Sunday, January 25, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part IX

This is the ninth 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. As you may have noticed, it's been several weeks since the last entry. This is because Rob lost his book. Amazingly, someone found it and shipped it back to him. This begs further explanation. Does he put his address in all of his books? I hope he tells us.

This week covers the period from 1901-13, or the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. This is a period of great importance in the history of American foreign relations. Having gained colonies in 1898, America had to figure out what to do with them. Was the nation comfortable as a hard colonialist power or did it prefer a softer colonial relationship without constant physical occupation (and the expenses that incurred)? Moreover, the United States all of a sudden found themselves a fully realized power and began to think about how to use that power and prestige on the world stage.

The central figure in this interesting chapter is Theodore Roosevelt. To no small extent, Herring buys into the Roosevelt mythology, calling him "a genuine American hero." (347). What does that even mean? Whatever, I personally loathe Roosevelt, but there's no question that he is the dominant figure of the era and that he represented the thoughts of many Americans when it came to both foreign and domestic policy. He represented both the worst and best (well, mostly the worst) of American beliefs toward the world in the early 20th century. He held all the racial stereotypes of the day (few know that he was close friends with Madison Grant, writer of The Passing of the Great Race, the most important American eugenic tract and a big influence on the young Adolf Hitler), believed that American civilization was a model for the world to follow, and had no problem deploying American power against weaker nations to get his way.

On the other hand, he was geninuely interested in promoting peace around the world, especially when it served American interests. I was newly impressed by Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese war and to force the expansionistic Germans to lay off the French in Morocco. This was also the period when the Red Cross began. Meanwhile, Progressive men and women (and Herring explicitly mentions women) were working toward peace around the world. All of this had limitations--America ultimately could not permanently check Japanese and German expansion and non-governmental attempts at peace ended in failure. Moreover, virtually all American activities with other nations, even the powerful Japanese and European Russians, were dominated by ideas of American superiority. Nonetheless, the root of good existed in American foreign policy of this period, even it it so often took a back seat to darker impulses.

The worst of these impulses involved Latin America. Herring spends a decent amount of space on Latin America, but certainly doesn't center it as the key to understanding American foreign policy during these years. I do see US-Latin American relations as the single most important issue. For it was during these years, even more so than the Spanish-American War, that policy makers and business leaders created the neo-colonialist relationship that marked relations between the two regions during the twentieth century. The roots of Nixon and Kissinger supporting Pinochet and Reagan supporting the Contras are in this period. The most obvious example is Roosevelt breaking off Panama from Colombia to build the Panama Canal. Not even Herring can defend TR here, writing that "even by the low standards of his day, his insensitive and impulsive behavior toward Colombia is hard to defend" (368-69).

But it was so much more than Panama. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine provided the ideological groundwork for U.S. domination of the region, even if it had the side benefit of telling the Europeans to step back in the Americas. United Fruit and other fruit companies completely dominated Central America during these years--this is the root of the term "banana republic." When things got hot in these countries, the fruit companies would just call in U.S. troops to put things right. We were happy to erect dictatorships in Cuba that were unresponsive to the people's needs, laying the groundwork for Fidel Castro. We dominated the Dominican Republic and turned Puerto Rico into a true colony. Particularly after William Howard Taft became president in 1909, the nation happily sent the Marines to occupy any one of these Caribbean and Central American nations when our economic interests were at stake.

None of this is excusable, and certainly Herring doesn't try to do so . I just wish he had stressed more how foundational this period was to our relations not only with Latin America, but the entire developing world during the 20th century.

Finally, the one benefit of American colonialism was the spread of baseball. Herring mentions that Filipinos picked up the game in the early 20th century. I demand to know what happened with that? Why don't we see Filipino major leaguers today? I feel that we are missing out on some serious talent.

There's a lot more to talk about, particularly concerning Asia, but I'll pass it over to Rob for his response.