The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion by Richard Drake (review)
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The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion. By Richard Drake. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 533. $34.95 paper)

Although several well-known biographies of Robert La Follette (1855–1925) exist, this book breaks new ground by exploring the evolution of his ideas about U.S. foreign policy. Particularly important is Drake’s coverage of the era from the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War to the aftermath of World War I, a period when La Follette was transformed from a strong supporter of U.S. imperialism to an eloquent critic of it. This transformation, Drake implies, offers important lessons for contemporary foreign policymakers.

La Follette was first attracted to Republicanism by the postwar legacy of Abraham Lincoln; he viewed the party as committed to freedom, justice, and the eradication of the corrupting influence of powerful special interests. During his three terms as a member of the House of Representatives from 1885 to 1891, La Follette championed legislation, such as the Interstate Commerce Act, that sought to regulate the railroads. From 1900 to 1905, La Follette served as governor of Wisconsin and became famous for using state government to regulate corporate interests.

Even as La Follette distinguished himself as a progressive on domestic issues during his early career, he offered few criticisms or new departures on foreign policy issues. An admirer of President William McKinley, La Follette supported his decision to declare war against Spain in 1898. In contrast to anti-imperialist critics, La Follette accepted at face value McKinley’s arguments for temporary [End Page 112] stewardship of the Philippines in order to guarantee the growth of stable democratic institutions there; he seemed oblivious to the cruelty and irony of U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns launched against Filipino freedom fighters.

The turning point for La Follette, suggests Drake, came during the presidency of William Howard Taft. La Follette viewed Taft—in contrast to McKinley—as largely a pawn of Wall Street and strongly denounced his “Dollar Diplomacy.” La Follette ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912. The rancorous campaign alienated La Follette from both Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, and he supported Woodrow Wilson during the three-way presidential race of that year.

At first, La Follette applauded Wilson for preventing U.S. intervention in Mexico and for his neutrality policies in response to the outbreak of war in Europe. Yet La Follette soon followed the lead of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in opposing the president’s policies of allowing war loans to the Allied powers. Influenced by the impressive array of antiwar and anti-imperialist writers he solicited to publish in La Follette’s Magazine, La Follette opposed military preparedness in 1916 and became more critical of the president’s pro-British bias.

La Follette was among the few to oppose Wilson’s request for a declaration of war in the Senate. He also opposed conscription and the Espionage Act, inspiring charges of disloyalty and a movement to expel him from the Senate. Yet he survived these bruising attacks and emerged as one of the most insightful critics of the Versailles Treaty. From La Follette’s perspective, the treaty sanctified an imperial land grab by the Allied powers; the League of Nations, and the associated mandate system for the Middle East and Africa, seemed designed to preserve the new imperial status quo. La Follette attacked even the proposed International Labor Organization, which he believed would serve the interests of international corporations and financiers rather than workers. In subsequent years, La Follette proved equally critical of the imperialist underpinnings of Warren G. Harding’s and Calvin [End Page 113] Coolidge’s foreign policies, prompting him to run unsuccessfully for president on an Independent Progressive Party ticket in 1924.

Drake’s use of La Follette’s personal papers, publications, and speeches to trace his transformation from imperialist to anti-imperialist is exhaustive and doubtless this book will become the definitive study of La Follette’s foreign policy thinking. One weakness is that the book fails to fully utilize secondary literature in the field of U.S. diplomatic history, and on Progressivism and the U.S...


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