Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Bastard Blogging: Philander C. Knox

Based on a comment from my friend Yann concerning my overrating of William Howard Taft in my President's Day list, I present you with the case of Philander C. Knox, Taft's Secretary of State and pusher of American imperialism in Latin America.

Most of Knox's life is not particularly interesting to me. Born in 1853 near Pittsburgh, Knox graduated from Mount Union College and went into the law. He went to work for Pittsburgh steel magnate and Robber Baron, Andrew Carnegie. He helped Carnegie form U.S. Steel in 1901. From there, he went into the government when William McKinley named him Attorney General. This appointment shows how beholden the Republican Party was to large corporations at the end of the Gilded Age and was a pick guaranteed to continue the dominance of big business in American life. Knox remained as Attorney General after McKinley's assassination. Many people cite trust busting as a sign of how progressive Theodore Roosevelt was, but in reality TR went after only a few corporations and his continued support of Knox as Attorney General shows how pro-business he was. He left the Roosevelt administration in 1904 to fill a Pennsylvania Senate seat vacated by a death.

Knox wanted to replace Roosevelt as President, an absurd proposition given that the popular president had thrown his influence behind William Howard Taft. Knox lost the 1908 Republican nomination but was named Secretary of State by Taft, serving throughout his administration.

It is here that Knox's bastardy really comes into play. Knox had one major goal as Secretary of State--to promote US business interests abroad at all costs. He was a big proponent of Dollar Diplomacy, originated by Roosevelt and pushed by Taft, which proposed that the United States could step into a Latin American nation to recover debts when that country proved unable to repay them. More generally, the influence of American banks in strategic parts of the world would ensure US control over these areas and prevent rivals like Britain and Germany from expanding their power. This idea led to numerous American interventions in Latin America throughout the early part of the 20th century. Among the most damaging were in Honduras and Nicaragua. In Honduras, Sam "The Banana Man" Zemurray (previously honored in Bastard Blogging), found his interests in trouble when a 1907 revolution brought Miguel Dávila to power. His predecessor, Manuel Bonilla, had jumped to Zemurray's every request and Hondurans were unhappy about their nation being a colony of an American banana company. Dávila quickly became friendly with Nicaraguan president Jose Santos Zelaya, who hated the United States. Zemurray used his connections with Knox and other parts of the U.S. government to undermine these unfriendly leaders. Knox looked to replace London's control over Honduran debt with American control that included Taft having the right to name the Honduran Customs Collector. The Honduran Congress overwhelmingly rejected this idea and the banking scheme, headed by former Knox employer J.P. Morgan, fell apart. Zemurray then financed his own revolution out of New Orleans, returning his lackey Manuel Bonilla to power. Knox and Zemurray thus succeeded in making Honduras entirely dependent on the United States.

Nicaragua was even uglier. Knox and Taft looked to dump Zelaya as well, but doing so ushered in a two decade American occupation and the vile Somoza family to power. Zelaya seized power in 1893 and did all he could from that point on to keep his nation out of U.S. control. In 1909, Conservatives, led by Emiliano Chamorro and Juan Estrada, started a revolution on the isolated Miskito Coast on the Atlantic. Supported by the United States, Washington actually had a three day advance warning that the revolt would take place. Two American citizens living in Nicaragua joined the revolution, were caught mining rivers, and immediately executed by Zelaya. Zelaya also kept pushing for a new canal to be built across his nation to undermine the United States' exclusive control over the Panama Canal that was nearly completion. Zelaya, not a great man, but better than many Central American leaders at that time, read the writing on the wall, and resigned his position in 1909 when it became clear that the United States would invade if he stayed in power. He hoped that by resigning, he could prevent the American domination he had long fought against. But the revolution continued and in 1910, 200 US Marines joined the force, led by Smedley Butler, who had led the 1903 Honduran invasion. The Conservatives quickly toppled the government.

Knox was happy as a clam but all of Central America was furious at this naked act of American aggression. For the rest of the Taft administration, the weak Central American republics worked made their displeasure known. In Nicaragua, a revolt in 1912 led to an invasion force of 2600 Marines. Nicaragua was now fully dependent on the U.S. dollar and American economic control. Nothing bad happened there ever again.

Knox tried to push Dollar Diplomacy in Asia as well, but with little success. The Taft administration wanted more American influence in China, but the already established European powers, as well as Japan, had little interest in allowing the Americans in. In particular, Knox pushed for American control over railroad projects in Manchuria, which had the unexpected result of pushing Japan and Russia, less than a decade after their 1905 war, closer together. This was part of the general failure of American imperialism in Asia at this time, when the nation tried to convince the other powers of a sort of equal imperialism for all based on free trade through the Open Door and then Dollar Diplomacy. Not surprisingly, they didn't elicit a lot of interest in this proposal.

Thus ends the tale of Philander C. Knox. After Taft's loss in 1913, he went back into the law and then returned to the Senate from Pennsylvania in 1917, dying in office in 1921. He never expressed any regret about his actions. Those actions helped create the awful conditions in Central America that led to widespread rebellion and repression in the late 1970s and 1980s and continue to haunt the region today.

Amazingly, I have not been able to find any biographies of Knox. Very strange. Much of this information comes from Walter Lafeber's great book, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America