- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

By Warren Zimmerman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30, 562 pages, illus.

After winning a war, great democracies tend to relax and let their defenses down.
Soldiers return to their families, and their brightest sons take up civilian professions. The hardware of war, if it is not abandoned entirely after hostilities cease, is maintained only casually. New military technology is rejected as too expensive or not well-enough proved. And those who worry publicly about their nation's military decline are parodied and scorned.
During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 700 ships. Twenty years later the fleet was virtually gone, and the few ships still remaining in service were no match for the navies of such nations as Chile or Italy, let alone England or France. Some American ships carried "Quaker guns" dummy cannons made of wood. The Navy itself, wrote one officer, to the outrage of his superiors and the detriment of his career, had become a Quaker Navy, deceiving no one except perhaps the American public.
Yet in another short generation, all that had changed utterly. In the five years beginning in 1898, the United States became a global empire. It defeated Spain and ended the colonial regime in Cuba, securing the Caribbean as an American puddle. It acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. It developed coaling stations all across the Pacific. And it prepared for the construction of an interocean canal by prying Panama away from Colombia.
All this was made possible by the nation's reemergence as a naval power. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet 16 state-of-the-art battleships on a two-year cruise around the world. As much as any other event, that display of muscle-flexing inaugurated what has been often called the American Century.
The story of this national resurgence is readably told by Warren Zimmermann in "First Great Triumph." A career foreign service officer, Mr. Zimmermann describes it as the culmination of a political and intellectual movement, revolutionary in its impact, led by Roosevelt and a few other strong-willed men who shared his vision.
Four of the most prominent were Henry Cabot Lodge, the bellicose Boston Brahmin; John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary and TR's secretary of state; Elihu Root, the top-level corporate lawyer and Roosevelt's secretary of war; and, perhaps most important of all, the naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan. Before and during his presidency, Roosevelt and those four key allies drew on one another's strengths and experiences as they worked, not always in harmony and not always amiably, to make their country a world power.
A century later, this development may appear in hindsight to have been inevitable, the result of America's geographical good fortune and booming industrial economy. But in fact world leadership was not achieved without domestic conflict. As is the case today, there was powerful and principled opposition to imperialism from many quarters.
Harvard, perhaps unsurprisingly, was even then an anti-imperial nerve center. There, Professor (of art history) Charles Eliot Norton urged his students not to serve in the military. William James, who had taught Roosevelt psychology, was appalled at the bloody cost of empire, and called the nation's foreign policy "vile." The opposition wasn't limited to the campuses, either. Mark Twain, Samuel Gompers and Andrew Carnegie were all outspokenly anti-imperialist, as was much of the Congress.
Yet in the clash between the jingoes and the goo-goos, the eerily familiar antecedents of later hawks and doves, Roosevelt and the jingoes won victory after victory. (The term "jingoes" came from an 1878 London music hall ballad "We don't want to fight/ But by jingo if we do,/ We've got the ships, we've got the men,/ We've got the money too." As for the "goo-goos," Mr. Zimmermann credits TR himself with inventing the contemptuous term, still occasionally used today to describe the sort of good-government types who instinctively prefer negotiation to force.)
"This is a book about imperialism," writes Mr. Zimmermann, who was the last American ambassador to Yugoslavia, in his introduction. But it is also a book about the personalities behind the policy, and rich with personal detail. We learn for example that Hay had an affair with Lodge's wife Nannie. That Root, whose legal career spanned 70 years and included a Nobel Peace Prize, was an ardent striped-bass fisherman. That Mahan, derided by irritated admirals as a "pen-and-ink sailor" after he began to publish his highly influential books on the significance of sea power in history, was a skilled seaman who spent half of his first 25 years in the navy at sea.
As for Lodge, who is remembered today mostly as the chief destroyer of Woodrow Wilson's dream of a new world order, Mr. Zimmermann passes on the novelist Owen Wister's imagined portrait of the senator as he might have been painted by John Singleton Copley. "It is unmitigated Boston that you see recorded; the eye of a robust, stiff-necked race of seventeenth and eighteenth century dissenters, with its plain living, high thinking, dauntless intolerance, bleak bad manners, suppression of feeling, tenacity in its stern beliefs, and its cantankerousness, stares down at you with cold disapprobation."
A century later, a few of the robust stiff-necked ones are still around, but not in Boston. Today's Massachusetts senators are named Kennedy and Kerry, and everywhere in the American empire, imperialism is considered very nasty indeed. A new era is beginning, and it will probably not be like those envisioned by either Roosevelt, or by Wilson, or even by Jimmy Carter. The American place in it is not at all clear. Neither are the identities of those whose vision will help determine it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer in Havre de Grace, Md.

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