William McKinley: The 25th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
In 1896, Democrat William Jennings Bryan was making the case for the common man. Republican William McKinley was backed by big money. Big money won.
A 20th Century President
He took over at a time when many thought corporate America had taken control of political America. In an era of big personalities, his tranquil demeanor caused him to be underestimated, but he brought a sense of corporate sensibility and efficiency to the presidency.
William McKinley implemented modern management of the press from the executive branch. His administration gave stories to the press, fed the press information, kept the press informed, and basically introduced the 20th century press guide for the presidency on the eve of it. McKinley may have been the role model for the title character of L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz”
President McKinley could not control the press when it came to Cuban suffering under Spanish rule, who owned other colonies including Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Cubans had been revolting for years, and Spain used tactics including concentration camps to quash the rebellion.
McKinley was not opposed to war but reluctant. He was the last president to fight in the Civil War, and the bloodshed had taught him it should be option of last resort. However, human suffering coupled with events abroad made war look inevitable to most Americans.
The concept of war against Spain was idealism and concern mixed with self interest. There were indeed humanitarian reasons for going to war against Spain as they were abusing and oppressing the Cuban people. But the great nations of the world were building empires, and there was a growing fear the U.S. would be overpowered if it didn’t start taking colonies.
Interested parties, mainly Republicans, wanted to take military and naval bases overseas, acquire territories, and expand American presence in the Caribbean and Pacific even before there was any conflict. Additionally, Americans had an appetite for foreign resources, and yearned for economic relations with Cuba. Cuban crops were in demand by American companies to develop and sell.
Almost singularly and solely concerned with expansion of U.S. influence and power for the welfare of the country and world, Teddy Roosevelt was McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy and complete opposite personality wise. He was controversial and hungered for international conflict. Roosevelt almost singlehandedly pushed us into war against Spain because he wanted it, and was the most trusted person in America at the time when it came to foreign policy.
President McKinley begrudgingly agreed to send a warship to Cuba to protect American interests in January of 1898. On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded killing 267 servicemen. The public outcry meant war with Spain, and on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war against Spain. Roosevelt resigned his position and organized a volunteer militia known as The Rough Riders to fight in the war. The 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry was one of three such regiments raised for the war, and the only one of the three to see action.
The easy victory over Spain would end with the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898 allowing the United States to become an imperial power as we took possession over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It would not be revealed for years that an accidental engine room explosion, not a Spanish mine, may have been the cause.
The war bolstered the economy and the country was on the upswing headed into the 20th century. Roosevelt became McKinley’s running mate in 1901, put there by Republicans in an attempt to neutralize his growing power.
On September 14, 1901, six months into his second term, Leon Czolgosz, anarchist and unemployed factory worker enraged at the disparity between the rich and the poor, shot and killed President William McKinley at the Pan-Am fair in Buffalo. It was the nation’s third presidential assassination in 36 years.
Well, this is the Iraq War all over again with a much different result. Teddy Roosevelt was Paul Wolfowitz selling the war, and faulty intelligence led us into a war for which we had legitimate humanitarian reasons for entering though the military and economic objectives certainly outweighed them. Income inequality and a lack of belief in government also pushed people to the edge though, overall, the country was much stronger economically.
Grover Cleveland preceded him
Theodore Roosevelt would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.