Having just read a fascinating bestseller account of one of the lesser known chapters in the life of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, I couldn't help but wonder if Wiki Leaks had existed in 1905 how history might have been changed. To quote its author, James Bradley, who also wrote Flags of Our Fathers, Roosevelt's conduct during this period ".....lit the fuse that would - decades later - result in a number of devastating wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Communists revolution in China". While definitely a page-turner, it's very difficult to condense this book into a blog-readable synopsis, but I will try.
To better understand what happened, it is important to know that the United States for the most part was unquestionably racist toward people of any color back then whether red, yellow, brown or black. Notwithstanding our own Civil War, there was a very strong feeling in the 1800s and early 1900s to continue the sixteenth century English myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority by pushing westward at all cost, as evidenced by the forced relocation of the many Native Indian tribes to Oklahoma (i.e. the infamous Trail of Tears) beginning in 1838, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and the savage 25-year Indian Wars, the longest in American history, which were capped with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Once the Pacific Ocean was reached, those same eyes began looking even farther west to the Philippines and Asia with similar intent, to wit the opening quote in this book from Theodore Roosevelt on October 29, 1900: "I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean". This position was made even clearer by his declaration that "Our future history will be more determined by our position on the Pacific facing China than our position on the Atlantic facing Europe". How prophetic that statement was, but obviously in a much different context than exists today.
So it was into this cauldron of racism and western expansionism that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born on October 27, 1858. "Teddy", unlike his later rough and tumble somewhat manufactured persona, was actually a very frail and sickly child who suffered from asthma throughout his life, was raised and educated in a confined environment, read numerous dime novels full of racial stereotypes and had little contact with the outside world. However, he was encouraged by his father to "embrace manhood and thwart overcivilization (sic) with a rigorous bodybuilding program". Later he overcompensated for this upbringing by becoming increasingly more aggressive and ruthless. At his first school, Harvard, he quickly assimilated with the very rich and counted among his favorite professors one Nathaniel Shaler who taught white supremacy based on the same English tradition of the 1500s noted above. I believe both of these life experiences were integral to shaping his philosophy of "Speak softly and carry a big stick" which, even though romanticized in most historical accounts of his life, did not serve this country well, as we shall see.
Fast forward to his first experience on the national political scene. After serving as member on the ill-fated and corrupt New York Police Board, he lobbied hard and finally won an appointment in April 1897 to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration where, in his boss's absence, he again put his lobbying skills to work, only this time to start a war to grab the Philippines. In a memo to a West Point professor he put it this way: "In strict confidence...I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." Well, he got his wish times two. On May 15, 1898, the USS Maine accidentally exploded in Havana Harbor but, fueled by the May 18th edition of the Hearst New York Journal quoting Roosevelt that it was not an accident, resulted in a national drumbeat for war that President McKinley reluctantly answered by signing a declaration of war. "Teddy" volunteered for service and thus the famous Rough Riders, a name taken directly from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, were born. While sold on the theme of "benevolent intentions" ("Speak softly...."), it was anything but. The Platt Amendment was canceled, Cuba was forbidden from making treaties with any other country, we forced them to give us Guantanamo Bay and Cuba lost their independence ("....and carry a big stick"). Then came the Philippines which were tagged as "The Cuba of the Far East" in an 1898 article in the North American Review. Same song, second verse where we offered to help Emilio Aguinaldo, their freedom-fighting first president in his country's fight for independence from Spain, by assuring him that "the United States is a great and rich nation and needs no colonies" ("Speak softly...). After sailing into Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, neutralizing the Spanish Navy and letting the Filipino freedom fighters do the grunt work on land, we did exactly the opposite and began a brutal and vicious campaign to take over the Philippines ("....and carry a big stick"). There is much more to this sad chapter in our history but time and space does not permit a full accounting. At least on June 12, 1898, the Filipinos celebrated their first Independence Day, even though they would not repeat that celebration for another sixty-four years.
Then there is the disastrous diplomacy employed in our dealings with the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese which was further complicated by a secret mission commissioned by President Roosevelt in 1905 on which this book is primarily based. It commenced on July 1st and involved his daughter, Alice, Secretary of War William Taft, seven senators and twenty-three congressmen along with their wives and aides. In effect they were to tour Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, China and Korea while he continued to negotiate various agreements with the leaders of Japan, Korea and China with absolutely no congressional knowledge or authority to do so. Among many other things he befriended the Japanese who were engaged in a conflict with Russia leading them to believe that they should adopt their own version of our Monroe Doctrine for Asia, thinking they could "Americanize" that region; persuaded Korea to sign the U.S-Korea Treaty in which it was declared that there "shall be perpetual peace and friendship" between the two countries, with Korea believing that the United States would protect them from "western predators" when Roosevelt was quoted in 1900 as saying "I should like to see Japan have Korea", ostensibly, to provide a check on Russia; and destroyed a long standing and beneficial commercial relationship with China. In short, there were a series of blunders and mistakes built on ignorance, arrogance, duplicity and imperialism for which we are paying a heavy price to this very day. Since there is absolutely no way I can relate all of the intricacies of what actually transpired and convey the true depth and atmosphere of that period, I strongly suggest that those of you who have any interest in this phase of our history please read this book and decide for yourself whether "Speak softly and carry a big stick" actually worked in our best interests. You will not be disappointed.
Oh yes, its name? THE IMPERIAL CRUISE
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