Remember the Maine!News at Home
Bush's "Splendid Little War"
In a class last night, I found myself dealing with the crisis of the 1890s. Economic uncertainty and growing anger against the railroads, the banks, and the Trusts. Widespread beliefs that the Senate and most of politics had become a millionaires club following a bitter and divisive presidential election in 1896. A new mass "yellow" press screaming headlines about colonial wars in Africa and the Near East where Britain and the European powers were fighting to both spread and protect "civilization" to and from exotic barbarians motivated by "heathen" religious fanaticism.
And then the Cuban war against the Spanish empire, the election year of 1898, and what Secretary of State John Hay called the "splendid little war" to " liberate" Cuba that helped Republicans win an election that they would have won anyway, sent a message to the world as loud as a Sousa March that the U.S. was in the great game of global Manifest Destiny, and ended with the colonization of the Philippines thousands of miles from Cuba.
I also mentioned that Spain had offered virtually every concession imaginable to keep out of a war they knew they couldn't even dream of winning, but McKinley went to war anyway and the Democrats, who had co-opted the Populists two years earlier in the Bryan campaign, joined the march, so as not to be considered disloyal. William Jennings Bryan became a cheerleader for Cuba libre, later advising Democrats not to vote against the treaty annexing the Philippines in 1898, flip-flopping to oppose the treaty in 1900, and losing the election to McKinley and Spanish-American war hero--thanks to the press--Theodore Roosevelt.
Then the parallels with the present situation began to become overwhelming for both the students and me. Little had changed in Cuba, where there had been a rebellion against Spain after the Civil War and a second rebellion in 1895--little except U.S. investments. Saddam Hussein was still around in Iraq, where he had been for decades, still having chemical and bacteriological weapons, which he had when he used then against Iran with, to be very charitable, Reagan administration toleration, in 1980s.
His regime and his country were much weaker than they had been in 1991, hadn't invaded anybody this time, and, with all his blustering, were making concessions as fast as they could, at least as bargaining points, to keep from being forced into a war that would destroy them. Just as McKinley had been gung ho since his election to go back to the Gold Standard, the highest tariffs imaginable, and other hardline Republican policies while he tried to picture himself as a friend of labor-management cooperation, Bush had been trying since his election to return to hardline Reaganism, whatever psychological meaning that might have for his relationship with his father, while talking about "compassionate conservatism" and speaking a few words in Spanish to show his sympathy with minorities.
Of course there were also great differences. McKinley, in explaining the annexation of the Philippines had said that he had done it to "Christianize them" (Spain had brought Catholicism to the islands centuries before, but McKinley didn't have to be so fussy about details with the yellow press). Bush would never say such a thing about Iraq, although his spokesmen would accuse a secular dictatorship in Baghdad of helping to train a network of religious terrorists who would like to overthrow them, even though that made as much sense as Spanish agents blowing up the Maine in Havana Harbor when their government was doing everything in its power to prevent a war with the United States. When Congressman Jim McDermott raised a more modest version of that point abroad, the administration in the tradition of globalism, democracy, and of course Voltaire, told him to shut up and come home.
There isn't any evidence that the Bush administration will use a war against Iraq to launch an invasion of Indonesia, although both countries have (for idealists) Muslim religious beliefs and (for materialists) oil. Of course, the colonization of the Philippines was to be a commercial port and military base for involvement in the great China market or great China Barbecue (the road to Peking was through Manila for the U.S. and for all the powers two years later over the corpses of many "Boxer" barbarous rebels trying to drive foreigners and civilization out of their country). Who knows in what direction where turning Iraq into a protectorate with privatized oil would lead? Toward Iran or the oil-rich former Soviet republics?
The greatest potential similarity of course is that most of what happened in 1898 was a fait accompli that set the stage for generations of gunboat diplomacy in the Caribbean and Central America, whose bitter residue remains until this day. The bloody war against Filipino guerillas that produced the righteous anger and cynicism of Mark Twain (whose tone I am trying to emulate a bit in this essay), William Howard Taft's adventures as colonial governor of the Philippines (particularly his compelling Filipinos to hold Fourth of July rallies and arresting those Nationalists who spoke at the rallies for Filipino independence), scholarly reevaluations that affirmed over and over again that the war had little to do with what McKinley said it was about, all became part of a history whose only "happy ending" for U.S. Progressives was Theodore Roosevelt's accession to the presidency after McKinley's assassination.
Of course, the gunboat diplomacy of the colonial powers that the U.S. joined with the Spanish-American War was a major part of the context of international rivalries and military interventions that were very cheap in Africa, China, Latin America, and the Near East, creating a psychology among all the colonial powers that wars could be won cheaply. The Bosnian crisis of 1914 was to change all that. Today, the Bush administration is playing a much more dangerous game in the short run, given that India, Pakistan, and Israel are nuclear powers and very unstable. In the medium run, it may very well be embarking upon a policy of Bomber Diplomacy that will produce cheap victories at the outset but create both a psychology and policy of military intervention that will produce a catastrophic great war. That is why it must be criticized aggressively and immediately before it becomes a fait accompli
comments powered by Disqus
Alec Lloyd - 10/14/2002
Are you that desperate for attention?
Sage - 10/13/2002
Re Al's comment: "right-wing extremists are, almost without exception, already marginalized and ignored by the mainstream"
Not by this website (and certainly not by talk radio for that matter). Nor, as the events of last week demonstrate, by TV and public radio either.
I agree that there are tendencies towards group-think in academia, on certain sensitive subjects, though this basically reflects a kind of knee-jerk political correctness and is surely not indicative of some communist conspiracy hiding under the bed.
But, is the answer to fight fire with fire ? Two wrongs make a right ? Smother one variety of convoluted logic and historical myths with a countervailing version of the same ?
Bias can never be entirely eliminated, but that does not mean we have to embrace it. I for one am getting a bit tired of all the hypocritical slams polluting this website which have little or nothing to do with understanding history and its possible application to contemporary concerns.
Al Czervikjr - 10/13/2002
>>And anyone with a clue about evenhandedness and objectivity knows that extremists on the "left" and "right" both need to be exposed and confronted if freedom and liberties are to be defended.
Agreed, Sage Counsel. The problem, however, is that right-wing extremists are, almost without exception, already marginalized and ignored by the mainstream. On the rare occasions that they crawl out from under their rocks, they are usually noticed simply as examples of ignorance or objects of derision.
Left-wing extremists, on the other hand, occupy positions of influence in government, the media, and at prestigious and not-so-prestigious colleges and universities. Can you even imagine a far-right equivalent of Markowitz being on the faculty of any credible university in this country? However, as even this relatively even-handed web site demonstrates on a regular basis, Markowitz and his ilk are quite common on campus, particularly in the liberal arts and social sciences.
Old Sage (vs Blind Rage) - 10/12/2002
Earth to Heuisler: The Cold War is over. We won.
The probability of Markowitz "stifling my freedom after the revolution" is roughly equal to that of my being struck by an asteroid.
Of course communism is an economic disaster and a social horror.
And it did not completely die with the USSR. But any real historian and honest, patriotic American knows that it is no longer the threat it used to be and never was the only evil confronting freedom and democracy. And anyone with a clue about evenhandedness and objectivity knows that extremists on the "left" and "right" both need to be exposed and confronted if freedom and liberties are to be defended.
Bill Heuisler - 10/12/2002
Read a history book before you offer counsel. Read about the blood-spattered cellar in Ekaterinburg, starving millions within a half-day's drive of Kiev, fields of bones in Myingyan and Meiktila, concentration camps in the Sierra Maestra and then resume prattling smugly about evenhandedness. How does one discuss enslavement and slaughter evenhandedly? Communism is a creed of dictators, butchery and secret police. Millions have died for the collective delusions of Marxist elitists like Markowitz.
How can anyone take the choloric, anti-American, absurdly revisionist ravings of a six-figure-income pedant seriously. If Markowitz was a true believer, he'd be chopping cane in Camaguey.
Pull your anonymous head from the sand and realize how foolish it is for an American to defend a person and dogma whose first edict after the revolution would be to stifle your free speech.
Sage - 10/10/2002
Okay Mr. Heuisler, you have exposed Mr. Markowitz's little secret. His "comrades take courage" piece on a Berlin website which thinks that the reason the communists in Germany fell below the 5% mark there was because they weren't truly Marxist enough. Well done.
But will you extend the same scrutiny to the right-wing ideologues who populate this website in greater numbers than the tired old-new-lefters ? Or is your concern about ideologues who teach "our children to hate" more selective, possibly even ideologically selective ? You've shown your web-sleuthing skill, can you show evenhandedness as well ?
Pierre S. Troublion - 10/10/2002
I am more inclined to believe the director of the CIA when he says that attacking Iraq is more likely to help Al Qaeda than to believe some Bush-lackey speechwriter hack conjuring up a contrary fantasy.
Hope you'll excuse my little problem with confusingly similar names such as Osama Hussein and Saddam Bin Laden.
norman markowitz - 10/10/2002
Listen Bill Heuisler, I'm a much better American than you are because I have spent most of my life fighting against people like you who wave our flag to cover up their chauvinism and their intellectual and moral cowardice. I am teaching our children to think, not to be a cheering section for the those who who fought a secret war in Cambodia that brought Pol Pot and his killing fields into existence, killing fields that were ended by Vietnamese troops who liberated Cambodia after 3 million Indochinese had perished in a war rooted in anti-Communism. I love America, its mass culture, egalitarianism, even its individualism, which so frightens people like yourself, who hate Communists, socialists, anarchists and others, without whose contributions to the development of this country. If you want to see a great frontier of capitalism and freedom, I would suggest that you go to Russia. If you wish to speak with those who have fought Holy Wars against Communists and socialists,I suggest you try to find Osama bin Laden, or even that secular rightwing dictator, Saddam Hussein, who has terrorized the Iraqi left for decades and whose Baath party represents small business and nationalist and chauvinist elements in the country. Thanks by the way for directing people to my article. It is a good article, not based on a dream, but an aspiration for political transformations in this country so that no body will ever confuse America, its people and its culture with an extreme and ugly form of capitalism
Alec Lloyd - 10/10/2002
Golly, I could swear I saw the Temple Mount in Lima, Ohio.
Be honest. There is no proof that the administration can offer that will convince you al-Qaeda is liked to Iraq. None.
So why quibble about details?
Nice of you to screw up the names, by the way. Was that on purpose?
Pierre Troublion - 10/10/2002
We Americans are not Israelis and Iraq is not Al Qaeda, regardless
of what some in our federal government may pretend.
Alec Lloyd - 10/9/2002
A couple of questions for our resident guano expert:
Why does an action become less dangerous if it is multilateral rather than unilateral? If a peaceful democratic state were suddenly attacked by an alliance of despotisms, would the moral weight immediately go the side with the coalition? Since when is the moral strength of a cause gauged by the number of dictators you can marshal on your side?
Secondly, is it your contention that inaction does not have its own risks and costs? If I may quote Rush (the band, not the radio personality): “If you choose not do decide, you still have made a choice.”
The “dogs” you speak of (would those be "Iraqi dogs?" Isn't that rather "insensitive?") are hardly sleeping, as demonstrated by the vast smoking hole in lower Manhattan.
Please clarify this for me. And also include, if you would, how many nations one needs to be considered a "coalition." Apparently the dozen or so we have on board don't count.
Gregory T. Cushman - 10/9/2002
I wrote the following in response to the use of Daniel Webster to defend U.S. unilateral aggression toward Iraq, but I think it applies to our search for lessons from (and precedents for) the Spanish-U.S. war for overseas empire, 1895-1902.
At least on the narrow issue of whether Daniel Webster would have supported a unilateral, pre-emptive war against Iraq, I have little doubt Webster would be all for it . (Even more so, the jingoists of the late 1890s.)
In the 1840s, Webster enthusiastically supported a plan by a U.S. entrepreneur to take control of the Islas Lobos de Tierra and Lobos de Afuera (the "Seal Islands" in U.S. discourse) from Peru using a U.S. gunboat.
His logic? These islands (supposedly) had vast deposits of guano, the most valuable fertilizer the world had ever seen. Peru was not exploiting them. They were uninhabited, so the U.S. had every right to take possession of the guano by right of use. Though it is often ridiculed, or simply ignored, guano was one of the most important commodities of the 19th c.--not unlike petroleum in terms of the violence and passions it raised if not the wealth it created.
Webster had no knowledge of the Lobos Islands--in fact, they had long been claimed by Peru--and the Spanish Empire. And they WERE seasonally inhabited by fisherfolk who exploited tollo (a cartilagenous fish)--but not the guano. (The guano wasn't very good there, either.)
But this was not the point. Webster believed the United States had the right to take this valuable product of nature if the Peruvians were not ready to do so, by force, if necessary. This sort of logic became the basis of the Guano Island Act of 1856, which became a legal basis for U.S. claims, not only of hundreds of sparsely inhabited or uninhabited islands, whether they had guano and bird colonies or not, but also as legal "precedent" for colonizing both Hawaii and Puerto Rico--and claiming the undersea continental shelf and fishery stocks as U.S. territory. Skaggs, _The Great Guano Rush_ develops these points in great detail.
But even this is not the point: Webster and his allies wanted to get the guano before Britain, Peru, or some other power did. This overtly imperialist project--which looks utterly insignificant next to the U.S. Mexican War that soon followed--was only derailed when Peru sent two warships to guard the Islas Lobos from "yankee Pirates" (as the British scientific traveler Clements Markham referred to this plan at the time). It was all about overseas empire.
During the 1860s, when the U.S. was embroiled in a war of its own making against itself, France placed an Austrian monarch on the throne of Mexico, Spain sent a Scientific Expedition to the Pacific, ostensibly to study the flora, fauna and peoples of the region. This expedition dumped its scientific contingent in Chile and headed straight for Peru's guano islands, which it took by force. Spain eventually razed Valparaiso (Chile's main port) and bombarded Callao (Peru's main port) with the intent of forcing the Peruvian government to agree to their terms--if not to recolonize parts of Peru outright. A team of French-trained engineers organized Peru's defense, and utterly humiliated Spain, which slinked away. This victory came at tremendous cost, however, and led the Peruvian and Chilean states to invest massive funds in modern weaponry to prevent this recurrence--rather than invest in other development projects.
This military build-up and intense, international competition to exploit the Andes' many valuable resources had a destabilizing influence in the region. It led ultimately to the War of the Pacific, a major regional war over the nitrate fields of the Atacama Desert . The U.S. stayed out of this conflict, content to import nitrates when and where they could get them.
People like Webster--and present-day politicians like Bush I or II, Rice, even Clinton--never follow consistent doctrines. They have one set of rules of engagement for "civilized" countries (like Russia and Israel) and "rogue" or "barbarian" countries (like Iraq, Iran, and Cuba). These appeals to history for moral principles and lessons--and much of the garbage about history (albeit interesting) written on HNN--are inherently self-serving, like Webster's two-faced doctrines were 160 years ago, designed to defend political, economic, and sometimes even racist positions!
What can we learn from history? In this case, that unilateral action on a large scale will probably have ENORMOUS unintended consequences--many that cannot be forseen, some that may be worse than the flimsy evidence that Iraq is a "clear and present danger." Why not take the conservative, cheap, and peaceful route, and let sleeping dogs lie?
Gregory T. Cushman
Bill Heuisler - 10/9/2002
A more complete source-web-site is included here. Unremittingly anti-American invective like this so-called "history" has purpose other than enlightenment. HNN readers who care (and desire a chill) should punch up http://www.kalaschnikow.net/uk/txt/2002/markowitz01.html and read Markowitz's dream for the United States. July 13, 2002, under the red hammer and sickle of the Communist Party USA, he wistfully cites our future after the coming Communist takeover he craves. I quote in part: "Unlike all other socialist transformations in twentieth century history, American capitalists and the technically skilled “middle classes” won’t be able to take their wealth and education and flee to the “West,” unless they find another planet. What is needed today is what American revolutionaries in the 1770s, abolitionists in the 1850s, and Communists in the 1930s provided in the past – strategies to organize, coordinate, and advance class and social struggle, to make big gains that Tories in the 1770s, compromisers with slavery in the 1850s, and old guard politicians and business unionists in the 1930s thought impossible just before they happened. In that sense, a slogan of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung (whatever his flaws were) deserves to be taken up by Communists and all progressives in the U.S. today: “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.” Norman Markowitz Today, at Rutgers, this man is teaching our children to hate us. Where will we go if his dream consummates, "another planet"? A reeducation camp? A killing field? Bill Heuisler
Bill Heuisler - 10/8/2002
Unremittingly anti-American invective like this so-called "history" has source and purpose other than enlightenment. HNN readers who care (and desire a chill) should punch up and read Markowitz's dream for the United States. July 13, 2002, under the red hammer and sickle of the Communist Party USA, he wistfully cites our future after the coming Communist takeover he craves. I quote in part (from http://kalaschnikow.net/): "Unlike all other socialist transformations in twentieth century history, American capitalists and the technically skilled “middle classes” won’t be able to take their wealth and education and flee to the “West,” unless they find another planet. What is needed today is what American revolutionaries in the 1770s, abolitionists in the 1850s, and Communists in the 1930s provided in the past – strategies to organize, coordinate, and advance class and social struggle, to make big gains that Tories in the 1770s, compromisers with slavery in the 1850s, and old guard politicians and business unionists in the 1930s thought impossible just before they happened. In that sense, a slogan of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung (whatever his flaws were) deserves to be taken up by Communists and all progressives in the U.S. today: “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.” Norman Markowitz Today, at Rutgers, this man is teaching our children to hate us. Where will we go if his dream consummates, "another planet"? A reeducation camp? A killing field? Bill Heuisler
Lewis L. Gould - 10/8/2002
Contrary to Professor Markowitz's thesis, Spain did not give in to American demands in April 1898. John L. Offner, The Diplomacy of the United States & Spain Over Cuba, 1895-1898 (1992), pp. 175-176, explains that the Spanish agreed to a suspension of hostilities with the Cubans that did not involve diplomatic recognition of the Cuban insurgency. As Offner notes, "Spain was still committed to defending Cuba from American aggression." (p. 176). As I argued in The Spanish-American War and President McKinley (1982), "The Spanish proposal was a last-minute diplomatic gambit that, from an American perspective, revived old doubts about Madrid's good faith in the negotiating process." p. 46. Excessive concentration on the Maine also misses a crucial point brought out by John A.S. Greenville and George Berkeley Young in Politics, Straegy, and American Diplomacy: Studies in Foreign Policy, 1893-1917 (1966) that Spain and the United States were on a diplomatic course for confrontation even if the Maine had not exploded. That event affected the timetable of events; it did not cause the war itself. And of course Spain and the United States went through the process of declaring war on each other in April 1898 after negotiations broke down.
Alec Lloyd - 10/8/2002
Of course, given the threat we are facing, absorbing a first strike may mean there are far fewer succeeding generations to make any sort of value judgements.
Had the Maine been blown up in New York harbor whilst taking on families for a ceremony, this article might have a shred of relevance.
However it does not. We did not go out and seek Sept. 11, it came to us. This analogy can only exist in the fevered minds of conspiracy theorists who are stockpiling bullion and bullets in preparation for the Final Workers’ Glorious Struggle.
Once again, we are reduced to “don’t do something, just stand there” as a policy prescription. Truly, brilliant.
Bob Greene - 10/8/2002
Not neceesarily do you have to wait for the other to strike first to be remembered as the good guy. Remember the Israeli stike at the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. While it was universally condemned at the time few other than committed anti-semmites would not admit that is was one of the most moral acts ever taken by any nation.
Pierre S Troublion - 10/7/2002
Where is the "Maine" today ?
The best reason for getting off this historical parallel bandwagon,
is that McKinley (and Polk, Madison, Wilson, FDR, and all others) in contrast to their present day successor, understood this basic
"lesson of history": If you want to be remembered as a good guy, let the other side strike first, or at last appear to have struck first.
- Indentured Students: Elizabeth Tandy Shermer on Student Debt (Monday, October 4)
- The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (Washington History Seminar, Mon. 9/27)
- Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (Thursday, 9/23)
- Traveling Black: Mia Bay Joins the Washington History Seminar, September 20
- Why are Historians Facing Online Abuse Over Whether Atlantis Existed?