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

PERHAPS THE greatest failing of the New Deal school of U.S. foreign-policy history is its failure to recognize the extent to which the central figure of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was himself the heir of McKinley and TR. FDR is often portrayed as the second coming of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he served as assistant secretary of the navy. But his role model and hero was his cousin Theodore, whose footsteps he followed into the Department of the Navy and the White House.

FDR was a navalist of the school of Mahan and TR and Lodge. Under Wilson he presided over the U.S. occupations of numerous Caribbean islands, to avert possible German influence or sabotage. This record came back to haunt him, when he joked to a reporter during his campaign for the vice presidency in 1920: “The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself, and, if I do say it, I think it’s a pretty good constitution.”

During World War II FDR came up with the name for the United Nations, but he was far more of a realist than Wilson. FDR hoped that the postwar world would be policed by a great-power concert of the major World War II allies—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—with the Chinese Nationalist regime enlisted as a pro-American fourth “policeman.” He seems to have envisioned not joint policing of every region of the world by the four founding members of the Security Council (to which France was later added), but rather distinct great-power spheres of influence, in which the United States, as the hegemon of North America and the dominant naval power in both the Atlantic and Pacific, would be first among equals. This idea of a sphere of influence in which the regional military hegemon exercises the “police power” against misbehaving neighbors, while the region remained open for commerce with the rest of the world, might be traced back to the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door Doctrine in China announced by John Hay, the former secretary of Abraham Lincoln who served McKinley and TR as secretary of state.

In his attitude toward banking and business, too, FDR had more in common with the Republicans who preceded him than received history would have us believe. Like TR, FDR did not believe it was realistic to use antitrust laws to mechanically break up all large firms. During his first term, he built on the “associationalism” of Herbert Hoover and promoted the cartelization of industry under the auspices of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which was struck down as unconstitutional by a Supreme Court majority including the neo-Jeffersonian Louis Brandeis. In his second term FDR fell under the sway of antimonopolists like Thurman Arnold, head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, but when the imperatives of production in World War II made government-business collaboration necessary, he got rid of Arnold by promoting him to the federal judiciary. Roosevelt favored branch banking by big banks to stabilize the financial system rather than federal deposit insurance, an old Bryanite populist policy designed to prop up tiny, undercapitalized Southern and Western “unit banks,” and only reluctantly acquiesced in the creation of the FDIC.

In short, in his outlook and policies FDR had more in common with the so-called “imperialists” and supporters of modern corporate capitalism among McKinley-TR Republicans than with the agrarian populists and liberal internationalist idealists in the Democratic party that he led. Although his branch of the Roosevelt family preferred the Democrats, and he himself ran for office later as a Democrat, in 1900, when McKinley was president, in support of his cousin TR, McKinley’s vice-president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an undergraduate at Harvard was a member of the Republican Club. Only later did he decide to pursue a political career as a Democrat.

MERRY PROVIDES a number of insightful observations about McKinley’s approach to foreign affairs. He offers a useful corrective to the received wisdom of the mid-twentieth-century school. He is thus right to emphasize the continuity of McKinley’s policy with that of his predecessors, and right as well to stress that under McKinley the United States sought a “noncolonial imperialism”—essentially, a sphere of influence and naval bases that were compatible with the larger American strategy of preventing, rather than promoting, the enclosure of the global commons and the world economy into rival autarkic empires:

*** “The imperatives that Washington sought to impose on the emergent Cuban government, constituting a kind of big brother status, represented another foray into the realm of noncolonial imperialism, applying military, economic, and diplomatic power to get other nations to bend to U.S. desires. Ultimately it was about America’s perceived imperative of protecting and maintaining its sphere of influence, codified in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and expanded with the Spanish-American War.” ***

The geopolitics of the early twenty-first century would not seem unusual to McKinley or the neo-Hamiltonian circle of TR, Lodge and Mahan. During the Cold War, the United States added protectorates over Germany, Japan and South Korea, while fighting a lost war to preserve the protectorate in South Vietnam it had inherited from the French Empire. Following the Cold War, the United States extended its sphere of influence into eastern Europe all the ways to the border of shrunken post-Soviet Russia, and has tried to plant permanent military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter two countries, the United States has discovered, as McKinley did in Cuba and the Philippines, that the price of a strategic military base is often a bloody and prolonged attempt to subdue an entire territory.