Smearing Theodore Roosevelt
The cultural vilification of the politicians and officials who launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has not satisfied those intellectuals and activists who view American history as a continuum of racism, imperialism, and aggression. The authors of two new books have now extended the hunt for the spiritual antecedents of the George W. Bush administration. Their prey is an unlikely villain: Theodore Roosevelt.
For Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers, and James Bradley, who has just published The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War,1 Roosevelt is the source of much of what ails America today. Thomas offers an account of this nation’s drift to war against Spain in 1898 in which TR (as he was known in his day) is the central figure in a movement driven more by aristocratic male insecurity than national priorities. The author believes that this suggests “eerie” parallels with the invasion of Iraq. In his book, Bradley blames TR for not only inspiring neoconservatives to wage war and torture innocents but also for the fact that the United States was attacked by Japan in 1941, 22 years after Roosevelt’s death.
The stock of every historical personage rises and falls over time. Even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were subjected to abuse from their critics before assuming their status as secular saints in America’s civic religion. Theodore Roosevelt’s seven and half years in the White House, from the middle of 1901 through 1909, were not marked by the sort of major conflicts that tested those other men. But he has always seemed to elude the grasp of revisionists. The enduring image of this energetic, eclectic scholar, soldier, naturalist, and politician has always appealed to a broad political cross-section of Americans. Staggeringly popular in his own day, the legend of the “Rough Rider” president has persisted in the nine decades since his death. Every survey of scholars or the general public has placed him among the first rank of America’s chief executives. Indeed, in a 1982 poll of historians in which the participants were asked to identify themselves as either liberals or conservatives, both ranked Theodore Roosevelt the fifth-greatest president, after Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.
For the Right there is TR the patriot, soldier, and statesman. For them he is the man who really did lead a gallant charge up San Juan Hill on a hot July day in Cuba in 1898. As president, his construction of the Panama Canal, embrace of “big stick” diplomacy, and advocacy of a two-ocean Navy set the template for the ascent of the United States to great-power status during the 20th century. TR’s philosophical embrace of the vigorous life, encapsulated in his 1910 “man in the arena” speech, extolling above all the virtues of courage and effort,2 established him as the nation’s pre-eminent champion of individualism.
There has also been a significant reservoir of affection on the Left for Roosevelt. For them, he has always been the first president to challenge the power of Wall Street plutocrats and a trust-busting progressive chief executive who believed the state must act to ensure the common good. His “Bull Moose” challenge to orthodox Republicans in 1912—in what remains the most successful third-party presidential candidacy in history—laid the foundation for much of the liberal reformist agenda in subsequent decades. Roosevelt is also the quintessential conservation president, the city boy who became a Wild West rancher and whose unbridled love of animals and birds—even though he also liked to shoot and stuff them—led to the establishment and expansion of a vast system of national parks, wildlife preserves, and monuments. In an era in which support for environmentalism is viewed as an indication of intrinsic virtue, there is no greener president.
The steady stream of admiring biographies intended for popular audiences published in recent decades, a genre that has included books by David McCullough, Edmund Morris, H.R. Brands, Kathleen Dalton, and Douglas Brinkley to name just a few, testifies to TR’s ideologically diverse appeal. But the question now is whether smears of Roosevelt’s character rooted in the politics of our own day will finally topple him from his pedestal, as the Theodore Roosevelt found in both The War Lovers and The Imperial Cruise is the personification of vainglorious American hubris, a showy fraud whose machinations cost untold lives and constitute a blot on the honor of his country.
The buildup to the Spanish-American War of 1898 is Evan Thomas’s focus in The War Lovers. As an assistant secretary of the Navy whose power was augmented by the perpetual absence of his boss, Navy Secretary John Davis Long, Roosevelt did play a decisive role in preparing the fleet for victory. But as did Roosevelt himself, Thomas exaggerates TR’s influence on the decision of a wavering President William McKinley to ask an eager Congress for a declaration of war.
Yet Roosevelt’s advocacy of the vigorous life, in which a desire to fight for one’s country is central, interests Thomas more than his role in the policy debate. He sees Roosevelt as an effete upper-class snob whose fear and insecurity about his manhood made him hunger for war. Seen in this light, Roosevelt’s lifelong love of exercise and advocacy of strenuous outdoor activity was not a corrective for the ill effects that a sedentary life was having on many Americans as society was transformed from a rural to an urban existence. Instead, Thomas claims it was an attempt to re-create a warrior culture. Covering territory familiar to readers of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, the once-influential takedown of nationalistic American literature, Thomas hones in on Roosevelt’s desire to emulate the heroes of a Civil War that he had only experienced as a child (and with the added burden of the shame TR felt about his father having purchased a replacement rather than serving himself).
Roosevelt’s burning desire to participate personally in the Spanish-American War despite the fact that he was a 39-year-old man—and one with an important job in the Navy Department, bad eyesight, asthma, and a wife and six children—may be hard to fathom in an era in which the duty to serve is reserved only for professional soldiers. But Thomas’s effort to pigeonhole Roosevelt’s patriotism as mere jingoism is ludicrous. It is of interest that Thomas concludes his book by noting the exploits of Roosevelt’s eldest son, Ted Jr., who at the age of 57 led American troops ashore on June 6, 1944, at Utah Beach, an act for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unable to recount this stirring tale without irony, Thomas merely puts down Ted Jr. as another “war lover” who, like his father, was besotted with “bloodlust”—rather than as a patriot who put his life on the line in one of history’s crucial moments.
The reduction of Roosevelt’s enthusiasms to a caricature of psychological motivations says more about Thomas’s desire to use TR as a present-day political weapon than it does about Roosevelt himself. One astonishing error that illustrates this failing is Thomas’s description of the Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Roosevelt as a silly collection of swells batty about guns and devoted to frontier nostalgia with which they filled a “Hunter’s Cabin” on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Thus he tars Roosevelt and those who gathered around him as drugstore cowboys who longed for a war in which they too could be heroes. But the Boone and Crockett Club was nothing of the sort. Founded in 1888 by Roosevelt and Field and Stream editor George Bird Brinell (the creator of the Audubon Society), it is widely acknowledged by most historians to have been, as Douglas Brinkley calls it, “the first wildlife conservation group to lobby effectively” on behalf of the protection of animals such as the buffalo and the establishment of national parks. Rather than an illustration of the artificiality of Roosevelt’s ideas, the club’s existence demonstrated that his impulse to pursue the “strenuous life” was grounded in a genuine love of his country’s welfare and nature that no amount of posthumous psychoanalyzing can diminish.
Even the most superficial examination of his career reveals that Roosevelt was at heart a moralist no matter what he was doing. He loved publicity and craved glory, but his role as the scourge of the spoils system as a federal Civil Service commissioner, his fight against corruption as New York City’s police commissioner, and his battles with big business while president all demonstrated that he was a man who viewed life as a constant struggle between right and wrong. And he did not believe personal participation in that fight was optional.
Thomas makes clear that his interest in dissecting the decision of the United States to go to war with Spain over the fate of Cuba doesn’t stem merely from a desire to explore a largely neglected chapter of history or even to cut Roosevelt down to size. He sees that brief conflict as the “harbinger, if not the model, of modern American wars, especially Iraq.” The war with Spain was “another ‘war of choice’ not immediately vital to the national security but ostensibly waged for broader and sometimes shifting humanitarian reasons.” Even more telling, he says, is the fact that “just as the threat of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be bogus in Iraq, the sinking of the [battleship USS] Maine—the pretext for invasion—was not a Spanish plot but rather almost certainly a shipboard accident.”
The parallels don’t end there for Thomas, who notes that the liberation of the Philippines from Spain in the course of the war resulted in a conflict between American forces and local rebels “that cost over 4,000 American lives between 1898 and 1902, roughly the same death toll as suffered in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.” The alleged use of torture in recent years against Islamist terrorist suspects also plays into Thomas’s indictment when he declares that U.S. troops “first used the torture known as water-boarding while interrogating Philippine insurgents.” And to top it all off, the building in which Theodore Roosevelt labored as assistant secretary of the Navy was the same one where I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby hung Roosevelt’s portrait on his wall as he toiled on behalf of his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney.
Thomas simply assumes that both wars were fundamentally wrong without offering any kind of argument. He is right that historians have concluded that the widespread belief in Spain’s responsibility for the sinking of the Maine was unfounded. But the deadly accident in Havana harbor did not bring about the war by itself. If anything, and contrary to Thomas’s assertions, an analysis of the two wars yields the conclusion that the process by which an American-led coalition decided to go to war in Iraq was far more considered and rooted in genuine threats to American security than the McKinley administration’s break with Spain in 1898.
As for humanitarian rationales, there are genuine parallels here, though they are more flattering to the United States than Thomas can conceive. Americans in the 1890s were genuinely sympathetic to the desire of Cubans to be free of brutal Spanish colonial rule. Despite the problems that followed the attainment of that goal, it is difficult to argue that U.S. acquiescence in a continued Spanish presence would have been any more defensible in the long run than a decision to allow Saddam Hussein’s blood-soaked rule of terror in Iraq to persist.
America’s other prime motive in going to war in 1898 was the desire on the part of some like Roosevelt for the United States to assert itself on the world stage as a power to be reckoned with. But the notion that there is any parallel between Roosevelt’s impassioned belief in the importance of naval power and a Bush administration supposedly influenced by neoconservatives to take the offensive in a global war against Islamist terrorists who had already attacked the United States is ridiculous.
Despite the many shortcomings of Thomas’s The War Lovers, it is a model of scholarship when compared with the work of James Bradley. Bradley has described himself as an “amateur historian.” While academic credentials are no guarantee of wisdom, The Imperial Cruise provides an example of the perils of navigating a complex historical subject armed with nothing but a narrow ideological agenda. More unhinged polemic than a work of history, The Imperial Cruise is beset with simple errors of fact (Bradley doesn’t know President William Henry Harrison from his grandson Benjamin, let alone the long history of Japanese aggression toward Korea) that deprive it of even the veneer of credibility.
The Imperial Cruise purports to be an account of the American goodwill mission to the Pacific in 1905 headed by Roosevelt’s Secretary of War William Howard Taft and the Princess Diana of the era, presidential daughter Alice Lee Roosevelt. But as fascinated as the author is by Alice’s personality and antics, they are merely window-dressing for Bradley’s 400-page diatribe against Theodore Roosevelt and the America that produced him. Bradley is the author of a previous bestseller—Flags of Our Fathers—that played off the fact that he is the son of one of the men who raised the flag over Mount Suribachi during the conquest of Iwo Jima in 1945. In that book, as well as the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name that it spawned, the heroism of the combatants is celebrated while the patriotic fervor that their act inspired is seen through a cynical lens.
The point of his current book is, he claims, to trace the roots of the conflict that led his father’s generation to fight Japan in the first place. Bradley’s answer is that the war was an inevitable result not of the Japanese imperialism that overran much of Asia and the Pacific before being turned back by the United States but of America’s own behavior. It was, he asserts, Theodore Roosevelt who unleashed the tiger of Japanese aggression, as he heedlessly imposed American power in the Pacific in the cause of “Aryan” manifest destiny. For Bradley, American racism, of which Roosevelt is the chief offender, brought about much of the suffering of the 20th century and set the pattern that later villains such as George W. Bush would follow.
Bradley’s account of America’s encounter with Asia in this era is informed by one theme hammered over and over again as he sprinkles in a sketchy narrative of Taft and Alice Roosevelt’s voyage: the Americans had no right to be there. Not in Hawaii, or in the Philippines, or in attempting to enforce an “Open Door” to international trade in China, or in trying to integrate an aggressive and expansionist Japan into a framework that might achieve stability.
Admittedly, the brutal war fought against the Philippine insurgents is one of the sorriest chapters in American history. But the subsequent conduct of the United States during the decades it controlled the islands, as well as its decision to keep faith with Filipinos by liberating them from the depredations of the wartime Japanese (whose own monstrous mode of imperialism casts America’s experiment with it in an almost golden light by contrast), engendered powerful feelings of friendship between the two nations that have persisted to this day.
But Bradley’s dispute is not so much with the U.S. presence in the Pacific but with expansion across the American continent itself. Roosevelt was the author of a seminal history of the winning of the West and therefore becomes the focus of Bradley’s contempt for the entire American enterprise—since from Bradley’s peculiar frame of reference, the first white settler’s step across the Allegheny Mountains led inevitably to his father’s presence at Iwo Jima. Though Roosevelt’s account of the move west was written in terms that seem shocking in 2010—he applauded the displacement of Native Americans by the conquering whites as a triumph of civilization over barbarism—Bradley commits the classic historical crime of anachronism in condemning them. While Roosevelt, like Winston Churchill after him, viewed this story as the saga of the English-speaking peoples, for Bradley it was the immoral march of Nazi-like “Aryans” who brought destruction upon the indigenous tribes of North America as well as the “Pacific Negros.”
In addition to defaming him as a faux military hero, spurious naturalist, and fake Westerner—something that would have been news to the cowboys who discovered that the bespectacled New York dude could ride and rope any of them into the ground during roundups in his beloved Dakota Badlands—it is vital to the book that we think of him as a racist. But Bradley conveniently fails to mention that it was this same president who invited Booker T. Washington to dine in the White House to howls of anger from Southern bigots. And contrary to Bradley’s disingenuous conclusion—when he ponders how angry his subject would have been at the influx of Koreans and other nonwhite immigrants into his hometown of Oyster Bay, New York—Roosevelt believed that anyone who chose to assimilate into America and to embrace the culture and the ethos of the nation deserved equal treatment. His rhetoric about manifest destiny and racial superiority would not pass muster today, but even if we take him out of the context of his own time and judge him entirely by the standards of our own, it is difficult to argue that a man whose overriding ethos was devotion to “fair play” can be branded in such a manner.
It is not just that Bradley’s view of America and Roosevelt is skewed; he has no understanding of Japan either. His attempt to portray Japan as America’s helpless victim whose crimes against other Asians, particularly Koreans, were incited by Roosevelt is astoundingly ill-informed. Japan’s aggression in Asia dates back not to Roosevelt or even to Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan in the 1850s but rather to the 16th century, when it launched two invasions of Korea.
Bradley even describes Roosevelt’s successful effort to negotiate the end of the Russo-Japanese War as part of an American imperialist conspiracy that sent the Floating Kingdom on its path to December 7, 1941. In fact, Roosevelt rightly sought to act in a way that would make it impossible to achieve regional hegemony for either of the two empires that were clashing in what would prove one of the bloodiest conflicts of the modern era. And the peace he forged (and for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize that had not yet been tainted by the terrorists and political poseurs who have recently received it) satisfied neither Russia nor Japan. Japan’s path to aggression in the 1930s and 40s was the result of its own intentions, not the machinations of foreigners. The Japanese belief in their own racial superiority over other Asians was, unlike military technology, something they did not need to import from Europe or America. With the condescension that is all too typical of anti-Western ideologues when they discuss non-Europeans, Bradley denies the Japanese any agency in the policies they faithfully followed from the 1868 Meiji Restoration until the death of their imperial dreams in August 1945.
These are not the first books to attack Roosevelt. Henry Pringle’s 1931 Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography prefigured Thomas and Bradley by shrinking Roosevelt down to the status of a perpetual “adolescent.” Richard Hofstadter, who devoted a chapter in his classic 1948 work The American Political Tradition to an unflattering portrait of TR, echoed Pringle’s attack on Roosevelt’s personality—but deplored him principally because his progressive beliefs were rooted in the conservative cause of preserving American traditions and thwarting radicals.
But the defamatory efforts of Thomas and Bradley represent a new, and especially low, chapter in ideological American historiography. Perhaps they are right, and Roosevelt’s belief that America must take its place on the world stage to be a force for stability and peace should be considered a by-product of his hunger for imperialist domination—although unlike the United States, most nations that have practiced imperialism have done so with only perfunctory concern for the people and institutions they have come to rule. But even if one accepts that Roosevelt’s motivation was as an imperialist, it is horrifying to imagine the history of the 20th century if the United States had failed to follow Roosevelt’s advice and become a world power. Would the world have been a safer or freer place had the West been left to face fascism (in both its European and Japanese imperial versions) and then Communism without global American power?
Roosevelt was a man with flaws as well as virtues, but what makes him truly objectionable to his new critics is not so much his politics as his personality. Roosevelt’s romantic sensibility is the quality both Thomas and Bradley find inscrutable. His desire to lead the vigorous life, to stand up for right against wrong, and to follow the flag to war are not explained but dismissed as a form of psychiatric disorder. And yet the legacy that has so endeared Theodore Roosevelt to successive generations is not so much his progressivism, enthusiasm for global American power, or even his environmentalism. It is, instead, based on an understanding that the spirit of adventure, service, sacrifice, and yes, valor that Theodore Roosevelt exemplified is one they find uniquely admirable regardless of the politics of his day or our own. Far from discrediting him, these virtues are precisely the ones that have earned him his enduring popularity. One suspects that as long as Americans admire courage, this will remain the case.
1 Evan Thomas’s book, 432 pages in length, is subtitled Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898 and was published by Little, Brown and Company, which also published James Bradley’s 400-page book.
2 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”