Theodore Roosevelt has been an admired president and political figure for over 100 years. After serving as Commander of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, Teddy gained a reputation among many as a war-monger, especially during the decades following his death. In all fairness, Teddy was personally fond of war, and he even encouraged President Woodrow Wilson to enter World War I much earlier than he actually did. Overall, however, how was Teddy’s true record on war? Let us examine the facts.
What you were taught: Theodore Roosevelt was a war-monger who often pushed for war. He even said himself that he loved war.
Reality: Though Theodore Roosevelt was personally fond of war, he never pushed for entering a conflict unless he felt that it was absolutely necessary. The reputation of Teddy Roosevelt as a war-monger is usually perceived on his stance from two conflicts: The Spanish-American War and World War I. In 1898, America was thrown into the blender when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Tensions between the United States and Spain were already tense, and the sinking of a prominent American ship was the spark that ignited the conflict. Although it has been continuously debated as to whether it was actually a Spanish mine or an internal explosion, many Americans were insistent that it was the former. With tensions being high and 261 sailors killed in the explosion, Teddy pushed for war with Spain. Teddy considered himself a man of the people, and he was determined to not sit idly by while his fellow Americans were being slaughtered. As a result, he gathered a group that became known as the “Rough Riders” – many of them his friends and colleagues from out west – and the Rough Riders, together with the Buffalo Soldiers, heroically captured San Juan Hill from Spanish forces. The Spanish-American War would end in a little over a month following this, lasting only around four months in total.
Flash forward nearly 15 years, and the world is in complete turmoil, unlike anything ever seen before. Airplanes dominated the skies. Mustard gas, rats, and diseases filled the frontline trenches. Barbed wire prevented soldiers from crossing No Man’s Land. Though America would not enter World War I until 1917 (following the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram), Teddy pushed President Wilson to send troops several years prior. He even volunteered to gather his Rough Riders and hit the front lines, to which Wilson denied. Teddy asserted that America was right to go to war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, due to their killing of innocent Americans on the high seas. In his autobiography, Fear God and Take Your Own Part, Roosevelt states that Wilson should have done more to prepare, taking a peace through strength stance. He asserts, “Immediate preparedness at the outset of the war would have meant that there would never have been the necessity for sending the ‘strict accountability’ note. It would have meant that there never would have been the murder of the thousands of men, women, and children on the high seas.” Teddy also heavily criticized Wilson’s pacifism, claiming it was mere cowardice and stating, “(Wilson) occupies a position precisely as base and as cowardly as if his wife’s face were slapped on the public streets and the only action he took was to tell her to stay in the house.”
Teddy certainly wanted the United States to be involved in those two conflicts, due to the fact that innocent Americans were killed. In all fairness, who can logically blame him? He also used his Christian beliefs in justifying his position on entering WWI, claiming that it is the duty of all God-fearing people to rescue others from oppressive nations. In this light, Teddy would seem like a “war-monger” to some. It is important, however, to look at his overall track record.
Theodore Roosevelt was never willing to enter America into a war unless he felt that it was absolutely necessary, and in the case of the Spanish-American War and WWI, his charge toward war came mainly after innocent Americans had been killed. It is important for one to know that Teddy was actually the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, due to his effort in helping bring an end to the Russo-Japanese War. To do this, he made a bold move. Daniel Ruddy states in his book, Theodore the Great, that Roosevelt warned France and Germany that, if they were to enter the conflict on behalf of Russia, he would enter the U.S. on the side of Japan for two reasons: to “safeguard the balance of power in Asia, and to protect American commercial interests in Manchuria.” Knowing that Britain would support his alliance with Japan, Teddy had strategically prevented two other superpowers from turning this large conflict into a world conflict, and the war ended shortly after.
Teddy’s peacemaking did not stop there. He also prevented a war between France and Germany over interests in Morocco, and he was a proponent of sending the Navy on “training exercises” to showcase American muscle. This was displayed when he ordered the Great White Fleet to the Pacific, following Japan’s threats of war toward California for its treatment of their citizens. Though Japan may have understandably had a case, Teddy did not want America entering a war due to the careless actions of one state, and his peace through strength initiative prevented that from happening. To summarize, Theodore Roosevelt may have personally loved war, and he may have seen himself as justified in pushing for America to enter two wars based on the fact that he was tired of seeing Americans lose their lives. In all, however, Teddy actually prevented more wars than he pushed for, and he did not share the view of today’s “nation-builders,” who believe in seemingly-endless war with no exit strategy. Teddy may have also been a proponent of interventionalism at times, but only when he felt that a nation was in danger of collapsing, and he left the nation when his mission was complete. Due to his will to see things accomplished, the Panama Canal became one of the most treasured passages in the world, and Cuba became very prosperous (prior to the rise of Fidel Castro). Nation-building is not something that America should actively seek to be involved in, but I disagree with anyone who attempts to place Teddy in the category with today’s war hawks. Teddy loved all Americans and he had the heart of a true peacemaker. Theodore the vicious war-monger? Bullocks!
Garrett is a Maroon Elite writer for TUC and top historian. Follow @GWSmith1993.