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on February 25, 2003
This is the best history book I've read in a long time. Here's why:
It's really about the beginnings of modern, international America. Politicians before this period seem antique, but those of the Spanish-American War era are the antecedents of current politicos. This is an important but little examined period.
Because the public knows so little about the major players, Zimmermann begins with mini-biographies of John Hay, Alfred Mahan, Elihu Root and Henry Cabot Lodge. They're of just the right length- around 50 pages. There is also a sketch of the better known Teddy Roosevelt. Zimmermann gives balanced portrayals of these men. T.R. was one of the best qualified Presidents ever, but a dangerous jingoist who would be unelectable in the nuclear age.
The circumstances leading to the Spanish-American War are not as simple as taught in high school. (It was not just a Hearst inspired land grab.) Having finished the book, I don't know which side I would have taken. Can one ask any more of a good history?
Zimmermann has a great feel for memorable anecdotes and pithy quotes. There are about a dozen snorters in this book that make you want to jump up and read aloud to whomever's in the room. Hay and Root seem to have been masters of the mot jus.
I thought alot about the impending war as I read this. There were several reasons for invading Cuba, but the reasons seemed distinct and unrelated. No single reason quite met the vital requirements of going to war. (Yup, sounds like Iraq.) The story of the subsequent occupation and war in the Philippines should be of interest to post-war nation builders. Of course, no matter how the war and occupation of Iraq turns out, you will be able to cite caveats from First Great Triumph.
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Zimmermann has written six separate but related books and then combined them in a single volume. The first five comprise Part One and are brief but exceptionally informative biographies of John Hay, Alfred T. Mahan, Elihu Root. Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt; the sixth is a brilliant analysis of how these five men, together, achieved achieved for the United States "the first great triumph" of its global expansion or as Zimmermann describes it, "the birth of American imperialism." As he explains in the Introduction, "These five men were remarkable by any measure. Two of them, Roosevelt and Root, won the Nobel Peace Prize. All were intellectuals and thought of themselves as such. All except Root were notable authors. Roosevelt wrote thirty-eight books, and Lodge twenty-seven, mostly on themes of American history....Mahan produced an analysis of the influence of seas power that profoundly affected American policy and became required reading in the British, German, and Japanese navies. Root, who had been one of the most talented corporate lawyers of his time, became after his government service a forceful advocate of the rule of law in international relations." Remarkable indeed by any measure.
In Part Two, Zimmermann shifts his reader's attention to a period extending from 1898 until 1909 when, through the collective and coordinated efforts of the five men and their associates, the United States acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and Panama. When explaining the legacies of this brief but productive period, Zimmermann observes; "First, they created an authentic American imperialism that was confident in its objectives but modest in its application....The second legacy of the founders of American imperialism was their preparation of the United States to be a great power. Pragmatic as they were, Roosevelt and his friends understood that they were embarked on a grand adventure. The `first great triumph' that Roosevelt fore-saw on the troopship to Cuba did indeed become a `world movement.'...Third, these five imperialists produced the first comprehensive assertion of U.S. security interests abroad....The fourth legacy of the founders was the creation of two foreign policy priorities, human rights and stability, that have remained in tension with each other ever since....The fifth consequence of the work done by the men who launched America as a great power was to strengthen the American presidency. All five were followers of Alexander Hamilton and believers in activist government."
I was fascinated to learn how all this was accomplished, especially during such a brief period of time. Of course, as Zimmermann explains, "the five imperialists" encountered staunch and formidable opposition. However, they wholly agreed with an opinion expressed by journalist John O'Sullivan that during the "era of American greatness" their nation was "destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles." (1839) Hence the origin of what has since been known as the concept of Manifest Destiny. Those seeking to understand the current state of our nation's relations with other countries throughout the world will find Zimmermann's book especially informative.
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on December 8, 2002
Warren Zimmerman uses short but trenchant bios of five important American decision makers and opinion leaders to tell a story about the beginnings of the American empire.
John Hay, Navy Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt are the principal actors. These men provided the intellectual atmosphere and the institutional framework that enabled the United States to step away from her traditional isolationism, recognize her place in the world as a power of the first rank, and take up that role. In order for that to happen the American people first had to understand the dangers that expansionist European powers presented to their nation. Zimmerman weaves the various strands that these five men bring to this story as well as the reluctantance of President McKinley and the objections of actors like Mark Twain and former senator and newspaper editor Carl Shurz, into an exciting and thoughtful work. The book is worth the price for the bios of the principals alone but it is the story of this interaction, as skillfully told by Zimmerman, that makes this book so interesting and such a quick read.
For those who believe that America is not an imperial power (though not quite cut in the mold of European imperialism) this book will provide much to think about. For those interested in knowing how we became a world power in such a short time, this book is invaluable.
The author is a former foreign-service officer who obviously has experienced the mixed blessings of the nation's global responsibilities.
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on September 8, 2003
This is history at its best -- well written, thoroughly researched, and interesting to read. The principle characters come alive. It's an ambitious undertaking, too, to describe this chapter in our history. Zimmermann not only discusses the emergence of the United States onto the world scene as a major player, but also interweaves five amazing men: John Hay, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt. I was familiar with them, but he makes them real. You get into their point of view, their successes and foibles, and their backgrounds and their struggles.
I had wanted to read about World War I and the formation of the Arab states as we know them today. Paris 1919 would be a good start. I decided to read this first, though, as a run-in to Paris 1919. What I discovered is that not only did this period posture the US as a world player, but also the striking similarity between the Spanish-American War and the War in Iraq. More about that later.
Zimmermann begins by describing the lives, philosophies, and contributions of these five men whose contributions were pivotal. These are not definitive biographies, to be sure, but rather a series of monographs that are delightful in their brevity and depth. The rest of the book provides an excellent history of the war with Spain -- going into detail about Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines -- along with our seizure of Guam and Hawaii. Along the way he touches on a wide variety of other persons, US and foreign.
The only downside is the lack of maps. They would help substantially, but their absence does not unduly detract from the strengths of the book. For example, there is fascinating detail regarding treaty negotiations with Spain and the debate within the US Senate for ratification. Zimmermann even gives insight into personalities in the Spanish ruling circles and how they affected Spanish actions.
There were a variety of reasons for the US to expand its thinking past its ocean boundaries. Quoting Mahan, "[our] growing production, public sentiment, a geographic position between two old worlds and two oceans, the growth of European colonies in the Pacific, the rise of Japan, and the peopling of the American West with men favoring a strong foreign policy" (115).
I always thought imperialism was driven more by economic motives (markets) and diplomatic and military motives (national power). Imperialism is not necessarily aimed just at less developed societies, but also between Western and regional powers. Still, I can see Zimmermann's point when he says, "Such a cultural atmosphere was extremely conducive to imperialist initiatives, because imperialism -- like Anglo-Saxonism, social Darwinism, and manifest destiny -- was also based on the principle of racial inequality" (37). Maybe "also" is the key word. Having said that, he also makes the point, "Three of America's earlier wars had been fought for specific principles: political liberty in 1776, freedom of the seas in 1812, and preservation of the Union in 1861. The Spanish-American War was the first in which Americans were activated in large part by the way a foreign government treated its subjects" (251).
This is where Zimmermann's analysis gets quite interesting for today's environment. Much has been made recently comparing the War in Iraq and where it may lead us to Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War. In reading this book you come to find out that the true comparison is the Spanish-American War. The parallels are numerous. Here are a few examples:
"...left unresolved [was] the crucial issue of who would inherit Cuba from Spain. Would it be the United States or the Cuban people? That fatal ambiguity has scarred American relations with Cuba ever since" (264).
"The Spanish had courage, but not the kind of courage that leads to victory" (283).
"If we turn this war, which was heralded to the world as a war of humanity, in any sense into a war of conquest, we shall forever forfeit the confidence of mankind" (337).
"The first years of American occupation of the Philippines were marked by full-scale war...`The people whom we liberated down there have turned against us.' From the outbreak of violence...it took the US more than three years to subdue what was to the Americans an insurrection and to the Filipinos a war for independence. At its height the American troop presence constituted three-quarters of the entire US Army. Casualties on both sides far exceeded the killed and wounded in the three weeks of fighting in Cuba." (386)
"'To leave the islands at this time would mean that they would fall into a welter of murderous anarchy. Such dereliction of duty on our part would be a crime against humanity.'" (404)
Zimmermann's insights go on and on. There is much that is different between then and now, but it's clear that the Spanish-American War has much for us to learn in our current foreign paths.
Zimmermann sums up his message of his book the best. "In retrospect, the twentieth century, for all the brilliance of its intellectual and technological accomplishments, was a time of violence and horror unprecedented in world history...The threat posed by Hitler's Germany became the major international preoccupation from 1933 until the German defeat in 1945. The threat of Stalin's Russia succeeded it as the main concern. Neither challenge could have been dealt with successfully without the full engagement of the US. The imperial initiation at the end of the nineteenth century had prepared Americans for the great power role that, in the twentieth century, only they could play." (482)
This is one of the best accounts of US history that I've read. I'd give it six stars if I could.
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A century after the events Warren Zimmerman describes, questions of "American empire" are once again being debated. That makes this book a particularly timely and instructive one.
The book's structure has been described in many of these reviews: five biographies, about 40 pages each, and then a longer section weaving together the issues and events of these men's lives into the large drama of the growth of American imperialism. Though the book's length is certainly not unmanageable -- in fact, it would be hard to do this topic justice in a much smaller book -- one drawback of frontloading the biographies is that some of the details of the men's lives tend to be forgotten by the time they reappear later on in the narrative. Mahan, in particular, appears only sporadically in the second half of the book, although his influence on the other men can still be felt.
Zimmerman focuses his narrative, obviously, on these five men and their influence on their nation and the world. The author perhaps agrees with Henry Cabot Lodge, whom he quotes on page 184 as writing, "The personal qualities and individual abilities of public men ... make the history and determine the fate of nations" (ellipses in original). This "methodological individualist" tack is a refreshing approach in a discipline that these days is so mired in "social movements" and "impersonal forces" that the critical -- even indispensable -- roles of individual men and women is often forgotten. While America may yet have become an imperial power without these five men, Zimmerman makes a strong case that Roosevelt, Mahan, Lodge, Root, and Hay, by their own will, channeled America's might and power in the direction of their choosing. It's a direction we're still, by and large, moving today.
While the five biographies in the first half of the book are all useful, insightful, and well written, they're really mostly prologue. It's the second half where most of the action, drama, and even excitement can be found. Zimmerman does a fine job of charting the drive for empire, the various obstacles that our five subjects had to overcome, and the long-term consequences of it all.
Zimmerman doesn't play favorites. Although his approach to the rise of empire is generally positive, it is balanced and nonjudgmental: his discussion of the annexation of Hawai`i, for example, makes it clear that the coup against the native monarchy was little more than theft. At the same time, though, he does not idealize the pre-colonial era or downplay that monarchy's undeniable corruption. He is clear-eyed about the costs of empire-building, doesn't shy from naming certain American actions in Cuba and the Philippines the "atrocities" they were, charts successes and failures honestly, and makes painfully clear the disconnect between America's high-minded rhetoric and our often base conduct. In what may be the nearest our author comes to outright denunciation, he is very hard on Theodore Roosevelt's "spurious euphoria" about the glories of war and TR's general bloodthirstiness (pp. 416-7).
I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the opposition to war mounted by the "goo-goos," though Zimmerman's discussion, as far as it goes, is sound. This ground has also been covered well by Robert Beisner's "Twelve Against Empire" (1968), a work I recommend and which is listed in Zimmerman's bibliography.
Even today, there seems to be reluctance in some quarters to see the United States as an imperial power. But we became one a century ago, and remain one today. While our intentions, and certainly our rhetoric, may have been (and be) more idealistic than those of other empires, the real-world consequences have been largely the same. As an introduction to how and why the American empire was born, a primer to how we got to where we are today, and a reminder of the power individuals have to shape the world, Zimmerman's "First Great Triumph" is not to be missed.
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VINE VOICEon April 30, 2003
Zimmermann has written an excellent book about the roots and beginnings of the "American Century." Influenced by Walter Isaacson's The Wise Men (a "group biography" of the Cold War), he devotes the first (and strongest) part to five leading figures, who formed a sort of network: John Hay, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Hay, who began his career as Lincoln's secretary, was a diplomat, a businessman, and a sometime writer and poet who eventually rose to become ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State to McKinley and Roosevelt. His Open Door notes paved the way for an Asian strategy that would play out, at least indirectly, with Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in the century that followed, and he helped establish the special relationship with Great Britain that did much to shape world politics (many overlook the fact that throughout the 1800s, US-GB relations were icy, and many Americans viewed the British either as an enemy or rival).
Alfred Thayer Mahan was and is well known as the author of The Influence of Sea Power upon History. He drew heavily from the lessons of the Napoleonic wars-Bonaparte lost because of his losses at sea, and Mahan also applied Napoleonic land warfare to the sea (he even named his dog "Jomini," after the French military strategist). Interestingly, he began as an anti-imperialist, but as he studied naval history and strategy, he realized, for example, that coaling stations and bases were necessary, thus necessitating an imperial policy. Mahan, Zimmermann argues, set the framework for the debate of the 1890s, as the US built up its navy and developed its foreign policies. Traces of Mahan can be found in the modern concepts of deterrence, détente, sufficiency, and globalism.
Elihu Root was a New York lawyer and son and brother of mathematicians/engineers (who, within the family, were called "Cube Root" and "Square Root"). Root was a man of apparent contradictions. He was a Republican reformer, and yet he served on the defense team for Boss Tweed. He served under McKinley and Roosevelt as Secretary of War, and then Secretary of State under Roosevelt. Root was involved in the famous Platt Amendment regarding Cuba and also in several agreements with Japan, including the Root-Takahira Agreement. He is also supposed to have played a key role in the formation of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
Henry Cabot Lodge was born into the Boston aristocracy and at first pursued a career as a historian. In the 1884 election, he and Roosevelt, both reformers, opposed the nomination of Blaine as the Republican candidate, but in the end, they refused to split with the party (and join the Mugwumps) and endorsed Blaine, who eventually lost to Cleveland. Following that, Lodge and TR became close, with Lodge serving as Roosevelt's advocate with national leaders and helping to secure him jobs on the Civil Service Commission and in the Navy Department. Lodge also supported policies of imperialism and would gain notoriety in his opposition to Wilson in 1919-1920 over the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, for which he is sometimes mistaken as an isolationist.
Theodore Roosevelt, of course, needs no introduction. An asthmatic child, born into wealth, he pursued "the strenuous life" of intense activity. Zimmermann describes him particularly aptly: TR "crackled with kinetic energy." Roosevelt's glorification and pursuit of war are well known, as are his activist foreign policy and support for imperialism (which he usually called "Americanism"). Zimmermann offers a particularly intriguing argument about why TR wanted to go to war and participate in it himself. During the Civil War, perhaps because his in-laws fought for the South, TR's New Yorker father hired a substitute to serve for him, and Zimmermann suggests TR did not want to have to explain to his children why he himself did not serve (as his father had to do). It is an interesting argument and quite convincing.
In the second part of the book, Zimmermann traces the interactions of these individuals in shaping American policy and world events in, roughly, the 1890 to 1910 period. The topics are familiar-the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, the Panama Canal, the Great White Fleet. Much of this is already well-covered ground, but through the lens of the five men, Zimmermann offers interesting new perspectives. The impact of these years on the twentieth century, and even through today, is huge, and many of the same issues, debates, and problems continue to exist. Though Zimmermann does not note the parallels (perhaps the book was published too soon), I could not help drawing comparisons between the State-War divide then and the State-Defense divide now. (The Spanish-American War was primarily a War Department-driven conflict, not least because the State Department was led by a senile John Sherman.) Nor could I help finding echoes, for better or worse, of today's Richard Perle and the Defense Policy Board in Alfred Thayer Mahan and his Naval War Board in 1898. The legacies of these five men no doubt have lingered and will continue to endure as the US seeks to define its role in an ever-changing world.
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on January 12, 2003
In First Great Triumph, author Warren Zimmermann demonstrates a masterful knowledge of the beginnings of American imperialism. He first develops biographical sketches into the background of the five men he feels made the most significant contributions to imperialist doctrines then uses the second part of the book to develop his theory. The result is a readable, engaging work that represents an important contribution to American diplomatic history.
But Zimmermann also uses his book as a partial mirror to the present day. In 1898, America badgered Spain into a war the Spanish could not win. The reader cannot help but notice strong parallels to the approach America is using towards Iraq in 2003. Zimmermann?s quote about how American?s see themselves as liberators but are seen as oppressors by those they conquer echoes of America?s relationship with Pakistan today. His final twenty or so pages carry the work in sketch form to the present and helps portray his interpretation of the situation of America as an imperialist power.
Zimmermann?s work is well crafted, but there are questions about who he includes and who he only give limited space. After their biographical chapters, John Hay and Elihu Root, and to a lesser extent Alfred Mahan, receive only limited attention. The main players are Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt. William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson receive mention in the latter part, but are omitted in the first. More detailed chapters on them may have helped the transition that occurred in 1920 where overt imperialism was set aside in Harding's "Return to Normalcy" (whatever that means) campaign. Also there is no mention of Roosevelt as a progressive Republican that reached across class lines to achieve great popularity.
All things being equal, this is a very good book and Zimmermann has established himself as a powerful force in this time period. His title seems a bit unusual, as one may confuse it with something on the American Revolution or the Constitution, but it is a quote borrowed from Roosevelt on his way to Cuba with the Rough Riders.
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on January 25, 2003
Zimmerman's First Great Triumph is a welcome dissertation for many reasons. It is both an analysis of the history and aims of American foreign policy and a collection of biographical sketches. It also is a timely commentary on the current state of American foreign policy. Zimmerman's contention, that the United States has entered another phase of world leadership, which requires careful analysis of the true origins of pax Americana, is the most important argument in the book.
Zimmerman argues, that American foreign policy starts with five men, for each of whom in the first third of the text he provides a political biography. However, he does not omit other pertinent details. Compared with Morris's two-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Zimmerman's sketches of Roosevelt, Elihu Root, John Hay, Alfred Mahan, and Henry Cabot Lodge are as well written and more focused. Zimmerman also provides shorter accounts of other figures in nineteenth century American history, such as President McKinley and Mark Twain. If nothing else, he makes this period of American history fascinating and central to the rest of American history. Considering the legacies of the five men, through other major figures such as George Kennan, this period should be considered more.
Zimmerman also counters the thumbnail argument that American history is divided between realism and idealism. He argues, that from the beginning there were tensions in the conduct of American foreign policy between human rights and stability, depending on which of the five men's policies predominated. Zimmerman also identifies the central importance of the executive branch for the conduct of foreign policy in this period, further highlighted by the working and personal relationships between Senator Lodge and President Roosevelt.
Zimmerman is quite frank about the errors these five men committed, especially in Cuba and the Philippines. His insistence, that American foreign policy was more enlightened and consistent with American ideals, will be controversial for many, but hardly unsupported. Zimmerman provides plenty of information for any student of American history and foreign policy to enter this debate.
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on July 24, 2014
I waffled between four and five stars for this book right up until the last page. It is a clearly written, engaging, and insightful history of the politics of the Spanish American War and the role that five individuals played in making the US an imperial power. It is also even-handed, pointing out the racist attitudes that informed imperialism (and also that fed opponents of it) and led to its excesses, while showing effectively that the US was the least bad imperial power.

I also agreed with the author's thesis that this small group of individuals, particularly Roosevelt, Lodge, and Mahan, helped steer the US on a path that it has remained on ever since. The view of the US as spreading democracy (or the arsenal for democracy as Wilson would call us a decade later) flowered for better and for worse in the century that followed TR's Presidency. Individuals can and do make a difference in history and this book helps show it.

But the five leads are far from created equal. TR is clearly the star of the book (as one with his personality was almost always fated to be the center of attention of any group). Lodge provided the Congressional counterpart, ratifying treaties, passing amendments and supporting imperial tendencies and immigration restrictions from the legislative branch. And Mahan was the intellectual behind how we could become an imperial power. Root and Hay were mightily impressive but clearly a third tier among the individuals in this book. Now in a group biography, not all members of the group have to be equal but the two cabinet Secretaries was clearly implementing ideas rather than generating them or leading based on them. At times it felt like Zimmerman was trying to overcompensate and overstate their accomplishments to make them equal members of the group.

Still a very worthwhile read for anyone hoping to learn about this critical period in our history.
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VINE VOICEon July 24, 2004
What do the above have in common? The answer is provided quite nicely in Warren Zimmerman's book "First Great Triumph". In it, he explains what 5 great Americans - John Hay, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Hencry Cabot Lodge, and Elihu Root had to do with the forming of the American century (the 20th Century).

Each of these men played his own role in creating Imperialistic America, starting in the late 19th century, and their contributions to American foreign policy continue through to this day.

This is an important book for anyone that wants to understand the personalities of these five men and the actions that each took to make America the dominant player in world affairs that it has been during the last 100+ years.

The book is divided into two sections; biographical sketches of each of these five men, and then a section on how America became an Imperalistic power, similar to Great Britain or any of a number of the European countries in earlier centuries. Starting with the Spanish American war, the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, and pushing through to American intervention in World War I, this book does a fantastic job of explaining the events that occured and the personalities involved.

I now understand why Zimmerman chose these five men to study in this book - when I first started to read it, I thought that perhaps others, such as William McKinley or William H. Seward should have been included in the biography section, but Seward's contributions were too early to be included in this study, and McKinley was too reserved to be included in a group of men that firmly believed in American expansion, much as earlier Americans had proclaimed "Mainfest Destiny".

I enjoyed the book greatly, and would highly recommend it to anyone that is looking for a study of early American foreign policy, or an understanding of why America played such a big role in world events during the 20th century.
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