Monday, January 15, 2018

American Empire, 1898-2018

We all know who POTUS #45 is, but do you know who was #25? That would be William McKinley, who was born 175 years ago this month—and who became President 121 years ago, in March 1897.
Learning about McKinley
June and I have the good fortune of living only about 12 miles from the Truman Presidential Library and fairly often are able to hear talks given there by guest lecturers. Such was the case last fall when were able to hear author Robert Merry talk about his new book President McKinley, Architect of the American Century.
Perhaps like many of you, I have never known (or cared?) much about McKinley, except that he was the third President to be assassinated in office (all within the space of 36 years!).
Even five years ago when I posted a blog article titled “Remember the Maine,” I didn’t mention the President when that event took place 120 years ago on February 15, 1898.
Merry titled the Introduction to his book, “The Mystery of William McKinley,” and it is somewhat mysterious that McKinley has not been more highly regarded—especially if, as Merry thinks, he can rightly be considered to be the “architect of the American century.”
Achievements of McKinley
While there are certainly other aspects of McKinley’s presidency that are noteworthy, none are more significant that the expansion of American power during his time in office. In fact, the events of 1898 initiated the beginning of what some call the American Empire.
The Spanish-American War began in April 1898 and ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10 of that year. Merry summarizes the benefits received: “The president [McKinley] got all he wanted: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Spain out of Cuba and the Caribbean, with no debt assumed by the United States” (p. 340).
It was also in July 1898 that the U.S. annexed the Republic of Hawaii, which had formerly been known as the Sandwich Islands.
McKinley was serving “Uncle Sam” new territory for his enjoyment, as is expressed by the following cartoon by Boz in the May 28, 1898, issue of the Boston Globe newspaper. (The cartoonist could see which way the winds were blowing.)  
By the end of 1898 it looked as if the U.S. had, indeed, become an empire, which Merry recognized by titling his 21st chapter “Empire.”
Questioning McKinley’s Achievements
There was strong opposition, however, to what seemed to be the surge of American imperialism under McKinley. On June 15, 1898, the Anti-Imperialist League was formed especially to fight U.S. annexation of the Philippines. It included among its members such notables as Andrew Carnegie, Mrk Twain, and William James. 
It was in that context that James, the eminent American philosopher and Harvard professor, exclaimed, “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles” (cited in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 307).
(With reference to his much-criticized remarks back in 2008, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, said he was quoting James. See my brief article about that here.)
The U.S. relinquished its sovereignty over the Philippines in 1946. Then in 1959 statehood was given to Hawaii, even though it is not in North America.
Guam and Puerto Rico still remain U.S. territories and their inhabitants are citizens of the U.S.—although they seem to be treated as “second-class” citizens as the insufficient response to last year’s hurricane destruction of Puerto Rico has shown.

In recent decades the American “Empire” has been seen primarily in its global leadership and international influence, positions now being considerably weakened because of the words and actions of #45.


  1. I'm happy to once again to have knowledgeable comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your lesson about President McKinley.

    "McKinley had some help from William Randolph Hearst, especially after the USS Maine exploded in Havana's harbor. It is unlikely that the Spaniards had anything to do with it.

    "America's territorial expansion under McKinley is certainly morally and legally questionable. Particularly dubious legally was the coup in Hawaii to overthrow Queen Lili'uokalani, a coup initiated by wealthy American and European business interests and supported by the U S government.

    "During 120 years of empire, the U S has intervened militarily in a number of countries or supported coups that overthrew democratically elected leaders. Although the U S stresses the importance of upholding international law, its actions all too often say something else."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric.

      As you point out, correctly, America's "international influence" (which I mention in the last paragraph) has by no means always been good or commendable.

  2. Imperialism is hardly new. It dates back to the early chapters of the book of Genesis. Land grabs have been going on for a long time. Much of US growth were purchases from other Empires. In my mind, the most regrettable imperial US land grabs were by Jackson, Van Buren, and Lincoln - all for Divine/Manifest Destiny. They death toll was horrible, and the results are still seen. (All three refused to acknowledge a Supreme Court decision of their day - one that has never been reversed.) May their infamy be proclaimed.

    The picture isn't prettier much of anywhere else. Sometimes war is the only solution to tyrants.

  3. Thinking Friend Charles Kiker in Tulia, Texas, makes this brief, but pertinent comment:

    "Some Filipinos did not want to be subject to American Imperialism. The insurrectionists were crushed with a vehemence matching the 'final solution' regarding Native Americans."

    1. Thanks, too, for your comments, Charles. As Eric alluded to above, the imperial activity of America in Hawaii was also met with great disapproval and resistance, although not with as much violence as in the Philippines.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky also sent these pertinent comments:

    "The world (or at least the subject peoples) has not benefited greatly from 'Empires,' though some nations such as Great Britain have. I don’t think these former Spanish domains have benefited from the American 'Empire' either, to look at the present distress of Puerto Rico."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your comments. -- I agree: it reprehensible the way the U.S. government has neglected to help Puerto Rico recover more quickly from the terrible effects of Hurricane Maria.

  5. Of course there were other imperial land grabs.

    Although never formally approved by Scotland, Jefferson took control of Campbell's Island and MacNeal's Reserve (territory on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River which France had sold to Scotland) with the Louisiana Purchase - the MacNeals still pay taxes under protest.

    Eastern and Western Florida (parts of Alabama and Mississippi) were taken from Spain by Madison (in the treaty the US also received the Northwest from Spain).

    Other US territories not specifically mentioned are the Virgin Islands, Samoa, and the Mariana Islands.

    Wrangel Islands was ceded to the USSR by Pres Bush (41) in 1991.

    These are only parts of the US Empire. The same is true of most of the world and world history, regardless of continent. Empires come and go. Tribalism and ambition remains. In part I understand. There is something to be said for land "ownership" even if it may be small or time limited. Jesus seemed to think highly of productive land owners, and even spoke of land conquest and when to seek terms of treaty or surrender. He had no harsh words for the Emporer, and neither did his disciples (although they were apparently hoping for a coup while he was still on Earth.) As a King, he had a big view. (I'm glad I'm not King or Emperor.)

    1. Of the examples in the first three paragraphs, only American Samoa was taken under McKinley and only it and perhaps the Mariana Islands could be considered a part of American imperialism, it seems to me.

      As for Jesus and the Roman Empire, he was executed partly, or maybe even largely, because he was perceived as a political threat to the Empire.

  6. When I was young, I thought empire was just a form of government, and an empire had an emperor, a kingdom had a king, and a democracy had a president or a prime minister. Later I finally realized that democracies and kingdoms can have empires, too, and often have done so. The examples of the empires of the democracies of Athens and Rome are hardly encouraging for the long-term health of America. Eventually the empires swallow the democracies, and then they slide towards oblivion. If we tried to match up Trump and the current Republican Senate with their Roman equivalents, I think it is clear we are past Julius and Augustus. We are finding out what it means to live in "interesting" times.

    1. Yes, we are certainly living in "interesting" times--and they may get a bit more interesting at midnight tonight. But I don't know how to relate the attitude/actions of DJT to imperialism. All the talk about making America great again doesn't seem at this point to have anything to do with expanding U.S. territory. And as I said at the end of the article, America's international influence seems to be declining greatly under #45.

      At the end of last month, Fareed Zakaria averred that "The decline of U.S. influence is the great global story of our age." Here is the link to the article by that title in the Washington Post:

    2. The inventions of debt and compound interest were adjuncts to ancient imperialism. Rather than merely raiding and plundering, imperial powers could impose debts with interest on their victims, which made the process much more efficient when it worked, and provided a good excuse for raiding and plundering if it did not. David Graeber in "Debt: the First 5,000 Years" (2011) spent a good deal of his book exploring all this, and also reviewing the reactions of various religions to the manipulations of debt and interest. "Debts must be paid" was met by "No usury!" Graeber's book is available online as a PDF download here:

      While Trump may be pulling back from overt military imperialism, he and his cronies have exploited debt and interest as much as possible. Just think of what DeVoss is doing with the burden student debt. And considering his history of Orwellian doublespeak, I do not trust Trump to be wanting the pull back of military imperialism, either. He may be bungling his handling of basic US foreign policy, but he is enthusiastic about growing the size of the military budget, and want to hugely increase our nuclear arsenal. I also read recently (sorry, lost source) that he set a record in his first year for special operations in foreign lands, conducting covert military missions in nearly 150 countries, which is about two thirds of all countries on earth.

      The first colonies that later became the United States were created by imperial powers occupying the New World. The United States continued that strategy of settler colonialism throughout its history. Presidents McKinley and Trump are just two data points along the way. The United States was born in genocide, baptized in slavery, and confirmed in capitalism. To the extent that the United States is a so-called Christian nation, it is not out of respect to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. Only imperial Christianity makes sense as the exceptionalism at the core of civic religion of America. Like Constantine, we conquer in the name of the cross.