King’s Survey: Imperial Resorts

USS_Maine_wrecked_in_Havana_Bay.png
Wreckage of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, 1898

In which see the temptations, and complications, of empire

So, Emily, what are we going to do about Samoa?

—You tell me, Mr. K.

No, you tell me.

—That’s not my job.

Oh yes it is. You’ve got a job to do. You’re a student.

—Well then I need a raise.

Fine. I’ll double your salary.

—Aren’t samoas Indian food?

—No, that’s samosas.

—Oh. I love those.

Samoa refers to a set of islands in the Pacific.

—Well, in that case, I know what we should do. Make a trip there. I could use a vacation.

So, Em, you’re saying we should occupy Samoa.

—Well, I’m saying we should resort to going there, if you know what I mean.

As a first resort, or a last resort?

—What the hell are you two talking about?

Adam, I’m not entirely sure where Em is, literally or figuratively, but I’m talking about what the United States should do about the Samoan Islands, which have been in turmoil for the last decade or so (I should point out that we’re in the 1890s now). There’s been a long Civil War going on there, and the British and (especially) the Germans have been tussling for control. My question is what stance the United States should have.

—Why should we have any stance?

A fair question. Overseas involvement of this kind has not really been a major feature of U.S. foreign policy. But as you know, the world is changing. In particular, European nations are gobbling up territory in Asia and Africa. Actually, the U.S. has been increasingly interested in pursuing commercial interests around the world. In the 1850s, an American naval squadron under the leadership of Admiral Matthew C. Perry demanded that Japan open up its markets, a move that precipitated revolutionary changes in that country, and one which as led to an extraordinary military modernization of Japan, which, as we approach 1900, is on its way to becoming a major world power. (Perhaps Perry should have been careful what he wished for.) In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward, who served under President Lincoln, negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, which a lot of people thought was a dumb idea—they called it “Seward’s Icebox,” or “Seward’s Folly,” until gold was discovered there in 1896. Pacific Islands like those in Samoa are increasingly valuable as coaling stations for ships (now that the age of sailboats is over), and any nation that wants to be a major-league player needs them. Germany in particular is playing catch-up—it only officially became a unified state in 1871—and is trying to rack up properties around the world while some are still available for the taking.

—Adam’s right. I still don’t get why we should care about any of this.

Well, Sadie, maybe we shouldn’t.

—Maybe we should let the Samoans decide what they want.

There are two problems with that seemingly sensible approach, Kylie. The first is that the Samoans themselves are divided. One reason they’re divided is that outside powers are meddling in Samoan affairs. Which brings us to the second problem: letting the Samoans decide what they want in effect means letting the Germans (and maybe the British) take over everything. Do we want that?

—Why should we care?

Well, maybe we shouldn’t. But Germany has been expanding mighty rapidly, and that includes places like South America. When European powers go into places like Columbia and Venezuela, they lend a lot of money and generate economic development, but they also generate a lot of debt. And when those countries can’t or won’t pay, the European powers send gunships, which is a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. What I’m saying is that if we don’t try to check the advance of the imperialist powers, they end up pushing people around, and we may end up being among those people.

—Doesn’t sound like a good situation. I think we have to stand firm. Let’s take Samoa.

—Don’t they provide us with good NFL players now?

Indeed they do.

—All the more reason, then.

—Are the Samoans going to be better off with us? Have they been?

Well, you know, Yin, I don’t know. And you can attribute my ignorance on this count as an artifact of my ethnocentrism, or my imperialism, or my racism (take your pick or all three). Five Samoan islands are U.S. territory. They get to vote in primaries, but not presidential elections.

—That’s weird.

There are all kinds of quirks in the way the U.S. runs its overseas territories. In any case, I think Jonah’s right. Let’s agree to take Samoa.

—Really? Have we agreed?

Has anyone objected? I haven’t heard anyone say no. Good. We’re moving on.

—Hey!

—He’s making a point, Kylie.

About Cuba.

—Cuba?

—Uh oh. Here we go.

As we know, Cuba has been a Spanish colony for over 400 years now. They are horrible colonists. The Cubans have been in a state of almost perpetual rebellion against the Spanish for the last 20 years. Our presidents, most recently President McKinley, have tried to reason with the Spanish to be less brutal. But they won’t listen to us.

—I wonder why.

Well, it is true that some Americans have had their eye on acquiring Cuba since the 1850s, when proslavery advocates wanted to annex it. And it is also true that the assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, has been advocating a major U.S. naval buildup, and Cuba could be a nice piece of real estate. But let’s emphasize the humanitarian dimensions of the Cuban situation, shall we?

—Let’s not and say we did.

—Are we talking about the Spanish-American War now?

Indeed we are.

—So how did it actually happen?

Well, amid spurned offers for mediation, and some lurid press coverage in the United States, President McKinley sent a ship, USS Maine, to protect American interests in Havana. In early 1898, the Maine blew up.

—Who did that?

Nobody knows.

—How convenient.

Historians now belief it was an industrial accident. But there was a widespread belief—or, at any rate, a widespread assertion—that the Spanish did it. There was also an intercepted diplomatic cable that referred to President McKinley in unflattering terms.

—What did it say?

That he was “weak.”

—Oh well, then, you have to go to war.

That spring, the United States did so. Undersecretary Roosevelt, who was probably taking on more responsibility than his boss would have liked, had dispatched ships to the Philippines, which were also rebelling against Spanish rule. At the Battle of Manila Bay, the U.S. wrecked the Spanish fleet. A few months later, the U.S. invaded Cuba (Roosevelt left his desk job to lead an attack as an officer at San Juan Hill, which made him a national celebrity). Though the operation was in many ways amateurish, the Americans won there too. By the fall of 1898, the Spanish sued for peace.

—So that’s how we got Cuba.

—We didn’t get Cuba, did we?

Right.

—Who?

Both of you. The U.S. had declared war on a basis of liberating Cuba—Cuba libre! went the slogan—so simply taking the island would have posed political problems at home and abroad. And here I should point out that there was significant opposition to the war in the United States.

—Thank God. I was beginning to think we were all jerks.

So Cuba became independent. Sort of. There was a provision to the U.S. treaty with Cuba, the Platt Amendment, which basically said: you’re free to do what you like, unless you do something we don’t like. For the next sixty years, Cuba became a de facto U.S. colony—except for the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which was actually U.S. property. Which it remains, even after the Cuban revolution of 1959, when the nation became Communist. But the U.S. did pick up possessions from the war in Guam (also out in the Pacific) and Puerto Rico. Which remain U.S. territories, with varying degrees of ambivalence on their part of its residents, to this day.

—What about the Philippines?

Ah, good question. So I told you that the Filipinos were in revolt against the Spanish. They were very happy to get help from the Americans. They were a good deal less happy when the Americans hesitated to leave after the Spanish defeat while the U.S. government decided what it wanted to do with the Philippines. The Filipinos under the leadership of a man named Eduardo Aguinaldo led an insurrection against the U.S. occupation for a few years after the war ended that was finally put down. The Philippines became U.S. territory until World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese. After the war the Filipinos got their independence, but again, the U.S. maintains a huge naval installation there.

But if the Philippines was a U.S. possession, Filipinos were not U.S. citizens. There was a lot of litigation about this, but the Supreme Court finally ruled that the Constitution follows the flag, but not necessarily right away.

—What’s that supposed to mean?

Go to law school and find out. We’re getting above my pay grade, Adam.

—So are you saying you want a pay raise, Mr. K.? Should I double your salary?

Nah, Em, I don’t want the hassle of more responsibility than I already have. But I do want to ask you a final question.

—You with the questions! Go ahead. I’ll accept the hassle of responsibility of thinking for the whole class.

Great, though your classmates can pitch in. My question is: What’s happening to the United States’ place in the world in these closing decades of the 19th century?

—We’re becoming a bunch of jerks.

—We’re becoming a world power.

—Same thing.

—Not it’s not. It’s like Mr. K. said about the Samoans. If we don’t do it, someone else will. And that someone else will be worse than us.

—Really? The Cubans were oppressed by the Spanish. Then they were oppressed by the Americans. What difference does it make?

—Actually, that’s an interesting question. Do we know who was worse? Can you tell us, Mr. K.?

I don’t know that I can give you a clear-cut answer to that, Kylie. Partly it depends on what your standards are. Which is the kind of thing I’m hoping conversations like these will help you develop.

—Good luck with that.

Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying. Or maybe you can. I hope you won’t.

 

 

 

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