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« The Rise of the Anarchists | Main | Great Britain before the Great War »

Manifest Destiny Before The Great War

Alfred Thayer Mahan, in an official portraitIn 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan did not seem the kind of the man who would shape a nation’s destiny. Thin, bald, bearded, a bit wizened, and very professorial, he was the head of what was then called “The Naval War College” of the United States. But he wasn’t much of an old salt. His tenure at sea had been called "unremarkable" by those in a generous mood. He had the unfortunate habit of running ships into various objects, most of them stationary.

Then again, the Naval War College didn’t require much of a sailor at its head. After all, the American flotilla consisted of a few patrols along the East coast, very little on the West, a few stationary cruisers in the Great Lakes, and a beefed-up presence in the great expanse of Vermont’s Lake Champlain.

But Captain Mahan wasn’t a sailor; he was a thinker. Over the years, he’d become known for a series of forceful lectures with a central thesis: no global power can exist without commanding the seas. By 1890, that thesis had even become a book: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783. If he wasn’t seaworthy, he was ambitious. He was already a celebrity in small circles; he desired more.

A mass grave after the massacre at Wounded KneeMahan set out to sell his book to the general public by placing articles in periodicals like “The Atlantic Monthly.” Beating to windward, he based his pitch on, of all things, Native Americans. That same year, the last full-on conflict between them and the American settlers had taken place at Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. With that decisive massacre, the United States lost the last of its land frontier—which had been its defining national characteristic since the mid-1600s when the tribes on the Eastern seaboard began dragging Puritans into the howling wilderness of, say, Norwalk, Connecticut.

All was now changed. Huck Finn could no longer "light out for the territories." There could be no more Natty Bumppo in New York, no more Davy Crockett in Tennessee and Texas. The California Gold Rush was over. The buffalo herds were slaughtered. And the Native Americans were retreating into enforced silence. So the closing of the frontier marked a turning point in American history—a turning point seen, not in hindsight, but right now, by Captain Mahan. “Whether they will or no,” he intoned, “Americans must now begin to look outward.” Our Manifest Destiny lay no longer here but across the waves.

President Cleveland in his second termProblem was, President Cleveland wasn’t the sort of man to set sail. Of great girth, tipping the scales at well over 300 pounds, and into the middling middle of his second non-consecutive term, he resisted change on every front. He was not in favor of building a superior navy to usher America into the next century. He did not believe that President Monroe’s famed “doctrine” held much force anymore. (The Monroe Doctrine: Any European intervention in the affairs of North or South America will be considered an act of aggression against the United States.) He did not think Manifest Destiny extended beyond the Oregon coast.

But the Republicans in Congress were coming under the thrall of Mahan’s thesis. They clamored for enormous naval vessels, capable of putting down all comers: giant guns, massive ships, far more powerful than the small cruisers that plied Lake Michigan. The U. S. destiny could reach as far as the country could sail.

Under Mahan’s instigation and with a general public seemingly restless after too many financial panics, the voices for global expansion ran unopposed except for President Cleveland and a few of his allies, many of them from the once-ballyhooed patrician class. These latter were even less effective than the corpulent President. If there was a last gasp of patrician spirit in Great Britain in the years before the Great War (see the entry below this one for more details), that class in the United States had left the muddy earth and ascended into the unsullied heaven of Newport and academia. By the 1890s, the elite upper class—the Madisons, Adams, and such, the Brahmins of Boston and First Families of Virginia, who had collectively sent the first six presidents to the top of the executive branch of the government, as well as supplying most of the senators of the young Republic—were in full retreat. American government was now dominated by “the common man.” Who proved increasingly willing to risk war.

On February 24, 1895, the Cubans rose up against the Spanish. Republican Senators and Congressmen leapt to the fight. A canal had been proposed across the isthmus of Panama. The French had stumbled into action—and quickly failed at the first cut into the wild jungle. Americans saw an opporunity—and a need to control the access to the canal. Cuba seemed a logical choice.

On March 8, 1895, the Spanish fired on an American trading ship in Cuba. Republicans called it an insult to the flag. President Cleveland, as always, dithered.

A U. S. naval search expedition among the ruins of the MaineIn response, American jingoism erupted at full tilt. The next year, Cleveland was booted out of office by the affable McKinley and his bellicose VP, Theodore Roosevelt. Soon thereafter, one of Mahan’s dreams, a big battleship, the Maine, was sunk in Havana Harbor. The U. S. began to call the trumps in. By 1898, it had ousted the Spanish from Cuba, annexed Puerto Rico, thrown the Spanish out of the Philippines, engineered a coup in Hawaii, and was quickly moving to annex the territory. (Hawaii was seen as necessary to control the other end of the famed canal through Panama.) The United States’ mission now extended beyond the horizon. There was talk of Japan.

But mostly, there was a hatred of anything “European,” mostly Spanish, but also British. Despite our “primary” friendship with that country now, our relations were strained if not poisoned through the nineteenth century. Of course, there had been the War of 1812 and the infamous burning of the U. S. Capitol, considered by many a generation-later epilogue to the American War of Independence. Then there was the way Great Britain sat out the American Civil War: the crown remained officially neutral, although British shipyards produced vessels for the southern Confederacy.

By 1895, with Mahan preaching a new form of Manifest Destiny and the United States already reaching across the globe for conflicts fueled by those new battleships, the two countries almost went to war again. The immediate cause was the long disputed border between British Guiana and Venezuela. The Venezuelan government, eager to fan the flames of American jingoism, called on the United States to arbitrate, based on the Monroe Doctrine. The crown flatly refused to come to the table. Congress was spoiling for a fight. As Rudyard Kipling said, France could go at Germany, Britain at Russia, and America at Britain, “the only feasible country for an American to trample upon.”

Cleveland was nearing re-election (which he would lose). He didn’t want to seem as flat-footed as usual. His Secretary of State Richard Olney sent Lord Salisbury an open letter with (not very) veiled threats. To disregard Venezuelan claims would be a direct provocation. The United States was “master of the situation and practically invulnerable against any and all comers.”

Lord Salisbury was his own sort of master—that is, of European diplomacy. He considered his finesse wasted on democracies like the United States where the common man clearly reigned supreme, Jefferson’s ideals of a landed elite trampled in the backroom brawls of Jacksonian democracy. So Salisbury refused to answer the letter for four months. When he did, he tossed aside his vaunted diplomatic largesse. He left no wiggle room. He would not negotiate “the frontier of a British possession which belonged to the Throne of England before the Republic of Venezuela came into existence.”

American politicans frothed. President Cleveland proclaimed the U. S. boundary between the countries “inviolable.” “War!” shouted the New York Sun, although the United States was already stretching itself thin.

Britain was frankly caught off guard. Salisbury firmly believed his response would end the matter. He and his government were momentarily (and uncommonly) bewildered. The British public was divided. The Times coughed up this gob of its own jingoism at the United States: “No dog of a Republic can open its mouth without our good leave.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II, tricked outAs everything else in the run-up to the Great War, it ended in a strange twist. Never one to miss an opportunity, Kaiser Wilhelm II saw his. With America and Britain at loggerheads, he got involved in the Jameson Raid, the first engagement of what would become the Boer War in South Africa. The British government and public turned on a dime to that conflict. Overnight, they forgot about the American yapping. After all, a conflict with another European was the real heart of the matter of a nation’s destiny. The former colonies were troublesome adolescents. If one had a choice, one would go to war with a European—if only for honor’s sake.

Which meant the Americans were left to pursue Mahan’s thesis in the Caribbean and Pacific. And pursue it they did. They looked outward. They got involved in nasty conflicts. They “freed” the Philippines, showed no signs of relinquishing the country to self-rule, and got caught in a brutal guerilla war half a world away.

And so began the curious tale of American imperialism. Curious because Americans did not sit home in times of war. The frontier gone, the citizens looked outward, too. By the mid-1890s, they were traveling in droves—mostly to Europe, right under the up-turned nose of Lord Salisbury’s government, right into the heart of the Kaiser’s megolomania, and even into the Pacific, to the doorstep of war. The “Grand Tour” was becoming the hallmark of good breeding. (It would continue to be so even after the outbreak of the Great War.) The politicians snorted violence; the citizens, seemingly unmindful, traveled in luxury staterooms.

The Astors in EuropeThe newly wealthy conquered Europe in a way no European had ever considered: by swarming it with well-heeled tourists in the midst of otherwise salty and warmongering rhetoric, tourists not interested in learning or betterment, but instead intent on drinking up the champagne, lolling around cafes, buying up the art (instead of just looking at it), and building vast real estate holdings in the old world.

These well-heeled hedonists, along with soldiers, statesmen, naval officers, Congressman, and even the patricians from their rarified worlds, swarmed over the Continent, only to run up against the moiling chaos of a European original (and soon to be an import), something so foreign to the American temperament they couldn’t have seen it coming, not the academic heads or the howling Congressman. Headlong they sailed, marched, carriaged, and strolled right into the teeth of anarchism.

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