Historian H.W. Brands has done a great service to all Americans in his newly edited version of the letters of Theodore Roosevelt. More than a century ago, in 1905, President Roosevelt basked in congratulations from around the world. He had just negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire), which put an end to the bloody Russo-Japanese War. For this outstanding achievement, T.R. was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The occasion prompted our young, Harvard-trained President to reflect seriously on what is needed to preserve peace. In a letter to the famous Carl Schurz, German immigrant and noted advocate of disarmament, President Roosevelt politely, but firmly, dissented from the views of Progressives then--and all too many now. He did not think armed forces necessarily led to war. He pointed to the Ottoman Turks--who had butchered hundreds of thousands of Armenians--while the Great Powers of Europe kept hands off. They “kept the peace.” T.R. thought their policy iniquitous.
Commenting on the just-completed British war against jihadists in the Sudan, Roosevelt said that if England had disarmed and allowed the followers of the Muslim Mahdi (Expected One) to prevail, “the result would have been a horrible and bloody calamity to mankind.” But T.R. did not glorify armed conflict. “Unjust war is dreadful; a just war may be the highest duty.”
It was in that British colonial war that young Winston Churchill saw action as a subaltern in the cavalry. He faced death repeatedly--just as young Theodore had done at San Juan Hill in Cuba.
Churchill wrote that “nothing is as exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
President Obama should read these letters. For he, too, is a young Harvard-trained President; he, too, is the recipient of a Nobel Prize for Peace. Our 44th President could find much wisdom in the thoughts of our 26th.
T.R. was certainly an idealist. He certainly brought change. But his idealism was tempered by realism. He saw the world as it was, not as he wished it would be.
“There is of course no analogy between international law and private or municipal law. [Here], the law abiding man does not have to arm himself against the lawless simply because there is some armed force--the police, the sheriff’s posse, the national guard, the regulars--which can be called out to enforce the laws. At present, there is no similar international force to call on...”