Some diplomatic intrigues

| September 30, 2013 | 0 Comments
John Hay was private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. He had diplomatic postings in Paris and Vienna and was secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

John Hay was private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. He had diplomatic postings in Paris and Vienna and was secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

An error in Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln stirred up a little controversy last year. The movie, as most everyone now knows, depicts Abraham Lincoln’s manoeuvring to get the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the one abolishing slavery, passed by the House of Representatives. Tension builds to the scene where there is a roll-call vote. Two of the congressmen from Connecticut say nay. Watching this on the screen, many proud citizens of that state rose up, for New England was the staunchest supporter of abolition and all three Connecticut representatives in fact voted yea. A short-lived tempest in the media teapot. But there was another obvious, and more interesting error in Mr. Spielberg’s film.
The movie is set in January 1865, three months before the end of the American Civil War, and has scenes between President Lincoln and his young secretary, John Hay (played by Joseph Cross). But Hay had left the White House early in 1864, right after the start of his boss’s second term. Why more interesting? Because John Hay is an important character in diplomatic history. He began as the individual who opened Abraham Lincoln’s mail, ghosted the replies (as well as speeches and such) and acted as a kind of anonymous presidential press agent. He went on to become one of the most adroit and influential U.S. secretaries of state, a key figure in American diplomacy and foreign policy well into the 20th Century. He’s the subject of a new biography, John Taliaferro’s All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (Teddy, that is, not Franklin — Simon & Schuster Canada, $40).
In accounts of the Lincoln presidency the name of Hay (1838-1905) nearly always appears linked with that of John Nicolay (1832-1901), Lincoln’s other secretary. (How small the bureaucracy was 150 years ago.) The way the two names are spoken together, like those of Bonnie and Clyde or Wayne and Shuster, is partly because, late in life, they collaborated on a 10-volume biography of the martyred president as well as on editions of his works. This stereoscopic view is perpetuated in another new book, Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay and the War for Lincoln’s Image by Joshua Zeitz (Penguin Canada, $31.50). But the two men were very different characters.
Nicolay was a Bavarian immigrant (in a 1992 documentary, his character was voiced by Arnold Schwarzenegger) who became a partisan newspaper editor in Illinois and then assistant to the Illinois secretary of state. President Lincoln’s first appointment was the one naming Nicolay as his secretary — office manager, as we might say today. By contrast, Hay, who had gone to school with Nicolay, was already on the scene, having joined the team immediately after Lincoln became a presidential candidate and needed to “find some young man to help me with my correspondence, I can’t afford to pay much, but the practice is worth something.” Hay was recommended by his uncle, whose law office in Springfield, the state capital, was next door to Lincoln’s. Hay was a young Bohemian who once experimented with “hasheesh” and aspired to be a poet. He was very bright, quick and biddable, candid in private, but tactful in public. Perhaps most important of all, he was a fast, flexible and fluent writer. In the age when so much of diplomatic work was bound up with written dispatches, couched in fine prose, this talent helped to push him up the ladder.
Arriving there with the new chief executive in 1861, Hay found Washington “a congeries of hovels, inharmoniously strewn with temples.” He made the best of it, because there and later elsewhere, he was a highly sociable individual, a play- and concert-goer, a sought-after beau, a delightful dinner party guest and, one imagines, a reliable fourth for bridge. This picture contrasts with his own assessment of Lincoln: “In many respects [a person] doomed to a certain loneliness of excellence.” The president and the first lady had lost one child at an early age, had another with certain disabilities and a third who, fearing Mrs. Lincoln’s irrational temper, as so many people did, contrived to be absent when he could. Hay “became, if not a surrogate son, then a young man who stirred a higher form of paternal nurturing that Lincoln, despite his best intentions, did not successfully bestow on either of his surviving children.” The
junior partner in such a relationship usually comes away having learned a great deal. In this case, one lesson lay in the fact that Lincoln possessed “the fire of a reformer […] yet he proceeded by the way of caution and practical statecraft.”
All the Great Prizes is a genuinely rewarding and pleasurably written biography, drawing a great deal on its subject’s private papers, including the diary he kept during Lincoln’s first term —  though the document is sometimes maddening. Hay was there when Lincoln made the Gettysburg address but didn’t write down anything interesting about the experience. He also heard Lincoln deliver his famous second inaugural speech (“With malice toward none, with charity for all”) without describing the speaker or the scene. He did a better job recording in detail what went on at Lincoln’s death bed the following month. After the assassination, he stopped writing in the journal at all.
The author cites two youthful experiences that set John Hay’s intellectual development in motion. He grew up mostly in Warsaw, Illinois, where, age nine, an escaped slave took refuge in the family’s cellar. By his adulthood, he “had been offended by slavery for as long as he could remember.” Like so many northerners, however, he long maintained a distinction between the evils of slavery on the one hand and African American equality on the other. Mr. Taliaferro writes of his subject’s “ingrained racial prejudice, although one that would have not shocked his midcentury readers.” The point is that, like Abraham Lincoln, and possibly through that example, he started out with one set of beliefs, but steadily moved towards more enlightened views. In Hay’s case, the same process applies in his relations with Jews. After Lincoln’s death, he was given a consular position in Paris (as was Nicolay). Later he served in Vienna. There he came into contact with Jewish culture and, the author writes, looked down on Jews as he had earlier looked down on African Americans, as “a race apart, removed from grace, and a dismally long way from assimilation into the mainstream.” But 30 years later, when he was secretary of state, he was a strong official foe of anti-Semitism. He had grown.
The second indelible childhood incident occurred in 1844, also in Warsaw, Illinois, where local vigilantes, possibly including Hay’s father (the son was coy on the subject), murdered the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, as recounted most recently in a new study, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner (Harvard University Press, US$45). Young was, of course, Smith’s successor, who led his followers across the plains and deserts to Utah and tried to establish a nation (not precisely the right word perhaps) independent of federal control. This led to the startling events that David L. Bigler and William Bagley analyse in their book, The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-1858 (University of Oklahoma Press, US$24.95 paper). A large rebellion had to be forcibly put down by troops under the command of Albert Sidney Johnson, who has the rare distinction of having held a general’s rank in three different armies — the army of the Republic of Texas (before Texas became a state), the U.S. army and the Confederate army. In the service of the last, he bled to death at the Battle of Shiloh.
These two incidents from childhood, we’re told, gave Hay a disdain of demagogues and empires. That is, empires other than U.S.’s, whose ambitions he served as assistant secretary of state under president Rutherford B. Hays, and then, under president William McKinley, as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, a position in which he did much to improve relations between Washington and London. Later, he himself was secretary of state in McKinley’s cabinet and then, following McKinley’s assassination, in Theodore Roosevelt’s. For years, his patron was Lincoln’s secretary of state, William H. Seward, whom Mr. Taliaferro paints as a hero, but was seen as a toxic boob by the British and a danger by Canadians. As John Boyko explains in Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation (Knopf Canada, $35), Seward kept insisting that the U.S. invade Canada, hoping to provoke a war between the U.S. and Britain that would somehow (this sounds goofy) bring the Confederacy to its knees.
Much of All the Great Prizes focuses, rightly so, on Hay’s mature career as a policy maker. He despised Napoleon III, who brought Paris and France into the contemporary world, because he was also a dictator who presided over an empire, had favoured the South in the American Civil War, and had violated the Monroe Doctrine by invading Mexico (just as the U.S. had done less than 20 years earlier). Perhaps Hay’s greatest impact was in the Pacific, especially if you consider that three of the many treaties he negotiated had to do with the U.S. gaining possession of what became the Panama Canal Zone. Another such agreement gave the U.S. what is now American Samoa. All this while he helped to dampen other countries’ imperial claims, except in the all-important matter of the Open Door Policy in China. This was the power grab by which foreign powers declared suzerainty over numerous Chinese ports and immunity from Chinese law, thus igniting the Boxer Rebellion. A telling fact: It was actually John Hay, not William Randolph Hearst or one of his journalists, who called the American capture of Cuba and the Philippines “a splendid little war.”
In brief, there’s certainly a great deal in All the Great Prizes for Diplomat readers, just as there is in a little-publicized new Canadian work, Finding Japan: Early Encounters with Asia (Heritage House, $22.95 paper) by Anne Shannon, formerly of the Canadian embassy in Tokyo. In this broadly researched and well-illustrated book, she rescues from obscurity a number of people with Canadian connections who played a part in laying the groundwork for trade and diplomatic relations between Canada and Japan — goals that weren’t achieved without missteps by us and misfortunes for them.
In 1906, the governor-general, Earl Grey, advised the presidents of the Canadian Pacific, Canadian National and Grand Trunk railways that “the scientists of Japan have concluded that a diet of bread is preferred to rice” and that it would be only a question of time before these findings would enrich those who grew and shipped Canadian wheat. Ms Shannon assures us that this loony idea, one shared in time by prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, was “born of little more than watching curious exhibition-goers clamour for samples” of bread at a trade show in Osaka several years earlier. Underlying all this was the fact that Japan, even in these early years, had the trade advantage over Canada through its exports of tea and silk.
As party to an alliance between Britain and Japan, Canada was committed to taking Japan’s side in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. But whatever edge this fact may have offered Canada in breaking into the Japanese market was counterbalanced by anti-Japanese (indeed, anti-Asian) pre-judice and violence that became rampant in the Canadian West, especially in British Columbia. Still, in time, many Canadian companies, not merely Canadian Pacific, but others as different as Alcan and Sun Life Assurance, had a secure presence in Japan (and elsewhere in East Asia). Saying so sounds cold and heartless, but the fire that destroyed Yokohama in 1920 and the earthquake that ruined Tokyo in 1923 played right into Canadian hands, as when, for example, Canadian lumber baron H.R. MacMillan cleaned up as a result.
Mackenzie King was, in his characteristically odd way, both an Asiaphile and an Asiaphobe (there’s a bizarre anecdote about how on one of his visits to Japan he foretold some geishas’ fortunes by reading their palms). When he created External Affairs in 1929, he ordained three embassies: Washington, Paris — and Tokyo. Of course relations cooled in 1936 when the military took over the Japanese government, the year before Japan’s full-scale invasion of China. The Canadian legation in Japan closed in 1938, not to reopen until after the Second World War, during which King’s government ordered Japanese-Canadians interned.

Radley Balko, known to some through his connection to the Cato Institute, the libertarian think-tank, is a senior investigative reporter for the Huffington Post. His book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (Publishers Group Canada, $31) is one big horror story made from scores of tiny ones: Stories of how U.S. police departments (and many other arms of government at all levels) increasingly employ military tactics and equipment to do far more than simply carry out the assigned wars against drugs and terrorism. The first use of a SWAT team — dressed and armed in military fashion, usually operating without warrants or without giving warning — took place in Los Angeles in 1969. The target was a group of Black Panthers. In 2005, the most recent year for which Mr. Balko can locate figures, there were 50,000 such raids across the country. Targets have included participants in friendly poker games and individuals behind in their student loan payments, and even, in one case, Tibetan monks on a peace mission. Innocent civilians, usually unarmed, have ended up dead, as have some of the raiders. Policies that allow enforcers to scoop up “proceeds from criminal activity” to fatten their own budgets are part of the problem. Another is the way that Washington provides grants to state and local governments for military-grade weapons, armoured vehicles and the like. One Pentagon program alone doled out $500 million in 2011. But, of course, the real issues are the climate of fear pervasive in American life and a pop culture that glamorizes extreme violence. This is not a fringe book, but an important work championed by such publications as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal.
In recent years, university presses have increasingly taken to scholarly books of the sort that professors need to list in the annual review of their accomplishments demanded by department heads and deans. Typically such volumes contain only articles or papers by a handful of contributors that, taken together, don’t survey a topic, but rather zero in on a small number of highly specialized subtopics. A list of interesting new examples of such books might include Democracy in East Asia: A New Century, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner and Yun-han Chu. It argues that the next wave of democratization will inevitably take place in East and Southeast Asia (the Near East and Middle East having failed so miserably). The title (US$29.95 paper) is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, which has made a small specialty of the field called democratization studies, one whose growth might almost be said to have outpaced that of democracy itself. The press publishes what may well be the core text in this subject area, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (US$28 paper). It was written, rather than merely edited, by Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter and carries the refreshingly modest subtitle, “Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies.”

George Fetherling’s most recent book is The Writing Life: Journals 1975-2005 (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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