My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March 1, 2012: 1912

[To celebrate Leap Day, this week I’ll be American Studying some particularly interesting leap years. This is the third in the series.]

A year that witnessed a unique and hugely significant political contest—and two more subtle trends that foreshadowed some of the best and worst of the American century to follow.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that the biggest American story of 1912 (unless we count the sinking of the Titanic as an American story) was the three-way presidential contest between incumbent Republican William Howard Taft, Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson, and third-party candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was of course only four years removed from the end of his combative and popular two-term presidency, and his Progressive Party (popularly known as the Bull Moose Party after TR was shot, finished a campaign speech, and said he felt as healthy as that animal) became one of the most successful third parties in American presidential history, garnering more than ten times the electoral votes of the incumbent Taft. Given the many significant legacies of Wilson’s two terms, from World War I and its aftermath to the federal embrace of the segregated Jim Crow South, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this election to American and world history.

Yet despite those undeniable political legacies, it’s possible to argue that two other, less prominent 1912 trends even more centrally signaled core aspects of the American century that was just beginning to unfold in this era. One defining quality of that century was America’s near-constant international interventions and conflicts, many of which never reached the status of a war but which of course were no less meaningful without that designation, and 1912 saw two of the first such interventions: the “pacification” of Nicaragua, in which a couple thousand Marines entered the country (after having done so just three years earlier) to bolster the country’s president against an uprising; and the occupation of part of the island of Cuba, an intervention apparently undertaken without the request of the country’s government and which resulted in further US annexation of land around Guantanamo. Both of those interventions had their roots in the era of the Spanish American War and its concurrent imperialist extensions, yet both also illustrated how much more quickly and consistently the US would use its military (especially in the western hemisphere) in the century to follow.

While such military interventions would become increasingly controversial in the second half of the twentieth century, the second, more cultural international American influence that truly began in 1912 has continued and only grown over the last few decades. In July 1912, New York cinema owner and entrepreneur Adolph Zukor screened the first full-length film drama shown in America (Sarah Bernhardt’s Queen Elizabeth); later that year he founded the Famous Players Film Company, which would shortly thereafter incorporate into Paramount Pictures. And in classic Hollywood fashion, it did so at nearly the same time as its first true competitor, the Universal Film Manufacturing Company (later Universal Pictures). American Studiers can debate and have frequently debated whether Hollywood’s international dominance parallels the US military’s, has complicated or even challenged that other national hegemony, or represents an entirely distinct part of the American Century—but in any case you can’t tell those stories without Hollywood, and its dominance began in many ways in 1912.

Final leap year tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any American histories or stories to which these events connect for you?

3/1 Memory Day nominee: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish American immigrant and sculptor whose democratic ideals and activisms were exemplified in one of America’s most progressive, pioneering, and inspiring works of art, the Shaw Memorial.

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