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.

? Based directly on those experiences, Roosevelt told Congress in 1904 that the U.S. would intervene under similar circumstances. But as Zimmermann writes, the "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine "was born of a specific need and hedged with limiting words like 'chronic,' 'ultimately,' 'flagrant,' and 'reluctantly.' Roosevelt took pains to disclaim aggressive intent: 'It cannot be too often and too emphatically asserted that the United States has not the slightest desire for territorial aggrandizement at the expense of any of its southern neighbors, and will not treat the Monroe Doctrine as an excuse for such aggrandizement on its part.'"

Cato's Chapman inaccurately portrays the Roosevelt Corollary as "Manifest Destiny on an international scale," wrongly claiming that the president had thereby announced, "It was America's duty…to bring the backward nations into the fold of democracy and Protestantism, by force if necessary." In fact, three years later—as a direct consequence of the Venezuelan and Dominican incidents, and on the initiative of Argentina with U.S. support—the Hague Conference of 1907 banned the use of force to collect debts, thus formally incorporating into international law the arbitration that Roosevelt had persuaded the British, Germans, and French to agree to earlier.

? Having inherited the occupation of Cuba from his predecessor, William McKinley, Roosevelt pulled all American troops out in 1902, leaving behind both an elected representative democracy and America-supplied public works. Troops returned in 1906 at the Cuban government's request, in the face of a rebellion by the losing party in a recent election. Roosevelt pulled the troops out again two years later, leaving behind even more public works, schools, and hospitals than the U.S. had placed there in its earlier occupation.

? Chapman complains that "as president, Roosevelt tried to get Colombia to sign a treaty on the construction of the Panama Canal (Panama was then a province of Colombia). The Colombian government said no, and a group of Panamanians, with U.S. help, declared themselves a republic. T.R. sent gunboats to protect the new 'nation,' and shortly thereafter construction of the canal began."

Not exactly. The Colombian president actually signed the treaty, but its Senate refused to ratify. The U.S. already had a treaty with Colombia, signed in 1846, giving it free transit across the isthmus "upon any modes of communication that now exist, or that may hereafter be constructed"—which, at the time, was a railroad designed, built, operated, and protected by Americans. Armed revolts in Panama against distant Colombian rule had been common during the previous 50 years. Although it is true that America had helped put down 13 such revolts in the past, there was nothing in the treaty that obliged it to do so.

In the face of the Panamanian revolt in 1903 over the possibility that the canal would now go to Nicaragua, the U.S. landed 50 Marines at Colon to guard the railroad from any disruption during the rebellion. There was no conflict or confrontation between Colombian and American forces, and rebel bribes to the commander of the Colombian garrison in Panama City played a larger role in the revolt's success than the Marines did.

? In 1905, through skillful personal diplomacy, Roosevelt negotiated a peace in the protracted and bloody Russo-Japanese War. "The Portsmouth negotiation was a masterpiece of classical diplomacy," Zimmermann writes. "As a mediator and negotiator Roosevelt was informed, focused, understanding, sympathetic, firm when he had to be, trustworthy, and decisive."

? France and Germany almost went to war over Morocco in 1905. The kaiser, having admired Roosevelt's skill in handling his cousin the czar, asked Roosevelt to mediate between the two great powers. While not becoming personally involved in face-to-face negotiations as he had with the Russians and Japanese, Roosevelt authorized American mediation and was intimately involved in the details of the eventual resolution.

? Chapman criticizes Roosevelt's decision to dispatch all 16 U.S. battleships—the Great White Fleet—on a tour around the world in 1907, arguing that the display happened "largely to show off American's military power." But such criticism is superficial. Roosevelt wasn't "showing off." Rather, he was sending a direct message to the Japanese that the U.S. battle fleet, entirely concentrated in the Atlantic, could be transferred intact as a fighting force from one ocean to the other if the need arose, something Roosevelt knew the British and Germans (and presumably the Japanese as well) did not believe possible.

His reason for doing this was a diplomatic crisis earlier that year occasioned by the San Francisco Board of Education's decision to segregate Japanese schoolchildren. Roosevelt persuaded the school board to back down, but the crisis flared anew that summer when anti-immigration riots broke out in San Francisco and immigrant Japanese workers were beaten by mobs.

This unrest led opposition leaders in Japan to call for war. Privately, Roosevelt was advised that Japan's war party really believed it could prevail in a fight with the U.S. Moving the fleet from the Atlantic around Cape Horn to San Francisco was done at the recommendation of Adm. George Dewey. The world tour was not announced until after the fleet had reached San Francisco and the message to the Japanese war party had been delivered.

You can't even begin to compare this record to Woodrow Wilson's, though Zimmermann tries. "As president Wilson practiced a classic Rooseveltian diplomacy," he writes, "seeking to remove threats close to American shores and to protect the sea routes to the Panama Canal, which opened for business in his first term. In 1914 he unsuccessfully sought Senate approval for a U.S. protectorate over Nicaragua that was designed to protect an alternate canal route from foreign incursions. Out of fear that Germany would exploit Haiti's endemic violence in order to gain control of sea access to Panama, Wilson landed troops in 1915, and Haiti became an American protectorate for nineteen years. A year later American marines occupied the Dominican Republic and installed a U.S. dictatorship that lasted for eight years. Wilson also intervened repeatedly in Mexico."

There are ways to characterize Wilson's foreign policy, but it is more than a stretch to suggest it was "classical Rooseveltian diplomacy." Roosevelt's former Secretary of State Elihu Root certainly didn't see it that way. As a senator from New York during Wilson's first term, he actively opposed the president's interventionist foreign policy in Latin America.

Wilson's foreign policy is one long litany of failure and incompetence. There was his interventionist Latin American policy, in which force was used at the slightest provocation. There were his unsuccessful efforts in 1915 and 1916 to mediate a peace among the Great Powers. There was his postwar failure to achieve a just peace in the Treaty of Versailles, and his refusal to accommodate reasonable amendments to that treaty in the U.S. Senate.

These sometimes terrible flubs were due largely, if not entirely, to Wilson's rigid personality and outsized ego. An otherwise sympathetic Auchincloss suggests in his short book Woodrow Wilson (2000) that strokes in 1896 and 1906 "may have had a permanent after effect in intensifying [Wilson's] natural irritability and stubbornness." Elsewhere Auchincloss writes of Wilson as a "self-assured idealist who could hardly conceive, much less admit, that he could be wrong in judging matters that he deemed within his peculiar sphere of expertise….This Wilson, with God and his angels presumably ranked behind him, tended to regard opposition as malicious betrayal."

Wilson had more human flaws, however, than "natural irritability and stubbornness." Marital infidelity was one of them, and he was not nearly as discreet or as compartmentalized as his philandering successors Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. He was prone to write long, gushy love letters to women not his wife, and once in love he found it difficult to focus on his work.

Such infidelity can change the course of history. Zimmermann does not make much of it, but John Hay had an affair that may well have influenced history in more ways than one, including the eventual American rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. This is because the cuckolded husband in Hay's affair was none other than Roosevelt's best friend, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. Zimmermann writes: "A wellborn Bostonian, daughter of a rear admiral, Nannie [Lodge] must have seemed to Hay everything [Hay's wife] Clara was not. She was pretty and witty, small and slim with dark hair and eyes extolled by [the painter John Singer] Sargent as 'unforgettable blue.' So sharp was she of intellect that her vain husband depended on her to edit his speeches. John and Nannie fell in love and went to great lengths to arrange trysts that would not provoke gossip."

Was the affair a secret? Not really. Gossip wasn't invented in the 20th century. Lizzie Cameron, wife of Sen. J. Donald Cameron (R-Penn.), wrote to Henry Adams that "everyone" in Cleveland except Hay's wife knew about it. Given the prominent roles Ohioans played in Washington in the last 20 years of the 19th century, it is fairly certain they didn't keep it to themselves when they returned to Washington. In 1896 Lodge recommended Hay as secretary of state. In 1900 he recommended that Root replace the incumbent Hay. Zimmermann timidly suggests that "perhaps Lodge had found out about Hay's affair with his wife."

But surely if Lodge ever learned of the affair, he would have done more than simply propose Root to replace Hay, who was widely known to be in poor health. Ask yourself: If you were the most powerful senator in foreign relations and you knew the secretary of state had been engaged in a long-term affair with your beautiful and brilliant young wife, what would you do? Well, for starters, wouldn't you flyspeck every treaty the man negotiated and, consistent with your principles of course, make the secretary jump though every hoop your fertile mind could manage to devise?

This is, in fact, what Lodge did to virtually every treaty Hay negotiated, to a far greater extent than he ever did with Hays' successor Root. A detailed comparative analysis of how Lodge handled the treaties negotiated by both men is a subject worthy of serious study by scholars interested in testing the hypothesis.

What does this have to do with Wilson's infidelities? In 1915 Wilson fell "passionately in love" with the woman who was to become his second wife barely seven months after his first wife died. Auchincloss suggests the romance contributed to Lodge's low opinion of Wilson because Lodge "had suffered the sad loss of his own lovely spouse, to whom he had been so happily wed for forty-four years, just two months before, and his private remarks about Wilson's quick recovery from a much demonstrated grief were not complimentary."

There was more. Wilson's enemies in the summer of 1915 all knew of his adulterous affair in 1910 with Mary Peck, to whom he had written a series of more than 200 embarrassingly soppy love letters. These she had carefully saved. Thereafter, Wilson kept in contact with her and paid her money, $7,500 in total, to buy her silence.

And while the story of Wilson's affair with Mary Peck is unquestionably true, there were even uglier rumors circulating in Washington that summer, worthy of a Bill Clinton. As Gene Smith writes in his 1964 book When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson, "stories about the Presidential romance began flying around. And what was being said in Washington in the fall of 1915 was that the President and this Galt woman had conspired long ago to get Ellen Wilson out of the way so that they could marry, and that the loyal Dr. Grayson had poisoned the First Lady. It was also said she died after a beating at the President's hands…. Rumor had it that so taken with Edith Galt was he that official business was utterly ignored and stacks of neglected matters were piled high on his desk."

The neglect, at least, was more than rumor. It was fact, confirmed by Wilson's closest confidante, Col. Edward House, who wrote in his diary, "It seems the President is wholly absorbed in this love affair and is neglecting practically everything else." So while war raged in Europe, hormones raged in the widowed president, his work was neglected, and wild rumors flew through D.C. that he had conspired to kill his wife. Small wonder that Wilson's diplomacy in 1915 failed miserably to bring an end to a year-old conflict where the worst was still to come.

Perhaps Henry Cabot Lodge didn't need more reasons to hate Woodrow Wilson, but if you posit Lodge's knowledge of his wife's infidelity and combine it with her recent death, plus the rumors, true and false, about Wilson's infidelities, you begin to understand that there might have been something more than principle behind the loathing and contempt Lodge had for the president. Auchincloss offers a glimpse into the intensity of Lodge's feelings about Wilson during the war: "One day at [Henry] Adams's table…Lodge launched out on a particularly violent denunciation of his adversary in the White House. As the story has it, Adams finally struck the board with his whitened and trembling fist. 'Cabot, I've never allowed treasonable conversation at this table, and I don't propose to allow it now.' The two men were, of course, soon reconciled, but it was clear that Adams felt that the time of irresponsible partisanship had passed."

Would Lodge still have opposed a Versailles Treaty that superseded the Constitution and committed the U.S. to use force against its will to preserve the territorial integrity of members of the League of Nations without a vote of Congress? Certainly. But could he have tried sooner and worked harder to reach common ground with his Democratic colleagues over the treaty—especially the League of Nations, which he did not oppose in principle? He very well could have. And it wouldn't have taken that many defecting Democrats to ratify the modest GOP "reservations" that would have seen the U.S. join the League of Nations.

Drafted by Elihu Root, a key reservation would have made clear that the U.S. assumed no obligation in any given situation to "preserve the territorial integrity…of any country" unless the Congress were to specifically "by joint resolution so provide." With that reservation (which Britain and France would have accepted), Lodge and the Republicans would have voted to ratify the Treaty and the U.S. would have been in the League of Nations. Whether our presence in the League would ultimately have made a difference in keeping the peace in Europe and Asia is questionable, but in the event, Wilson refused to agree.

Individuals can change history. How they treat and interact with others is important. Unlike Wilson, Roosevelt was an excellent judge of human nature able to successfully negotiate with absolute rulers like the czar and the kaiser on the one hand and the ever-sensitive Japanese on the other. Considering all the accomplishments of his eight years as president, it is interesting to speculate whether there could have been a negotiated peace in the early years of World War I had Roosevelt been elected in 1912. He wouldn't have had a fool like William Jennings Bryan as secretary of state in 1914 or a vain, rigid, and stubborn president dispatching an honorary Texas "colonel" as his emissary to Europe while he wooed his new love. Instead, we would have had skilled, effective diplomacy from Elihu Root, orchestrated by a president who knew what he was doing. And with the assistance of Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. Senate could well have been behind him.

Could Roosevelt have successfully brought both sides to their senses? Auchincloss offers a tantalizing hint of what might have been: "There had always been a basic distrust behind T.R.'s occasional admiration of the Kaiser. He had been flattered in 1910 by the latter's taking him on military maneuvers in Germany, a privilege not usually accorded to aliens, but from the beginning of their relationship he had deplored the Kaiser's rashness and excitability, so different from the cool reflectiveness behind his own seeming bluster. Henry Adams saw this, and when Lodge told him the British thought that Roosevelt was under the Kaiser's spell, he exclaimed: 'For heaven's sake let them think so! The President's influence with the Kaiser is one of the strongest weapons we have in a really perilous condition. We know he understands the Kaiser, and that is enough.'" (In the event, Roosevelt's initial neutrality eventually gave way to sympathy with the Allies.)

Contrary to Zimmermann, Roosevelt was no Wilson when it came to foreign policy—and contrary to Chapman, he did not believe it was America's "Manifest Destiny" to establish a "New Imperialism" throughout the world by force. Roosevelt is a much better foreign policy role model than, say, Wilson or Clinton, who used military force indiscriminately and left the world a more dangerous place than the one they inherited.

With that understanding, it is welcome news that Bush and Rove regard Roosevelt as a hero. We can only hope that they recognize the genuine foreign policy differences between Roosevelt and Wilson—and that they remember what happened after the messianic Wilson mounted his white horse and charged off to make the world safe for democracy.