Oct. 26th, 2013

pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
The Hardcore History podcast is another one of those things that makes me mad at my childhood history classes. It is full of context and explanations of why people did things/were driven to do things, not just what they did. With the caveat that I don't know enough history to spot subtle lies, the episodes seem rich and insightful. And the author is just so happy and excited to be talking to me. It's like a really interesting friend wanting to share a really interesting book she just read: you might not have been interested in the topic before, but you are now.

The episode I am listening to now* is most proximately about US-Cuba relations circa the 1890s and the Spanish American war, but in order to talk about that properly has to talk about American identity politics and how they were affected by the closing of the frontier, the state of journalism**, naval warfare, the views of the time on war in general, impact of the business community on foreign policy, the Cuban revolution and Spain's response, some of the factors that drove Spain's response... And I'm only 1/3 of the way through. This is not a short podcast.

Here is what strikes me: as the podcast describes it, President McKinley was being driven by two things: fear that Spain (then a fairly weak power) would transfer Cuba (whose location gave it incredible strategic value in war against the United States) to a power that was an actual threat against us (England and Germany being the biggest concerns), and an abhorrence of war after seeing the devastation of the Civil War first hand. Neither of these are bad motives: the abhorrence of war is obviously more universally moral, but I don't think it's ridiculous for the president of a country to worry about expansionist countries with strong militaries gaining an easy foothold near his country. Earlier in the podcast he talks about the US business/economic interests in Cuba, but does not mention them influencing McKinley directly on this issue (although gold-standard wise he was closely allied with the business community, and business interests were influencing the news coverage that influenced popular opinion).

McKinley desperately did not want to have to choose between going to war or letting
a strong power establish a base in Cuba. So he oriented all his actions around preventing it from coming to that. Most obviously by suggesting a limited independence for Cuba, which he hoped would get the rebels to lay down arms while not leaving Cuba free to ally with other powers, but there was also a general policy of "let's wait and see if this solves itself." The problem is that in the meantime, the Spanish were herding Cuban farmers into camps and leaving them to starve or die of yellow fever (the Reconcentrado policy). To be fair, the rebels had extracted resources at the point of a gun from farmers as well, but nothing on that scale. McKinley's wait-and-see policy left these people to wither and die.

As I see it, the problem was that McKinley applied his moral values to one hypothetical choice, saw it would be a difficult one, and directed his efforts to steering conditions away from ever having to make that choice without applying his values to the choices he made as part of that effort. His abhorrence of war was ultimately born of an abhorrence of suffering, something Spain was causing just fine within McKinley's wait-and-see policy. I think this kind of cognitive dissonance causes a lot of the worst decisions in human history: a decent person, seeing that two of their values may soon come into conflict, compromises those same values in order to avoid that choice. And it's not something you can solve by telling people to buck up and be more moral, because that only makes the aversion stronger.



* Fine, the only episode I've listened to.

** Apparently there is always a new mass media driving people to demand intervention in events they previously would have ignored

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