History is in the end nothing but an infinite number of eclipsed presents. The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire by Stephen Kinzer finds its strength in exactly this: that it captures a moment in time, bringing back from the past the feelings, sentiments, and voices of the crucial years of 1898-1900 when America emerged as an ocean-spanning empire with overseas possessions and colonies, to much internal debate and criticism, as well as enthusiasm and joy. It is a simple enough book to read, but it combines that rare feat of being useful both to the general public and popular history, and as a great collection of quotes and primary sources which are of great value to even those with a substantial existing knowledge of the period.
At the heart of The True Flag is its analysis of American reactions to, justifications of, and opposition to the idea of America becoming a trans-oceanic colonial empire in the European mold. As the book points out, this has had important results since: much of our current discussion about the merits or negative aspects of American overseas involvement, and the ways in which it is justified and the reasons for why it is undertaken, stem from this period. Kinzer does not write it for idle historical purpose: he ends the book with a plea to stop American intervention overseas, pointing out the harm and pain that it has inflicted abroad and the sapping of strength it has engendered at home.
There are some previous parallels and experiences which could have been better drawn on in the book. While the 1989 war was the first time the US acquired overseas colonies like Europe, the US had previously purchased Alaska, and while under quite different circumstances, given its peaceful acquisition, and having a lack of large native populations which the US would rule over in former Spanish colonies (by contrast it had a light sprinkling of Indians whose presence was easy to ignore for the US government), Alaska still generated controversy at home. Stewart’s Folly, the vast ice chest! Also, the book only refers to Manifest Destiny in the sense of the supports of imperialism invoking it, seeing colonialism overseas as the continuation of Manifest Destiny - what about those who were opposed to it too? Thoreau was against the war with Mexico, famously for moral reasons, and Lincoln and many Whigs were doubtful of the utility of greater expansion. Did any anti-imperialists of 1898 draw on these antecedents, or was the ultimate popularity and overwhelming success of Manifest Destiny enough to make any formal reference politically impossible?
There are also some voices or concerns which could have been highlighted. For example, the book does an admirable job of relating the different perspectives of white and black American leadership on the war with Spain and American Empire, but the role of blacks in the conquest of the American colonies is neglected. Black soldiers served in significant numbers overseas, including at some crucial moments such as in front of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, were there was a colored infantry regiment who were the topic of changing references to Roosevelt himself after the fact. There is a good racial discussion incorporated into the book, but it could have useful englobed this aspect of empire-building and the way America’s internal racial dynamics were important in the creation of Empire.
A great bright spot is the characterization and examination of figures such as Roosevelt, Twain, Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, George Hoar, Carnegie, Lodge, and Hearst. It is a top-heavy book to be sure, focusing on leaders, but one whose consistent, clear, and insightful look at these crucial figures is welcome and both gives the book a definite structure and charm. Their speeches, writings, letters - all are excellently portrayed. The realm of popular and mass culture is explored too, via the newspaper personage Mr. Dooley, newspapers, and public spectacle. As mentioned above, this is probably the best part of the book - that it has a magnificent variety of quotes, which are there to be used by any history reader.
A strong history book which bridges the gap between popular history and academic history, useful to all, with a readable style and an excellent mise-en-scène of the historical characters of the day, The True Flag is heavily recommended to understand the early days of American overseas colonial empire.