IN 1906, while Phillips’s series was still running, Roosevelt delivered a speech, first privately at a gathering of journalists and then publicly, on April 14, at the dedication of a government building in Washington, D.C. Roosevelt denounced the writer, who seemed to him to court sensationalism for its own sake and “… who could look no way but downward with the muckrake in his hand … (and) continued to rake himself the filth of the floor.” Conservatives were pleased by the president’s rejection of the reformers. The reformers themselves, however, took the term “muckraker” as a badge of honor.
Roosevelt’s grasp of economics was weak and his regard for it small. His moral approach to individuals and industries sufficed for him. He asked Congress to establish the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 but did not make it a major instrument of policy formulation or government action. The banking and stock-market systems were beyond his interest or experience. The so-called money panic of 1907 occurred because banks were then totally dependent on their own currency resources. They could thus be jeopardized by rumors or special financial crises, despite their good financial condition. There were no preparations, official or otherwise, for such an event.
The fall of the Knickerbocker Bank, a large, powerful bank, in New York City under such circumstances affected a large number of smaller institutions and set off a panic that threatened to throw the country into a deep depression. Roosevelt’s leadership in the crisis was minimal. He gave his secretary of the treasury, George B. Cortelyou, a free hand. Cortelyou worked with a group of financiers, headed by J. P. Morgan, to support threatened financial establishments. One result of this cooperation was the purchase of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company by the U.S. Steel Corporation—dominated by the Morgan interests—an act that some reformers looked on with great misgivings.
However, the government’s offer to place money in approved banks facing difficulties stopped the panic. However, it did not examine the reasons for the panic, reimburse losers, or provide machinery for making sure another panic did not occur. The fact that so powerful an institution as the Knickerbocker Bank could fail for lack of currency, even though it owned sound assets, made an impact on congressional conservatives. They perceived that no institution was secure simply by virtue of size. The Aldrich-Vreeland Currency Act of 1908 was a stopgap measure intended to support unstable banks by enabling them to issue circulating notes under particular conditions.
Roosevelt still believed that powerful nations survived and weak ones died. He had faith in the virtues of war, and continued to assume that the United States was playing a noble mediating role among fighting or lesser-developed nations.
In an age that saw ships as the major vehicle of foreign policy, Roosevelt carefully watched naval developments in the far corners of the world. He also thought it necessary to balance the interests of powers that could challenge or curb U.S. influence abroad. Roosevelt suspected Russia’s power and designs, and he admired and respected Japan’s forceful military development. His respect was confirmed during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, when Japan soundly defeated the Russians in several battles. The Japanese, victorious but financially exhausted, agreed to Roosevelt’s offer to negotiate a peace treaty. The Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the war, was hailed as a triumph of Roosevelt’s diplomacy, and in 1906 Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Roosevelt’s policy toward Japan was a combination of courtesy and show of strength. In that same year, San Francisco ordered the segregation of all Japanese, Chinese, and Korean children in a separate school, greatly offending recently victorious Japan. Roosevelt was deeply disturbed and convinced the local school board to withdraw their decision. In exchange, he discussed with Japanese ambassadors an immigration policy that would better control the entrance of their nationals into the United States. The so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 stopped most Japanese immigration. Although it did not wholly please the Japanese government, it permitted Japan to save face by voluntarily restraining its people from seeking entry into the United States. His attitude toward European nations was modified by what he called their more “advanced” nature. Otherwise, his goal was the same: to maintain a balance among the powers and to advance U.S. interests.
Although he was not interested in disarmament, Roosevelt developed an early interest in reduction of armaments and conducted various negotiations in these connections. He also encouraged the convening of the Second Hague Conference on peace in 1907. However, he permitted the Russian tsar the satisfaction of calling the meeting.
In 1905 German Kaiser William II startled European governments by visiting Morocco and assuring its sultan of his support of Moroccan autonomy and of its right to trade on equal terms with various nations, including Germany. This action was widely interpreted as a challenge to France, which, with British support, believed Morocco to be in its sphere of influence. War seemed possible.
With German encouragement, Roosevelt took the initiative in calling a conference of nations on the Moroccan question in 1906 and sent a U.S. delegate, Henry White. This action aroused some criticism from isolationists at home because it involved the United States in foreign affairs. Roosevelt himself felt that he had prevented a general war when the conference found a solution to the conflict.
Roosevelt thought it wise to implement diplomacy with displays of U.S. power. In 1907 he ordered a world tour by the U.S. fleet. It was intended particularly to impress the Japanese, who, however, received the Great White Fleet, as it was called, with enthusiasm.
At home, Roosevelt continued to urge a stronger and more efficient U.S. Army. When army officers protested against an order to keep fit, Roosevelt himself led a party on a 160-km (100-mi) ride in inclement weather to show how little was being asked.
Roosevelt could almost certainly have won renomination and reelection to the presidency in 1908, but he honored his pledge not to run again. William Howard Taft had won his full confidence as a loyal and competent supporter of his ideas. Roosevelt was not disturbed by the criticism of labor leaders that Taft was an “injunction judge” quick to prevent effective labor action. Roosevelt believed that labor required the same curbing as capital when its leaders were “bad” or “wrong,” as, in his view, they had been in several major cases during his administration. Roosevelt, therefore, strongly and effectively backed Taft for the nomination and subsequently saw him elected to the presidency.
When Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, he went to Africa on a hunting and collecting tour, partly in pursuit of long-established interests and recreations and partly not to embarrass the new president with his vivid presence at home. The African adventure produced a unique collection of animals for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and a book, African Game Trails (1910). After the tour his family joined him and he made a triumphal tour of Europe, reviewing armies and lecturing at universities.
While in Europe, Roosevelt received letters from progressives who complained that Taft was abandoning his program. Gifford Pinchot went abroad to meet him and personally inform him that the government was moving away from the conservation strategies that he and Roosevelt had established. Pinchot accused Richard Achilles Ballinger, Taft’s secretary of the interior, of abandoning Roosevelt’s conservation policies. Ballinger was supported by President Taft, who in 1910 dismissed Pinchot for insubordination, but Roosevelt refused to take a stand in opposition to Taft.
Roosevelt returned to the United States to receive a stirring and exceptional welcome. Political observers watched his movements closely for light on his attitude toward the Republican administration. The Republicans had received a severe rebuff by voters in the congressional elections. Taft had antagonized those who wanted a lower tariff by signing the Payne-Aldrich Bill, which raised taxes on many items, and compounded the injury by calling it “the best tariff bill that the Republican Party ever passed.” Taft also supported the speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Cannon, who was the target of discontented progressives in the House. Taft told his side of the controversy to Roosevelt but received neither support nor repudiation.
He was much impressed by Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909), a book that denounced the individualism of Thomas Jefferson and called for unity behind a national program of improvement and control. This among other influences was the basis for what became Roosevelt’s New Nationalism program. He undertook a Western tour that drew many Republicans to his side. At Osawatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910, he put “the national need before sectional or personal advantage.” He took a radical stand on the Supreme Court of the United States, accusing it of having restricted necessary social action. He also demanded stronger executive action.
Roosevelt continued to establish a progressive plan of action, helped by Republicans who called for his candidacy in 1912 and who rejected the progressive La Follette. Roosevelt decided to run for the presidency in 1912 when Taft’s attorney general filed a law suit to dissolve the U.S. Steel Corporation. The suit noted U.S. Steel’s acquisition of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company as one reason for the suit. The charge enraged Roosevelt, who regarded it as a personal insult because he had approved the purchase as part of J. P. Morgan’s strategy for ending the Panic of 1907. Roosevelt broke openly with Taft. On February 21, 1912, he announced,”My hat is in the ring.”
He hoped that his tactics would cause delegates to the Republican National Convention to flock to his banner and permit him to overthrow the alliance supporting Taft’s renomination. Roosevelt’s showing in the Republican direct primaries before the Chicago convention encouraged this hope; unfortunately most delegates were not chosen in direct primary elections. Taft’s managers were thus able to keep control of the convention. Roosevelt charged fraud with long-practiced forthrightness and led his followers out of the convention. His supporters reconvened in Chicago on August 5 and nominated Roosevelt as their so-called Bull Moose, or Progressive, candidate in the election (see Progressive Party).
The split in the Republican Party was inevitable in view of the basic split between conservatives and progressives. Moreover, it practically ensured the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Nevertheless, Roosevelt conducted a whirlwind campaign. The Kansas journalist William Allen White, analyzing the New Nationalism program, as distinguished from Wilson’s New Freedom program, concluded that the difference was between “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
On October 14, 1912, Americans were shocked by an attempt to assassinate Roosevelt while he was visiting Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The bullet fired at him just missed entering his right lung, but Roosevelt delivered his scheduled speech before entering the hospital.
In the Electoral College, Wilson won by a landslide, with 435 votes. Roosevelt was still a popular hero. His 4,126,020 votes topped Taft’s 3,483,922. Both totals added up to substantially more than Wilson’s 6,286,124 votes, which constituted only 42 percent of the popular vote. Some Progressive Party members hoped Roosevelt had begun a crusade that he might fulfill in later elections. Roosevelt had promised as much in the course of the campaign. However, although Roosevelt continued to support the Progressive Party, he turned to other concerns.
Roosevelt received a proposal to explore the River of Doubt (now the Roosevelt River) in Brazil. “I had to go,” he later said. “It was my last chance to be a boy.” Roosevelt was received with acclaim in Brazil and also in Argentina and Chile, where he delivered lectures. In December 1913, with a number of scientists and explorers, Roosevelt pushed into the wilderness. Although he thought of the trip chiefly in terms of its naturalist aspects and collected specimens for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, he also enjoyed the hunting and other adventures. The expedition’s trials and successes were recorded in one of Roosevelt’s most popular books, Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914), written in the course of travel. Although Roosevelt regained the weight and the appearance of vigor that had characterized him, he was a sick man whose jungle ordeal contributed to his premature death.
Theodore Roosevelt had developed an uncompromising antipathy to President Wilson’s temperament and political approach, which he called “ridiculous and insincere.” He particularly despised Wilson’s “pacifism,” which to him was the product of fear and ineptitude, rather than of strength and the ability to control events. Roosevelt believed that Wilson’s incapacity, as he interpreted it, compounded crises at home, as well as abroad. Thus a major strike against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, bringing troops into bloody conflict with mine workers, seemed to him to require a kind of government action Wilson could not comprehend.
Wilson’s response to the overthrow of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1911 and the subsequent struggles of revolutionary generals did not impress Roosevelt favorably. Wilson’s policy infuriated him. He scorned it as “grape juice diplomacy,” a reference to Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, a firm pacifist who drank no alcohol.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Roosevelt hesitated to take a stand against either the Allies or the Central Powers. He had many close friends on both sides, and each urged him to understand their causes. However, his dilemma did not make him more sympathetic to Wilson’s predicament as president. Wilson’s appeals for Americans to be neutral “in fact as well as in name” impressed Roosevelt as feeble.
Wilson’s later assertion that “there is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight” offended every principle that had governed Roosevelt’s life. As early as 1890 he called for naval preparedness. In 1897 he had proclaimed preparedness for war as the best guarantor of peace, and it became the principal tenet of his political philosophy.
Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality won Belgium Roosevelt’s sympathy, although he restrained expression of it at that time. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed without warning the British steamship Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland. The ship sank in less than 20 minutes with the loss of 1198 people, including 128 Americans. Thereafter Roosevelt felt less restraint and without specifying an enemy, he distinguished between those who advocated action and those who temporized. He denounced “hyphenated Americans,” theoretically both German Americans and those overly sympathetic to the United Kingdom. However, as the United States identified more with the Allied cause and Roosevelt’s own sympathies shifted, the phrase became criticism of those opposed to the British. Roosevelt’s insistence on preparedness made him impatient with the very word “peace.” His slogan became, “Fear God and take your own part.”
Early in 1916 Wilson began to take a position in favor of national defense, he did so in roundabout ways that irritated Roosevelt. Wilson, in praising what he termed American “passion for peace,” probably better reflected the mood of a nation divided by minority sympathies. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was convinced that the American public was tired of Wilson and would not reelect him. He therefore supported Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate for president in 1916. The famous Democratic Party slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” which contributed to Wilson’s victory, was evidence that Roosevelt was part of a minority.
In a letter, Roosevelt himself admitted that the country’s need of him “has probably passed.” He continued, summing up what seemed to him his achievements: “My great usefulness as President came in connection with the Anthracite Coal Strike (Pennsylvania), the voyage of the battle fleet around the world, the taking of Panama, the handling of Germany in the Venezuelan business, England in the Alaska boundary matter, the irrigation business in the West, and finally, I think, the toning up of the government service generally.”
The entry of the United States into the war in 1917 did not reconcile Roosevelt to his great antagonist, Wilson. He protested against the belief, held by many of his friends, that it was their duty to stand behind the president. It was their duty, he thought, to support Wilson when he was right and to attack him when he was in error. Nevertheless, Roosevelt made a strenuous effort to get into the war himself. His call for a voluntary division of soldiers roused a great popular response from would-be recruits but failed to gain Roosevelt a commission from Wilson’s secretary of war. Roosevelt even promised Wilson himself that, given any chance to serve overseas, he would abstain from active politics. These pleas failed, however.
As spokesman for an all-out military effort, Roosevelt took the belligerent tone in his public speeches and writings that opposition always incited in him. He expected patriotic Americans to express “intense Americanism.” He considered anyone who did less to be no American at all. He opposed tolerance on the issue. Because he then held Germany in the greatest abhorrence, he also felt free to characterize those who, in his view, interfered with the efficient prosecution of the war as among “the Huns within our own gates.”
Roosevelt took great satisfaction in the congressional elections of 1918, which, in effect, repudiated Wilson. The president had asked for a Democratic majority, thus injecting politics into pursuit of the war. Roosevelt and Taft, friends once again, declared that Republican candidates would be more dependable in ensuring the unconditional surrender of Germany. The statement was widely read and probably contributed to the Republican victory.
Republican leaders looked forward with confidence to the 1920 election, cheered by the upsurge of their party and Americans’ uneasiness with Wilson’s commitment to the League of Nations, an association of the world’s nations that was the first organization dedicated to international peace. None of the outstanding Republicans had Roosevelt’s prestige or record of principles. Many observers were confident that he would receive the Republican nomination without difficulty.
Theodore Roosevelt, however, was a sick man and complained of being old. He was ill during 1918 and late in the year was hospitalized. He lost the hearing in one ear. The death of his youngest son, Quentin, in action overseas had been a severe blow. To one correspondent he wrote that it was indeed a serious thing for a father to encourage a son to actions that might bring him death, “but I would not have cared for my boys and they would not have cared for me if our relations had not been along that line.” Roosevelt remained active to the end and died in his sleep at his Oyster Bay home on January 6, 1919.