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Essays on American History: The Spanish-American War through World War II

TR and Wilson

Progressivism Abroad

Someone as violently strenuous a liver as Theodore Roosevelt, a man who despite claiming to speak softly while carrying his big stick was described by Henry James as "the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding Noise," surely saw the force of Turner's frontier thesis. After all, this young, often appalling, sometimes inspiring, always contradictory whirling dervish of a president seemed much like the exploding nation itself. Where would all this excess energy be released now that the frontier, that slow-moving line of ethnic cleansing that like a sponge had mostly erased the Empire of Liberty's original inhabitants, had closed? Surely the dual goals of profit and progress demanded worlds anew to conquer.

TR's predecessor had found such worlds among the tatters of the old Spanish empire: Cuba and the Philippines. The Maine was remembered -- William Randolph Hearst had seen to that -- and the war first to liberate and then to dominate the Filipinos and Cubans was duly fought and won, a "splendid little war" as Secretary of State John Hay put it. An outpost in Asia was a relatively new development but for at least a century, Cuba had been seen as destiny's most manifestly proximate stage -- a fact to keep in mind when reviewing U.S. policy toward Cuba since its 1959 Revolution.

True to his word, TR soon swaggered around the world like a new cop on the beat, twirling the big stick of his Great White Fleet while baring his teeth in his ever-present feral smile. Americans loved it; others, not so much. He did manage through this display to undo links developed with Japan through his negotiation of the end of the Russo-Japanese War for which he had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. But many historians believe that TR's naval parade encouraged Japanese militarists; it certainly pushed Russia and Japan together in secret negotiations on the spoils of China, considered easy pickings. 

Also considered easy pickings was America's "backyard," Central and South America. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine added disciplining of Latin America to the Doctrine's warning off of Europe. Following Admiral Mahan's advice and a French lead that failed, TR successfully schemed for both a canal and a new country, Panama, duly separated from recalcitrant Colombia, to house it for a century on behalf of its American owners. The canal forever changed global trade routes, and put the U.S. if not at its center certainly in a more dominating position.

Despite no doubt deeply felt anti-imperialist rhetoric, and even a few actions, Woodrow Wilson mostly carried on TR's work, "intervening" in Central American nations with the kind of disciplined regularity for which he was famous: Mexico and Nicaragua in 1914, Haiti in 1915, and the Dominican Republic in 1916. As with almost all of the vaunted twentieth-century foreign-policy differences between succeeding administrations, that which separated TR and Wilson was, at least at a certain distance, not nearly as great as the reflected rhetoric that so often populates even fine works of history would have one believe. This trend, sometimes called "the strong line of continuity" in twentieth-century American foreign policy, has continued into the new millennium. 

But it was Wilson's entry into World War I, as well as its justification, that has left the deepest legacy. He lost his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, who'd believed Wilson's 1916 campaign promise to keep the U.S. out of the massively bloody European war and had the character to resign when Wilson changed tack. To be fair, German submarines were sinking U.S. ships in the Atlantic, but many Americans could hardly see why the U.S. ought to get into a European war few Europeans had wanted and which featured such pleasures as the Battle of the Somme, in which a million men (out of three million) were killed or wounded in four and a half months. Britain had suffered 57,470 casualties in the first day of the battle alone. 

TR, out of office but never the public eye, saw in this war the opportunity for more strenuous living but Wilson was not so sanguine. (To TR's credit, once war came, he begged Wilson to let him organize some new Rough Riders to go and fight on the Western Front, a near-unique act of presidential war-talk-walking. Wilson politely refused.) So what changed, if that is the proper verb, Wilson's mind? Submarine attacks aside, Wilson and many others reacted to the British intelligence service's leak of the Zimmermann telegram, in which the Germans proposed an alliance with Mexico in the event of the U.S. joining the Allies. Germany promised to help Mexico retrieve their Cession from the U.S., the practicability of which was far from most people's minds as outrage over the Wikileak of its day exploded. 

What is most important about our entry into World War I was how it was justified. We were to fight a "war to end all wars" that would "make the world safe for democracy." The former trope has long since been dropped but the latter has been universally proffered for every military intervention since, perhaps even once with justification (i.e.,  World War II). Our intent is always benign if not selfless, our destructiveness always incidental to this benign intent, and our interventions always humanitarian. Again, this kind of appeal is hardly unique to the United States. But as unexceptional as American Exceptionalism is to those who know it to be the rule among great powers, it hardly seems so to those who believe it with an entirely authentic fervor that borders on the religious. Even subsequent post-WWII disasters from Korea through Vietnam to Iraq have done surprisingly little to shake both popular and elite belief in America's unique, unsurprisingly Christ-like role as humanity's redeemer. In some ways, we have never stopped being Puritans.

Wilson's League of Nations was the required coda to a war-ending war that had promised to add a layer of democracy-friendly topsoil to benighted humanity's arid plains. As so often in American history, despite much hypocrisy too obvious to ignore (though it often is), more than a kernel of nobility manages to peek through. Though defeated by a rapidly re-isolating public (and Wilson's mind itself, which was not only apolitically cold and arrogant but also had the temerity to give its owner a very ill-timed stroke which left his wife, Edith, effectively the first female president for a good nine months), the League was of world-historical importance, a sort of Articles of Confederation to the United Nations's Constitution. Such international organizations are always hated by nationalists and conservatives, and sometimes even for good reasons, but they do seem to represent the last best hope of an increasingly interconnected earth. As usual, Ben Franklin's revolutionary line is ever-relevant: either we shall hang together or hang separately.

A necessary coda to this coda is how the Wilson administration had so quickly turned an almost congenitally isolationist and insular American public into a foaming mob of near-rabid Hun-haters in the first place, to riot in imagery not nearly as excessive as one might think. Following the British example, Wilson opened up a wartime propaganda agency, known as the Committee on Public Information, in which the brand-new techniques soon to be known as public relations were put to work. These techniques weaponized advertising, taking advantage of mass media to manufacture consent for the war. A good example is as follows: a Germanic gorilla intentionally reminiscent of racist stereotypes and wearing a helmet labelled "militarism" holds a bloody club labeled with the German word for culture in one hand and a half-naked, blonde, white maiden in the other as it sets ugly foot on America's pristine shore. Subtlety was not much in demand at the CPI.

But these techniques worked, and they worked across all media, including the new ones that began to crop up: film, radio, and later television. Mass marketing of mass-produced products, whether Model Ts or propaganda, ensured mass consumption. Others noticed, including in Germany where after the war rightwingers vowed never again to fall behind in the propaganda battle. In the U.S., these techniques were married to a new Federal Bureau of Investigation to engineer the first Red Scare, a sort of organized, state-sanctioned riot against anyone and anything labeled communist that was soon to return.

Progressivism at Home

TR shocked many of his class by intervening from time to time on behalf of labor as part of his Square Deal for the nation. As Henry Clay Frick, whose home is now a fine museum in Manhattan, summed it up, "We bought the son of a bitch, and then he didn't stay bought," which is perhaps the only way to be a progressive in a country in which even more than a century ago money was the root of all power. McKinley's power broker, Mark Hanna, put it best when he was asked what he thought was the most important thing in running a successful campaign: "There are two things that are important in politics: the first is money, and I can’t remember what the second is."

TR began busting up trusts and inserting himself as a negotiator between labor and capital in a mostly fair way. This was something new, and his successor Taft busted even more trusts and introduced an income tax despite being seen, and seeing himself, as a conservative. To be sure, busting was done in the service of increasing the level of competition for both capitalist and quasi-eugenic reasons. To be fair, TR specifically argued against pure competition, again for quasi-eugenic reasons, because he believed that both too much and too little competition prevented a society (or "race") from achieving all it could achieve.

Meanwhile, Jim Crow continued to hold down African Americans, now helped increasingly by a resurgent KKK enamored of lynching, a mostly southern activity that literally became an outing for the whole family on a par with a fair or sporting event, complete with postcards of the hangings to serve as mementos for those unfortunate enough to have missed out. Wilson, a southern Democrat, actually endorsed the segregation of Washington, D.C. and even lent his name to several title cards in D.W. Griffith's deeply racist, KKK-glorifying film, The Birth of a Nation. Based on the novel The Clansman, Wilson made it the first film to be screened in the White House. Many title cards were pulled from Wilson's own historical work. Here's an example: "The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation...until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." In the face of such Southern hospitality, masses of African Americans wisely voted with their feet against such racist domination, moving north in the Great Migration, bringing jazz, blues, and much else along with them and engendering the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural rebirth that foreshadowed the civil rights movement of a generation hence.

Wilson won a four-way presidential contest in 1912 in which TR ran as an independent, Taft as a Republican, and Eugene Debs as a socialist, the most popular socialist in American history until perhaps the rise of Bernie Sanders in 2016. The Socialist Party had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the Populist Party, with major injections from labor and other reform movements. Socialism aside, TR and Wilson differed on the precise relationship between government and business, with TR happy to break up trusts but unafraid of big corporations, if corralled, and Wilson distrustful of anything "big" -- government or business. Both agreed that government needed to step in to do what business could not. Wilson pulled back from trust-busting but introduced the Federal Trade Commission in 1914 to institutionalize federal oversight of business practices. He also introduced the Federal Reserve System in 1913 in the wake of the government having to go cap in hand to J. P. Morgan for funds to undermine the panic of 1907.

TR, Taft, and Wilson -- and of course the various Congresses whose power and action is presumed, sometimes, to be included under the symbolic terms, "TR, Taft, and Wilson," a tick of historical writing that itself shows how dominant the presidency had become since the sleepier days of the late nineteenth century -- managed to pass many of the reform movement's desiderata. In addition to what's already been mentioned we may add: regulation of railroad practices and rates; regulation of food and drugs; the right to strike -- and a union exemption from antitrust law; the outlawing of child labor in businesses involved in interstate commerce; and even an eight-hour day for the nation's railroads. But, foreshortened by the World War and undermined by the Red Scare and its own confusion over the need for racial justice, the progressive tide retreated during the subsequent "roaring" decade.

The Twenties

A prefacing word on decadal and other stereotypes. Simplification is necessary, especially in a book like this, but keep in mind that swings of the so-called pendulum are neither perfectly decadal nor are those decades as stereotypically uniform as the national memory would have us believe. In general, progressive decades are not as progressive and conservative decades are not as conservative. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the country has simply been too huge, too populous, and too varied to take any generalization more seriously than suggestiveness or heuristic usefulness. As we'll see, Eisenhower's supposed conservatism was, in the main, far to the left of any post-LBJ president, while non-presidential developments included the rise of the Beat Generation, civil rights -- backed up by federal troops under Conservative Ike -- and much else that laid the groundwork for the supposedly unique revolution of the sixties, much of which actually came to fruition in the seventies, as we shall see. So, with that caveat in mind, we turn now to the Jazz Decade, the Roaring Twenties, a supposedly inward-looking time of hedonistic apathy and reflexively unreflective conservatism best captured in F. Scott Fitzgerald's fine novel The Great Gatsby.

Perhaps the decade's avatar is Henry Ford. Ford, who thought history was "bunk," and revolution worse, was a revolutionary historical figure. He spread his gospel of production-efficiency by mass-producing the Model T, lowering labor costs through operational streamlining while keeping wages high enough for people like his workers to actually be able to buy what they produced, a piece of entirely capitalist wisdom often lost on supposed defenders of that system. Mass ownership of the automobile not only bolted it to preexisting ideas of freedom but also added yet more built geography to the nation in the form of a massive road network that enabled suburbia, later to fully explode in the fifties with the help of Eisenhower's interstate highway system, to get underway, a development of huge import in all of society's dimensions, as we shall see. In any event, economic growth meant mass production; mass production required mass consumption; mass consumption depended on mass marketing via mass media in order to embed products in the exploding mass culture. 

The key term, as the diligent reader will have noticed, is "mass": the combination of newspapers, film, and radio forged a national (if not monolithic) culture out of ever-increasing millions far more efficiently than mere railroads ever could. The techniques of film and radio, added to those of print media, were instantly marshaled by politicians and businessmen alike, as well as reformers and unions, in order to, as noted approvingly by leading progressive intellectuals, "manufacture consent" for products and policies alike through "emotionally potent oversimplifications" not unlike decadal stereotypes in historical writing. That said, history must also deal with "actors' categories," a term of art that simply means that if a historical actor believes in something a later historian considers illusory, that belief itself presumably helps to cause behavior and events and therefore must be addressed by the historian.

So the twenties were seen by most who lived it, and with some retrospective justification, as a decade in which, as Coolidge said, "the chief business of the American people is business." Yes, it was ever thus and still is, but the rhetoric matched a policy of retreat from the leading edge of progressive reform. Standards of living were indeed rising, if unequally, and a postwar recession ended early in the decade after which prosperity reigned until 1929. Europe had done us the favor of nearly destroying itself (a favor it would soon again extend to its formerly colonized offshoot) so American capital poured in, the dollar replaced the pound as the global currency of choice, and American multinationals (GM, IBM, IT&T, oil companies, and so on, across virtually all sectors) began to take on their still dominant role in the global economy. Interestingly, and not for the last time, as capital's movement across national borders was encouraged, labor's movement across borders was severely curtailed. The Immigration Act of 1924 was an explicitly eugenic and racist attempt to keep out those considered undesirable, who included Asians other than our Filipino protectorates, Africans, southern Europeans, eastern Europeans -- pretty much anyone not considered "Anglo Saxon" or a fellow traveler thereof. Exempted, perhaps surprisingly to contemporary views, were Mexicans, and in fact, all Latin Americans: the California agribusiness lobby had seen to protecting its traditional workforce.

But one must always ask "prosperity for whom and in what degree, and who was left out, and why?" Economic inequality was massive, though admittedly not at present levels. Wall Street became infamously over-inflated with disastrous consequences the lessons of which were to be forgotten more than once in subsequent decades. Farmers were hurting throughout the decade; soon, they would hurt a lot worse. Labor, despite some progressive gains, withered under post-Russian-Revolution attempts to link it with communism, socialism, anarchism, and other frightening -isms. Much of the force of feminism was captured and commodified into a consumerist lifestyle-choice; early PR experts even linked feminism to smoking cigarettes, which were reinvented as "torches of freedom." An Equal Rights Amendment was defeated, not for the last time, but at least women had won the right to smoke. Taft, elevated to Chief Justice, led the Court back to its traditional reactionary role, striking down many progressive laws. 

American isolationism made a comeback, but recall that "isolationism" refers to Europe not to our "backyard," into which Coolidge sent troops -- this time to Nicaragua (once again) to suppress a populist-nationalist uprising under Sandino. The marines stayed until 1933, propping up Somoza and his National Guard, a dictator characterized by FDR as "a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch," thus nicely summing up much of twentieth- and twenty-first-century U.S. foreign policy. Soon after the marines had left, Somoza assassinated Sandino and took power, which he kept until 1978 when another left-populist-nationslist group named after the assassinated leader -- the Sandinistas -- overthrew the aged dictator. The American reaction to this we shall review in a later chapter.

Most consequentially, a mostly unregulated stock market flush with corporate profits seeking, as always, the highest rate of return finally overheated in 1929 leading to the Great Depression. The engineer-president Herbert Hoover decided that government intervention would just make matters worse; in any event, it was widely thought, the arc of capitalism always bends toward self-correction, so patience was all that was required. That's not quite accurate, however: according to Hoover years later, his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon recommended the following: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate." Not all governmental action is unwelcome, apparently, and, after all, Mellon had also noted (perhaps also apocryphally) that "in a depression, assets return to their rightful owners." 

While it is surely true that in the long run economic downturns work themselves out, as noted by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, soon to be the godfather of a new deal between Americans, their government and the economy: "In the long run, we're all dead." What happens before that unavoidable terminus -- who feels what pain for what reasons and for how long, and who does not, and what government can do about it -- returned to center-stage. Luckily for the country, and arguably for the world, another aristocratic and un-bought Roosevelt was about to take power. From his wheelchair (a condition which was kept from the public), like a benevolent Dr. Strangelove, FDR would steer the U.S. through the storm of depression and world war, mostly avoiding the seemingly worldwide tendency toward what would soon be labeled totalitarianism, whether of the fascist or Stalinist ilk.

The Age of FDR

The Depression and the New Deal

There had been depressions before the one that gripped the nation and the world in the early 30s, but none of this magnitude. The numbers are staggering: by 1932, the nadir, gross national product (GNP) was down by a third, prices were off by 40%, and unemployment was at a quarter of the working-age population. In the midwestern bread basket of the nation, Nature, with a lot of human help, had also arranged for an ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl which sent legions west in search of opportunity of which there was little. Bread lines and bank failures occurred with regularity against an international backdrop featuring a stable and expanding Soviet economy; a resurgent, soon-to-achieve-full-employment Nazi Germany; and an ascendant Italy under a leader whom even FDR referred to as "that admirable gentleman." While the general American reaction to communism (that is, those nations that have claimed to be communist) has always been almost universally negative, prior to Pearl Harbor much of elite opinion on fascism was measured or even positive.

In any event, FDR began his radio-broadcast fireside chats that explained in simple but unpatronizing terms what FDR was attempting to do and why. His attitude was experimental; his confidence and optimism infectious (as it was intended to be from his famous inaugural statement that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"); his ability to wield power nearly unmatched. A chart best captures the activism of the New Deal (see below) not all of which worked as well as even its supporters would have liked. After a few years, FDR unwisely acceded to demands to balance the budget, a form of austerity that, predictably, brought back the depression which didn't let up until the war economy finally created the necessary demand through a form of government spending always more welcome than social programs. This military Keynesianism has marked the U.S. economy ever since.

Year of Passage
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
To protect citizen assets against bank failure
National Recovery Administration
To regulate business output, labor practices, and prices; part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.
Glass-Steagall (Banking) Act
Erected a wall between commercial and investment banks
Agricultural Adjustment Act
To set quotas for agricultural output as well as price supports
Public Works Administration
Government employment program aimed at infrastructure; part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.
Civil Works Administration
Also aimed at infrastructure
Civilian Conservation Corps
Government employment program aimed at conservation
Home Owners Loan Corporation
To refinance mortgages in default in order to avoid foreclosure
Tennessee Valley Authority
To electrify the Tennessee Valley
Federal Housing Administration
Set standards for home-building, stabilize mortgage market, insure mortages
Works Progress Administration
Government employment program aimed at white-collar workers, professionals, and even artists -- and of all races
Social Security
Unemployment insurance, pensions, aid to the poor and elderly
Wagner Act
Protect union organizing rights
United States Housing Authority
A replacement for the PWA aimed at funding low-cost public housing and eradicating slums
Fair Labor Standards Act
Set a minimum wage and maximum number of work-hours
A conservative Court struck down much of the original New Deal legislation. In retaliation, FDR suggested court packing, expanding the number of justices on the Court to alter the balance of power in the New Deal's favor. The cover story was that it applied only to those justices over the age of 70. No one bought it, including (one would think) FDR himself. FDR had to back down in the face of not unreasonable accusations of executive overreach. Oddly enough, after his 1936 landslide and the threat of court packing, the Supreme Court suddenly found much of the rest of the New Deal to be constitutional. By the late 30s, however, the world was either at or nearing war and FDR initially saw the U.S.'s role as the arsenal of democracy, at first for Britain and the Soviet Union, which was fighting the most ferocious war in human history against the Nazis on the Eastern Front, but after the infamous day, for the U.S. as well.

World War II

The New Deal was seen by rightwingers at the time (and since) as near-totalitarianism. It didn't hold a candle to the mobilization of the American economy during World War II. Overcoming the first America First movement, FDR initiated Lend-Lease with beleaguered Britain. Later, after Pearl Harbor, the US declared war on Japan and was in the fight. 

The fight was appalling: the worst war in human history. Please take a moment to watch the award-winning animated infographic, "The Fallen of World War II," at: Pay particular attention (you won't be able to miss it) to Russian war dead, three million in 1941 alone, something that forms much of the backdrop to Soviet postwar policy towards the West. But that aside, as with the Union during the Civil War, the US industrial plant and the allies' numerical superiority sealed the deal. Mass production, as much as the mass sacrifice of the USSR, won the war.

But not without brutal fighting -- at sea, in the air, and especially on the ground. While American war casualties pale next to Soviet, and while aside from Pearl Harbor and other protectorates, no American territory was touched, let alone demolished, the American experience was sufficiently harrowing. In Europe and North Africa, the fighting was bad enough; in the Pacific, it was utterly savage, especially during the island-hopping phase of the campaign. Japanese militaristic fascism demanded victory or death, up to kamikaze bombings and the like. The Japanese had been propagandized to see Americans as an inferior breed of mutts; American views of the Japanese, encouraged during basic training, were hardly better. The Pacific theater became, in effect, a race war. At home, even the liberal FDR ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans. No such program was suggested for German- or Italian-Americans.

This was truly total war. Both the Civil War and World War I, awful as they had been, were mere previews by comparison. Air power came into its own during this war. All sides embraced terror bombing of civilians, an ever-popular tactic despite its record of near-total failure to achieve its goals, as the Americans would learn in Vietnam. Since all sides had pursued this tactic, at the postwar trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo, terror bombing was removed from the list of charges against the German and Japanese fascists. They were hardly necessary: both nations, each highly educated and civilized, had descended into the worst barbarism in human history: Nazi death camps killed around twelve million people, about half of them Jews, whereas the Japanese, beginning in China in the late 30s, had lagged behind only in total numbers but not in variety of cruelty or racist, genocidal intent. Both carried out horrific medical and biological experiments on human beings they had deemed subhuman. And yet within mere years of their separate outbreaks of insanity, both nations had settled down into peaceful prosperity. Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of all of this; one thing seems clear: any culture or society is liable to repeat at least some version of that insanity if ever the circumstances arise, and perhaps especially if it thinks itself exceptionally immune. 

After the war, the United Nations was set up to prevent another of that scale, since, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hotly debated to this day, it was clear that the next world war would be the last. So far, a lukewarm peace has mostly held with some gigantic but still not world-war-level exceptions. Also set up were the Marshall Plan, to aid both domestic corporations and war-torn Europe, and the Bretton-Woods institutional system governing international economic activity. Bretton-Woods formally replaced the British pound with the American dollar as the currency of choice for international transactions and created both the World Bank to aid in European reconstruction and third-world development and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which aimed to constrain currency manipulations that exacerbated the Depression. These institutions, and their broadly Keynesian nature, along with the growth potential inherent in rebuilding a half-destroyed world, led to what economic historians often call The Golden Age of Capitalism. As it stood, at war's end, the U.S. was unquestionably the global superpower, relatively unscathed when compared to other great powers, and providing around half of the planet's gross economic output. Its power was such that it forced decolonization on what was left of European empires. Darker trends were already apparent during the war, including the crucial beginnings of the Cold War, but we will leave that for the next chapter.

Also following the war was one of the greatest pieces of beneficial social engineering ever passed, the GI Bill (passed in 1944 but really taking effect in 1946 with demobilization) which not only offered a college education to any veteran but also financial support for home-buying. This caused a massive housing shortage partly solved by mass suburbanization fueled by a Ford-like house-construction method pioneered by William Levitt of Levittown fame. Suburbs were on the rise, as were highways, automobiles, a Baby-Boom youth culture, and a series of social movements soon to reshape American culture and society in unprecedented ways causing a reaction that continues to the present day. These issues will form the final two essays of our brief survey of American history.