Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine


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.

With negotiations deadlocked, Roosevelt decided to bypass the delegates in New Hampshire. He telegraphed the Japanese emperor and Tsar Nicholas directly and told his ambassador in Russia to urge the Tsar to compromise. Irritated with both sides, though especially at the Russians, TR tried to make the Japanese understand that they should accept peace without an official payment of an indemnity if Russia gave them the southern half of Sakhalin Island. When both sides balked, the Tsar ordered his delegation home. Dalton describes how Roosevelt persuaded the Russian diplomats to disregard these instructions and go on negotiating. In a final, dramatic showdown the Russians made an offer similar to what Roosevelt had proposed, and Tokyo consented. When Roosevelt heard the news by telephone, he first rushed to tell his wife and then returned, glowing with success. “It’s a mighty good thing for Russia, and a mighty good thing for Japan. And a mighty good thing for me too!” For his efforts to settle the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


In another part of the globe, war was also threatening. In the spring of 1904, the British-French Entente Cordiale was signed. Not only did this show that cooperation between the two countries was growing in the light of the German naval buildup, but it also meant a settlement of the colonial disputes between the two powers. France recognized the British occupation of Egypt and England recognized French interests in Morocco, with secret articles looking to the eventual end of Moroccan independence and the partition of the country between France and Spain. Troubled by the quasi alliance between France and England, and wary of France’s intrusions into Morocco, the Kaiser went to Tangier in March 1905 and called for an international conference on Moroccan independence. The Kaiser also hoped for TR’s help in guaranteeing an “open door” in Morocco.

When Roosevelt became aware of the growing tensions between Germany and France over Morocco, Dalton writes, he began to listen more carefully to two of his friends in the diplomatic corps, the German ambassador, Speck von Sternberg, and the French ambassador, Jules Jusserand. Roosevelt, however, had greater confidence in Jusserand, whose opinions on world affairs he often sought. Roosevelt finally decided to enter the dispute as a disinterested mediator. He told Jusserand to urge France to hold talks with the Germans in order to avoid war, and he himself flattered the Kaiser, whom both TR and Lodge considered unstable; the President thought he was the greatest threat to the peace of Europe. Since the French believed Roosevelt was more favorable to them than the Germans—which he was—they, too, agreed to attend a conference in Algeciras, Spain, on January 16, 1906. Neither Paris nor Berlin would budge from their positions, and once again Roosevelt moved to break the impasse. The compromise he worked out provided for the recognition of the independence of Morocco, while at the same time authorizing France and Spain to police it.

In 1912, France and Spain partitioned Morocco between them, and southern Morocco became a French protectorate. Germany continued to resist, until Roosevelt cited a letter to him in June 1905 in which the German emperor had written, “I will in every case be willing to back up the decision which you consider to be the most fair and practicable,” and insisted that the time had come to honor this promise. The Kaiser capitulated but became even more convinced that Germany was being encircled not only by the Anglo-French entente but also by the Russians. He then speeded up his naval buildup.

As Dalton points out, Roosevelt was fast becoming “a cosmopolitan internationalist” who believed that the United States should have a large part in promoting regional balances of power as the surest way to prevent war. After he lost the presidency to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Roosevelt continued to believe that power was the major determinant in foreign policy. But now he talked of military preparedness. In the fall of 1914, soon after the French held off the Germans at the Battle of the Marne, ensuring that World War I would be a long one, TR set out in a series of lectures and articles his grand design for foreign policy. He proposed a remarkably restrained strategy. The defense perimeter of the United States was to be the Western Hemisphere, but, surprisingly, he exempted the southern cone of South America from policing by the United States. He also made public his long-held conviction that America should withdraw from the Philippines.

Most significant of all, he reiterated his proposal for the creation of an association of nations, something he had originally made in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Christiania. At that time he urged “those great powers honestly bent on peace” to establish “a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent by force if necessary, its being broken by others.” He hoped that the organization would create “some form of international police force, competent and willing to prevent violence among nations.”

Roosevelt now repeated these arguments, calling for the “great civilized nations” to establish “a great World League for the Peace of Righteousness” with the US exercising such police power in the Western Hemisphere. Similar ideas would later be adopted by Franklin Roosevelt in his early design for the United Nations, when he saw the “four policemen,” consisting of America, Britain, Russia, and China, as responsible for keeping the peace in their respective spheres of influence.

Roosevelt always expected that the great powers would have to agree to keep the peace. When William Howard Taft, his old friend and then bitter rival, proposed his own League to Enforce Peace, Roosevelt attacked his proposals, largely because of Taft’s emphasis (and later Wilson’s) on arbitration if treaties were broken. Roosevelt, not surprisingly, stressed the need to use military force against “any recalcitrant nation” and thus to “put force back of righteousness.” As John Morton Blum comments in his invaluable study The Republican Roosevelt, TR “sought security and peace in concerts of power in Europe and Asia and in power applied to discipline disorder.”5 His views were very much in the realist tradition, and he always distrusted what George Kennan has called “legalistic moralism.”

While Dalton rightly emphasizes Roosevelt’s growth as a statesman, she describes his attacks on Woodrow Wilson during the war years as intemperate to the point of viciousness. At the outbreak of the war, he called Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan “our own special prize idiot,” and Wilson “his ridiculous and insincere chief.” Roosevelt’s interventionist stand between 1915 and 1917, especially after a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania, on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 people, 128 of them Americans, made him highly unpopular. Wilson’s response to the Lusitania disaster was to declare:

There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.

In reaction TR wrote an article designed to push the nation to the brink of war. The US, he wrote, should promptly cut off trade with Germany and impound German ships; he considered Wilson’s statement the most irritating display of cowardice he had ever heard.

When war with Germany came in 1917, Roosevelt, seen as a righteous warrior, quickly regained his popularity, and he became the leading Republican candidate for the presidential nomination in 1920. His dilemma, of course, was how to criticize Wilson for mismanagement of the war without giving comfort to the opponents of the war. He also risked being imprisoned for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at silencing critics of the government, and most especially of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt, however, insisted it was unpatriotic not to criticize the president.

His alignment with Senator Lodge, majority leader in the Senate and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now gave him a platform within the Republican Party from which he could attack the weakness of Wilson’s League of Nations, which he saw as committing the United States to a system of collective security without the force needed to back it up. Had Roosevelt, who died in January 1919 at the age of only sixty, lived and become president instead of Warren Harding, the League, with Lodge’s relatively minor reservations, would have been approved by the Senate. Roosevelt would almost surely have given the French leaders the military guarantee they had asked for, and America’s and Europe’s security would have been firmly linked.

Dalton puts forward a good case that Roosevelt “remade” himself by promoting a foreign policy that transcended the impetuous imperialism of the young Rough Rider. But her most original arguments are to be found in her analysis of TR as a domestic reformer. In this respect, her book is a deliberate refutation of Henry Pringle’s influential, debunking biography of 1931, which she sees as a hidden exercise in “character assassination.” In the same vein, she views Richard Hofstadter’s portrayal of Roosevelt in his famous study of American politics, The American Political Tradition—and the Men Who Made It,6 as distorted because he was excessively concerned to deflate the literature of hero-worship. Hofstadter saw Roosevelt as an insincere reformer, and believed his tardy conversion to radicalism was opportunistic; he duped the public by becoming “the master therapist of the middle classes.”

Dalton wants to answer what she calls Hofstadter’s “tough guy revisionism of the Cold War, especially its sense of disappointment in American presidents.” For her, Roosevelt’s later years demonstrate his growing and continuing commitment to progressivism even after he abandoned the Progressive Party as the instrument with which to further his own political ambitions.

As president, Roosevelt had to deal with powerful Republican conservatives, especially Rhode Island’s imperious Senator Nelson Aldrich (the “Manager of the United States”) and House Speaker Joe Cannon. TR initiated some forty lawsuits against trusts, not so much to break them up as to regulate them. He was not against big business, which he saw as integral to industrial capitalism; he was against wickedness, and only too often he had seen that the very rich were very wicked. Roosevelt also showed sympathy for the anthracite coal miners in their strike in 1902, insisting that if the coal operators, who had steadfastly refused to negotiate their differences with labor, did not accept arbitration, the US Army would take over the mines. The operators backed down. (This was far different behavior from that of the Democrat Grover Cleveland, who had used federal troops against Eugene V. Debs and his striking railroad workers.) But Roosevelt was reluctant to fight a pitched battle against Nelson Aldrich over reducing high tariffs, especially during his first term, when there were few Republican progressives in Congress.

By Roosevelt’s second term, a wave of reform started to gain force throughout the country, and more Republican senators sympathetic to Roosevelt’s ideas were elected. With these new allies, he was able to go beyond moralistic pieties and call for the national regulation of corporations and for a tribunal to gain power over railroad rates. During the final two years of his second term, between 1907 and 1909, the Bureau of Corporations and the attorney general’s office began suits against three of the country’s biggest combines: the Standard Oil Company, the American Tobacco Company, and the Sugar Trust. In his message to Congress in January 1908, TR concluded with a tirade against corrupt businessmen who had made the “name ‘high finance’ a term of scandal.” Even when he did not achieve everything he wanted, he was confident he had set the agenda for his successor, William Howard Taft. In 1907, for example, he had called for income and inheritance taxes, currency reform, limitation of injunctions in labor disputes, extension of the eight-hour day, and control of campaign contributions.

Taft carried out some of this program: the eight-hour day for government employees and support for a constitutional amendment in favor of an income tax. He brought more antitrust suits in one term than in Roosevelt’s two terms. Nonetheless, Taft’s failure to achieve meaningful tariff reform and his abandonment of Roosevelt’s conservation policies turned TR against him. Returning to the United States in 1910 after a successful hunting safari in East Africa and a tour of Europe, during which he dined with monarchs and was greeted by adoring throngs, Roosevelt was beginning to feel more sympathy for the Republican insurgents, who were fed up with the Aldrich-Cannon axis. He saw the man he had anointed as his successor as a “thoroughly able and trustworthy lieutenant,” but not a “commander.”

In his first hesitant, then deliberate, moves toward seeking a third term as the candidate of a new Progressive Party, Roosevelt embraced a genuinely progressive platform. As early as 1910, he made one of the most radical speeches of his life in Osawatomie, Kansas, the town where John Brown had launched his bloody crusade to save the nation from slavery. After calling for a New Nationalism that would put national needs above sectional or personal advantage, he said, in what seemed a final betrayal to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, “Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.” Like big corporations, however, the unions, he said, had to accept regulation by the government. Above all,

The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.

In his campaign for the presidency in 1912 as the nominee of the Progressive Party, Dalton tells us, Roosevelt’s radicalism deepened. He moved from tepid support for state-by-state woman’s suffrage to all-out backing for national suffrage. After hearing Jane Addams’s arguments for suffrage, he told her: “If you’re for it, I’m for it.”

Reform groups had high hopes for the Progressive Party’s platform, especially on race. Here, as Dalton shows, Roosevelt equivocated. He had been attacked for having invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House in 1901. Although he never extended another such invitation, he was never forgiven by most Southern whites. This adversely affected his hopes of breaking the Democrats’ stranglehold over the “solid South.” As president, Roosevelt privately disliked the Jim Crow laws that, for example, denied to black Americans who paid their taxes the use of libraries built with those tax dollars; nor could most black Americans vote or feel safe from white mob violence. But as Dalton points out,

both TR and Washington pandered to conservative white sensibilities in the South…. Both… believed that it would help blacks if they strengthened the Republican Party in the South.

One of Roosevelt’s most shameful acts was to dismiss black soldiers who were accused but not convicted of shooting up the town of Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. It was a miscarriage of justice that Roosevelt never apologized for.

In the 1912 campaign, the most advanced leaders of the NAACP, which included Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois, expected Roosevelt to help them fight disenfranchisement, lynching, and segregation. Du Bois, in fact, recommended two ideas that Roosevelt privately favored: ending lynching by federal action and cutting the size of Southern congressional delegations from districts where blacks were not allowed to vote. But TR could not accept Du Bois’s racial equality plank. If he supported Du Bois, he feared he would lose the South. This also meant that the Progressives’ delegates would be “lily-white.”

Roosevelt’s Southern strategy failed. He retained the support of many black leaders, who expected even less from a born Southerner like Woodrow Wilson, or from a conservative Republican like Taft. But Du Bois left the Progressive Party to vote for Wilson, and TR’s record as a reformer was damaged. Later, when Roosevelt had mended his relations with the Republican Party, he tried in vain to get some of Du Bois’s proposals into its 1916 platform.

Dalton makes a good case that Roosevelt’s racial views changed in his later years. Weakened by rheumatism and an exhausting speaking schedule as he campaigned for the Republican Party in the midterm congressional elections, Roosevelt nevertheless accepted Du Bois’s invitation to speak before the Circle for Negro War Relief on November 2, 1918. This proved to be his last public appearance before his death two months later.

In a lecture at Carnegie Hall, knowing that the war was all but over, Roosevelt told his audience that he believed the war had been good for “our national soul” because it had been fought by “our sons and brothers on the other side, white men and black, white soldiers and colored soldiers.” He now called for equal “civil and political rights” and promised to do “everything I can to aid, to bring about, to bring nearer, the day when justice, the square-deal, will be given as between black man and white.” Still, he would almost surely have decided not to make racial equality central to a campaign in 1920.

What Dalton persuasively shows is Roosevelt’s continuing commitment to progressivism not only in the 1912 campaign but in the years after the collapse of the Progressive Party. In the 1916 campaign against Woodrow Wilson, TR pressed the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, to speak out more forcefully for social justice. Despite his rather colorless manner and his conservatism on social issues, Hughes almost won, finally losing when California slipped over to Wilson. The historian John Milton Cooper makes a convincing argument that “Roosevelt’s presence and the persistence of the Progressives as an intact, albeit shrunken, party down to the 1916 conventions helped the Republicans inestimably.” The Republicans needed to win back the Progressives, which was largely why they nominated a moderate reformer like Hughes rather than a hack politician, as they did four years later with Warren Harding. Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Progressive Party and his prompt support of Hughes made it possible for Hughes to come close to defeating Wilson.7

For Roosevelt, the final tragedy was that he died before he could claim to be the man who had restored Republican dominance. Even while the nation yearned for a return to peace and a hoped-for prosperity, Roosevelt would have tried to make the Republicans a party of domestic reform and realism in foreign affairs. In this respect, his policies can be seen as the road not taken by American conservatism.

This Issue

July 17, 2003