Bringing Back McKinley

A 1900 Republican campaign poster for the U.S. presidential election, with portraits of President William McKinley and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt at center. On the left side "Gone Democratic" shows the U.S. in economic slump and Cuba shackled by Spain; on the right side "Gone Republican" shows the U.S. prosperous and Cuba being educated under U.S. tutelage. Wikimedia Commons

The greatest challenge to McKinley’s reputation in the twenty-first century is the legacy of historians of the mid-twentieth century.

November-December 2017

Moreover, even though several of these sought-for ports and attached hinterlands were purchased or stolen from the weak states of Mexico and Spain, a major motive for their annexation by the United States was to deny them to more important powers who might obtain them, if they slipped free of control by Madrid or Mexico City or Paris. Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, and James Monroe purchased Florida from Spain, to deny them to Britain. For ten years after the Texas Revolution of 1836, antislavery forces denied the admission of Texas to the United States as a slave state; the desire of British policymakers to keep Texas independent of the United States was a factor in persuading Congress to annex Texas in 1846. Keeping the Alaska Territory out of British hands was the motive for “Seward’s Folly.”

IN LIGHT of the Anglo-American rapprochement of the late nineteenth century and the deep Anglo-American alliance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is easy to forget how long the British Empire was viewed as the greatest strategic threat to the United States by American policymakers. Anglo-American geopolitical rivalry was central to both of the crises of the 1840s, the Oregon dispute and the Mexican War. Alta California, populated by around ten thousand Mexican nationals, had already achieved de facto independence from Mexico City, and it was widely assumed that the region would drift either into the U.S. or British spheres of influence, at a time when Britain was still the dominant naval and commercial power in North America. Americans who coveted California in general, and the ports of San Francisco and San Diego in particular, exaggerated but did not invent the possibility that California would become a British ally or protectorate, as Texas had threatened to become. The hope of some Southern secessionists that Britain would intervene to help the Confederate States of America obtain their independence from the United States, and the general preference of the British elite for the Southern rebels against the Union, shows that the danger that the United States would be hemmed in by British colonies or protectorates—Canada, the CSA, perhaps an independent Texas again and an independent California—was very real.

By the 1880s and 1890s, American fears of conflict with Britain were replaced by anxieties about the rise of Germany and Japan—anxieties which were not unreasonable, in light of the subsequent American wars with those nations. The naval buildup and quest for naval bases under McKinley and his successors, denounced by populists and liberals as an expression of un-American militarism or as a search for foreign markets by American big business, was in reality motivated largely by the belief of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt and others that the British fleet could no longer protect American interests from an increasingly powerful Germany. Indeed, the conflict among the United States, Britain and Germany over Samoa; the Spanish-American War; and later U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution, which was, among other things, a proxy war between Imperial Germany and the United States, can only be understood as episodes in what was in effect a German-American cold war.

Defenders of the old-fashioned populist-liberal school of history might reply that American naval expansionists invoked rivalries with Germany and Japan as alibis for policies with other goals. But as the line often attributed to Henry Kissinger goes, even paranoids have real enemies. Between the 1880s and World War I, while building up its fleet, Germany sought its own Pacific island empire while hoping to expand its influence in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Merry notes McKinley’s concern about “ambitious nations—Germany and Japan in particular—interjecting themselves into the mess [in the Philippines] and spreading even more chaos.” This fear was well founded. Following the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the German squadron in Manila Bay outnumbered the American ships, and there was a tense confrontation between Admiral Dewey and German Vice Admiral von Diederichs.

Nothing can excuse the war crimes committed by U.S. troops in conquering the Philippines. There is also much to be criticized in the subsequent administration of the islands as a U.S. protectorate until after World War II, and in U.S. policy toward the Philippines since then. And the so-called “insular cases” that followed the Spanish-American War, in which the Supreme Court correctly ruled that Congress could limit the rights of inhabitants of U.S. territories, were abused by the administration of George W. Bush as an argument for the legality of torture and the denial of basic human rights in the U.S. base at Guantánamo, Cuba. But the McKinley administration was almost certainly right that a great power potentially hostile to the United States—most likely Germany, possibly Japan—would have made the post-Spanish Philippines a protectorate, if the United States had not done so.

Contrary to populist-liberal mythology, if Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Ulysses Grant, among others, had been summoned from the grave in 1900 to learn that the United States had extended its control over Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and was building a transoceanic Central American canal, instead of lamenting the replacement of the American republic by an American empire they probably would have been astonished that these acquisitions had been so long delayed. And they might have been surprised that Canada had not yet been absorbed into the American union.