“A combination of St. Paul and St. Vitus.”
—Ascribed to John Morley
The world could use a few more volumes devoted to Grover Cleveland; it has little need for more books about Theodore Roosevelt. But if more there must be, at least the two under consideration here explore terrain not yet strip-mined. Patricia O’Toole begins her biography at the point where most encomiasts of the Rough Rider lose interest, with his departure from the White House in 1909. James R. Holmes argues—with limited success—that Roosevelt articulated a special understanding of international police power in his letters, speeches, and acts, both as president and before. Each book, authorial intent notwithstanding, shows why Roosevelt, who possessed some real virtues, was nonetheless a man whose vision of government, and of foreign policy in particular, was even more pernicious than that of Woodrow Wilson.
O’Toole’s book, the more accessible of the two, opens with the aftermath of the 1908 election, which had posed a quandary for Roosevelt. Had he wanted to run for reelection, he almost certainly could have won. But he had already served nearly eight years in the White House, and to run again would be in breach of the spirit of Washington’s two-term precedent.
Instead, Roosevelt helped his friend and secretary of war, William Howard Taft, succeed him in office, then withdrew from public life, lest his exuberance and energy overshadow the new president. On March 23, 1909, not three weeks after Taft’s inauguration, Roosevelt set off on an African safari (backed by the Smithsonian Institution), which would allow him to play scientific adventurer.
O’Toole describes Roosevelt, with all his vim and energy, as boyish, possessed of “qualities rarely found in persons over the age of eight.” She never uses the words immature or adolescent, but, in a sense, Roosevelt was the first of our boy presidents. No man was ever as unsuited to the life of contemplation or gentlemanly leisure. He read voraciously, more than any president since Jefferson; he took with him on safari pigskin-bound volumes of Homer, Euripides, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickens, Twain, and more. But reading—and writing, of which TR also did a great deal—is not the same thing as reflection.
Roosevelt reared four brave sons and two spirited daughters. In 1911, he wrote to his son Ted,
I have heartily enjoyed many things; the presidency, my success as a soldier, a writer, a big game hunter and explorer; but all of them put together are not for one moment to be weighed in the balance when compared with the joy I have known with your mother and all of you.
Yet domesticity no more fulfilled him than did the life of the mind: For all his adult qualities, Roosevelt had an adolescent’s craving for action—political action, above all.
Returning from safari in 1910, Roose-velt succumbed to the urge to meddle in midterm elections, a prelude to seeking the presidency again in 1912. He discovered several pretexts for returning to politics and undermining Taft. The President was too soft on business interests—even though Taft busted more trusts than Roosevelt had ever done. Taft was a poor steward of public resources; he had fired U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot for speaking out to Congress about a suspicious sale of public land to Morgan interests. And Taft had soft-headed views on foreign policy and too much faith in the potential for international arbitration treaties to avert war.
Roosevelt was not alone in his dissatisfaction with President Taft. The Republican Party was bitterly divided between progressive “Insurgents”—critical of Taft, staunchly opposed to the tariff, and personified by Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette—and “Regulars” such as Roosevelt’s friend Henry Cabot Lodge. TR was as skeptical of the Insurgents’ leaders—“narrow fanatics, wild visionaries and self-seeking demagogues”—as he was of Taft. The only statesman he trusted to steer a middle course between socialism and capitalist excess was, naturally, himself.
Biding his time until 1912, Roosevelt stumped for Insurgent candidates in 1910. In Osawatomie, Kansas, TR unveiled what he (or rather his speechwriters, borrowing a phrase from Herbert Croly) called the “New Nationalism.” “Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require,” he told his listeners, enumerating a program including demands for a graduated income tax and other levies aimed at the rich, social insurance and workmen’s compensation, and a military buildup. Roosevelt wasn’t one to scruple over the constitutional problems these desiderata might pose.
After midterm gains, the Insurgents reverted to calling themselves progressives and laid plans to deny Taft the Republican nomination in 1912. Roosevelt kept aloof from this effort, at least at first, claiming to have no interest in running and to be concerned only for the good of the party. He set his ambitions on other sights in the near term: When war with Mexico seemed in prospect early in 1911, he offered to raise a volunteer regiment and charge up the next San Juan hill. Taft wouldn’t start the war, however, and he continued to pursue arbitration agreements with France and Britain that Roosevelt adamantly opposed.
Seeking the nomination was something Roosevelt told himself he simply had to do: What he couldn’t accept as a privilege he readily embraced as a duty. La Follette was too radical; Taft, too weak. His party and his country needed him. More than a few of his countrymen and fellow Republicans wanted him as well. Roosevelt won a majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention from states that held primaries.
Unfortunately for him, as O’Toole notes, “Two-thirds of the convention’s delegates came from states without primaries,” and they were overwhelmingly for Taft. Roosevelt’s supporters put up a fight, challenging Taft delegates’ credentials. There was little substance to their charges of impropriety, but the appearance gave Roosevelt a pretext for denouncing the convention. Several members of the Michigan delegation offered to break away from Taft and help Roosevelt win the nomination, if he would support a compromise candidate in the first round of voting. Roosevelt vehemently refused.
His campaign secretary, O.K. Davis, thought this refusal proved Roosevelt was not interested in personal advancement. O’Toole suggests otherwise: “TR’s rejection can also be taken as one more sign that he did not want the nomination as much as he wanted to bolt.” On the last night of the convention, as the Republicans renominated Taft, Roosevelt assembled his delegates in a nearby venue and declared his intention to battle on; there, in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, he was “nominated to lead a party that didn’t yet exist.” O’Toole’s chapter on this episode is one of the most colorful in the book, and notable for the critical judgment she ventures on her subject. TR’s antics at the Republican convention would try even a more sympathetic biographer than O’Toole.
Two months later, Roosevelt and his supporters returned to Chicago—to the Coliseum, the very place where Taft had bested Roosevelt—for the Progressive Party convention. Roosevelt had spent the interval building up the party, campaigning so intensely—with “flailing arms, rising voice, and reddening face”—that rumors flew of heavy drinking. (Henry Adams quipped that Roosevelt was only drunk on himself.) The party’s ranks consisted largely of ex-Republicans; Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White described them as “successful middle-class country-town citizens, the farmer whose barn was painted, the well-paid railroad engineer, and the country editor.” The Progressive Party’s platform melded the interests of organized labor with bourgeois concerns for uplift: women’s suffrage, a living wage, abolition of the seven-day work week and child labor, plus the measures TR had called for in Osawatomie. This blueprint for a “pro-family” welfare state (as well as Roosevelt’s longtime rhetorical championing of large families) has earned him the admiration of some latter-day conservatives, notably Allan Carlson. However, the eventual enactment of most of the Progressive Party’s platform did not lead for long to a country notably secure in its families. The scientific and bureaucratic expertise in which Roosevelt always put great faith would later be put to uses that would have horrified him.
Although every major candidate touted his progressivism, the 1912 presidential election presented the country with Taft as the moderate conservative, Woodrow Wilson posing as a Jeffersonian decentralist, and the big-government nationalism of Roosevelt. In O’Toole’s words, when Wilson argued “that the history of liberty was a history of limiting the powers of government, Roosevelt parried that the history of public welfare was the history of increasing governmental power.” The outcome was never in any doubt: Taft was resigned to defeat; Roosevelt and the Progressives fought on without a hope in the world. Only a failed assassination attempt on Roosevelt, which created the possibility of a sympathy vote, added drama to the race.
Roosevelt’s vanity created the Progressive Party and would destroy it before long. He still wanted to be president, and it was clear that the Progressive Party presented no means to that end. His efforts on the Progressives’ behalf in the 1914 elections were desultory. That fall, with war under way in Europe, he was more interested in clamoring for preparedness and denouncing “ultrapacifists” who “cry continually for peace and not at all for righteousness.” And he berated Wilson for failing to avenge Belgium.
Although Roosevelt took to journalistic jingoism, he was willing—indeed eager—to do some fighting himself, unlike today’s laptop bombardiers. He was eager, too, that every man should have a hand in the war: “I no more believe in permitting a man to volunteer to stay at home or refuse to enlist in time of war than I believe in permitting him to volunteer not to pay his taxes in time of peace.”
Roosevelt wanted the 1916 Republican nomination, but, having bolted the party and knowing he needed the support of the bosses to win, he was in no position to campaign openly for it. He declined the Progressives’ nomination and supported the Republican nominee (he had 1920 to look toward), Charles Evans Hughes, the war candidate in the race with Wilson, who had “kept us out of war,” though that year Wilson sent forces into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Roosevelt once again sought a commission, and, once again, he didn’t get it. Hughes, for his part, used the Villa episode to argue for greater interventionism.
But voters chose Wilson and—they thought—peace. Five months later, the country entered the European conflict. In addressing Congress to call for a declaration of war (quaint, that), Wilson sounded a Rooseveltian note: “the right is more precious than peace . . . ”
Roosevelt’s four sons all went to war. TR’s only regret was that he could not go himself. From the sidelines, he continued to demand greater determination—from his countrymen and president alike—in prosecuting the war. “In his judgment,” O’Toole writes,
teachers should be made to sign loyalty oaths, and police should be used to disperse crowds listening to the soapbox purveyors of “veiled treason.” He wanted cases of sedition heard by military tribunals . . .
Three of his sons survived. Quentin, the bright boy who, at the age of 10, had compared his sunburned legs to a Turner sunset (owing, possibly, to Henry Adams’ influence), was shot down over enemy territory at the age of 20. Roosevelt outlived the war by less than two months: He died on January 6, 1919, of a coronary embolism. But his program—the welfare state at home, interventionism abroad—lived on in Wilson’s administration and later in that of cousin Franklin, whose libido dominandi outstripped even Theodore’s, and who had no qualms about overturning precedents set by George Washington.
All of this is ably related by Patricia O’Toole with hardly a jot or tittle of critical interpretation. Her book is a straightforward pop-history narrative, albeit one with a bedrock of original scholarship. She has, for example, uncovered new material about Roosevelt’s troubled relationship with Taft (and Taft’s troubles with his health) from the letters of Archie Butt, an Army officer who served in the White House under both men. Those looking for a painstaking evaluation of what TR’s sound and fury signified for the country, however, will have to search elsewhere.
Intrepid souls might try Theodore Roose-velt and World Order, a very different sort of book, aimed at foreign-policy wonks. It has a major defect: While O’Toole’s book advances no thesis at all, Holmes argues persuasively for a very meager one. He shows that Roosevelt developed a doctrine of “international police power,” defined in part as “the quasi-legal authority Roosevelt invoked to justify diplomatic action in certain circumstances.”
Holmes investigates “what constituted ‘chronic wrongdoing’ and ‘impotence’” in the context of nations targeted for intervention under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine; whether the international police power was something only America possessed (in short, no); the legal and policy status of the power; and whether the modified Monroe Doctrine forbade U.S. intervention outside the Western Hemisphere (no, again). Answers to these inquiries, he suggests, may be useful in analyzing latter-day interventionism.
The contemporary relevance of his research is not something Holmes emphasizes, however. In his last chapter, he concludes that, whatever its value as an analytic tool, Roosevelt’s notion of police power has little application today. Holmes’ other lines of research are pursued more methodically: By far the longest of his chapters is devoted to case studies of the major U.S. interventions (diplomatic and military) during Roosevelt’s time as assistant secretary of the Navy and as president—in the Philippines, Cuba, Venezuela, Panama, Santo Domingo, and Morocco.
Just as Roosevelt believed in strong government at home to regulate business and mediate disputes between labor and capital, he saw a need for the United States—and other great powers—to guarantee world order, both between states and within the less-advanced ones. Colonization could thus be a positive good, though, in the case of the United States, what might otherwise be called colonization was really something else—republicanization (which we now call democratization). The United States took control of Hawaii and the Philippines in the name of self-government. Roosevelt cannily argued that the spreading of republican values and institutions was a long-established American policy: Hadn’t Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory without asking its inhabitants’ permission?
Order had to come from somewhere, and, if a nation could not (yet) govern itself, a greater power must do the governing. Within this broad framework, Roosevelt acknowledged practical restraints, and he avoided direct use of force whenever he could—as Holmes says, “American troops never fired a shot in anger in any constabulary mission during the Roosevelt presidency, with the sanguinary exception of the Philippine War.” He succeeded in imposing his authority—America’s authority—on Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Venezuela without violence. But, despite the limited means Roosevelt employed, the ends of his police-powers doctrine were vast.
And his idea was pregnant with potential for great-power conflict. Just as the Roosevelt Corollary insisted that the United States step in to bring order to unruly Latin American states whose debts might provoke European powers to annex them, so Roosevelt saw occupying the Philippines as necessary to forestall a German occupation—which would have given the kaiser a base from which to menace China’s markets. In the Philippines, Roosevelt’s idea of international police power could provide a useful cloak for the pursuit of base self-interest.
Holmes acknowledges that Roosevelt did not, in fact, consistently abide by his own strictures regarding this power. Certainly in practice, self-interest trumped constabulary duties—as when the United States, rather than fulfilling her treaty obligation to provide security on the isthmus of Panama for the Colombian government, recognized the breakaway province and prevented Colombia from stopping the secession. Even in his more ostensibly benign interventions, was it really order—economic stability, self-government, etc.—that Roosevelt aimed at sustaining, or American power? “One of Roosevelt’s least appealing traits, his willingness to disregard ‘technicalities’ for a higher purpose, was in full view during the Panama affair,” Holmes writes. But perhaps there was always a “higher purpose” behind Roosevelt’s idea of international police power.
Holmes’ book is more interesting for its evidence than for its argument. Here we have an account of the nation’s transformation from continental power to global empire—an empire of republican and democratic values, of course. Roosevelt, who always believed that right deserved might, played a pivotal role in bringing about that transformation.
[Theodore Roosevelt and World Order, by James R. Holmes (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books) 327 pp., $29.95]
[When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, by Patricia O’Toole (New York: Simon & Schuster) 495 pp., $30.00]