The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire
by Stephen Kinzer.
Henry Holt, 2017.
Hardcover, 306 pages, $28.

As the subtitle suggests, this is a book about personality and politics, a group biography with a large cast, including Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Schurz, and William Jennings Bryan as principals, with characters as varied as Emilio Aguinaldo, Grover Cleveland, William Randolph Hearst, and Booker T. Washington as supporting actors. In the last chapter, which is a problem, we have several walk-ons: Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, Robert Taft, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. As biography, Kinzer’s book is a 90 percent success. As history, it is seriously flawed.

The book’s two stars emerge out of the Spanish-American War as perfect foils: A robust Roosevelt leading the charge for an imperial America, taking its rightful place in the world, annexing or protecting Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal, extending freedom on the American plan, so to speak;and a world-traveling Twain, a satiric anti-imperialist, promulgating the American ideal of self-government and the consent of the governed, deploring American interference in largely nonwhite populations who have a right to rule on their own.

To begin with, however, Roosevelt and Twain are shown as having beliefs not that far apart. They both, for example, believed in intervention in Cuba, and this is where biography makes its contribution. Both men believed in the missionary impulse as a liberating force. The difference between them resulted when Twain realized America would become an occupying power in furtherance of that impulse. As soon as the Spanish were defeated, Twain said the right, the moral thing to do, was to get out. But to Roosevelt and eventually to a reluctant William McKinley, the best thing to do was to keep Cuba and other properties, in some manner, in order to maintain an American ethos and an American market.

Alongside Twain, Kinzer lines up Carl Schurz, “a unique politician and moral leader. As a teenager he fought in the 1848 revolution in his native Germany. Four years later he arrived in the United States, became a passionate abolitionist, and campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. He was rewarded with a post as minister to Spain.” He went on to serve as a brigadier general in the Union army, commanding troops at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, then serving in the U.S. Senate from Missouri, and as President Rutherford B. Hayes’s secretary of the interior. In Kinzer’s book, Schurz is eloquent on the subject of anti-imperialism, believing that it is counter to the country’s principles of liberty and justice for all. Schurz has powerful allies: business tycoon Andrew Carnegie, presidential contender William Jennings Bryan, and former president Grover Cleveland all apply enormous pressure on the wavering McKinley, who is finally won to the imperialist side only after Roosevelt’s rough-riding exploit in Cuba and the attacks against Americans in the Philippines by Emilio Alguinaldo, leader of the independence movement, who felt betrayed by his American allies who refuse to leave as soon as the Spanish are defeated.

For much of the book, Kinzer plays fair—he presents the imperialist and anti-imperialist positions in an even-handed manner, and also in a dramatic biographical fashion. Thus Bryan and Hearst are at the center of what happens to America in the 1890s and early 1900s, as they switch between imperialist and anti-imperialist positions, behaving not so differently from the American public itself: public sentiment continued to sway between envisioning America as essentially an isolationist power, content to work toward a more perfect union at home, and conceiving of the nation as a growth industry, maintaining and strengthening its own liberty by expanding abroad into new lands and markets. To the anti-imperialists, the imperialists replied that the country had always thrived on its enlargement—from fights with the Indians to the Louisiana Purchase to the Mexican War to the Spanish-American War. By the time McKinley was elected to a second term, the imperialists had won the argument, although, as Kinzer points out, under Roosevelt’s leadership the craving for more territory largely subsided as the country consolidated its gains and struggled to overcome the gruesome, deadly war in the Philippines, where, by the way, waterboarding—then called the “water cure”—was first employed by the American military.

Regardless of what position you take on America’s role in the world, Kinzer’s book is revelatory. He shows just how deftly Henry Cabot Lodge maneuvered Roosevelt into power even in the face of significant Republican Party opposition. Kinzer also shows how Booker T. Washington risked much in opposing the imperialist program. Here Kinzer, as biographer, could have done a little more. Washington was notoriously conservative in many ways and was careful not to offend whites when arguing for better treatmentof blacks. Ittook courage for him to join the anti-imperialist movement. Kinzer does a brilliant job with Carnegie, who may have been a shrewd businessman, but he did not consider profits when vehemently telling McKinley that he should stop American interference in the affairs of other nations.

Of all the figures in Kinzer’s intricate tableaux, the world-traveling Twain, who spent years outside his native land, emerges again and again as the one person with firsthand experience of other peoples. He excoriated the arrogance of American presidents who knew next to nothing about the countries they wanted to invade. He provides a glimpse into an American tradition that combines a love of country and also a respect for other countries’ different histories.

But if Twain’s example is the high point of the book and of the anti-imperialist crusade that Kinzer details so eloquently, the book’s last chapter is a huge letdown. Kinzer gallops through most of twentieth-century history, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, in order to show the perils and unintended consequences of intervention. Vietnam and Iraq, not surprisingly, are his main examples of American malfeasance. And of course, there is plenty of blame to go around. But Kinzer evades the main issue: Is intervention, whatever its unintended consequences, in and of itself always an evil? Should Bill Clinton, for example, not have intervened in the Balkans? Was Barack Obama right in not doing more in Syria? Kinzer does not even ask these questions much less bring to bear on them the deft biographical and historical perspective evident in the rest of the book.

In the book’s last short chapter, there is a rush to judgement and also much ambiguity. Is Kinzer saying that Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace, and Robert Taft were right in eschewing foreign interventionism and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were wrong? Hoover, Wallace, and Taft, as noninterventionists, become the heroes, although their biographies, which is to say their motivations and the evolution of their political positions, are not given the kind of nuanced treatment that the rest of the book has so well deployed. Of course many of Kinzer’s points on the non-interventionist position are well taken, but they occur, so to speak, in a vacuum, without the rich biographical details that make his masterly account of the Spanish-American War and its aftermath so compelling. 

Carl Rollyson is the author of Confessions of a Serial Biographer and of, with Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, revised and updated, 2016.