Chapter Two: America’s Spectre
At his inauguration in March of 1897, president William Jennings Bryan would speak of a “benevolent spirit which has risen from and above this nation, a shining city which will shepherd our United States into a new century of progress!” Bryan did well to make reference to Comstock’s Columbia, for it was his informal partnership with the prophet which had likely propelled him to the presidency. Though Comstock personally disliked the populist Democrat—in his estimation, “a man whose obsession with monetary policy presents a gross distraction from his divine mandate [as US president]”—he had nevertheless backed his candidacy in exchange for one important concession. This quid pro quo became rather obvious only a few weeks into Bryan’s tenure, when the latter effected the passing of the “1897 Columbian Statehood Act”, officially making the City of Columbia the 46th state of the Union. While a nonlocal territory proved quite difficult to legally define as a US state, it was hardly the most controversial act of US territorial acquisition.
Speaking of which, Bryan’s presidency would see US expansionism stretch beyond its self-defined continental confines, no doubt influenced by the racist imperialist ideology which the wandering State of Columbia was continuing to propagate. A primary target in this colonialist endeavor was the island of Cuba, a territory which had been coveted by the nation’s ruling class since the days of chattel slavery. Starting in 1895, the island’s inhabitants had been fighting a war for independence against the moribund Spanish Empire, the latter of which was also combatting a similar insurgency in the Philippines. In a textbook case of imperialist opportunism, the Bryan Administration saw a way to acquire two colonies for the price of one conflict; all they had to do was find (or manufacture) a casus belli against Spain.
Luckily, such a case for war proved easy to fabricate. Comstock had been planning to go on a grand tour of the Americas, all of which was of course protected by the Monroe Doctrine. As a conspicuous start to this tour, the prophet made sure to steer his sky-state past the island of Cuba, deliberately risking a proximity which the Spanish authorities would take as invasive. When at least one Spanish frigate fired warning shots at Columbia to stay clear of the Cuban coast, Comstock was able to twist this into an attack upon US sovereign territory. Before any respectable legal scholar could weigh in on the matter, Congress had already declared war upon the Spanish Empire.
Through the involvement of Columbia’s aerial forces (both on Cuba and in the Philippines), many of the battles of the Spanish-American conflict were decided quickly. Within a few months, the war had been won. However, instead of gaining the independence they had fought for, the people of these former Spanish colonies would now find themselves the subjects of a new hegemon: the United States. The aerial city they had once considered a liberating force now came to be seen as a symbol of domination. Though Comstock himself did not care for the territories he had ‘liberated’—let alone its inhabitants—he did take the war’s success as a sign of US American supremacy. In the eyes of the prophet, this “New Age of Conquest” was only just beginning.
The next act in this imperialist narrative would come in 1900, when the righteous outrage of the Chinese Boxers began to pose a threat to Western and Japanese interests. As far as the Great Powers of the day were concerned, their concessions were the only valuable part of the Qing’s nominal territory, and any harm to them merited an aggressive response. In the US American case, this punishment was to be meted out by the aerial military of Columbia, which would additionally carry an Army Expeditionary Force to secure important locations throughout China. Ultimately, these forces would contribute significantly to the success of the larger Eight-Nation Alliance, which secured its collective domination of the Qing Dynasty through direct looting and further “Unequal Treaties”. Though it’s outcome had been far from assured, the Chinese struggle for dignity was now subdued once again.
Within the self-aggrandized legacy of US imperialism, the Boxer Rebellion is mostly remembered as another righteous opportunity for the nation to flex its military muscles. An evocative example of this martial mythologization can be found is “I’ll Try Sir!”, the famous painting by H. Charles Mcbarron Jr. where a Columbian air crew shells the walls of Beijing. In images such as these, any detailed picture of the Chinese enemy is eschewed in favor of its massive fortifications, which can be blown apart only through the indiscriminate cruelty of aerial bombardment. Though no official count has ever been made of the civilian death toll in these actions, they surely constitute another shameful and unforgivable atrocity in the name of US empire.
At the same time as these imperialist interventions, Comstock was also consolidating his rule over Columbia itself, managing its growth carefully so as to not introduce any outside interests. While democracy was still a necessity, his Founder Party machine made sure to stack the decks against any electoral challenger, and Comstock’s governorship was therefore generally unopposed. As had been the case during Bryan’s election, every prospective presidential candidate was expected to seek Comstock’s blessing, who after all was seen as a Prophet of the nation itself. However, this did not mean that his political influence was absolute, a fact which would become clear during the presidential election of 1912. Even though Comstock and the wider Columbian political establishment had backed Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, it was the Republican Theodore Roosevelt who would attain the presidency. The latter had significant national renown for his volunteer cavalry actions during the Spanish-American War; while this might have pleased Comstock under normal circumstances, the Prophet found Roosevelt’s subsequent political career too progressive for his own tastes. As a result, the 1912-1920 period would be a time of significant tension between Columbia and the rest of the federal government.
The greatest point of dispute between Roosevelt and Comstock came at the outbreak of the First World War. The president was eager to involve the United States in this conflict, specifically on the side of Britain, France, and Russia. Comstock, by contrast, was more interested in aligning Columbia and the wider US with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria, and Italy, primarily because this would allow them to conquer several of Japan’s Pacific possessions. Once again, Comstock’s influence would prove insufficient in swaying the course of the United States, and the first US troops would depart for the Western Front in early 1915. Still, the Prophet would use what little power he had to refuse Columbia’s participation in any combat operations, justifying this decision through a feigned concern for the city’s civilian population. As a result, the gruesome course of the ‘war to end all wars’ would drag on until the end of 1917, when the exhaustion of both sides would finally give way to a negotiated peace.
However, if anyone in 1918 had thought that the Treaty of Amsterdam would bring an end to global conflict as such, this hope would be dashed almost immediately. For while Germany had bled itself white in the West, its eastern campaign against Russia had proven more successful altogether. As a result, the ruins of old Russia would give way to the first socialist state in human history, a regime whose influence was soon felt all around the world. And while the rulers of Columbia supposedly flew far above the ‘godless socialist masses’, it too would know the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution. For within the slums of its industrial district, a similar uprising was now being prepared. In the next chapter, we shall explore the course this insurrection, the organization behind it, and, most prominently, the life of its central leader.