Obama was right to rename Mt. McKinley and its imperialist connotations

• September 2, 2015

Today, In a Letter To The Editor, “Why rename Mount McKinley,” George Cook sees no reason to rename North America’s highest peak, stating that President Obama is just trying to “add to his weak legacy.”  I have no objection to his opinion on Obama’s motivation.  However, if we are looking at Presidential legacies, William McKinley’s is hardly one to be celebrated.

When McKinley took office in 1897, he was known as a decent man and a Civil War hero. While McKinley had fought bravely in the war, he frequently wrote and spoke about the destruction, horror and sorrow of war. Shortly into his Administration, following the explosion of the U.S.S Maine in Havana Bay, the Yellow Press led by William Randolph Hearst, beat a sensationalist drum for war with Spain.

Self-described Jingoists and Republican leaders urged McKinley into military intervention in Cuba, cynically calculating that a victory over Spain would bolster the Party that had only recently turned back the challenge of Populist/Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Remembering that bloodiest of days at Antietam, McKinley at first resisted war fever. Finally, in April 1898, he succumbed. And the political calculation was correct. As Bryan’s 1896 Vice Presidential candidate and populist leader Thomas Watson doefully pronounced; “The Spanish War finished us. The blare of the bugle drowned out the voice of the Reformer [Bryan].” Still flush with victory, McKinley easily defeated Bryan again in 1900.

More significantly, it was the subsequent Filipino-American War initiated by McKinley that marked his imperialist legacy. Well before the American intervention, the Filipino people, led by Emil Aguinaldo, had been waging a popular war for independence from Spain.

After the Spanish left the Philippines, McKinley betrayed Aguinaldo and, on scanty pretense, undertook a bloody and protracted military campaign to secure the Philippines as an American possession, one lasting two years after his assassination in 1900.

When commencing the war–so much for the battlefields of Antietam–McKinley uttered one of the absurdist comments in American Presidential history:

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came . . . that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. 

There is only one flaw to McKinley’s divinely inspired argument. Most Filipinos were already Catholic Christians — having been converted centuries earlier by the Spanish!

From the Filipino-American War came nothing good — except that the United States was able to finally join the European powers as a possessor of overseas colonies.

Obviously, Obama did not rename Mt. McKinley as Mt. Denali to erase or undermine McKinley’s imperialist legacy — or McKinley’s legacy at all. But when we know what McKinley’s legacy–almost entirely formed after the the mountain itself was christened in 1896 before McKinley was even inaugurated–there is no reason to wring our hands or pout as does the letter writer. This is not revisionist history but just history. Denali is fine with me.

For more on the Filipino-American War and Rochester’s own imperial war hero, Remembering General Elwell Otis on his Day, June 15th: Rochester’s imperial war hero
Tagged , , , , ,