Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency - dummies

By Steve Wiegand

Depending on whether you liked him or not, Theodore Roosevelt was either the energetic embodiment of the nation he led, or a macho blowhard who really should have taken more cold showers.

A puny, asthmatic child, Roosevelt literally built himself into a human dynamo with strenuous exercise and a nonstop personal regimen. His walrus mustache, thick round spectacles, and outsized teeth made him a political cartoonist’s dream. However, his relative youth — at 43, he was the youngest president the country had ever had — his energy, and his unpredictability made him the bane of GOP political bosses.

[Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS]
Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

Roosevelt was fond of repeating an old African proverb that suggested “Speak softly, and carry a big stick; you will go far.” In practice, however, he was much fonder of the stick than of speaking softly. A leading imperialist under McKinley, Roosevelt relished America’s role as policeman to the world — and he took great advantage of his position as the top cop.

In 1903, for example, Roosevelt encouraged Panama to revolt against Colombia so the United States could secure rights from the Panamanians to build the Panama Canal.

In 1905, he brokered the treaty that settled a war between Russia and Japan, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize. (In 2001, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the war with Spain — the only man to win the top prize for peace and war.)

Roosevelt set the tone for presidents who followed him. Both William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson had their own versions of gunboat diplomacy (using the force, or threat of force, to help negotiations along), particularly in Latin America.

For example, in 1912, Taft sent U.S. Marines to Nicaragua after a revolution there threatened American financial interests. In 1915, when Wilson was commander in chief, U.S. troops went to Haiti when revolution began to bubble; the troops stayed until 1934.

Also in 1915, Wilson sent U.S. Army troops into Mexico under Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. The troops were to chase Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who had raided American territory. The “punitive expedition” (as it was referred to by the War Department) almost triggered a war with Mexico and added to a widely held notion in the rest of the hemisphere that Uncle Sam was something of a bully.

The expedition was also an example of a U.S. tendency to get involved in other countries’ affairs. The tendency, which sprang sometimes from idealism and sometimes from pure self-interest, would last the rest of the 20th century.