Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.
The 95-ton Bucyrus steam shovel chugging away in the Culebra cut is huge—and complicated. It requires an engineer, a craneman, a fireman, and several pitmen to keep it operating. The machine’s 5-cubic-yard bucket is capable of moving 8 tons of rock or nearly 7 tons of earth in a single scoop, and here, in the massive gash in the Earth that will become the Panama Canal, the machine goes about its job, scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping, elephant-sized mounds of earth into waiting railway cars.
And currently, President Theodore Roosevelt is behind the controls.
It’s November 16, 1906, and with this trip to Panama, TR has become the first sitting president to leave the United States. He’s inspecting the progress on the canal that will one day connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
When he sees the steam shovel from his train, the president—who is a kid at heart and can’t resist a little adventure, or a photo op—instructs the train to stop, hops down, and strides, in his crisp white suit, into the muddy cut. He hops on board the steam shovel, and begins a discussion with the engineer.
Later, he’ll tell some assembled workers, “You are doing the biggest thing of the kind that has ever been done, and I wanted to see how you are doing it.” He reports that he’ll be able to tell people back in the states that he can guarantee the success of the “mighty work” the men are doing in Panama, adding, “It is not an easy work. Mighty few things that are worth doing are easy.”
The Panama Canal won’t open until 1914, but TR’s visit allows him to see a dream he had spoken of since 1894 coming to life—and the fact that he had supported a revolution with the American Navy to make it happen didn’t bother him in the least. The canal was being built, and it would allow the U.S. Navy to move easily from ocean to ocean and to get to America’s Pacific territories more quickly—and bully to that.
Roosevelt famously said, “speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” To some, TR was an American visionary; to others, a warmonger. But he was a man just as notable for the battles he fought as he was for the peace he secured. So just how did TR use this Big Stick Energy at home and around the world, and how far did it get him? We’re about to find out.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this episode is TR vs. the World.
It’s not so surprising that Theodore Roosevelt had a lot of opinions about America’s place in the world. After all, by the time he entered politics, Roosevelt had seen a lot of the world. As a kid, he traveled extensively with his family, touring Europe between 1869 and 1870 and visiting Egypt and Jerusalem in 1872 and 1873. After both his first and second marriages, he honeymooned in Europe.
Roosevelt came into the White House on the heels of a number of Civil War veterans occupying the office—for them, worldliness was not a prerequisite for the job. President McKinley famously couldn’t even find the Philippines on a map when the Spanish-American War began.
Here’s Geoffrey Wawro, professor and director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, speaking at the 2019 Theodore Roosevelt Symposium put on by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota:
Wawro: “Roosevelt arrived in the White House with a better knowledge and feel for the world than arguably any of his predecessors, with the possible exception of James Monroe or John Adams.” Jenkinson: What he did was travel and read, travel and read. And reflect.
That’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center.
Jenkinson: He's been to Germany, he lived there. His family had been to the Vatican. He's met the Pope. He's gone to Egypt. He's hunted along the Nile. He's met heads of state. He's had one of the most privileged travel lives of any American president, and he's read. He reads five languages. He reads maybe not a book a day, but close to it. He's voracious. He loves history, he loves geopolitics, he knows the Roman Empire, he knows Napoleon, he knows the lives of the British Empire. This is a guy who knows things.
From the moment Roosevelt entered the political arena, his mind was on expansion. After President Grover Cleveland, an anti-imperialist, refused to annex Hawaii, Roosevelt bemoaned his decision not to exert his power. For TR, taking Hawaii was a necessity for the U.S.—it would help the country build up a military that could compete with Japan’s might out in the Pacific and expand American influence on the other side of the globe.
In 1895, writing in Century Magazine, Roosevelt said, “It was a crime against the United States, it was a crime against white civilization, not to annex it two and a half years ago. The delay did damage that was perhaps irreparable; for it meant that at the critical period of the island’s growth the influx of population consisted, not of white Americans, but of low-caste laborers drawn from the yellow races.”
So, I just want to pause right here, because of those phrases, white civilization and yellow races. Roosevelt’s stance on imperialism is tied to, and informed by, his views of race. We’ll discuss how he developed his views in a later episode, but the cliff’s notes version is that TR's elite upbringing, reading habits, Ivy-League education, and travels, along with 18th- and 19th-century ideas about cultural and racial development, all informed his racial theories—ideas that we know today are totally wrong, and also, totally repugnant.
According to historian Thomas G. Dyer, author of Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, Roosevelt believed that the white, English-speaking, American race was superior to other races, and he thought it was America’s duty to export its white civilization to other areas of the globe.
TR believed that all races and nationalities evolved through the same stages of development: from chaotic savages; to barbarism, where a race’s organized military virtues are formed; to the next stage, where those military virtues blend with order and racial proliferation; to the two final stages, which see a society lose its fighting edge and eventually fall into decadence and death.
He thought that for a race to be successful and stay there, it was necessary to keep what he called its “barbarian virtues”—basically, you’ve got to keep fighting to stay on top.
TR knew that conflict would be inevitable in expanding America’s interests around the world, and due to his belief in the importance of keeping those barbarian virtues, he wanted it.
In 1897, he wrote that “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” And in an address given not long after, he said, “All the great masterful races have been fighting races, and the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, then, no matter what else it may retain, no matter how skilled in commerce and finance, in science or art, it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best.”
Do you feel kind of uncomfortable right now, listening to this? So did I, when I read it. There is so much that’s problematic here—but before we dig into it, a little more history.
Cleveland wasn’t alone in disliking America’s imperialistic tendencies. This was a period when many elected officials had a general distaste for growing a military and expanding American influence around the globe. William Jennings Bryan, President McKinley’s opponent in the 1900 presidential election, and a man who was pretty much the complete opposite of Roosevelt, laid out the anti-imperialist viewpoint perfectly, saying, “We cannot set a high and honorable example for the emulation of mankind while we roam the world like beasts of prey seeking whom we may devour.”
Worldwide, though, the tides were turning: Japan and Russia were expanding in the Pacific, and Britain, France, and Germany continued to colonize around the globe.
Jenkinson: All these other nations are building colonial empires, and seeking out new markets, and acquiring territory. He thought Grover Cleveland should be impeached for not taking Hawaii when he had the chance. He's an imperialist and a jingoist. He believes that war can be healthy. A war can be healthy for a country, it can reinvigorate you, and concentrate your manhood, and remove some frivolity and some complacency from the country, and that a good war now and then is kind of a tune-up. Most of us don't see the world that way anymore. And he believes … he's an ardent believer in the Monroe Doctrine and that America's going to become a world power and that we need a big Navy, because he's been reading Mahan's book, The Influence of Sea Power on History.
Roosevelt’s vision for a mightier, more expansive America would get closer to reality when he was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy in 1897. He was a vocal proponent for war against Spain at the time, in defiance of President McKinley’s more methodical approach. TR would also be a key figure in growing the U.S. Navy and preparing them to go to war at a moment’s notice. And when the Spanish-American war came in 1898, it was Roosevelt who personally helped lead the charge on the ground in Cuba.
Jenkinson: He believed two things. One is, we need to do this. We need these wars. We need to assert ourselves as a nation and become second only to Britain, and maybe first. And secondly, if you want to lead this country, you need to know something about these things. You can't just be standing out on the periphery. You have to get in the arena.
You can see these “get in the arena” themes often in Roosevelt’s speeches, including in "The Strenuous Life," in which he explicitly linked empire-making with the idea of American masculinity:
“The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift that thrills ‘stern men with empires in their brains’—all these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a Navy and an army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos … These are the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is really worth leading.”
Roosevelt also argued that in places like Cuba and the Philippines, Americans had a duty to oversee their populations until they reached a stage where they could govern themselves. In "The Strenuous Life," he said that “the Philippines offer a yet graver problem. Their population includes half-caste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans. Many of their people are utterly unfit for self-government, and show no signs of becoming fit. Others may in time become fit but at present can only take part in self-government under a wise supervision, at once firm and beneficent. We have driven Spanish tyranny from the islands. If we now let it be replaced by savage anarchy, our work has been for harm and not for good.”
In his 1901 annual message to Congress, Roosevelt wrote that Americans could successfully govern themselves because they had been working at it for generations, and said that we couldn’t “expect to have another race accomplish out of hand” what had taken Americans so long to achieve, “especially when large portions of that race start very far behind the point which our ancestors had reached even thirty generations ago.”
He continued, “In dealing with the Philippine people we must show both patience and strength, forbearance and steadfast resolution. Our aim is high. We do not desire to do for the islanders merely what has elsewhere been done for tropic peoples by even the best foreign governments. We hope to do for them what has never before been done for any people of the tropics—to make them fit for self-government after the fashion of the really free nations.”
In the book A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes that, “Roosevelt was contemptuous of races and nations he considered inferior.” And according to Wawro, Roosevelt never thought about how weird it was that Americans should be a democratic nation and yet impose their decidedly not-democratic will on other nations.
Wawro: “He never, for example, contemplated the contradiction between American democracy and American imperialism. That is; having one system of government for Americans in the United States and another system of government for America’s overseas colonies.”
Of course, everything Roosevelt is positing completely disregards that those countries would have retained their right to self-determination and been just fine if not for the intervention of foreign powers.
Later, while campaigning as the vice-presidential candidate for President McKinley, Roosevelt pushed for American control of the Philippines. (Before he signed up to be VP, in fact, he’d written to his friend and mentor, Henry Cabot Lodge, that “the thing I should really like to do would be to be the first civil governor general of the Philippines.”)
Still, there were opponents at home, including William Howard Taft, who would go on to serve as governor there. One of the most visible opponents—and one of Roosevelt’s most outspoken critics—was writer Mark Twain. In a 1900 interview that appeared in the New York World, Twain lamented America’s insistence on intervening in the Philippine government: “I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess,” he proclaimed. “I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel … It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.”
The long and shockingly brutal war would be officially declared over in July 1902, and TR was the president who made the announcement. Here’s Michael Cullinane, author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost:
Cullinane: When he's struggling with the war in the Philippines, a war that he inherits from McKinley, of course, and he's struggling with explaining how the U.S. is going to get itself out of the Philippines with its hands unbloodied, and so what he does is he just declares the war over, and it's not over. I mean, the war, it goes on really until 1915, but officially the war is ended in 1902.
In the end, an estimated 4200 American troops and 20,000 Filipino troops had been killed in the conflict. But those numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the 200,000 Filipino civilians that are thought to have died from famine, disease, and military actions throughout the campaign.
The years of war and bloodshed gave America a stronger foothold in the Pacific, which TR believed was incredibly important for strategic reasons. But for many, this was a potentially horrifying glimpse of a nation that was seemingly looking to plunge itself into war after war, all for the sake of devouring more territories. Here’s Jenkinson:
Jenkinson: So there was a constancy to his foreign policy and it really offended people, like Mark Twain. Mark Twain looked on this and thought, "This guy's actually crazy. This is a very dangerous man. This is the last thing the United States needs. It's going to make us do all sorts of really awful and dark things." And it did. You get involved in this sort of thing and become a world empire, you're going to start doing things that are not really harmonizing with the basic ideals of American life. But Roosevelt's view was, well if we don't do it, somebody else will, so we're going to do it.
This seems like a good place to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.
Roosevelt viewed his role as a “steward of the people,” and, as he would later write in his autobiography, “I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.”
Roosevelt believed his position should be one of action. He wanted to influence policy and enact as much positive change as possible—and he used power aggressively and oftentimes unilaterally. Often, his weapon of choice was an executive order.
Since a president cannot create new laws without Congress getting involved, executive orders exist as a way for a president to instruct employees in the executive branch to interpret existing laws a certain way [PDF]. So TR wasn’t creating new laws, but was instead manipulating them how he wanted.
He passed a staggering 1081 executive orders during his tenure in office to get things done. Roosevelt far outpaced his predecessor, William McKinley, who tallied just 185 executive orders. Here’s Cullinane.
Cullinane: Congress can act, and it is the most powerful branch, if it could operate effectively and sometimes it does but that's what Roosevelt, I think, understood best, was that Congress wasn't able to organize itself if there's too many factions in two major parties, that effectively ... They're coalitions, and those coalitions don't always agree on policy and it takes a long time for Congress to work through to reach a consensus, and so the president can do something in a moment and the Congress then, well, as he said, has to debate it.
Roosevelt’s use of executive orders helped quadruple the amount of protected land in the United States and lowered the age of eligibility for pension for veterans to 62, for example.
Roosevelt also acted unilaterally when it came to international affairs. Historian Kathleen Dalton writes that “in foreign policy … TR operated as a law unto himself.” He sometimes dealt with other heads of state or intervened in international matters without consulting Congress or even his own Cabinet first. These kinds of power moves did not go over well. And whenever someone criticized the president for making those moves, well, that didn’t go over well either.
Take, for example, when Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet—16 naval battleships—on a 43,000 mile, 14-month journey around the globe in 1907. This huge showcase of American power was sent off without giving Congress [PDF] or the State Department a chance to approve the mission, which was an enormous expense and risk to the country. When one Senator threatened to withhold the money for the trip, Roosevelt is said to have replied that he already had the money, and dared to the Tenator to “try and get it back.”
That brings us back to the Panama Canal—something TR would take heat for long after he left office.
The idea of a manmade canal across the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, had been a far-off dream for politicians, royalty, and engineers from the 16th century. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is credited as the first world leader to seriously consider the idea and ordered a survey of the area in 1534. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would later support it, while Presidents Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant would go a step further by sending surveyors out to see about its feasibility.
But the canal always seemed just out of reach of engineers at the time—until 1869. That’s the year the Suez Canal opened, which connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt. It provided the shortest route between Europe and the lands around the Indian and western Pacific oceans. Engineers now had a blueprint for tackling Panama—and France stepped up to try to make it happen.
The Suez Canal Company had been comprised mainly of French investors and a team of engineers led by Ferdinand de Lesseps. For the Panama project, France again brought in de Lesseps, who claimed that the project would take 12 years and $240 million to finish.
Work began in 1881, but Panama could not be tamed like Suez—heavy rains made work sites unnavigable, and boiling heat, snake bites, malaria, yellow fever, and smallpox killed off many of the men. Others were buried in mudslides, along with their expensive equipment. The dangerous work environment was responsible for an estimated 20,000 deaths.
The project’s costs ballooned to $287 million—and the canal was nowhere near done. By 1889, the French had given up; dreams of a Panama Canal would seemingly go unfulfilled.
Enter Theodore Roosevelt.
When TR ascended to the presidency in 1901, he almost immediately began talks of making his long-held dreams of the canal a reality. He was determined to pick up where the French left off, telling Congress, "No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people."
That might not be as overblown a statement as you’d think. A manmade canal would cut thousands of miles off trips that had previously required ships to go around the southern point of the Americas. It would speed up commerce, further connect the globe, and, in the hands of America, help create an empire.
Still, there was debate over the exact location of the canal. One school of thought believed in a canal in Nicaragua, while an increasing minority preferred Panama. Though Panama was losing in Congress, a man named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a civil engineer and investor who had financial ties to the old French project, successfully helped to lobby politicians to choose the more politically volatile Panama.
To get to Panama, though, you had to go through Colombia, which had control of the area at the time.
So Roosevelt had his secretary of state, John Hay, offer the government $10 million up front and, after nine years, $250,000 annually for the right to build the canal and lease the area. But the Colombian government didn’t go for it. One rumored reason for the rejection, according to Kathleen Dalton, is that Germany may have sabotaged the U.S.’s relationship with Colombia. They allegedly did so by spreading stories that Americans back home were prejudiced toward Colombians and routinely referred to them by a particular racial slur, which some claim may have been enough to sour the country on dealing with the United States. Dalton also says rumors abounded that Germany was willing to fund the canal behind the scenes, which would have fed into increasing paranoia about German immigration, especially to Brazil.
Roosevelt couldn’t let another European power have so much say in Latin America, but Colombia still wasn’t budging. He later told author William Roscoe Thayer that trying to make an agreement with the rulers of Colombia was like trying to “nail currant jelly to the wall.”
Jenkinson: There's a certain number of millions of dollars we can give to them, and then they'll cooperate, because it's obviously going to be in their interest. But when they begin to balk a little bit, and don't want to just be rolled over, Roosevelt flies into a righteousness rage. He's got a problem with righteousness anyway. And so then he decides to just do what it takes.
Roosevelt and other purveyors of American might were none too pleased about Colombia’s dismissal of the U.S.’s offer. Roosevelt is said to have remarked, “Those contemptible little creatures in Bogota ought to understand how much they are jeopardizing things and imperiling their own future.”
In November 1903, Panama launched a rebellion against Colombia. While Roosevelt didn’t officially support the imminent rebellion, he deployed the USS Nashville and other craft to the Panama coast to block off any Colombian reinforcements and all but ensure that the rebellion would be a success.
Jenkinson: And so there's one of the many, many insurrections happens in the Panamanian neck of Colombia, which is physically isolated from the rest of the nation. The United States doesn't exactly foment it, but we do slyly encourage it. We recognize the new nation of Panama within hours, it's very unseemly. The whole thing just smells of realpolitik. I reject the notion that the United States created the revolution in Panama, but it certainly made it clear that it would not mind the revolution, and it would be siding with the rebels against the kleptocracy, as Roosevelt saw it, of Colombia.
On November 18, 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed, and then ratified a few months later, giving the United States possession of the Panama Canal Zone for $10 million and $250,000 annually beginning nine years later.
Roosevelt got roasted. Dalton writes that “The Senate … accused him of usurping Congress’s war powers.” (Though they apparently weren’t angry enough to vote against the treaty—it passed the Senate 66-14.) Colorado Senator Henry Teller basically called Roosevelt a thief, saying, “You have no right to take Colombia’s land in the interest of civilization. That … is the robber’s claim. … We want it, and therefore we take it.”
The papers also got in on the action, with the Chicago American calling Roosevelt’s actions “a rough-riding assault upon another republic over the shattered wreckage of international law and diplomatic usage.” Even Roosevelt’s attorney general, Philander Knox, couldn’t resist ribbing Roosevelt a bit, joking that he shouldn’t “let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”
Roosevelt was unapologetic. He would later say that if Panama hadn’t revolted on its own, he would have asked Congress to invade. In a speech at the University of California in 1911, he continued to defend his strategy for securing the canal, saying, “If I had followed traditional, conservative methods, I would have submitted a dignified state paper of probably two hundred pages to Congress, and the debate on it would have been going on yet. But I took the Canal Zone, and let Congress debate, and while the debate goes on, the canal does also!”
Jenkinson: The fact is, he hastened that project by years, probably. And it all kind of worked out. Later, after he left office, the Taft and Wilson administrations essentially apologized to Colombia and offered economic recompense for the high-handedness of what Roosevelt had done. And this threw him into a towering rage. This is one of the most hurtful things in the course of his life, and his view was you don't do that. You don't ever, after the fact come back and say, "Well, my predecessor was a hothead, or an imperialist, and we're now going to compensate you." That's essentially an ex post facto vote of no confidence to the Roosevelt administration. It's unfair, he wasn't called upon to testify. And he was deeply offended by this, and it's part of what drove him to try to get back into power in 1912.
Roosevelt would continue to flex U.S. might across Latin America for the remainder of his time in office. By this time, he saw debt as one of the biggest threats to the U.S.’s interests in the Americas. And not U.S. debt, but instead debt that Latin and South American countries owed to European powers.
Foreign debts could be used as a pretext for invasion. Roosevelt feared that too much economic turmoil could lead to military intervention and colonialization of the indebted countries to a European power like the UK, France, and Germany.
He felt that things got perilously close during a debt crisis in Venezuela in 1902 and ’03, which led to a blockade of the country by the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. While there was no seizure of the country, Roosevelt was on alert—he wasn’t about to let Europe have any influence on his side of the globe. His solution was to establish the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine was a policy adopted in 1823 that boiled down to this: The United States would intervene in any European attempts at colonizing an independent state in North or South America.
The corollary was declared by Roosevelt to Congress in 1904. It stated that not only could the U.S. intervene in any colonialization attempts from Europe, but it could also step in when a nation’s “wrongdoing or impotence” had “invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.” In essence, the United States would prevent European intervention by intervening before there even was a crisis. In his autobiography, Roosevelt said that “nine-tenths of wisdom is to be wise in time; and at the right time,” explaining that the entirety of his foreign policy was based on “intelligent forethought and … decisive action” before any crisis could pop up, which he said would “make it improbable that we would run into serious trouble.”
So, afterwards, when rumors were swirling that Europeans were going to collect on their debt in the Dominican Republic through the use of military force, Roosevelt sent naval ships to the country and took control of the customs house. There, the U.S. government began collecting taxes to repay what was owed—keeping 45 percent for the Dominican Republic’s expenses, while the remainder would be used to pay off the debt.
Jenkinson: If you're going to protect the Western Hemisphere from European colonization, if you're going from the age of steam and railroads to protect the Monroe Doctrine, you're going to have to have the Roosevelt Corollary, because those nations do misbehave. And if we don't want Germany and England to come in and slap them around, then we're going to have to police those countries.
The policy was popular among expansionists, but that’s about where its popularity ended. In Latin America, it was seen as a gross overstep of authority, and in the years that followed Roosevelt’s presidency, growing hostilities would lead the U.S. to get involved in a number of armed conflicts in Latin America, most notably in Nicaragua and Haiti. It would be Franklin Roosevelt who would backtrack on the Roosevelt Corollary with the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933, which promised more trade and dialogue to stabilize Latin America, rather than military might. This would be formalized in the Montevideo Convention, which proclaimed, “No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.”
During the first few years of his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt had firmly established a pseudo-imperialistic strategy for dealing with Latin America and the Pacific. But he’d soon be up against drama on the other side of the globe—and at home.
We’ll be right back.
We’ve talked a lot in this episode about how TR spoke softly and carried a big stick abroad, but you can’t go up against the whole world without having a few battles at home. So I want to take a quick aside to talk about one instance in which he used his big stick on U.S. soil.
It started in May 1902, when around 147,000 workers from the United Mine Workers of America union in eastern Pennsylvania went on strike. These miners specialized in anthracite coal, which was the main heat source for cities in the eastern United States during the early 20th century.
A labor strike usually wouldn’t fall under the purview of the president of the United States, but the prospect of a coal shortage was different. Concerns rose that homes would go heatless, and as the strike headed into the latter months of the year with winter looming, the president feared widespread rioting by heatless homeowners could erupt around the country if action wasn’t taken.
So Roosevelt brought representatives from the coal mines, railroads, and labor to the White House and told them, basically, that they were going to have to work it out. Jenkinson explains that Roosevelt also told them that he would be creating a commission to come up with recommendations, and that those recommendations would be accepted ... or else.
Jenkinson: When the captains of industry said, "No, there's just no way we're doing that. That's not how it works." Roosevelt said, "Well that's how it's going to work. I'm going to send in U.S. troops to run the coal mines if necessary, but I'm not going to let the people of the United States freeze to death in this coming winter because you all can't work this out. And so there's your choice. You either take the commission and abide by its findings, or I'm going do to what has to be done, which is to secure the distribution infrastructure of coal, which is how the nation heats its homes."
Roosevelt’s commission that helped settle the dispute was made possible by J.P. Morgan, who worked with TR’s then-secretary of war, Elihu Root, to draft the proposal plan for the commission. The mining operators accepted the plan for the commission, which would have members chosen by Roosevelt.
By the end of October 1902, it was agreed that the miners would go back to work, and the commission would begin its investigation into the situation—which included three months of meetings, endless interviews from both sides, and more than 10,000 pages of testimony.
In the end, the commission settled on a verdict: the workers would get a 10 percent increase in pay, not the 20 percent they wanted; and their workday would be reduced from 10 hours to nine, not the eight hours they’d hoped for. Though they didn’t see all of their demands met, the intervention and subsequent mediation from the federal government helped the workers get a far fairer hearing than they likely would have otherwise, and avoided the growing violence that so many strikes eventually led to at the time.
Just as he had proven on the global stage, Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to use the power of the presidency in unprecedented ways when he felt action needed to be taken. Here’s Cullinane.
Cullinane: Effectively, Roosevelt believed that the president could act as a mediator or arbitrator between capital and labor, and that he thought that there was excesses on both sides there. I think TR was a particularly good arbitrator.
OK, now back to the rest of the world.
Roosevelt had proven that he was a skilled arbitrator at home, but in 1905, he faced a challenge that tested those skills in foreign policy: The Russo-Japanese War. The conflict called for him to take on a new role—not as a man who wanted to start wars, but one who stopped them.
Tyler Kuliberda: As Americans, we weren't involved directly in the Russo-Japanese War, but I've heard it described as World War Zero; it was an early mechanized war.
That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.
Kuliberda: The Japanese and Russians were killing each other in great numbers, they were sending soldiers to the front by rail car. It took place in 1905, and so I mean it's only about 10 years before the first World War.
The conflict between Japan and Russia involved the mutual interest in the lands of Manchuria and Korea. Russia sought control of this region because of its warm-water ports (the country’s Siberian ports always had to close during the icy winters). To avoid a military conflict, Japan had originally proposed that Russia keep its interests in Manchuria while Japan kept influence over Korea. Negotiations broke down, though, and Japan officially started the war on February 8, 1904, with a surprise attack on a Russian fleet at Port Arthur, Manchuria.
The war raged throughout 1904, with Russia being handed one humiliating defeat after another. Japan’s highly disciplined and organized navy got the world’s attention. But despite the fact that Japan seemed to be winning the war, the empire was running out of money and had discreetly reached out through an intermediary to see if Roosevelt and the U.S. would act as a mediator to help broker peace between the two sides.
Roosevelt seized the opportunity. But as historian Edmund Morris writes, “If he was to be a peacemaker, he could not let the tsar think he had solicited the job.” Roosevelt told his secretary of state, John Hay, not to make it look like he was outright offering his help. He wanted to end the fighting, though. Roosevelt had grown uncomfortable with Japan’s dominance in the war—a decisive defeat of Russia, an embarrassment of such a prideful empire, could destabilize the whole political scene in the Pacific. And what would that look like for America, which had just taken its first steps into the region? Here’s Jenkinson.
Jenkinson: And Roosevelt realizes whenever that happens, this leads to trouble. When this happens, this destabilizes the world and leads to more conflict and maybe a larger conflict. He wants America to get into the arena, so he thinks, "Look at this, here's this moment where I understand this. The rest of the world is too cynical and jaded to really know what to do here. So I'm going to do this impulsive, idealistic thing. I going to offer to bring the belligerents to the United States, to this neutral country, and I'm going to say we'll provide the foundation, the platform, where you can work this out." And it's hard for us to realize how big a deal this was. This would be like Vietnam offering to step in and settle the dispute between the United States and Iran, and the rest of the world would just sneer and think, "Who are these people to think, what? You have no standing. What a ridiculous gambit that is."
But … there was a problem. Russia’s Tsar Nicolas II wasn’t budging.
The war just compounded Russia’s domestic issues: Nicholas was increasingly unpopular back home, and an anti-autocrat sentiment had been spreading throughout the country ever since his coronation, fanned by the upstart Socialist Revolutionary Party. Peace talks at such a time would look like a Japanese victory, and the tsar couldn’t give any more ammunition to those salivating for revolution.
The pride was there, but in the face of so many defeats by the Japanese, the logic was not.
“The tsar is a preposterous little creature as the absolute autocrat of 150,000,000 people. He is unable to make war, and he is now unable to make peace,” Roosevelt wrote to Hay.
But by the start of 1905, peace talks became the only way out for Nicholas. In January, the Russian Revolution of 1905 began, partly brought on by the abject failure of the Japanese campaign. Worse yet came the disastrous loss at the Battle of Tsushima in May, resulting in a Russian loss of 4000 men and almost the entire fleet, compared to Japan’s 117 men and three sunken torpedo boats.
By August, both Russia and Japan were ready to talk—and the first item on the agenda was for both parties to meet, separately, with the president at his home in Oyster Bay to discuss their desired terms for ending the war.
Japan came first, sending diplomat Jutaro Komura and Takahira Kogorō, Japanese ambassador to the United States, to Sagamore Hill. They were followed a few days later by Russian diplomat Baron Roman Romanovich von Rosen and Sergei Iluievich Witte.
On August 5, the two sides finally met in person on the presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower, which was anchored in Oyster Bay, for lunch. Though Roosevelt was privately unsure that peace would be made, he warmly welcomed the two sides.
The lunch was just as awkward as you might imagine—at least for the Japanese and the Russians. According to Morris, “Roosevelt alone seemed at ease.”
The meal was a cold lunch with even colder wine, a welcome spread for a hot summer day, and before they dug in, Roosevelt offered a champagne toast, which he asked to be unanswered:
“I drink to the welfare and the prosperity of the sovereigns and to the peoples of the two great nations whose representatives have met one another on this ship. It is my most earnest hope and prayer, in the interest not only of these two great powers, but of all civilized mankind, that a just and lasting peace may speedily be concluded between them.”
After lunch, the two sides took a formal photograph. Then, the Japanese went to a separate ship, and both sides, along with the Americans, sailed to the Navy yard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the official talks. It was a remote site that was chosen for its peace and security over the scorching temperatures and gaggles of reporters that you’d find in D.C. in August.
Later, at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt said, “I think we are off to a good start. I know perfectly well the whole world is watching me, and the [condemnations] that will come down on me, if the conference fails, will be world-wide, too. But that’s all right.”
The talks immediately hit a deadlock.
Witte, who was acting on the tsar’s wishes, would not bend to the Japanese. There would be no reimbursing the Japanese for war costs and no forfeiture of territory, especially the Russian island of Sakhalin, which Japan had seized during the war.
Roosevelt knew that the talks would go nowhere if Russia was not willing to sacrifice its honor in any way. He continued to grow frustrated with Russia’s attitude, letting slip one fantasy he had of grabbing the tsar and his ministers and marching them to the end of Long Island so he could “run them violently down a steep place into the sea.”
Soon, Roosevelt shed his role as neutral mediator and began taking a more active role in the negotiations—doing so in the same frank, unpredictable style that had both thrilled and exhausted so many in Washington.
Late one evening, Russia’s negotiator, Baron Rosen, got an unexpected wake-up call at 2 a.m. from Third Assistant Secretary of State Herbert Peirce, ordering him to Sagamore Hill to meet with the president. That afternoon, according to Morris, Rosen found TR decked out in white flannel, absorbed in a game of tennis. But rather than put his racket down and get to the business of peacemaking, the president divided his attention between the action on and off the court, returning to the game at nearly every pause in the conversation.
According to historian Stanley Wien, it’s likely that this conversation on the tennis court lasted around 90 minutes, and while Roosevelt did reassure Rosen that Japan would cede to many of Russia’s demands, he also said that it might be tougher to split the island of Sakhalin without some sort of compensation for Japan.
So Roosevelt countered, suggesting that Russia pay for its half in the north, while Japan would remain in the south. This would leave Russia with some—but not all—of the territory it wanted, and Japan would get some money out of the deal, though not an official reimbursement.
Again, the idea was rejected. The tsar drew a hard line that no compensation was to be paid—and with a little digging, you can see why: Japan was seeking 1.2 billion yen, an amount that made even the disgruntled Russian people side with their tsar. While Japan was winning the war, it was hurting financially, leaving them with little power at the negotiating table.
So what happens when neither side wants to budge? Well, nothing—and I mean that in the most literal way possible. At one point, Witte and Komura officially had nothing left to discuss. Russia refused to pay Japan for its war costs, and Japan wouldn’t move ahead with the talks if no money came their way. So the men sat across from each other, slowly taking drags of their cigarettes, not saying a word.
For eight. Agonizing. Minutes.
That silence was the sound of the Russo-Japanese War dragging on and on … and on.
Roosevelt’s previous fear that the failure of this conference would become a worldwide failure on his part seemed to be becoming a reality. On Monday, August 28, the president realized there was nothing more he could do. Rumors swirled that the Russians were asking for their hotel bills so they could get out of Portsmouth.
Then, suddenly, on August 29, Witte entered another negotiation meeting with a white piece of paper. It contained Russia’s final concessions. There would be no payment, but Japan would have south Sakhalin, if Russia could have the north.
For Roosevelt, this was the only chance to end a war that neither country could even afford to keep fighting.
Jenkinson: So he went to the Japanese, and he said, "Look, yes I know you want indemnities, and I know you want punitive damages, and territorial aggrandizement, and so on. I get it. And you probably deserve it, but you can't. I'm going to insist that you cut the deal here, because if you don't, if you cut too severe a deal, all you're doing is planting the seed of a much more severe conflict down the line. So you're going to have to swallow your national pride. And I know it's going to be awful. But if you do it, you're going to be better off in the long run, and the world's going to be more stable. And so that's what I'm asking you to do."
The Japanese accepted the terms, and the Treaty of Portsmouth was officially signed on September 5, 1905. The treaty resulted in the recognition of Japan’s interest in Korea and greatly expanded their power in South Manchuria, including over key railways. Russia’s power in the Pacific was now a fraction of what it had been, but in the end, the tsar didn’t have to open his wallet.
In large part for his work as a mediator to bring peace between the two nations, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, making him the first American to win a Nobel prize of any kind. Morris would say Roosevelt’s peace was made possible because of his “inexplicable ability to impose his singular charge upon plural power. By sheer force of moral purpose, by clarity of perception, by mastery of detail, and benign manipulation of men.”
The most congratulatory was Roosevelt himself, who gleefully exclaimed, “It is a mighty good thing for Russia, and a mighty good thing for Japan. And a mighty good thing for me too!”
Jenkinson: The world was shocked, and they realized this country has arrived, and this guy is one of the most interesting leaders on the world stage, and he has moxie. But he also has the capacity to fulfill the big whopping claims that he's making. And so this was another great moment in the history of this country, and a great moment for Theodore Roosevelt. And if he had said to a thousand advisors, "Should we try to get involved in this Russo-Japanese conflict?" They would have said, "That has nothing to do with us. They're probably going to swat you away. We could just wind up being humiliated. No good is going to come of this. We've got to keep our focus on the real stuff we're trying to do here." But Roosevelt just had this big soul, and he realized that if we can pull this off, the world is going to look at us in a different way, and he was absolutely right.
Roosevelt knew the power the Japanese wielded, and he knew that maintaining relations with them was integral to America’s interests. In 1906, a domestic decision out of his hands threatened that relationship.
It happened when the San Francisco school board decided to segregate schools in the district by separating Japanese students from white ones. The order was the result of hostilities stemming from the ever-growing Japanese population that was entering the country for work at the time.
The order incensed Roosevelt. Flying into a rage, he threatened to do anything and everything from suing the board of education to sending troops to San Francisco to ensure the segregation wouldn’t last. While that’s a patented Roosevelt overreaction, it wasn’t completely without merit. Japan made it known that they were upset with the ruling and anti-American protests were beginning to erupt throughout the country. If there was a war, it would be one the United States wasn’t ready to fight. TR knew he had to fix it.
Roosevelt ordered the mayor of San Francisco and the school board to the White House and convinced them to rescind the order, assuring them that the federal government would take care of the issue. He also worked through the Japanese diplomats to come to an agreement. In 1906, TR wrote to his secretary of commerce that he had spoken with the Japanese ambassador about the issue, telling him that “the only way to prevent constant friction between the United States and Japan” was to restrict immigration of Japanese citizens into the U.S. to people like businessmen and students, and to keep Japanese laborers out, whom he referred to repeatedly using a racial slur.
I’m not going to quote Roosevelt directly here because of that, but instead, paraphrase: According to Roosevelt, the ambassador agreed with him, and said he had always been against letting Japanese laborers come into Hawaii and the U.S. Roosevelt worried that it would be hard to get the Japanese to agree to it because of what had happened to San Francisco, but he hoped that his annual message would “smooth over their feelings” so they would assent to the policy. “At any rate,” he wrote, “I shall do my best to bring this about.”
The result is what is now known as the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907. In it, the United States agreed to repeal the discriminatory school practice, and the Japanese government agreed to restrict issuing passports to laborers who wished to leave to work in the United States.
Cullinane: The Gentleman's Agreement has been viewed as a racialist policy. And I think that's only part right, and not even a large part. So Roosevelt's policy was racialist in that it locked the Japanese out of the United States, but that wasn't the primary reason why the Gentleman's Agreement was fashioned. It was because Roosevelt was worried about labor and on the West Coast particularly, and he was worried about labor unions. And also he didn't want to stop wealthy Japanese from coming to the United States. He thought wealthy Japanese coming were basically a form of direct foreign investment and he encouraged that. So the Gentleman's Agreement is really locking out Japanese labor. And that was not the same for other countries like China. He fully believed in excluding the Chinese entirely, whereas he saw the Japanese as being of two classes, the working class and the elites, like him. And that sort of positive regard for the Japanese plays out in a number of letters that Roosevelt writes and he speaks about the Japanese with a warm sentiment, where he doesn't talk like that about the Chinese.
Thomas Dyer points out that the key difference in Roosevelt’s strategy was usually based on his perception of the race he was dealing with. TR had respect for Japan, especially their military, and saw the country as a potential challenger for global supremacy down the road. Whereas he called the leaders and citizens in countries like Colombia and the Philippines “backwards people” and “savages,” among other things, making them “fair game for American imperialistic desires,” according to Dyer.
McCarthy: Was there a difference in the way TR handled a situation based on … sort of the leader of the country, or his perception of the country? Because if you look at how he handled what happened with Colombia and the Panama Canal, it's very, very different from how he handled what was happening with Russia and Japan. Jenkinson: Well, he's a racist. There's no question about it. I mean, you can tiptoe around this, but he wasn't a racist in the ugly Southern sense of the term. He was a racist in what was a pseudo-scientific way. He believed that there was a hierarchy, and at the top of that hierarchy were the Anglo-Saxon people. And then the Teutonic people. And then it worked its way down. And at the very bottom were indigenous peoples in New Zealand and in the American West, and in South Africa, and just above those indigenous peoples were Africans. Roosevelt definitely believed in a hierarchy, and he believed that the white Anglo-Saxon peoples of the world, en masse, as a culture, as a civilization, or as a tribe, were at the top of the heap, and that other peoples were somewhere down the path. The interesting thing is that he put the Japanese very high in this hierarchy, above some Europeans but below what he would have regarded as the most advanced Europeans, and that's why he found the Japanese so fascinating. Whereas the Chinese, he would have put, and the Filipinos much lower on those scales. And so when he's dealing with Canada or England or France or Germany, he has a certain way of going about things because they're part of the club. And we still have this. They're the G7. We say it's economically based, but it has a lot to do with other dynamics, too.
Roosevelt’s views on race are, in a word, complex. On certain issues, he certainly earned his progressive reputation: He supported ending segregation in New York public schools during his time as governor, famously invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House when he was president, and fought for a “Square Deal” for all Americans.
When you dig deeper, though, many of his opinions are undeniably discriminatory—and for some parts of the world, destructive. It’s an aspect of Roosevelt’s legacy that historians still grapple with: How could a president as forward-thinking in some ways have such a blind spot on the issue of race? We’ll be tackling that very question in a future episode.
It’s easy to explain it away as TR simply being a product of his time—or you could go the other way and paint him as a racist with a broad brush. But those are both oversimplifications, and, as we’ve seen, nothing about Theodore Roosevelt, or his views, is “simple.” We’ll be tackling some of these difficult questions in a future episode.
What’s undeniable is that Theodore Roosevelt and his policies had a lasting impact on affairs both at home and overseas. He took a country hell-bent on staying isolated and turned it into a dominant force on the seas, he stopped wars between world powers, and carved a canal that united two oceans—something that was seen as a fantasy only a few years prior.
Warts and all, Theodore Roosevelt went beyond the political battleground of Washington, D.C. to announce to the world that America was now a power to be reckoned with—and if it had to, it was ready to fight.
Jenkinson: He brought America into the world as a central player, and we've been that central player ever since.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, with research by me and additional research by Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.
The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.
The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.
The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to Clay Jenkinson, Michael Cullinane, Tyler Kuliberda, Jeffery Wawro, and the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.