Those of us who have spent anytime at all in Hawaii, usually on vacation, enjoying the fine weather, the welcoming water and big shouldered mountains, have some small idea that there was once a queen, with a people of her own, and that she was deposed, her kingdom taken as a U.S. territory, back in the 1880s, some time or other.  What that dot doesn’t get connected to are all the other takings in the same years when America’s imperial expansion began in earnest.

True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer, 2017 is a good, accessible place to start joining the dots together.  A journalist who has written The Brothers: John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles & Their Secret World War and All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror  Kinzer is also a member of The Watson Institute for International Affairs at Brown University.  He reminds us of the particular four years which set in motion the times and wars we are now part of.   In June of 1898, as the House of Representatives voted 209 to 91 to annex Hawaii, a now almost forgotten anti-Imperialist movement held its first meeting to push back against the newly empowered overseas expansionists.  Four years later the US conquest of the Philippines was over and the course of “benevolent” American intervention around the world was set.

International expansion did not spring, unheralded from an otherwise pacific people.  President Polk had urged the war against Mexico from 1846-1848; Cuba had been in the American mindscape since before the Civil war when it, and other parts of Central America, were seen by Southerners as ideal future states, already rich with Spanish slave labor.  Four years of brutal Civil War were followed by the American Indian wars west of the Mississippi — much celebrated in the “Blood and Thunder” novels of the time.  Not only commercial interests seeking wider markets and elected representatives were ready for war, so was a large part of the American population.

“Suddenly Cuba obsessed everyone. Crowds gathered in front of the White House. Spaniards were burned in effigy. Demands to fight echoed in editorials, speeches, and sermons. Newspapers published patriotic ditties. War songs became part of vaudeville shows.”

In the background, headline news of the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Boer War in South Africa contributed to American identification with white Europeans against “barbaric savages.”

The vote to annex Hawaii came five years after Queen Lili’uokalani had been deposed by business men from the United States. The war with Spain had been declared two months earlier on April 21, 1898 after January riots in Havana, Cuba, against the Spanish, had led to the deployment of the USS Maine –in support of the rebels– and its subsequent sinking. Two weeks later Admiral Dewey sank the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay,  after bringing the Filippino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo from exile in Hong Kong and promising that America would be a good and faithful ally to his Filipino resistance to Spain.  By August 13, two months after Hawaii’s acquisition, the war with Spain was over.  Aguinaldo’s forces had taken much of the country, including Manila, under control.  In early February, 1899, however, US forces under General Arthur MacArthur (father of General Douglas MacArthur of WWII)  attacked and took Manila from its liberators.  Three and a half years of an American war against their “ally,” the Filipinos, had begun.

The most startling revelation to many in The True Flag, especially those who have a special place in their hearts for Theodore Roosevelt, [recently voted the 4th best American president!]  will be how uniquely responsible he was for setting the imperial project in motion, aided and abetted from early on by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts (grandfather to the Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. of the Vietnam War years.)  Out of their personalities and views of the world they triangulated the reasons to support their war: Manliness, Christianity and Open Markets.

It is positively chilling to read some of Roosevelt’s words:

“I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.”  – 1895

In widely re-printed speech called “The Strenuous Life,” given on tour while he was governor of New York, he told his audience:

“The Philippines offer a yet graver problem. Their population includes half-caste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans. Many of their people are utterly unfit for self-government, and show no signs of becoming fit. Others may in time become fit but at present can only take part in self-government under a wise supervision, at once firm and beneficent

He led expansionists in characterizing anti-imperialists, such as Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland and Andrew Carnegie, as ‘women’ lacking what he called ‘the essential manliness of the American Character.’  And,

“As for those in our own country who encourage the foe, we can afford contemptuously to disregard them; but it must be remembered that their utterances are not saved from being treasonable merely by the fact that they are despicable.


Kinzer’s story is not only of the war-hawks and expansionists, but those who opposed them.  For all the political and commercial power behind over-seas expansion, those in opposition were almost their equal. Mark Twain, a very funny man except when he wasn’t, was perhaps the most famous and the most scathing.

In late 1900 he offered this essay: “Taken down in shorthand:”

“I bring you the stately matron called CHRISTENDOM — returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines; with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.”

Outraged by reports of torture, rape, the burning of villages and ‘concentration” of villagers in camps, he wrote in 1901 “To The Person Sitting in Darkness:”

“There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil. True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us; we have stamped out a just and intelligent and well-ordered republic; we have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a Shadow from an enemy that hadn’t it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and his liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world; but each detail was for the best….

Along with Twain in the fight to stop the war,  was Grover Cleveland, the former U.S. president (twice);  Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men in America,  Booker T Washington; Samuel Gompers; several Senators; Presidential contender William Jennings Bryan, Edgar Lee Masters and William James, who wrote often and powerfully.

 “… we have been swept away by the overmastering flood. And now what it has swept us into is an adventure that in sober seriousness and definite English speech must be described as literally piratical. Our treatment of the Aguinaldo movement at Manila and at Iloilo is piracy positive and absolute, and the American people appear as pirates pure and simple, as day by day the real facts of the situation are coming to the light.”

By the election of 1900 the forces of Empire and Republic seemed almost equal. Republicans were fracturing over the war.  Kingmaker Mark Hanna, who introduced corporate giving to presidential races and powered McKinley to the 1896 presidency, had been a fierce opponent of the rush to war in 1898.  He was appalled as the GOP convention, backing McKinley for a second term,  voted to put Roosevelt on the ticket.

“Don’t you realize there is only one life between this madman [TR] and the presidency?

On the Democratic side, Andrew Carnegie with his deep pockets and William Jennings Bryan, the wildly famous populist, had had conversations about joining forces to stop the expansionists.  Carnegie, and most commercial leaders were terrified that a monetary policy of adding silver to gold as the basis for money would lead to inflation and ruin.  If Bryan, as the Democratic presidential candidate, would stop leading with his demand for “free silver” a coalition might defeat McKinley and Roosevelt.  No stronger platform against war has ever been written, than that of the Democrats in the summer of 1900.

“We condemn and denounce the Philippine policy of the present administration. It has involved the Republic in an unnecessary war, sacrificed the lives of many of our noblest sons, and placed the United States, previously known and applauded throughout the world as the champion of freedom, in the false and un-American position of crushing with military force the efforts of our former allies to achieve liberty and self-government

The war of “criminal aggression” against the Filipinos, entailing an annual expense of many millions, has already cost more than any possible profit that could accrue from the entire Philippine trade for years to come. Furthermore, when trade is extended at the expense of liberty, the price is always too high.

… We oppose militarism. It means conquest abroad and intimidation and oppression at home. It means the strong arm which has ever been fatal to free institutions. It is what millions of our citizens have fled from in Europe. It will impose upon our peace loving people a large standing army and unnecessary burden of taxation, and will be a constant menace to their liberties. A small standing army and a well-disciplined state militia are amply sufficient in time of peace. This republic has no place for a vast military establishment, a sure forerunner of compulsory military service and conscription.

But, at the insistence of Bryan, a single sentence was included:

“…we reiterate the demand of that platform for an American financial system made by the American people for themselves, and which shall restore and maintain a bi-metallic price-level, and as part of such system the immediate restoration of the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1.”

The possible winning alliance fell apart.

McKinley and Roosevelt swept to victory  292-155 (51.6% – 45.5%).  No better chance of reversing war as an instrument of national policy has ever occurred. They were sworn in on March 4, 1901, Aguinaldo was captured within weeks,  and a vicious counterinsurgency campaign was undertaken, not to end until April, 1902.

The previously vilified reconcentrados (concentration camps) of the Spanish increased in number and size under American authority.  Between January and April 1902, some 8,350 prisoners out of approximately 298,000 died.  Some camps experience d mortality rates as high as 20 percent.  One of the commanders of the camps called them the “suburbs of Hell.”  Entire villages were burned or otherwise destroyed.  When caught outside the camps without papers, Filipinos were taken in for questioning. The “water cure,” now called water-boarding, was frequently used — and written home about by American soldiers. Non combatants were beaten, taken away from families and  summarily executed.

General J.M. Bell, wrote in December 1901:”

“All able bodied men will be killed or captured. … These people need a thrashing to teach them some good common sense; and they should have it for the good of all concerned.

General Jacob H Smith had similar views:

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn: the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me.” When asked by a subordinate for the age-limit for killing, he answered that any boy above the age of ten was.

President McKinley, having overcome his first-term war reluctance now pursued it in the name of Christian charity.

“… there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”

These are direct quotes from men who were there, and who pursued the war.  No fake news.


I don’t know if closer and more honest reading of humankind’s past, beginning each with our own, would enable us to understand, deep in the limbic system, just how destructive war has been, how much pain and sorrow have fallen with its shot and shell, but it seems to me worth a try. The vectors of the social contagion of war fever  are the familial, tribal, national conversations that all too easily infect susceptible organisms — us.

It is unclear to me what contribution to the “this-is-what-we-all-know” virus, history, fiction and memoir make, against that which we assimilate with every breath we take. However, had these four years at the beginning of modern America, now all but invisible, had been honestly taught in our schools and our think-tanks, if we had interrogated them as deeply as we do our individual pasts, trying to understand the points of weakness, the moments of failure, the betrayal by others, might we not have arrived at a new national being, a body-politic with strong habitual aversion to promises of wealth, excitement, achievement, fame and glory coming through armed combat with others?

It is not a question of recognizing evil, bad Americans of the past for whom we should self-flagellate in repentance, but of observed human behavior time and time again. Persian armies created an empire over tribal remnants; Spartans butchered Athenians; Romans ruled the known world;  the hordes of the Khans swept across Babylon; the Dutch, the British, the French and Germans wanted Empire; the Japanese battered Russia, invaded China.  And America, too.  If, as we were in an AA group for recovering war-lovers, if we were to own our past, to share it with others whose patterns were all too familiar to us, wouldn’t it be possible to slow the relapsing down, if not end it entirely?



Two other books about Theodore Roosevelt’s impact on the American drive to empire worth mentioning.  The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James D. Bradley is even more eye-opening than The True Flag. The son of one of the marines whose form we’ve all seen in bronze or photo, raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, Bradley wanted to know what his father had been fighting for, why the Japanese had launched their attack on Pearl Harbor and on China and Russia before that.  It turns out the Theodore Roosevelt had a great deal to do with it, along with his Harvard coterie which held astounding beliefs in white supremacy.  [My review here.]

Gregg Jones’ Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream arrived in 2012, 5 years before True Flag.  It is more history, and less journalism than Kinzer’s book, and so offers more details, some of them excruciating about American behavior and betrayal in that war.