If you are a fan of narrative history that is well written and provides an engaging story with a tinge of analysis then Scott Miller’s THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN should be of interest. Miller has written a dual socio-political biography of William McKinley through his assassination in 1901, and the development of anarchism in the United States zeroing in on Leon Czologosz, McKinley’s assassin, and other anarchists including Emma Goldman. As you read the book many comparisons to contemporary problems emerge. Miller’s dominant theme centers around the idea that the election of William McKinley in 1896 and the policies pursued by his administration set the tone for the 20th century and set the United States on course to being the dominant power in the world. While a strong case is made in support of this viewpoint there is very little that is new in terms of historical interpretation. What is valuable is how Miller synthesizes a great deal of material in a very cogent and readable fashion.
What is most interesting in the book is the development of the Open Door Policy that has been attributed to Secretary of State John Hay. In fact the British approached the United States as a means of protecting their trade in China as they were engulfed in the Boer War from 1899-1902. For the United States the policy was designed to guarantee trade access to China at a time of political disintegration and foreign threats from Japan and Russia. The discussion is well laid out as are other diplomatic issues. On the domestic front Miller does his best work as he explores the origins of anarchism in America through the eyes of Albert Parsons, Johann Most, Emma Goldman and the revolutionary want to be, Leon Czologosz. The author takes the reader through the labor unrest of the 1880s and 90s concentrating on the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago and the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania. The main characters with their ideology and motives are delved into nicely and the plight of labor is reflected in a very sympathetic fashion.
McKinley is presented as a moral person who evolves into a proponent of imperialism. With the backdrop of the Depression of 1893 McKinley, who viewed himself as a god fearing man will justify the annexation of Hawaii, the Spanish American War, and the insurrection in the Philippines on moral grounds. McKinley reached the conclusion, (through the assistance of prayer!) that the American economy if it were to recover needed foreign markets. So “the man with no overseas ambitions….spoke of extending America’s footprint from the Caribbean to the farthest reaches of the Pacific.” (178) With the Spanish Empire available, McKinley prayed for guidance, then took the plunge resulting in war with Spain and the crushing of a bloody indigenous movement in the Philippines resulting in the death of 4,234 Americans as well as 2,818 wounded. On the Filipino side 16,000 native soldiers were killed and up to 200,000 civilians passed from famine and disease. For the United States this was the American version of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” Reflecting our racial superiority, Americans believed it was our duty to pacify and civilize native populations, as was seemingly preordained by the concept of America as a shinning “city on a hill” during the Puritan era.
In comparing the problems faced by the United States during McKinley’s administration and events of today it is interesting to compare what occurred in the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular it is important to contemplate these events and their outcomes as the debate rages in Congress as what Washington should do about the slaughter that is taking place in Syria. Other comparison might be made on the economic side as trusts dominate business at the turn of the century and how multinationals and other large corporate entities control our economy today. The Depression of 1893 and the 2008 meltdown may bring food for thought as do the “Robber Barons” of yesteryear and the “1%” today. Realizing that historical comparisons can overdrawn, but I give the author credit for suggesting that as George Santayana has stated “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” again food for thought.