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...”
Basically, President Roosevelt’s point is well taken. I would have to dissent, in part, because for black Americans in 1905, night riders of the KKK were too often aided and abetted by the police and sheriff’s posses. To his credit, though, President Roosevelt stood strongly for civil rights for all Americans.
“No one in his senses,” T.R. wrote, “would suggest [American] disarmament.” One has to wonder how those words were received by the leading American disarmer. Still, as President, T.R. knew the value of the West African proverb: “Speak softly and carry a Big Stick.”
Roosevelt accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, while speaking strongly for an armed peace. He agreed with our first President, George Washington, that if you seek peace, prepare for war. To demonstrate U.S. resolve, Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world. Japan and Germany--rising naval powers--took note.
I can think of no better example for our young President than Theodore Roosevelt. Tragically for our country and the world, T.R.’s unique combination of realistic idealism was rejected by the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s impractical idealism put pacifists in charge of the War, Navy, and State Departments in the vain hope that exchanging America’s eagle for an ostrich could preserve peace.
Whenever I hear President Obama talk about his year of “engagement,” extending an open hand to the Mullahs of Iran, I hear Woodrow Wilson, not Theodore Roosevelt. The dictators in Tehran have slapped away Obama’s every initiative, sneered at his every utterance.
We should never forget that the Mullahs are the Number 1 supporters of terrorism in the world. They are the ones who murdered our 241 Marines and Navy corpsmen in Beirut in 1983. With this new year, can we count Obama’s “engagement” broken?
President Roosevelt did not inherit a war being waged on America by international terrorists. We can be sure that if he had done so, he would not have hesitated to call terrorists terrorists -- or to take the strong, resolute action necessary to defeat them.