TR and the Road Not Taken

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life

by Kathleen Dalton
Knopf, 708 pp., $35.00
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…

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