Teddy Roosevelt's Hidden Legacy

How an "imperialist" president's record makes the case for military restraint.

First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power, by Warren Zimmermann, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 576 pages, $30

In the early years of the 20th century, American troops were in the Philippines putting down a rebellion and U.S. warships were fighting terrorists in the Middle East while the glittering market of China was luring trade and investment from all the industrialized nations of the world. An unelected president born of East Coast privilege and called a "cowboy" by his detractors was sitting in the White House. The more things change...

Theodore Roosevelt and his foreign policy are worth re-examining today for many reasons, not the least of which is the high admiration held for him by George W. Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Though regarded in some quarters as a hyper-interventionist, Roosevelt in fact was the opposite. For eight years he and his two able secretaries of state, John Hay and Elihu Root, conducted a prudent and restrained foreign policy designed to advance and protect American interests while minimizing actual conflict involving U.S. troops on foreign soil. Warren Zimmermann writes about those years in his engaging new book, First Great Triumph, which chronicles the critical 10-year period from the Spanish-American War to the end of Roosevelt's presidency.

The book's subtitle is How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. In addition to Roosevelt, Hay, and Root, they include the president's best friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Capt. Alfred T. Mahan. "These five were remarkable men by any measure," Zimmermann writes. "Two of them, Roosevelt and Root, won the Nobel Peace Prize. All were intellectuals and thought of themselves as such. All except Root were notable authors. Roosevelt wrote thirty-eight books, and Lodge twenty-seven, mostly on themes of American history....Hay was a poet, a best-selling novelist, and coauthor of a popular biography of Abraham Lincoln. Mahan produced an analysis of the influence of sea power in history that profoundly affected American policy and became required reading in the British, German, and Japanese navies. Root...one of the most talented corporate lawyers of his time, became...a forceful advocate of the rule of law in international relations....The five combined to set the course of American foreign policy for the century to come."

Zimmermann tells an interesting story about a fascinating time. As a career diplomat weaned on the Wil-sonian diplomatic legacy, however, he tends to see an evolving continuum between the foreign policy Roosevelt initiated and that of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and our post�World War II presidents. "The progress toward global involvement was often hesitant and erratic, and Americans were pulled reluctantly into the two world wars," he writes. "But as we can see in the hindsight of a century, the direction was steady. The United States did involve itself, late but decisively, in both world conflicts, then led a Western alliance in successfully opposing the challenge from Soviet communism. It was in large part because of America's actions as a great power that the twentieth century was not the 'Century of the Third Reich' or the 'Century of the Glorious Victory of World Communism.'"

A good argument can be made, however, that the direction was not steady, and that American foreign policy in the 10 years after the first Roosevelt -- especially the policy followed by Roosevelt's nemesis, Woodrow Wilson -- played a major, albeit unintended, role in the births of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

No less than Winston Churchill suggested as much in 1936: "America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World War. If you hadn't entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the spring of 1917. Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany. If America had stayed out of the war, all of these 'isms' wouldn't today be sweeping the continent and breaking down parliamentary government, and if England had made peace early in 1917, it would have saved over one million British, French, American and other lives."

Zimmermann unconvincingly claims, however, that Wilson practiced a "classic Rooseveltian diplomacy," continuing what his predecessor started, as though Roosevelt were John the Baptist to the idealistic, Christ-like Wilson. "In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger draws a sharp distinction between Theodore Roosevelt, the sphere of influence realist, and Wilson, the crusading idealist, and contends Wilson had the more enduring legacy," Zimmermann notes. "But surely the contrast is exaggerated, and Roosevelt's effect underrated....Their legacy to the twentieth century was a joint one."

It is clear that Zimmermann admires much of Roosevelt's foreign policy, and that by tying it, however improbably, to Wilson's legacy, he means to bestow a compliment. Roosevelt, however, would find such a linkage odious.

If Zimmermann is correct that Wilson's foreign policy was actually "classic Rooseveltian diplomacy," you can begin to understand the recent intemperate attack on Roosevelt by the libertarian Cato Institute. The November-December 2002 issue of Cato Policy Report featured a cover story, "T.R.: No Friend of the Constitution," by the institute's editorial director, Michael Chapman.

Like Zimmermann, Chapman believes Roosevelt was an imperialist, and many of his criticisms center on that charge. But Roosevelt didn't pursue an imperial foreign policy, and he certainly didn't live up to his earlier (and well-deserved) cowboy reputation. As Louis Auchincloss observes in his short 2001 biography Theodore Roosevelt, "he never advocated an empire for the United States such as Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, and Germany conceived for themselves....T.R. never wished to keep Cuba or the Philippines; in each case he favored occupation to last only until the islands were ready for independence. The naval bases that he wanted -- Hawaii, Guam, Cuba, Panama, and Puerto Rico -- were not the bastions of empire but the necessary fueling spots for the warships that guaranteed the security of his country as preached by his mentor, Admiral Mahan." Indeed, in the 1912 presidential campaign Roosevelt supported Philippine independence. His two opponents, Taft and Wilson, did not.

Chapman does not appreciate this distinction, in part because Roosevelt's impulsive statements and actions before his presidency offer such an inviting target. This is, after all, a man who could write in a letter in 1895 that the "greatest boon" he could confer upon America was "an immediate war with Great Britain for the conquest of Canada." Once he was president, however, Roosevelt's policies produced eight years of peace with other countries. His diplomacy resolved a string of foreign crises and earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, followed in 1912 by one for Elihu Root. His "speak softly, carry a big stick" metaphor has been oft repeated, but what Roosevelt said was more complex: "If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble but neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power."

Roosevelt's foreign policy wasn't perfect, but compared to that of Wilson and many other 20th-century presidents, it was highly effective. At various times, Roosevelt had the Russian czar, the German kaiser, and the hypersensitive Japanese eating out of his hand, however reluctantly. Consider the following:

� In December 1902 Britain and Germany blockaded, shelled, and were prepared to occupy five Venezuelan ports in order to collect debts. Assisted by a timely threat to the German ambassador of the dispatch of U.S. warships then in Puerto Rico, Roosevelt persuaded the British and Germans to submit their dispute to international arbitration, with the U.S. serving as the mediator.

� In 1903 the Dominican Republic found itself in a similar situation, with Germany again threatening force. Again Roosevelt persuaded the interested countries -- France, Germany, and Belgium -- to accept a similar procedure.

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