Urey Patrick's Reviews > First Great Triumph

First Great Triumph by Warren Zimmermann
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's review
Aug 05, 2011

bookshelves: history-america, pre-ww1-era

I have mixed emotions about this book. The author argues that the US is, and has always been, an Imperialist nation. He cites the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Westward Expansion across the continent as proof of his premise... and the Spanish-American War as the fruition of American Imperialism that has since matured throughout the 20th Century. I think his analysis deeply flawed, although an argument can certainly be made that the Spanish-American War was in fact an American dalliance with Imperialism. That said, and I think it to be true, that does not validate America's Imperialist tendencies before the war, nor did it lead to continued American Imperialism.

On the other hand, his history is informative, detailed and greatly interesting. He lays out extensive biographies of his five principal "Imperialists" - John Hay, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root - that are revealing and informative. I was especially interested in the personal histories of John Hay and Alfred Thayer Mahan - much here you may not find elsewhere, and concisely presented. I question the overarching primacy of these five men in creating the Imperialist outburst of 1898. They were important and influential figures, to be sure - but not the only ones.

Also, his recounting of the events, personalities, politics, diplomatic maneuverings, strategies, tactics and cultural influences surrounding the war with Spain, the annexation of Hawaii, the takings of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines is excellent. Disappointingly, the actual war with Spain gets fairly short shrift in one chapter. And clearly the author disapproves of the Imperialist tendencies of the US - even when they are being exercised at the expense of other Imperialist powers. He recognizes, but quickly glosses over, the certain fates of Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines at the hands of the Germans, the French and particularly the Japanese - all of which were REAL Imperialist powers looking for more acquisitions. It is his analysis of underlying causes and meanings that is flawed, so read the history - don't spend a lot of time on the rest.

The author would also benefit from better editing. There are frequent annoying errors, and inexplicable word choices, that shouldn't be there. For example, discussing General Miles of the American forces in Cuba, the author mentions that he was an Indian fighter and had captured the great "Sioux" chieftain Geronimo - except Geronimo was Apache. A second reference much later in the text correctly identifies Geronimo as Apache. Another example, he dotes on the word "filibuster" - using it repeatedly as a verb to describe fleet movements. That is an esoteric definition that will puzzle most readers - the word can mean a "free-booter" in the sense of one engaging in unauthorized warfare, but the author uses it in a more general sense perhaps in accordance with his palpable disapproval of the Navy's authorized maneuvers... i.e., the US Naval ships "filibustered" from Key West towards Cuba... it just doesn't fit.

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