Teddy Roosevelt Revisited

Quote of the Day:

Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” Teddy Roosevelt

TB mentioned here a while back that I was reading “The Imperial Cruise” by James Bradley. I finished it several days ago and have been thinking about how to summarize what I learned, and what I did not. As longtime TBU citizens know, Teddy Roosevelt is one of my most admired U.S. Presidents for many reasons. It is safe to say the author of “The Imperial Cruise” would disagree. From personality flaws to family problems to politics, Bradley seeks to tear down the image of TR as a visage worthy of Mount Rushmore. The book is highly footnoted and well sourced. The facts presented which mar Teddy’s image can mostly withstand interpretation. However, Bradley’s ultimate thesis that Roosevelt’s missteps with regard to Asia led to World War II in the Pacific, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and our long lasting tension with China are, while plausible, inadequately proved. Without regurgitating the whole book, I’ll say that I agree that serious missteps were made, but that too much blame is placed on TR and too little consideration for American policies that came after him and no consideration of the culpability or lack thereof of the various Asian nations.

You may be surprised then to see that I rate the book a must read. Like many good novels, the details and the background in this non-fiction work are riveting even when the climax fizzles. Primarily the book raises issues and quotes rhetoric from the era that are little different from those we currently hear about on television regarding immigration and foreign policy, the appropriate role of the American military and terrorism. It is at once terrifying to see how nothing has changed and comforting to see that America has survived nonsense identical to what we see these days before. Overriding all else is the theme of how white supremacist thinking overtly guided politicians, theologians, titans of business and philanthropy, generals and even educators of TR’s generation. It’s shocking to read the words of eminent statesmen who are usually associated with democratic ideals unabashedly pontificating on the inferiority of “Negroes”, “Mongolians” and other non-white races. It’s done in a gentlemanly, faux-scholarly way; a noblesse oblige approach to racism as opposed to the violence and intimidation we usually associate with white supremacists. More surprising than anything, nary a single southerner is featured espousing these views. All this from a generation that vividly recalled the Civil War.

Bradley recounts the entrenched white supremacist world view for the purpose of illustrating why Roosevelt and his Secretary of War William Taft acted the way they did. The well supported contention is that Roosevelt viewed Asia, beginning with the Pacific Rim as the next and natural progression of Anglo-Saxon expansion and eventual domination of the world. The American frontier had only been declared eliminated a few years before Teddy took office and remaining Indian opposition to American rule had been crushed. Thus, following the tradition of the Teutons who theoretically began in Central Asia before moving to Germany, then Britain, then across the Atlantic to America, ever westward, it was his duty to see the race continue moving and conquering. In furtherance of this teutonic destiny, America all but stole Hawaii with the assistance of missionaries and the Dole pineapple people, and took over a debacle already well underway in the Philippines from the Spanish. As “masters” of the Philippines, we inherited a brutal, never ending war against the local Muslims. A war we still fight, though on a smaller scale, over a century later. Yes, in the Philippines. One has to wonder if the Spanish were mindful of Tom Sawyer’s fence painting tricks as they withdrew to the mother country. I’ll leave it to Bradley to connect the facts to his conclusions.  For my purposes, it was illuminating to see that much of today’s softer, supposedly color-blind rhetoric is little more than a sugar-coating of the blatantly race-conscious debates of a century before.

Two more examples from the book on how things never change that stand out:

First I’ll quote a passage on the problem of “Mongolian” immigration from the book.

  • From America’s inception in 1783 to 1882, a period of ninety-nine years, there had been no concept of illegal immigrants in the United States. That changed with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the first time in U.S. history, an immigration gate was erected with the specific goal of blocking non-whites….But because of the dire race threat presented by the yellow men, most Americans had no problem with the new legislation. Twenty-four years old and just out of Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in 1882, “No greater calamity could now befall the United States than to have the Pacific slope fill up with a Mongolian population.”

Here’s the context. Chinese were brought in the US in huge numbers to help build the transcontinental railroad. Specifically, there courage and expertise with dynamite was needed to get through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Tangent to their railroad labor, Chinese established laundries, general stores, bars and restaurants all throughout the west and they were becoming a major economic force. The immigration paranoia resulted.

Finally, one of the best known photographs of Teddy Roosevelt, famed outdoorsman, is of him dressed in full western regalia, holding a hunting rifle and posed as a frontiersman. It was an image piece, shot in a New York studio. Roosevelt was extremely image conscious and he was quoted as saying he must never be photographed on the tennis court, but rather on a horse or holding a gun if at all possible. I thought the concept was very familiar.

If you can’t accept that America has acted ignorantly, mistakenly, or even criminally through the years in various ways, this book is not for you. It is a slap-in-the-face style reminder that we, no less than others are an imperfect nation. And if you admire Teddy Roosevelt the way I do, you better prepare yourself to reevaluate his legacy. Bill O’Reilly would lump this book and people who appreciate it, like me, into the “blame America first” crowd and say that we hate America. No, I’m proud to be an American, and I still admire TR’s legacy. That doesn’t mean there aren’t blemishes on the record. In fact, to my way of thinking, you can’t love America if you don’t know it in the first place. Read again today’s quote of the day, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” Part of having national character is recognizing your country’s mistakes, owning them, and moving on with resolve to do better. “The Imperial Cruise” is a book that gives us a chance to increase our collective character.

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About travellinbaen

I'm a 40 year old lawyer living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I'm several years and a couple hundred miles removed from most of my old running buddies so I started the blog to provide an outlet for many of the observations and ideas that used to be the subjects of our late night/happy hour/halftime conversations and arguments.
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3 Responses to Teddy Roosevelt Revisited

  1. Harmony says:

    “Part of having national character is recognizing your country’s mistakes, owning them, and moving on with resolve to do better.” ~ I love this line. And? I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Jessie Lou says:

    The same should be say for individuals. Not very many people take responsibilities for their actions any more.

  3. Harmony says:

    So true JL, so true. I think that if people could look at themselves with open eyes, their views on others would change drastically.

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