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TR and the Road Not Taken


For an increasing number of American politicians, New York’s governor George Pataki and Arizona’s senator John McCain among them, Theodore Roosevelt is the hero president. Polls of American historians over the past decade have placed Roosevelt within the magic circle of great presidents, ranking after Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. People can choose the Theodore Roosevelt they prefer: the progressive, the warrior, the realist, or the moralist. A century after his presidency, it seems a good time to recall that he was a reformer who wanted to tame the “malefactors of great wealth,” as he called them, the corporate owners and managers who cheated their stockholders and destroyed the reputation of their companies. In foreign affairs, he can be seen as a man who understood the uses of power to advance the national interest, but whose policies encouraged the peaceful settlement of disputes among potentially warring nations.

What Kathleen Dalton stresses in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, by far the best one-volume biography of TR to date, is how Roosevelt remade himself. In foreign affairs, his boyish enthusiasm for imperialist adventures faded and he claimed that under his two administrations not one shot had been fired against a foreign foe. In his autobiography, he added:

We were at absolute peace and there was no nation in the world with whom a war cloud threatened, no nation in the world whom we had wronged, or from whom we had anything to fear.

Here he exaggerated. Roosevelt forced Colombia to grant independence to Panama so that he could build his canal. In the Philippines, which was acquired during McKinley’s presidency, TR presided over a brutal military campaign to suppress the Filipino insurgents, who had expected that the United States would turn the country over to them. Roosevelt was doubtless thinking of his relations with other great powers when he prided himself on his “moderation in foreign affairs.”1

As he never tired of repeating, Roosevelt’s foreign policy was to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” This became true once he was in the White House, but the young Theodore spoke loudly, knowing that America toward the end of the Gilded Age had a navy that ranked far below those of the European powers and Japan. The army, if anything, was even less impressive. In 1898, when he was forty, Roosevelt organized his own troop of Rough Riders to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Along with his political mentor Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Roosevelt, before he was president, embraced the imperialist ethic that combined Social Darwinism with a pater- nalistic view that “the white man’s burden” was to acquire more territory inhabited by inferior peoples and govern them. The result was supposed to bring peace and stability.

Roosevelt’s views on domestic matters derived from his upbringing as a patrician reformer, a Harvard clubman who had gone west and come to know ranch hands and laborers. As a boy he accompanied his father on visits to the Newsboys’ Lodging House where he could observe him trying to persuade poor boys to live clean lives. When he was a New York police commissioner in the early 1890s, he made a public reputation by going out alone to see that police officers were actively on the job. The young TR was not a radical determined to overturn the social order; rather, he saw his duty as governor of New York in 1898 and 1899 to make that order fairer. He had no tolerance for corruption in government and never questioned the Victorian principle that a gentleman should lead a clean life, although a strenuous one. Influenced by his father’s muscular Christian piety, he accepted what Kathleen Dalton describes as “the Christian obligation that man owed man across class divides.” Throughout his life he believed it was his mission to create an American nationalism that would transcend class conflict. He wanted to instill democratic values in a society where the gulf between the rich and the poor was widening, and new immigrants were flooding into the cities. As Louis Auchincloss wrote in his short biography,

…Above all, he detested bullies: the foulmouthed gunmen he had seen terrifying customers in western bars, the backroom machine politicians who milked the urban poor, the Pennsylvania mining tycoons who exploited their ignorant immigrant laborers. Like a Byronic hero he wanted not so much to raise the poor as to lower the proud.2

Before he became president in 1901, following William McKinley’s assassination, he had urged McKinley, a reluctant imperialist, to declare war on Spain and liberate the Cubans from their Spanish oppressors; as McKinley’s assistant secretary of the navy he ordered Commodore George Dewey to prepare the Pacific fleet for action in the Philippines. When he took over the White House in 1901, he started to reconsider some of his imperialist policies. By 1907, he insisted that the Philippines be given independence once an established order was in place. When he intervened in the Dominican Republic to make sure that country paid its debts to foreign banks, he famously said that he was no more eager to annex the island “than a gorged boa constrictor would be to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.”

Dalton describes how he helped to resolve three international crises—in South America, in the Far East, and in Europe. Her account reveals a maturing Roosevelt who wanted America to have a world role but understood the limitations as well as the uses of US power. In the 1902 crisis in Venezuela TR was able to assert that the Western Hemisphere should be free from European military threats. A corrupt government in Caracas had contracted large debts with a number of foreign nations, notably Britain, Germany, and Italy. As Roosevelt understood it, nothing in the Monroe Doctrine forbade foreign nations from using coercive measures to enforce payment of debts. “If any South American country misbehaves toward any European country,” Roosevelt wrote as vice-president, “let the European country spank it.” He soon changed his mind when Britain and Germany seized Venezuelan gunboats and blockaded five ports in December 1902.

Roosevelt urged a peaceful settlement of the dispute, but he was fearful that the action by the Europeans would lead to occupation of some part of the mainland. On December 16, the day that the British cabinet met and decided privately to accept arbitration, he ordered US battleships in the Caribbean to sail to Trinidad and Curaçao, both islands only a few miles from the Venezuelan coast. Secretary of State John Hay formally demanded that the European countries accept arbitration. Although their response did not result solely from Hay’s note, Roosevelt’s actions were clearly designed to force the issue. The British government quickly announced its decision to accede in principle to his wishes, and the Germans did the same the following day.

The Germans, however, were unwilling to withdraw their warships, and arbitration was stalled. Moreover, the Germans extended their blockade and kept bombing Venezuela’s coastal cities. By February, Roosevelt demanded that the Germans withdraw. Rather than fight in the Caribbean, the Kaiser lifted the blockade and the German envoy assured Roosevelt that Germany had no territorial ambitions in the Western Hemisphere. Nonetheless, the four battleships TR had ordered to the region remained there until April.3

The Venezuelan crisis and the increasing size of the German navy as well as the Kaiser’s imperial ambitions led Roosevelt to revise the Monroe Doctrine. He was not prepared to permit European powers to intervene in America’s sphere of influence; but he saw it as his responsibility to make sure that Latin American states behaved responsibly.

This view was put to the test in 1904 when Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) was unable to pay its debts to European countries, and the US minister there used the threat of German action to convince Roosevelt to intervene on behalf of American companies. In late 1904, he arranged the payment of debts to the Europeans by seizing the Dominican customs house. He then announced to Congress a new policy that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The US did not desire any land in the Western Hemisphere, he said, but “chronic wrongdoing” may

require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

What Roosevelt desired was stability; if friendly governments went bankrupt or were about to be driven from power, the US would step in. In this he anticipated the basic policy of the United States for most of the twentieth century. With the hemisphere now assured as an American sphere of interest, he could carry out his own version of Weltpolitik.

Since early in 1904, Japan and Russia had been at war for supremacy in northeast Asia. But the triumph of the Japanese navy over the Russian fleet astonished the world. When this allowed Japan to take Port Arthur and drive deep into Manchuria, Roosevelt became alarmed. The brutal Japanese war anticipated what would happen in World War I, as two armies battled each other from barbed-wire trenches, and men walked into mine fields and machine-gun fire in order to gain a few yards. In the struggle for Port Arthur, the Japanese army suffered 58,000 casualties. Later, at Mukden, Manchuria, there were 85,000 Russian casualties and 70,000 Japanese.4

For Roosevelt, it was one thing for Japan to emerge as a world power, but for Tokyo to have too great a victory was another. That would not only upset the balance of power in East Asia, but also threaten American interests in the Pacific. Moreover, he thought, the territorial integrity of China could best be guaranteed if neither Russia nor Japan became too powerful.

By the middle of 1905, Roosevelt saw his opportunity for world leadership. Japan, though victorious, was financially overstretched and could ill afford to lose more lives, while Russia refused to sue for peace. When the Japanese secretly asked Roosevelt to invite “on his own motion and initiative” the two belligerents to come together to negotiate a peace treaty, Roosevelt, acting as his own secretary of state, assured Tsar Nicholas II that he was indeed acting on his own initiative. If the Russians agreed to negotiate in America, he would get the Japanese to go along. The Tsar, urged on by the German Kaiser, who was getting advice from Roosevelt, accepted the American offer. On June 11, 1905, just after the stunning Japanese victory at Tsuhima Straits, when the Russian fleet of thirty-two vessels was annihilated by the Japanese, Russia and Japan consented to Roosevelt’s proposal for peace talks.

Preliminary talks were held that summer at Roosevelt’s summer house, Sagamore Hill, on Long Island. The Russian diplomats, Dalton writes, were extremely disagreeable and seemed to have no interest in making serious concessions. The Japanese, on the other hand, expected territorial gains as well as an indemnity. Formal meetings opened in August in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, while Roosevelt remained at Sagamore Hill, keeping in touch by telegraph and telephone and by emergency visits from Roosevelt’s college friend, the Japanese diplomat Kentaro Kaneko.

  1. 1

    This is a point that William C. Widenor tellingly makes in his fair-minded book Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy (University of California Press, 1980), p. 168. The Roosevelt quotation can be found in his Autobiography (Da Capo, 1985), p. 572.

  2. 2

    Theodore Roosevelt (Times Books, 2001), p. 40. See Russell Baker’s review, “The Performer,” The New York Review, April 11, 2002.

  3. 3

    In addition to Dalton’s account of the Venezuelan crisis, see also Frederick Marks III, Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt (University of Nebraska Press, 1979), pp. 38–47.

  4. 4

    See Ian Buruma, Inventing Japan (Modern Library, 2003), pp. 58–59.

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