Although John Milton Cooper’s comparative biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson recalls both men vividly, it is not easy today to look at them with equanimity, let alone uncritical admiration. They seem so out of proportion that they have become caricatures of themselves. Consider Theodore Roosevelt charging up a Cuban hill in pursuit of glory, or shooting some lumbering animal in the effort to prove his virility. Or Woodrow Wilson, piously asserting the virtues of being “too proud to fight,” and then sending Americans off to die for universal democracy and the balance of power.

Even at the time of their greatest influence, during the first two decades of this century, both presidents must have seemed a bit absurd. But they also inspired millions who cheered their rhetoric and exulted in their noble visions. The renegades who joined Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party saw nothing at all exaggerated in their leader’s declaration during the 1912 campaign that “we fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind … we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The Lord for his part seemed to prefer Wilson during that particular battle, and it was the former professor who carried out many of Roosevelt’s ambitions. But TR remained a dominant figure throughout Wilson’s two terms. Between them, these two men stamped their mark indelibly on the office of the presidency and the vocabulary of American politics.

As Cooper demonstrates, both were clever politicians, adept at manipulating power, no matter how frequently they invoked the deity and conceived of their electoral careers as crusades. Wilson, in spite of his reputation as a utopian and an idealist, was an ambitious professor who transformed Princeton from a genteel college to a great university, who deceived and defeated the New Jersey bosses, and who made the party system an instrument of his personal leadership. Similarly Roosevelt, with his vision of a commonwealth in which citizens would reject materialism in favor of transcendent goals, was no less utopian, or idealistic, than Wilson. But he was also a man who knew what leadership meant. He made self-dramatization into a political act, and embodied a yearning for heroic virtues among the public. It was Roosevelt, Cooper maintains, who first made “image,” in the current sense of the word, serve his political purposes. In a way that no president had ever done before, and many have emulated since, he manipulated the press and dramatized himself as a public figure. In so doing, he expanded the powers of the office. The presidency was never the same again after Theodore Roosevelt.

They are a natural pair, these two antagonists, as different as they could be in their personalities, yet consumed by similar visions and ambitions. Both were reformers who wanted to use the power of the state to achieve a greater measure of social and economic justice; both were internationalists who believed in an American mission to be carried out through an imperialist foreign policy; both were determined to expand and implement the powers of the presidency to achieve their purposes. They were also both intellectuals, men who not only read books but wrote them. Finally they were almost exact contemporaries:they were graduated from college within a year of each other (Wilson from Princeton in 1879, TR from Harvard in 1880), became presidents at about the same time (TR of the US in 1901, Wilson of Princeton in 1902), fought their greatest electoral battle against each other in 1912, and both finished their careers in the same year, 1919, when TR died and Wilson suffered his debilitating stroke.

Until they were in their forties, as Cooper shows in his intellectually rich and provocative study, the two differed little on major issues. Wilson, to a large degree, modeled himself after his predecessor, particularly in espousing an interventionist government at home and abroad. After 1910, when Wilson set his sights on the position that TR thought he could reclaim in 1912, their struggle grew bitter, but it rested as much on the political competition of their respective parties as it did on differences over serious policy matters.

On the major issues, William Allen White wrote after the 1912 elections, the difference between TR’s New Nationalism and Wilson’s New Freedom was “that fantastic imaginary gulf that always has existed between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.” The fact that most of the ardent reformist intellectuals who were drawn to TR in 1912—Walter Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, Herbert Croly, Dean Acheson—supported Wilson with equal enthusiasm four years later would indicate that something less than an ideological chasm separated the two. On the question of controlling the giant trusts—TR favored government regulation, Wilson emphasized greater competition through antitrust enforcement—they had clear disagreements.

Yet these were not nearly so significant as the greater difference in conceptions of leadership. Roosevelt sought to inspire, Wilson to educate. Therein lay the difference not only in their styles, but in their political philosophies. Roosevelt, as Cooper shows, took an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. He feared class conflict and the clash of special interest groups. Though belligerent in foreign affairs, he did not espouse his imperial views in order to distract attention from domestic inequities, as many conservatives did. Rather he saw foreign adventure as a cure for the degenerative materialism of advanced industrial societies. While his love of war and foreign involvements no doubt reflected his own personal insecurities, they also were part of his effort to get people to rise above parochial interests.


This kind of nationalism—based on noble visions of an organic society free of class politics, and charismatic leadership capable of unifying the country and articulating its needs—attracted intellectuals and reformers to Roosevelt. Almost all the leaders of the Progressive movement were drawn to him, even more rapturously than their counterparts were to John Kennedy. “Roosevelt bit me and I went mad,” William Allen White wrote before his disillusionment. Even those who later turned against Roosevelt for his belligerency never quite got over their initial excitement. Nor did they ever find a leader who could come close to TR at his best. Roosevelt, as Walter Lippmann wrote many years later, was the first president to realize that the United States had come of age, “that national stability and social justice had to be sought deliberately and had consciously to be maintained,” that the days of easy expansion had come to an end, and that “the promise of American life could be realized only by a national effort.” It was Roosevelt who “began the work of turning the American mind in the direction which it had to go in the twentieth century.”

In a sense, as Cooper demonstrates, the differences between Roosevelt and Wilson could be compared to those between Hamilton and Jefferson. Though they did not seriously disagree over a powerful, centralized government, they had very different views of human nature and the role of self-interest in society. Wilson, an optimist, believed that society would become progressively better if only people would follow their natural interests—a political equivalent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Like Jefferson, he identified with the upward-striving farmers and businessmen, while being intellectually and socially detached from them.

Yet to many Progressives the “invisible hand” approach seemed an inadequate policy for a giant industrial state. As Roosevelt scornfully observed, it made a great nation nothing more than a collection of grasping special-interest groups. About Wilson’s dream that every American would one day head a “small but hopeful business,” the young Walter Lippmann (an acolyte of TR until the 1916 election, when he switched to Wilson) remarked, “intelligent men of my generation can find a better outlet for their energies than in making themselves masters of small businesses.” The better outlet that those like Lippmann envisaged lay in using the welfare state to achieve the progressive ideals of equity and justice—under the leadership of a disinterested elite dedicated to the public good. This would bring about the “new republic” of Plato’s dream (from which, of course, the magazine that Lippmann and Herbert Croly started took its name).

Roosevelt was far less optimistic about human nature than Wilson. He believed that encouraging everyone to pursue his own special interests, however greedy they might be, inevitably led to materialism, class conflict, and national degeneracy. An aristocratic conservative despite his occasionally radical rhetoric, he was for a time the favorite of the Progressives because he wanted to use the power of the state for social and economic justice. When he got support from the Progressives, in Cooper’s words, “he was pursuing what he regarded as Hamiltonian goals of transcendent nationalism and disinterested leadership through a Jeffersonian following bent on promoting its own interests.” The combination meant trouble, and only a great war would have engendered the spirit of self-sacrifice so essential to his vision. But when the war came, it was Wilson who was president.

Liberals who admired Roosevelt’s vision were often troubled by his love of war. For him the martial spirit was an absolute virtue. Whether this derived from deep psychological insecurity or, as Cooper suggests, from shame that his father had never fought in the Civil War, it ensured that struggle and the need to dominate would become a way of life. His belligerency was legendary, and at times bordered on self-parody. Yet, at least initially, it corresponded with the spirit of the times, and it was his self-dramatizing service in the war against Spain that made his political career. He was brilliant at promoting his exploits, both as politician and as president—a talent that was no doubt so successful because it corresponded to an inner need. “Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,” one of his sons allegedly remarked.


Only in the narrowest sense can his belligerency be ascribed to self-promotion. It was more deeply rooted. “The truth is,” said his chosen successor and later rival, William Howard Taft, “he believes in war and wishes to be a Napoleon and to die on the battlefield. He has the spirit of the old berserkers.” Despite his own successful efforts at arbitration as president, including the Nobel Peace Prize he won for mediating the Russo-Japanese war, he showed a visible contempt for advocates of peace. In part his love of war was a projection of his belief in courage and strength; in part a reflection of his militant idealism, an idealism in which, as Cooper observes, “international duty formed a trinity with anti-materialism and rejection of class conflict.” Only through sacrifice and struggle, he believed, could people overcome their petty divisions and attain their full humanity. As Cooper argues, TR was belligerent not because he loved violence, but because he saw war as a test of courage, rather in the tradition of the Spanish bullfight. His motives may have been twisted or wrong-headed, but they were not aggressive. TR was one of the great romantic idealists.

His misfortune was not to be president during the Great War in Europe. For this he never forgave Wilson. He was infuriated by Wilson’s early declaration that the United States served a higher cause by remaining neutral. For TR the war offered Americans an opportunity to rise to heroic levels: for him the war in Europe, though terrible, was “also grand and noble.” In this sense, TR was no less an idealist than Wilson. Similarly, as Cooper demonstrates convincingly, Wilson was as much a “realist” as Roosevelt. Virtually alone among leading Democrats of the day he believed that the United States must take a more active part in world politics, and his “preparedness” policies ran sharply counter to Democratic resistance to rearmament and overseas commitments. It was not TR’s realism, Cooper observes, that was at the heart of his conflict with Wilson, but rather his idealism.

Both men represented the messianic strain in American foreign policy so much in keeping with the vast expansion of American economic power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both cases the messianism masked, and of course justified, a will to power that became almost irresistible because it was militarily possible. The contemporary parallels are striking. Their successors, down to the current president, have found it necessary to justify overseas interventions not primarily by self-interest, but as acts of righteousness and international responsibility. Even the recent US invasion of Grenada was explained as required by the obligation to “restore democracy” on that minuscule island.

If Wilson was a “visionary”—certainly the term that will forever describe him—he was also exceedingly practical. His famous “peace without victory” address, delivered a few weeks before American entry into World War I, was clearly idealistic in urging a compromise peace and a charitable settlement. But such a peace was also practical, as was his espousal of self-government as the only stable system. “I wish frankly to uncover realities,” Wilson explained.

The Nietzschean distinction between warrior and priest, from which Cooper draws his title, is a natural one, but also, as Cooper is the first to admit, inadequate and even deceptive. It was ultimately Wilson, not Roosevelt, who led America into war; Wilson who exulted, “Force, Force to the utmost, Force without stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the law of the world, and cast every self dominion down in the dust.” Nonetheless, Cooper argues that Wilson did not see the war as a crusade, but rather as an inescapable necessity that would spare the world further evil. He long resisted his own party which was pushing him toward a declaration of war, and privately told Joseph Tumulty that his war message of April 2, 1917, was “a message of death for our young men,” and would unleash a hysteria of intolerance in the land. He was right. Yet he was convinced that, like Martin Luther, he could “do not other.”

Was he a hypocrite? Certainly he did not think so. Wilson believed that the policy of armed neutrality had played itself out. It denied the United States the ability to moderate the war aims of the Allies, yet it did not noticeably reduce the war’s destruction. Wilson’s bids to mediate an armistice had been rejected by both sides. He thought that by entering the war he could ensure a moderate and just peace. That may have been hubris. But in Wilson’s mind it was a matter of unpalatable alternatives: the evil of staying out against the evil, presumably not so great, of entering. Wilson thought, like many statesmen before and since, that he could pursue good ends through evil means. “He made the decision,” Cooper writes in explanation and defense, “not as a Nietzschean Priest or Superman, but as the protagonist in a Christian tragedy.” This may be a bit melodramatic. But it does provide a more subtle explanation of Wilson’s thinking than the image of the moralizing crusader would suggest.

Yet, of course, Wilson failed, and his Faustian bargain came to naught. The tragedy of Wilson is not, pace Professor Cooper, in his having chosen the lesser evil. Rather it is that, having so carefully articulated the need for a negotiated peace, and having tried to dissociate the United States from the imperialistic war aims of the Allies, he nonetheless brought American power into the war without any guarantee that his principles would be applied. Instead of enunciating the Fourteen Points, the conditions of a just peace, after he had already committed America to the Allied cause, he should have demanded that the Allies accept those principles as a prior condition of American entry into the war. Instead he gave away his best card before he got to the Paris peace conference. Yet even there he might have won much of what he wanted. Instead of bargaining away the Fourteen Points to gain the Allies’ acceptance of the League of Nations, he could have threatened the Allies with American refusal to guarantee their territorial settlements if they imposed a Carthaginian peace on Germany. But he was not a good negotiator. The league was too important to him. It vindicated his decision to bring the US into the war. It is surprising not that he did so badly at Paris, but that he was able to salvage any of his principles.

Wilson failed not because his war aims were foolish or ignoble, or even because he was too idealistic, but, rather, because he was unduly self-confident and did not negotiate shrewdly. He was to repeat that error in his losing fight for American entry into the League of Nations. Perhaps, as others have suggested, his deep psychological problems explain why he did so.* Roosevelt, to be sure, would not have done better. Unlike Wilson, he had no qualms about the Allies’ vindictive war aims, and wanted to join them in their pursuit of total victory over not only Germany, but the other Central Powers. In his preoccupation with the glory of a war for transcendent ideals, he could not see as far as the peace that would eventually follow. He favored a vindictive peace and was contemptuous of the League, just as he had supported the most severe punishment at home of those who opposed the war. Though he thought that war brought out the best in men, it did not bring out the best in him.

Wilson the great coalition organizer and party chief, TR the transcendent national leader and champion of the welfare state: eventually they came together in the second Roosevelt. It was FDR who fulfilled Wilson’s legacy by forging a powerful coalition of disadvantaged interest groups, and TR’s ambition by exalting the presidency and building a bipartisan policy of American global engagement. In a way that TR could only have dreamed about, FDR invented the “imperial presidency.”

Franklin Roosevelt brought the legacies of Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson together, but he did not resolve the tension between them, a tension that seems embedded in American political life. For better or worse, we always return to the first Roosevelt and Wilson, for that is where contemporary America began. In telling us where it came from, Cooper helps illuminate where we are.

This Issue

February 16, 1984