Podcast • February 7, 2017

Stephen Kinzer: America’s Empire State of Mind

Why are we everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn? The provocative reporter Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our “regime-change” interventions in the world, from Guatemala to the Middle East. And ...

Why are we everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn? The provocative reporter Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our “regime-change” interventions in the world, from Guatemala to the Middle East. And in book after book, he’s sharpened the question: how did our country that was born in proud rebellion against the British Empire become the mightiest empire of them all — taking on the sorrows and burdens and expenses that come with most of a thousand military bases around the world. And how has the instinct to intervene persisted through so many bitter mistakes and losses, from the first de-stabilization of democratic Iran in the 1950s to Vietnam in the 60s to Iraq yesterday and Afghanistan today?

In Kinzer’s new book, called The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, the short answer to the big question is a conflict in our blood: We are isolationists to the bone, and incurably drawn to trouble, both. Once upon a time, the biggest names in the country — President Teddy Roosevelt and his arch enemy Mark Twain — argued the difference at the top of their lungs. Steve Kinzer surfaces their argument again.

December 11, 2015

Prohibition, Then and Now

What do we remember about America’s thirteen-year war on alcohol at the end of the First World War? Hollywood reminds us of the glamor of both rum-runners and -drinkers, the psychopathic hubris of Al Capone, and the ingenuity ...

What do we remember about America’s thirteen-year war on alcohol at the end of the First World War? Hollywood reminds us of the glamor of both rum-runners and -drinkers, the psychopathic hubris of Al Capone, and the ingenuity and holy determination of the cops who chased them all.

We might remember the temperances ladies who called for the Eighteenth Amendment — many of them also suffragettes — threatening, “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine!,” and the jazz-hall music and roaring promiscuity that bit back at their “Noble Experiment.”

Finally, we might have a vague idea that Franklin Roosevelt, winning the White House amid Depression, brought beer back to the American people within weeks of his inauguration, ending what one reporter named the “fabulous farce!” of Prohibition.

But our guests Lisa McGirr and Khalil Gibran Muhammad want to remind us of what Prohibition left behind, including a new politics of Republican drys versus Democratic Wets; an empowered FBI, and a hyper-armed and vigilant police-and-prison establishment; an unprecedented population of white criminals who were pardoned and brought into the New Deal coalition — leaving blacks behind; and also a government ready and willing to regulate the little things of private leisure, from narcotics to sex when the need arose.

Fast forward forty years to the drug war, and Richard Nixon‘s warnings show an eerie similarity to the state’s leaders getting ready to take on alcohol. Nixon brought the logic of the Moynihan Report into the era of mass incarceration, and established a new criminal obsession with a deep racial bias. Jack Cole, former narcotics officer and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, takes us inside the moment and the mindset.

By the Way • September 28, 2014

James vs. Roosevelt: Letters to the Crimson

Jackson Lears has dramatized the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William James, but evidence of that conversation is actually hard to find. We turned up one interesting chapter in the conversation turning around the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895, and playing out in the pages of the Harvard Crimson.

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By Max Larkin

Jackson Lears has dramatized the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William James, but evidence of that conversation is actually hard to find. We turned up one interesting chapter in the conversation turning around the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895, and playing out in the pages of the Harvard Crimson — read on.

If you have forgotten the particulars of the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895, or never knew them (as I didn’t and still don’t), know only that Lord Salisbury’s government had hoped to reclaim as part of British Guyana territory on the other side of what was known as the Schomburgk Line — territory that was also considered part of sovereign Venezuela. President Grover Cleveland, in his second term, forbade the British claim from going forward, threatening war and toughening the Monroe Doctrine in the process. It was part of the long story of the United States expanding its interests, toward becoming the global police force that it is today.

The decision was well-received in Venezuela, according to a report filed in The Independent by the journalist Kate Foote Coe. She described a warm reception of American intervention that present-day presidents can only dream of:

Mr. Beurres, who is the son of the Venezuelan Minister to Washington, mounted on a chair, read a very excellent little speech in good, clear English… “La Gran Republica del Norte,” which had bought its liberty with a struggle in years past, proud and prosperous now, was yet magnanimous enough to look with friendly eyes upon its sister Republics. Through President Cleveland it had spoken, and they the people were there to express to the full their appreciation of this act…

The news of Cleveland’s warlike posture against the British was not as well received in Cambridge as in Caracas. A Crimson opinion enumerated problems with the plan: it amounted to imperial meddling to stop imperial meddling, it promised dangerous and entangling protectorates, and it misunderstood Monroe, among others.

This amounted to too much mollycoddle for Theodore Roosevelt, distinguished alumnus and soon to be Secretary of the Navy. On January 7, 1896, he wrote the Crimson in protest, blaming “stock-jobbing timidity, the Baboo kind of statesmanship” for inevitably bringing about a worse war later on. (A similar criticism resounds today of President Obama’s decision not to arm Syrian rebels years ago.)

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Two days later, William James, Roosevelt’s old anatomy professor and the father of American pragmatism, replied.

There was history here: according to the historian P. K. Dooley, when James was teaching and Roosevelt, a student, stood to speak, he “realizing that little would be gained in a debate, responded by ‘settling back in his chair, in a broad grin… and waiting for T.R. to finish.’” But here James is chastising Roosevelt more harshly, particularly for daring to imply that President Cleveland’s course should not be questioned.

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Embedded in the rebuke is a beautiful depiction of the political university:

May I express a hope that in this University, if no where else on the continent, we shall be patriotic enough not to remain passive whilst the destinies of our country are being settle by surprise. Let us be for our against; and if against, then against by every means in our power, when a policy is taking shape that is bound to alter all the national ideals that we have cultivated hitherto.

Today, Cleveland’s tough stance is applauded as smart foreign policy. In retrospect James looks like a crank, or overcautious. It raises the question: more than a century later, with the ‘crisis’ long forgotten, are we still more sympathetic to the upstart Roosevelt, and his fear of unmanly dissent, than to his teacher, the one who taught America good sense? And why?

Thanks to the staff of the Harvard Crimson for allowing us to review these letters as they originally appeared.