[This book review was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 174-181.]


Book Review


President McKinley: Architect of the American Century

Robert W. Merry

Simon & Schuster, 2017


                Simultaneously with conducting a long career as a journalist and publishing executive, Robert Merry has established himself as an historian of exceptional ability.  This is his fifth book, three that deal with the American presidency and two more generally with America’s role in world affairs.  Readers of the Journal will recall our review of Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent.[1]  We found the Polk biography an exceptionally thoughtful examination of the difficult issues, much contested to this day, of national morality involved in the annexation of Texas and of the vast lands that compose the western third of the United States.

            The Polk biography was so insightful and so willing to grapple with profound issues that we are surprised that this one lacks the same thoughtful reflection.  Although Merry tells the history of President McKinley’s life and administration well, he somehow omits from this book any discussion of the context and implications of the momentous redirection of American foreign policy that was marked by the McKinley presidency – a redirection where the country did an about-face from a long history of self-containment and stepped into a broader world both by colonial extension and by an eagerness to intervene in the lives of other peoples.  In his 2005 book Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition, Merry had shown that he was acutely aware of the dangers of “flights of interventionism [and] regime change.”  That book focused on the period since the end of the Cold War, which of course was several decades after the McKinley administration.  It is odd that now his newest book is silent on whether he sees any connection between the “movement into empire” that occurred (or, more precisely, began) in 1898 and the many entanglements that have embroiled the United States since that time.  If he believes the transition of 1898 was benign and not a precursor to the “Crusader State” role that in Sands of Empire he finds so destructive, one might expect him to say so.  And, of course, if he believes the opposite, that there has been a connection, that too would be especially important to discuss – and to explicate in detail.  But he is content to present the McKinley biography without reflecting, favorably or unfavorably, about such implications.  For those of us who think the turn toward world intervention was consequential in the extreme, this means the book misses the central issue – the significance of the turn-about.

Without that depth, the book becomes basically a journalistic narrative, giving a readable and informative account of William McKinley’s career and presidency.  Such a rendering is not without value for those who choose to read it simply for the story it tells, and it will have extra value for those who are able to supply their own analysis of the information’s significance.  With that in mind, we will go ahead with a discussion of the narrative itself.

Merry quotes McKinley as saying that “from the time of the Mexican War up to 1898 we had lived by ourselves in a spirit of isolation.”  Since the word “isolation” is so loaded today, we should pause to grasp what that earlier policy had meant to Americans of the time.  In his Farewell Address, President George Washington had admonished the country to avoid “entangling alliances.”  A few years later, the policy of self-containment was explained by President John Quincy Adams when in 1821 he made his much-quoted declaration that America should lead by example, not by force.  America, Adams said, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”  Much later still, Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton, one of the “anti-imperialists” who opposed McKinley’s expansionism, expressed the same thought when he explained, “It is not that we would hold America back from playing her full part in the world’s affairs, but that we believe that her part could be better accomplished… by the establishment of her own democracy in such wise as to make it a symbol of noble self-government, and by exercising the influence of a great, unarmed and peaceful power on the affairs and moral temper of the world.”  In effect, the United States would be a “City on the Hill” to which a distempered world could look for inspiration and guidance.

It would be a mistake to think that throughout the nineteenth century before 1898 there had been a seamless consensus supporting the non-interference policy.  There were several instances of tempted imperialism, defeated or minimized by the prevalence of the self-containment philosophy.   The effort by the Grant administration to annex “Santo Domingo” (today’s Dominican Republic), promising future statehood, was defeated by the U.S. Senate in 1870 and again in 1871.  The United States took part in the 1884 Berlin Conference (the “Congo Conference”) that divided up Africa among the European powers, but did not itself ratify the resulting treaty.  In 1891-2, the United States supported the ultimately-ousted president in the Chilean Civil War, among other things preventing a ship (the Itata) from transporting to the rebels a cargo of arms acquired in the United States.  What is known as “the Baltimore crisis” occurred when two U.S. sailors were stabbed in Valparaiso.  This almost led to war between the United States and Chile, but was settled in 1892 when Chile paid an indemnity.  In 1893, Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani was dethroned by the combined efforts of planters and U.S. Marines (brought in ostensibly to protect the planters).  President Benjamin Harrison, who was at the end of his term, proposed a treaty of annexation, but the incoming president, Grover Cleveland, strongly anti-imperialist, withdrew it from the Senate.  Cleveland didn’t shrink, however, from enforcing the Monroe Doctrine by nearly going to war with Great Britain in 1895 to force Britain to arbitrate its dispute over the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana.  From all this, we see that there was much that preceded the sea-change that would soon occur under McKinley.

Merry shares with McKinley an unconvincing reluctance to ascribe responsibility (for good or bad) to McKinley for America’s 1898 about-face into colonialism and foreign intervention.  He says McKinley tried to avoid war with Spain and that the conquest of the Philippines was “almost by accident.”  McKinley pointed to his own diffidence, saying that the seizure of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines resulted in “a trust we have not sought.”  “I didn’t want the Philippines,” but “in the end there was no alternative.” Indeed, in his inaugural address he disavowed “wars of conquest” and “the temptation of territorial aggression.”

The reason none of this is convincing is that McKinley’s actions belied his words.  What Merry has to say about McKinley’s political guile is instructive: he preferred “to keep his aspirations shrouded behind the veil of his characteristic taciturnity, just as he kept so much of his thinking concealed from others.”  Further: “The convivial demeanor masked a calculating political operative.”  The result, Merry adds, was that “McKinley always had his way” (italics by Merry).  We can be excused, then, for thinking it odd if McKinley was whip-sawed by the events that turned the country toward imperialism. 

Although Merry doesn’t comment on it other than by way of an unexplained reference to “Spanish intransigence,” his narrative shows that McKinley would brook no conciliation with Spain.   While Spain fought insurgents in Cuba, McKinley’s demands for a quick end to the hostilities were directed impatiently toward it as though nothing were to be expected from the insurgents (who refused Spain’s offer of autonomy).  The intransigence in the end-of-war negotiations is illustrated when we are told that he “demanded of Spain the… immediate evacuation of Cuba and Porto Rico” (sic), and that when the Spanish government communicated it would need to obtain the approval of the Spanish Legislature (the Cortes), McKinley declared “I cannot lend myself to entering into these considerations of domestic government.”  (This is like a foreign power’s telling an American president “your need to consult the U.S. Senate is of no concern to us.”)  Spain’s repeated efforts to conciliate the United States ran into such a brick wall that the Spanish emissary finally told his government “Spain will have nothing more to expect from a conqueror resolved to procure all the profit possible from the advantages it has obtained.”  There had never been any dissatisfaction with Spain’s rule in Puerto Rico, but the island was claimed as an indemnity. Guam was taken as a precondition to peace talks. The Philippines were many thousands of miles away from the events in Cuba that had led to the war, but they, too, were taken, after which the United States, under McKinley, fought a two-year war to consolidate its power as against the indigenous Filipino movement for independence.  On the premise that the Filipinos could not govern themselves (which was contrary to the assessment by Admiral Dewey), the United States set out on its first venture of “nation building” to “lift up less civilized peoples.”  There are, of course, many complexities spelled out in Merry’s narrative – about the Philippines and about the whole face-off with Spain – which a reader should consider in evaluating it all.   

The immediate occasion for the war with Spain was the explosion that destroyed the Maine in Havana harbor.  Merry doesn’t say so, but it is rather obvious that McKinley’s decision to send the Maine on a “friendly visit” to a country in which hostilities were raging was, either through guile or hard-to-understand obliviousness, the planting of a trigger for precisely the sort of event that occurred.  It seems to us a rather perverse misplacing of fault for the naval board of inquiry to have blamed Spain on the ground that it did not protect the ship.  Merry points out that President Cleveland, preceding McKinley, had kept American ships away.

The Spanish-American War, of course, wasn’t the only stimulus to American expansion under McKinley.  As we have seen, the question of annexing Hawaii had been brewing for several years, with President Harrison proposing a treaty and President Cleveland withdrawing it.  The annexation was effected under McKinley, with Hawaii declared a territory in 1900.  The United States participated in the Tripartite Convention that divided up Samoa at the end of the islands’ Second Civil War in 1898-9.  It was then that the U.S. acquired “American Samoa.”  Finally, the United States joined in fighting the Boxer Rebellion in China, which marked military involvement on a distant continent.  (Though this was highly significant vis a vis America’s new role,[2] it should be noted that McKinley took a moderate position, opposing any division of China among the Western powers, and wanting to decrease the death sentences and demands for indemnity.)    

The redirection that started so sharply in 1898 was done over the objections of many leading men of the time, collectively called the “anti-imperialists.”[3]  The list is extensive, but those whose names Americans would most likely recognize today would include: Charles Frances Adams Jr., George S. Boutwell, William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Grover Cleveland, William Lloyd Garrison, E. L. Godkin, Samuel Gompers, Benjamin Harrison, George F. Hoar, William James, Edgar Lee Masters, Charles Eliot Norton, Thomas Brackett Reed, Carl Schurz, John Sherman, William Graham Sumner, and Mark Twain. William Howard Taft was among them even though he reluctantly agreed to serve as governor of the Philippines. 

Their objections recalled John Quincy Adams’ warning that “by once enlisting under other banners than her own,… she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the color and usurp the standard of freedom.” To this, Carl Schurz added the perception that the incorporation of tropical peoples into American life would take the country far afield by including populations who shared with Americans “neither language, nor habits, nor institutions, nor traditions, nor opinions, nor ways of thinking… people who cannot even be reached by our teachings, for they will not understand or appreciate them.”[4]  Psychologist and philosopher William James decried the human drives that feed imperialism, seeing that it promises people “intoxicating adventures and an outlet for their domineering instincts.”  He thought the rationale of “raising and educating inferior races” a “mere hollow pretext and unreality.”[5]  Godkin, editor of The Nation, detested the “jingoism” he saw in the fever for war with Spain, and “the blowing, the blatherskite, the mendacity” of the press.[6]  For his part, Mark Twain differed sharply from the assessment McKinley made of Emilio Aguinaldo (the leader of the indigenous movement for Philippine independence) as fighting the United States out of “sinister ambition.”  Twain, to the contrary, ranked Aguinaldo with “Washington, Tell, Joan of Arc, the Boers, and certain other persons whose names are written large in honorable history.”[7]

On the other side, powerful voices called for America’s engagement in a global policy.  Naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, according to Merry, wanted the U.S. to “follow Britain’s example and attain global power through a ‘step-by-step’ acquisition of key strategic points around the globe.  He wanted the United States to join Britain in an Anglo-Saxon, world-dominating alliance….”  Mahan’s views were shared by the chairman, Cushman K. Davis, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  McKinley spoke of expansion as America’s “manifest destiny.”  Nevertheless, there was not an immediate acknowledgement of a move into colonialism per se: Merry says the taking of Hawaii and Puerto Rico “were seen primarily as isolated strategic necessities,” and McKinley felt he “had no choice but to take the entire [Philippine] archipelago, to secure America’s naval interests while preventing future turmoil in the islands.”  The result, Merry says by way of summary, was an “inchoate world outlook – noncolonial imperialism” combining military and economic power with “an underlying humanitarianism.” President McKinley tells of a variety of other concerns that had a bearing, such as whether German or Japanese ambitions (vis a vis Hawaii) and those of Western powers vis a vis the Philippines needed to be preempted.  We might do well to broaden the analysis by considering that the American people had completed the conquest of their own internal frontier and were of a mind to move on; that the United States’ economy had grown to a point where there was ever-increasing commerce with the rest of the world; and that there had for many decades been a powerful religious sensibility to “do good,” however presumptuous and interventionist that may be in a given case.

What were the effects?  We have already seen how Merry’s earlier book Sands of Empire considered America’s post-Cold War “emergence… as a Crusader State, bent on remaking the world in its preferred image” both “dangerous and self-defeating.”  The period after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was, of course, several decades after the turn-about of 1898.  To see the more proximate effect of the change, we need go no further than the United States’ entry into World War I.  That intervention prevented a stalemate and a negotiated peace – and the world has never been the same since.  Who knows what the course of world history would have been after 1917 if the U.S. had followed its traditional policy and stayed out?  Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, the Cold War itself, the Korean and Vietnam wars; the loss of Western preeminence, with the shift in outlook to championing the non-Western peoples; the awakening of Islamist militancy – this and much, much more would not have occurred as it did.  This means that any analysis of the effects has to be applied to a world already skewed beyond recognition by a fateful intervention, just a few years after McKinley’s presidency, that flew in the face of traditional American policy.

            We have centered this review entirely on the McKinley transformation of American foreign policy, but readers will find Merry’s narrative informative and  easily readable on a number of other issues, as well.  McKinley evolved from a theretofore life-long position as a solid protectionist, favoring high tariffs (averaging 50%) as seen in the 1890 McKinley Tariff, to a system of reciprocal tariffs worked out through trade pacts.  The issue of a gold versus a bimetallic standard for the monetary system had blazed as a major point of contention in the country, and was finally put to rest when McKinley, who had played both sides on the issue, came out four-square for the gold standard (with the demise of the issue facilitated by the rising price of gold and by technological improvements in mining that increased the gold supply).  Other issues of the time related to anti-trust (favored in the Republican platform in 1900) and the desire to build a canal across Central America (with Nicaragua the proposed location until the later shift to Panama).

            It’s “a good read.”  Not perfect, but good.                                                                                                                                                                                                     Dwight D. Murphey




1.  See our review in the Summer 2010 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 266-273.  It appears as Book Review 136 (i.e., BR136) on the reviewer’s website: www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info

2.  This military participation on another continent might well be considered a presage of America’s intervention in World War I in France.

3.  See the book Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900 by Robert L. Beisner, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968).  Although it deals with twelve, there were a good many other prominent opponents of the turn-about.  They constituted a vigorous movement until the presidential election in 1900.

4.  Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 23.

5.  Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 41.

6.  Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 76.

7.  Robert W. Merry, President McKinley, p. 470.



[1]   See our review in the Summer 2010 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 266-273.  It appears as Book Review 136 (i.e., BR136) in www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info


[2]   This military participation on another continent might well be considered a presage of America’s intervention in World War I in France.

[3]   See the book Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900 by Robert L. Beisner, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.   Although it deals with twelve, there were a good many other prominent opponents of the turn-about.  They constituted a vigorous movement until the presidential election in 1900.

[4]   Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 23.

[5]   Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 41.

[6]   Beisner, Twelve Against Empire, p. 76.

[7]   Robert W. Merry, President McKinley, p. 470.