Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part VIII

This is the seventh installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries. Forgive the late post this week. I was in Boston until Monday evening and literally within an hour of getting back was hit by a 24 hour flu. Good times.

Rob's entry for the week is here

This week covers the period from 1893-1901, arguably the most transitional period in the history of American foreign relations. It was during these years that the United States went to war with Spain to become a colonial power, subjugated a colonial rebellion in the Philippines that resulted from our occupation, annexed Hawaii, intervened in the Boxer Rebellion, and issued the two Open Door notes.

The consequences of this period cannot be overstated. The Platt Amendment turned Cuba into a quasi-colony, the previous Teller Amendment probably the only reason that the island did not actually become an official colony. Turning Cuba into a client state with no democratic accountability helped lead to the communist revolution that marched into Havana 50 years ago tomorrow. The Philippines rebellion showed the worst of the US--in fact, it seems to me that Herring underplays the issue. While he claims that atrocities were not ordered or condoned, that's like saying that the horrible things that have happened in Iraq were not ordered or condoned. In a technical sense that may be true, but in both cases it obscures the responsibility for atrocities that should be placed upon people in power.

The Open Door notes began the U.S. involvement in East Asia. I have always found this episode amusing because of the absurdity of calling for Europe and Japan to open their trading zones to U.S. trade. Had the U.S. gotten involved in the imperialism game a little earlier and had acquired a Chinese concession, I doubt we would have embraced the Open Door with such gusto. I have somewhat derisively refered to this idea as "Equal Imperialism for All." Of course, the Open Door is an example of the strong trade orientation of U.S. foreign policy throughout its history.

Rob wonders about the impact of the Spanish-American War on reconcilation between the North and South. He's right that very few military officers from 1865 were fighting in 1898, but the reconciliation was much broader than just issues between individual officers. The entire 1890s (and really going back into the mid 1880s) was a period where the North and South were reconciling, agreeing that the South was right about race relations, even if slavery was wrong and needed to end. This phenomenon affected many parts of American life, from reunions at the battlefields to battlefield monuments to the rise of Jim Crow. Within the military, the Spanish-American War created the first major conflict where North and South could fight together against a common enemy. The Indian Wars that Rob mentions simply weren't large enough to provide that kind of reconciliation. And while I know little about the makeup of the military of the 1870s and 80s, what I do know suggests that the leading military officers in the West had experience fighting for the Union. I can't think of one Confederate officer who was also an officer in the post-war Indian battles, though again, there may be exceptions that I don't know about.

Related to the culture of American expansion was the crisis of masculinity in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Herring mentions this as he sets the mood of the time, but it was quite important in understanding the period. For many upper class men, war the ideal experience to reclaim an Anglo-Saxon masculinity under threat from a variety of factors, including living in enervating cities, the closing of the frontier, the increased presence of women in the public sphere, the rise of bureaucracy in corporations, the decrease of wildlife populations, and the flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe pouring into the country. All of these things made many men feel that traditional American manhood was under threat. The response to this crisis influenced a series of actions that led to national parks, game laws, and the Boy Scouts. Getting out to nature was a good way to build manhood, but nothing could replicate the experience of war. This goes a long ways to explain why wealthy Americans such as Theodore Roosevelt leapt at the opportunity to join up to fight in Cuba. The Rough Riders and other outfits were full of wealthy volunteers looking to have fun killing and build the proper masculinity that would lead Anglo-Saxon culture in the future. And although some of these men died (including the grandson of Hamilton Fish, Grant's Secretary of State), the war was too short to end this fantasy. It would take World War I and the deaths of the British and German elite young men to do so.

A lot of interesting issues in this chapter, but I'll stop for now.