A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In 1897, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” War serves an important purpose for any nation, Zinn argues: it directs the people’s energy outward, toward a foreign threat. The elites of the U.S. probably didn’t consciously plan a war, but the fact remains that war strengthened their power by focusing the people’s attention on an external enemy.
Zinn makes a nuanced point: even if America’s leaders don’t consciously intend to fight wars to weaken and distract their people, war has the effect of weakening and distracting the people from the corruption of the Establishment.
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Throughout the 19th century, the U.S. had been planning to expand overseas. The Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823 during the presidency of James Monroe, proclaimed that the U.S. would “protect democracy” anywhere in the Western hemisphere. The U.S. military deployed forces overseas more than one hundred times between 1798 and 1895, almost all in Latin America, especially in the Caribbean. The U.S. military was also instrumental in “opening up” Japan in the 1850s—Commodore Matthew Perry “made a naval demonstration” in the ports of Japan, intimidating the country’s leaders into securing commerce with America. In general, the U.S. subscribed to the belief that it needed to strengthen its navy and use force, or the threat of force, to establish trading networks in surrounding regions.
From the very beginning of the book, Zinn has shown how Europe’s presence in North America has always been marked by violence and conquest. In the 19th century, however, America—now a major military power—became even more aggressive in its treatment of other nations, using a policy of intimidation to ensure free trade with Japan, as well as other countries. Roosevelt’s famous saying, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick,” is, in essence, a description of 19th century American foreign policy: appear to be peaceful and gentle, while actually using military might to pressure one’s neighbors into cooperation.
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The U.S. policies of naval expansion and displays of force were racially tinged; many Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, regarded it as the right of the “white man” to take control of “uncivilized” countries and develop their land. Additionally, Populist leaders and farmers regarded the expansion of the U.S. as a necessary step to ensure that there was enough available land.
There were lots of different motives for expanding American territory, and these motives united many different factions of the country, including Populist farmers and elite politicians. As Zinn acknowledged in the previous chapter, the Populist party was guilty of bigotry; however, its real motive for supporting expansion was to help Midwestern farmers by providing them with new land.
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While the U.S. had a clear interest in expanding its territory, its military interventions of the 19th century were never presented as self-interested. Rather, the U.S. government always characterized its expansionism as benevolent and even heroic. In 1898, for example, news of a populist Cuban uprising against Spain reached America. However, presidential records make it clear that the U.S. government did not support an independent Cuban state—partly for racial reasons, since Cuba contained a large number of black revolutionaries, and partly for economic reasons, since independent Cuba would be no friendlier to capitalism than a Spanish-Cuban colony.
America’s intervention in Cuba in the late 19th century is characteristic of its foreign policy in general: while making sanctimonious statements about the importance of independence and freedom, the American government proceeded to act to further its own corporate interests, intervening in Cuba to ensure the future of capitalism on the island.
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In 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in a harbor in Havana. Although it’s still unclear what happened to this ship, American journalists portrayed the explosion as an act of aggression against America. Elites began pushing for war with Spain in Cuba because they recognized that they’d benefit from an American victory there. War would strengthen the iron industry, and a permanent American presence in Cuba would ensure new markets for manufacturers. Corporations across the U.S. sent President McKinley telegrams advising him to go to war. In April 1898, McKinley declared war on the Spanish government in Cuba. He didn’t mention the Cuban revolutionaries in his speeches, but revolutionaries welcomed American forces because they thought that America would help them win independence.
The explosion of the Maine was one in a long line of unexplained accidents that the American press spun into acts of open aggression against America (see, also, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the skirmishes that prompted the Mexican American War). As Zinn sees it, America’s motives for entering war with Spain in Cuba were simple: if the American military controlled Cuba, Cuba would become a new market for American businesses. As Zinn suggested in the previous chapter, McKinley was already deeply indebted to American business interests, so when businessmen pressured him to invade Cuba, he complied. However, Zinn doesn’t provide many details about how, exactly, businesses pressured McKinley to do so, which has led some to accuse Zinn of simplifying history.
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It’s often been said that journalism or “public opinion” pressured McKinley into declaring war against Spain in Cuba. While it’s true that journalists may have contributed to the aggressive, imperialistic spirit in America in 1898, it’s simply not true that the “public” supported war. Initially, many of the most prominent labor unions, such as the AFL, criticized the war, recognizing that working-class people would have to fight while elites would reap the benefits. However, after Congress declared war, many unions “succumbed to the war fever.” In some ways, the war strengthened the American working class by providing more jobs and higher wages.
In this passage, Zinn arguably skews the evidence to fit with his left-wing philosophy of American history. Notice that Zinn is dancing around the point that, in fact, the majority of Americans did support the Spanish American War (even if some important labor unions did not). Zinn then implies that the unions that supported the war had been manipulated into supporting it by the press and the overall spirit of jingoism in America at the time. In short, Zinn is taking a piece of information that doesn’t fit his argument (unions supported the war) and trying to mitigate it by claiming, without any evidence, that unions did not “truly” support the war.
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The Spanish-American War, as it came to be known, lasted three months. When the American troops emerged victorious, they barley acknowledged the contribution of the Cuban revolutionaries; indeed, when Spanish officials met in Cuba to sign peace terms, American officials ensured that no revolutionaries were present. Afterwards, American businesses flooded into Cuba; dozens of railway companies competed to gain control over transportation in Havana, and the United Fruit Company took over the Cuban sugar industry, taking advantage of the chaotic situation in Cuba by buying millions of acres for cheap prices.
The aftermath of the Spanish American War, Zinn argues, confirmed America’s original motivations for entering the war: American corporations flooded into Cuba, scooped up cheap land and resources, and ensured new Cuban markets for their products for years to come.
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In the end, the U.S did not annex Cuba, but neither did it allow an independence movement to flourish there. Indeed, the American military remained in Cuba until 1901 and refused to leave until the Cuban Constitutional Convention passed an amendment that would allow America to 1) intervene in Cuba at any time in the future, and 2) gain control over naval and coaling stations throughout Cuba. The Cuban revolutionary movement criticized the military’s intimidation policies, calling them a “mutilation of the fatherland.” Nevertheless, the Spanish American War brought Cuba “into the American sphere”—not as a colony, but as a market for American goods. Moreover, when the U.S. negotiated peace terms with Spain, it was able to purchase Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines for only twenty million dollars.
It’s telling that Zinn doesn’t answer the obvious implicit question here: why, if the majority of Americans enthusiastically supported a war in Cuba, didn’t the U.S. government annex Cuba and incorporate it into the Union, especially since the government had annexed the Southwest under similar circumstances only half a century previously? Perhaps Zinn doesn’t address this question because it would weaken his overall argument by making the U.S. government seem more ethical and respectful of Cuban independence than he believes it to be.
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The next major American military venture after the Spanish American War was its interference in the Philippines. In 1899, William McKinley said that he considered it America’s duty to send troops to the Philippines to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” the people. When the U.S. sent troops to the Philippines in 1899, however, Filipinos revolted, and it took the military three years to crush the uprising. McKinley insisted the fighting broke out after insurgents attacked U.S. troops, but later accounts of the war suggest that Americans fired the first shots.
As with other American military interventions, America’s intervention in the Philippines was laced with racist condescension. Many Americans seemed to believe that the war was waged “for the Filipinos’ own good.”
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In the late 1890s, there was a strong imperialist sprit in America. However, some prominent Americans, such as the philosopher William James, opposed intervention in other countries. James joined the Anti-Imperialist League, a group that criticized McKinley’s policies and tried to negate the imperialism and racism that had motivated the Spanish American War. Other opponents of American imperialism from the period include Mark Twain, who recognized that America’s intervention in the Philippines was a brutal, greedy venture.
Although Zinn has argued that the American university system can be a powerful medium for control and support for the Establishment, he also suggests that, under the right circumstances, it can be a place of resistance to the Establishment. Thus, William James, a Harvard-educated academic elite, used his academic influence to oppose intervention in the Philippines, and he enlisted some of his famous, elite friends to do the same.
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In spite of the Anti-Imperialist League’s actions, many unions supported American intervention in the Philippines, since they believed that new territory meant more jobs for workers. However, a vocal minority of labor unions argued that America’s new territory would only benefit elites. The Central Labor Unions of Boston and New York held protests against the annexation of the Philippines. In the end, Congress voted to annex the Philippines, but only by one vote.
As with his treatment of the Populist movement in the previous chapter, Zinn acknowledges the bigotry and unethical behavior of the labor movement with regard to American military intervention. He then tries to mitigate his own point with example of the labor movement’s more overtly left-wing behavior like union protests in New York.
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The black community’s attitude toward war in the Philippines was mixed. For many young black men, military service in the Philippines seemed like an opportunity to advance in the army despite widespread reports of racism in the U.S. military. Many black leaders of the era criticized the racist condescension with which American leadership treated Filipinos; in fact, some black soldiers deserted the American army and joined the Filipinos. Many prominent American church leaders opposed intervention, as well.
Zinn addresses the irony that, during the war in the Philippines (a war characterized by intense racism toward the Filipino people) many of the American soldiers were black, and therefore were also the victims of American racism. It’s not surprising, then, that some black soldiers joined with the Filipinos (although, characteristically, Zinn doesn’t specify how many).
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At the height of the war in the Philippines, a group of black activists sent a letter to President McKinley. In it, they criticized McKinley for preaching patriotism and liberation while turning a blind eye to the suffering of black Americans. Zinn concludes that, in spite of the “demonstrated power of the state,” the American people continued to feel “impatient, immoderate, unpatriotic.”
Even though a huge portion of the American people chose to support military intervention in the Spanish American War and the war in the Philippines, Zinn chooses to end the chapter by focusing on the minority of Americans who opposed the war on moral grounds. Zinn was accused of cherry-picking examples that made the resistance to imperialism seem more widespread than it really was.
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