President worth remembering Neglected: William McKinley is often ranked in the middle of U.S. presidents or lower, but he was the first to expand the nation beyond its continental borders.

Sun Journal

March 04, 1997|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SUN STAFF

A hundred years ago today, a president was inaugurated who promised to avoid conquest but made the United States an imperial power.

His name was William McKinley, a now neglected president, and he took his oath of office with the following assertion: "We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War should never be entered into until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency."

Compared to the European powers, the United States seemed second-rate. Its army was small. Its navy, floated alongside Great Britain's, was insignificant. This was the age of colonialism, but the United States was without colonies.

Then McKinley found his war.

It was the Spanish-American War, and by the time it was over, the United States had taken Cuba from Spain, Puerto Rico was a U.S. possession, Hawaii was annexed and the Philippines were in the process of being forcibly placed under American rule for the next half-century.

McKinley projected American power into the world as never before.

Beginning with McKinley, the Navy launched an expansion until the United States surpassed Great Britain as the world's mightiest naval power. The Army, chagrined over a blundering performance in the war, was goaded to a new professionalism.

And McKinley did precisely what George Washington had advised against -- the making of entangling alliances. He made the United States more a part of the fabric of the world. Forces were placed in motion that would lead to U.S. participation in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the innumerable displays of assertive U.S. diplomacy everywhere.

Manifest Destiny was triumphant.

In hindsight, it may seem a logical progression from Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, James Polk's seizure of one-third of Mexico's territory and Secretary of State William H. Seward's coup under Andrew Johnson in buying Alaska from Russia. But all of these expansions were limited to the North American continent. What McKinley did was to go into the world beyond.

His Cuba adventure put teeth into the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which had warned against European intervention in the Americas. His defeat of a European power -- Spain -- on territory it claimed was a precedent that was to be repeated in Europe itself. His grab for the Philippines was a pre-emptive move to stop Japanese encroachment -- a precursor to a military rivalry settled only after Pearl Harbor. His entanglement in a guerrilla war in the Philippines anticipated the later tragedy in Vietnam

The political and economic landscape of 1897 was marked by exuberant excess, not unlike the landscape now. Corruption, speculation and leaping production went hand in hand with poverty and scandals. The oil trusts, steel trusts and railroad trusts created the first multimillionaires as well as a restless work force. Automobiles, airplanes, radios, television, superhighways were still to come, but the foundations were being put in place -- and out of this would come the "American Century."

One of McKinley's biographers, Lewis L. Gould, has written that McKinley would not be surprised that scholars usually rank him in the middle or lower range of U.S. presidents.

"Yet if the standards of judgment include strength as president and impact on the history of the office," says Gould, "then McKinley's tenure gains in importance."

He is largely forgotten today; a fuzzy image akin to Franklin Pierce or John Tyler. The judgments about him are contradictory. Maybe he was a passive, indecisive figure who allowed himself to be goaded into war and conquest by a yellow press and a thundering herd of expansionists. Maybe he was a conniving manipulator who pursued his ambitions under a cloud of pacifist hokum.

But McKinley became the first president to expand the country beyond its continental borders. Either through circumstance or vision, he proclaimed and exerted a presidential power to wage war.

"I did all that in honor could be done to avert the war, but without avail," he said as he embarked on a second term in March 1901. "It became inevitable. The result was signally favorable to American arms and in the highest degree honorable to the government. It imposed upon us obligations from which we cannot escape and from which it would be dishonorable to seek escape."

An assassin killed him six months later.

Then he disappeared, his gray countenance obscured by Teddy Roosevelt's teeth, his ambiguities submerged by Wilson's moralism, all the presidents of this century outclassed by Franklin D. Roosevelt's magnetism.

But on the centennial of his inauguration, William McKinley is worth more than neglect.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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