First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

Zimmermann, Warren. 2002. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 503 p) 

This book is about imperialism, which was not popular in the late 19th century, and is often communicated through the actions of John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Mahan, Elihu Root, and Theodore Roosevelt. These five leaders acted on “Americanism” or “large policy,” and occasionally as “expansionism” for the dreams of future global power to be enjoyed outside the shadow of a tyrannical government the United States rebelled against only a century prior. Warren Zimmermann outlines the book in two parts, with the first concentrating on the abridged biographies of each man. The second part concentrated on the recounting of events bringing each man into American imperialism. The writing in this book is a mixture of history, explanation, needless information, and networked ideology connected through the actions of leaders willing and capable to bring Americans from the land of the free and the home of the brave to imperial occupiers with false hope of democracy. 

To dispel any confusion, Zimmerman opens, “Americans like to pretend that they have no imperial past. Yet they have shown expansionist tendencies since colonial days” (Zimmermann 2002, 17). John Hay fits the description perfectly; as a man from humble beginnings to be catapulted to the levels of power, and to espouse the growth of imperialism as American politics and economics building capacity needed to take advantage of a changing world. Alfred Mahan provides the blueprint for such a journey through his experience as a naval officer and his desire to take part intellectually towards the ambitions of American expansion, most notably in the Caribbean and Pacific. Of course, neither could enjoy the success America is destined to achieve without a strong political stalwart of fine history. Held by no other than Henry Cabot Lodge, he exercised politics as a careerist to out-work all five. Elihu Root shows the complimentary American story to Hay’s self-made identity by hitching his wagon to the most famous, possibly the least accomplished of the group, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who selected Root to merge American holdings abroad in the Philippines and Cuba. We know Roosevelt for his politics as much as he is known for his adventurous exploits. These exploits include his masquerading as an Army officer and penning the feather in American imperialism’s expansionist policies through a mixture of nationalism and glory. 

American Expansion

John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Mahan, Elihu Root, and Theodore Roosevelt oversaw America through her first imperial exploits from the Spanish-American War. Also, to exercise American power, the acquisition of overseas possessions required the William McKinley administration to create a foundational foreign policy platform. Each leader, in their own way, contributed to the United States shrugging off the yoke of domestic discord and set their sights on bringing America into the same international breath as England, Germany, France, and Spain. None could foresee the size of the bite Americans would be forced to chew. 

The recounting of each leader’s life is centered on the Spanish-American War and the presidential administration of William McKinley, interestingly not included in the group of five, even though most of the imperialist exploits are executed under his watch. The author outlines American expansion in the acquisition of Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, each presents a major obstacle to the burden of the United States’ foreign policy.

Cuba, possibly the corner piece to the imperialist puzzle, is the simplest of outcomes for the five. As Zimmermann opines, “As a source of imports to the United States, Cuba was, amazingly, exceeded only by Britain and Germany. Moreover, Cuba accounted for more than half the United States’ export trade to Latin America” (Zimmermann 2002, 250). Granting Cuban independence is no slight to American political or military power, as the economic situation would preclude any notion of actual freedom within the island nation, even after a staged communist rebellion decades later.

The Philippines was not so simple, in either topography or policy, and Americans would find out firsthand the difficulties of managing an unruly colony with thousands of miles of ocean between the homeland and the front. Thus, the big fish spawned smaller fish; Guam, Midway, and Hawaii all playing important roles in tethering the American mission in the Philippines to policies of the United States government, which is growing increasingly dependent on presidential power to steer national interests abroad.

Puerto Rico represents the anti-climactic of colonialism for United States imperialists. This is an important strategic need for the Caribbean expansion brought forth by the Panama Canal populated by an ambivalent population. It is not quite over Spanish rule, not quite ready for American rule, and not quite enthusiastic about self-rule. 

Analysis for Future Imperialist

Zimmermann wraps the proceeding eleven chapters in a concise analysis of the influence America’s first notable imperialists exert on the next hundred years of United States foreign policy. He outlines the legacies left for future imperialists to grapple with. Namely, authentic American imperialism confident in its objectives, the first comprehensive assertion of United States security interests, creation of human rights, stability as foreign policy priorities, and the strengthening of the presidency as commander-in-chief extending beyond purely military matters. There are strengths and weaknesses to Zimmermann’s examination, which are best described in his own words. These leaders were, “The elements of power, will, and leadership that had made the United States the dominant country in the century after 1898 were already declining in the decade after the Cold War” (Zimmermann 2002, 502).

The good reflected in Zimmerman’s work is in his realism of evaluating both the leaders and the events in which they take part in America’s imperialist adventures, pulling no punches in the description of their character or upbringing. There is bad found in relating the leaders and events towards future episodes of imperialism, for Zimmermann, in unwarranted ridicule and omission. This leaves substantial action, leaders, and circumstances from America’s imperialist century. The ugly portions of First Great Triumph showing the beginning of American imperialism are the dismissal of other key contributors (mainly President McKinley) and the interpretation that the United States, as an exceptional nation, is destined for an imperial global role. 

Conclusion

Warren Zimmermann’s portrayal of the five leaders who ushered in American imperialism is a fantastic work to educate oneself on the international implications of the late nineteenth century and the handful of seemingly unexceptional men leading America’s transformation into a globally governing world power. Theodore Roosevelt needs little introduction or explanation, and Zimmermann concentrates much of the bibliographical section on the other four lesser-known imperial agitators.

He spends a great deal of pages explaining everyone, both personally and professionally, to create a relationship with the reader and possibly a connection between each leader’s actions and their beliefs. Mahan’s professional slight is probably the best example, demonstrating how a mediocre naval officer can so thoroughly impact United States foreign policy beyond his lifetime. As far as demonstrating the results of imperialism, Zimmermann is stuck in the successes of Pacific colonization and the failures of foreign policy in the Caribbean. The growth economically and militarily of Hawaii and Guam give the United States a strong position in the region for the next hundred years. A reversal of Cuban patronage to America’s nemesis in the Soviet Union is a direct result of mismanagement by the United States to influence Caribbean nations.

Each leader supplied a piece of their personal beliefs, intellect, charisma, and values into the American effort to join the colonization effort, then waning as an accepted international practice. Their efforts cannot be discounted, having a long-lasting impact on American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century. Mahan’s naval doctrine of forward operating bases extended across the globe and accommodating air elements as they matured into tools of war. Hay’s relationships as a diplomat pulled America closer to European powers and strengthened the legitimacy of American diplomacy. Cabot Lodge’s enabling of Roosevelt undoubtedly projected him into the national spotlight as a respected politician and not only for his charismatic exploits. Root provided the steady hand and counterbalance needed for the extreme imperialism demonstrated by others within the group, namely Roosevelt, who would organize divisions of volunteers to extend American influence on all corners of the Earth, as possible. Although imperfect, the American imperialism born from the minds and souls of these leaders projected the United States into a position to take advantage of future global opportunities to gain superpower status. 


 Jason A. Miller is transitioning from the U.S. Army after twenty years of service and a veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Ph.D. candidate in foreign policy at the Helms School of Government, Liberty University, his research interests include terrorism, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and the Indo-Pacific region. He can be reached at: [email protected] or https://www.linkedin.com/in/jasonmiller83/.

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