The Debate We Should Be Having Over Mount McKinley

William McKinley's imperialism laid the ground for today's clash between Obama and the GOP.
The legacy of William McKinley, honored with a statue in Columbus, Ohio, has received new attention with President Obama
The legacy of William McKinley, honored with a statue in Columbus, Ohio, has received new attention with President Obama's decision to rename Mount McKinley.

When President Barack Obama officially renamed Mount McKinley on Monday, neither he nor the Republicans protesting his decision mentioned the foreign policy legacy of President William McKinley. 

Yet how one views a monument to McKinley depends on whether one celebrates his century-old expansion of U.S. power. Obama's dispute with Republicans over the restored Denali parallels their larger disagreements over the benefits and limits of asserting American might abroad.

McKinley, who served as president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901, was the architect of an interventionist foreign policy that most of his fellow Republicans still champion and that Obama has sought to curb.

No American president is likely to disavow that foreign policy legacy completely. There are few aspects of U.S. power today that would be possible if it were not for McKinley's decisions more than a century ago.

But Walter LaFeber, a retired history professor at Cornell who has written extensively about McKinley's presidency, said that Obama's decision to restore the traditional Alaskan name for a mountain is "consistent with the foreign policy Obama would like to have." That is, one in which the United States tries to avoid dictating to others through the exercise of greater force. Consider Obama's efforts to redevelop relations with Cuba and to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. 

It was McKinley who began to reshape the U.S. from a continentalist nation that aimed to expand internally into an imperial power with overseas territory. McKinley initiated and won the Spanish-American War in 1898, as a result of which the U.S. seized control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain. The expulsion of the Spanish from Cuba -- the reason for the war -- turned that island nation into a vehicle for U.S. interests for decades. And McKinley "used the war as a pretext," according to the U.S. State Department, to annex Hawaii. 

"I think the argument can be made that McKinley was the first modern president -- not Teddy Roosevelt -- in the sense that he was the first one who sent U.S. troops overseas," LaFeber said. "He was the first president to make U.S. territorial claims abroad."

McKinley's reasons for expanding America's presence overseas were mainly economic, according to LaFeber. He was responding to the Panic of 1893, a financial crisis prompted by the collapse of major railroad companies that led to the greatest recession the country had seen up to that point. McKinley shared the belief of many business leaders and intellectuals at the time that the United States needed overseas markets for surplus American goods as a bulwark against future downturns.

The establishment of U.S. naval bases in the newly acquired territories in the Pacific and Caribbean further expanded the nation's access to international markets.

"By 1900, we had basically replaced the British as the No. 1 power in the world," LaFeber said. "U.S. exports were much larger than imports. McKinley understood the reason for all of this, and he implemented the foreign policy behind it very effectively."

Denali, which had been called Mount McKinley by the U.S. government since 1917, was officially renamed by President
Denali, which had been called Mount McKinley by the U.S. government since 1917, was officially renamed by President Obama on Monday.

U.S. participation in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 represented the nation's arrival at the proverbial big kids' table. McKinley contributed 5,000 American troops -- joining the more mature powers of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Austria-Hungary and Russia -- in order to keep China open to U.S. business and goods.

McKinley's domestic efforts complemented his foreign policy, according to LaFeber. He raised tariffs on foreign goods, but promoted reciprocity treaties allowing the U.S. to do likewise if other countries lowered their tariffs on U.S. goods. He also oversaw the establishment of the gold standard as the sole backing for U.S. currency, which LaFeber said was also aimed at solidifying the United States’ status as a global trading power.

Although Alaska was not one of many territories McKinley added to the U.S. domain, naming Alaska's tallest mountain -- indeed, North America's highest peak -- after him in 1917 was an apt tribute to his imperialist legacy. The acquisition of Alaska right after the Civil War had been aimed at countering Japanese influence in the Pacific, thereby laying the groundwork for McKinley's much more substantial expansion of America's presence there. 

LaFeber argues that McKinley's foreign policy initiated a century of often-excessive American involvement in other nations' affairs, the consequences of which the country is still dealing with today. The U.S. sphere of influence in Cuba, for example, helped lead to the rise of Fidel Castro and decades of cold war that are only now coming to a close. 

Now Obama is trying to resolve the conflict with Cuba by taking a far less interventionist tack. He is applying a similarly changed approach in other regions, like the Middle East.

Many Republicans are not pleased. They seek a more "robust," more militarily inclined foreign policy that demands "respect" from other nations, in the form of agreeing to U.S. demands. Though they don't regularly name-check McKinley, his world view looms over their arguments.

Karl Rove -- who, as a former top aide to President George W. Bush, is closely tied to the GOP's interventionist wing -- did mention McKinley's foreign policy in passing when he criticized the renaming of the mountain. Rove called on Obama to find a new way to honor McKinley, joking that Obama should be "more gracious" to his predecessor, whose annexation of Hawaii "made it possible" for Obama to become president. (Rove has written a book, The Triumph of William McKinley, due out in November.) 

Rove has also been one of the greatest critics of Obama's foreign policy. Claiming the president is "desperate for a legacy," Rove has denounced the Iran deal -- as have many other Republicans. Their opposition plays into a broader critique that Obama has made the U.S. weaker by striking compromises with historic adversaries, instead of forcing them to submit. 

Those Republican critics typically point to President Ronald Reagan as their model foreign policy president, but perhaps they have given McKinley short shrift.