Dramatic reading by author Stephen Kinzer brought a 19th-century debate about America’s role in the world to a 21st-century library audience

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Who knew that the mother of Boston Globe foreign-policy columnist Stephen Kinzer was an actress? The family gene revealed itself when Kinzer, the author of The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the birth of American Empire slipped seamlessly behind the lectern at the South End library’s community room, filled to capacity by a history-hungry audience, and  dramatically performed parts of the great debate of more than a 100 years ago about what exactly America’s role should be in the world, isolationist or imperialist.  The US government had settled the West, and the end of the Spanish-American War opened up the opportunity for the US to control territories that had once belonged to Spain, like Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. What should be done with them? And what was the mission of America?

For Kinzer, who scrolled endless hours through microfiche records of  late 19th-century newspapers and pamphlets in the Boston Public Library to research his book, the remarkable fact of what he calls  “the mother of all debates” was the sheer brilliance of the arguments by  intellectual and political leaders on all sides of the question. “All the speeches were printed in newspapers and reprinted. They were read around the world, he said. “I envy people of that era,. We don’t dare to discuss these important issues with senators today. We talk about whether we should have 8,000 or 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, but not why we are there.

radio host Chris Lydon

Previewing the importance of the 19th-century polemic while introducing his longtime friend whose arrival was slightly delayed, WBUR OpenSource host, Christopher Lydon, talked about his personal hero from the pacifist side of that debate, William James, brother of Henry,  “the greatest Boston brother act in history,” as he put it. Lydon, who described Kinzer as a journalist in the David Halberstram tradition for his in-depth and uncompromising reporting, had met Kinzer when the latter was New York Times bureau chief in Berlin and, later, in Turkey.  “There should be more of Henry James in your book, however,” he told Kinzer.

 Kinzer agreed, up to a point, but focussed his attention on the role of many others, like Mark Twain, who had traveled the world and developed empathy for those seeking freedom, and Theodore Roosevelt, who had traveled, too, but mostly to shoot large animals. Twain reportedly thought TR was “clearly insane;”  TR had said about Twain he’d like to “skin him alive.” Then there was William Randolph Hearst, who needed a “running story” for his newspapers to thrive: war stories about anti-colonial and anti-imperialist wars in the territories would best fit the bill. Henry Cabot Lodge, for his part, felt many nations were “unequipped to govern themselves.” In the end, President William McKinley used the Lodge rational when he asked the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Paris. It passed. The US took control over former Spanish territories, and became an empire.

The 1899 debate preceding the ratification lasted 32 days and, as Kinzer pointed out, the very arguments first formulated then, primarily in Boston’s political circles, are the same we heard when debating Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  This led to a question by Lydon about whether President John Kennedy, at the midpoint between that 19th-century political fight and now,  would have stayed in Vietnam or  pulled out. Both Kinzer and Lydon agreed the Warren Commission report left out important information, but that Kennedy himself had told the editor of the Boston Globe at the time, Bob Healy, also a former Globe Washington bureau chief,  that he would pull out of Vietnam after his reelection.

Kinzer’s  hero in the fiercely debated question was the abolitionist Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who became a Civil War general, a US senator, Secretary of the Interior and a friend of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. The title of Kinzer’s book, The True Flag, was taken from a speech by Schurz in which he declared “the true flag” of America was of the one of “government of, for, and by the people,” and “the flag of civilization, peace, and goodwill to all men.”