A Field Guide to American Empire

Or, why a dead political journalist’s old book is sooo relevant right now


Walter Karp is rarely referenced in the workaday ululations of the right-wing media, but name-check this long-dead American political journalist somewhere near Karl Rove, and watch a fat man jump. The president’s supreme fixer, we’re told, as much as created the public persona of George W. Bush out of an 1896 William McKinley kit with such spare parts as opportunity and Texas allowed. President McKinley put a fatherly, lunch-bucket face on Republican predation, sold his supporters on the hoof to Wall Street, and, by jackrolling feeble Spain, acquired the first essentials of American empire.

History, suitably stage-managed, would also turn Rove into McKinley kingmaker Mark Hanna, master of GOP, America, and world until end. As Rove has specifically compared himself to Hanna, (and, by extension, Bush to McKinley ) it would be wise to give a thought to Karp’s greatest book, 1979’s The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the Republic (1890-1920). Now back in print (from Franklin Square Press), this is your one-volume education in American Empire 101. Dead since ’89, the flinty, meticulous Karp (who for years manned the arctic perimeters of liberal decency at Harpers) would be little surprised by the Iraqi charnel house or today’s jail-bitch mainstream press. Here, he biopsies the puffed, gassy carcass of the American republic and holds readers’ faces to where cancer met bone.

Bluntly put, we’ve endured more than a century of war and empire because that is how mainstream politicians kill democracy in America. In the late 19th century, big-money America (Karp’s “mendacious oligarchy”) endured bowel-melting shocks of Socialist agitation, labor unrest, and an agrarian depression that turned thousands of bankrupt farmers into an army of dispossessed tramps. One governing-class response was coerced patriotism; another, the Spanish-American War. Outfitted with Republican “large” foreign policy courtesy of McKinley, Hanna, and Teddy Roosevelt, monopoly capital decided war could be made to pay. We at large have paid ever since.

A tranquil polity requires gunfire and other brute coercions, but is usually inert through a combination of fear, continual searches for “missions” to go abroad and “act in the national interest,” and our conditioning to expect nothing from the government but scorn. The Democrats of the era Karp examines obligingly went along with the program, engineering foredoomed presidential campaigns in exchange for keeping white supremacy safe in Dixie and similar baubles. Between the major parties, Karp notes some distinctions but no real difference.

The Democratic half of the act was perfected by Woodrow Wilson, upon whose tenure as president Karp dances a gory whipsong. America entered World War I in early 1917, after two years of Wilson’s openly hateful diplomacy, the president taking care only to run for reelection in 1916 as the peace candidate. Resisting the temptation to pick Wilson’s psyche that wrecked inquiries from Sigmund Freud to H.L. Mencken, Karp focuses on official words and actions, letting his modulated, high-literary prose boil to Miltonian temperatures. Describing the benefits adhering to business from the wartime federal crackdown on labor and free speech, he writes, “Everything seemed possible to the powerful and the privileged, so cowed by fear, so broken to repression had the American people become.” What the war generation ceased to care about, their children would forget entirely.

Wilsons pathetic self-immolation at the close of his greatest achievement is now but a hot, rank breath on the hung-out asses of Rove, Bush & Co. Whatever fate such tender parts publicly suffer at our hands in November, the politico-military system they command will kill others and disgrace us until we at large respond with a No! loud enough to stop it. You’re already living in Karp’s reality, so you might as well read the book.

The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the Republic (1890-1920). By Walter Karp. Franklin Square Press, paper, 380 pgs. $16.95.

This still-relevant book review ran 02-19-04 in LA CITY BEAT
c) Ron Garmon, 2006

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