The Realistic Roosevelt

The Realistic Roosevelt

Mini Teaser: As president, Teddy Roosevelt was not the Bull Moose of his earlier years. His prudence and respect for the balance of power are a model for any future president.

by Author(s): Tom Parker

"As I utterly disbelieve in the policy of bluff, in national and international no less than in private affairs, or in any violation of the old frontier maxim, 'Never draw unless you mean to shoot', I do not believe in our taking any position anywhere unless we can make good: and as regards Manchuria, if the Japanese choose to follow a course of conduct to which we are adverse, we cannot stop it unless we are prepared to go to war, and a successful war about Manchuria would require a fleet as good as that of England, plus an army as good as that of Germany."

Roosevelt felt that as long as Japan had to expand it was preferable that it expand into the Asian mainland, where it would bump up against Russia and China, rather than seek gains in the Pacific, where it would clash with the United States and Britain. Though not a heroic policy, Roosevelt's acquiescence in Japan's position in Korea and southern Manchuria made sense, given the limits of American power.

At the same time, Roosevelt sent the entire U.S. fleet around the world for the first time ever during his last year in office as a signal to Japan of American military power and as a means of testing the readiness of the U.S. fleet and of building domestic support for a strong defense. He insisted that the visit to Japan be performed with utmost courtesy, but he hoped that the spectacle of a three-mile line of modern battleships would have a sobering effect on Japanese militarists. Japan's welcome to the fleet and its gift of cherry trees to Washington, dc, several years later--a symbol of its interest in a relaxation of tensions--would prove him right. He also ordered the fleet to visit Australia and New Zealand, the first implicit commitment by the United States to their defense.

Ruthlessness and Restraint

Roosevelt's changing attitude towards the Philippines best illustrates his greater maturity as president: He initially defended the squalid counter-insurgency campaign against Philippine guerrillas that he inherited from McKinley and turned a blind eye to American atrocities--probably the most morally reprehensible act of his political career--until they were made public in the Gardner Report towards the end of the war in 1902. Roosevelt, however, began to rethink the U.S. military presence after the Russo-Japanese War established Japan as a true Pacific power. He began to advocate privately either a serious congressional funding effort to defend the Philippines, assuming that any defense were possible, or granting them independence in order to withdraw U.S. troops. In a 1907 letter to Secretary of War Taft , he lamented:

"I don't see where they are of any value to us or where they are likely to be of any value. . . . The Philippines form our heel of Achilles. They are all that makes the present situation with Japan dangerous. . . . Personally I should be glad to see the islands made independent."

Yet, there was too much congressional and public support for maintaining a U.S. presence after the sacrifices of the war.

Liberal historians bridle at Roosevelt's putative arrogance in helping to create the Panama Canal and see it as the return of the impulsive "cowboy" and a clear violation of international law--something that admittedly never concerned Roosevelt. Yet Roosevelt proceeded on the issue of Panama in a very methodical manner, unlike in 1898. He negotiated a treaty with the Colombian government only after making a careful study of the comparative advantages of a Nicaraguan canal. It was only after the Colombian parliament rejected the treaty that he decided to support independence for the province of Panama. Even here, he first sought legal opinion to justify intervention based on an American treaty with Colombia of 1846. Privately he told his advisers that he supported an uprising "but for me to say so publicly would amount to an instigation of a revolt, and therefore, I cannot say it." When he sent naval ships towards Panama to deter Colombian intervention, he did so without fanfare. Partly as a result, international reaction to the successful revolt was largely positive or neutral, even in Latin America; only in Germany did the press warn about the "master" expansionist.

Nor was the creation of Panama an exercise of power for its own sake. Roosevelt knew that if the United States had to continue to maintain Atlantic and Pacific fleets, neither would be strong, as Russia learned in the Russo-Japanese war. This predicament was driven home during the Spanish-American War: The battleship USS Oregon took 67 days to go from San Francisco--where it was when the USS Maine exploded--to the Battle of Santiago Bay in the Caribbean, for which it arrived only just in time. The trip would have taken about two and a half weeks if there had been a canal.

Aside from Panama, Roosevelt was quite moderate in his use of American power in the Caribbean, contrary to his reputation among liberal historians. He withdrew American forces from Cuba in 1902, as had been promised, and turned aside the Dominican Republic's overtures for annexation in 1904: "I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine." In 1906 he initially turned aside requests for intervention by both opposing political factions in Cuba and ordered the withdrawal of American troops that had been landed there without his authorization by an American naval commander. Roosevelt reluctantly intervened militarily after the Cuban government collapsed. He chose a civilian judge, who never flew an American flag, rather than a military officer to govern. Roosevelt withdrew American troops three years later, after peaceful elections.

Even the response to the kidnapping of Perdicaris--the one use of American power by Roosevelt that did recall the gunboat diplomacy of the Spanish-American War--was more complicated than at first glance. For all the theatricality of the one line threat about Perdicaris and Raisuli--which was written by Secretary of State Hay, not Roosevelt--America's response was relatively measured. Roosevelt initially asked Hay to explore the possibility of a joint military expedition with Britain and France. And Hay's next line in his cable to the American consul--which was not read to the Republican Convention--was a moderate caution: "Further than this we desire least possible complications with Morocco or other powers." Nor presumably were Roosevelt's martial inclinations increased after learning that Perdicaris had renounced his citizenship to avoid paying taxes during the Civil War.

Creating the Big Stick

One thing that all students of Roosevelt can agree on is his remarkable interest in his country's military. After college, Roosevelt published a book in 1882 on the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812, which was placed on every American naval ship soon after and is still considered one of the best books on the subject. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he wrote to Secretary Long about Samuel Langley's successful experiments using steam-powered model planes: "It seems to me worthwhile for this government to try whether it will not work on a large enough scale to be of use in event of war." As president he succeeded in getting an average of two battleships a year authorized, in addition to many smaller vessels. He also descended in one of the Navy's new submarines to the bottom of Long Island Sound, taking control of the vessel at one point. Roosevelt's idea of light entertainment was to sail out in his presidential yacht in the sound to analyze the target practice of the Atlantic fleet.

Thus, as he welcomed home the Great White Fleet in 1909 just before leaving the presidency, Roosevelt probably recalled that the U.S. Navy had gone from being the world's 12th-largest fleet, when he wrote his book on the War of 1812, to the fourth or fifth largest by the beginning of his presidency, to the second largest by the end of it. Roosevelt must have taken great pride in knowing that three-quarters of the battleships that passed before his presidential yacht had been built during his administration.

Missed Opportunities

During World War I, Roosevelt became Woodrow Wilson's most vociferous critic. He urged an aggressive military response to German attacks against American vessels and despaired of the public ever being willing to mount the total war effort that he favored. After hostilities were declared, he encouraged his four sons to fight--two were wounded and one was killed--and sought Wilson's permission unsuccessfully to lead a U.S. Army division into combat.

Roosevelt favored a decisive military victory against Germany, implying that he was ready to push into Germany itself. At the same time, the geopolitician in him anticipated the dilemmas of the post-World War II period. Several days after the war broke out, he wrote to an English friend: "If Germany is smashed it is perfectly possible that later she will have to be supported as a bulwark against the Slav by the nations of western Europe." Like Churchill towards the end of World War II (and unlike President Franklin Roosevelt and General Eisenhower), TR had the ability to pivot quickly from one potential adversary to another, a hallmark of a political realist.

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