Theodore Roosevelt, center, with members of the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Roosevelt thought that such wars kept a nation strong. (Associated Press)

Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.

Ambrose Bierce mocked it as the Yanko Spanko War. Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed opposed it. So did two former presidents, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, as well as a once-and-future candidate for that office, William Jennings Bryan. But they couldn’t overcome the warmongers, led by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and the incumbent president, William McKinley. The Spanish-American War, as it is less sardonically known, came and went during a few months in 1898.

Former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer’s peppery new book, “The True Flag,” is about what happened next, after a series of easy victories in various sectors of the Spanish Empire left the United States holding Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The question of what to do with those far-flung islands, Kinzer asserts, generated a debate the likes of which had not been seen since “the period when the United States was founded.”

You may have noticed that although Mark Twain’s name appears in the book’s subtitle, I didn’t list him among the war’s prominent opponents. That’s because he — along with another renowned anti-imperialist, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie — supported the invasion of Cuba, which was billed as a humanitarian mission to liberate an oppressed people from Spanish rule.

"The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire," by Stephen Kinzer (Henry Holt )

In bestowing their approval, the world’s most famous writer and its richest tycoon discounted less-savory motives. A crush on warfare was one, with Roosevelt the most besotted swain of all. Combat makes boys into men, he insisted, and keeps a nation from going soft. Other reasons included opening up new markets for American commerce, gaining admittance to the club of colonial powers and spreading American values. The last two motives, however, were hard to square with each other. How could a nation founded on principled rebellion against colonial rule turn around and acquire colonies of its own? The answer given by Lodge and company was a form of American exceptionalism: We’re so rich and righteous that we have a duty to make our inferiors more like us.

The first climax of “The True Flag” is the Senate debate on the Treaty of Paris, by which title to the captured islands would pass from Spain to the United States. The anti-imperialists seemed to have the edge, not least because, under the Constitution, a treaty takes effect only if ratified by at least two-thirds of the voting senators.

Then a bombshell hit. Bryan came out in favor of ratification. He was preparing to run for president again, and the war had won popular acclaim as a symbol of America’s coming of age. Bryan also suffered from wishful thinking. He convinced himself that the best way for the former Spanish possessions to stand on their own was first to be seized and outfitted with training wheels by the United States. Observers differed as to whether the Great Commoner’s defection cost the anti-imperialist side a mere seven votes or as many as 15, but it seems clear that the treaty owed its two-vote margin of victory to what one historian called “the baffling figure of Mr. William Jennings Bryan.”

Two years later, Bryan had a chance to make amends. He was running for president, and in the meantime bloody uprisings in the Philippines had eroded American support for retaining the islands. Bryan opposed the continued occupation, and it was widely thought that the only thing blocking his path to the White House was free silver. If Bryan could bring himself to jettison that lost cause, the reasoning went, he would appeal to big business, deny McKinley a second term and check U.S. imperialism. But free silver, as articulated in the perfervid “Cross of Gold” speech, had been the making of Bryan as a national politician, and he couldn’t bear to let it go. His stubbornness cost him the election, proving that Bryan, in the words of the unfailingly witty Speaker Reed, would “rather be wrong than president.”

Which brings up one of the most striking features of the war and its aftermath: the number of catchphrases it inspired. Yellow-press lord William Randolph Hearst reputedly cabled one of his photographers, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Rudyard Kipling justified this and other, similar wars as “the white man’s burden.” Back home after his triumph on San Juan Hill, Roosevelt said he felt “as big and strong as a bull moose.” Secretary of State John Hay summed up the conflict as “a splendid little war.” As Filipinos continued to resist, Henry Adams wrote to a friend, “I turn green in bed at midnight if I think of the horror of a year’s warfare in the Philippines.”

No single remark of Twain’s stands out, but he denounced American empire-building often and scathingly, unruffled by accusations that he was spouting treason. To my mind, however, the most damning indictment was brought by Chief Justice Melville Fuller in a 1901 case about whether the United States could legally subject the occupied islands to what was essentially martial law:

“The idea that this country may acquire territories anywhere upon the earth, by conquest or treaty, and hold them as mere colonies or provinces — the people inhabiting them to enjoy only such rights as Congress chooses to accord to them — is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius, as well as with the words, of the Constitution.”

It remains to be said that Fuller was writing in dissent; by a 5-to-4 vote, the court ruled in favor of the government.

Kinzer gets a bit carried away in his last chapter, “The Deep Hurt,” a potted survey of the interventions and invasions launched by the United States in the century-plus since 1898. It’s more sermon than history, and most readers will already be well aware of the author’s examples from their own memories or previous reading.

What Kinzer does extraordinarily well, however, is to remind us how easily the pivotal decisions — the treaty vote, the Supreme Court case and others — could have gone the other way. If one justice or three senators had switched sides, or if Bryan had been less of a “baffling figure,” the United States might have become a very different country.

The True Flag
Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire

By Stephen Kinzer

Henry Holt. 306 pp. $28