What You Should Think About Theodore Roosevelt

June 1, 2011

“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Imagine a former President, currently campaigning for a return to the White House, is shot in the chest.  Horrified aides prepare to transport him to the hospital.  An adviser begins to compose an apology for the candidate’s absence at a nearby rally.  The wounded man will have none of it.  An experienced hunter and soldier, he reasons that he would be coughing up blood if the bullet had penetrated his lungs.  Each of the fifty pages of his prepared remarks now sports a prominent bullet hole.  With blood seeping into his clothing, he goes on to address the crowd for a full hour and a half.

There is much more to Theodore Roosevelt than pure grit.  Yet this quality must be understood to make a start of understanding the man.  Almost all of his adult life was dedicated to identifying serious problems and charging headlong into the struggle to solve them.  Considered a frail child and subject to home schooling, he embraced the opportunity of Harvard life to reinvent himself.  So began a lifelong love of boxing as well as a deep interest in military history.  By graduation, he had established himself as physically formidable.  At the same time, he made a solid start on The Naval War of 1812, a historical book of uncommon detail and rigor for the times.

He went on to law school, though soon he gave up that pursuit to run for and win a seat in the New York State Assembly.  He was a prolific legislator, but it would not be long before he would face a challenge not at all of his choosing.  On February 14, 1884, both his mother and his first wife died, the latter unexpectedly.  Writing in his diary, “the light has gone out of my life;” even his spirit was not impervious to such a loss.  Unable to find further satisfaction in political wrangling, a few weeks later he sought a change of scenery by heading for the Badlands of the Dakotas.

Embarking on a new course, he became a cattle rancher, frontier lawman, and magazine correspondent.  His tales of life in what was then the “Wild West” proved popular among readers in New England.  His keen sense of ethics and relentless determination made him a threat to any outlaw in the region.  Though he befriended the legendary gunfighter Seth Bullock, Theodore Roosevelt remained a firm believer in the rule of law.  In an instance when no one would have faulted him for the exercise of vigilante justice, he instead transported a trio of thieves to a distant venue where a proper trial could be conducted.  Only after a severe winter wiped out his cattle herd did life in the Badlands no longer seem suited to this future President.

With his return to political life he embodied the spirit of a new progressive movement.  After an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he took work as a federal bureaucrat determined to stamp out corruption and patronage at all levels of government.  His unyielding and sometimes downright pugnacious pursuit of fairness earned him a favorable public reputation.  He was later able to build on this reputation as president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners.  There he faced tasks that anyone with less determination and force of personality could not hope to have accomplished.  Yet he left the department transformed in a myriad of constructive ways.

He would next return to federal service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, using a brief absence of his superior (in conjunction with battleship Maine sinking) to prepare the nation for the pending Spanish-American War.  Yet planning and management were not enough for a man of action like Theodore Roosevelt.  He soon resigned his post, recruited over a thousand volunteers, and set out for Cuba as leader of a regiment that would become known as the Rough Riders.  His boldness and perseverance in that conflict was recognized with a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though an initial rejection meant that the award would not actually be bestowed until a posthumous ceremony held in 2001.

Now a bona fide war hero, his return to politics involved a quick rise to the very top.  As governor of New York, he continued to fight corruption while taking measures to address the problems of the poor and downtrodden.  William McKinley ran with Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1900.  At that time, the red-blue polarity of almost every state was inverted from what we see in the 21st century.  Republicans truly were the party of Lincoln.  Democrats continued to openly support candidates sympathetic to the de facto apartheid in place throughout many of the southern states.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket earned a solid victory against William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to archaic traditions and unscientific beliefs.

Still in his first year as President, William McKinley was assassinated.  At 42 years of age, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest President in the history of the United States.  Yet this youth did not prevent him from achieving greatness.  He immediately spoke out to promote more aggressive regulation of large corporations and to condemn corrupt dealings between government and business.  He answered John Muir’s call to conserve and protect many of America’s greatest natural treasures.  President Roosevelt even used federal power to resolve strikes by demanding fair treatment for the exploited working class.

After winning an easy landslide in the 1904 election, he continued to champion populist causes and govern in the public interest.  He pushed for regulations that dramatically improved the safety of the American food supply.  He opened the White House to reporters and provided regular briefings so as to better inform the public about the inner workings of government.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize — a Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.  He was also the first President to call for universal health care to become the policy of the United States federal government.

Though he did not run for reelection in 1908, he found the policies and practices of his successor intolerable.  William Howard Taft talked a good game when it came to promoting free and fair trade while regulating the excesses of big business.  Yet he was a new force in Republican politics — a dissembler closely allied with the tycoons of his time.  Even as he spoke of championing the causes of consumers and laborers, his actions served the interests of industrialists and speculators.  Initially supportive of Taft, Roosevelt belatedly came to understand that the sitting President embodied everything the progressive movement was dedicated to purging from political life.

So it was that Theodore Roosevelt set out to win a third term as President of the United States.  With primary elections a relatively new phenomenon, the contest for the Republican nomination was a complex and messy business.  Aware of imminent defeat at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt pulled his supporters away from that gathering and formed the Progressive Party.  Declaring intent to oppose the “unholy alliance” between government and big business, Roosevelt generated enormous popular support.  After the failed assassination attempt, his movement became known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to his quip, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”  Though he was ultimately defeated, Theodore Roosevelt earned the distinction of being the only third party candidate ever to finish second in a U.S. Presidential race.

Looking back at these events roughly a century ago, it is hard to imagine how much brighter history would have been if the Republican Party remained true to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt instead of allowing itself to be bought by the fortunes of the corporate elite.  While the Democratic Party became more and more principled, eventually supporting causes like social justice and civil rights, the Republican Party embraced those constituencies that no honorable public figure should ever service.  There is no legitimate place for corruption, sexism, racism, or homophobia in the political life of an enlightened people.  With prevarication supported by the deepest of pockets and the shallowest of scruples, they have provided a political platform on which voters driven by those motivations can continue to make a stand.

So the next time you hear someone refer to the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” keep in mind that this assessment was not always wrong.  Once upon a time, they were champions of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “square deal.”  Once upon a time, they believed in the value of scientific thought, the importance of environmental conservation, and the Constitutional directive to promote the general welfare.  Could such a transformation occur again?  Could the party of Palin and Gingrich ever hope to recover integrity and usefulness?  Stranger things have transpired in the history of American politics.


What You Should Think About Conscription

November 6, 2007

“. . . a draft or draft registration destroys the very values our society is committed to defending.”

–Ronald Reagan

The decline of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon involving many factors. Yet the case can be made that foremost among these factors was the decline of Rome’s citizen-soldier culture. From the days of the early monarchs until well after the time of Julius Caeser, physically fit Roman citizens were bound by duty to a term of military service, typically four years in length. In limited contexts, outsiders had been involved with the Legions. Yet so long as Rome thrived, so did reliance on the citizens of Rome to provide manpower to fight for the interests of the state.

In fact, it was traditional for Roman mothers to send their adolescent sons off to war with the directive, “come back with your shield or on it.*” This sort of universal conscription (keeping in mind that women were never eligible for Roman citizenship while foreigners in annexed territories as well as freed slaves were normally given a lesser form of citizenship) served a number of purposes. Citizens from different families and different cities might serve side by side, learning to view the state and life itself from fresh perspectives. More importantly, all the sons of Rome were put in peril by any military aggression. This dramatically changes the context of public debate about warfare.

As hindsight grants more and more clarity over time, it is fair to ask if a Pyrrhic victory was won by the peace movement protesting Viet Nam era policies. When all was said and done, America marginalized conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force. No more would reluctant or even unwilling citizens be compelled to train and fight, sometimes also losing life or limb, to provide manpower for the armed forces of the United States in time of war. In many circles ending the draft was considered a great advance in the march of peace and enlightenment.

Was it so? The events of this century crystallize one aspect of this issue. “They all signed up knowing this could happen,” is an argument that dramatically lowers the threshold of justification for military action. Perhaps even in time of conscription, America offered up loopholes to shelter reluctant sons of Senators from combat duty. Still, at least 99% of the nation felt pressures to closely scrutinize American war efforts. Those pressures are now much less intense and widespread.

The thing is, war itself has not changed nearly as much as the political context of it. In a jungle where draftees are getting shot to pieces, “support the troops” is not at all easily equated with “support a policy of open-ended military occupation.” In a desert where volunteers are getting shelled and ambushed, “support the troops” is more easily confused with “support the war policy.” In the absence of a draft, it becomes easier for national leaders to equate political hawkishness with national loyalty.

That equation is always bogus — there has yet to be a war waged with such perfection of justification, planning, and oversight as to eliminate all legitimate grounds for loyal criticism. Yet political discourse so often does not take place at a level where that understanding given due consideration. The blurriness of debate is made even worse by some confusion about the ambitions and experiences of actual soldiers in time of war. Eagerness to kill is never truly a good thing. In some battlefield contexts it can become a useful thing, but no sane combatant craves bloodshed for its own sake. An agenda that actively promotes death and destruction never serves the actual interests of soldiers. Yet this too is sometimes overlooked without the context provided by conscription.

The end result plays into a dangerous theme evident in all of history’s military superpowers — the glorification of violence. There is legitimate debate about removing Andrew Jackson from American currency because his deeds, both as a commander in the war of 1812 and later as a President orchestrating Native American genocide, were not at all heroic. A real hero, even in time of war, is defined by the assumption of personal risk for the purpose of protecting comrades and/or bystanders from harm. Jackson was more involved with putting others at risk than assuming it himself. His most significant acts and policies brought about deaths that were not at all necessary to accomplishing any defensible purpose. Yet he has stood tall in American history for such a long time, as less enlightened generations failed to distinguish between the real heroism of courageous self-sacrifice and the bloody grandstanding of killing merely for the sake of killing.

Could the war in Afghanistan have been put on a better course if a number of draftees had been called up to assist in combat operations since the fall of the Taliban there? Would the war in Iraq ever have occurred if the prospect of widespread conscription motivated more Americans to be attentive to pertinent facts during the rush into that debacle? Would pundits and media outlets profligate with outright lies leading up to the war still enjoy so much respect and attention if a portion of the fallen were reluctant draftees? Clearly being drafted is not a good thing for a majority of conscripts. Yet the lack of conscription seems to be an especially useful thing for irresponsible warmongers.

Thus we might also ask if a lack of conscription is an especially bad thing for our own nation. Rich with spoils from a vast empire, weakened by rampant corruption in the halls of power, and suffering from the protracted stagnation that often accompanies a sense of supremacy, Rome eventually abandoned the draft. Citizens still had a duty to support the army, but those with money were given the option to hire mercenaries as an alternative to personally fighting for their nation.

It would not be long after that policy change that the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed. Foreigners hired to fight the Romans’ wars soon became strong enough to fight on their own behalf. Romans increasingly detached from their citizen-soldier roots were losing both the will and the means to defend their own interests. The greatest power in the history of Western civilization, according to legend founded by the wolf-suckled twins Romulus and Remus, officially came to an end after a captive teen, Romulus Augustus, abdicated his position to the barbarian Odoacer.

It is hard to imagine Rome would have declined so precipitously if its citizens remained much more actively involved in military affairs. It is worrisome to imagine what awaits America as we continue to separate the interests of our ordinary citizens from the plight of our professional combatants. My medieval history professor grabbed attention artfully by beginning his first lecture with a warning that America was doomed. As it turns out, no great society has thrived for more than a few generations while relying chiefly on volunteers for military service. I hope he was mistaken, and I do believe modernity presents a different context than Europe at the end of the classical period. Yet I also believe it is imperative that modern life does not prevent us from considering the examples of unraveling superpowers, moving with startling swiftness from unchallenged dominance to the pages of history.

*Many seem to associate this line with the Spartans. I am in no position to categorically disprove that. However, I am troubled by the logistics of it. The standard Spartan shield was not large enough to be effective as a corpse-hauling implement. Roman shields were made large in order to facilitate a number of distinctive tactics like the testudo. A well-made Roman shield would have been large enough and strong enough be serve as a stretcher or sledge even while carrying the weight of an adult human.  Also, that language is recurrent in Roman literature.