Turn of the Century

The Reckless Decade w. HW Brands (Part 2)

December 15, 2020
Turn of the Century
The Reckless Decade w. HW Brands (Part 2)
Show Notes Transcript

Speak softly and carry a big mic! Theodore Roosevelt gives advice for imperialists and history podcasts.

In this episode, H.W. Brands turns back the clock to the 1890s and draws parallels to our biggest issues today. This is part TWO of a two part conversation about the end of the 19th century, where we focus on "Expansionism" and the United States' rise on the world stage.  Professor Brands melds presidential history with the messy politics of the era to explain WHY Americans seemed so eager to invade other countries. Let's return to the Reckless Decade!

Dr. H. W. Brands was born in Portland, Oregon, where he lived until he went to California for college. He attended Stanford University and studied history and mathematics. After graduating he became a traveling salesman, with a territory that spanned the West from the Pacific to Colorado. His wanderlust diminished after several trips across the Great Basin, and he turned to sales of a different sort, namely teaching.

For nine years he taught mathematics and history in high school and community college. Meanwhile he resumed his formal education, earning graduate degrees in mathematics and history, concluding with a doctorate in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked as an oral historian at the University of Texas Law School for a year, then became a visiting professor of history at Vanderbilt University. In 1987 he joined the history faculty at Texas A&M University, where he taught for seventeen years. In 2005 he returned to the University of Texas, where he holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History.

He has written thirty books, coauthored or edited five others, and published dozens of articles and scores of reviews. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic Monthly, the Smithsonian, the National Interest, the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, the Political Science Quarterly, American History, and many other newspapers, magazines and journals. His writings have received critical and popular acclaim. The First American and Traitor to His Class were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Prize.

Editing by Jordan Hawthorne

Hosted and produced by Joseph Eden Hawthorne (not related!)

Joseph Hawthorne:

Speak softly and carry a big mic. That's Theodore Roosevelt's advice for imperialists, and US history podcasters Welcome to turn of the century, a podcast about the turn of the 20th century. I'm your host, Joe Hawthorne. Today, we return to the reckless decade, or the 1890s. with Professor hw brands. This is part two of a conversation about that time period, where we draw parallels to the modern day and understand the past. Professor brands melds presidential history with the messy business of US politics. To explain why Americans were so eager to start invading other countries. Let's return to the reckless decade. And so I'm going to go a little bit backwards in time. I want to focus on this too long. But where would you say someone like William McKinley fits into all of this?

HW Brands:

William McKinley was an old school politician. He came out of Ohio and the Ohio machinery that produced presidents during this period. He was a firm advocate of business. He was an ally of business. He was a friend of business. He was one who was less reactionary than many in his party. But he was one who believed that the system as it existed was going well enough. And he was no reformer. He wasn't, he wasn't a reactionary, opponent of reform, particularly, although his best friend and campaign manager and chief adviser Mark Hanna was an opponent of any kind of reform. But McKinley was the kind of Republican that the business classes of the 1880s and 1890s generally produced.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And I really like to read about him too, because, you know, he's, he's kind of an enigma in some ways. And he's, I think most of the books that read about him. He's kind of a sweet guy, too. It's interesting.

HW Brands:

Yes, he was. You couldn't dislike bill McKinley. He was a he was a good guy. And he was he was shrewder than a lot of people gave him credit for being because he seemed, at first glance to be somebody who agreed with whoever the last person who talked to him was, but he knew what he wanted. He knew how to get what he wanted, it really falls in the category of Well, you can't be too stupid and become president, the United States. And also the thing is that he, he had qualities that people who were smarter and perhaps more ambitious than he, he had qualities they didn't have. So Mark Hanna, for example, Mark Hanna was this shrewd character, and he really had ideas as to how government should be more supportive of business. But he also recognized he didn't have the common touch that was necessary for success in politics ever since the days of Andrew Jackson. successful candidates for president had to be somebody that voters would want to sit down and have a beer with. And William McKinley was exactly that kind of guy.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so that I want to focus into the, I guess, kind of playing catch up to the Philippines and really to the bunch of warheads that we're gonna are going to develop in the McKinley administration into the Roosevelt administration. So can you just tell me or give me a brief overview? The 1890s, Spain is already having trouble with its colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. And this is right next to basically the US coastline. So how how does this develop in the United States? How do people perceive, you know, throughout the 1890s, up and to the Spanish American War, how our United States Americans viewing this conflict?

HW Brands:

So the war in Cuba, this version of the ends in 1895, and it's replay of a war that had happened 2520 years before, and there were nationalists in Cuba, Cuba was Spain's last major colony in the Americas. Spain had colonized starting 400 years before. and Cuba was the last of Spain's big colonies, the ever faithful aisle. It was called ever faithful to Spain. There were people in Cuba, who thought that Spain ought to become independent at long last. There were others who thought boy, we liked The way it is. And so a war broke out in Cuba between the nationalists and the loyalists, the nationalists wanted Cuba to become independent. The loyalists wanted Cuba to remain a colony of Spain because, well, they had connections to Spain and they thought things were going fine. And this war took place beginning at 95. Americans were paying attention, in part because it was close to American shores, in part because Americans had been reflexively anti imperialist ever since their own anti Imperial War against Britain. So Americans tend to decide with the nationalist, the underdogs. It was also a time when there was an emerging new newspaper industry in America and the newspaper industry had to sell papers to pay off the big expenses for the new high speed rotary presses. And so there were circulation wars in the big cities of the United States, pre eminently in New York. And so the circulation wars, the circulation wars were to claim the highest ad rates so they could charge advertisers, so they could make money to pay off their debts and make a profit. So there were reporters in New York who were looking for a good story. And they were also, to a degree never seen an American before they were pitched at ordinary people, newspapers 30 years before had been aimed at the educated classes. Now they're aimed at the masses. So the papers could be sold for a penny cost a lot more than a penny to produce the papers, they made up the difference and a profit through selling ads. So they needed to get the circulation up, they need to, they need to draw eyeballs. And so they caught on that there's this war going on in Cuba wars are always good for news, because something is happening all the time, something is at stake. And so the big papers, that country sent reporters to Cuba, so Americans knew a lot more about this version of the Cuban war for independence that they had known about the version in the 1870s. Or they are then they had known about other independent struggles in Latin America over their previous several decades. So it got the attention of Americans. It also came along at a time when Americans were feeling anxiety for the reasons we discussed a moment ago. And, and in addition, there was a class of you could call them sort of defense intellectuals, people who are looking for a cause for the United States in international affairs, people like Theodore Roosevelt, for example, who looked at the rest of the world. And they saw that starting in Europe and spreading outward from there, this was the great age of imperialism, the major powers of Europe, are claiming colonies thick and fast in the part of the world that hadn't been already claimed. So in Africa in the 1890s, in 1885, there were almost no European colonies in Africa. By 1895, there was almost no part of Africa that was not claimed, as a colony by some European power, the same thing was going on in Southeast Asia. The United States was the one country that was not participating, the one country that could have participated that was not participating by the 1890s. Although there were really no good statistics on this. The United States had the most powerful economy in the world. And Americans were sort of feeling their oats, we could we could compete with these people. But there was this background of anti imperialism in America, this background of democracy that caused a lot of Americans say no, no, we're not like that. We don't want colonies. We don't want to lord it over other countries. So there's this built in kind of dispute between you could call them the imperialists. They tended not to call themselves imperialist, they tended to call themselves expansionist, or people who were big thinkers, but who thought that the United States would never be great, until it made its mark in the world. So the United States is building a modern navy and modern Navy is different from older navies in there, whereas older navies were powered by wind, when there it's not. Modern navies were powered by coal, you had to have coal stations, the equivalent of gas stations waiting for you had to have ports in different parts of the world if you're going to project American naval power abroad, and people like Theodore Roosevelt thought about and they said, that's what we need. And so they began looking to the farther reaches of the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean was kind of Europe's ocean, but the Pacific Ocean, this was one that was America's ocean. And this connects to something we're talking about earlier. When Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier it ended that there was no longer any empty space on the American continent. Other said, we can go beyond the American economy go out to the Pacific. The Pacific is this Audio, we can keep moving west. So Americans were looking west, some Americans were looking at China, the hundreds of millions of people in China, who they thought were eager to buy products made in America, in the middle of the great of the Depression of the 1890s, his idea of how could we get rid of this extra stuff that we're producing that is not being sold in America, we could find foreign markets, the China market became this touchstone for chambers of commerce around America. So when people like Theodore Roosevelt thinking, Okay, we could use some naval bases and coaling bases abroad, why would we want them? Ah, so we can project America, American power to China, why China because China is going to buy these goods from American factories, and that's going to solve the problem of depression. Because a lot of people in America feared that America was simply too productive, there is going to be this chronic problem of overproduction. So what we're going to need to do is find customers overseas. So there are all these streams that are working together to get certain groups of Americans to look to the far Pacific. And then along comes this war in Cuba, this kind of out of the blue, this doesn't connect at all, at least at first, to what's going on in the Pacific and the vision that these people have for a Pacific future for the United States. But there it is, there is a war in Cuba and the war in Cuba is a war nominally against Spanish power. So these people these expansions, these folks like Theodore Roosevelt, they put two and two together, they realize if the United States goes to the aid of these beleaguered nationalists, these patriots in Cuba, it will be a war against Spain, and Spain has colonies all over the world, and those colonies will become fair game for the United States. So Roosevelt starts thinking the US could go to war in Cuba against Spain, but that would give the United States grounds for attacking Spain's position in the Philippines. Now, this view was not widely shared. It wasn't exactly kept a secret. But most Americans hardly knew where the Philippines were, what the Philippines were.

Joseph Hawthorne:

But they were saying this Lee McKinley said that as well.

HW Brands:

Exactly, yeah. So it had to be shown on the map. But it allowed people like Roosevelt and people who thought like Roosevelt, to be plotting this, this larger policy, Roosevelt really cared almost not at all, for Cuba, or especially for the Cubans who were suffering under Spanish policy. But it gave him an excuse to support that war to say the United States needs to take control of its fate needs to take control of the Caribbean. But in the back of his mind, he's saying he and that's going to give us a foothold in the Pacific.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Okay, and that's perfect for bringing the two together. So we could spend, we could spend a lot of time talking about the Spanish American War itself. But we can kind of fast forward a little bit through in that, you know, United States gets more involved to the point where they literally are at war with Spain. Famously the roughriders. Yeah, they land in Cuba as well. And this secures a lot of fame, and eventual political rise for Theodore Roosevelt. Right. This is all going on wall, the, the American fleet route is the American fleet quite quickly defeats the Spanish fleet in Manila, and then continues to try and figure out what it wants to do in the Philippines. So focusing a little bit on the Philippines. You know, once Americans are at Manila, what is the reaction of Americans and the American government to this second set of islands, I guess, the to this Pacific position?

HW Brands:

Well, America declares war in Spain. And it takes a while for the US to gear up to launch an invasion of Cuba, the United States does not have a standing army. So it takes months to put together an army. But the United States does have a Navy, and the Navy in the Pacific has standing orders. If war breaks out against Spain, go straight to Manila and sink the Spanish lead there. Now the justification for that was that chips Spanish ships are movable, and they will come around and they will fight us in Cuba. And so that was the justification for sinking the Spanish ships in Manila Bay.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And just to interject quickly, for reference, what was Theodore Roosevelt's role in the McKinley image?

HW Brands:

Okay, so Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy and he was acting Secretary of the Navy on the many days when his boss was out of the office. And on one of these days, he sent a message to George Dewey, the Commodore, the Asiatic fleet in the western Pacific. And he says, if we're better Start with Spain go directly to the Philippines and attack the Spanish fleet there. And this is what do we did. And this was the first victory. This was really the first engagement that Americans knew about in the Spanish American War. They were looking at Cuba and they wake up in the morning and they read the Dewey takes Manila. What's this? Where's Manila? What's the Philippines? And so do we have to figure out so what do we do with the Philippines? We've sunk the fleet? Do we just sail away? That was the mission to sink the fleet

Unknown:

as well,

HW Brands:

but he got the oars? Well, stick around, we'll figure out what to do with the Philippines after the war. Now, the war against Spain didn't last very long. It was a war that was over in four months. But then there was the question. Okay, so what are we going to do with Philippines? What are we gonna do with Cuba, there are American troops in Cuba. There are a very small number of US Marines in the Philippines, and not in the Philippines, just in around Manila. And there are large parts of the Philippines that hadn't seen read, hardly even heard about the American presence. But it was all wrapped in the deal that's going to be arranged with Spain. Now, there were some expansion as who thought the United States ought to annex Cuba. But the opponents of American expansion had basically extorted from the supporters of the war promised that the United States would not annex Cuba at the end of the war. But they didn't think to include the Philippines in that or, for that matter, Puerto Rico. So at the end of the war, the United States is an occupation, full occupation and control of Cuba, to a lesser degree of Puerto Rico. And to a slight degree, very slight degree of the Philippines. There's an American military presence there, they have basically ousted the Spanish, but they really can't control the Philippines. And it's unclear whether they want to. So William McKinley, President, the United States is in a position where he's got to figure out so what do I do now? We've got the Philippines. What do we do? A they figured out what they're going to do with Cuba, Cuba is going to become independent. I was sort of cooked into the policy that Congress is paying attention to, but Congress let McKinley have his way, essentially, with the Philippines because this is in negotiations. And it's not with any Philippine government, because there's no Philippine government, there's a Spanish government, and the US is negotiating with Spain. And what McKinley concludes is that the United States needs to annex the Philippines, the Philippines will become an American possession. And McKinley his thinking was, he didn't particularly want to be an imperialist. He didn't perfectly want colonies. But he was realistic enough to know that in that moment of time, in this moment, when the great powers of the world are gobbling up every piece of real estate that's not already claimed. independence for the Philippines was probably very unlikely if American troops and American ships sailed away from the Philippines. The Germans, the Japanese would come and take over the place. And McKinley was confident enough in American values and American institutions to think that, well, better that the United States govern the Philippines than Germany or Japan. The Japanese were really on a roll in that part of Asia. And they were just they had just taken over Korea, and they were entrenching themselves in Taiwan and the Philippines would be an obvious place. And so McKinley is thinking we will take control of the Philippines. And we will prepare the Philippines for eventual independence. We don't anticipate that the Philippines is going to be like Texas, or California isn't going to become a state of the United States. It's way too far away. But for the time being, we will protect the Philippines from these other potential aggressors. We will teach the Filipinos how to run a democratic government. And then in due course, we will hand the Philippines their independence when they're ready to govern themselves. This was McKinley is thinking he was vaguely aware that there might be some problems that there might be some folks in the Philippines who didn't particularly like American control. He was sort of vaguely aware that there had been an independence movement in the Philippines already that had been fighting against the Spanish just the way the Cuban independence movement had been fighting against the Spanish, but he had never learned much about them. And anyway, we'll deal with that the United States had figured out how to deal with the Cuban nationalists, and so we'll deal with that. And McKinley sort of took this on as the least bad of the alternatives before him. And he said, Okay, we're going to next the Philippines, there was a big debate over this. Congress had to ratify the treaty that ended the war with Spain, and that made the Philippines a colony of the United States. And there was a loud and very coherent anti Israel. In this movement in the United States, and these people said, we're not, we should not be an empire, this is going to erode, undercut American democracy, we will be the master of the Philippines, but we will no longer be the master of our own fates. And this, in fact, is just another example, they said, of how well of power is expanding and taking over everything is, you know, they're taking over the steel industry, they've taken over banking, they're taking over America, and now they're trying to take over the world. And so this is something we need to fight against the anti imperialist lost that argument, but they didn't go away. And so the argument continued, and in fact, the position of the anti imperialist became more credible, when almost at the moment, that title to the Philippines passed from the Spanish to the Americans, the Philippine nationals who had been fighting as the Spanish started fighting against the Americans.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so there's so much that we can talk more about that. But I do want to think about a few questions to wrap up on so I want to think about Filipino and American perception. And so how Americans thought of the Philippines as time went on, kind of, from 1899, or 1898, through the war itself, and then also a little bit, we can talk about compensation afterwards. And then how Filipinos thought about United States, the United States, basically occupation for a number of years. So we'll start with the United States. And one thing I think is interesting to talk about is how progressives viewed this interesting point that I was before was that, you know, part of it of progress is bringing the full fruits of democracy to people that can use it. So in this case, to, as Brett was would would say, or some professors would say, to Filipinos, so

HW Brands:

yeah, so it's important to keep in mind as an American opinion, was deeply split regarding Filipinos and the Philippines and the whole idea of American presence in the Philippines. So there were some Americans who thought that the American presence in the Philippines is the worst thing ever, it's going to be bad for the Filipinos is gonna be bad for Americans, we ought to get out. There are others who said, Well, here we are, we got to make the best of it. There were some you've identified us, you've suggested a split within the progressive vote Exactly. So there were some progressives who really emphasized democracy. And if democracy is good for the United States, democracy ought to be good for the Filipinos. And democracy means First of all, self government, we ought to get out of there and let the Filipinos govern themselves. But there are others who said, Now, you know, democracy doesn't just land from out of the blue, it has to evolve, it has to people have to be taught how to become democratic. And so we will help the Filipinos become democratic. So there were some progressives who were imperialist. There were other progressives who are anti imperialists. And from the Filipino side, they were mixed feelings about this as well, there were. And the first thing is, if American views were distinct, they are even more distinct than the Philippines because there are a whole lots of different people on being lots of different islands, and from different backgrounds, and with different connections to the government. So Filipinos were split on this as well, there were some who thought, you know, these Americans, they're probably going to be a lot better than the Spanish. There were some people in the Philippines who had known enough about American history to realize this is a democracy. And Americans are pretty broad minded on this. There were other Filipinos who were sort of diehard independence folks. And they said, We wanted to kick out the Spanish, we trade with Americans, we're going to kick out the Americans. And so for the next 40 years, 4050 years in Filipino history, there was this continuing split, there were those who said, we'll accommodate ourselves to the Americans. And we'll make the best of it. And there are others who said, No, no, we got to kick the Americans out. So we got kind of splits on both sides.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Okay. And one last question that I will finish up with combining there is not combining this but as a symbol of this. He wrote a whole book about Teddy Roosevelt. So how did Roosevelt's views evolve on this?

HW Brands:

Roosevelt was a die hard imperialist, although he simply called himself the advocate of the large policy. He thought that the United States could govern the Philippines better than the Filipinos could govern themselves, at least for a while, he believed that the United States needed to project its power throughout the world. He gradually realized, though, that he was out ahead of American opinion on this. And so during his presidency, he could not get Congress to appropriate sufficient funds to defend the Philippine Islands against potential Japanese aggression. And he began to acknowledge that he probably had been overly optimistic and what the United States could sustain and he said that, you know, at the moment, it seemed like a good idea. for the United States to take control the Philippines, but on second thought, maybe not so much. It's not that he had any less confidence in himself or in the accuracy of his views. But he realized that he had overestimated the willingness of Americans to do what good imperialists ought to do with the colonies.