First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country A World Power
By Warren Zimmermann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pages, $30.
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Warren Zimmermann has excellent timing. Taking to heart philosopher George Santayana’s observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the scholar and former diplomat has produced a timely and well-researched book about the triumphs and failures of American military and diplomatic muscle-flexing, just as the United States is flexing its muscle in new and perhaps monumental ways.
Zimmermann’s “First Great Triumph” tells the story of the country’s emergence as a world power through the lives of five of the most important leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Secretary of State John Hay, Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, naval strategist Alfred Mahan, President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root. These men devised or helped implement strategies during events, including the Spanish-American War and the building of the Panama Canal, that had far-reaching consequences.
A fervent internationalist and realist, Zimmermann advances a balanced and not overly idealized assessment of the accomplishments of these five men and the subsequent practitioners of American foreign policy. “The United States went from a neophyte imperialist to a mature great power,” he writes. “Though marred by error, arrogance and even brutality, its international actions during that period were for the most part motivated by a humane and principled sense of the interests of people in general.”
These men, and other leaders, saw it as their duty to spread the gospel of Americanism throughout the world, especially the non-English-speaking world. Zimmermann rightly contends that all five to some extent saw themselves as having to carry what British poet Rudyard Kipling famously called “the white man’s burden.” That attitude still influences our foreign policy. While President Bush argues that the war in Iraq is not a war against Islam, he often uses the language of his Evangelical Christian faith to justify American policies.
Zimmermann, who served as the last American ambassador to the former Yugoslavia during George H.W. Bush’s administration, breaks little new ground, but he succinctly synthesizes large amounts of disparate information, while fairly portraying all five of his subjects. We learn of Hay’s laziness and stubbornness, Lodge’s partisanship and occasionally racist views, Mahan’s prickly personality and political tin ear, Root’s condescending demeanor and Roosevelt’s belligerence and trigger happiness.
Zimmermann shows how the missionary zeal and sense of moral superiority helped his five subjects transform a minor country, isolated from most of the world by two oceans, into an assertive nation now viewed as the world’s policeman. The changes came not just from big events such as wars but often from mundane day-to-day diplomacy.
For example, the close partnership between the United States and Britain, something we now take for granted, was the result of Hay’s efforts that started when he was ambassador in London and culminated with British support during the Spanish-American War. Zimmermann rightly points out that Britain’s decisions were not entirely altruistic. He contends that Britain’s moves “were not intended as a renunciation of influence but rather from a geopolitical standpoint, as a means to put American power at the service of British interests.”
Zimmermann also devotes considerable attention to the intellectual and political arguments of opponents of imperialism, such as industrialist Andrew Carnegie, President Grover Cleveland and author Mark Twain. While their views did not prevail, Zimmermann credits them with helping “entrench human rights as a permanent concern of U.S. foreign policy.”
But it is Lodge and Roosevelt on whom Zimmermann rightly focuses, since they clearly had the longest-term impact. Lodge, though known today mostly for torpedoing the League of Nations, was a strong internationalist who helped promote Roosevelt’s political career and shaped his worldview. Both were accomplished authors and historians, whose scholarship Zimmermann shortsightedly dismisses as mostly “perishable.” For Lodge, the battle over the League was about maintaining congressional prerogative over the treaty-making process and about protecting American autonomy in a world governing body. These concerns continue to come up regularly in policy discussions.
Roosevelt, the patron saint of moderate Republicans and interventionists in both parties, balanced his imperialistic views and eagerness to go to war with a strong moral fervor and a belief in the importance of diplomacy. His efforts in the Spanish-American War won him a (posthumous) Congressional Medal of Honor, while his mediation of the end of the Russo-Japanese War earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Zimmermann credits the leaders of Roosevelt’s generation with laying the foundation for a century in which America became the dominant force in the world. He erroneously concludes, however, that “since the end of the Cold War both the power and the self-confidence that sustained this century-long international influence have been eroding.”
Recent administrations of both parties have had their share of foreign policy missteps. Nevertheless, Roosevelt et al. would likely look on with favor at how their efforts are continuing to shape policies that have made us, in many respects, the envy of the world.
Claude R. Marx is a political journalist in Arlington, Va.