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Sunday, January 30

Books: The Politics of War | Chapter Two  

Note: Reclamation of post to my dKos diary.

Chapter 2 of The Politics of War details how, in response to popular fury against economic and political corruption, President Cleveland tried to take the country to war with England.  His ambition would be thwarted, but the issue of rebellious insurgents in Cuba would be waiting in the wings for another president inclined to distract the people from their domestic fantasies.

It was in Februray of 1895 that the revolt that would eventually lead to the Spanish-American War began on the island of Cuba.  The headquarters of the revolt were, however, over a thousand miles away in New York City.

The main objective of the rebels' guerilla warfare was to create conditions so atrocious in Cuba that the United States in due course would intervene.  Securing that intervention was the second prong in the rebels' twofold assault on Spanish rule.  For this purpose the civilian arm of the rebellion, the so-called Cuban Junta, set up its headquarters in New York to raise money, purchase arms, and carry out a campaign of agitation and political lobbying for American intervention, the rebels' only secure hope of success.

To say that this objective was a long-shot would be a profound understatement.  Of the two major parties, the now imperialist-leaning Republicans were not going to support the cause of guerilla insurgents whose aim was anti-imperialist (i.e. securing Cuban independence from the Spanish Empire) while the Democrats (the party of White Supremacy) who were, "fulminating against the Populists for threatening the South with 'Negro rule,'" could not be expected to support a rebellion being fought by black ex-slaves.

While the particulars of the Cuban revolt were not attractive to either party, the broader concept of a foreign war very much was.  After the 1894 off-year elections, both parties had had just about enough of the independent muscle the electorate had been flexing.

Since the onset of the political crisis [in 1890] Republican leaders had been determined to transform America into an active world power and thereby make foreign affairs the preeminent factor in American politics.  Politically speaking, it was to be the permanent functional equivalent of the no-issue politics of the precrisis years. The Republicans' "large policy" … had as yet no support in the country.  Aside from unconvincing talk about controlling the "Pacific Trade" — an economic figment of politicians and party scribblers — the "large policy" offered no inducement whatever to the American people. … Even on its own terms it was not a means but an end in itself.  Its essential purposelessness was well expressed by [E. L.] Godkin in a May 1895 issue of the Nation.  What its advocates really wanted, he wrote, was to bring the United States "into contact with considerable foreign powers at as many points as possible."  The object of the large policy was to have a large policy. … To gain popular support for so useless a policy Republicans were unrelenting in their efforts to arouse jingo sentiment in the country.

One might expect that such a dramatic and politically expeident shift, indeed one that went against the anti-imperialist foundations of our own revolution, would have been mocked and derided by the opposition.  That such a policy was instead supported by the Democrats and the President (who had been abandoned by the people and his party) was a measure of how desperate all politicians of standing in the counrty had become to stop the people from daring to demand that government act as an agent of the people.

If Democrats, too, wanted to "get up a foreign war, if possible," they did not share the Republicans' far-reaching objectives. … In the aftermath of the 1894 elections the Democratic Party was literally fighting for its life. … Shotguns and fraud had failed to halt the southern Populists' advance, but the Democratic Party, risen like a phoenix from the ashes of civil war, had no intention of being sent to extinction by an upstart party of rural stump-speakers, farm journalists, and untried politicians of no great political acumen.

The only hope of the Democrats was to convince the Populists to fuse with the Democrats and form a single national reformist party.  Democratic leaders wanted no part whatsoever of general reform (economic, political or otherwise) but they would prefer a little reform to total extinction.  To that end, they glommed on to a single reform that was, in the context of the total Populist package, fairly minor.

The major element[] in the Democratic plan [was] to unleash across the rural South and West an intense and minutely organized propaganda campaign designed to persuade poor farmers that the free and unlimited coinage of silver bullion at the ratio of 16 to 1 to gold (twice the market value) would cure all their ills and remedy all their grievances.

The Dems would then make this issue the central tenet of their 1896 platform and, finally, convince the Populists to nominate the Dem candidate at their own convention and thus "fuse" with the Democratic party.  This strategy was a profound and dangerous departure for the Dem leadership.

[I]t would set a perilous precedent for genuine party rebellions in the future; it would attract to the Democratic Party agitators and reformers  of every sort and description.  Most important, it was forcing the southern Democrats, mainstay of the national party, to reverse the very policy on which their power for a generation had rested, that of keeping the rural populace in a stage of apathy, despair, and inertia. … Crying up free silver sa a revolutionary measure lured angry farmers from the People's Party, but it left them no less angry. … Little wonder, then, that [the southern oligarchs] looked forward to "swapping off the free coinage of silver for the Cuba question."

The final remaining piece needed to set the country on a war footing was President Cleveland himself.  Cleveland wanted no part of the Cuba issue, but the prospect of free silver truly terrified him.

To Cleveland, the free coinage of silver was the ultimate economic menace, the final proof, as he had put it in September of 1894, that his party was "returning to wallowing in the mire."  He had no direct means of stopping the Democrats.  Cleveland's power in the party was now virtually nil.

Old Grover did notice, though, that both parties were agitating for some kind of war to "knock the 'pus' out of this 'anarchistic, socialistic and populistic boil.'"  While he wouldn't go to war with Spain over Cuba, Cleveland didn't mind going to war with England over Venezuela.

England and Venezuela had been quibbling for a half century over the precise boundary of British Guiana.  In December of 1894, Cleveland notified congress that he intended to take up the cause of Venezuela.  Earlier that same year, when asked by the Venezuelans to intervene in the dispute, Cleveland had stoutly refused.  Eleven months and one electoral ass-whooping later, Cleveland came around to their point of view.

The lame-duck Democratic Congress, however, took the President's cue with alacrity. … It is doubtful if anyone in Congress knew how far Cleveland intended to go, but the nation's legislators clearly approved the direction he was taking.  Trouble with Britain was the one species of international wrangling that was certain at any time to win the electorate's approval.

That the US would avidly inject itself into a boundary dispute bewteen England and Venezuela was astoundingly odd.  In order to get the country totally behind him, Cleveland needed to make the issue about America rather than England & Venezuela.  To that end, he reached back in time over 70 years to a speech given by President James Monroe.  Cleveland's righteous hammer against England would be the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine, as it came to be known, had long held an honored place among the public sentiments of the American people, although it had been honored but intermittently by American administrations and had never been formally recognized by any act or resolution of Congress.  Committed in the past to a restrained foreign policy, Cleveland himself had shown no interest in the Monroe Doctrine. … From Monroe's speech he now saw implications that no previous President had hitehero detected.  It had not occured to anyone before Cleveland that a mere boundary dispute between a [South] American republic and an established European colony could possibly violate the Monroe Doctrine.

Logical failings were of no consequence to the country's legislators in 1895, however.  The full rot of the American political system had come to fruition in the early months of that year.  In January the Supreme Court invalidated most of the Sherman Antitrust Act, with the tacit complicity of the Attorney General.  In February Cleveland, "made a private gold-buying deal with J.P. Morgan and August Belmont.  Forcing the President to accept harsh terms, the two bankers netted themselves a windfall profit of some $7 million within a matter of hours."

[O]n April 8 the Supreme Court declared a federal income tax on landed property an invalid "assault upon capital" and ultimately decided on May 20, in one of the worst decisions in Court history, that no federal income tax was valid. … Millions of Americans, thrown into yet another spasm of rage, now saw their worst suspicions confirmed — the government, the laws, the Constitution itself, were no longer the people's.  The rich and the privileged had appropriated everything, and the Supreme Court had become their shameless tool.

In short, Cleveland & the parties needed a war, and they needed it now.  Cleveland put facilitating war with England in the hands of one Richard Olney.  Olney's risible letter to England on the Venezuela issue said that if the British refused arbitration, the U.S., "would conclude that the British had committed an 'invasion and conquest of Venezuelan territory.'"  For themeselves, the Brits "noted, correctly, that Monroe's Doctrine had undergone a 'strange development' in Olney's hands and that the disputed frontier of Venezuela 'has nothing to do with any questions dealt with by President Monroe.'"

England's defiance of Cleveland's nonsensical claims whipped the country at large into a proper jingo fury.  The people may have had problems with the oligarchy, but they would damned before they'd roll over for England.

It was only the movings of Imperial Germany that caused England to turn away from its raving, unhinged former colonies.  However, as Karp notes, the damage had been done.

With his Venezuela adventure Cleveland had forced a major breach in America's traditional foreign policy; he had endorsed with the prestige of the presidency the proposition that it was America's duty to right wrongs abroad; he had laid sweeping claim to American hegemony in Latin America.  Most important, he had revealed to the nation's political leaders that the American people could indeed be diverted from their domestic concerns if the right sort of foreign crusade was offered.

One thing that has not yet been discussed in this diary, but that Karp makes very clear in his book, is that the media of the time were totally complicit in the designs of the political leadership.  The press was totally partisan and with both parties agitating for war, there was no voice of reason in the media.  It is sometimes advanced that the media were the driving force behind the Spanish-American War, and the McKinley acted reluctantly, but in response to great popular outcry.  As Karp will later show, this is not how it happened at all.



Previous Posts:  Books: The Politics of War | Introduction  …  Books: The Politics of War | Chapter One  …  Reflections on Michael Powell  …  Iraq's Election  …  Books: Blink  …  Just Let It Go  …  My Inner Daffy  …  Fafnir on PrivatizationPrivatePersonalAccounts  …  Advice and Consent  …  WWRW? Not If You Want to Win  … 

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