Monday, December 2, 2019

American History Scrubbed Clean: Doris Kearns Goodwin

American History Scrubbed Clean: Doris Kearns Goodwin
Peter Schultz

           I am currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and what Goodwin calls “the golden age of journalism.” Of course, Goodwin is a reputable historian and should be, but there are some strange aspects to her work.   

            For example, in her discussion of the onset of the Spanish American War, Goodwin argues, as many have, that Roosevelt was a proponent of that war while President McKinley was trying, vainly it turned out, to keep the United States out of any war with Spain. Yet in the course of her argument, it becomes clear that Roosevelt was not so much in favor of a war with Spain because of what was being done to the Cubans but that Roosevelt was, in fact, in favor of any war. Roosevelt was of course concerned with the treatment of the Cubans but he also was looking for a war to fight because he thought war, apparently any war, was worthwhile.

            Roosevelt said that he “would rather welcome a foreign war.” “The victories of peace are great; but the victories of war are greater. No merchant, no banker, no railroad magnate, no inventor of improved industrial processes, and do for any nation what can be done for it by its great fighting men.” And it would seem that Roosevelt thought that “fighting men” were “great” by virtue of the fact that they were warriors. “Every man who has in him any real power of joy in battle knows that he feels it when the wolf begins to rise up in his heart; he does not shrink from blood and sweat, or deem them to mar the fight; he revels in them, in the toil, the pain and the danger, as but setting off the triumph.” Roosevelt, who had never seen battle before the Spanish American War, welcomed the coming of that war and the chance for him to fight in it. He even said that he would leave his wife were she on her death bed if necessary to fight in that war, a thought to be taken seriously as his wife was seriously ill when Roosevelt went off to fight in Cuba.

            McKinley, on the other hand, according to Goodwin, recalling his participation in the Civil War, where he had “seen the dead pile up” at Antietam. “prayed for peace.” The interesting thing though is that Goodwin treats Roosevelt and McKinley and their stances toward war as equal, as just two different takes on war and its role in human affairs. She does say Roosevelt wrote “blithely” about war but that is the extent of her commentary on Roosevelt’s war mongering. Apparently, a war monger like Roosevelt and a person like McKinley who was praying for peace are both well-intentioned human beings seeking what is best for the nation. So no judgment need be arrived at regarding these two men and their different takes on war. They were both patriots who meant well even though one embraced war as humanizing while the other saw it as dehumanizing.

            Another aspect to Goodwin’s treatment of the Spanish American War is that she does not raise a doubt as to whether McKinley was as against the war as he pretended to be. To not raise this issue, Goodwin has to buy the idea that while McKinley was not pro-war, he appointed Roosevelt to be assistant secretary of the Navy knowing full well of Roosevelt’s pro-war views. Why did McKinley do that? Well, because he was pressured by Roosevelt’s friends to do so. He didn’t want to appoint Roosevelt but he did it anyway when pressure was applied. McKinley, struggling bravely apparently to stay out of war with Spain, appointed someone to a position of considerable power who had made it known that he was in favor of a war with Spain. This requires that one pretend to know McKinley’s motives, while pretty much ignoring his actions and their consequences. Goodwin also treats McKinley’s sending the battleship Maine to Havana harbor with the same innocence, merely quoting what McKinley had said at the time, viz., that this was “’an act of friendly courtesy’ to the Cuban people.”

            Note should be taken that as presented by Goodwin, McKinley was a man who was not powerful enough to stand his ground in favor of peace in Cuba, appointing Roosevelt despite his, Roosevelt’s, clear and strong preference for war. Moreover, McKinley was not a manipulative person, that is, was not a person who would seek to get what he wanted by indirection, if sending a battleship to a foreign harbor amidst significant tensions can be properly called “indirection.” No one reading Goodwin’s account of this period in our history, a period that saw a break with what had been the traditional modest foreign policy of the US, would think that this break was the work of human beings like Roosevelt and McKinley. And they would probably come to think that the onset of an imperial foreign policy, what was then called “the large policy,” was the result of forces beyond the control of US politicians. The US just kind of wandered into a war with Spain, that resulted in the acquisition of the Philippines. And although at the same time the US was about to annex Hawai’i, that shouldn’t lead one to think that the US chose to embrace an imperial foreign policy.

             As a result of history like that written by Goodwin, there is very little to question about US political or military actions. For the actors are all well-intentioned, transparent, and basically good people and decent politicians. There is no reason to study history for the reasons Jefferson recommended, viz., so people could learn the dangers of oppressive government and the consequences of bad choices. At most, people should study history to see the mistakes that were made by well-intentioned, decent human beings. It might have been a mistake for the US to “take” the Philippines, for example, but it was not a policy that resulted from defective politicians who had embraced defective but nonetheless American values.

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