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TR and Wilson
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Page 1234

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TR

[picture of Theodore Roosevelt]

As president from 1901 to 1909, Teddy Roosevelt would be called many things, but morbid was not among them. In fact, "TR" may have been the least morbid of Chief Executives in American history: a "steam engine in trousers," as one journalist put it, a "human Niagara Falls," in the words of a friend. For Theodore Roosevelt was nothing if not kinetic, a force of nature, like a cyclone. When Mark Hanna, the Republican power broker, realized that the eccentric Roosevelt was now in power, he said, "Look now, that damned cowboy is president of the United States."

Who was this man? Naturalist John Burroughs probably got it right when he called Theodore Roosevelt "a many-sided man, and every side . . . like an electric battery." Benjamin Franklin had nothing on TR as a true Renaissance man. Roosevelt was a well-born, polo-playing Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate, a hardscrabble North Dakota rancher, a prolific author on diverse subjects, a hunter, a conservationist, a historian, a colonel in the storied Rough Riders, and won a Nobel Peace Prize to boot. If all this wasn't enough, the teddy bear was named after him. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881 at the age of 23, launching nearly four decades of leadership in American politics and government.

Roosevelt reached a pinnacle in 1901, when at the age of 42 he became, as he remains, the youngest president in U.S. history. He even dubbed our nation's Executive Mansion the "White House" then made good on his promise to use it as a "bully pulpit." He preached the strenuous life, the New Nationalism, the Square Deal and his philosophy of governance: "speak softly and carry a big stick."


TR's Domestic Policy

Less than a year after Roosevelt assumed the Presidency, his philosophy of governance met a critical test, one that threatened the welfare of the entire country. 50,000 anthracite coal miners enrolled in the United Mine Workers Union went on strike in the Pennsylvania coal fields. The conflict between miners and owners, indeed, the conflict between capital and labor in many industries, was one that Roosevelt inherited.

As in earlier strikes, miners in 1902 demanded an increase in wages, but also demanded the 8-hour day, and many other benefits. Mine owners and operators, not surprisingly, resisted. The strike dragged on for months, and the public mood became increasingly ugly. Winter was coming on, and people feared that coal bins would remain empty through the winter, their homes, schools and hospitals cold.

Roosevelt was determined to end the crisis. Americans were not going to freeze while he served as president. He brought together mine operators and the miners. At first the mine operators would not deal with the "outlaws," as they called the miners. It was a tense and indecisive conference but gave Roosevelt the cues he needed to mediate the crisis. In a landmark decision made by a presidential commission, the United Mine Workers' demands were met. Labor had a friend in Theodore Roosevelt.

Later, Roosevelt would say that this action gave both labor and capital a "square deal," a phrase that became lodged in the American imagination. But perhaps most important, this dramatic intervention in the affairs of capital and labor would be one of TR's first expressions of the "imperial presidency."


TR's Foreign Policy

That same brashness proved more problematic in foreign policy. With the possible exception of John Quincy Adams, Roosevelt brought the first truly internationalist mind to the White House. Unfortunately, his world view was far narrower than his global ambitions. He espoused many of the now-discredited, basically Eurocentric beliefs of his time: particularly Anglo-Saxon superiority. Thomas Jefferson's egalitarianism was sadly lost on TR.

To Roosevelt, a great power had to flex its muscles to keep proving itself great enough to dismiss the rights and claims of lesser powers. In the Far East, for example, he looked to Japan to provide the principal bulwark against an increasingly contentious Russia, and thus leaned toward the eastern side in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905. His mediation of that conflict won him the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire peace conference that earned him the medal, Roosevelt, in fact, had made the peace by sacrificing Korea to Japan. More concerned with the balance of global power than with the sovereignty of small nations, he approved a secret understanding with the Japanese, making Korea their protectorate in exchange for Japan's recognition of U.S. hegemony over the Philippine Islands.

[picture of the Great White Fleet]

Roosevelt had a penchant for military pageantry. It manifested itself in his dispatch of the entire U.S. Navy contingent of sixteen battleships on a 46,000-mile voyage around the world, with port stops in Japan, China, and Australia, all to show off his "Great White Fleet." And while this Great White Fleet inspired a wave of patriotic enthusiasm at home and at first also among the Japanese, who threw a three-day party for the U.S. Navy upon its arrival, complete with children signing "The Star Spangled Banner" in English, ultimately the show of bluster backfired. Troubled by America's battleship boasting, Japan's naval leaders soon met with their Russian counterparts to sign a secret treaty dividing northern China between their two nations. The rest, of course, is the darkest part of modern history. Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, his symbol of America's rise to global power, contributed to Tokyo's build up of a massive armada that would attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and force the United States into the Second World War.

Many historians believe Theodore Roosevelt's enthusiasm for imperialism created a number of later problems for the United States. The criticism isn't quite fair. Given the tremendous changes wrenching America and the world during his presidency, in most cases TR was either reacting to or anticipating what he thought were the interests or desires of the American people. In some instances he actually slowed the pace of expansion. That said, Roosevelt never really made the case for a democracy to enrich itself by imperialistic means. But his global focus did prepare the country for the international dilemmas it would face after he left office in 1909.

Roosevelt could have run for a third term in 1908, but he insisted on keeping his word to the press that he wouldn't. After four years of his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft's presidency, however, TR found himself longing to return to the White House. In the election of 1912 he ran as a third-party candidate but in so doing fragmented the Republican Party and handed the victory to Woodrow Wilson.



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