Bringing Back McKinley
Robert Merry, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 624 pp., $35.00.
OF ALL American presidents, William McKinley suffers the most from the gap between his historical significance and his public reputation. The twenty-fifth president of the United States, he was elected in 1896 and assassinated by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901, six months into his second term in office. Few presidencies have been as consequential. In domestic politics, his election in 1896 and reelection in 1900 marked the decisive defeat of the Jeffersonian agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan in favor of the Hamiltonian vision of an urban-industrial society organized on the basis of corporate capitalism. He inaugurated four decades of Republican domination of the federal government, a political realignment on the scale of those that followed the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He led the United States in the Spanish-American War, gaining Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines as American protectorates; obtained the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory (which became a state in 1959); and laid the groundwork for the construction of the Panama Canal. The “Open Door” policy of his administration was followed in time by America’s commitment to defending China’s territorial integrity against Japan in World War II. A former arch-protectionist, as president he began the pivot away from infant-industry import substitution toward a strategy of reciprocal trade liberalization that was more appropriate for the United States, which had become the leading industrial economy in the world. McKinley, in short, presided over the transition from Lincoln’s America to the America of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Despite his historical importance, McKinley hardly exists in the popular consciousness of contemporary Americans. There have been attempts to revive McKinley’s reputation in recent years, by George W. Bush’s campaign advisor Karl Rove, who hoped that his boss, like McKinley, would inaugurate a long era of Republican dominance, and by Kevin Phillips, who admires McKinley as much as he despises the Bush dynasty. Now Robert W. Merry, a distinguished journalist and historian, and former editor of this magazine, provides a superb study of this neglected American statesman in President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.
Merry has written a traditional biography, not a polemic with its eye on the present like those of Rove and Phillips. Merry, the editor of the American Conservative and the author of numerous well-received books on American history, unites impressive archival research with astute judgments to offer a riveting portrait of McKinley. He covers a vast amount of territory, focusing on the link between McKinley’s rise and the formation of the modern Republican party. But Merry is also cognizant of the challenge that he faces—not least the bad luck that the quiet, self-effacing McKinley, a Civil War veteran known throughout his life as “the Major,” was succeeded in the White House by one of the most flamboyant characters in American history:
*** “Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, [Theodore] Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To the Major’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved ‘by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,’ as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.” ***
THE DUTIFUL son of pious Protestant parents, McKinley grew up in Ohio, dropped out of college because of a mysterious illness, and became a schoolteacher. Volunteering for the U.S. Army in the Civil War, he served under Rutherford B. Hayes, later his predecessor as president of the United States. Following the war, he practiced law and went into Congress, where he became an expert defender of high tariffs. Popular anger at the McKinley Tariff of 1890 led to his defeat for reelection. But in alliance with Mark Hanna, an iron manufacturer and kingmaker in Midwestern politics, McKinley became governor of Ohio in 1891 and 1893.
His life was not without pain. His two daughters died in childhood, and the ill health and frail mind of his wife Ida was a challenge—one that he met with his customary kindness and patience. His reputation and career were briefly endangered when a loan to a friend that he had cosigned went bad. But remarkably few obstacles confronted this calm and deliberate individual as he ascended the cursus honorum of late-nineteenth-century American politics. If he ever raged at subordinates, went out on a bender with cronies, or flirted with a floozy, history has not recorded the event.
Indeed, McKinley’s career formed a résumé as free of blemish as that of a class president or valedictorian whose yearbook entry reads, “Destined to succeed; liked by all.” Merry is a first-rate scholar and an accomplished writer, but the entire animation team of Disney’s Pixar Studios would have trouble bringing William McKinley to life.
Because his life and personality were so lacking in drama, the case for McKinley must be made on the basis of his accomplishments. Here, the greatest challenge to McKinley’s reputation in the twenty-first century is the legacy of historians of the mid-twentieth century. William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic Party lost the election of 1896, but they won the battle of the books. The four-decade hegemony of the McKinley Republicans was followed, from the 1930s to the 1970s, by four decades of political dominance by Roosevelt Democrats. With a few exceptions, like Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, most academic and popular historians in the middle of the twentieth century were slightly or significantly to the left of center and tended to be New Deal Democrats, when they were not Norman Thomas Socialists.
The Farmer-Labor base of the New Deal Democrats united two groups that had been on the outs during the McKinley-to-Hoover period: agrarian populists in the South and Midwest, and the disproportionately European-immigrant working class in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Great Lakes region. Sympathetic scholars wrote histories in which the Northeastern industrialists and Republican politicians whom Democrats had dislodged were the villains.
The economic nationalism of the McKinley era can be described as dual protectionism—tariff protection for selected American industries, and protection of the wages of American workers from competition by immigrants, both Asian and European, whose numbers were curtailed beginning in the 1880s by measures that were often justified by nativism and racism. This nationalist and protectionist political formula worked to ensure Republican dominance between the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s.
However, the agrarians in the Democratic Party had always been free traders, seeking foreign markets for American food, fiber and lumber, and denouncing tariffs as a tax on farmers to subsidize greedy industrialists. And the national-origins immigration-quota system instituted by the Republican-dominated Congress in the 1920s was rigged in favor of British and northwestern European immigrants. It also enshrined WASP disdain for Jews and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (support for excluding nonwhite immigration was bipartisan in this era). Naturally enough, then, in the transvaluation of values that took place when the odd-bedfellows coalition of Southern and Midwestern agrarians and European white “ethnics” in the big cities overthrew the Republicans during the Great Depression, industrial protectionism and immigration restriction were demonized, and free trade and generous immigration policies came to be seen as symbols of virtue.
Populist views of banks and big business also shaped the culture of the New Deal Democrats. As it had been since the days of Jefferson and Jackson, the Democratic Party was still based largely in the agricultural and mining regions of the South, Midwest and West, in which most businesses were small and local farmers and merchants viewed themselves as colonial subjects of Northeastern industry and finance. The term “robber baron” came to be applied retrospectively to most of the major bankers and industrialists between the Civil War and the New Deal, including J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. The whimsical 1873 novel The Gilded Age, by Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain, which depicted the pervasive corruption of the Reconstruction era, lent its title to the entire period between the Civil War and the Progressive Era, whose beginning was dated not to the McKinley administration, but to that of his vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt. To this day, pundits and politicians refer casually to “the robber barons of the Gilded Age” as though these terms were not just crude and propagandistic smears.
IN FOREIGN policy, too, there was a transvaluation of values when the Roosevelt Democrats replaced the McKinley Republicans after 1932. As heirs to the Hamiltonian tradition, the McKinley Republicans, like their predecessors the Whigs and Federalists, favored a strong national government and a modern, professional military. They shared American republican values, but did not believe that preserving republican liberty at home was incompatible with a standing army and a world-class fleet.
But that is exactly what many Jeffersonians believed. For generations, Jeffersonians insisted that the modern nation-state and modern large-scale corporate capitalism in themselves were inimical to republican liberty, defined as a largely agrarian society dominated by economically independent yeoman farmers and small business owners. It was not enough for the United States to stay out of foreign wars, which could cause the militarization and regimentation of American society. The very instruments of a modern great-power state had to be shunned by Americans.
For national defense, Jeffersonians believed that the United States should rely on militias, with the smallest possible standing army. Even a navy was suspect. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” This authority to hire privateers—that is, pirates—as military naval contractors was used by the United States in the American Revolution and War of 1812. Although the United States ceased relying on privateers in wartime after 1812, as late as 1856 the administration of President James Buchanan, a Democrat, rejected the Declaration of Paris, which sought to ban piracy. In 1894 Theodore S. Woolsey, a supporter of the international ban on piracy and a critic of what was still U.S. policy, explained U.S. opposition in the Yale Law Journal:
*** “The action of the United States was thus explained. The policy of this country was against the maintenance of a large navy. To supplement that navy in the work of commerce destroying and of enforcing the rules of naval war against neutral trade, the issue of letters of marque and reprisal might be necessary.” ***
In Jeffersonian ideology, just as a standing army too small to threaten the republic should be expanded only on a temporary basis during wartime by state militias, so a small navy should be augmented by privateers as well as the merchant marine. Not until 1961, when the U.S. Senate ratified the 1958 United Nations Convention on the High Seas, did the United States formally renounce the use of privateers.
Because “war is the health of the state,” to use Randolph Bourne’s phrase, and the centralized, bureaucratic state is the enemy of freedom, according to Jeffersonian theory, it followed that mere participation in great-power politics threatened to convert the American republic into a tyrannical, militarized European-style regime. Both Jeffersonian isolationism and Wilsonian internationalism sought to address the threat of U.S. militarization in different ways—the former, by withdrawing the United States from Old World military competition, the latter by transcending it. In this way Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic vision of a “war to end war,” followed by perpetual peace under the League of Nations, can be seen as a modification of Jeffersonian ideology rather than a repudiation of it. If militarization threatens democracy, then a world without great-power war would be “safe for democracy” even though many or most states might not themselves be democratic. This Wilsonian argument, recovered from historical obscurity by contemporary historians of “republican security theory” like Daniel Deudney and David C. Hendrickson, is far more subtle than modern “democratic peace theory,” which calls for world peace through democratic regime change everywhere.
This explains why twentieth-century Democrats could view the navalism of McKinley and TR, and the liberal internationalism of Wilson, as entirely different and incompatible projects. The turn-of-the-century thinkers and policymakers whom Samuel P. Huntington described as “neo-Hamiltonians,” like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, wanted to equip the United States with the traditional tools of a great power, to play the great-power game more or less as it had always been played. Woodrow Wilson wanted to replace great-power politics altogether.
To Jeffersonian Democrats, then, the Hamiltonian Republicans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were evil incarnate. They were identified with the interest of big banks and big businesses, which threatened the small farmers and small shopkeepers fetishized by Jeffersonians. They were protectionists, when according to Jeffersonians free trade was the only rational and moral policy. Their support for a large army and a large navy with global reach under the control of a strong president threatened to replace the decentralized American republic with a militaristic American empire.
These views shaped the version of U.S. history that several generations of Americans were taught, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. Popular historians of the New Deal era succeeding in creating a “usable past” for the New Deal Democrats by disparaging all Republicans except for one. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, every Republican president from Andrew Johnson to Herbert Hoover was portrayed as a callous servant of plutocratic interests, the enemy of the family farmer and the industrial worker. The Democratic historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for example, sought to portray Andrew Jackson as a kind of proto-FDR and the Jacksonian Democrats as precursors of the New Deal Democrats. In his own Oval Office, FDR’s protégé Lyndon Johnson had portraits of three presidents: Washington, FDR and Andrew Jackson.
One might guess that, given the attempt by Schlesinger and others to rehabilitate the Jacksonian Democrats, there would have been an attempt to cast a heroic light on the central events of U.S. foreign policy during the Jacksonian era of the 1830s and 1840s. And indeed there was, in Bernard de Voto’s popular historical trilogy about America’s Jacksonian-era expansion: The Year of Decision 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), which won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, and The Course of Empire (1952), which won the National Book Award.
A similar rewriting of history in the service of New Deal liberalism took place in the realm of foreign policy. According to liberal New Dealers, Franklin Roosevelt during World War II fulfilled the heroic vision of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he had served as assistant secretary of the navy. Wilson and Roosevelt stood for liberal internationalism and collective security, embodied in the League of Nations and the United Nations. Enlightened liberal internationalism had nothing to do with the benighted, European-style imperialism of McKinley and TR. In this way, the foreign policy of McKinley and TR came to be defined as an aberrant and un-American interlude of “imperialism” between the Jeffersonian isolationism of the nineteenth century and the noble twentieth-century liberal internationalism of Wilson and FDR.
Today’s Democrats, many of whom have repudiated the party’s tradition of annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, are more inclined to identify with women and minorities in the American past than with white male yeoman farmers and white working-class men. But with the exception of Sean Wilentz, unlike Schlesinger and De Voto today’s partisan Democratic historians are mostly academics who write for each other and have little influence outside of the academy. Nor does the radical leftist tradition of William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have any purchase on the imaginations of Americans outside of campuses.
The New Deal version of history thus persists in popular consciousness. The treatment of turn-of-the-century U.S. naval imperialism as a brief and discreditable fluke preceding the glorious dawn of Wilsonian internationalism continues to have influence. So does the enduring image of the election of 1896 as a melodrama, in which pawns of big banks and big business like McKinley forever destroyed the arcadian America of Thomas Jefferson and William Jennings, and set the United States on a path of perpetual war and conquest.
MERRY’S BOOK demonstrates how little this familiar cartoon version of history resembles reality. For one thing, Merry shows that McKinley was not the puppet of Mark Hanna or anyone else. Quite the contrary. While he was opposed to Bryan’s inflationary free-silver policies, McKinley was flexible with respect to the gold standard. Nor was he a mere pawn of big corporations. As a lawyer and governor he had won the respect of workers in disputes with employers, and he struggled with the question of what to do about the new corporate oligopolies and monopolies, or “trusts”—a question his successor Theodore Roosevelt would struggle with as well. On questions of race and civil rights, he was cautious and paternalist, but like other Lincoln Republicans, this veteran of the Civil War was more liberal than most Democrats of the time.
But the conventional wisdom remains dominated by the New Deal liberal version of U.S. foreign-policy history, in which two ages of the “common man”—the Jacksonian era and the New Deal—were separated by the plutocratic “Gilded Age.” The “age of imperialism” (as old-fashioned textbooks quaintly call it) is an isolated episode between the Spanish-American War and World War I. The United States takes up the mantle of its liberal internationalist destiny under Woodrow Wilson, only to retreat into misguided isolationism and protectionism after World War I, until American internationalism finally triumphs under FDR (at least until Trump betrays it with “America First” nationalism, according to some).
The New Deal liberal interpretation of history ignores the continuities in American foreign policy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The timing depended on circumstances, but the goal of U.S. hegemony in the North American continent and control of its maritime approaches was shared by many in the U.S. elite from the very beginning. In Federalist 11, Alexander Hamilton called for the United States to “aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs,” so that the United States would be “able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.” As Merry observes,
*** “America had been from its inception a nation of vast designs, driven by an impulse to consolidate its position across the North American midsection—purchasing the vast Louisiana expanse in 1803, negotiating possession of Florida in 1819, annexing Texas in 1845, acquiring much of Oregon Territory in 1846, and conquering lands in 1848 that would become its southwestern domain.” ***
In the Jeffersonian imagination, U.S. expansion is identified with the acquisition of acreage that could be settled by pioneer farmers (once the Native Americans or native Mexican inhabitants were dispossessed). But from the point of view of the policymakers who obtained them, these big chunks of territory were chiefly important as strategic seaports that happened to have thinly populated hinterlands attached. The United States did not abruptly switch under McKinley from overland territorial expansion seeking acreage for democracy-loving yeoman farmers to naval imperialism seeking bases in the service of militarists and greedy industrialists.
All of the great land grabs of American history were motivated in part by the desire to obtain strategic ports. The main objective of the diplomats Thomas Jefferson sent to negotiate with Napoleon in 1803 was obtaining the port of New Orleans, not the Louisiana Territory. The Adams-Oniz Treaty of 1819, which purchased Florida from Spain, and the U.S. annexation of “West Florida,” the Gulf Coast between present-day Florida and New Orleans, ensured access to the Gulf of Mexico. Many Americans believed that Texas had been included in the original Louisiana Territory purchase; from this perspective the annexation of Texas, which had been detached from Mexico by rebellious Anglo-American settlers and their native allies in 1836, was a mopping-up operation. When Mexico went to war with the United States over the annexation of Texas, the Polk administration, which had tried to purchase California, obtained its prize by conquest: the port of San Francisco. Earlier, the United States had risked war with Britain to partition the Oregon Territory, on terms that allowed the United States access to Vancouver Bay while leaving Vancouver Island in British hands. The purchase of Alaska from Russia by Secretary of State William Seward during Andrew Johnson’s administration in 1867 rounded off the continental domains of the United States.
Moreover, even though several of these sought-for ports and attached hinterlands were purchased or stolen from the weak states of Mexico and Spain, a major motive for their annexation by the United States was to deny them to more important powers who might obtain them, if they slipped free of control by Madrid or Mexico City or Paris. Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, and James Monroe purchased Florida from Spain, to deny them to Britain. For ten years after the Texas Revolution of 1836, antislavery forces denied the admission of Texas to the United States as a slave state; the desire of British policymakers to keep Texas independent of the United States was a factor in persuading Congress to annex Texas in 1846. Keeping the Alaska Territory out of British hands was the motive for “Seward’s Folly.”
IN LIGHT of the Anglo-American rapprochement of the late nineteenth century and the deep Anglo-American alliance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is easy to forget how long the British Empire was viewed as the greatest strategic threat to the United States by American policymakers. Anglo-American geopolitical rivalry was central to both of the crises of the 1840s, the Oregon dispute and the Mexican War. Alta California, populated by around ten thousand Mexican nationals, had already achieved de facto independence from Mexico City, and it was widely assumed that the region would drift either into the U.S. or British spheres of influence, at a time when Britain was still the dominant naval and commercial power in North America. Americans who coveted California in general, and the ports of San Francisco and San Diego in particular, exaggerated but did not invent the possibility that California would become a British ally or protectorate, as Texas had threatened to become. The hope of some Southern secessionists that Britain would intervene to help the Confederate States of America obtain their independence from the United States, and the general preference of the British elite for the Southern rebels against the Union, shows that the danger that the United States would be hemmed in by British colonies or protectorates—Canada, the CSA, perhaps an independent Texas again and an independent California—was very real.
By the 1880s and 1890s, American fears of conflict with Britain were replaced by anxieties about the rise of Germany and Japan—anxieties which were not unreasonable, in light of the subsequent American wars with those nations. The naval buildup and quest for naval bases under McKinley and his successors, denounced by populists and liberals as an expression of un-American militarism or as a search for foreign markets by American big business, was in reality motivated largely by the belief of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt and others that the British fleet could no longer protect American interests from an increasingly powerful Germany. Indeed, the conflict among the United States, Britain and Germany over Samoa; the Spanish-American War; and later U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution, which was, among other things, a proxy war between Imperial Germany and the United States, can only be understood as episodes in what was in effect a German-American cold war.
Defenders of the old-fashioned populist-liberal school of history might reply that American naval expansionists invoked rivalries with Germany and Japan as alibis for policies with other goals. But as the line often attributed to Henry Kissinger goes, even paranoids have real enemies. Between the 1880s and World War I, while building up its fleet, Germany sought its own Pacific island empire while hoping to expand its influence in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Merry notes McKinley’s concern about “ambitious nations—Germany and Japan in particular—interjecting themselves into the mess [in the Philippines] and spreading even more chaos.” This fear was well founded. Following the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the German squadron in Manila Bay outnumbered the American ships, and there was a tense confrontation between Admiral Dewey and German Vice Admiral von Diederichs.
Nothing can excuse the war crimes committed by U.S. troops in conquering the Philippines. There is also much to be criticized in the subsequent administration of the islands as a U.S. protectorate until after World War II, and in U.S. policy toward the Philippines since then. And the so-called “insular cases” that followed the Spanish-American War, in which the Supreme Court correctly ruled that Congress could limit the rights of inhabitants of U.S. territories, were abused by the administration of George W. Bush as an argument for the legality of torture and the denial of basic human rights in the U.S. base at Guantánamo, Cuba. But the McKinley administration was almost certainly right that a great power potentially hostile to the United States—most likely Germany, possibly Japan—would have made the post-Spanish Philippines a protectorate, if the United States had not done so.
Contrary to populist-liberal mythology, if Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Ulysses Grant, among others, had been summoned from the grave in 1900 to learn that the United States had extended its control over Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and was building a transoceanic Central American canal, instead of lamenting the replacement of the American republic by an American empire they probably would have been astonished that these acquisitions had been so long delayed. And they might have been surprised that Canada had not yet been absorbed into the American union.
PERHAPS THE greatest failing of the New Deal school of U.S. foreign-policy history is its failure to recognize the extent to which the central figure of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was himself the heir of McKinley and TR. FDR is often portrayed as the second coming of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he served as assistant secretary of the navy. But his role model and hero was his cousin Theodore, whose footsteps he followed into the Department of the Navy and the White House.
FDR was a navalist of the school of Mahan and TR and Lodge. Under Wilson he presided over the U.S. occupations of numerous Caribbean islands, to avert possible German influence or sabotage. This record came back to haunt him, when he joked to a reporter during his campaign for the vice presidency in 1920: “The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself, and, if I do say it, I think it’s a pretty good constitution.”
During World War II FDR came up with the name for the United Nations, but he was far more of a realist than Wilson. FDR hoped that the postwar world would be policed by a great-power concert of the major World War II allies—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—with the Chinese Nationalist regime enlisted as a pro-American fourth “policeman.” He seems to have envisioned not joint policing of every region of the world by the four founding members of the Security Council (to which France was later added), but rather distinct great-power spheres of influence, in which the United States, as the hegemon of North America and the dominant naval power in both the Atlantic and Pacific, would be first among equals. This idea of a sphere of influence in which the regional military hegemon exercises the “police power” against misbehaving neighbors, while the region remained open for commerce with the rest of the world, might be traced back to the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door Doctrine in China announced by John Hay, the former secretary of Abraham Lincoln who served McKinley and TR as secretary of state.
In his attitude toward banking and business, too, FDR had more in common with the Republicans who preceded him than received history would have us believe. Like TR, FDR did not believe it was realistic to use antitrust laws to mechanically break up all large firms. During his first term, he built on the “associationalism” of Herbert Hoover and promoted the cartelization of industry under the auspices of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which was struck down as unconstitutional by a Supreme Court majority including the neo-Jeffersonian Louis Brandeis. In his second term FDR fell under the sway of antimonopolists like Thurman Arnold, head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, but when the imperatives of production in World War II made government-business collaboration necessary, he got rid of Arnold by promoting him to the federal judiciary. Roosevelt favored branch banking by big banks to stabilize the financial system rather than federal deposit insurance, an old Bryanite populist policy designed to prop up tiny, undercapitalized Southern and Western “unit banks,” and only reluctantly acquiesced in the creation of the FDIC.
In short, in his outlook and policies FDR had more in common with the so-called “imperialists” and supporters of modern corporate capitalism among McKinley-TR Republicans than with the agrarian populists and liberal internationalist idealists in the Democratic party that he led. Although his branch of the Roosevelt family preferred the Democrats, and he himself ran for office later as a Democrat, in 1900, when McKinley was president, in support of his cousin TR, McKinley’s vice-president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an undergraduate at Harvard was a member of the Republican Club. Only later did he decide to pursue a political career as a Democrat.
MERRY PROVIDES a number of insightful observations about McKinley’s approach to foreign affairs. He offers a useful corrective to the received wisdom of the mid-twentieth-century school. He is thus right to emphasize the continuity of McKinley’s policy with that of his predecessors, and right as well to stress that under McKinley the United States sought a “noncolonial imperialism”—essentially, a sphere of influence and naval bases that were compatible with the larger American strategy of preventing, rather than promoting, the enclosure of the global commons and the world economy into rival autarkic empires:
*** “The imperatives that Washington sought to impose on the emergent Cuban government, constituting a kind of big brother status, represented another foray into the realm of noncolonial imperialism, applying military, economic, and diplomatic power to get other nations to bend to U.S. desires. Ultimately it was about America’s perceived imperative of protecting and maintaining its sphere of influence, codified in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and expanded with the Spanish-American War.” ***
The geopolitics of the early twenty-first century would not seem unusual to McKinley or the neo-Hamiltonian circle of TR, Lodge and Mahan. During the Cold War, the United States added protectorates over Germany, Japan and South Korea, while fighting a lost war to preserve the protectorate in South Vietnam it had inherited from the French Empire. Following the Cold War, the United States extended its sphere of influence into eastern Europe all the ways to the border of shrunken post-Soviet Russia, and has tried to plant permanent military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter two countries, the United States has discovered, as McKinley did in Cuba and the Philippines, that the price of a strategic military base is often a bloody and prolonged attempt to subdue an entire territory.
Other great powers have their own “empires of bases.” To prevent the possible loss of its strategic Black Sea naval base, Russia seized and annexed Crimea. To avert the loss of its base in Syria, Russia intervened to prop up Assad in the Syrian war. Meanwhile, China is building artificial islands to reinforce its claim to the South China Sea, a claim contested by U.S. freedom-of-navigation exercises. The foreign-policy experts who have spent a generation fantasizing about global connectivity and the end of the nation-state should have been studying Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History.
In what Merry calls “a rare immodest moment for McKinley,” the president told a group of visitors to the White House:
*** “And so it has come to pass that in a few short months we have become a world power; and I know, sitting here in this chair, with what added respect the nations of the world now deal with the United States, and it is vastly different from the conditions I found when I was inaugurated.” ***
There is no McKinley Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC and there is unlikely to be one. If there were, its motto might be the epitaph of the architect Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you seek his monument, look around.
Michael Lind is a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas and the author of The American Way of Strategy.
Image: A 1900 Republican campaign poster for the U.S. presidential election, with portraits of President William McKinley and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt at center. On the left side "Gone Democratic" shows the U.S. in economic slump and Cuba shackled by Spain; on the right side "Gone Republican" shows the U.S. prosperous and Cuba being educated under U.S. tutelage. Wikimedia Commons