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The forefathers of imperialism

January 05, 2003|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

First Great Triumph

How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

Warren Zimmermann

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 562 pp., $30


Warren Zimmermann's "First Great Triumph," an account of the imperialist era in American foreign policy at the turn of the 20th century, is one of the most readable and important books on American foreign policy in recent years. Zimmermann, a distinguished U.S. diplomat who did his best to warn the world about the looming Yugoslav wars, combines formidable scholarship with a sense of narrative drama and a firsthand knowledge of the politics of American foreign policy. With Iraq, Afghanistan and a war on terror preoccupying United States foreign policy, Zimmermann's book is a timely and gripping account of another critical period in American history that leaves readers better prepared to understand the dangers that face us.

Zimmermann's basic approach to his material is reminiscent of the way African gamekeepers have identified a "big five" group of animals for tourists to look out for on safari (the big five are lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo). Zimmermann's big five are the men who made America an imperial power 100 years ago.

Leading his group is Theodore Roosevelt, who shot and stuffed many specimens of the African big five and is one of the most famous figures in American history. The other four, though somewhat less well known, all played key roles in American and world history.

Henry Cabot Lodge, who defeated Woodrow Wilson and blocked Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles to keep America out of the League of Nations, is shown rising from a young Boston politician to a national leader of the imperialist movement. The group also includes John Hay, Abraham Lincoln's confidential assistant and later ambassador to Britain and secretary of State, and Elihu Root, the New York lawyer who succeeded Hay as secretary of State and later helped to start the Carnegie Endowment and the Council on Foreign Relations. In highlighting Root's role, Zimmermann does justice to an important historical figure who is almost entirely forgotten by nonspecialists today. The final place in this core group belongs to Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose 1890 book, "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783," is the most important work of strategic thought ever written by an American.

Zimmermann sets himself the demanding task of combining short biographical studies of these men with two broader areas of concentration: a general history of the imperialistic foreign policy they struggled to shape and an intellectual and cultural history of the imperialist movement in American foreign policy.

Americans like being powerful but mostly do not like to think of their country as an empire. Zimmermann's big five set themselves against that taboo, proudly and openly advocating that the United States had both the right and the duty to conquer foreign lands and to impose American rule on other people. They grounded their call for imperial expansion in a rhetoric of racial superiority that, although normal for American discourse of the time, makes for grim reading today. It is disconcerting to be reminded just how racist the American public rhetoric of the imperial period was; Zimmermann does a commendable job of differentiating the degrees of racism among the big five without either concealing or sensationalizing racial prejudice in their work.

Racism aside, of course, it is amazing how little has changed in the American foreign policy debate since 1900. We no longer call for the annexation of foreign territory, but Americans are still divided between those who passionately believe that it is our right and even our duty to impose some kind of civilized order on poorly governed parts of the world and those who believe that this kind of imperialistic adventure constitutes a fundamental betrayal of our basic moral principles.

Zimmermann's history takes us through capsule biographies of each man and into the global political crises of the late 19th century that gave rise to the first American overseas empire. The decline of Great Britain, the continued weakness of non-European states like China, the scramble for colonies in Africa and Asia and growing U.S. trade and investment overseas led Americans to think more about the strategic dimension to their country's interest. Mahan's brilliant treatise on the importance of British sea power in the wars of 18th century Europe provided a firm intellectual basis for the idea that the United States would need, soon, to acquire more bases and territories in the Pacific.

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