Don Pesci: Twain, TR and imperialism

Mark Twain during TR's administration .

Mark Twain during TR's administration.

Theodore Roosevelt on Twain – “I wish I could skin Mark Twain alive.”

Twain on Roosevelt – “We have had no President before who was destitute of self-respect for his high office. We have had no President before who was not a gentleman; we have had no President before who was intended for a butcher, a dive-keeper or a bully.”


Occasionally, columnists back up against a thorny subject much in the way an innocent traveler in the woods backs up against a porcupine. The collision is often painful for both the porcupine and the columnist.

Although the deathless struggle between Twain,  a longtime Connecticut resident, and TR has been known for more than a century, it is rarely mentioned in print. Twain scholars know that Twain and TR were natural enemies on the matter of American imperialism, TR favoring the civilizing benefits of imperialism, always good for the native population and American businesses on the hunt for overseas markets, and Twain opposing it – strenuously.

TR’s animal spirits were aroused by “killing things,” as his political opponents said, and the notion that the American idea should extend beyond its Monroe Doctrine borders to Hawaii, during Twain’s time, still an island paradise controlled by the native population, Cuba and the Philippines, both part of the far-flung Spanish Empire, and wherever else three prominent American expansionists -- Theodore Roosevelt, whose ambitions for personal glory knew no bounds, William Randolph Hearst, a pro-imperialist newspaper owner, and Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge,  a close friend of TR and a shaker and mover in Congress --  though that the United States should extend its reach in the world.

Twain was still in Europe when a diffident President William McKinley, largely at the urging of pro-imperialist, ''civilizing'' forces in the United States, ordered the U.S. Navy into Cuba, there to support rebel groups agitating for democracy and freedom from Spanish rule. We all recall Hearst’s war-whoop: “Remember the Maine; To Hell With Spain.”

The Maine went down in Havana Harbor, a sinking likely caused, it was revealed seventy years after the event, by an internal fire that had ignited explosives aboard the war ship. At the time, Hearst, dollar signs always in his eyes, happily circulated the notion that the Maine had been sunk by the Spanish and said so in many lurid and sensational stories printed in his paper. Roosevelt went off as a colonel to command a regiment in Cuba and later stormed San Juan Hill with his “Rough Riders.” The Philippians, Guam especially, was set free of the Spanish navy. America’s imperial outreach was intended to Christianize and civilize savage nations, open markets to U.S.  goods and announce brashly to the world that, in an era of colonializing powers, the United States had come of age. The imperialists had the stage pretty much to themselves, and then Twain, who at first supported the Cuban adventure because he thought it might help a nation struggling against a colonial power to attain independence, returned home – with a pen dipped in the fires of Hell.

TR found that San Juan Hill was easier to storm than Twain who, to his last breath, insisted as a matter of principle, along with John Adams, that while the United States is a friend to democracy everywhere, it is the custodian only of its own.

The Twain-TR struggle continues today under different battle flags. The presence of a resurgent Islam in modern times has changed the calculus somewhat. Among other things, a resurgent Islam is intent upon 1) sweeping Western influence – religious, cultural and legal -- including democracy, from its own sphere of influence, 2) restoring a sphere of influence it held for roughly 1,500 years as an imperial power, and 3) bringing all other faiths and social orders under Islam at the point of a sword.

The contest between a resurgent Islam and a West that has internally surrendered to a superior spiritual force – demographics show that Islam will out-produce the West in the only product that really matters, children, in the not too distant future – places before those of us in the United States who believe Twain got the better of the argument over TR the age old questions: Without a more than equal countervailing force, how does the West preserve itself from destruction?

Can there be a difference between imperialism and intervention? And has there ever been in the history of the world a non-imperialist nation whose mission is the preservation and extension of Western Cvilization?

Don Pesci is a writer (mostly on politics) who lives in Vernon, Conn.