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Sunday, January 30

Books: The Politics of War | Introduction  

Note: Part of my writings aggregation project. First post on The Politics of War in my dKos diary.

In the August 2003 issue of Harper's Lewis Lapham used a brief discussion of the fiasco in Iraq (and its hoodwinking casus belli) to recommend a book and bring to light some of the facts that led to an even more deplorable foreign boondoggle; the Spanish-American war.  The book is The Politics of War by Walter Karp.

As Lapham so ably notes:

The Politics of War brings to bear the clarity of hindsight on the chicanery of the present, and by so doing answers questions never asked by the Wall Street Journal or dreamed of in the philosophy of CNN. Just as Operation Iraqi Freedom was not about the rescue of the Iraqi people, so also the Spanish-American War was not about "the sacred cause of Cuban independence," and our entry into World War I not about making the world "safe for democracy." Presidents Wilson and McKinley sought to punish foreign crimes against humanity (the ones committed by villains in Brussels and Havana) in order to make America safe for the domestic crimes against humanity committed by fine, upstanding, corporate gentlemen in Boston and Chicago. If by 1890 the Industrial Revolution had made America rich, so also it had alerted the electorate to the unequal division of the spoils. People had begun to notice the loaded dice in the hand of the railroad and banking monopolies, the tax burden shifted from capital to labor. A severe depression in the winter of 1893-94 brought with it widespread unemployment, vicious strikes in the Pennsylvania steel mills and West Virginia coal mines, hobo armies on the march in the Ohio Valley and the Appalachian Mountains. The demand for social and political reform prompted the angry stirring of a Populist movement across the prairies of the Middle West, and as a cure for the distemper of an aroused citizenry—"something," in the words of an alarmed U.S. senator, to knock the "pus" out of this "anarchistic, socialistic and populistic boil"—the McKinley Administration came up with war in Cuba, the conquest of the Philippines, the annexation of Puerto Rico, and an imperialist foreign policy deemed "essential to the greatness of every splendid people," necessary "to the strength and dignity of any nation."

I recently picked up the book and I can attest (having read 100-odd pages) that it is a sweeping history and indictment of the politics of the late 19th century.  As embroiled as the US now is in the affairs of the world, it is hard to imagine just how antithetical our 19th century forerunners would have found our current international disposition.  Indeed, the 'splendid little war' that launched American imperialism was the most stark, contrived and (at the time) un-American reversals of our country's foreign and domestic policy.

My next 14 diary entries will cover the chapters in the book and my thoughts on them as I read through.  This book is important for two reasons.  First it reminds us of how cynical incumbents are and how desperate they are to hold on to their power.  This is not a tendency that is particular to any party.  As Kos has pointed out the current minority leader in the senate is running on his ability to funnel federal dollars to his home state more effectively than his rival could.  It is a political fact that incumbents and power brokers will do whatever they think gives them the best chance at retaining their seat.

Howard Dean has pointed out that for some time now the Dems in Washington have been engaged in little more than damage control.  As a result, they largely hold on to the power they have and propose little inspiring or principled legislation.  The chapters of the book decsribe how the Democrats of an earlier age engaged in similar, though far more cynical, behavior.

The second reason this book is important is noted by Karp himself in the preface; for an unknown reason, most historians treat foreign & domestic affairs as entirely separate matters.  This is both strange and unfortunate.  As Karp puts it:

[N]o substantial connections have ever been made between the turbulent domestic politics of the [Gilded] age and the increasingly ambitious foreign politics of that age.  It is as if they were two separate historical sequences, each flowing through its own watertight channel, one labeled "domestic" and the other "foreign."

Such is the was American history — ideological, Marxist history excepted — has come to be written.  The diplomatic historian traces the history of foreign affairs as if domestic politics were offstage disturbances; the historian of domestic politics treats the explosions of war as if they were offstage disturbances.  The historian who copes with both in the confines of a single book puts them into alternate chapters, as if it were virtually unthinkable that domestic and foreign politics could possibly be elements of a single unified history.

I say "as if" because no one, so far as I know, has ever argued explicitly that foreign affairs and domestic affairs could not possibly be related.  Stated baldly, the proposition is absurd.  Were it true, we would have to believe, for example, that Presidents who have faced a mounting sea of troubles at home have nonetheless conducted their foreign policy without the slightest regard for those troubles.  We would have to believe, in other words, that individual American Presidents were themselves divided into watertight compartments, one labeled "domestic" and the other "foreign."  We would have to believe, too, that public men faced with a dangerously divided country could not possibly want to see it united by a patriotic struggle against a foreign foe; that men of power forced to cope with bitter and burning domestic questions would not wish to change the question before the country by pushing foreign affairs forward.  Such propositions are not only contrary to common sense, they are falsified by the overwhelming evidence of history, for the political history of mankind records innumerable examples of rulers using foreign affairs for domestic ends.

Walter Karp, The Politics of War (Franklin Square Press, 1973, 2003), xv-xvi.



Previous Posts:  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  …  Al From, Caricature  … 

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