theodore roosevelt versus mark twain -- 6/2/17

Today's selection -- from The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer. The late 1800s were the years in which European powers, especially England, aggressively expanded their empires across Africa and Asia. With the Spanish-American War of 1898, some in the United States were tempted to pursue this same course. This led to a great national debate between the "expansionists" and the "anti-imperialists":

"Many Americans wished to see [freedom's] blessings spread around the world. In 1898 they began disagreeing passionately on how to spread those blessings.

"Anti-imperialists saw themselves as defenders of freedom because they wanted foreign peoples to rule themselves, not be ruled by Ameri­cans. They saw the seizure of faraway lands as blasphemy against what Herman Melville called 'the great God absolute! The center and circum­ference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!'

"Expansionists found this preposterous. They believed that concepts like freedom, equality, and self-government had meaning only for devel­oped, responsible nations -- that is, nations populated and governed by white people. Others, they asserted, were too primitive to rule themselves and must be ruled by outsiders. By this logic, dusky lands could only be truly free when outsiders governed them. If natives did not realize how much they needed foreign rule, and resisted it, that was further proof of their backwardness.

"No one promoted this view more colorfully or to greater effect than Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy. In a letter to his fellow imperialist Rudyard Kipling, Roosevelt scorned 'the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.' As the national debate intensi­fied, he came to embody America's drive to project power overseas.

"Mark Twain believed Roosevelt's project would destroy the United States. Roosevelt and Twain moved in overlapping circles and knew each other, but geography separated them for years. Twain traveled and lived abroad for much of the 1890s. In Fiji, Australia, India, South Africa, and Mozambique, he had been appalled by the way white rulers treated natives. His frame of historical and cultural reference was far broader than Roosevelt's. He saw nobility in many peoples, and found much to admire abroad -- quite unlike Roosevelt, who believed that 'the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as a man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife.' Instead of seeing the United States only from within, Twain compared it to other powers. He saw his own country rushing to repeat the follies he believed had corrupted Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. That way, he warned, lay war, oligarchy, militarism, and the suppression of freedom at home and abroad.

"These adversaries -- Roosevelt and Twain -- were deliciously matched. Their views of life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart. World events divided them even before their direct confrontation began. When Germany seized the Chinese port of Kiaochow (later Tsingtao) in 1897, both men were out­raged, but for different reasons. Twain opposed all foreign intervention in China; Roosevelt worried only that Germany was pulling ahead of the United States in the race for overseas concessions. Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of 'Christian charity.' Twain pictured Christendom as 'a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood.' ...

"Acutely aware of each other's popularity, neither [Roosevelt nor Twain] publicly denounced the other. Among friends, though, both were free with their feelings. Roo­sevelt said he would like to 'skin Mark Twain alive.' Twain considered Roosevelt 'clearly insane' and 'the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.'

"Roosevelt was not the conceptualizer or organizer or leader of the imperialist movement. Twain filled none of those roles for the anti­-imperialists. Nonetheless they would become the most prominent, most admired, and most reviled spokesmen for their opposing causes. In mid-1898, Roosevelt was waiting impatiently for a chance to leap into history. Twain was planning his return to the United States. The stage was set for their confrontation."



Stephen Kinzer


The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire


Henry Holt and Co.


Copyright 2017 by Stephen Kinzer


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