It has not gone un-remarked in these pages that there seems to be a logical, institutional relationship between those who wish to aggrandize the state at home and those who wish do so abroad. These worthies make up the social reformers, on the one hand, and the Jingoes, or militarists, on the other. Others have made the same observation. Near the beginning of the 20th century, political scientist John Burgess wrote, with reference to Theodore Roosevelt and his movement: “The Jingo and the Social Reformer have gotten together and have formed a political party, which threatened to capture the Government and use it for the realization of their program of Caesaristic paternalism, a danger which appears now to have been averted only by the other parties having themselves adopted this program in a somewhat milder degree and form.”1
More recently, Robert Zevin has argued that the Jingoes (warmongers) and the Social Reformers had always been “together.”2 Their shared commitment to an ever-growing state apparatus made them natural allies. If a militarist dreamed of mass conscription for overseas adventures, a reformer could equally well imagine that conscripts could be uplifted by three meals and day and state indoctrination. Harry Hopkins Franklin Roosevelt’s general factotum thought of World War II as a war for “the universal New Deal.” You get the picture.
THE CUBAN LABORATORY
There wasn’t as much for the reformers to do as they might have wanted, until the military gathered up some new insular possessions for the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War (1898). At home, the reformers were sometimes blocked by the existence of local self-government, elections, and other mechanisms available to opponents of reform. This irked the reformers greatly, and there is no mystery in why so many of them threw themselves into administering the United States’ newfound colonial and semi-colonial possessions, as soon as those were in hand.
Howard Gillette, Jr., notes that the war of 1898 inspired many Americans with “a national sense of mission.”3 (We might have been better off, had we only acquired a taste for rum and coke.) The first US military Governor of Cuba, John Brooke, “lapsed into a narrow strain of reform directed at purifying Cuba’s social system.”4 Thus he cracked down on gambling and closed down businesses and entertainment establishments on Sunday, in true American blue-law fashion. He also attempted “confiscation all machetes on the island,” having perhaps not noticed that Cubans needed them for cutting sugar the main product of the island.
Leonard Wood, former Rough Rider and crony of TR, began a campaign of criticism against Brooke. By December 1899, the campaign had its effect, and Wood succeeded Brooke as Governor. Throwing aside the puritanical agenda of his predecessor, Wood emerged as the model military Progressive.
Brooke had begun setting up public schools, but Wood showed his mettle by instituting an entirely new system based on the school system of Ohio. (I can’t explain it, but there is something very amusing, to those of us in the South, about Ohio being a model for anything.) Next, Wood turned to the reform of Cuban law, followed by a Department of Public Works. Progressive urban reform, stalled in its homeland, took on new life in this tropical setting, where no one could oppose it.
To make the public happiness of the Cuban people utterly complete, Wood brought them chartered city government. Municipalities acquired broad powers of regulation over business. Not stopping there, Wood presented Cubans with a railroad law based on the US Interstate Commerce Act.
Gillette suggests that Wood’s restriction of voting rights helped promote “political capitalism” in Cuba.5 Cubans were critical of Wood’s urban charters. The ayuntamiento (city council) of Havana rejected the plan. The sham-decentralization of Wood’s reforms also rankled with Cubans who had hoped for a continuation of the decentralization promised under the last Spanish constitution.
Soon, the task of governing Cuba was handed over to Cubans, and we may drop them from our story now. What is interesting, for our purposes, is the complex relationship between US imperial administration and US domestic politics. Gillette says: “Leo Rowe of the University of Pennsylvania found the study of the Spanish possessions irresistible…. He predicted in March 1899, that the workshop provided by the Spanish possessions would turn America’s political philosophy away from limited protection of individual liberties to one of activist intervention for national development.”6
Government would grow, at home and abroad, with each sphere reacting upon and influencing the other. Empire and reform could go hand in hand. The incompatibility of empire with our inherited freedoms at home is nicely illustrated by the Cuban workshop. I leave the larger drawbacks of empire to one side, as it may be illegal to mention them a few days from now.
- John W. Burgess, The Reconciliation of Government With Liberty (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), p. 380.
- Robert Zevin, “An Interpretation of American Imperialism,” Journal of Economic History, 32 (1972), pp. 358-360. See also Robert J. Bresler, “The Ideology of the Executive State: Legacy of Liberal Internationalism,” in Leonard P. Liggio and James J. Martin, eds., Watershed of Empire: Essays on New Deal Foreign Policy (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1976), pp. 1-18.
- Howard Gillette, Jr., “The Military Occupation of Cuba, 1899-1902: Workshop of Progressivism,” American Quarterly, 225 (October 1973), p. 410.
- Gillette, p. 413.
- Gillette, p. 421.
- Gillette, p. 424.