© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The History of U.S. Intervention And The 'Birth Of The American Empire'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As we look ahead to what President Trump plans for the future, it's also helpful to look back to applicable lessons history has for us. My guest is looking in both directions. He's a columnist for The Boston Globe and its former Latin American correspondent, and has served as The New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua, Germany and Turkey. He's written several books about American military interventions in foreign countries and their unintended consequences, countries including Iran, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Guatemala.

In Kinzer's new book, he writes that every argument over America's role in the world grows from the debate over the Spanish-American War in 1898, the debate over whether the U.S. should intervene in other countries and expand into their territories. The Spanish-American War ended in a treaty that required Spain to hand over to the U.S. its colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Kinzer's book is called "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain And The Birth Of American Empire."

Stephen Kinzer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Since you've written so much about American foreign policy and American intervention around the world, I was wondering what your reaction was when you heard Donald Trump use the term America first in his inaugural address.

STEPHEN KINZER: All foreign policy decisions by the United States come down to one word, all choices boiled down to one word and it is intervention. Where are we going to intervene in the world? How, with what tools? How long will we stay? How do we make the decisions about where, how and why to do it? Trump is going to face these very same questions, and he's facing them maybe in different areas of the world than his predecessors, but the issues remain the same.

During his campaign, Trump suggested that he was on both sides of the intervention debate. We had several points where he said he was tired of regime change, wars, they were too expensive, they create enemies. We need to concentrate on rebuilding the United States. On the other hand, he has also waived his saber and made threatening remarks about various countries and parts of the world.

So he actually, to me, is an extreme representation of the divided American soul. Both of these instincts coexist within us. We're imperialists, but we're also isolationists. We want every country in the world to have its own right to shape its own destiny, but we also know so much about the world that we want to help them. At different moments, our foreign policy is shaped one way or another depending on which of these instincts comes out more fully at a specific time or in the face of a specific crisis.

So I don't think that Trump really has thought through in his mind this great question of whether the United States should be intervening in other countries, whether that's a good policy, or whether we ought to avoid that.

GROSS: The phrase America first that Trump used in his inaugural address has a lot of historical resonance. It was a famous phrase, it was - there was a movement before World War II, and it was the people who did not want America to intervene in the war. There were a lot of people who were in that movement against joining World War II for various reasons, but the chief spokesperson for that America first movement was Charles Lindbergh, who was an anti-Semite. And he said things like the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. And regarding the Jews, he said their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

I was wondering if you thought that Trump was unaware of that connection to America first, to that phrase, to that movement, the anti-Semitism that was a part of it, if he was using that term intentionally or if he was just, like, unaware that it had that resonance.

KINZER: That's a question I can't answer, but it's certainly a question I've asked myself. I don't think that Trump has necessarily posited the isolationism of the pre-World War II era as his model. I don't think he really has a model that's that coherent. I do feel though that it was a mistake, and it's a little bit chilling to think that he would have used that phrase America first without realizing the negative implications. And if he did realize it, I think maybe it's even worse. You wonder which is worse, that he's ignorant of the whole thing, or that he's knowledgeable and is intentionally using it. I think we're going to be finding that out soon enough.

GROSS: You're a columnist for The Boston Globe now. And on December 23, you wrote Democracy is in retreat around the world, from Poland and Turkey to Russia and the U.S., voters have placed their faith in authoritarian leaders. Would you describe Trump as an authoritarian leader?

KINZER: Certainly by American standards he seems to be one of the most personalistic leaders we've ever had, more so than any leader in our lifetimes.

GROSS: I'm not sure I'm familiar with the term personalistic.

KINZER: I see a personalistic leader as a person who is more focused on himself and what he wants than on institutions. This, I think, is something that's to fear about Trump. Does he fully understand the concepts of the divisions of power and checks and balances and the idea that we are a government of laws and not a government of people? A personalistic leader to me is one who places himself above institutions and thinks that he has solutions that go beyond those that are legally acceptable within our American tradition. I worry about that. I hope that we're not entering into a time when we're going to follow the lead of some other countries in the world, where checks and balances are not so strong, and that have moved directly towards autocracy.

I was recently in Turkey, for example, where this process is underway. And I remember that when I lived in Turkey, I had come to the conclusion that Turkish democracy was deeply-enough rooted so that one individual was not going to be able to turn that into an authoritarian state - I was wrong. Now, I believe that about the U.S. now, that our democracy is too strongly rooted for any one leader to shake it profoundly. But I've just been wrong once, so I'm a little concerned about whether I might be wrong this time as well.

GROSS: You're concerned that there are authoritarian leaders getting elected in different parts of the world. What are your concerns about what that can lead to?

KINZER: I fear that we move toward a populism in which only the interests of a majority are taken into consideration, and anybody who's not a part of that majority because he or she can't vote in the 51 percent is ignored. That's a very important piece of democracy. Democracy is not just for those who won the election, it's also to protect everyone else. And I wonder if that view is deeply-enough rooted in the Trump White House as I would like.

GROSS: Donald Trump has said that he's going to make great deals with other countries 'cause he knows how to make deals, and you've pointed out that business deals are very different from diplomacy. What are some of the differences you see?

KINZER: In diplomacy you're looking for something very different from what you're looking for in a legal or a business negotiation, which are the kinds in which Trump has been involved. In a business or a legal negotiation, you want to get the most you can. You want the other guy to get as little as possible. If you come out of the room with 80 percent and he leaves with 20, you won, and if you can get 90, you won even more, but diplomacy is not like that. Diplomatic agreements only succeed when everybody goes away from the table feeling that they got something. That means that nobody can go away thinking they got everything.

I hope we're able to make this transition. I hope Trump is able to make this transition in his own mind. Winning may be your goal in a business negotiation, but to win in diplomacy you have to be sure that the others around the table also win. You don't have to do that if you want to win in a business or legal negotiation. So I fear that some fundamental principles of diplomacy are in conflict with some of the business practices that Trump has used. That's fine as long as he can make the transition. I'm still waiting for the first indication that he can.

GROSS: So you've been a journalist for many years, both at newspapers and also writing journalistic books of history that have a lot to do with American intervention in other parts of the world. Donald Trump on Saturday in front of the CIA referred to journalists as among the most dishonest people on Earth. What do you see as the possible effects of that? I mean, he clearly sees the press as his enemy and has really been fighting the press. Do you remember anything like that in your lifetime or looking back in history in America? Do you see anything like that?

KINZER: I thought I had the answer until you said in America.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KINZER: No, I have seen things like this. I mentioned I was just in Turkey. One of the guys I wanted to have lunch with, who I had lunch with the last time I was in Turkey, couldn't attend because he's in jail. He was a columnist for a newspaper that the new leader decided was on the other side from him. So it's quite troubling.

Now, there aren't all the levers to push in the United States that there are in other countries to restrict journalism. On the other hand, I feel that journalism really is the last redoubt now. We have in Washington, particularly on foreign policy issues, a broad consensus that embraces the liberals, the conservatives, the Democrats, the Republicans, the think tanks, most of the mainstream press. You need some people out here banging their spoon on the highchair and providing an alternative view. That's actually something healthy for democracy. I didn't think I'd ever have to argue that principle before. It seems to me fairly self-evident.

Nonetheless, there is a tendency in personalistic leaders - if I can use that word - like the one we have in Turkey and the Philippines and what we may be having now in the United States to believe that the damage that criticism does to institutions outweighs the positive benefits of having people outside government making their independent judgments.

GROSS: So you mentioned a journalist in Turkey who you had recently had lunch with who's now in prison. Are you concerned that journalists in America will be punished in some way, perhaps, in prison?

KINZER: I wonder if there's a use for libel laws that can be stretched by a court system that's imposed slowly from Washington. If these libel laws can be interpreted in ways that restrict honest criticism, that is a way to do what we've actually seen done in other areas in our society over recent decades. And that is begin to eliminate some of the pillars of democracy, not by destroying them overnight, but just by eating away at them so that the facade of institutions remains, but the core has been lost. So we don't know how far this can go, and I think that is the question that is deeply disturbing many Americans, myself included.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Kinzer who's written several books about American intervention in other countries and the unintended consequences of those interventions. His new book is about the Spanish-American War and how we took over from Spain Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Cuba. The book is called "The True Flag." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Stephen Kinzer who has written several books, and they're all about, like, American foreign intervention in other countries. So we're talking about Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines. And this is just after annexing Hawaii. So you call the Spanish-American War the birth of American Empire. Americans don't think of themselves as ever having been an empire, so why are you using that word?

KINZER: In 1898, as you point out, the United States burst from being a continental empire, if you want to call it that, within North America to taking territory overseas for the first time in those countries that you mentioned. This was a huge turning point for the United States, and everybody that studies American history is aware of this episode.

But what I had never realized and what is the subject of this new book is that we made this decision after a huge national debate. This was not something that just came naturally. The entire country was caught up in a huge debate from 1898 all the way through about 1901 over the question shall we begin going out on this new career? Shall we not stop at the borders of North America and become a country that tries to influence the rest of the world? We certainly have become that country, but what was never clear to me - and that's the discovery that's at the center of this book - is that every major American political and intellectual figure took sides in this debate. It shook the whole country.

And the themes that we have been debating for more than 100 years all came up for the first time during this debate. Shall we project our power in ways that try to spread our ideas of how to make successful countries or are those ideas not really applicable to other countries and do these interventions only create enemies and weaken us as well as devastating the target countries?

GROSS: That's a very familiar debate to anyone living today (laughter). So let's talk about the people on either side. Like, Teddy Roosevelt was vice president under President McKinley who got us into the Spanish-American War. He was certainly for intervention, but Andrew Carnegie the industrialist who was at the time the richest man in the country - he was against it which surprised me. Why was he against intervention?

KINZER: The anti-imperialist league that emerged at the end of 1898 and became the epicenter for all opposition to American expansion abroad really comprised quite a fascinating variety of leaders. So you did have Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America. But at the same time in the same group, you had Samuel Gompers, who was the leading labor leader of that period and Jane Addams, the social reformer. These are people who would've detested much of what Carnegie had to say in other areas. You also had William Jennings Bryan, the leader of the Democratic Party.

You had Grover Cleveland, the former president, Booker T. Washington. So quite a wide variety of anti-imperialists. As for Andrew Carnegie, he was a great believer in the principles of America. And in his famous article denouncing American expansion, he wrote, with what face shall we hang in the school houses of the Philippines our own Declaration of Independence and yet deny independence to them? The United States paid $20 million to Spain to buy the Philippines.

Andrew Carnegie offered to pay the U.S. Treasury $20 million to buy the Philippines so he could set the Philippines free and give them independence. So you have this very wide coalition of anti-imperialists, which later was greatly enriched by literary figures led by Mark Twain. You had great titanic figures, who I've just mentioned on the anti-imperialist side. Then on the imperialist side you have William Randolph Hearst, the publisher, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, the Mephistopheles, who was manipulating all this from behind the scenes.

So with figures this great, you realize, as it became clear to me as I was writing this book, that only once in American history at the time of the founding fathers have so many brilliant Americans come together to argue so articulately a question so fraught with meaning for all humanity.

GROSS: My impression is that beneath the surface of the moral arguments for and against expansionism and intervention, beneath all that is the idea of, like, Americans really wanted an adventure. Like, war seemed exciting and this was an opportunity for business. I mean, there were already American fruit and sugar businesses, plantations in Cuba and business wanted to keep that.

And business wanted new markets. I mean, even the farmers were having a hard time because they were producing more than they could sell in America. They wanted more markets. They saw these Spanish territories as being, you know, a possible answer to that. So to what extent where, like, adventure and business really at the heart of the expansionist agenda?

KINZER: It's definitely true that for some of these people, and Theodore Roosevelt was a perfect exemplar of this, there is a desire for adventure. These kids grew up hearing stories from Grandpa about what it was like fighting in the Civil War. They wanted to have an adventure of their own. And Teddy Roosevelt definitely believed that war was the only condition of life that was worth living, that peace was only for (unintelligible) jellyfish who had no place in the great American nation.

He wanted to go out and fight. Even when he sent his sons to fight in World War I, he wrote that he hoped they'd come back missing a few limbs. The business factor was also huge back in 1898 and has continued to be. As I was going through old newspapers at the time this debate was going on, I could see that one theme constantly reappears.

And that's the theme of what was then called glut. So American farmers and American industrialists had so mastered the techniques of mass production that we were producing far more than we could consume. This was having trouble inside the United States. It was causing riots. There were labor leaders being shot down on the street by Pinkertons. We thought, as one of our secretaries of the Treasury wrote, we might even be on the brink of revolution.

We had to have an outlet to sell our products. And newspapers were filled with articles about how much money Americans could make if we could get the Chinese to wear cotton clothing, to use nails, to eat beef instead of rice. There were tremendous material motivations behind American expansion abroad.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Stephen Kinzer. His new book is called "The True Flag." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how fake news helped start the Spanish-American War. And Maureen Corrigan will review Ayelet Waldman's new memoir about using micro doses of LSD for her mood disorder. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Stephen Kinzer who's written a series of books about American intervention in other countries and the unintended consequences. His new book, "The True Flag," focuses on the Spanish-American War in 1898, which ended with America taking over the Spanish colonies Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines and Guam.

Kinzer says the debate over America's role in the world goes back to that 1898 debate over whether the U.S. should go to war and expand into new lands. Kinzer is a columnist for The Boston Globe and a former New York Times bureau chief. in Nicaragua, Germany and Turkey.

So we were talking about the both sides of the debate over intervention and expansion in the U.S. at the time of the Spanish-American War. The megaphone for the pro-intervention pro-expansion side was the William Randolph Hearst newspaper. And Hearst had inflammatory headlines, and what we would today call fake news, that helped lead Americans to the Spanish-American War. Give us some examples of the inflammatory headlines and fake news.

KINZER: It really is true that the Hearst campaign to bring us into war in 1898 has chilling implications for what's happening today. First of all, Americans are very compassionate people. We hate the idea that people are suffering anywhere. Our leaders know this, as do our newspaper editors. And whenever we want to push a project for intervention somewhere else, the first step is to point out how people are suffering there. We still use that today - a picture of a girl who has acid thrown in her face trying to go to school in Afghanistan makes people say we should go bomb Afghanistan, we should get rid of those horrible people.

The same thing was happening in 1898. The Hearst paper - the New York Journal - was full of stories about the evils and the horrors in Cuba, some written by reporters who hadn't even gotten to Cuba. They'd write their first stories while they were on the boat, and some of these stories are hugely evocative. You're looking at stories with pictures about the protruding ribs of starving people and how reporters have actually watched these people die in front of their own eyes, written by reporters who haven't even gotten to Cuba yet.

Perhaps even more dramatically, after the USS Maine - our warship - was destroyed in Havana Harbor, the headline over the New York Journal was sinking of the Maine was the work of an enemy. And there are about 20 some headlines and a giant diagram showing how the Spanish mine was attached to the USS Maine under the waterline, and it even shows the cords that connect that mine to the detonator on shore. In fact there was no mine, there was no detonator. Seventy years later the Navy convened a review board, and it concluded that that explosion had been an accident.

GROSS: So we do go to war with Spain. What was the consequences for the U.S. just in terms of the number of soldiers who were killed or injured on the American side and on the other sides?

KINZER: Tens of thousands of Americans were sent to fight in the Philippines. We never expected this. I think it was only the anti-imperialists who warned if we go to the Philippines and say we're ruling you now, they will rebel. And what are we going to do then? Are we going to shoot them down because they are fighting for their independence? If so, one senator said, we'll have to take that picture by John Trumbull of the battle of the Revolutionary War that hangs in the Capitol and turn it to face the wall, and replace it with a painting of American soldiers shooting down Filipinos fighting for their independence.

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were killed in that conflict, civilians mostly, but also insurgent fighters. I think that war, which was a huge episode in the history of U.S.-Asian relations but which we Americans have essentially forgotten, was a loss of innocence for the United States. We began to realize that, yes, we're going to have to go to faraway places and do bad things, but it must be for a good cause.

Interestingly enough, just within the last few months, we've had this crack up with the president of the Philippines. And although it wasn't so widely reported in the American press, when he had his press conference announcing that he didn't want the Philippines to be allies with the United States anymore, he waved around photographs of a pit filled with Filipino civilians who had just been killed by American soldiers more than a hundred years earlier. So it shows you how that episode really resonates in the minds of the Filipinos. And to take it one step further, it tells you that although we Americans forget the results of our interventions and go on to the next one, the people in the target countries don't forget.

GROSS: Once we won the Spanish-American War and got Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, we had to figure out, well, what does that mean for the United States? Does the United States want to colonize them? Does the United States want to add them as states? Like, what does the country do with this new territory? Tell us a little bit about the debate over that.

KINZER: The United States took control over former Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere and over the Philippines and Guam as a result of a treaty, the treaty of Paris that was signed at the end of 1898. That treaty had to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, and that debate lasted 32 days. It's the founding debate in the history of American imperialism versus anti-imperialism. So there is where you get the great conflicts over what should be America's future. You have a great argument over the idea of the consent of the governed. This was what the anti-imperialists kept saying. Our Constitution tells us that all legitimate governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. We talk about we the people. Lincoln spoke about government of, by and for the people. How can we then go out and impose our will on other people?

So here was the reply. President McKinley gave it actually in a speech in Boston, and I think this is a trope or an idea that still resonates in our minds. He was talking about why we should invade the Philippines even though many Filipinos didn't want us to. That could be applied to Vietnam or Nicaragua or Afghanistan and many other countries. Here's what McKinley said - did we need their consent to perform a great act for humanity? We had it in every aspiration of their minds, in every hope of their hearts. And one of the senators during this debate also added - the rule of liberty applies only to those who are capable of self-government. We govern the Indians without their consent. We govern territories. We govern our children without their consent. We cannot fly from our world duties. These are the arguments that we're still having today, and that is what led to the great split that first emerged in the American psyche in 1898 and still divides us.

GROSS: So you were talking about the Senate debate over the Treaty of Paris, the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. It was a very tight debate. Explain the outcome of that debate and the treaty.

KINZER: The treaty was ratified by just one vote more than the necessary two-thirds majority. The next step for the anti-imperialists was to go to the Supreme Court. They argued that the Constitution applied to everyone governed by Americans. Therefore, it would also apply to Filipinos. It would apply to Cubans. This was a series of cases known as the insular cases, and they were decided by one vote - by a 5-4 margin. The majority view was that if those possessions are inhabited by alien races differing from us in religion, customs, laws and modes of thought, administration of government and justice may be for a time impossible.

And concessions ought to be made so that ultimately our own theories may be carried out and that the blessings of free government may be ultimately extended to them. The chief justice who wrote the dissent wrote (reading) the idea that this country may acquire territories anywhere upon Earth and hold them as mere colonies or provinces is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius as well as with the words of the Constitution.

GROSS: So the justice who wrote the majority decision saying that it was OK for America to not grant constitutional rights to people in other territories that it rules - the person who wrote that decision, the justice who wrote it was a justice who had signed onto the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that legalized segregation. That said, you know, separate but equal is fine.

KINZER: Absolutely. And I think there is a connection between the two. If you believe that not all people living in the United States are entitled to the same rights under the Constitution, it's not much of a step to say, well, neither are Filipinos or other people in countries that we rule. So this is also a tie between the abolitionist movement and the anti-imperialist movement. So many of the original anti-imperialists in America and the period around 1898 had been titans in the abolitionist movement and in trying to promote reconstruction.

They believed that every abolitionist was a natural anti-imperialist because if you didn't believe in holding slaves, in holding people against their will, you certainly couldn't believe in holding countries without their will. The opposite was also true. If you believed that separate but equal was fine and segregation was a benefit, then it was an easy jump to say actually denying rights to people in other countries who are ruled by the U.S. is also all right. So you, again, see this very divided soul that takes us in two different directions at the same time. Even though they're opposite, we're trying to reconcile them.

GROSS: So is it fair to say that racism is among the reasons America was able to justify to itself ruling other people and not giving them constitutional rights, full constitutional rights?

KINZER: Absolutely. There's no doubt that when we say, as it was argued back in 1898, some people are ready for self-government. Others are not and need our help. What we're really saying is white people can govern themselves, and others are not capable of it.

GROSS: I think we'd better take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Stephen Kinzer. He's written extensively lots of books about American intervention in other countries and the unintended consequences of it. His new book is called "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain And The Birth Of American Empire." And it's about the Spanish-American War and America's acquisition of the territories it won in that war - Cuba, Puerto Rican, Guam and the Philippines. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter who's now a columnist for The Boston Globe. He's the author of several books about American intervention in other countries and the unintended consequences. His new book is called "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain And The Birth Of American Empire," and it's about the great debate over the Spanish-American War in 1898. We won the war against Spain and took over the territories that they had - Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. So what's the status now of Guam and Puerto Rico and how does that relate to the era we're talking about, the era of the Spanish-American war?

KINZER: We've twisted ourselves into pretzel-like shapes over many years trying to explain what is Puerto Rico and what is Guam compared to the United States? And we do this because we can't use the word colony. We can't call them colonies, so they have to be dependencies, territories, commonwealth, free-associated state. We've gone through a whole vocabulary - a whole lexicon of vocabulary in order to get through this difficult minefield.

Both Guam and Puerto Rico are fully owned possessions of the United States. Final decisions about their politics are made in Washington. Puerto Rico has a little more self-government than Guam. Guam is a major American military base. It was a jumping off point for the U.S. war in Vietnam, and it still remains a key asset for the United States in the Pacific. If we want to project military power around the South Pacific, we need Guam. But the larger question is do we really still want to be projecting military power there and in other parts of the world?

Cuba is a country that we owned, but where a rebellion pushed our influence out. Puerto Rico had not had a revolutionary movement when we took it over, and there never was a serious revolutionary movement there. So now the debate over statehood of territory or independence in Puerto Rico is still going on. It dominates politics as it has for more than 100 years. And American possession of Puerto Rico like American possession of Guam just like our position in so many other countries in the world is a legacy of interventions from far away that we now have to find ways of dealing with.

GROSS: So there's a lot of connections between the arguments over the Spanish-American war, the outcome of it, and where we are today. So looking at some of the lessons you think America learned or should have learned from that era, if you had the opportunity to talk to President Trump and tell him based on what you know of that period of American history, here's some of the lessons that apply to today, what would you tell him?

KINZER: First of all, the United States has not discovered a magical formula for prosperity and security that applies to all countries. We cannot implant our ideals and values everywhere else. Second, many of our interventions are planned to achieve short-term objectives. And we have the military power to achieve those, but we don't go in with realistic goals and exit strategies. We - it becomes very hard to leave. Sometimes we never leave. So the idea that you're going to have a quick intervention and pull out when it's finished is something like a unicorn. It's one of those beautiful ideas that never materializes.

Interventions aimed at peacekeeping also often deteriorate because people in those countries see what side we're on. Peacekeepers naturally tend to one side or another. That's why we had "Black Hawk Down." That's why we had the attack on our Marine barracks in Lebanon. It's because peacekeepers are not seen as peacekeepers by many of the people on the ground.

The argument that the U.S. intervenes to defend freedom is also rarely matching the facts on the ground. Many people in the world who find out America's coming to save them have some reason to wonder if they're going to be saved like we saved Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and Nicaragua and Iran and Guatemala and so many others. These interventions multiply our enemies. They're hugely expensive at times - at a moment in our history when we need great investment inside the United States. They weaken our moral authority. And they bring revenge on to the United States.

It used to be that we were protected in our physical homeland because we're so far away from our enemies. But - and now, as we've found, that's no longer true. So we need to question some of the subsidiary assumptions that undergird our foreign policy. U.S. is always virtuous. Our influence in the world is always benign. We have to intervene abroad because the risks of not acting are too great. We have universal ideals. We have to act unilaterally when circumstances dictate.

We don't see the world as a big spectrum of forces and beliefs and cultures and interests. We just see good and evil, and we rush to take the side of good. We - we're always a teaching nation. Maybe it's time for us to pull back a bit and see if there aren't some things we could learn from the rest of the world instead of always trying to teach it.

GROSS: Is there an American intervention abroad that you consider to be a just one? For example, World War II?

KINZER: World War II certainly had justice on its side. I don't consider that a real American intervention since it was such a global cause. But there have been interventions that have worked out relatively well. They particularly go back to the time when we...

GROSS: So you're saying World War II isn't even what you're talking about?

KINZER: Yes, that's what I'm saying.


KINZER: Let me make another observation then about World War II. Was World War II a hugely important moment in American history? Of course. Did it shape the world we live in? Yes. But sometimes I wonder why there's such an unending flood of books and movies and video games and TV programs about World War II. I think the reason is that World War II shows us as we want to think that we are. We fought for a good cause, we liberated people from brutal tyranny, and then we went home and left them freedom.

Now, in many other places in the world, we did the opposite. We crashed into a country that was reasonably democratic and left it under tyranny. But that doesn't sound right to us. That doesn't seem like the story we want to believe about ourselves. So those episodes fade away and become footnotes to history, whereas those that come out well are celebrated eternally as the perfect epitome of who we are and what we do.

GROSS: Stephen Kinzer, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

KINZER: It's always good to be with you.

GROSS: Stephen Kinzer is the author of the new book "The True Flag" and a columnist for The Boston Globe. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new memoir by Ayelet Waldman about taking microdoses of LSD to treat her mood disorder. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.