The Eve of a Very Dark Night,
The Broad Ground of a Common Humanity

excerpted from the book

The Politics of War

the story of two wars which altered forever the political life of the American republic

by Walter Karp

Franklin Square Press, 1979, paper

Introduction by Lewis Lapham

If by 1890 the Industrial Revolution had made the country rich, so a so it had alerted the American 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, the free-enterprise system at the service of corrupt privilege. A severe depression in the winter of 1893-94 brought with it widespread unemployment, murderous strikes in the Pennsylvania steel mills and West Virginia coal mines, seventeen 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, and an imperialist foreign policy deemed "essential to the greatness of any splendid people... necessary to the strength and dignity of any nation."

Only by transforming America into an active world power "in contact with considerable foreign powers at as many points as possible" could the nation ... smother the republican spirit and replace the love of liberty with the love of the flag. McKinley understood that Americans might tolerate an accidental empire, but an empire by design they would not have accepted, and so, "like the buncombe artist who cranked the handle that operated the "Wizard' of Oz," the president "cranked the handle of 'destiny,' set in motion the 'march of events,' and manipulated the 'hand' of the 'Almighty,' which was no more than an empty glove."

An obedient press obediently supplied the trombones and the drums-every true American a patriot, all political quarrels to be suspended in the interest of "the national security"-and by the time that President Theodore Roosevelt moved his cavalry horses into the White House stables in 1901, the last remnants of populist unrest had drifted into the sunset with the wreckage of the Spanish fleet. For the next five years the agents and apostles of the American nation gloried in a triumph of wealth and cynicism presumed sufficient to silence any loose or ill-bred talk about ordinary citizens deserving a say in a government nominally democratic. The presumption soon collapsed under the weight of their selfishness and greed. Unable to manage an economy that it could only prey upon, "the money power and its hired politicians" consigned the arrangement of the country's financial affairs to a consortium of swindling financiers and bribed legislatures, and by 1906 the continuing proofs of its disdain for such a thing as the common good translated the resentments once lodged in the rural counties of populist discontent into the muckraking politics of the Progressive movement.

Walter Karp

"The decisive trait of Wilson's political character was vainglory: a hunger for glory so exclusively self-regarding, so indifferent to the concerns of others, that it would lead him to betray in turn the national movement for reform, the great body of the American people, the fundamental liberties of the American Republic, and in the end the hopes of the war-torn world."

As arrogant and self-serving as their Republican forebears, the bandmasters of the Bush Administration make no secret of their contempt for the American republic, of their belief that the interests of the few overrule the hopes of the many, and of the use of foreign war as the instrument of their domestic political ambition. Karp illuminates our present political circumstance with the clarity of hindsight, and to read his deconstruction of Woodrow Wilson's unctuous speechmaking about "the dictates of humanity," "peace without victory" "the world made safe for democracy" is to hear the similarly pious sophistry in President George Bush's declarations of war "against all the world's evil-doers" in the name of "God and all mankind."

... Like the Bush Administration, the McKinley and Wilson administrations enjoyed the advantage of a servile, war-mongering press, eager to invent atrocities committed by Spanish viceroys (Cuban peasants fed to sharks) and German generals (Belgian nuns roasted over burning coals). In an atmosphere as clouded with militant paranoia as the mind of Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Congress in June 1917 passed an Espionage Act under which dissent achieved the distinction of a felony. A woman who wrote a letter to a newspaper editor saying that "I am for the people, and the government is for the profiteers" was sentenced to ten years in prison; by 1920 the newly established Federal Bureau of Investigation had collected files on two million citizens associated with organizations suspected of treason. By filling in the back story of an era in which "truth had to be defamed, honest critics silenced, and free speech suppressed" ...




In American history the years from 1890 to 1920 have often been called the age of reform. Those same years might with equal propriety be called the age of war. During those years America 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; intervened with military force dozens of times in Latin America. During those years the reform movement waxed and waned, waxed and died while America itself became, by turns, an imperial \ power, an Asian power, and lastly a world power.

... the political history of mankind records innumerable examples of rulers using foreign affairs for domestic end.

0n April 20, 1898, President William McKinley signed a congressional resolution directing him to use the armed forces of the United States to drive the Spanish from Cuba and establish an independent government for the rebellious island. A few days later the United States was formally at war with Spain and within three months the badly beaten Spanish sued for peace. It had been, as McKinley's Secretary of State John Hay put it, "a splendid little war." Yet that little war against a fifth-rate power marked one of the major turning points in American history. At its end, the United States supplanted the broken Spanish Empire as the colonial overlord of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands, thus making a radical break with one of Americas oldest republican traditions-its repudiation of empire and colonial hegemony.

... A war fought against Spanish colonial rule had ushered in a new and unprecedented era of American colonial rule.



Part I

The Eve of a Very Dark Night

Until 1890 the American electorate had been, for a generation a predictable and readily managed body of voters. In the off-year election of 1890, however, they delivered a stunning rebuke to the long-dominant Republican Party, reducing its House majority to a mere rump of 88 representatives and sweeping the party out of power in states that had gone Republican since the first election of Abraham Lincoln. If the origin of the Spanish War can be given a fixed date, that date is Election Day 1890, for the election prompted the Republican Party, at once, to take the first major step that ultimately led to that war. It was also the first serious warning that a political crisis was brewing, for it revealed a sudden weakening in the electorate's once ardent loyalty to one or the other of the two major parties, the most distinctive feature of the post-Civil War party system.

This passionate attachment to party, little known before the Civil War, had been forged by the Civil War itself. If was as if, in the cauldron of civil strife, every American had been melted down into one or the other of two elementary political particles, one Republican, the other Democrat. To its massed and devoted partisans the party was a church, whose creeds and slogans supplied men with their political principles, whose celebrations supplied them with their holiday outings. To its massed and devoted partisans the party was also a standing army perpetually arrayed for battle, an army whose orders men gladly obeyed, whose rudest tricks its partisans cheered, as patriots will cheer the night raids and ambushes of the nation's fighting men. Identifying themselves with a party, Americans looked on their chosen party as a kind of end in itself; its victories were their victories, its prosperity their prosperity. For themselves they asked little, for the identification with party was strong and passionate.

Along as men adhered to their party on the basis of Civil War passions, as long as they "voted as they shot," the two major parties could refight the Civil War in their election campaigns and leave the electorate reasonably appeased. Since both parties benefited by keeping Civil War passions alive, both parties cooperated in doing so.

As the 1890s began, millions of Americans had begun pressing their economic grievances upon politicians and officeholders. They demanded to know why, for example, an expanding economy had a deflated currency advantageous chiefly to New York bankers; why manufacturers grew rich through special legislation while farm prices continued to fall; why the evils of monopoly went unchecked; why a few private banks in New York controlled so much of the nations credit while land bore almost the whole burden of taxes. Men looked around them and saw the free enterprise system falling into the hands of a few powerful capitalists, saw special privilege dispensed to the rich and general privileges denied to the rest. America's farmers, a near-majority of the country, saw in the mighty owners of the railroads men with a death grip on their farms and their fates and an equally deadly grip on their elected representative Industrial expansion which almost all Americans had wholeheartedly welcomed, had ceased by 1890 to be a glowing promise and had become, instead, the source of innumerable burning and bitter questions.

... the voters in 1890 had risen up in wrath against the Republicans' vaunted instrument for promoting industrial expansion, the protective tariff.

... That the protective tariff had become a special privilege was precisely the reason Republican leaders were determined to maintain it. It was the basis of their power within the Republican Party itself. By dispensing corrupt tariff favors to the "manufacturing interests," they had turned them into clients of the party oligarchy, tied to that oligarchy by the strong ligaments of greed, dependent on the oligarchy for the protection of their unearned profits, and consequently committed, in turn, to protecting the power of the party leaders.

The disastrous election of 1890 left the Republican oligarchy on the horns of a serious dilemma. Despite the electorate's rebuke, the party leaders had no intention of modifying, let alone abandoning, their protectionist policy. It was the chief prop of their power over the Republican Party. They also had no intention of turning the party into a mere opposition, a party of perennial "outs." That, all Republicans agreed, was the proper role only for Democrats. For the moment, however, the two ambitions of the Republican oligarchy-serving their power through the politics of corrupt tariff privilege and ruling the country by winning elections-were each an obstacle to the other. For the Republicans the skies had darkened suddenly and they seemed likely to grow darker still with the electorate's reassertion of the republican standard in economic affairs. To question the virtues of mere industrial expansion was to question the Republican Party's very reason for being.

It was Secretary of State Blame-a man always one step ahead of his party colleagues-who pointed the way out of the dilemma. The renewal of the Republican Party, the restoration of its former power and glory, the recovery of an acceptable national purpose could indeed be accomplished, Blame believed. It would require the party leaders to undertake a course of action far bolder than protectionism and far more consequential for the future of the country. According to Blame, the party's salvation-and for all his ability, Blaine never thought beyond the interests of party-lay in launching under the Republican aegis a new assertive foreign policy for the United States ...

Before the Civil War Republicans had vehemently denounced an expansionist foreign policy as one of the more contemptible deceit: of the hated "Slavocrats." Most important, such a policy had no support in the country, either among ordinary citizens or the business classes. There was no demand for such a policy, no practical need for such a policy, and, given America's geographical position, precious few opportunities for launching such a policy.

Most Republican leaders were willing to brave the difficulties. An aggressive foreign policy, although it served no national interest whatever, promised to solve all their major problems at a stroke. For one thing it would change-and change fundamentally-the question before the country. An electorate growing restive over economic conditions would find its attention riveted to the spectacle of America's overseas power and pursuits, its republican sentiments diluted and deformed by jingo nationalism, its political energies absorbed by overseas problems and perplexities.

The Republicans' new disposition toward foreign adventure reflected itself at once in the second half of Benjamin Harrison's administration. After the 1890 elections, a new kind of propaganda began to emanate from Republican leaders. In 1891, for example, the public heard from the secretary of the navy, Benjamin Tracy, a line that was to become increasingly familiar in the next few years. "To [gain] a preeminent rank among nations," he advised a people that had not wanted preeminence among nations, "colonies are the greatest help." In the winter of 1891-1892 President Harrison escalated a street brawl in Valparaiso between Chileans and American sailors into a near war with Chile, to avenge, as the President put it in his annual message to Congress, an "insult... to the uniform of the United States." Only the conciliatory action of the Chilean government averted a military clash. At the 1892 national convention, the Republican Party committed itself formally to an expansionist foreign policy. The platform that year pledged the party to "the achievement of the manifest destiny of the Republican its broadest sense." Republican leaders apparently hoped to discover what kind of response the old expansionist slogan of the antebellum Democracy would get from Republican voters with long memories. The platform prudently specified no particular policy, but during 1892 a number of Republican newspapers set to work to win popular support for a concrete step in achieving America's "manifest destiny... in its broadest sense"-the absorption of the Hawaiian Islands, an archipelago 2,000 miles from our shores but with close economic and cultural ties to America.

The annexation itself was not of primary importance. Republican leaders saw it chiefly as the first available step in launching a more general policy of overseas expansion.

... the central national tenet of the Democrats was the principle of doing nothing, which party leaders often described as "True Democracy."

... By uniting on the principle of doing nothing whatever and attacking the Republicans for doing anything at all, the Democratic Party, through the do-nothing principle, was able to keep up, for electoral purposes, a reasonable semblance of national unity.

In the South, the Democracy's dependence on the do-nothing principle was little short of desperate. Ruling over a population of wretched, debt-ridden farmers-peons, in fact-the South's ruling state cliques could cling to power only as long as the farmers remained politically inert, and southern Democrats had but two ways to keep them that way. One was to preach the doctrine of "White Supremacy" sometimes referred to in the South as "the spirit of true patriotism." This enabled the South's state rulers to cry down any political rebel as a traitor to white "solidarity" who was paving the way for "Negro rule," a threat that by the 1890s was inevitably growing weaker as Negroes brave enough to vote grew fewer. The second was simply to persuade the rural populace by sheer iteration that it was unpatriotic, un-Jeffersonian, and grossly improper for them to expect from their state governments any relief from their multifarious economic woes. By thus stultifying political hope, the southern Democrats hoped to stifle any unruly political activity on the part of the most wretchedly misgoverned people in America."

The northern city machines, too, depended for their security on the do-nothing principle and for much the same reason. Reform raises political hopes, encourages independent men to enter politics, and threatens the power of the local machine to control the actions of party members. For this reason, New York's Tammany Hall was unwilling to carry out even the simplest municipal functions, such as collecting the garbage or providing recreational facilities for the New York poor who supported it so faithfully.

If the national Democratic Party began to prosper in the 1880s, it was principally because, given a choice between active Republican corruption and passive Democratic corruption, more voters began choosing the latter.

The politics of [the South] had felt the brewing crisis in 1890 when a pressure group known as the Farmers' Alliance swept one million rural Southerners onto its membership rolls and began demanding that southern office seekers pledge their support to the Alliance program of agrarian reforms.

In the volatile western prairie states, local People's parties had sprung as early as 1890 and had quickly won the endorsement of the Northern Farmers' Alliance. The Southern Alliancemen had held back, however. To break with the Democracy, to defy the doctrine of racial solidarity, was a prospect to daunt the bravest heart. No one knew better than Southerners what the Democratic oligarchs were capable of doing should anyone dare challenge their monopoly of politics and power the summer of 1892, however, the Alliancemen made their historic plunge and hastily began organizing the new party for the forthcoming fall campaign. For the first time since 1850 the southern Democracy was facing electoral opposition from a party of nearly equal strength, for the Populists' rural appeal was instantaneous."

With the decision of the Southern Farmers' Alliance to endorse the new party; the People's Party became a national political entity, it nominated a presidential candidate, General James 'Weaver, in 1892-with a complex program of reform that stood out in sharpest contrast to the obfuscations, panacea-mongering, and bluster of the two established parties. The party program was based on a truly prescient, if doleful, economic insight: that private economic power monopolies in transport and communications, industrial trusts and combinations, private banking control of American currency and credit-was no longer an incidental evil. It was one that would soon overwhelm the economy and the Republic if it were not extirpated at once. The Populists understood with perfect clarity that the already existing monopolies provided the basis for further monopolization. Their ultimate solution was therefore both drastic and logical. They called for direct government ownership of all "natural monopolies" in transport and communication, as well as government control of currency and credit. The government, as the Populists insisted, to the horror of laissez-fairists, was "not a foreign entity; governed by some outside power with which we have no connection... [it] is simply the agent of the people." In effect, what the Populists were telling their fellow countrymen was this: If we Americans want what we all say we want, the maintenance of genuine free enterprise; if we agree, as we all say we do, that only an economy free of privilege and private power is consonant with republican liberty, then these draconian measures are required and anything less is self-deluding. If economic power were not wrested now from the hands of a few, the Populists warned, it would soon be too late-fatally late-for the citizenry to do so."

To the established politicians it must have seemed by 1893 that Providence itself was conspiring to bring victory to the People's Party. A few months after Cleveland's inauguration, a financial panic struck the country, followed shortly after by the most severe and prolonged depression America had ever known. Farm prices, already so low it had inflamed the rural population, fell lower still, inflaming farmers still further. By late 1893 the entire national economy ground to a halt. Five hundred banks and some 16,000 business firms were forced into bankruptcy; Two and a half million men were pushed out of work. During the wretched winter of 1893-94 untold thousands of hungry people were kept alive by local charity, and local soup kitchens, bitterly referred to as "Cleveland cafes."

Cleveland and his party had performed the singular feat of alienating virtually every major category of voters. Even so, results of the 1894 elections were electrifying. It remains to' his day the most sweeping rebuke any President and his party ever suffered in an off-year election. Punished by a volatile electorate, the Democrats lost a total of 113 seats in Congress. In the Northeast, the Democrats' congressional contingent was reduced from 88 to 9; in twenty-four states the party no longer had congressional representation at all. In the South, despite the Democrats' increased use of terror and corruption, the People's Party now stood on the verge of victory throughout the Old Confederacy, Whatever else lay in store for the country, the post-Civil War party system had been destroyed forever."


The Malevolent Change in Our Public Life

In mid-February 1895, a small group of Cuban-Americans land secretly in Cuba and raised the banner of armed revolt against Spanish rule in the island, the last remaining possession of any value in the once mighty Spanish Empire. Calling themselves the "Republic of Cuba" and gathering round their flag small bands of guerrillas, whom they designated the "Army of Liberation," rebel leaders began at once a two-front assault on Spanish rule, one in Cuba, the other in New York City.

... The guerrillas did not expect their scorched-earth tactics to drive the Spanish from Cuba or their revolt to win widespread popular support. Not independence but home rule under Spanish sovereignty was the cause supported by most discontented Cubans. In 1895 the chief Cuban advocates of independence lived in New York and Tampa, Florida. The main objective of the rebels' guerrilla warfare was to create conditions so atrocious in Cuba that the United States in due course would intervene.

Since the onset of the political crisis Republican leaders had been determined to transform America into an active world power and thereby make foreign affairs the preeminent factor in American politics.


The Broad Ground of a Common Humanity

As early as the summer of 1895 ... the Republicans-though by no means unanimously in favor of intervention-made it clear that they intended to oppose, disrupt, and render untenable President Cleveland's declared policy of nonintervention in Spain's Cuban problems. With summer's end, organized agitation over the Cuban question burst on the public scene like a series of bomb explosions. In the North, Republicans (and Democrats to a lesser extent) began marshaling support for the Cuban rebels by staging mass rallies in their honor. From September to December 1895 hardly a week passed without news of a pro-rebel rally or a resounding declaration of support for the rebels from some prominent senator, governor, or local party organization. In organizing the rallies, Republicans not only pressed into service their long-standing auxiliary, the Grand Army of the Republic, they found a new ally in Samuel Gompers's fourteen-year-old American Federation of Labor, which now began what would prove to be an unbroken career of favoring foreign wars.

From the outset of the Cuban rebellion the great majority of American newspapers expressed their sympathy for the rebel cause, their support for gunrunning, and their opposition to Cleveland's neutrality. In New York City, only Godkin's Evening Post remembered the sanctity of property, forgotten by the press since the Pullman strike, and castigated the guerrillas for violating it. When it became clear that interventionist sentiment ran strong in both parties, pro-Cuban editorial opinion quickly found its way into the new. Much of the Cuban news, in fact, the American press received directly from the Junta in New York, and the Junta, anxious to draw American attention away from the rebels' terrorist tactics, was ready to offer an endless stock of "eyewitness" reports of Spanish atrocities: the rape of defenseless women, the burning of hospitals, and the bayoneting of babies before the eyes of their horror-stricken parents-the standard "boiler plate" of every modem war's war propaganda. American newspaper readers would learn, day after day, that the Spanish were "feeding prisoners to the sharks," that "old men and little boys were cut down and their bodies fed to the dogs," that General Weyler-"butcher Weyler" in the press had been overheard to threaten his resignation if he were "not allowed to quench his thirst in American gore." As purveyors of sensational Cuba stories, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's rival Journal blazed all the journalistic trails. Newspapers in the hinterlands passed their stories along to the rest of the country.

... America's newspapers did not invent the line on the Cuba question; still less did they force it upon politicians. Of all the myths about the Spanish-American War, none is more frivolous than the assertion that the inflammatory reporting of the American press (or, in the extreme view, the reporting of two rival New York newspapers) was an independent cause of the war. Nothing could be further from the truth, for there was nothing independent about the American press. It was, overwhelmingly, a party press, a press that echoed to the point of slavishness the policies and propaganda of one or the other major party. The majority of American newspapers were little more than quasi-house organs of the party organizations.

... the American press in general was an instrument and a mouthpiece of party, including Pulitzer's World, which was the Democracy's national house organ, and Hearsts Journal, which Hearst was using to further his personal ambitions within the Democratic Party.

Since the press in its Cuba reporting followed the propaganda line of leading politicians, the politicians, in turn, gave official endorsement to the most effective organs of that propaganda, namely the two most sensational newspapers. Throughout the prewar period, senators would take the floor to read aloud a fresh clipping from the World or the Journal, demand an investigation or call for a resolution on the basis of the clipping, and even praise the newspaper for its general excellence. By giving senatorial endorsement to the Journal and the World, interventionist politicians did more than confirm the validity of their barely credible stories: they effectively nationalized their distribution. Staid newspapers that hesitated to repeat verbatim some particularly gruesome item from the Journal would relay it to its readers the next day as a statement made on the floor of the Senate or as testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which treated the reporters from the most avidly prowar papers as their most reliable sources.

Of the mendacious warmongering journalism of the American press, suffice to say that everything that would inflame public sentiment against Spain was prominently reported, exaggerated, or fabricated. Whatever might weaken sympathy for the rebels or support for intervention was pretty well kept out of the news. For the interventionists it was imperative, for example, to sustain the electorate's belief in the military success of the guerrillas, although their rebellion was flagging badly throughout 1896. When one of the leading rebel generals, Antonio Maceo, was killed in a skirmish-a severe blow to the military prestige of the guerrillas - Junta publicists hit upon an old propaganda ruse to undo the damage. They reported that Maceo had actually been killed by treacherous Spaniards while approaching under a white flag of truce. Apprised of this discovery by the Junta, the American press clamored for days over the "murder" of Maceo and the "inherent cowardice and brutality of that human hyena" General Weyler. To confirm the story, the Senate, after its customary fashion, appointed a special committee to investigate what now officially became known as the "Maceo Assassination." So it went with the party-directed press, week after week, month after month, a ceaseless drumbeat of interventionist propaganda, a "cause" of war indeed, but only in the limited sense that a loaded pistol can be termed the cause of a shooting.

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