Book Review: “The Ghost at the Feast” — Three Cheers for American Interventionism
By Daniel Lazare
The problem with The Ghost at the Feast is that the story it tells undermines its final argument. If America blundered by staying at home during the interwar period, it is blundering even more now by going relentlessly abroad.
The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941 by Robert Kagan. Knopf, 688 pages, $35.
George Orwell once said of the arch-jingoist Rudyard Kipling that “every enlightened person has despised him.” Something similar can be said about the foreign-policy hawk Robert Kagan. Not only is he a relentless warmonger who regularly churns out articles in Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, and other outlets about the importance of maintaining US hegemony in far-flung corners of the globe, but he’s also the closest thing America has to neoconservative royalty. His father, Donald Kagan, was a Yale classicist who vigorously backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His brother, Frederick, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was a key architect of the 2007 Iraqi surge that plunged thousands of US troops into a hopeless quagmire. His sister-in-law, Kimberly Kagan, a military historian, heads the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank funded by General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon that in 2015 called for imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, a move that would have brought the US military into direct conflict with Russian forces.
And then there’s Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland, currently under-secretary of state for political affairs, who, by cheering on frontline neo-Nazi forces in the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, probably did more than any other person to bring about today’s bloody Ukraine war.
So Kagan, like Kipling, is someone every decent person ought to loathe. That means, presumably, that every decent person ought to loathe his new study of US foreign policy from the sinking of the USS Maine to Pearl Harbor. But there’s a problem: The Ghost at the Feast is actually quite good. Kagan is still a cheerleader for US power. But his book otherwise offers an intelligent, knowledgeable, and surprisingly balanced view of the immense contradictions that fueled America’s rise. It stumbles at the end when it takes this long and confusing tale and tries to turn it into a rationale for today’s aggressive foreign policy. But it wouldn’t be a Kagan book if it wasn’t interventionist, now would it?
The problem that The Ghost at the Feast wrestles with is geopolitical. As is often said, America is a big country bordered by insignificant powers to the north and south and fishes to the east and west. Its position is impregnable, which is why millions of European immigrants flocked to it from the 1840s on. They wanted relief from the poverty and turmoil of nineteenth-century Europe, and Fortress America, with its booming economy and liberal constitutional structure, was just the place to find it. Being thrust back into European power politics was therefore unimaginable. As Cecil Spring Rice, the British ambassador to Washington, explained to the Foreign Office on the eve of World War I, Americans live on a continent that is “remote, unconquerable, huge, without hostile neighbors.” They enjoy an “unvexed tranquility” that is free from the “contentions and animosities” that characterize Europe. Free is what they were determined to remain.
Yet it was this very standoffishness that made it so attractive to the great powers. As of 1910 it had more people than France and Great Britain combined. The Us led the world in the production of copper, zinc, and other minerals thanks to abundant natural resources, it produced half the world’s oil and a third of its pig iron, silver, and gold, and it was racing ahead of Britain, birthplace of the industrial revolution, in terms of coal and steel. Anyone who could win this new colossus over to its side would have an inestimable edge over any and all European rivals.
“How I envy you the independence of your country,” a foreign diplomat remarked when Teddy Roosevelt sat down to negotiate a dispute that had broken out between France and Germany in 1905. “[It] enables you to speak with such boldness and freedom to both [sides] … as neither of them can suspect you of any hostility and both are anxious to secure you cooperation and if possible support.”
Independence was thus something that the United States was slow to give up. As Kagan shows, the process began in Cuba when Spain set out to crush an anti-colonial revolt that had broken out in 1895. Spanish troops “scoured the countryside” looking for rebels, “burning villages and fields, destroying food stocks, slaughtering livestock, and razing homes.” It was not so much the sinking of the Maine that inflamed American opinion, he convincingly argues, but a speech by a Republican senator from Vermont named Redfield Proctor who had traveled to Cuba to see conditions for himself, convinced, as he put it, “that the picture had been overdrawn” by the yellow press. But what he found was worse: “little children … walking about with arms and chest terribly emaciated, eyes swollen, and abdomen bloated to three times the normal size” and a Havana hospital filled with hundreds of women and children “lying on the floors in an indescribable state of emaciation and disease.”
With a fifth of the Cuban population dead within a year from such policies, the clamor to do something was overwhelming. If ever there was a good war, Americans now believed, the liberation of Cuba would be it. But like true love, the course of liberal interventionism does not run smooth. Cubans were grateful when Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders went charging up San Juan Hill. But they were taken aback when Congress passed the Platt Amendment in 1901 asserting America’s right to intervene unilaterally in Cuban affairs and to carve out a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. They had no choice but to submit.
Kagan glosses over the racial aspects of US policy. With lynch mobs running wild back home, it’s not surprising that the US military governor, General Leonard Wood, would organize a constitutional convention consisting of “the best people” who could be counted on not to give voting rights to “the illiterate mass,” a category he defined as “sons and daughters of Africans imported into the island as slaves.” The result was to fuel conflict within Cuba’s mixed-race population, leading to a major black revolt in 1912.
The Ghost at the Feast is more stringent when it comes to the Philippines, which America unexpectedly acquired following Admiral George Dewey’s stunning 1898 victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. With pro-independence forces rising in revolt against the new American protectorate, the US responded in exactly the same way that Spanish forces had a few years earlier. They destroyed crops and properties in order to flush out rebels, moved civilians into “protected zones,” i.e. strategic hamlets, subjected prisoners to torture, and, on one occasion, engaged in a wholesale massacre of the civilian population in the town of Balangiga, some 300 miles southeast of Manila. “Racism was rampant,” Kagan observes with commendable frankness. “Some soldiers asserted unashamedly that the Philippines wouldn’t be pacified until the ‘niggers’ were ‘killed off like the Indians’ and ‘every nigger’ was blown ‘into a nigger heaven.’” Still, he believes that the problem isn’t imperialism because it’s racist. Rather, he believes that the problem is racism because it prevents imperialism from operating in a smooth and agreeable manner.
Cuba and the Philippines were warm-ups for the main event a dozen or so years later. Kagan is entirely on Woodrow Wilson’s side when it comes to entry into the Great War. He refers once or twice to Christopher Clark’s argument in his 2014 study, Sleepwalkers, that responsibility for the war was muddy in the extreme. But he brushes it aside as he goes on and on about Germany’s many sins, its militarism, its brutal reprisals against Belgian franc-tireurs, etc. Germany hegemony would have been intolerable, he insists, which is why US neutrality was ultimately insupportable. But since Wilhelmine Germany was an old-fashioned authoritarian state rather than a new-fangled fascist one, it’s unclear why it would have been any worse than, say, US hegemony after 1945.
In any event, the real tragedy, as far as Kagan is concerned, was not so much the war as what came after, i.e. the US Senate’s refusal to ratify the League of Nations in 1919. Referring to the representatives who had helped set the league up, he quotes the British diplomat Harold Nicolson as saying, “The ghastly suspicion that the American people would not honor the signature of their own delegates was never mentioned between us: It became the ghost at all our feasts.” Failure to ratify left not only the league crippled, but US foreign policy as well.
But it’s hard to see what difference formal membership would have made given the growing strength of anti-interventionism. Dismayed by the war, all American Babbitts wanted was to be left alone so they could make money. The only thing Washington seemed to care about, similarly, was the war loans that it wanted Britain, France, and Germany to repay. By the late ’20s, America was thus was engaged in a great shell game in which it lent more and more money to an increasingly rickety Germany merely so it could pay it back. “It was not the market crash of October 1929 … but the Great Bull Market of 1928 that started the unraveling of the German economy,” he writes. The more money that flowed to Wall Street, Kagan reasons, the more the short-term credits that were necessary to keep Germany afloat began to dry up. Yet even as Germany entered into a recession in early 1929, US creditors continued tightening the screws. Remarked French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré to Gustav Stresemann, the German foreign minister: “All of us are suffering to a greater or lesser extent from the situation in which we find ourselves as regards the United States.”
Kagan’s treatment of the ’30s is astute. Despite the growing strength of the Nazis, he says that “American officials and private bankers were far more worried about threats from the Left than from the Right.” He quotes a prominent US investment firm as noting with approval that German election results in September 1930 had shown a “decided swing to the Nationalist parties.” Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine praised Mussolini for displaying force and determination, Walter Lippmann praised Hitler as “the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people” – this despite the fact that Lippmann was Jewish! – while Robert A. Taft, the Ohio Republican, insisted that “the victory of communism in the world would be far more dangerous to the United States than the victory of fascism.” FDR backed Neville Chamberlain during the 1938 Munich crisis, telegraphing his congratulations when he caved in to Hitler’s demands for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. “Good man,” he said. Kagan also quotes the US ambassador to Moscow as saying that the Soviets were “rapidly being driven into a complete isolation” by Munich to the point where they might seek agreement with Germany “in the not distant future.” This was correct. Stalin had entered into a mutual-defense pact with France to deter Nazi aggression and felt betrayed after France had made a deal behind its back. If France could make a separate peace with Hitler at Czech expense, why shouldn’t Stalinist Russia make a separate peace at French expense? The Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact was born.
So far, so good. But The Ghost at the Feast stumbles when it switches from description to prescription. The United States shouldn’t have been so reticent in 1919, Kagan writes: “With such great disparities of power between the proponents of a liberal order and their adversaries, the US would have been able to manipulate the scales with minimal effort. It simply had to stay involved, maintain a few thousand troops in Europe – no more than it kept in the Philippines during this entire period – and use its economic influence not to ensure repayment of war debts but truly to stabilize Europe.”
All it required of Americans, he adds, was “self-understanding” coupled with “a recognition early on that they would not tolerate a shift in the balance of power in favor of global dictatorships and therefore should work consistently to ensure that the risks of such a shift were kept to a minimum.” But self-understanding is impossible without stringent self-criticism, something that has never been in shorter supply as far as the “indispensable nation” is concerned. This is why the United States is unable to comprehend the limits of its power or why it can’t acknowledge why other countries might see its behavior in the Ukraine, the Persian Gulf, or the western Pacific as anything less than saintly. The problem with The Ghost at the Feast is that the story it tells undermines its final argument. If America blundered by staying at home during the interwar period, it is blundering even more now by going relentlessly abroad. The “imperial overstretch” that historian Paul Kennedy described in 1987 in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers should be understood not only in political and economic terms, but in intellectual terms as well. America, simply put, has no idea what it’s doing as it reels from one disaster to the next. Hawks like Kagan have no idea either.
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic and other books about the US Constitution and US policy. He has written for a wide variety of publications including Harper’s and the London Review of Books. He currently writes regularly for the Weekly Worker, a socialist newspaper in London.