American Manhood and the Rhetoric of War
In the opening pages of Fighting for American Manhood, Kristin Hoganson confesses that she “strayed from women’s history to gender history to cultural, political and international relations history in the course of writing this book” (p. x). Her odyssey has produced an innovative and impressive work, one that is a landmark in many ways.
To begin, Hoganson has argued that foreign policy must be understood by setting it in its widest cultural framework. Incidents, wranglings, and closed-door meetings are important, Hoganson admits. But more crucial is the “amorphous stuff of culture” (p. 3). More precisely, Hoganson is interested in the “gender convictions [that] define the contours of late-nineteenth-century United States political culture” (p. 3).
But Hoganson has looked at gender in new and interesting ways. There is no attempt to concentrate on women’s role – or lack of it – as has been the usual use of women’s studies in international political culture. Rather, Hoganson relies on Joan Scott’s early (1986) definition of gender as a social construct of power politics in society. Her interest is not in recent scholarship that defines a historiography (Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’s categories of “Peace School,”
“Belligerent School,” or “Innovative Tendency,” for instance). Nor is she concerned with studies that place women as “historical actors” in an international context. Instead, she moves beyond recent gender studies that have included both men and women in a cultural context.
Masculinity is Hoganson’s main terrain, particularly male political leaders and their status as men. Her incisive focus on “manhood” as a framing trope creates a new reading of the causes of the imperialist thrust in American foreign policy (“manhood was a national security issue,” Hoganson insists [p. 204]). This approach broadens recent studies of masculinity in American culture that have highlighted male identity. Hoganson takes an experimental leap to connect this focus (“personal” identity issues [p. 204]) with a discipline, international relations, that traditionally looks at public issues (strategic, economic, racial, etc.). She skillfully weaves in the female factor as well, but always in tandem with the larger investigation of American manhood.
If Hoganson looks at gender politics in a new way, her use of sources suggests that she understands – and takes seriously – the importance of popular culture in her narrative. The footnotes reveal a wide examination of original sources. We find some fifty-five different newspapers and journals consulted – from the American Home Magazine to Journal of the Knights of Labor to Popular Science Monthly. Much of her evidence comes from letters and documents that she has unearthed from a large range of manuscript collections. Political cartoons punctuate the book, a necessary addition to complement the rich text.
What is her argument? Hoganson herself sets the agenda with this question: How does adding gender to the picture affect our understanding of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars? Hoganson points out that gender is a neglected aspect of the cultural explanation (unlike race). The renegotiation of masculinity, for instance, affected how leaders viewed themselves, their country, and even the world. “Gender deserves serious attention in its own right” (p. 14), Hoganson states emphatically. Her aim is broad. She concludes the introduction: “This book shows how international relations affected ideas about gender, how gendered ideas about political authority affected American democracy in an imperial era, and how high politics served as a vibrant locus of cultural struggle” (p. 14).
This thesis is tightly argued. Although Hoganson cautions that her book has broken history into “tidy plots that may not follow the unruly contours of the historical landscape” (p. 14), she makes a steady reasoned appeal. By introducing the 1897 international arbitration treaty (which stated that all disputes were to be arbitrated for the next five years), Hoganson sets up the dynamic that controls the ensuing script.
Arbitration, Hoganson points out, was a specifically gendered movement, dominated by the moralistic values associated with women. Immediately an outcry among jingoists, those voices clamoring for war, framed the ensuing debate in terms of manhood and honor. Arbitration would feminize male honor, jingoists cried. In 1894, Elihu Root capsuled this sentiment: “Politics is modified war. [It] is adverse to the true character of women” (p. 23). War would represent a departure from the disillusionment of the Civil War aftermath. It was desirable for its own sake, jingoists felt, as a means to build manly character.
Activist women were a problem. Those organizations that backed arbitration (the WCTU, the National Council for Women, the National-American Woman Suffrage Association and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs) stressed their moral patriotism, a patriotism different from the men who had corrupted politics with “selfishness, greed, intemperance” (p. 32). American men feared that these active women would themselves corrupt politics, weaken manhood (already under siege by the 1893 depression), and foster male and national decay. As Hoganson argues, these were real and serious threats at the time.
The issue of manhood, for instance, was heatedly debated in discussions of the 1895 Cuban revolt against Spain. Some Americans pressed for military intervention in the Spanish-Cuban war, claiming martial as well as humanitarian interests. The defeat of the arbitration treaty in the Senate swelled the jingoist tide – and particularly the introduction of the concept of “chivalry.”
Not only did the popular press link a decline in American chivalry to the feared New Woman. Journals of the day also extended this metaphor to the Cubans themselves. Cubans were “heroes and heroines of a romance novel” (p. 51), their island was part of a chivalric tale with Spain as the rapist (one author lamented Spanish decay “in the decadence of their chivalry” [p. 49]). Fearing that their chivalric exploits had been forgotten, Civil War veterans supported Cuban patriots; younger men, deflecting charges of degeneracy, joined the jingoists. The paradigm of chivalric rescue promoted fraternal bonding and rescued America from the humiliation of Spanish insults (trampling on the American flag, mistreatment of U.S. citizens).
Cautious voices, Hoganson judiciously adds, countered chivalric activism by promoting a policy of careful deliberation and restraint (one critic complained of the danger of “manufactured romance” and created “fiction” [p. 66]). Those medieval fictions stressing knightly honor should not be a motive for war, the critics asserted. Why then did Americans choose military action? Hoganson moves to the next debate, the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine on 15 February 1898. Jingoists skillfully linked the Maine to ideas of American manhood and chivalry, Hoganson explains. The choice was now fighting or dishonor.
In congressional debates there was little opposition to war, Hoganson states, because honor was necessary for both male identity and political authority in late-nineteenth-century America. In the society at large, American women would lose their respect for men who failed to fight or who, through “base cowardice” (p. 81), ignored chivalric codes of valor. In the public press, anti-war voices used the concept of “honor” too (“an honorable nation, like a manly man, fights only when forced to fight,” the Boston Journal reported) (p. 85). Spain was a weak foe. “It would dishonor the nation to demand satisfaction from such an unworthy adversary,” ran one argument (p. 86). Thus, the definition of American honor and manhood was a serious issue for both anti- and pro-war factions.
More controversial was the issue of “McKinley’s Backbone,” the next stepping stone (and fourth chapter) in Hoganson’s discussion of gender politics. Here she brilliantly argues that ideas about manly character limited McKinley’s political options. How? McKinley, one recalls, asked for continued deliberation after the Maine disaster. By not declaring war, McKinley was criticized in the press as a “goody-goody” (p. 91), as not having “sufficient backbone” (p. 91) – in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, with “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair” (p. 91). Past presidents were forceful men, critics stated, willing to make war.
In reply, McKinley supporters relied on middle-class ideals of manhood (a “moral courage not to fight” [p. 94]) and McKinley’s Civil War record of “valor and patriotism in the fires of war” (p. 95). If his supporters suggested that McKinley embodied civic virtue, others noticed a softer image –
“pudgy” hands, a “mother’s boy” with a clean-shaven face (pp. 101–2). He was a puppet of Mark Hanna, a man unable to control a restive Congress, a man perceived as a doddering old figure by the nation’s youth. On 30 March McKinley burst into tears over the crisis. He was cornered: military action was now an imperative. Manhood and war defined political power in the culture at large.
Thus, the success of the Spanish-American War raised McKinley’s stature and political prowess. He was now a virile captain of the state (“the Man Behind the Gun” [p. 112]). Teddy Roosevelt and Admiral Dewey, acclaimed military heroes, became potential presidential aspirants. Thus, the war had fostered a climate that connected political capability with military prowess. Even elite men, the wealthy “dudes,” now defined themselves as “real men” (p. 121) and model citizens. Progressive experts were no longer the lampooned mugwumps of the 1880s. By equating martial endeavors and citizenship, a new definition of American manhood emerged as well as, in a more sinister vein, a new program of exclusion for women, blacks, and even the Cubans themselves.
Although women had been essential in the war effort, suffragists’ demands for political power were ignored. Ignored too was the argument that women’s military service demanded the privilege of citizenship. In the popular press, women’s contributions were often muted while the serviceman was praised. But it was only the white serviceman: black men were not treated as military heroes. Even the image of the knightly Cuban revolutionaries diminished into an image of “armed rabble as unchivalrous as it was unsanitary” (p. 108). Americans were distressed by the sad martial character of the Cuban man. Instead of granting independence in 1898, the United States occupied Cuba until 1902.
If Cuban men were unmanly and unfit to govern themselves, so were the Filipino “savages” (p. 134), a group now under the control of the United States after the Spanish conflict. Hoganson cleverly weaves the same rhetoric of manhood and martial character into the question of American colonies. Imperialists like Roosevelt, for instance, lamenting American softness and degeneracy, proclaimed that martial pursuits abroad would “provide adventurous occupation for a host of sturdy men” (p. 139). There was, of course, the “great markets of the East” (p. 149), but for men like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), wealth came in second to manhood and honor, “which make men ready to sacrifice all” (p. 149).
Warring against powerful savages would build “savage virtues” in American men (p. 151), reinstate domestic authority at home, and reassert the manly role of governing dependents abroad. Imperialists saw the nation as a vigorous young man who needed growth. Roosevelt and Lodge viewed themselves as a new generation of “lusty youth” (p. 160) ready to break away from their fathers and gain maturity through conquest.
But, in a surprising twist in the conclusion, Hoganson points out that the United States did not embark on a course of conquest after 1898. Why? Because Americans discovered that imperialism, after all, did not build American manhood. Instead a steady jeremiad against the “degeneracy” of the tropics, against disease and injury there, against the “corruption” of the savage life, against miscegenation, against American atrocities to natives – all this ended the equation of war and manhood.
What kind of character was now relevant to citizenship? Intelligence and civic virtues moved into the forefront. Militarism subverted “manly freedom of opinion” (p. 197), critics stated. Hoganson reflects: “In later years, concerns about manhood no longer drove U.S. policies. Early twentieth-century U.S. interventions in the Caribbean resulted more from economic and strategic appraisals than from a burning desire for combat or colonial adventures” (p. 199). The epoch of gender politics had ended.