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FIRST GREAT TRIUMPH by Warren Zimmermann

FIRST GREAT TRIUMPH

How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

By Warren Zimmermann

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-374-17939-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A vigorous history of America’s rise to global power in the closing years of the 19th century.

Ambassador to Yugoslavia during the first Bush administration—Origins of a Catastrophe (1996) details his experiences there—Zimmerman is no stranger to power politics and saber rattling. He opens this lucid account by noting that modern Americans do not much like to think of their country as having an imperialist past. Indeed, he writes, imperialism “was not very popular in 1898 either,” so that two of the chief architects of America’s global expansion, Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, resorted to euphemisms such as “Americanism” and “large policy.” Whatever they called it, Roosevelt and Lodge, along with naval strategist Alfred Mahan, Secretary of State John Hay, and lawyer-administrator Elihu Root (later Secretary of War and of State), developed an encompassing policy that first led to the acquisition of huge chunks of territory by defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. This was so resounding a victory, Zimmerman observes, that the issue was not what the Spanish were willing to concede, “but what the Americans would demand.” What they took was nearly direct economic control of places such as the Philippines and Cuba. To one degree or another, the author notes, all these men operated under conceptions of manifest destiny and a variant of social Darwinism that considered it the white man’s burden (Kipling wrote the poem of that title after an argument with Roosevelt) to rule the world, a goal that could be achieved only through war. Zimmerman examines the legacy of those attitudes in light of subsequent history, observing pointedly, “Many in Congress still remain wedded to triumphal rhetoric about the primacy of U.S. power without doing much to make that power relevant or acceptable to others.”

An intelligent, highly readable contribution to the historical literature, usefully updating such standard texts as Howard K. Beale’s Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (1956).