The Eagle is the chief of the feathered race . . . fierce, rapacious, and holding a sort of empire over the whole.
—Noah Webster, 18121
The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a
financial element in the larger centers has owned the
Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 19332
The Americans may have preserved a cult of Liberty but they do not feel the need to liberate themselves from the servitude which their capitalism has created.
—Hubert Beuve-Méry, 19443
THREE YEARS AFTER SITTING BULL’S DEATH, Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair—marking the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage (albeit a year late). This was America’s coming-out party, its answer to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when the might and splendour of the British Empire had been displayed to 6 million visitors at London’s Crystal Palace. By the 1890s the United States had outstripped the mother country in population and was fast overtaking the old workshop of the world in industrial output and technical progress. Only a tenth of American production was being sold abroad, but that was already enough to make the United States second only to Britain in world trade.4
It was also at the Chicago Fair that the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous paper on the frontier as America’s “crucible,” in which the higher elements of European and native civilization had been vaporized, leaving a coarse yet resilient alloy. In later essays, Turner took a rosier view of the frontier culture, emphasizing the opportunities of “free land,” rather than the three-century legacy of warfare. But he got it right the first time.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of that legacy was the creation of a social system dependent on endless expansion. “To stop the march of empire would doubtless have proved too much for any philosophical principle,” wrote Albert Weinberg in Manifest Destiny, “for each advance of the frontier solved one set of problems only to create another, satisfied one desire only to stimulate a new one.”5 Until industrialization, North America had seemed so vast that the day of reckoning would never come. But in the thirty years after 1870, white Americans took and settled more land than they had in the previous three hundred.6
On the eve of the twentieth century, the United States ran out of Lebensraum: the frontier safety valve was shutting down. Back in America’s East, pressure was building up as railways, mines and other industries owned by “robber barons” formed monopolies, driving down wages by using immigrant and child workers in the midst of an inflationary boom. In 1893 the bubble burst—in bank failures, strikes and riots—followed by a five-year slump.
The best cure for home unrest, as King Henry IV on his deathbed advises Prince Hal, is foreign quarrels.7 Instead of weaning itself from a diet of territorial expansion, America spilled into the Pacific.8
By the 1890s most of the Polynesian islands had been snapped up by European empires, leaving one great prize unclaimed: the Kingdom of Hawaii. American whalers, missionaries and planters were already well established there, but the islands were still ruled by a native dynasty founded by King Kamehameha I in 1795. Recognizing the threat of the white strangers who had suddenly appeared on their shores, he and his heirs had responded much like the Civilized Tribes. For a hundred years, the Hawaiian nobility adopted foreign ways in a bid to build a modern nation strong enough to resist the outlanders.
But, as in the Americas, the indigenous population was struck hard by imported disease, worsened by alcohol, prostitution and cultural breakdown.9 In the 1820s the old religion was suppressed; in the 1850s, on the advice of American missionaries, the land was severed into private plots. Many commoners lost their farms to sugar and cotton estates. Many nobles were seduced by the life of Victorian aristocrats.10 Hawaii became “globalized,” a pawn in what was then called the World Market. “In the midst of these evidences of prosperity and advancement,” wrote David Kalakaua, the last king, “the natives are steadily decreasing in numbers and gradually losing their hold upon the fair land of their fathers. Within a century they have dwindled from four hundred thousand . . . to a little more than a tenth of that number of landless, hopeless victims to the greed and vices of civilization.”11
King Kalakaua himself sickened and died in 1891, leaving the throne to his sister, Queen Liliuokalani.
The white settlers—most of them Americans—had long dreamed of getting the islands annexed by the United States, France or Britain, or simply seizing Hawaii for themselves. These aims were sometimes encouraged and sometimes rebuffed by foreign powers, depending on political winds at home. In 1881 James Blaine, the U.S. secretary of state, called Hawaii the “key to the dominion of the American Pacific.”12 Six years later America secured Pearl Harbor for a naval base. By 1893 the settlers were strong enough to overthrow the queen in a coup d’état, saying that her efforts to strengthen Hawaiian rule were undemocratic.13 While Washington dithered over backing their revolt, the rebels set up a “Gospel Republic” led by Sanford Dole, a missionary’s son with a wiry patriarchal beard. Dole held the islands until Republicans—most of whom favoured imperialism, then as now—came to power in the United States in 1897. The new regime quickly annexed Hawaii without qualms and made Dole the first governor.14
Like Texas, Hawaii was taken “as the cuckoo steals a nest.” It was the last place that could be overwhelmed by settlers and remade—in American eyes—from an imperial possession into a piece of home.15
At the end of the nineteenth century the machine guns were rattling everywhere—in Sudan, French Indochina, the Congo—and they had been as genocidal on Argentina’s pampas as on America’s Great Plains. The European powers had built empires around the world and were getting ready to carve up China. Why shouldn’t the United States join in too, before all the pickings were gone?
With the Republicans carrying both White House and Congress, imperialism was firmly in the saddle. When President William McKinley took office in 1897, he chose a red-blooded expansionist and militarist, Theodore Roosevelt, to be his assistant secretary of the navy and, later, his vice-president. “I should welcome almost any war,” Roosevelt wrote to a friend at the time, “for I think this country needs one.”16
But other leading Americans were uneasy about overseas ambition and keenly aware of the moral danger for a nation that deemed itself the apostle of freedom. Such unlikely bed-fellows as the distinguished philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James), the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and a variety of socialists, church groups and pacifists came together to form the American Anti-Imperialist League.
After Hawaii the imperialists’ next target was the forgotten remnants of the Spanish Empire: Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, Wake and a few other islands in the Pacific and Caribbean. Local uprisings provided an excuse for American “concern.” In February 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine,showing the flag at Havana, mysteriously blew up and sank with all hands. Hawkish newspapers immediately blamed Spain, though the explosion may well have been an accident. Within days of the sinking, Roosevelt sent a squadron to the Philippines to make a surprise attack on a Spanish fleet half a world away—giving the order more than two months before the war itself began anywhere. 17 The deed is doubly suspicious in light of a letter Roosevelt had written to Henry Cabot Lodge the previous September: “Our Asiatic squadron should blockade, and if possible, take Manila.”18 President McKinley had ample time to recall the squadron, but he did not do so. Roosevelt’s order must have had White House support. Clearly, the United States had been planning the Spanish war long before a good casus belli could be found—a policy similar, in several ways, to the hunting of Iraq a century later.
Spain’s Caribbean islands went down like old horses at a bullfight. Few Americans died, and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders covered themselves with glory. The secretary of state called it a “splendid little war.” Under peace terms denounced by the Anti-Imperialists as “colonial vassalage,” the United States made Cuba a protectorate and took the naval base of Guantánamo Bay as its commission.19 Things would not go so smoothly in the Philippines, America’s “first Vietnam.”20
Looking back on these events from the far side of the twentieth century, one can see the seeds of future war being planted as if by a malevolent Fate: Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake, the Philippines, Cuba, Guantánamo. All are famous names today, not for the events of the 1890s but for those of the 1940s, 1960s and 2001. The death of the old world empire built by the conquistadors became the birth of a new world empire that would claim the coming century as its own.
In the Philippines, America would learn the limits and costs of imperial reach, as Spain had long before. It was one thing to conquer indigenous Americans and Polynesians who could be counted on to “melt away” from introduced diseases; quite another to acquire a large subject population that was biologically a part of Asia. The Filipinos then numbered about 8 million—five times more than the Cubans, thirty times more than the surviving American Indians and two hundred times more than the Hawaiians.21
By his own account, President McKinley had cold feet, which spent many a wakeful night pacing the White House floors. In 1897 he had spoken out against annexing Cuba because, “by our code of morality [it] would be criminal aggression.” 22 But now he wanted the Philippines. How could he justify the inconsistency? Like a Mormon prophet, McKinley entered into long conversations with God about this moral dilemma. Obligingly and unsurprisingly, the Lord told the president it was nothing less than America’s duty to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”23
So the United States turned against the local rebels it had initially backed. McKinley claimed that Filipinos had started the fighting, but evidence later came out that U.S. officers had been ordered to provoke it. The Philippine leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, offered McKinley a deal: he would settle for a protectorate. All he needed were “some tangible concessions from the United States” that he could present to his people. It is still unclear why McKinley didn’t take his offer. After all, the United States was driving that very bargain with the Cubans.24
The reason for Washington’s hard line seems to have been a mix of racism, national pride and rivalry with other powers. Senator Albert Beveridge, the barking dog of the imperialists, told the president that God had been preparing Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic folk “for a thousand years . . . as the master organizers of the world . . . And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation.” Such rhetoric came down from the Puritans, but, as Weinberg noted prophetically in 1935, it was also a foretaste of Hitlerism.25
Greed had to be dressed up as a sacred duty to bring the “savage” into civilization.
“The Philippines are ours forever,” Senator Beveridge told Congress (in a speech he entitled “In Support of an American Empire”). “And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. . . . We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.”26 Rudyard Kipling weighed in, penning his “White Man’s Burden” on the Philippine affair, a poem best remembered for its title. (Roosevelt wrote to Senator Lodge that it was “poor poetry, but good sense from the expansionist standpoint.”27) One senator declared that letting the Filipinos keep their freedom would be “the highest cruelty.” 28 Another said America need not shrink from imperialism, because hers would be “the imperialism of liberty.”29
Whatever his reasons, McKinley wanted the Philippines just as George W. Bush wanted Iraq. Words written by historian Tyler Dennett in 1922 could easily apply to either war: “The policy [was] adopted in great ignorance of the actual facts . . . and in a blissful and exalted assumption that any race ought to regard conquest by the American people as a superlative blessing.”30
It took sixty thousand U.S. troops two years to confer that blessing and capture Aguinaldo. From the scanty reports that leaked out between 1899 and 1901, it is clear that, in cruelty and injustice, the Philippine War reprised the Indian wars and foretokened Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. William James said that “McKinley’s cant . . . has reached perfect expertness in the art of killing silently.”31 The Anti-Imperialist League did what it could to break that silence by publishing soldiers’ letters. One officer wrote home about the town of Caloocan, the My Lai or Mystic of the war: “Caloocan was supposed to contain 17,000 inhabitants. The Twentieth Kansan swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native.” A private confessed that he had, with his own hand, “set fire to over fifty houses of Filipinos.”32
When journalists at last got to the war zone, they confirmed the worst, including use of a torture that is again in the news today as “waterboarding”—a near-drowning technique that the Americans had condemned the Spaniards for practising, but then adopted themselves in the Philippines and have again been using in the so-called war on terror.33 “Our men,” reported the Philadelphia Ledger, “have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners, and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog. . . . Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to make them talk.”34
Meanwhile in Washington, Elihu Root, the secretary of war, was answering the critics with sang-froid: “The war in the Philippines has been conducted by the American army with scrupulous regard for the rules of civilized warfare . . . with self-restraint and with humanity never surpassed.”35 In 2003 Root’s modern successor, Donald Rumsfeld, would use the very same word—“humanity”—to describe his bombing of Iraq.36
In 1901 President McKinley was assassinated—not by an aggrieved Filipino but by an American-born anarchist shouting that the president was an enemy of the workers. When Tocqueville had travelled through the United States seventy years before, he had been struck by the equality and opportunity he saw: almost everyone was middle class; concentration of ownership was discouraged by law; competition seemed to be working as Adam Smith had said it would. John Quincy Adams told him, “Many more generations will yet pass before we feel that we are overcrowded,” and Tocqueville wondered, if that were so, why Americans were in such a hurry: “They rush upon their fortune as if but a moment remained for them to make it their own.”37
The canny homesteaders knew something the French nobleman did not: good times don’t last; get yours while you can. In the 1860s it had been said that the frontier would “postpone for centuries” and perhaps forever “all serious conflict between capital and labor.”38 The decades after the Civil War saw the United States’ fastest territorial growth—yet also a massive upward shift of wealth as industrialization made a handful of Americans into plutocrats. By the turn of the century, the self-sufficient yeomanry admired by Tocqueville had all but disappeared. Big land and railway companies had bagged the winnings of the West. The farmer was in thrall to banks and faraway markets; the city dweller was ground down into a proletariat. Manhattan had more than 3 million people, many of them in slums.
This was no longer government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” said the veteran statesman John Hay, who served under both Lincoln and McKinley, but “government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”39 The huddled masses alighting at New York found that an American factory of 1900 was much the same as a British, French or German factory of 1900—or, for that matter, a Third World factory of today. A sixty- or seventy-hour week was typical; work was hard, unsafe and unhealthy.40 Nearly a third of a million American children under fifteen were working in mines, mills and factories. The plight of women and girls in New York sweatshops was exposed by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, when 146 died in a locked building. In 1904 alone, about half a million people were injured at work in the United States and twenty-seven thousand killed.
Despite America’s social safety valve—all the “free land” taken from the Indians at such cost and with such hopes—exploitation of the weak by the strong had crossed the Atlantic and taken charge in the new Eden. Industrial imperialism was not simply mowing down tribesmen far from the public eye; it was devouring the very society from which it sprang.41 As free enterprise congealed into monopolies and trusts, radical workers responded by forming “one big union”—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), nicknamed the Wobblies. There was something messianic about the Wobblies, a dream of bringing down the whole edifice of capitalism and building a socialist millennium in its stead. Their strikes were met with violence, even murder, from police, militia and vigilante squads. Society was polarizing along class lines.42
It dawned on the more thoughtful industrialists and politicians that a way to expand the market for American goods and take the heat out of social unrest would be to raise the buying power of the working class. Though an imperialist and a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt understood this equation—and he had the political guts to tackle big business. He broke up some of the monopolies, sought arbitration for labour disputes, slowed the raping of natural resources and imposed federal standards on food and drugs. He was also a supporter of the Hague Tribunal, the first stirrings of an international order.43
Ironically, these farsighted policies have since been undone or demonized by more recent Republican politicians—a measure of the drift in American politics from a pragmatic middle ground typical of modern democracy to a neo-Victorian extremism bent on unlearning the lessons of the twentieth century.
Those lessons—learned at a cost of 80 million lives—are that injustice, inequality and mass poverty lead to terrorism, war and revolution. The shooting of President McKinley was only one of many attacks during the long summer of imperial greed before the palm-court orchestras were silenced by the guns of 1914.44 In Joseph Conrad’s novel of the times, The Secret Agent, a suicide bomber prowls London wearing an explosive jacket, detonator in hand. That was published in 1906.45 In 1920 a truck bomb blew up on Wall Street outside the head-quarters of J.P. Morgan.46Now we are being told that terrorism is new, that nineteen fanatics have changed the world, that such people are so powerful and pervasive that the “war” against them must trump democratic freedoms that survived two World Wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The first gun of 1914 was the pistol with which a nineteen-year-old extremist shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife at Sarajevo.47 The attack was provoked by ethnic injustice in the Balkans, but that was neither new nor enough, in itself, to make a continent commit mass suicide. The first lesson of 1914 is the risk of overreacting to terrorism.
Historians still debate how Austria’s revenge for that murder touched off a bloodbath that would blight all subsequent history. Perhaps the western world had forgotten the disasters of war. Perhaps the Great Powers had grown bored with the endless jousting of the Edwardian afternoon. The wealth of the long peace had been distilled into an arms race. In one generation, battleships had changed from things of wood, sail and cannon into turbine-powered castles of steel.48 The leaders were seduced by the beauty of their weapons: modern war, they said, would be easy and quick. You’ll be “back before the leaves fall,” they told the troops that August. But as today’s foremost historian of war, John Keegan, writes, “It would be four years and five autumns before the survivors returned, leaving on the battlefields some 10 million dead. The vast crop of fit and strong young men which formed the fruit of nineteenth-century Europe’s economic miracle had been consumed by the force which gave them life and health.”49
In the 1912 American elections, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives had split the Republican Party, handing victory to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson—a lean, scholarly Virginian with a record of fighting for the underdog.50 In his idealism, Wilson was the Jimmy Carter of his times, though he lacked Carter’s humility. He also had a weakness for self-deception, which led him into some ill-advised meddling in Latin America; but against that must be set his reforms in the Philippines, including a promise of independence that was eventually followed up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.51 America re-elected Wilson in 1916 on a platform of keeping America out of the Great War except as a supplier and lender to the Allies.52 Soon, however, German outrages threw American opinion behind Wilson’s reluctant decision to take part. The last straw was the exposure of a German plot to help Mexico get back the territory she had lost in 1848 if she would make war on the United States.53
As the American Civil War had already shown, modern conflicts are won in factories as much as on battlefields. The Western Front—that long wound of mud, blood and wire across the body of Europe—was a stalemate. The winner would be the side that could exhaust the other’s economy and starve its population: the medieval siege at an international scale.54 While America’s belated involvement had a relatively small military impact, it was probably decisive for these economic reasons.55
Not all Americans sent to Europe had as good a war as Dick Savage of the “grenadine guards” in John Dos Passos’s Nineteen Nineteen, but many shared his moral vertigo at the abyss he found there: “I swear I’m ashamed of being a man. . . . God, we’re a lousy cruel vicious dumb type of tailless ape.”56
Weeks after the guns were stilled by the Armistice, Woodrow Wilson steamed to the Paris Peace Conference aboard the George Washington.57 In their tail coats and black silk hats, the peacemakers who gathered at Versailles in 1919 looked like an undertakers’ convention. And so they were. They had to bury the bodies, clean up the mess and find meaning in pointless slaughter.
It was an overwhelming brief: to settle terms and borders, to sterilize the seeds of future war, to foment liberal democracy, to find a balance between capital and labour. Every European government east of France had fallen, mostly to Marxist revolution. 58 Of Wilson’s Fourteen Points for peace, the sixth, in particular, makes ironic reading today. The new Communist Russia, he wrote, should be given “an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development [and] a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing.”59
The task, Wilson argued, would demand not merely a peace treaty but “a new world order” enshrined in an international body, which he called the League of Nations. The idea itself wasn’t new—at the dawn of the Victorian Age, the poet Alfred Tennyson had called for the “Parliament of man, the Federation of the world”—but never before had such need and opportunity come together.60 Europe was morally and financially bankrupt; wars and empires were discredited; America’s idealism really did seem to be the world’s best hope.
The battlefields were slowly ploughed over or left to armies of the dead: acres of crosses and headstones in perfect array. Above them reared silent temples of white stone to the “Great War for Civilization”—as if civilization had won. In truth, civilization had died with the mustard-gas and the maggots, with the torpedoed passenger liners, with the aerial bombing of civilians in their beds.61 The fond belief of the Enlightenment—that technological and moral progress go hand in hand—was dead. The civilized had learned what many “savages” already knew: that civilization behaves no better than savagery and does its worst on a far greater scale.
The spectacle of the “master organizers of the world” butchering one another had not been lost on the “lesser breeds” they ruled. The pretensions of imperialism were undone. Independence movements sprang up in the tottering empires, especially India. It became a matter of when—not if—the white man would unload his burden.
If the great epic of western progress was a lie, writers and artists asked themselves, what was true? What beautiful? Although inklings of modernism had appeared before the Great War, the aesthetic canon was overthrown wholesale in its wake. To the uninitiated, stories became riddles, paintings became nightmares, music became noise, buildings became boxes and machines. The public turned to popular culture—to film, jazz, comics and romances.
The only modern style with wide appeal—art deco—was in fact the least modern and most American. When Frank Lloyd Wright and other young designers were casting around for new ideas at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, they saw a spectacular outdoor exhibit of Maya buildings from Yucatán: full-size casts of doorways, façades and an entire triumphal arch. The steel-frame skyscraper was being developed at just that time. While American architects were trying various styles for the high-rise form, New York City passed a setback bylaw, requiring tall buildings to step inward as they rose, to let sunlight reach the streets. The law encouraged pyramids.62 Indeed, a cluster of steep Maya temples at Tikal in Guatemala (to which the New Yorker building bears a strong resemblance) had been the tallest structure in the New World for more than eleven hundred years.63 Ancient American forms and motifs—unfamiliar enough to seem new and “modern”—came to dominate art deco design, appearing on everything from skyscrapers to radio sets.
Perhaps only an American of Woodrow Wilson’s background and wide learning could have dreamt that a League of Nations might put an end to war. Wilson—a Southerner who admired Lincoln—took history seriously. Like Benjamin Franklin nearly two centuries before, his thinking was influenced by the ancient Iroquois League, which had been formed for the same reason: to stop warfare among closely related nations.64 The Europeans, more cynical but also broke, had little choice but to go along with Wilson’s dream. While the old empires had been sending their treasure up in smoke, the American empire had enjoyed a boom. The United States was now the world’s banker, owed 10 billion dollars by the Allies.
Wilson got his League, but his own nation never joined it. Congress would not ratify the treaty—for reasons that foreshadow the American right’s dislike of international agreements to this day.65 The League of Nations, the Law of the Sea, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Accord on climate change and the International Criminal Court have all been rejected by the United States (after initial involvement) because a vote in Congress or a change of regime gave spoiling power to a vested, parochial, even paranoid interest. Tocqueville had a point when he noted that American democracy “is able to control the internal affairs of society. But I cannot persuade myself that it is in a state to manage foreign affairs.”66
As Margaret MacMillan writes in her fine book on the Peace Conference, Paris 1919, the League “underlined the idea that there were certain things that all humanity had in common and that there could be international standards beyond those of merely national interest.”67 Wilson failed to make America the heart of this endeavour—his efforts wrecked his health and failed to forestall an even greater war—but the League of Nations set a precedent that would eventually bear fruit in the United Nations and the European Union.
Many historians have blamed the Second War on the First, “in so far as one event causes another.”68 From this distance in time, the two World Wars look like a single tragedy with a long intermission. Before the mortar was even dry between the stones of the great memorials, the “vicious dumb apes” began jostling for the second act. Although it is hardly fair to blame the 1919 peacemakers for being unable to see the future, it is true that the Nazi Party thrived on mass unemployment and hyperinflation caused by the reparations extracted from Germany in the early 1920s: millions of young men were looking for scapegoats and a saviour.69 It is also true that the high-handed carve-up of the Middle East would lead to the Iraq War of today—via the Suez Crisis of 1956, various Arab-Israeli wars and the Gulf War of 1991. Furthermore, the Great War’s sociopolitical lessons—the need for capitalism to be tamed, for workers to be protected, for unemployment to be checked—were soon forgotten. In America the Republicans not only rejected Wilson’s League but undid many of his (and Theodore Roosevelt’s) progressive business laws, leaving the stock market to roar until it choked in October 1929.
A return to madness might still have been avoided had there not been a fatal concurrence of financial, moral, political—and natural—turmoil. As the cliché has it, the Dirty Thirties were a perfect storm. Human affairs were not being played out like medieval politics in a static world. The population boom was speeding up. Modern farm technology was being applied recklessly, if with the best intentions. By the early 1920s it was becoming evident that those who had thought the Great Plains too dry for farming had not been altogether wrong. The notion that “rain follows the plough” was wishful thinking.70 The bumper years after breaking the land had been a coincidence: a wet period in a natural cycle coupled with a one-time issue of fertility from ten thousand years of turf. Just as the nutrients of a rainforest are in the trees, not the ground, so the life of the prairie had been in the matted grasses fed on buffalo manure. Left in that state, the land could have waited for rain. But with the sod busted, the earth flew into the sky.
The Western droughts went on for a dozen years. Fields became dunes, farms failed, towns died. “The land would wear just so much architecture and society,” Jonathan Raban writes in Bad Land, “and no more.”71 In Oklahoma the transported Cherokees had turned previously undesirable land into a thriving collective republic, only to have it broken up into lots and taken from them piecemeal in the 1890s. Incoming white settlers, equipped with steam and gasoline tractors, then overdrew Nature’s account in one generation. After that the “Okies” too had to make a mass removal—in jalopies down Route 66 to California. A few lines from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath amount to a terse history of the West: “Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow. . . . The bank owned the land then.”72
With the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the boom-and-bust cycle of free-market capitalism yet again produced a panic, this time on a giant scale. Yet the Soviet Union, the Marxist alternative, seemed to be immune from the worldwide slump, or Great Depression. While American factories were idle, Joseph Stalin was turning the primitive empire of the czars into an industrial hive. Western visitors came back repeating what Lincoln Steffens had said in 1919: “I have seen the future and it works.”73
In fact, they had seen only what they were allowed to see. Just as the American empire had been built at the expense of Indians and blacks, Stalin industrialized by looting and dragooning the peasantry. Offstage were dispossessions, famines, executions and forced-labour camps. Stalin and Hitler may have regarded themselves as opposites on the political spectrum, but like all fanatics, they were much alike—right down to their moustaches and phony names.74 In both tyrannies, the party became the state. (The main difference was that Hitler had a pact with business, while Russia had no private sector.)
Soviet industrial production tripled during the 1930s—and with full employment.75 The Russian share of world output rose from 5 to 18 percent. Many drew the obvious conclusion: capitalism was failing; communism worked. In the 1932 presidential elections won by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a million Americans voted hard left.76 If capitalism did not reform, it risked being overthrown. There was already a model of reform to follow: the government credit and controls that had worked during the Great War. Money had always been found to make war; why not find it to keep the peace?
So Franklin Roosevelt, a cousin of Theodore and a young colleague of Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Peace Conference, built on his forerunners’ best ideas.77 The New Deal, announced in his 1932 campaign, regulated capital and put people to work building infrastructure: roads, dams, national parks, public housing. With the Social Security Act of 1935, America had the makings of a modern welfare state. The Indian Reorganization Act righted some old wrongs and restored a degree of native autonomy.78 Abroad, Roosevelt renounced gunboat diplomacy (his Good Neighbor Policy), took up Wilson’s promise of independence to the Philippines, and avoided war over oil with Mexico.79 Opposition from diehards grew—FDR was called a “traitor to his class”—but the coming of war quelled the backlash.
As with the First War, the slide to the Second was set off by a terrorist attack: the firebombing of the German Reichstag (Parliament) on February 27, 1933. It is still moot who was to blame, but Hitler immediately exploited the outrage—jailing opponents, suspending civil liberties and tightening his grip on power.80 Nazism, said Hitler, was “a doctrine of conflict.” Germans were told that their nation had no choice but to expand or die. As the novelist Thomas Mann wrote in a letter: “If the idea of war, as an aim in itself, disappeared, the National Socialist [Nazi] system would be . . . utterly senseless.”81
With its notion that “Aryans” were the Chosen Race, its Führer-worship and its promise of a Thousand-Year Reich, Nazism was not so much a political party as a crisis cult. “The Germans are under a spell,” wrote the young lawyer Sebastian Haffner when he fled to England in the late 1930s. “They live a drugged life in a dream world. They are terribly happy, but terribly demeaned. . . . As long as the spell lasts, there is almost no antidote.”82
Japan’s participation is harder to explain. In the First War she had sided with the Allies; in the Second, under the control of militarists, she unwisely challenged the United States for the Pacific. Japan had no need to invent a kitsch ideology like that of the Nazis. Reigning (though not ruling) over the militarists was a divine emperor of the old school, a Son of the Sun whose dynasty had held the throne since long before the Incas and the Caesars. In a way, Pearl Harbor was the belated fruit of Commodore Perry’s attack on Japanese seaports eighty-eight years before: the response of an old empire awakened at gunpoint by a new.83
On August 6 and 9, 1945, the first nuclear weapons used in war exploded above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Days later, Japan surrendered. More people may have died in the conventional firebombing of Tokyo, yet the first Allied journalists to defy orders and reach the atomic-bomb sites knew straight away that something strange and terrible had happened there.84 “The atomic bomb’s peculiar ‘disease’ . . . is still snatching away lives,” George Weller, one of America’s most accomplished and tenacious war correspondents, wrote from Nagasaki a month after the blast: “Men, women and children with no outward marks of injury are dying daily.” All dispatches from Weller (who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943) were suppressed by American censors.85 The Australian Peter Burchett, who reached Hiroshima at the same time, managed to get a story out to London’s Daily Express: “People are still dying, mysteriously and horribly . . . from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague. . . . Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it.”86
Man’s weapons had outgrown him. History had given the first half of the twentieth century a grim sandwich of hard lessons: two thick slices of war, with communist revolution, capitalist exploitation, economic depression, environmental disaster, fascist nightmare and mass genocide in between. If 12 million people died in the First War, at least 50 million died in the Second.87 Even the hell of the trenches was trumped when the Nazi death camps were exposed. “There is Auschwitz,” wrote the survivor Primo Levi, “so there cannot be God.”88