The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920), by Walter Karp, New York: Harper & Row, 1979, 380 pp., $15.00.
We Americans tend to see ourselves as a peace-loving nation that has somehow, against our will, been drawn into international conflicts. Walter Karp believes that the key to understanding this process—how in the 20th century a republic has been transformed into an empire—lies in the structure of American politics, especially the party apparatus. His book builds upon the model that he developed in Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America, published in 1973.
The period 1890-1920 has often been called the age of reform, but Karp sees it more fundamentally as an "age of war." It was an era in which the United States "fought two foreign wars, one against Spain, the other against Germany; fought a quasi-war in Mexico; fought a war of colonial repression in the Philippines; stood on the brink of war with Chile and Great Britain; [and] intervened with military force dozens of times in Latin America." This age of war finally gutted the reform movement. There is a relationship between domestic and foreign affairs, says Karp, even though the two are often studied almost as if they were separate and distinct.
His major theme can be put fairly succinctly. The economic crisis of the 1890s threatened the oligarchies that dominated the two, major, institutionalized parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. First, there was the threat of a third party, the People's, or Populist, Party, which challenged the party oligarchies. This was followed by assault from within both dominant parties, especially the Republican, from progressive insurgents who almost wrested control from the party bosses. Within this context, an adventurous foreign policy was the best, perhaps the only, way to smash reform and keep the essential party structures intact.
While Karp at times overdoes his thesis by attempting to make it explain more than is really necessary and is at times wrong on a few of his secondary interpretations, his general approach is superior, I believe, to current explanations of the course of American history being offered by revisionist and Marxist historians of the left. It is must reading for those who still see the Cold War as the fundamental problem facing this nation. The real problem is a political structure that is willing to take the risks and bear the cost of a war system rather than face real reform, which would necessitate a loss of power.
The first part of the book deals with President William McKinley's policies leading up to the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of the Philippines. Karp sees these trends developing early in the 1890s in the repudiation of the Republicans and their use of the tariff. James G. Blaine, the secretary of state, was illustrative of a new outlook demanding a larger American role in hemispheric and world affairs. In the wake of the problems growing out of the depression of '93, even Grover Cleveland turned to jingoism, getting the United States involved with Great Britain in a border dispute with Venezuela. Though Cleveland would later be an opponent of imperialism in the Philippines, a friend aptly told him that his Venezuelan interventionism made him "the father of the spirit of imperialism."
But it was McKinley who systematically pursued a policy of empire, which fitted very nicely into—indeed, was essential to—his views about centralizing the economy of the Republic and, in effect, cartelizing it. The great vehicle of interventionism was the revolution that had erupted in Cuba in 1895. While Americans were sympathetic to Cuban independence, few, apart from the jingoes in Congress, were anxious for intervention. It took until the spring of 1898 for McKinley to prepare the nation for such a policy. Karp very ably shows the disingenuous way in which the president sought to convince the peace party that he shared their view, while pushing Spain into a corner.
There are two points upon which I would disagree with Karp. He believes the Cuban revolutionists had not been very successful in carrying out their objectives. On the contrary, it was this very success that moved McKinley to act while intervention was still seemingly feasible. Certainly, the Spanish-American war quickly became one, not of liberation, but of empire. The first American actions were in the Philippines, and the argument began to be raised that we must have both these islands and Hawaii in order to uplift the natives and stake out a claim in Asia and the China market.
Even in starting the revolution in 1895, José Martí did so mindful of Cuban weakness, but with the realization that if this was not done, the imperial thrust of American policy that he had described as early as 1889 would in the years ahead demand annexation with the support of conservative Cubans, who feared a radical independence movement. In the case of both Cuba and the Philippines, the net result of American imperial intervention was to undercut the internal dynamics of the respective revolutions. In the long run American policy was unable to stabilize Cuba, and it remains to be seen whether aiding dictatorship will succeed in the Philippines.
Much of Karp's book deals with Woodrow Wilson and the American entrance into World War I. Here again, his overall interpretation places him squarely in the camp of historical revisionism. Wilson, with his egomania and inherent conservatism disguised as liberal reform, was the perfect ploy of the party system. Even in the Republican Party, insurgency had been co-opted by Theodore Roosevelt's domination of the Bull Moose Party.
Karp's description of Wilson's un-neutral actions leading America into war, as well as the silencing of dissent, is a sad and dreary tale of deviousness and deceit. His interpretation agrees with that of Robert Nisbet in The Twilight of Authority, that the crucial period in the rise of the American welfare-warfare state was our entry into the European war.
From the standpoint of politicians, the war offered a little something for everyone. First, it halted the movement for reform and insurgency within the dominant two-party system. The burgeoning size of government meant jobs and power for intellectuals, contracts for business, and even some goodies to trickle down to the mass of people. Finally, for Wilson it offered the fulfillment of his dream: the great war leader bringing world peace.
But men like Randolph Bourne and William Borah saw reality and the future with greater clarity. War was the health of the State, and the Wilsonian effort to stop social change around the world would bring, not peace, but even more violent revolution.
Karp's new volume is an excellent introduction to the internal dynamics of the party system of the American State and the way in which this is integral to understanding the growth of the American empire and its undercutting of reform. No one saw this process better than the anti-imperialist Charles Francis Adams, one of those grandsons of John Quincy Adams who as early as 1821 had feared this direction. In 1900 Adams wrote to a friend that the danger to "republican principles" was not fundamentally out there: "You see it externally in the Philippines; I see it internally in New York City and Pennsylvania—in Croker and Quay and Platt.…We cant about imperialism, and look for the 'man-on-horseback,' and all that nonsense. Our Emperor is here now in embryo; even [though] we don't recognize him, and we scornfully call him a 'boss.' Just exactly as in Rome before the Caesars systematized [matters], a succession of Tweeds, and Crokers, and Quays had their day."
In the light of history—and concepts such as the Swiss sociologist Roberto Michels's "iron law of oligarchy" in the development of political parties, even in their infancy and before they get anywhere near power—it will be interesting to see if the kind of bossism and oligarchy described by Karp becomes evident in the fledgling Libertarian Party.
Bill Marina teaches business and history at Florida Atlantic University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Adventurism for Power".