First Great Triumph How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

Warren Zimmermann

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

576 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book

Warren Zimmermann examines the development of the United States as an imperial nation a century ago, with the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and (indirectly) Panama within five short years (1898-1903). How did the United States become a player in world politics so suddenly and what inspired the move toward imperialism in the first place?

Longtime diplomat and writer Zimmermann seeks answers in the lives and relationships of five remarkable figures: Theodore Roosevelt; naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan; senator Henry Cabot Lodge; secretary of state John Hay; and the hard-edged corporate lawyer turned colonial administrator Elihu Root. Faced with difficult choices, these extraordinary men, all close friends, instituted new political and diplomatic policies with alternating audacity, arrogance, generosity, paternalism, and vision.

Zimmermann's discerning account of these five men also examines the ways they exploited the readiness of the American people to support a surge of overseas expansion. He makes clear why no discussion of America's international responsibilities today can be complete without understanding how the United States claimed its global powers a century ago.


Praise for First Great Triumph

"Excellent . . . An engrossing and timely history of five men who embraced the imperialistic ethic."—James Chance, The New York Review of Books

"Writing en route to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt envisioned the coming campaign as 'the first great triumph in what will be a world movement.' That movement—the emergence of the United States as a world power—is the subject of Warren Zimmermann's fine book . . . A career foreign service officer and ambassador, Zimmermann brings hands-on experience and a broad perspective to his subject, producing a well-written volume of value to both the beginning student and the seasoned scholar. This book is excellent and particularly relevant at a time when the United States again seeks to expand its role in the world."—David Healy, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, American Historical Review

"Warren Zimmermann's First Great Triumph, an account of the imperialist era in American foreign policy at the turn of the 20th century, is one of the most readable and important books on American foreign policy in recent years. Zimmermann, a distinguished U.S. diplomat who did his best to warn the world about the looming Yugoslav wars, combines formidable scholarship with a sense of narrative drama and a firsthand knowledge of the politics of American foreign policy. With Iraq, Afghanistan, and a war on terror preoccupying United States foreign policy, Zimmermann's book is a timely and gripping account of another critical period in American history that leaves readers better prepared to understand the dangers that face us . . . Today, as American military power has risen to new heights and as new and troubling threats have appeared, we are once again debating basic questions of national strategy. How far-reaching are American interests? How strong do our military forces need to be? . . . In very different circumstances, the imperialists and their opponents discussed these questions 100 years ago. The answers they found in large part determined the course of American and world history through the 20th century. As we enter a new era, Americans need to reflect once again on these questions. Those who want to help shape these new debates will want to prepare themselves by reading this powerful, clear, and fascinating book."—Walter Russell Mead, Los Angeles Times

"First Great Triumph is engrossing, thoughtful, and judicious. I have assigned it to my
U.S. diplomatic history survey classes."—James G. Hershberg, The Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University

"Zimmermann sees the preliminaries to the Spanish-American war . . . as the beginnings of American globalism. In First Great Triumph, he credits an informal cabal of five—Henry Cabot Lodge, an ambitious Massachusetts senator; Capt. Alfred Mahan, an influential thinker on command of the seas; John Hay, an elitist intellectual and sometime diplomat; Elihu Root, a Wall Street lawyer who would soon join the Cabinet; and Theodore Roosevelt, the group's feisty fulcrum—with launching the new era . . . Zimmermann's collective biography brings each of his principals into Roosevelt's White House years. The new president's advisers and sponsors were soon functionaries in administering his pragmatic 'applied idealism.' Each has contributed to its conception, and it is here that Zimmermann supplements the fine recent biographies of Roosevelt that focus on the man rather than his mentors."—Stanley Weintraub, The Washington Post

"Zimmermann, a career diplomat and a former United States ambassador to Yugoslavia, begins his brilliantly readable book about the [Spanish-American] war and its aftermath with biographical sketches of the five men—Alfred T. Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and Elihu Root—who played a leading role in making 'their country a world power' . . . Zimmermann wisely resists making heroes—or villains—of his central characters [and his] biographical approach makes for an engaging narrative . . . Reflection on our imperial past and the history of our relations with the rest of the world may well be in order at this moment in our national history. Warren Zimmermann has provided us with an excellent place to begin."—David Nasaw, The
dn0 New York Times Book Review

"A riveting examination of the period between 1898 and 1903, when America became an imperial power . . . It is Zimmermann's thesis that the interaction of these five men turned 'manifest destiny' from a phrase into a full-bodied imperial policy just as the United States reached its natural continental limits . . . [Zimmermann] is in the tradition of the great George Kennan himself . . . The story [he] tells is essential background for anyone interested in how the United States arrived at its present place in the world . . . Zimmermann's book belongs on the short shelf of books that can give modern policymakers much-needed insight into the roots of today's policies and problems."—Richard Holbrooke, Foreign Affairs

"Readable and cogent . . . Mr. Zimmermann specifically credits five men for the vision, determination and political skill that first gave the United States its global ambition . . . What gives [this] book its special character is his singling out of Roosevelt, Lodge and company as 'fathers of American imperialism,' and showing how their vision of the nation was transformed into reality."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"In the distinguished tradition of diplomat-historians like George Bancroft and George Kennan, Warren Zimmerman gives us a sensitive, insightful account of a moment when America leaders faced decisions that would shape world affairs for decades to come. Today, at another such moment, Zimmermann's story—compelling in itself—could hardly be more timely."—H. W. Brands, author of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

"First Great Triumph provides a fresh account—balanced, lucid, and informed—of the origins and direction of early American imperialism. As Zimmermann recognizes, the impulses that generated the resulting adventures in the expansion of national power and domain remain a significant influence on current foreign policy."—John Morton Blum, Professor Emeritus, Yale University

"At a moment when Americans have become dramatically aware that they are citizens of an empire, no book could be more timely or illuminating than this engrossing study of
dn0 our founding imperialists."—Ronald Steel, author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century

"Retired diplomat Zimmermann traces U.S. foreign policy from 1898 to 1903, the time when the U.S. suddenly became a major player in world politics. The author ably organizes his narrative around five major figures [and] the work is beautifully written, offering deftly drawn portraits of the five men's early careers, mutual interplay, and prominent roles in such events as the Cuban crisis, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, and initial colonial development."—J. D. Doeneck, New College of Florida, Choice

"Fair-minded, lucid, and practical."—John Maxwell Hamilton, Chicago Tribune

"The year 1898 marked a milestone in the American experience: the first time in its history that burgeoning United States extended his power into the world beyond its borders. Warren Zimmermann recalls this momentous turning point through the lives of the five dynamic men who set the nation on its new course, which it still follows today. First Great Triumph is vivid, authoritative, and above all, readable."—Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History

"A vigorous history of America's rise to global power in the closing years of the 19th century . . . An intelligent, highly readable contribution to the historical literature, usefully updating such standard texts as Howard K. Beale's Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power."—Kirkus Reviews

"Zimmermann paints the five years from 1898 to 1903, when the U.S. seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and Panama, as the brilliant outgrowth of five very different men—John Hay, probably the shyest, most unsure man ever to serve as secretary of state; Capt. Alfred Mahan, an ascetic military intellectual; the bigoted but crafty Henry Cabot Lodge (not to be confused with his grandson, Nixon's first running mate); Elihu Root, who administered the new possessions as secretary of war under McKinley and the first in a long line of powerful New York lawyers to turn his or her talents to the service of their country; and, of course, Theodore Roosevelt. The author attributes to these five giants the creation of an authentic American imperialism, 'confident in its objective but modest in its applications.' His stance is admiring as he speculates that the continued rule of the Spanish over their colonies would have been feckless and, thus, harder for the people. More importantly for world history, this era prepared the U.S. for its role as a great world power in the twentieth century and, apparently, the unipolar power in the twenty-first. All in all, a major work that should garner attention among this year's book-judging panels."—Allen Weakland, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Warren Zimmermann

  • Warren Zimmermann spent thirty-three years as an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service and was the last U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia. He also taught at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities over the course of a long and distinguished career. Zimmermann's Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers won the American Academy of Diplomacy Book Award in 1997. His writing appeared in The New York Review of Books, Newsweek, The Wilson Quarterly, and The National Interest, among other periodicals. He died in 2004 at the age of 69.