First Great Triumph Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The lives of the five men Warren Zimmermann credits with engineering the rise of the United States to the status of world power span a century. John Hay, the eldest, was born in 1838, and Elihu Root, who lived the longest, died in 1937. Zimmermann devotes five of the six substantial chapters of part 1 of his study to biographical sketches of the five, before he focuses part 2, “Imperial America,” on American foreign policy in the final years of the nineteenth century and the initial years of the twentieth—with the major emphasis on the year 1898, when the United States achieved domination over the Philippines and Hawaii, the islet of Guam, and the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Except for Hawaii, all of these islands were garnered as a result of the Spanish-American War of that year. The nature, extent, and subsequent development of American hegemony differed in each case, but in controlling islands on both sides of the North American land mass, the United States joined European nations such as Great Britain, France, and Germany in the ranks of the world’s imperial powers.

While conceding the importance of other men—Zimmermann credits the contributions of Admiral George Dewey, General Leonard Wood, and presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft to the process of empire building—the author contends that Hay and Root, along with Alfred T. Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, furnished both the rationale for power and the indomitable energy that effected it. The author agrees with those historians who regard McKinley as more of a reluctant recruit than the presiding officer of the expansion that erupted during his administration.

Zimmermann’s plan is an unusual one that could have resulted in disjointedness but proves effective. After setting the scene in his introduction and surveying the earlier history of the American “expansionist impulse,” he summarizes in sequence the lives of his five principals up to the point of the 1898 war. First comes John Hay, who attained prominence as half of Abraham Lincoln’s White House staff while still in his early twenties and gained considerable fame as poet, novelist, and historian before McKinley named him ambassador to Great Britain and then secretary of state. Zimmermann depicts Hay as the least aggressive of the five but a valuable counterweight to the belligerent Roosevelt, who kept him on as head of the State Department despite strong doubts about his forcefulness.

The naval career of Alfred T. Mahan would not have earned him a significant niche in history, but his The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) profoundly impressed students of international affairs, including Theodore Roosevelt, who as President McKinley’s assistant secretary of the navy a few years later began to apply its lessons by urging the build up of the heretofore mediocre American navy. Without a great navy and a political leadership that recognized naval power as essential to international potency, the keen ambitions of men such as Roosevelt, Lodge, and Root could not have been fulfilled.

Roosevelt and Lodge became friends in 1884 when the two served as delegates to the Republican National Convention in Chicago and strove vainly to defeat the party’s choice of James G. Blaine over the incumbent president, Chester Alan Arthur. Although they decided to support Blaine in the November election, their earlier opposition proved politically inexpedient. Lodge’s campaign to represent his Massachusetts district in the House of Representatives failed that year and Roosevelt, with no immediate prospects, retreated to a ranch in the Dakota territory. Nine years and three successful Congressional campaigns later, however, Lodge began a long career as a United States senator and rose quickly to positions of leadership. Drawing heavily upon Mahan’s book, he too exhorted his colleagues to enhance the navy and to annex Hawaii, already a long-standing center of American commercial interests.

Although Elihu Root, another of Roosevelt’s friends from the 1880’s, assumed extraordinarily complex duties as secretary of war in the aftermath of the 1898 victory over Spain and succeeded John Hay as Roosevelt’s secretary of state in 1905, perhaps his most important contribution to the nation’s rise to the status of world power was his steady promotion of, and shrewd advice to, Roosevelt. A scholarly New York lawyer, Root threw his support to the twenty-three-year-old political neophyte in the latter’s successful 1881 bid for a seat in the New York Assembly. Four years later, Root...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)