The American Dynamo

Posted: Jun 13, 2006 12:01 AM

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.

As loud as TR was over Panama, he exercised quiet diplomacy with Germany over Venezuela. When the British and Germans threatened a joint occupation of the South American republic because of a chronic failure to pay just debts, TR let the German ambassador know that any European occupation of an independent nation in the Western Hemisphere would be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Any such violation, TR said, would surely mean war with the United States. When the British backed away, the Kaiser felt exposed. Roosevelt was careful not to let the confrontation leak out. He would give the Kaiser “the satisfaction of feeling that his dignity and reputation in the face of the world were safe,” TR later wrote. Thus, Roosevelt showed his subtle understanding of the many uses of diplomacy. The frequent indebtedness of Latin American nations led to a constant threat of foreign intervention. To forestall such assaults on the Monroe Doctrine, Theodore Roosevelt asserted his own belief that the United States might, from time to time, be called upon to intervene in order to defend the hemisphere. This “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine was highly controversial in its own day and has since been abandoned by the United States But it did ensure no foreign interventions in this continent during the Roosevelt presidency.

Roosevelt faced another foreign crisis when a North African desert chieftain called the Raisuli took hostage the U.S. consul, Ion Perdicaris. The Raisuli was trying thereby to exert pressure against a rival Arab ruler. TR instructed Secretary of State John Hay to send this terse message: “We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” He got Perdicaris alive.

Roosevelt’s reputation for wielding the big stick strengthened his hand as a peacemaker. When Japan smashed the Russian fleet in a sudden, overwhelming attack in 1904, a major war broke out. TR called both parties to New Hampshire in 1905 and hammered out the Treaty of Portsmouth to end the Russo-Japanese War. His efforts made him the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Roosevelt’s last years in power were stained by one ineradicable act of injustice on his part. Black troopers from the army were assigned to Brownsville, Texas, at the height of racial tension. When a riot broke out in 1906 and some civilians were killed, accused troopers refused to step forward, and their brothers refused to point them out. TR thought the soldiers were showing a loyalty to race over their duty to the country and the army. He ordered the dishonorable discharge of the entire company of 167 black soldiers. As someone who knew the ugly truth of race relations at the time, who even loudly condemned lynchings, how could TR have expected the black troopers to have confidence in the military or civilian justice systems of the day? Teddy is justly famous as an advocate of civil rights. In fact, he had sent his own children to an integrated public school on Long Island. Still, his Brownsville judgment was a cruel and unjust act.

President Roosevelt constantly sought ways to dramatize American naval power. In 1905, he sent a squadron to France to bring back the body of naval hero John Paul Jones. Jones’s body had been interred in a Paris cemetery since his death in 1792. With a flair for the historic, Roosevelt presided over an impressive ceremony at the Naval Academy in April 1906. There, before a glittering international audience, he marked the return of Jones’s remains to America. France sent a large portion of their fleet to the Chesapeake Bay to honor the Revolutionary War captain.

Approaching the end of his presidency, TR resolved to brandish his big stick one last time. He sent the large, modern fleet of U.S. battleships on an unprecedented round the world cruise. The Great White Fleet—so called because the ships’ hulls were painted white—showed the flag in dozens of foreign ports.

Congress balked at the distance and the expense of the voyage. So Teddy used his allotted funds to send the fleet to Yokahama, Japan. Then he forced Congress to pay to bring the Great White Fleet home!

The trip was a public relations bonanza for the United States, while demonstrating to the crowned heads of Europe and Japan all the muscle of the brash young republic. At a time of growing Anglo-German naval rivalry, TR forcefully demonstrated that the United States was not a country to be trifled with on the high seas.