Bringing Back McKinley

Bringing Back McKinley

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

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.

Other great powers have their own “empires of bases.” To prevent the possible loss of its strategic Black Sea naval base, Russia seized and annexed Crimea. To avert the loss of its base in Syria, Russia intervened to prop up Assad in the Syrian war. Meanwhile, China is building artificial islands to reinforce its claim to the South China Sea, a claim contested by U.S. freedom-of-navigation exercises. The foreign-policy experts who have spent a generation fantasizing about global connectivity and the end of the nation-state should have been studying Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History.

In what Merry calls “a rare immodest moment for McKinley,” the president told a group of visitors to the White House:

*** “And so it has come to pass that in a few short months we have become a world power; and I know, sitting here in this chair, with what added respect the nations of the world now deal with the United States, and it is vastly different from the conditions I found when I was inaugurated.” ***

There is no McKinley Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC and there is unlikely to be one. If there were, its motto might be the epitaph of the architect Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you seek his monument, look around.

Michael Lind is a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas and the author of The American Way of Strategy.

Image: 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