American Imperialism: America was Never Innocent

Peter d'Errico

Stephen Kinzer’s ‘The True Flag’ glosses over American Imperialism preventing a happy ending.

Stephen Kinzer’s new book, The True Flag, suffers from an alarming fault among historical writers: blindness to history.

The book’s subtitle—Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire—demonstrates the blindness: the American Empire was born more than 200 years before the era of Roosevelt and Twain. Kinzer’s subjects were protagonists in the expansion of the American Empire, not its birth. Kinzer’s unacknowledged truncation of U.S. history mars what would otherwise be a good book; as we shall see, it also prevents him from coming to a useful conclusion and a happy end.

I have reviewed other books by well-known historians who exhibit blindness to history: One claimed the attempted extermination of American Indians cannot be considered genocide because some Indians survived; two claimed the Indian wars were not intended to wipe out the Indians, despite evidence to the contrary.

Kinzer’s book doesn’t reach that level of blatant denial, but it grossly misses the actual “birth” of American Empire in the colonial invasions by “Christian discoverers.” Those early invaders already set themselves on an imperial trajectory. Kinzer knows this; or at least he should know, because his book is filled with examples—but he ignores the evidence he quotes.

Kinzer presents American imperialism as it was debated in 1898—when Roosevelt and Twain tangled about U.S. invasions of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The debate raged across the American public, with powerful leaders on both sides.

Roosevelt and his political patron, Henry Cabot Lodge, were foremost on the imperialist side. They boosted imperialism without hiding from the word, calling for ‘conquest,’ ‘colonialism,’ and ‘expansion.’ Leaders of the anti-imperialists included Twain, former president Grover Cleveland—who as president had blocked efforts to annex Hawaii and tried to reinstate Queen Liliʻuokalani—and Andrew Carnegie—the very rich capitalist who became the very generous philanthropist.

A strange irony emerges from the opposing arguments: the anti-imperialists argued as if America had never been an imperialist power, while the imperialists repeatedly pointed out America was an empire from the start.

The anti-imperialists said: “schemes of imperialism [are] dangerous perversions of our national mission”; “the foundation of [our nation] should be man’s self-government [and] renunciation of all schemes of foreign conquest”; and “We have no colonies, nor any desire to acquire them.”

The imperialists said: “We have not a foot of territory that we have not taken from others”; “[anti-imperialism] would have turned back the Mayflower from our coast and would have prevented our expansion westward to the Pacific Ocean”; and [imperialism is] part of…the great force of Christian civilization on earth.”

In short, the imperialists of 1898 saw and understood the invasions of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico as part and parcel of the “mission” that animated the entire history of Christian colonialism—originating with the Pilgrims.

The anti-imperialists abhorred the prospect of “overseas” colonialism, but were unconcerned with—indeed celebrated—the prior colonization (though they didn’t call it that) of the landmass claimed by the U.S. as its “own.”

Kinzer presents these opposing arguments as a split in the American psyche, first articulated, he says, by Puritan leader John Winthrop: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Kinzer sees two possible meanings from Winthrop: for America to be a “model” teaching the world by example; or to be “redeemer” of the world, using force and violence as needed.

But Winthrop’s speech, allied with Puritan aggressiveness—to Native Peoples, and to colonists who strayed from the “true teachings” of the Bible—presented nothing ambiguous at all. The “city on a hill” carried a single meaning: Christian empire, as “model” and as “force.” Winthrop relied on the notion of vacuum domicilium—a version of terra nullius—to assert authority over Indian hunting and fishing territories, saying, “Why may not Christians have liberty to go and dwell among them [the native Peoples] in their wastelands and woods (leaving them such places as they have manured [sic] for their corn) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites?”

In his 1996 book, The Pequot War, historian Alfred Cave described Puritan policy toward Native Peoples as “grounded in a fundamental distrust of ‘savages,'” which permitted “the use of terror…to intimidate the ‘hirelings of Satan.'” He adds, “Indians who remained ‘proud and insolent’ after contact with [the Christians] were particularly suspect.”

Kinzer cites George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address for the notion that the U.S. “give(s) to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” But Washington’s 1779 orders to General John Sullivan, appointing him to command an attack against the Six Nations, provide a more reliable and significant indicator of the imperial mission on which he set the United States:

“The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more. … You will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”

Kinzer’s reading of ambiguity and “double meaning” into Winthrop’s speech fails to pay attention to the historical record of American imperialism. He falls prey to the rose-colored myopia of the anti-imperialists who worried about a non-existent American “virtue.”

Kinzer wants a historical platform from which to draw lessons about contemporary U.S. politics—such as whether to invade other countries for “humanitarian” reasons. But, because he truncates the actual history, his lesson dwindles to a futile hope—that “It is late for the United States to change its course in the world—but not too late.”

The historical course that would have to change runs far deeper and longer than late 19th century American imperialism. The United States has been on an imperialist course from the earliest period of American history. Among the evidence that Kinzer cites to this effect, but ignores, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Downes v. Bidwell (1901) stands out.

The Downes case decided that the lands seized under the imperialist project of Roosevelt, et al., were incorporated within the “plenary power” of Congress, outside the normal constitutional framework. The court cited Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), noting the parallel with the claimed plenary power of Congress over Indian lands. Justice White, concurring, quoted John Marshall’s description of the United States as “the American Empire.”

If Kinzer had appreciated the evidence before him, he could not have avoided the conclusion that American imperialism against overseas lands and peoples was a continuation of the original American imperial project on the continent. At one point, Kinzer quotes a “truism…that any story can be happy or sad depending on where you end it.” The same holds for beginnings: the story of American imperialism has no happy ending because it has no happy beginning. America was never innocent.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.