized order on poorly governed parts of the world and those who believe that this kind of imperialistic adventure constitutes a fundamental betrayal of our basic moral principles.

Zimmermann's history takes us through capsule biographies of each man and into the global political crises of the late 19th century that gave rise to the first American overseas empire. The decline of Great Britain, the continued weakness of non-European states like China, the scramble for colonies in Africa and Asia and growing U.S. trade and investment overseas led Americans to think more about the strategic dimension to their country's interest. Mahan's brilliant treatise on the importance of British sea power in the wars of 18th century Europe provided a firm intellectual basis for the idea that the United States would need, soon, to acquire more bases and territories in the Pacific.

The geopolitical situation the United States faced was a mixture of opportunity and threat. The decline in Britain's economic power and the growing threat of Germany led the British to drop their longtime opposition to U.S. expansion in the Caribbean and Central America. This part of the world had once been the jewel in Britain's imperial crown, with the sugar islands of the Caribbean its richest possessions. But because of the decline of the Caribbean sugar industry and Britain's preoccupation with Germany, the British were willing to see the United States become the paramount power in the region. After years of opposing U.S. designs on Cuba, Britain supported the U.S. in the Spanish-American War and yielded its treaty-based right to share control of what became the Panama Canal.

Farther east, Britain's weakness in the face of the growing power of Russia, Japan and Germany meant that Britain could no longer hope to keep those powers out of China on its own, much less absorb China into its empire the way it had once absorbed India. This meant that British interests in the Far East were harmonized with Washington's; both English-speaking powers wanted to prevent the division of China. Hay's "Open Door" policy toward China, with British support, put an end to the scramble and prevented the kind of partition of China that Africa had recently experienced at the hand of rapacious European powers.

But if Britain's newfound need for American friendship created opportunities for the Americans, it also created new threats. Germany, whose rulers had also read Mahan on the importance of sea power, was turning itself into a global naval power. Japan had imitated Western powers by building modern industries and a fleet; now it wanted to also acquire colonial possessions. If the U.S. had failed to take the Philippines after defeating Spain, Germany or Japan might well have moved in.

This was a very different international situation from the relative calm that had prevailed after the fall of Napoleon. From 1815 forward, British power had threatened America; but it had also policed the world and kept the other European powers mostly bottled up. Britain's decline, increasingly evident from the 1890s on, caused Americans to rethink most of their strategic doctrines.

Zimmermann's big five, and their anti-imperialist opponents like journalist Carl Schurz and author Mark Twain, opened up a debate over America's role in the world that resonated throughout the 20th century. Britain's inability to defeat Germany in World War I caused Americans to make the same kind of choice: Were we willing to let Germany establish itself as the predominant power in Europe or would we support the enfeebled British lion to maintain the European balance of power?

The same question was faced more acutely in 1941, when Germany had defeated Britain and its allies on the mainland of Europe and Japan was poised to smash the British Empire in Asia. Once again, Americans concluded that their national interest (especially after Pearl Harbor) demanded that they defeat Britain's enemies.

Since 1945, with British power in ruins, the United States has in effect had to "play Britain." Economically, politically and militarily, the United States has replaced Britain as what Wilson confidant Col. Edward House called the gyroscope of world order. This was essentially the course that Roosevelt and his fellow imperialists proposed in 1900: that American power should fill the vacuum that Britain's decline threatened to create.

Today, as American military power has risen to new heights and as new and troubling threats have appeared, we are once again debating basic questions of national strategy. How far-reaching are American interests? How strong do our military forces need to be? Does America's international financial hegemony serve the interests of ordinary American families?

In very different circumstances, the imperialists and their opponents discussed these questions 100 years ago. The answers they found in large part determined the course of American and world history through the 20th century. As we enter a new era, Americans need to reflect once again on these questions. Those who want to help shape these new debates will want to prepare themselves by reading this powerful, clear and fascinating book.


Walter Russell Mead is senior fellow for U.S. foreign, policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."