The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. By Stephen Kinzer. Henry Holt and Company, 2017. Pp. 306. Hardcover $28.00. ISBN 9781627792165 (hardcover). ISBN 9781627792172 (ebook).

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The following review appeared 6 February 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Stephen Kinzer, whose journalistic credentials include stints as bureau chief for the New York Times in Turkey, Nicaragua, and Germany, has penned the fourth book published in the last five years to explore American imperialism by placing Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt in close proximity, standing back a safe distance, and describing the result. Put another way, the Twainian book-bag has been bulging with Teddy-Twain books lately. Well, if this reviewer knows the signs of a live trend, and I bet I do, then this is one for sure. "Say--what is live trends good for?" the reader might ask, and this reviewer would have to admit that live trends won't cure warts like a dead cat, and of course, they can't compete with spunk-water for nothing, but this particular trend bodes well for Twain studies--and you can keep your dead cats and spunk-water.

The three books that have previously explored this territory are all cited by Kinzer: Susan K. Harris's God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (2011), Philip McFarland's Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century (2012), and Mark Zwonitzer's The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism (2016). All three of these books have been reviewed in the Mark Twain Forum. Harris's book explains the historical and cultural contexts (exceptionalism, racial and religious superiority, and America's duty to lead the world) that were the underpinnings of the arguments that framed the debate on both sides and demonstrated to what degree those same articles of faith are still informing arguments today. McFarland compares six influences on the lives of Twain and Roosevelt--war, the west, race, oil, family life, and peace--and shows how these shaped their personalities and their actions at the birth of American imperialism. Zwonitzer compares the biographies of Twain and Secretary of State John Hay--with a heavy dose of Roosevelt thrown in--to see how their thought processes and motivations were sometimes in sync and at other times in collision as both men confronted American imperialism from their very different vantage points, publicly and privately.

This growing trend to examine American imperialism comes into focus when it is remembered that the only other book devoted to Mark Twain and American imperialism in the last twenty years (1996-2016) is Jim Zwick's Confronting Imperialism: Essays on Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialism Movement (2007), and the only book on the same topic in the previous twenty year span (1975-1995) is Zwick's other book, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (1992). That this is part of an even broader trend comes into sharp focus--based on an admittedly informal and highly unscientific survey--when a tally is taken of the books published during those same time spans on American imperialism in general, as well as books on Teddy Roosevelt in which Twain is not a major player. Consulting the bibliographies and the works cited by Kinzer and his fellow trend-setters, more than thirty books on American imperialism are found in the last twenty years--more than twice as many as in the previous twenty year span, and more than were published altogether before 1975. Interest in Teddy Roosevelt and imperialism follows along similar lines: More than fifteen books about Roosevelt have appeared in the last twenty years--more than five times as many as in the previous twenty year period, and three times as many as were published before 1975. When it comes to Mark Twain studies, other than the five books already cited, no other books have been exclusively devoted to the subject of Twain and imperialism, although it has been a major theme in several books that look at Twain's travel literature or his writings on China. Albert Bigelow Paine suppressed some references to imperialism in his editions of Twain's writings, but in recent decades there have been numerous discussions in the form of book chapters and journal articles.

The reasons for these trends might seem obvious, but they are complex. American expansionism and imperialism in Twain's lifetime set in motion events that reverberate to the present day. Whenever a reverberation is felt, a study ensues, and some conclusions are drawn. However, not every American war or foreign policy blunder of the twentieth century necessarily reflects the very same economic, racial, and nationalistic attitudes that drove American foreign policy and armed conflict in Twain's day. Historians, political scientists, and literary critics have a professional obligation to use caution when drawing parallels between the past and present. That said, if the blunders (and successes?) of the past cannot be applied to our own times, why study the past? Likewise, if it is valid research to trace the supposed roots of Twain's anti-imperialism back to his reactions to the American Civil War, as some have done, why would it be impermissible to trace the roots of modern imperialism back to the imperialism of the 1890s? It seems to this reviewer that identifying the motives and cultural influences that were at play during an historical moment in time, and extrapolating those motives and influences backward or forward in time and applying them to other events, is a reasonable application of scholarship. This is fraught with no greater or fewer pitfalls than any other historical or literary research whose conclusions will not be convincing unless facts are proven and logic is applied, which brings us to the question at hand: What does Kinzer bring to the table? Given his credentials, it would be reasonable to expect Kinzer to draw valid parallels between the imperialism of Twain's day and more recent events.

He begins his account on June 15, 1898 at 5 PM--the very moment when Congress was to hold a vote on whether the US would seize a foreign land, while at that very same time the first major anti-imperialist rally was scheduled to end at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Kinzer tracks the debates and speeches in both places, which makes for a revealing juxtapositioning of the arguments. There was a clamor to find new (captive) markets for American made goods. Race was used to argue both pro and con, and George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Rudyard Kipling were quoted to lend weight to opposing positions. "National unity, race, the meaning of liberty, the place of the United States in the world and in history--all of these grand themes shaped the debate" says Kinzer (13). One side said America would pervert the meaning of our flag and suffer the fate of the Roman Empire while the other side said America had seized all of its existing lands from others by force, so why not seize more? As the speeches at Faneuil Hall drew to a close in Boston, Congress held their vote in Washington--Hawaii was annexed by a vote of two-to-one and the battle lines were drawn.

Kinzer then introduces Teddy Roosevelt into the narrative and documents his obsession with race and his irrepressible itch to get into a war somewhere, sometime, somehow. Readers of the books by Harris, McFarland, and Zwonitzer will find this well-trod ground, but it is strewn with tidbits that enliven the story. There are the amusing attempts by the media to eventually settle on "Rough Riders" to describe Roosevelt's troops in Cuba--after trying out "the Fifth Avenue Boys, the College and Club Men, then the Cowboy Regiment, and the Rustler Regiment, then Teddy's Terrors, Teddy's Texas Tarantulas, Teddy's Gilded Age Gang, Teddy's Cowboy Contingent, and Teddy's Riotous Rounders" (43). Less amusing are Secretary of State John Hay's affair with the wife of Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, and the shocking fact that President McKinley had only the vaguest notion of where the Philippines were located. But readers of those previous books may also question Kinzer's oversimplified conclusion that Twain was not originally an anti-imperialist because "he was abroad during the late 1890s . . . insulated from the tumult at home" (31) even though he later provides evidence to the contrary.

Playing larger roles than in those previous books are media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Harvard President Charles Eliot Norton, Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and former President Grover Cleveland. Hearst comes across as a pompous man-child. After being rejected by the Navy he showed up in Cuba on his yacht, along with two chorus girls, rounded up more than two dozen Cuban sailors who were abandoning a wrecked vessel, wined and dined them on his yacht, even leading them in patriotic American cheers before turning them over to a nearby battleship as "prisoners of war"--and demanding a receipt documenting his pseudo-heroics. Less amusing were Roosevelt's own over-blown heroics which included killing an enemy soldier--never mind that Teddy shot the Cuban in the back as he was running from American troops.

An awkward moment occurs when party-pooper Booker T. Washington talks about racism at a McKinley rally. Less amusing is the moment when McKinley has a "divine visitation" telling him to Christianize those who cannot govern for themselves (87). A pivotal moment comes when Twain writes a troubled letter to his friend, pastor Joseph Twichell, expressing his shifting views about the Philippines, and a puzzling moment arrives when plutocrat Andrew Carnegie and populist William Jennings Bryant become anti-imperialist allies (although Bryan would later change sides in service to his Presidential ambitions). The ugly mindset that drove so much of the imperialist urge is palpable when Captain Alfred T. Mahan, better-known for his great book on the influence of sea power on history, writes about "people in the childhood stage of race development" (127), or when Senator John Daniel of Virginia orates "There are people black, and white, blue, brown and gray. There are even jotted [short] people and a kind that I never heard of before, said to be striped . . . Not in a thousand years could we raise the Filipino to the level of this country's citizenship" (138). Striped? Had Senator Daniel never seen "The King's Cameleopard, or the Royal Nonesuch"?

Mark Twain returned to American soil in 1900, and in September 1901, Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as the new President after McKinley's assassination, and that's when Twain begins making more frequent appearances in the story and things heat up, but this part of the story is already familiar to any Twainian who has read a couple of the previous books mentioned. Twainians will also notice some details of Twain's anti-imperialism missing from Kinzer's account, just as historians familiar with this period will have already noticed things left out of his account like US saber-rattling with England over Venezuela, the significant naval conflicts with Germany, and the convoluted history of the Panama Canal. Although the 1895 dispute over Venezuela precedes the period under study by Kinzer and the Panama Canal follows it, they overlap and are an essential part of the story of American imperialism, but they get only brief mention. The conflict with Germany was occurring during the period under scrutiny and was a major factor in some of the actions described by Kinzer; it is all but ignored. Tracing the war of words, the overt political skirmishes, the covert political machinations, the public debates, and the media's role all make for interesting reading, if not comprehensive coverage. The end result is sobering: 20,000 Filipino insurgents dead, hundreds of thousands of dead civilians (many murdered by American troops), 4,234 Americans dead and 2,818 wounded. American imperialism in the Philippines crammed in more death and destruction in forty-one months than Spain inflicted during more than three centuries of rule.

Kinzer's final chapter, "The Deep Hurt," describes how American imperialism evolved after Twain and Teddy, but a single chapter does not allow him time to fully develop his arguments. He discusses World War I and II, and Vietnam (where the parallels and influences get murky), and the obvious parallels are drawn between the "water-cure" of the 1890s and "water-boarding" of today, the insurgencies and counter-insurgencies then and now, terrorism then and now, the debate over the lawful treatment of citizens versus non-citizens, and the expansion of Presidential war powers. Kinzer explains how many of the early anti-imperialists' predictions came true during the twentieth century. Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar had predicted that imperialism would turn the US into "a vulgar, commonplace empire founded upon physical force" (229). The effects have been felt at home as well, Kinzer claims: military budgets have soared, government has become highly centralized, and wealth dominates politics. But Kinzer does not sufficiently connect the dots and explain exactly how these things can be attributed to the imperialism of Twain's day.

One difference between imperialism of the past and present is worth noting. Although there is a solid consensus on the facts and influences that energized imperialism of the 1890s--the verdict has been rendered, so to speak--this is not true of American imperialism of more recent times, and there is even debate over whether American foreign policy today is in fact a reflection of imperialistic aspirations. If drawing parallels between historic moments where verdicts have long been rendered requires careful research, making similar comparisons between the past and a present whose verdict is yet to be rendered is speculative and festooned with uncertainty no matter how careful the research. What Twain dubbed "the lust of conquest" fueled American incursions into Cuba, Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, but is it really clear that this "lust for conquest" is the driving force today in the countries where America has sent its armed forces?

Kinzer's crucial final chapter makes for interesting reading if not persuasive argument, but he ends on a sober note that may be more convincing than any of his other assertions stacked together: George Washington's Farewell Address, in which the departing president warns against the pitfalls of permanent foreign alliances, bloody contests, overgrown military establishments, foreign intrigues, the illusions of common interests, and entering into hostilities out of pride, ambition or other pernicious motives. "Give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?" said the Father of Our Country before he lit out to Mount Vernon, where he freed his slaves upon his death just a few years later.