2008 Is a Long Ways Away from 1908, But Still ...

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Mr. Burns is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh, U.K. and currently a visiting scholar at the John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

It all seemed to be going so well. A quick war toppling an oppressive regime to free the poor masses from tyranny, a sound plan surely… However, all did not go quite according to plan, the oppressed masses sparked a bloody insurgency and the U.S. death toll grew higher by the day, the week, the month, and the year. Stories of war crimes and torture soured liberal public opinion against a continued occupation. If only the liberated masses would realize that the point of all this is to help them, to bring the fruit of democracy where before there was none. Sound all too familiar? Well you must have a good memory as this all happened just over a century ago.

The election of Senator John McCain in November on the basis of the Bush administration’s neoconservative foreign policy would be a strange reoccurrence of history if it were to come to pass. The strongest suit in McCain’s candidacy is his experience and understanding of foreign affairs – he is indisputably for ultimate American “victory” in Iraq. McCain, like the Republican candidate exactly a century ago, has chosen to associate himself with the foreign policy of the previous administration. Even if McCain has tried to distance himself from the unpopular Bush administration on many subjects, a McCain presidency would bear far more resemblance to the last eight years than would a Democratic victory on November 4. The Iraq War, like the Philippine-American conflict that followed the end of the Spanish-American War, is one which has remained a centerpiece of Republican policy since the invasion.

In 1908, the incumbent president was Theodore Roosevelt, a “hero” of McCain’s, and a figure who held what would now be seen as markedly neo-con views on foreign policy and the role of America as a world police power. Roosevelt was a keen advocate of an increased global presence for American cultural ideals, and had supported the annexation of the Philippines and the U.S. occupation of the islands. Roosevelt, as cited by John McCain in the second presidential debate this year, believed America should speak softly and carry an increasingly large stick.

Roosevelt’s successor was William Howard Taft, a man who had perhaps more foreign policy experience than any man (to that date) to run for office. Taft had served as the first Civil-Governor of the Philippines and went on to be Roosevelt’s man on the spot in Panama, Cuba, China and Japan during his time as Secretary of War. In many respects, like McCain, Taft ran for the presidency on the back of this wide understanding of world affairs. A vote for Taft in 1908, as his Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan often claimed, would be a vote for the continuation of the policy of the previous administration.

In contrast to Taft, the Democratic Party’s candidate was noted more for his rhetorical skills, such as his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic Party Convention in 1896, than for his knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs. The New York Times, in endorsing Taft on July 10th 1908, rejected Bryan because of his administrative inexperience, his proven radicalism, and his potential for instability. Bryan had, since the beginning of the American occupation of the Philippines, opposed the venture and labeled such a foreign policy both imperialistic and in defiance of the very ideals upon which America was founded. Bryan and the Democrats of 1908 pledged a withdrawal from what they saw as the un-American imperialism of Philippine occupation, promising a timetable for their speedy independence from American influence.

Taft believed quite the opposite to what the Democrats proposed for the Philippines and was scornful of what he saw as Bryan’s naïve and populist approach to foreign policy. Taft believed that as the world’s beacon of democratic civilization, the United States owed it to the Philippines to guide them through to a bright democratic republican future. The Democrats’ policy of a speedy getaway was, in Taft’s opinion, the easy option for the U.S. and would leave the Philippines in chaos and at the mercy of aggressive and potentially anti-American powers. Taft believed that the United States had to take a steady long-term strategy, perhaps one hundred years or more, to educate and develop the Philippines so that they might be strong and democratic enough to run their own affairs. Taft felt that U.S. involvement in the construction of a democratic Philippine state was American’s duty to the Filipinos and civilization as a whole.  

When the American people voted in November 1908 they opted for Taft by an electoral vote of 321 to Bryan’s 162. Four years later Taft was rejected as a failure by voters, securing only eight electoral votes and finishing a distant third in the 1912 election. Despite Democratic efforts to expedite independence during the Wilson presidency, the Philippines would not become independent from the United States until 1946.

Of course, the comparison only goes so far. Taft was not a military man but a judge who favored arbitration and diplomacy over warfare and whose election to the presidency was the only position to which he was elected in his lifetime. McCain is renowned Vietnam War hero and a seasoned politician well aware of how Washington works. Taft, unlike McCain, was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor when the incumbent president was popular and a Republican victory seemed likely. Taft’s downfall in 1912 was not related to his foreign policy, but rather the fact he seemed to have broken with his predecessor on a number of issues, as McCain promises to do. The far more charismatic Roosevelt was never really happy leaving the White House and when Taft appeared to be forging his own path as president, TR broke with the Republicans in 1912 and launched his own third party candidacy that assured Taft’s destruction, even if it meant bringing the Democrats victory in the election. Due to changes in the constitution since this time, the idea of a third George W. Bush candidacy, not only unthinkable given his poll ratings, is now formally not a possibility in 2012.

The world financial crisis has moved focus away from the war in a way that was difficult to predict, and if Obama is elected then it will not be on his opposition to Bush’s policy in Iraq. However, Iraq is not something that can be forgotten, and the future of American involvement in the country cannot be overlooked when the time comes for choosing a president. The Philippines, like Iraq, were an area where the two party’s candidates stood on platforms that envisaged a very different future, not only for the United States, but for another country halfway across the globe. The 2008 presidential election, like the election a century ago, will help determine the future of a nation that has no voice in which party is elected to decide their fate.

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Paul Noonan - 11/3/2008

Although it wasn't an issue in the election campaign this fall, the issue of government insurance of bank deposits came up in September when the FDIC raised the limit of covered deposits from $100K to $250K.

In 1908,after bank failures in the Panic of 1907, protection of bank deposits was a big issue in the election. William Jennings Bryan for the Democrats proposed the federal government insure bank deposits. Taft for the Republicans proposed Postal Savings Accounts, whereby you could establish a savings account at your local post office. Taft and the Republicans won and in 1910 the legislation was passed. You could bank up to $2,500 (about $50k in today's money) at your local post office for a low rate of interest. I don't know exactly how popular the system was, but there was a big upsurge in the use of the accounts in the early 1930s as the banks failed again. The creation of the FDIC as part of the New Deal made the postal savings system less attractive and it withered away, finally being abolished in 1966.

If banking at the post office seems unusual to us in 2008, it didn't seem so in 1908. The UK had had postal banking since the early Victorian period and it was common on the Continent as well. It is still a popular option in Japan, where lots of people still don't trust the banks.

Adam Burns - 11/3/2008

The issue of the Philippines was a plank on both party platforms in 1908 which are freely available at the following weblinks:

TR was a keen advocate of the Spanish-American War and colonization, far more so than McKinley. Roosevelt as president from 1901-1909 had adequate opportunity to change the policy in the Philippines and was commander in chief during a far longer period of the Philippine occupation than McKinley.

Linda E. Milano - 11/3/2008

Mr. Bruns article is though-provoking. However, there are several flaws in his premise. The
Philippines were annexed after the Spanish-American War in 1898 - three years before TR's presidency in 1901. While TR did not end the US involvement in the Philippines, he did not begin it either. So, to base an arguement on a Republican candidate inheriting a war from the incumbent does not really work. The issue of the Philippines was not a plank on the platform in either the 1908 or the 1912 election. The main focus in both elections was on domestic issues. TR chose to run again in 1912 because of his disappointment with Taft. He expected Taft to continue his progressive policies. Taft not only abandoned the policies, but also dismantled some of TR's work.