Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Roosevelt’

The Christian Roots of Modern Environmentalism


Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Portrait of American President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt.  (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Portrait of American President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Like only a handful of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt lives in our memory and popular culture. He is the bespectacled face gazing from Mount Rushmore, the namesake for the teddy bear, and the advice-giving Rough Rider, played by Robin Williams in the movie Night at the Museum. We remember him, too, as the trust buster who broke up monopolies, the avid outdoorsman and conservationist who preserved parks, forests, and wildlife, and the politician who crusaded for a “fair deal,” a just and equitable society that works for everyone.

Yet Roosevelt’s colorful life and accomplishments distract us from an essential part of him: the profoundly moralistic worldview that fired his progressive zeal. Some recent biographers go so far as to overlook this element of his character completely, but Roosevelt’s friends and colleagues recognized in him, in the words of one friend, “the greatest preacher of righteousness in modern times. Deeply religious beneath the surface, he made right living seem the natural thing, and there was no man beyond the reach of his preaching and example.” As Senator Henry Cabot Lodge mused, “The blood of some ancestral Scotch Covenanter or of some Dutch Reformed preacher facing the tyranny of Philip of Spain was in his veins, and with his large opportunities and his vast audiences he was always ready to appeal for justice and righteousness.”

Lodge astutely singled out the Calvinist traditions in Roosevelt’s ancestry: the Dutch Reformed Church on his father’s side and the Scottish Presbyterian Church (whose Covenanters fought the tyranny of England’s Charles I) on his mother’s, not to mention his own upbringing in New York’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church. How significant Roosevelt’s religious origins were really struck home to me when I realized how many national leaders of the Progressive Era shared them. I had been looking at the denominational origins of major American environmentalists and already knew how dominant people raised Presbyterian, often with ministers in the family, were during its rise. Still, when I turned to progressivism I was unprepared for the extent to which Presbyterians ran the show. Non-Presbyterian presidents held office a mere eight-and-a-half years between 1885 and 1921. Of those born in the church, —Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson—two, Cleveland and Wilson, were sons of ministers. Only two Presidents before Cleveland were raised Presbyterian, and none after Wilson has been.

I wondered what all this Presbyterianism could mean for progressivism, a movement that included people of all faiths, and what this religious strain in politics meant for crusades that these days might be typically colored strictly “red” or “blue.”

Progressives grew up in an era in which big money corrupted politics, large corporations dominated the economy, and environmental crises threatened the natural world – forces that might rouse the ire of those on the “blue” side of the spectrum today. But the situation was a call to arms for those who were steeped in the Calvinist demand for a righteous society, a kind of moralizing that might be more considered on the “red” side of the current spectrum.

At this time in history, though, it was the progressives who were the evangelicals out to spread righteousness in the nation. Censorious Presbyterians attacked greed and avarice with a special vengeance, as the sins that prompted Eve to reach for the forbidden fruit and exile us all from the Garden.

I realized how easily Presbyterian evangelical righteousness translated from church pulpits to political podiums. This church imbued Roosevelt and his fellow progressive leaders with the moral courage to take on the concentrated wealth that corrupted American democracy and dominated the economy. When in 1901 Roosevelt found himself with “such a bully pulpit,” in his famous phrase, no wonder that he impressed people as a preacher of righteousness.

This same moral courage was necessary to drive American environmentalism. Calvinist churches fostered a particularly strong interest in nature and natural history; John Calvin himself regarded nature as a place where God drew nearest and communicated himself and he spoke of the natural world as the theater of his glory. To many Calvinists, nature study had an aura of sanctity as a moral occupation for men, women, and children alike. God, they said, gave natural resources to humans to use for the common good, but not sinfully to waste or turn to greedy or selfish purposes.

Under Harrison, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson, national government made dramatic strides in conservation. They expanded National Parks from one to two dozen, organized the Park Service, created millions of acres of National Forests, established the Forest Service, and named and promulgated conservation. They had essential assistance from their Secretaries of Interior (parks) and Agriculture (forests), who during the heyday of conservation between 1889 and 1946 were Presbyterians in three years out of four. For Wilson, a Southerner little interested in conservation, Interior Secretary Franklin Lane was prime instigator of major parks expansion and organization.

Roosevelt was the unexcelled exemplar of this passion for nature and moralism about its use. As a boy, he created a zoo in his home and learned taxidermy to preserve specimens. At Harvard, he originally intended to study natural history. After he chose a career in politics, he was an unusually knowledgeable ornithologist and published books on natural history, hunting, and his wilderness adventures. Aptly, as vice president, Roosevelt was climbing Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks when he learned William McKinley had died and he was now president.

Roosevelt believed government must protect nature and natural resources against the rapacious forces of self-interested avarice. “Conservation is a great moral issue,” he asserted. “I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.” As president, he added five National Parks, created the first 18 National Monuments, quadrupled the acreage of National Forests, established the first 51 bird refuges and four game refuges, oversaw the first irrigation projects and several major dams, and made the new term “conservation” the cornerstone of his political agenda.

After he died in 1919, Roosevelt inspired many to carry on with his work. One was the fervent progressive Harold Ickes, who said of the moment he learned of Roosevelt’s death, “something went out of my life that has never been replaced.” Unsurprisingly, Ickes was a Presbyterian who once intended to go into the ministry. One friend even called him “furiously righteous.” Among his many acts as Secretary of Interior in the administration of Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin, he desegregated the National Parks and added the first four parks intended to remain as undeveloped wilderness: Everglades, Olympic, Kings Canyon, and Isle Royale. His career was a fitting capstone to the great era of progressive Presbyterianism.

Mark Stoll is an associate professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He is the author most recently of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism.

Read Full Post »

Theodore Roosevelt: An Old West Sheriff in the White House 

HNN June 14, 2015

President Obama’s recent announcement that he will sign an executive order to prevent the nation’s police from using combat equipment that “militarizes” their function grates on the ear of law-and-order conservatives, who believe that maintaining an orderly society means that our elected leaders must sometimes take extreme measures to achieve that end. Understanding history, they remember that George Washington used an overwhelming force of 13,000 militiamen to smash the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion” (a ragtag uprising of backwoods distillers who refused to pay the nation’s new tax of spirits) that flared up in western Pennsylvania in 1791. To hurl this many troops against unorganized malcontents who had burned the government tax collector’s home was massive overkill (500 trained soldiers could have easily put down the Lilliputian revolt), but not when measured by the larger goals the nation’s first president wanted to achieve in decisive, unequivocal fashion.

Washington’s bold action was critically important to the development of the country, establishing the power of the federal government during the nation’s fragile infancy and creating a beneficial precedent that violent disruptions to the civil order would not be tolerated in the new democratic republic. The Obama of his generation, Thomas Jefferson disapproved of President Washington’s police action, viewing it as a heavy-handed over-reaction to the reasonable complaints of those adversely affected by Alexander Hamilton’s new tax on spirits (Jefferson opposed the tax). Just as Obama sympathized with the criminal element which disturbed the peace of Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland by caving in to complaints that “militarized” police had provoked violence in the streets, Jefferson sided with lawbreakers who claimed laws enacted by the nation’s duly elected government were tyrannical edicts that justified violent civil unrest.

In striking contrast to Obama and Jefferson stands Theodore Roosevelt, who was arguably the greatest law-and-order president in American history. In recent years, he has been vilified by many right wing pundits as a statist “progressive” (code for bleeding-heart “liberal”) hell bent on achieving “social justice” (a phrase he popularized) for the less well-off in the population. In truth, TR was a no-nonsense conservative cut from the mold of Washington—a hardheaded realist who had no naiveté about the dangers posed to society by the base passions of mankind. Like Washington, he looked with discomfort on the barbaric “tar and feather” tactics Sam Adams used to trigger the American Revolution and was sickened by the ferocious bloodletting perpetrated by the French Revolutionists. Fully embracing the Social Darwinism that was so popular during his own time, he saw society as a fierce “survival of the fittest” competition that would devolve into destructive anarchy if the restraints of civilization were removed.

From his denunciation of the Governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, for pardoning anarchist bombers who triggered the infamous Haymarket labor riot in 1885, to his enthusiastic support for President Grover Cleveland’s use of the U.S. Army to put down the Pullman Strike in 1895, TR consistently supported aggressive means to stamp out and prevent civil unrest. As President of the United States, he believed it was his duty to use whatever means necessary to maintain societal order. There can be no doubt that he would have used the military to quell domestic disturbances during his presidential administration if the need had arisen, as plainly shown by his order to General Scofield in 1902 to use the U.S. Army to end the Anthracite Coal Strike if a peaceful settlement could not be reached in the labor dispute.

Not surprisingly, “police” was one of TR’s favorite words. He used it most famously in 1904 when he announced that the United States would henceforth become the “policeman” of the Western hemisphere, that it would “spank” disorderly Latin American nations that “misbehaved.” The news of this extraordinary “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine produced howls of outrage among the nation’s liberals that the paternalistic decree was insensitive to the feelings of the people who lived south of the border. TR brushed aside the criticism. He feared that if the United States did not exercise hegemonic control over Latin America that European powers (especially Germany) would fill the power void and begin to carve colonies out of South America just as they had carved up Africa during the previous generation.

The “Roosevelt Corollary” proved to be one of TR’s greatest mistakes during his presidency, giving birth to a spirit of hostility in Latin America toward the United States that lingers to this day (Franklin D. Roosevelt was wise to repudiate his predecessor’s corollary when he announced his mild “Good Neighbor” policy in the 1930s). Misguided and abrasive, TR’s decree is nevertheless a useful lens that lets us view the real man. He believed that the maintenance and spread of civilization required that the great nations of the world exercise hegemonic control over their respective “spheres of influence”, “policing” weaker nations that fell within their region of power. Thus his strident advocacy of the Monroe Doctrine and his implicit belief that Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan had similar, albeit unstated, doctrines that gave them license to act as regional hegemons.

The enthusiasm TR showed during his presidency for “policing” those who “misbehaved” was evident early in his career. During the mid-1880s when he was not yet 30 years old, he appointed himself “Deputy Sheriff” of the territory around his cattle ranch in the Dakota Badlands and quickly showed that it was much more than a paper title, tracking down and bringing to justice horse thieves in a dramatic incident that he made sure the nation’s newspapers noticed. Possessing a genius for self-promotion rivaled in our own day only by Donald Trump, he often used flamboyant “police” actions like this to shine the spotlight on himself so that the American people would see him as a heroic opponent of criminality in all its forms.

TR saw himself as a Sheriff of the Old West—a throwback to the rough-and-ready lawmen who had administered frontier justice with a cool head and a loaded gun before civilization spread itself over the continent. Once he reached the White House, he went out of his way to give Bat Masterson (the Sheriff of Dodge City), Pat Garrett (the lawman who killed Billy the Kid) and Seth Bullock (the Sheriff who cleaned up Deadwood) government jobs, declaring that they “correspond to those Vikings, like Hastings and Rollo, who finally served the cause of civilization.” He understood that his Old West heroes had often violated the letter of the law in order to keep the peace, but he was anything but a legalistic Pharisee obsessed with narrow definitions. He forgave their transgressions just as he forgave his own in the same regard throughout his political career because they were, he believed, just like him—righteous men who could be trusted to bend the rules put in place to restrain lesser men.

During TR’s time as Police Commissioner of New York City (1895-1897) he acted in the spirit of these grim lawmen of the Old West, cracking down on crime and vice in unprecedented fashion. He started with his own police force, taking to the city’s streets after midnight to catch police officers sleeping on the job. Next, he enforced the so-called “Raines Law,” which prohibited saloons from selling alcohol on Sundays. The extraordinary action infuriated the city’s large alcohol consuming population, especially German-Americans linked to the brewing industry and “Tammany Hall” Democrats, who used their control of the police to operate an extortion racket that extracted financial kickbacks from saloon owners, who were allowed to open for business on Sunday if they paid off the local Tammany machine boss.

Enforcing laws that others ignored was one of the principal drivers of TR’s career, helping him make newspaper headlines and bolster his image as a corruption fighter. He was in many respects the Eliot Ness of his day—incorruptible and indefatigable in his determination to take down the bad guys. As a U.S. Civil Service Commissioner between 1889 and 1893 he even defied his boss, President Benjamin Harrison, by insisting that the Pendleton Act (which Congress had enacted to curtail the “spoils system”) must be enforced. When Harrison refused to fully enforce the law (he needed the “spoils system” fully operational to win re-election), TR took his case directly to the American people, engaging in a nasty public feud with the chief “spoils-man” of the Harrison administration, Postmaster General John Wanamaker.

Of course, the best example of TR’s enforcing moribund laws came in 1902 when he directed his Attorney General to bring suit against J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities railroad combination. Up until then the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 had been ignored by both Republican (Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley) and Democratic presidential administrations (Grover Cleveland). Blowing the dust off of this long neglected statute, he used it to catapult himself into the nation’s consciousness as a “Trust Buster” engaged in a bruising struggle with sinister “malefactors of great wealth.” As he told his friend Henry Cabot Lodge: “I am a great believer in practical politics, but when my duty is to enforce a law, that law is surely going to be enforced, without fear or favor.”

As much as TR relished enforcing the law, there was one glaring instance when vigorous “policing” was needed in which he sat on his hands and did nothing. This occurred during his presidency when he refused to do anything at all to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which promised all Americans—including blacks in the South—equal protection under the law and the right to vote. On its face his failure in this regard makes him seem hypocritical and racist (he had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution), but in his defense it should be noted that every president in the century that passed between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was guilty of the same dereliction of duty.

For TR, enforcing the law was never an end in itself, but rather the means to a larger end, namely, the orderly functioning of society. In his conservative value system, order came before justice as a priority for statesmen to pursue because he understood that without the former, the latter was not possible. He wanted very much to heal the racial divisions of his time, but knew this was an impossible task given the ingrained attitudes of his generation regarding race. He ignored the 14th and 15th Amendments because he felt that maintaining stability in the segregated South and cementing the region back into the nation as a whole after the destructive whirlwind of Civil War and Reconstruction was more important than beginning what in his words was a pointless “Peter the Hermit crusade” against an intractable problem that he could never solve.

TR’s acceptance of the status quo regarding the nation’s terrible racial problems was a reasonable approach when seen in the context of the century of segregation that followed the Civil War, but it undoubtedly led to one of his greatest mistakes as president—his infamous decision in 1906 to discharge “without honor” a battalion of black soldiers in the U.S. Army accused of “shooting up” the town of Brownsville, Texas. The reason for his unprecedented and unjust action (the accused did not receive a public trial) remains mysterious, but probably was heavily influenced by a horrific race riot that occurred around the same time in Atlanta, in which a white mob killed a dozen blacks to avenge the alleged rape of a white woman. In arbitrarily dismissing the black soldiers, TR appears to have once again been more concerned with not provoking white Southerners than with the pursuit of justice (after the Brownsville case was reopened in 1973, the U.S. government officially reversed TR’s decision and President Nixon signed an order restoring the pensions of the dismissed men).

In strenuously enforcing the law when it was in his power to do so and looking the other way and allowing it to be broken with impunity when he felt a policy of inaction served the greater good, Theodore Roosevelt always acted in what he believed were the best interests of the United States as a whole. Given his stellar law enforcement credentials, we can be sure that were he president today he would not waste time wringing his hands about what equipment the police used to deal with riotous miscreants. If anything, he would likely choose to use an overwhelming show of force just as Washington did to put down the “Whiskey Rebellion” in order to send a loud message that violent unrest would not be tolerated on his watch.

As much as TR would favor using a firm hand, he would not offer knee-jerk approval of the police. Hardheaded realist that he was he understood that all men—even those entrusted with enforcing the law—could succumb to criminality (his record as Police Commissioner of New York City, when he demonstrated zero tolerance for misconduct within the force he led, proves this conclusively). This said, his sympathy would naturally gravitate toward the police and, as long as their conduct was lawful and professional, he would vigorously support them.

After all, TR was one of their fraternity—a Wyatt Earp in spirit who saw the world as an unruly and dangerous Old West town, a Tombstone that needed to be cleaned up and kept peaceful under the gaze of a steely-eyed lawman like himself who was willing to draw his gun if needed to maintain civilization. Fittingly, he carried a concealed revolver on his person during his presidency, making him the last Commander-in-Chief to arm himself with a firearm while in the White House.

Daniel Ruddy is the author of «Theodore the Great: Conservative Crusader,» which defends TR’s historical reputation against a flurry of attacks on his character and policies over the last decade. The book will be published by Regnery in October, 2015.

Read Full Post »

Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’: An Aggressive Reshaping of the Past

Henry Kissinger

The Washington Free Beacon October 11, 2014

Henry Kissinger projects the public image of a judicious elder statesman whose sweeping knowledge of history lets him rise above the petty concerns of today, in order to see what is truly in the national interest. Yet as Kissinger once said of Ronald Reagan, his knowledge of history is “tailored to support his firmly held preconceptions.” Instead of expanding his field of vision, Kissinger’s interpretation of the past becomes a set of blinders that prevent him from understanding either his country’s values or its interests. Most importantly, he cannot comprehend how fidelity to those values may advance the national interest.

So far, Kissinger’s aggressive reshaping of the past has escaped public notice. On the contrary, World Order has elicited a flood of fawning praise. The New York Times said, “It is a book that every member of Congress should be locked in a room with — and forced to read before taking the oath of office.” The Christian Science Monitor declared it “a treat to gallivant through history at the side of a thinker of Kissinger’s caliber.” In a review for the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton praised Kissinger for “his singular combination of breadth and acuity along with his knack for connecting headlines to trend lines.” The Wall Street Journal and U.K. Telegraph offered similar evaluations.

Kissinger observes that “Great statesmen, however different as personalities, almost invariably had an instinctive feeling for the history of their societies.” Correspondingly, the lengthiest component of World Order is a hundred-page survey of American diplomatic history from 1776 to the present. In those pages, Kissinger persistently caricatures American leaders as naïve amateurs, incapable of thinking strategically. Yet an extensive literature, compiled by scholars over the course of decades, paints a very different picture. Kissinger’s footnotes give no indication that he has read any of this work.

If one accepts Kissinger’s narrative at face value, then his advice seems penetrating. “America’s moral aspirations,” Kissinger says, “need to be combined with an approach that takes into account the strategic element of policy.” This is a cliché masquerading as a profound insight. Regrettably, World Order offers no meaningful advice on how to achieve this difficult balance. It relies instead on the premise that simply recognizing the need for balance represents a dramatic improvement over the black-and-white moralism that dominates U.S. foreign policy.

America’s Original Sin

John Quincy Adams

“America’s favorable geography and vast resources facilitated a perception that foreign policy was an optional activity,” Kissinger writes. This was never the case. When the colonies were British possessions, the colonists understood that their security was bound up with British success in foreign affairs. When the colonists declared independence, they understood that the fate of their rebellion would rest heavily on decisions made in foreign capitals, especially Paris, whose alliance with the colonists was indispensable.

In passing, Kissinger mentions that “the Founders were sophisticated men who understood the European balance of power and manipulated it to the new country’s advantage.” It is easy to forget that for almost fifty years, the new republic was led by its Founders. They remained at the helm through a series of wars against the Barbary pirates, a quasi-war with France begun in 1798, and a real one with Britain in 1812. Only in 1825 did the last veteran of the Revolutionary War depart from the White House—as a young lieutenant, James Monroe had crossed the Delaware with General Washington before being severely wounded.

Monroe turned the presidency over to his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. The younger Adams was the fourth consecutive president with prior service as the nation’s chief diplomat. With Europe at peace, the primary concern of American foreign policy became the country’s expansion toward the Pacific Ocean, a project that led to a war with Mexico as well as periodic tensions with the British, the Spanish, and even the Russians, who made vast claims in the Pacific Northwest. During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy recognized the vital importance of relations with Europe. Not long after the war, the United States would enter its brief age of overseas expansion.

One of Kissinger’s principal means of demonstrating his predecessors’ naïve idealism is to approach their public statements as unadulterated expressions of their deepest beliefs. With evident disdain, Kissinger writes, “the American experience supported the assumption that peace was the natural condition of humanity, prevented only by other countries’ unreasonableness or ill will.” The proof-text for this assertion is John Quincy Adams’ famous Independence Day oration of 1821, in which Adams explained, America “has invariably, often fruitlessly, held forth to [others] the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity … She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations.” This was a bold assertion, given that Adams was in the midst of bullying Spain on the issue of Florida, which it soon relinquished.

Kissinger spends less than six pages on the remainder of the 19th century, apparently presuming that Americans of that era did not spend much time thinking about strategy or diplomacy. Then, in 1898, the country went to war with Spain and acquired an empire. “With no trace of self-consciousness,” Kissinger writes, “[President William McKinley] presented the war…as a uniquely unselfish mission.” Running for re-election in 1900, McKinley’s campaign posters shouted, “The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory, but for humanity’s sake.” The book does not mention that McKinley was then fighting a controversial war to subdue the Philippines, which cost as many lives as the war in Iraq and provoked widespread denunciations of American brutality. Yet McKinley’s words—from a campaign ad, no less—are simply taken at face value.

Worshipping Roosevelt and Damning Wilson

Theodore Roosevelt

For Kissinger, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt represents a brief and glorious exception to an otherwise unbroken history of moralistic naïveté. Roosevelt “pursued a foreign policy concept that, unprecedentedly for America, based itself largely on geopolitical considerations.” He “was impatient with many of the pieties that dominated American thinking on foreign policy.” With more than a hint of projection, Kissinger claims, “In Roosevelt’s view, foreign policy was the art of adapting American policy to balance global power discretely and resolutely, tilting events in the direction of the national interest.”

The Roosevelt of Kissinger’s imagination is nothing like the actual man who occupied the White House. Rather than assuming his country’s values to be a burden that compromised its security, TR placed the concept of “righteousness” at the very heart of his approach to world politics. Whereas Kissinger commends those who elevate raison d’etat above personal morality, Roosevelt subscribed to the belief that there is one law for the conduct of both nations and men. At the same time, TR recognized that no authority is capable of enforcing such a law. In world politics, force remains the final arbiter. For Kissinger, this implies that ethics function as a restraint on those who pursue the national interest. Yet according to the late scholar of international relations, Robert E. Osgood, Roosevelt believed that the absence of an enforcer “magnified each nation’s obligation to conduct itself honorably and see that others did likewise.” This vision demanded that America have a proverbial “big stick” and be willing to use it.

Osgood’s assessment of Roosevelt is not atypical. What makes it especially interesting is that Osgood was an avowed Realist whose perspective was much closer to that of Kissinger than it was to Roosevelt. In 1969, Osgood took leave from Johns Hopkins to serve under Kissinger on the National Security Council staff. Yet Osgood had no trouble recognizing the difference between Roosevelt’s worldview and his own.

For Kissinger, the antithesis of his imaginary Roosevelt is an equally ahistoric Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s vision, Kissinger says, “has been, with minor variations, the American program for world order ever since” his presidency. “The tragedy of Wilsonianism,” Kissinger explains, “is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century’s decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.” Considering Theodore Roosevelt’s idealism, it seems that Wilson’s tenure represented a period of continuity rather than a break with tradition. Furthermore, although Wilson’s idealism was intense, it was not unmoored from an appreciation of power. To demonstrate Wilson’s naïveté, Kissinger takes his most florid rhetoric at face value, a tactic employed earlier at the expense of William McKinley and John Quincy Adams.

The pivotal moment of Wilson’s presidency was the United States’ declaration of war on Germany. “Imbued by America’s historic sense of moral mission,” Kissinger says, “Wilson proclaimed that America had intervened not to restore the European balance of power but to ‘make the world safe for democracy’.” In addition to misquoting Wilson, Kissinger distorts his motivations. In his request to Congress for a declaration of war, Wilson actually said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” John Milton Cooper, the author of multiple books on Wilson, notes that Wilson employed the passive tense to indicate that the United States would not assume the burden of vindicating the cause of liberty across the globe. Rather, the United States was compelled to defend its own freedom, which was under attack from German submarines, which were sending American ships and their crewmen to the bottom of the Atlantic. (Kissinger makes only one reference to German outrages in his discussion.)

If Wilson were the crusader that Kissinger portrays, why did he wait almost three years to enter the war against Germany alongside the Allies? The answer is that Wilson was profoundly apprehensive about the war and it consequences. Even after the Germans announced they would sink unarmed American ships without warning, Wilson waited two more months, until a pair of American ships and their crewmen lay on the ocean floor as a result of such attacks.

According to Kissinger, Wilson’s simple faith in the universality of democratic ideals led him to fight, from the first moments of the war, for regime change in Germany. In his request for a declaration of war, Wilson observed, “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” This was more of an observation than a practical program. Eight months later, Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, yet explicitly told Congress, “we do not wish in any way to impair or to rearrange the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is no affair of ours what they do with their own life, either industrially or politically.” Clearly, in this alleged war for liberty, strategic compromises were allowed, something one would never know from reading World Order.

Taking Ideology Out of the Cold War

John F. Kennedy

Along with the pomp and circumstance of presidential inaugurations, there is plenty of inspirational rhetoric. Refusing once again to acknowledge the complex relationship between rhetoric and reality, Kissinger begins his discussion of the Cold War with an achingly literal interpretation of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he called on his countrymen to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Less well known is Kennedy’s admonition to pursue “not a balance of power, but a new world of law,” in which a “grand and global alliance” would face down “the common enemies of mankind.”

Kissinger explains, “What in other countries would have been treated as a rhetorical flourish has, in American discourse, been presented as a specific blueprint for global action.” Yet this painfully naïve JFK is—like Kissinger’s cartoon versions of Roosevelt or Wilson—nowhere to be found in the literature on his presidency.

In a seminal analysis of Kennedy’s strategic thinking published more than thirty years ago, John Gaddis elucidated the principles of JFK’s grand strategy, which drew on a careful assessment of Soviet and American power. Gaddis concludes that Kennedy may have been willing to pay an excessive price and bear too many burdens in his efforts to forestall Soviet aggression, but there is no question that JFK embraced precisely the geopolitical mindset that Kissinger recommends. At the same time, Kennedy comprehended, in a way Kissinger never does, that America’s democratic values are a geopolitical asset. In Latin America, Kennedy fought Communism with a mixture of force, economic assistance, and a determination to support elected governments. His “Alliance for Progress” elicited widespread applause in a hemisphere inclined to denunciations of Yanquí imperialism. This initiative slowly fell apart after Kennedy’s assassination, but he remains a revered figure in many corners of Latin America.

Kissinger’s fundamental criticism of the American approach to the Cold War is that “the United States assumed leadership of the global effort to contain Soviet expansionism—but as a primarily moral, not geopolitical endeavor.” While admiring the “complex strategic considerations” that informed the Communist decision to invade South Korea, Kissinger laments that the American response to this hostile action amounted to nothing more than “fighting for a principle, defeating aggression, and a method of implementing it, via the United Nations.”

It requires an active imagination to suppose that President Truman fought a war to vindicate the United Nations. He valued the fig leaf of a Security Council resolution (made possible by the absence of the Soviet ambassador), but the purpose of war was to inflict a military and psychological defeat on the Soviets and their allies, as well as to secure Korean freedom. Yet Kissinger does not pause, even for a moment, to consider that the United States could (or should) have conducted its campaign against Communism as both a moral and a geopolitical endeavor.

An admission of that kind would raise the difficult question of how the United States should integrate both moral and strategic imperatives in its pursuit of national security. On this subject, World Order has very little to contribute. It acknowledges that legitimacy and power are the prerequisites of order, but prefers to set up and tear down an army of strawmen rather than engaging with the real complexity of American diplomatic history.

Forgetting Reagan

Ronald Reagan

In 1976, while running against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan “savaged” Henry Kissinger for his role as the architect of Nixon and Ford’s immoral foreign policy. That is how Kissinger recalled things twenty years ago in Diplomacy, his 900-page treatise on world politics in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Kissinger employed a long chapter in his book to return the favor. Yet in World Order, there is barely any criticism to leaven its praise of Reagan. Perhaps this change reflects a gentlemanly concern for speaking well of the dead. More likely, Kissinger recognizes that Reagan’s worldview has won the heart of the Republican Party. Thus, to preserve his influence, Kissinger must create the impression he and Reagan were not so different.

In Diplomacy, Kissinger portrays Reagan as a fool and an ideologue. “Reagan knew next to no history, and the little he did know he tailored to support his firmly held preconceptions. He treated biblical references to Armageddon as operational predictions. Many of the historical anecdotes he was so fond of recounting had no basis in fact.” In World Order, one learns that Reagan “had read more deeply in American political philosophy than his domestic critics credited” him with. Thus, he was able to “combine American’s seemingly discordant strengths: its idealism, its resilience, its creativity, and its economic vitality.” Just as impressively, “Reagan blended the two elements—power and legitimacy” whose combination Kissinger describes as the foundation of world order.

Long gone is the Reagan who was bored by “the details of foreign policy” and whose “approach to the ideological conflict [with Communism] was a simplified version of Wilsonianism” while his strategy for ending the Cold War “was equally rooted in American utopianism.” Whereas Nixon had a deep understanding of the balance of power, “Reagan did not in his own heart believe in structural or geopolitical causes of tension.”

In contrast, World Order says that Reagan “generated psychological momentum with pronouncements at the outer edge of Wilsonian moralism.” Alone among American statesmen, Reagan receives credit for the strategic value of his idealistic public statements, instead of having them held up as evidence of his ignorance and parochialism.

Kissinger observes that while Nixon did not draw inspiration from Wilsonian visions, his “actual policies were quite parallel and not rarely identical” to Reagan’s. This statement lacks credibility. Reagan wanted to defeat the Soviet Union. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to stabilize the Soviet-American rivalry. They pursued détente, whereas Reagan, according to Diplomacy, “meant to reach his goal by means of relentless confrontation.”

Kissinger’s revised recollections of the Reagan years amount to a tacit admission that a president can break all of the rules prescribed by the Doctor of Diplomacy, yet achieve a more enduring legacy as a statesman than Kissinger himself.

The Rest of the World

Henry Kissinger

Three-fourths of World Order is not about the United States of America. The book also includes long sections on the history of Europe, Islam, and Asia. The sections on Islam and Asia are expendable, although for different reasons.

The discussion of Islamic history reads like a college textbook. When it comes to the modern Middle East, World Order has the feel of a news clipping service, although the clippings favor the author’s side of the debate. In case you didn’t already know, Kissinger is pro-Israel and pro-Saudi, highly suspicious of Iran, and dismissive of the Arab Spring. The book portrays Syria as a quagmire best avoided, although it carefully avoids criticism of Obama’s plan for airstrikes in 2013. Kissinger told CNN at the time that the United States ought to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, although he opposed “intervention in the civil war.”

The book’s discussion of China amounts to an apologia for the regime in Beijing. To that end, Kissinger is more than willing to bend reality. When he refers to what took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he calls it a “crisis”—not a massacre or an uprising. Naturally, there are no references to political prisoners, torture, or compulsory abortion and sterilization. There is a single reference to corruption, in the context of Kissinger’s confident assertion that President Xi Jinping is now challenging it and other vices “in a manner that combines vision with courage.”

Whereas Kissinger’s lack of candor is not surprising with regard to human rights, one might expect an advocate of realpolitik to provide a more realistic assessment of how China interacts with foreign powers. Yet the book only speaks of “national rivalries” in the South China Sea, not of Beijing’s ongoing efforts to intimidate its smaller neighbors. It also portrays China as a full partner in the effort to denuclearize North Korea. What concerns Kissinger is not the ruthlessness of Beijing, but the potential for the United States and China to be “reinforced in their suspicions by the military maneuvers and defense programs of the other.”

Rather than an aggressive power with little concern for the common good, Kissinger’s China is an “indispensable pillar of world order” just like the United States. If only it were so.

In its chapters on Europe, World Order recounts the history that has fascinated Kissinger since his days as a doctoral candidate at Harvard. It is the story of “the Westphalian order,” established and protected by men who understood that stability rests on a “balance of power—which, by definition, involves ideological neutrality”—i.e. a thorough indifference to the internal arrangements of other states.

“For more than two hundred years,” Kissinger says, “these balances kept Europe from tearing itself to pieces as it had during the Thirty Years War.” To support this hypothesis, Kissinger must explain away the many great wars of that era as aberrations that reflect poorly on particular aggressors—like Louis XIV, the Jacobins, and Napoleon—rather than failures of the system as a whole. He must even exonerate the Westphalian system from responsibility for the war that crippled Europe in 1914. But this he does, emerging with complete faith that balances of power and ideological neutrality remain the recipe for order in the 21st century.

Wishing Away Unipolarity


Together, Kissinger’s idiosyncratic interpretations of European and American history have the unfortunate effect of blinding him to the significance of the two most salient features of international politics today. The first is unipolarity. The second is the unity of the democratic world, led by the United States.

Fifteen years ago, Dartmouth Professor William Wohlforth wrote that the United States “enjoys a much larger margin of superiority over the next powerful state or, indeed, all other great powers combined, than any leading state in the last two centuries.” China may soon have an economy of comparable size, but it has little prospect of competing militarily in the near- or mid-term future. Six of the next ten largest economies belong to American allies. Only one belongs to an adversary—Vladimir Putin’s Russia—whose antipathy toward the United States has not yielded a trusting relationship with China, let alone an alliance. (Incidentally, Putin is not mentioned in World Order, a significant oversight for a book that aspires to a global field of vision.)

The reason that the United States is able to maintain a globe-spanning network of alliances is precisely because it has never had a foreign policy based on ideological neutrality. Its network of alliances continues to endure and expand, even in the absence of a Soviet threat, because of shared democratic values. Of course, the United States has partnerships with non-democratic states as well. It has never discarded geopolitical concerns, pace Kissinger. Yet the United States and its principal allies in Europe and Asia continue to see their national interests as compatible because their values play such a prominent role in defining those interests. Similarly, America’s national interest entails a concern for spreading democratic values, because countries that make successful transitions to democracy tend to act in a much more pacific and cooperative manner.

These are the basic truths about world order that elude Kissinger because he reflexively exaggerates and condemns the idealism of American foreign policy. In World Order, Kissinger frequently observes that a stable order must be legitimate, in addition to reflecting the realities of power. If he were less vehement in his denunciations of American idealism, he might recognize that it is precisely such ideals that provide legitimacy to the order that rests today on America’s unmatched power.

Rather than functioning as a constraint on its pursuit of the national interest, America’s democratic values have ensured a remarkable tolerance for its power. Criticism of American foreign policy may be pervasive, but inaction speaks louder than words. Rather than challenging American power, most nations rely on it to counter actual threats. At the moment, with the Middle East in turmoil, Ukraine being carved up, and Ebola spreading rapidly, the current world order may not seem so orderly. Yet no world order persists on its own. Those who have power and legitimacy must fight to preserve it.

Agradezco al amigo Luis Ponce por ponerme en contacto con esta nota.

Read Full Post »


 De la frontera y el conservacionismo progresista

José Anazagasty Rodríguez

80grados   5 de setiembre de 2014

La democracia estadounidense germinó en el inhóspito, inhabitado y agreste yermo, el wilderness. Esa era al menos la idea básica detrás de la popular “tesis de la frontera” del historiador estadounidense Frederick Jason Turner. Con ella el historiador rechazaba el supuesto de la “germ theory of politics” que situaba la germinación de las instituciones políticas en Europa, convirtiendo las instituciones estadounidenses en un copia de estas. Para Turner las instituciones estadounidenses eran diferentes de las europeas porque los estadounidenses enfrentaron y dominaron un medioambiente formidable y distinto del europeo, una enorme extensión de tierra “gratis” que llamaron la frontera. Según Turner, fue en el contexto de la conquista de ese confín, conocido también como wilderness, y su transformación en un lugar espléndido, habitado y cultivado, que los estadounidenses formaron sus instituciones.

Turner propuso un relato histórico que tornó aquel confín donde se topaban lo salvaje y lo civilizado en el germen primordial de la historia estadounidense. Para el afamado historiador de la frontera fue precisamente sobre ella, y gracias a las acciones de los colonos que en su lucha la transformaron, que se instauró el orden social estadounidense, incluyendo sus instituciones políticas. De acuerdo con el relato de Turner el wilderness dominó inicialmente al colono pero este, ya adaptado, eventual y paulatinamente, lo conformó a sus necesidades. Es por ello que para Turner la frontera era el lugar de la más rápida y efectiva americanización. Allí los colonos y la frontera misma se hacían americanos mientras se efectuaba la historia estadounidense y se desertaba lo europeo. Como explicaba el propio Turner: “Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history.”

Desde una óptica lamarckista, Turner propuso básicamente que el desarrollo de las instituciones estadounidenses era fruto de las interacciones humanas con la frontera, con las fuerzas naturales allí. Ese lamarckismo, muy popular entre los científicos sociales de la época, explica en parte la buena recepción que tuvo la tesis de Turner entre los intelectuales estadounidenses, popularidad que se extendió hasta los años treinta. Como expresó el historiador Ray A. Bellington, la tesis de Turner fue uno de los conceptos más usados para dilucidar la historia estadounidense, aunque también uno de los más controversiales. Poco después que Turner la presentara ante la American Historical Association en 1893 la tesis generó mucho entusiasmo entre los historiadores. El entusiasmo no se limitó a los historiadores, pues la misma fue adoptada, adaptada y reforzada por diversos intelectuales en varias disciplinas, incluyendo varios “antropólogos lineales” como William John McGee, un importante ideólogo del conservacionismo rooseveltiano, y hasta por el propio presidente.

El Presidente Theodore Roosevelt, para quien la frontera era sagrada, un recinto para la comunión con Dios, recurrió al mito de la frontera para así suministrarle a sus políticas ambientales no solo de aires morales sino además de “sueño americano.” Para él, la fortaleza moral y espiritual de la nación requería la conservación de la naturaleza. Pero el conservacionismo rooselveltiano era también progresista y apoyaba como tal la intervención estatal para garantizar la explotación racional de los recursos naturales. Desde la perspectiva de Roosevelt, la fortaleza material de la nación así lo requería. La ciencia garantizaría la racionalidad necesaria, por lo que Rooselvelt recurrió a intelectuales como McGee, quien articuló un discurso conservacionista basado en principios lamarckistas y el “espíritu progresista” del pueblo estadounidense. Los paralelos entre la propuesta de este y la tesis turneriana son innegables.

McGee fue, aparte de antropólogo, geólogo, inventor, etnólogo, y conservacionista. Fue partícipe del desarrollo de las políticas conservacionistas de Roosevelt y colaboró inclusive en la redacción de los discursos del célebre presidente. De hecho, Roosevelt le debía a McGee su construcción de un público conservacionista al que su administración invocaba para legitimar sus políticas ambientales. McGee fue también Vicepresidente y Secretario del Inland Waterway Commision, líder del Bureau of Ethnology, y Presidente y Vicepresidente del National Geographic Society.

Para McGee el conservacionismo era la fase culminante del movimiento evolucionario Lamarckista. Desde esa perspectiva la naturaleza humana se constituía en la interacción histórica de los humanos con las fuerzas ambientales, una lucha que podía y debía proporcionar progreso moral y espiritual. Pero si el imaginario pastoril estadounidense, inspirado en Thomas Jefferson, recurría al pequeño y solitario terrateniente conquistando la frontera, McGee lo socializaba. Para él, el héroe fronterizo era, más que un individuo, el representante de un “espíritu colectivo” que constituía y manipulaba su entorno en colaboración con otros sujetos. Al registrar esa cooperación McGee destacaba la importancia de la organización social, la que para él garantizaba la mejor adaptación al ambiente, así como su conquista, como confirmaba la experiencia estadounidense.

Para McGee la historia de Estados Unidos era la de un pueblo forjado en su lucha con la naturaleza, uno que además de adaptarse a las condiciones ambientales podía alterar esas condiciones a su favor, tomando, como se desprende de la propuesta evolucionista de Lamarck, una participación activa en la transformación del ambiente y consecuentemente de su propia especie. Y esa transformación era para McGee, como para muchos otros conservacionistas de la Era Progresista, tan espiritual y moral como material. En la lucha con la naturaleza, y como otro derivado del proceso, se construían la sociedad estadounidense y su identidad nacional.

Si en fases previas a la conservacionista el dominio de la naturaleza había resultado en el deterioro ambiental y la sobreexplotación de los recursos naturales, el paso a la fase conservacionista significaba para McGee la normalización e institucionalización del uso racional y planificado de esos recursos. Para él, los estadounidenses ya se movían en esa dirección y esa movida era un producto normal de su evolución. Y como en otras fases, la intervención de las instituciones era inevitable y deseable. Ante los retos ambientales, estas debían establecer los medios para concretar el proyecto conservacionista. Para el ideólogo conservacionista, el pueblo estadounidense, la más avanzada variación de la especie humana, consumaría la fase culminante del proceso evolutivo. Y ejecutarlo era no solo natural sino además el deber patriótico y moral de los estadounidenses.

El conservacionismo de McGee, como el de muchos otros conservacionistas progresistas, era utilitarista. Estos progresistas promovían un manejo científico —racional, metódico, juicioso, y planificado— de la explotación capitalista de los recursos naturales. En su imaginario la naturaleza era una reserva de recursos necesaria para el crecimiento económico. Lo que McGee y estos rechazaban no era el usufructo capitalista sino la explotación ineficiente, depredadora, y descomedida de los recursos naturales a manos de algunos capitalistas glotones. Se trataba de un llamado a la prudencia en el uso y manejo de recursos naturales. Para muchos conservacionistas del “momento progresista” conservar las reservas naturales era apremiante dada la clausura de la frontera a finales del siglo 19. El fin de la misma significó para ellos la potencial liquidación de la abundancia natural que para muchos había hasta entonces sostenido el exitoso crecimiento económico de la nación. La situación requería una política abarcadora de conservación, lo que se convirtió en uno de los proyectos medulares de la administración Roosevelt.

Fue precisamente durante los primeros años de la Era Progresista que Estados Unidos se inició como fuerza imperialista tras adquirir un imperio directo transcontinental. El nuevo imperio representó recursos naturales adicionales así como nuevas oportunidades para el proyecto conservacionista. Las nuevas colonias sirvieron como laboratorios para la puesta en práctica de varios programas y políticas conservacionistas, particularmente en el campo de la silvicultura, que más tarde serían aplicadas en Estados Unidos. De hecho, fue en Filipinas que Glifford Pinchot implantó algunos de sus políticas y programas, las que inspirarían la silvicultura estadounidense desde entonces. Sin embargo, se la ha dado muy poca atención a la articulación ideológica y discursiva del imperio en el movimiento conservacionista-progresista.

Me propongo, en una columna subsecuente, una lectura de un escrito de McGee publicado en National Geographic Magazine de 1898, antes de que sirviera como oficial gubernamental bajo Roosevelt, para develar algunos aspectos de esa construcción.

José Anazagasty Rodríguez es Catedrático Asociado en el programa de Sociología del Departamento de Ciencias Sociales de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto Universitario de Mayagüez. Es especialista en sociología ambiental, estudios americanos y teoría social, y ha realizado investigaciones en la retórica imperialista estadounidense y la producción capitalista de la naturaleza en Puerto Rico. Es co-editor, con Mario R. Cancel, de los libros «We the people: la representación americana de los puertorriqueños 1898-1926 (2008)» y «Porto Rico: hecho en Estados Unidos (2011)».

Read Full Post »


Fine Print: U.S. can’t seem to shake the ‘water cure’ as a method of interrogation

Walter Pincus

The Washington Post  May 1, 2014


“He is simply held down and then water is poured onto his face down his throat and nose from a jar; and that is kept up until the man gives some sign or becomes unconscious. And then . . . he is simply . . . rolled aside rudely, so that water is expelled. A man suffers tremendously, there is no doubt about it,” according to testimony given to the Senate committee.

That sounds as if it could be an excerpt from the classified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s post-9/11 capture, detention and interrogation programs that included waterboarding.

In a March 11 floor speech, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the panel is investigating “the horrible details of a CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”

But that quote was from testimony delivered in 1903 by U.S. Army Lt. Grover Flint before the Senate Philippines Committee. Chaired by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., the committee was reviewing how U.S. Army units were dealing with Filipino fighters who opposed the United States taking over governing their country in the wake of the Spanish-American War.

Sorry, folks, but it’s time to recall George Santayana’s remark in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Lodge panel dealt in part with allegations that U.S. troops and Filipino units working with them since 1900 had used that era’s version of waterboarding and other tortuous methods against the rebels.

The committee was dominated by Republican senators who supported the harsh tactics, which included the so-called water cure, an interrogation technique used to gather what was considered necessary information. Even President Theodore Roosevelt said at the time that “the water cure is an old Filipino method of mild torture. Nobody was seriously damaged whereas the Filipinos had inflicted incredible tortures on our people.”

It recalls the way former president George W. Bush put it in “Decision Points,” his 2010 book. “Waterboarding 1/8is3/8 a process of simulated drowning. No doubt the procedure was tough, but medical experts assured the CIA that it did no lasting harm,” he wrote.

In 1902, federal Judge William Howard Taft, appointed by Roosevelt to head the Philippine Commission to help establish a postwar government in Manila, was asked about the use of the “water cure” by the Lodge panel.

Taft said, “There have been in individual instances of water cure, that torture which I believe involves pouring water down the throat so that the man swells and gets the impression that he is going to be suffocated and then tells what he knows, which was a frequent treatment under the Spaniards, I am told.”

And while there were some cases in which U.S. military personnel faced investigations and courts-martial, Secretary of War Elihu Root sent the committee a report in 1902 that said, in part, “charges in the public press of cruelty and oppression exercised by our soldiers towards natives of the Philippines” had been either “unfounded or grossly exaggerated.”

Col. S.W. Groesbeck, once judge advocate general of the Philippines, said publicly, “I believe the water cure, as practiced by the American army in the Philippines, to be the most humane method of obtaining information from prisoners of war that is known to modern warfare.”

Coercive interrogation methods, to include forms of waterboarding, have been a continuing problem for Americans, their government ,and U.S. military and intelligence services.

Perhaps it shouldn’t keep happening, but waterboarding does reappear when circumstances arise that seem to justify — if not demand — such actions.

The Washington Post on Jan. 21, 1968, ran a front-page photo of a U.S. soldier supervising the waterboarding of a captured North Vietnamese soldier. The caption says the technique induced “a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make him talk.” Because of the photo, the U.S. Army initiated an investigation and the soldier was court-martialed and convicted of torturing a prisoner.

The CIA had a training manual, “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation — July 1963,” whose title was the code word used for the agency in Vietnam. It was used to train new interrogators and described its contents as “basic information about coercive techniques available for use in the interrogation situation.”

These included forcing detainees to stand or sit in “stress positions,” cutting off sources of light, and disrupting their sleep and their diet. Among the manual’s conclusions: The threat of pain is a far more effective interrogation tool than actually inflicting pain, but threats of death do not help.

Given this history, it should not have surprised anyone that in the fear that permeated the country post-9/11, that those responsible for protecting the nation would employ whatever techniques necessary to prevent another attack.

Torture-like interrogations were used in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, not just by the CIA but also by the military. No one in the White House or on Capitol Hill, informed of what was going in those first years after 9/11, raised public objections.

In her March speech, Feinstein said that if her committee’s report is declassified, “we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

That’s easy to say but, it seems, much harder to do.

While serving in the Army Counterintelligence Corps 58 years ago, I was trained as an interrogator. My training emphasized developing a rapport with a subject over time to help get needed information.

But in a battlefield situation or facing the possibility of an imminent terrorist attack, I honestly can’t say what I would do.

It’s under such difficult circumstances that presidents and lawmakers will find their positions truly tested.

As will we all.

«Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Among many other honors were the 1977 George Polk Award for articles exposing the neutron warhead, a 1981 Emmy from writing a CBS documentary on strategic nuclear weapons, and most recently the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy for columns on foreign policy.»

Read Full Post »


Doris Kearns Goodwin Tackles the “Irrepressible Conflict” of 1912

by Sheldon M. Stern

HNN  January 22, 2014

Image via Wiki Commons.

There are few things that fascinate historical writers and readers more than moments at which events take a very clear and decisive turn in one direction versus another — for example — the stories of how Franklin Roosevelt chose Harry Truman (1944) and John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson (1960) as vice-presidential running mates. If FDR and JFK had lived to complete their terms these choices would be little more than historical footnotes. But, of course, they didn’t. As a result, the dramatic appeal of these turning-point episodes is never-ending; and, as revealed in Robert Caro’s 2012 reexamination of the selection of LBJ, new evidence and insights continue to reshape assumptions that have often held sway for decades. (1)

However, no decisive moment in the history of the American presidency is more dramatic, indeed, almost redolent of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, than the collapse of the personal friendship and political partnership of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft between 1909 and 1912. This saga, which had profound implications for the decade of World War I and beyond, has been the focus of several major studies since 2002. Kathleen Dalton devoted nearly two hundred pages of her TR biography to his post-White House years; Patricia O’Toole’s examination of Roosevelt’s last decade covered more than four hundred pages; and Edmund Morris, in the final volume of his TR trilogy, devoted nearly six hundred pages to the same ten years. (2)

Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose intuitive grasp of the interstices between politics and personality has produced vivid insights into the public and private lives of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedy family, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, has now added her perspective to the Roosevelt-Taft story. (3) The tale unfolds against the backdrop of an intensifying state and national progressive reform movement, supported by an exceptionally talented group of journalists assembled at McClure’s Magazine. Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and William Allen White were committed to exposing the corrupt, covert power amassed by corporate special interests and their political allies in the decades since the end of Reconstruction. Goodwin skillfully balances two concurrent stories: the personal and political intimacy that developed between Roosevelt and Taft (TR’s most reliable associate and trouble shooter) and the unprecedented and mutually advantageous relationship which Roosevelt shrewdly cultivated with this influential corps of journalists.

Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is at her best in setting the stage — that is, in giving the reader a vivid sense of the social, economic, and family contexts that produced Roosevelt and Taft; they were both the sons of wealthy, public-spirited families which valued principled and honest public service, particularly in the wake of the industrial revolution which had created a vast and growing gap between the very rich and the working poor. The early TR story is, of course, very well-known, but Goodwin also gives equal attention to the far less familiar story of big Bill Taft, whose personality and temperament were virtually antithetical to that of his friend Roosevelt. Their personal and political relationship was, in many ways, an attraction of opposites.

TR was a man of action, who loved the spotlight and the chance to publicly take on those who differed with him on politics, science, history, literature or anything else — a political animal to the core. He was devoted to his wife Edith and their six children, (4) but rarely allowed her objections to get in the way of his preferred course of action. Edith, whose early life is discussed in revealing detail, was an intensely private person; she did not want her husband to leave his family for nearly a year of hunting in Africa in 1909, opposed his decision to run for president again in 1912, and resisted his determination to lead a mapping expedition into the Brazilian wilderness (which nearly cost him his life) in 1913-1914. Nonetheless, he made and carried out these decisions, often leaving Edith lonely and depressed.

Taft, known for his genial personal warmth, preferred to work in the background; he was an excellent administrator with a judicial temperament who always tried to objectively weigh both sides of an argument. He carried out every presidential assignment with skill and even-handedness, became the most valued man in TR’s Cabinet, and virtually served as acting president during Roosevelt’s extended tour of the western states in 1905. Nellie Taft, unlike Edith Roosevelt, adored politics and had been committed to becoming a president’s wife ever since she first visited the White House as a young girl during the Hayes administration. Nellie’s character and ambition, deftly rendered by Goodwin, was clearly a central factor in Taft’s private and public life.

Bill Taft was acutely dependent on his wife’s love, support, and advice, often deferring to her on critical decisions. She, as well as his politically influential brothers, Horace and Charles, wanted him to be president; he wanted to be Chief Justice of the United States. His mother, Louise Torrey Taft, sympathized with her son’s reluctance to seek the highest political prize in the land: “A place on the Supreme Bench, where my boy would administer justice, is my ambition for him. His is a judicial mind, you know, and he loves the law.” She explicitly cautioned her son: “Roosevelt is a good fighter and enjoys it, but the malice of the politicians would make you miserable.” (5) The result: he listened to his wife and brothers, turned down three offers from TR to be appointed to the High Court, and ran for president instead — with ultimately calamitous results for his personal and family happiness.

Goodwin skillfully highlights the stark contrast between the intimacy and trust once enjoyed by TR and Taft and the depths of personal and public bitterness that followed — so much so that it’s almost like reading two entirely separate books. The first part, carrying the story to early 1909, allows her to demonstrate the best of her insight and interpretive originality. In the second part, the details of which are so much more familiar, the task is considerably more difficult since most of the primary sources on the 1912 rift have already been extensively mined by countless journalists and historians. It is impossible, of course, to try to isolate a single cause for such a complex human and political drama. Perhaps, as Goodwin suggests, the conflict was all but inevitable in light of Taft’s self-doubt about his ability to serve as an executive leader and TR’s yearning to hold on to power — at least through his influence on (and over) the man he had selected to succeed him.

Early in 1912, as he was about to announce his candidacy, TR told an old college friend: “What do I owe to Taft? It was through me and my friends that he became President.” (6) In fact, Roosevelt had repeatedly (and successfully) delegated the most difficult political and diplomatic assignments to Taft. One newspaper commented humorously that it was too bad that Mr. Taft could not be cut in two. In 1906, Secretary of War Taft toured the country as the administration’s spokesman in the mid-term Congressional elections. Roosevelt was “overjoyed” by the results (small losses in the House and four seats gained in the Senate) and told his devoted ally, “I cannot sufficiently congratulate you upon the great part you have played in the contest.” (7)

The first signs of the impending debacle had appeared just after Taft won the 1908 Republican presidential nomination. The nominee announced publicly that he was planning to bring the final draft of his acceptance speech to TR’s Oyster Bay home for discussion and possible revision. The press blasted this “humiliating pilgrimage,” comparing Taft to “a schoolboy about to submit his composition to the teacher before he read it in school.” Some journalists even joked that T.A.F.T. meant “take advice from Theodore.” The nominee understood the need to demonstrate his independence but responded, rather guilelessly, that he also had “the highest regard for the president’s judgment and a keen appreciation of his wonderful ability for forceful expression.” (8)

Roosevelt’s officious response to Taft’s request for comments on the speech illustrates precisely what the candidate was up against: (9)

Both of the first two paragraphs should certainly be omitted. The rest of the speech is I think admirable, with two or three corrections. On pages thirty-seven and thirty-eight reference to bank deposits is weak and most of it should be omitted. It is apologetic and hesitating and would give advantage to opponents. The last two thirds of page forty-six should be omitted and supplanted by something else, or at least entirely changed. In present shape, there are phrases that would not please the negro and would displease the white. I do not like the stray pages about injunction and am doubtful about the page concerning the identity of interest of employer and employees. … The first two paragraphs should for different reasons certainly come out.

The president also included a personal admonition:

I think that the number of times my name is used should be cut down. You are now the leader, and there must be nothing that looks like self-depreciation or undue submission of yourself. My name should be used only enough thoroly [likely an example of TR’s quixotic campaign to reform spelling] to convince people of the identity and continuity of our policies.

Talk about mixed messages! TR does not merely make suggestions for changes in the speech, but essentially orders them in a peremptory tone much like that of the traditional nineteenth century rod-and-ruler school teacher. At the same time, he urges Taft to publicly affirm his independence! Perhaps Roosevelt really wanted Taft to merely make the public appearance of greater independence while remaining privately in thrall to his mentor’s personality and policies. The president, in any case, seemed genuinely incapable of understanding the bind in which he was placing his likely successor. Taft was understandably very ambivalent — first announcing after his election that he would keep Roosevelt’s cabinet intact and then clumsily angering his former chief by making major changes to demonstrate that he was really in charge. He was damned in the eyes of TR and the progressives if he replaced key administration reformers and damned by the press and much of the GOP Old Guard if he didn’t. It was hardly an auspicious way to kick off a new administration.

By early 1912, once it became clear that TR would challenge him for the nomination, a despondent Taft looked back at two years of increasingly bitter conflict with his former chief and told his aide Archie Butt: “I could not ask his advice on all questions. I could not subordinate my administration to him and retain my self-respect, but it is hard, very hard, Archie, to see a devoted friendship going to pieces like a rope of sand.” (10)

Goodwin seems personally sympathetic to Taft, but politically sympathetic to the activism championed by Roosevelt — hailed as “the trustbuster” by progressive reformers. Taft, with considerable justification, pointed to the fact that his Justice Department had brought ninety antitrust suits in four years as compared to only forty-four by Roosevelt in nearly eight years. TR, however, had insisted publicly on a “moral” definition of “good” vs. “bad” trusts; but Taft was committed to dispassionately carrying out the law — a textbook definition of the difference between a politician and a judge.

The key factor that drove this personal and political disaster was almost certainly Theodore Roosevelt’s failure to face the fact that he desperately wanted to return to the White House — a conclusion about which Goodwin seems somewhat ambivalent. TR, of course, frequently spoke and wrote about his contentment with private life at Sagamore Hill with his wife and children — but, as Patricia O’Toole insists, he never grasped, “that most of the challenges to adjusting to life without power lay in his own character.” A man of action rather than reflection, he understood his own motives “no better than fish understand water,” regularly deceiving himself about his own ambition. (11)

Colonel Roosevelt had insisted that he would not lift a finger to win the nomination unless it became an irresistible public duty to accept a spontaneous and unsolicited call from the American people. That “call” came in February 1912, when a group of eight progressive Republican governors published a round-robin letter declaring that TR was the clear choice of the great majority of Republican voters. But, as Goodwin makes clear, Roosevelt had arranged in advance “to answer their demand with an announcement of his candidacy. … the Colonel was orchestrating every detail of how and when to respond publicly to the round-robin letter he himself had initiated.” Even Alice Roosevelt, thrilled by her father’s decision to throw his hat into the ring, admitted that the letter had been “somewhat ‘cooked.’” (12) The “Saturnalia” (as Goodwin aptly calls it) that followed was, by any definition, an irrepressible conflict.

* * * * *

1 Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Knopf, 2012, pp. 109-156.

2 Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, Knopf, 2002; Patricia O’Toole, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, Simon &m Schuster, 2005; Edmund Morris , Colonel Roosevelt, Random House, 2010.

3 Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of American Journalism, Simon and Schuster, 2013.

4 Alice, the oldest, was the child of TR’s first wife, who died of Bright’s disease at age twenty-two in 1884.

5 Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, p. 521.

6 Ibid., 682.

7 Ibid., pp. 501, 510.

8 American President — a Reference Resource: http://millercenter.org/president/taft/essays/biography/print; Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, p. 549.

9 Elting E. Morison, editor, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt: The Big Stick, 1907-1909, Volume VI, Harvard University Press, 1952, pp. 1139-40.

10 Lawrence F. Abbott, ed., Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Volume 2, Doubleday, Doran, 1930, p. 803.

11 O’Toole, When Trumpets Call, pp. 123, 128.

12 Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, pp. 673, 677; Joseph L. Gardner, Departing Glory: Theodore Roosevelt as Ex-President, Scribner’s, 1973, p. 214.

Sheldon M. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000.

Read Full Post »

Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace

Asian American History in NYC
Posted on September 5, 2013
TR-house-2-225x300This simple brownstone at 28 East 20th Street in Manhattan is a replica of the original building that once occupied the same site. That townhouse was the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States.

TR was certainly not Asian American, but he played important roles in several key moments of Asian American history. For example, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, he resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to form and fight with the Rough Riders cavalry unit in a war that ultimately made the Philippines an American colony–and began Filipino migration to the US mainland. And his actions as president directly shaped the experiences of two major Asian American groups: Japanese Americans and Korean Americans.

In 1905, TR helped negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War then taking place in northeast Asia. At the time, several thousand Korean immigrants lived in the Territory of Hawaii and on the US West Coast, and they petitioned TR to defend Korea’s independence and territorial integrity, particularly from Japan. Two Koreans (including future South Korean president Syngman Rhee) also met with TR at his home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to plead their country’s cause.

Little did any of the Koreans know that TR had secretly agreed to allow Japan to annex Korea, which became an official Japanese colony in 1910. Roosevelt admired the rise of modern Japan and also believed that Japanese domination of Korea would ensure reciprocal support for continued American occupation of the Philippines.


Portsmouth Peace Conference participants: Baron Komura and Kogoro Takahira (left), M. Witte and Baron Rosen (right), and President Theodore Roosevelt (center). Library of Congress.

Regardless of TR’s motives, the Japanese annexation of Korea not only caused great unrest there but also helped fuel the Korean independence movement, which flourished both on the West Coast and Hawaii, and in China and Siberia.

About seven months after TR negotiated the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War, an earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed much of San Francisco, a city that had attracted significant Japanese immigration since the 1890s. During the rebuilding process, the San Francisco Board of Education mandated that Japanese American students would have to attend the segregated Oriental School, located in Chinatown. The city had long segregated Chinese American students, but Japanese American kids studied in integrated schools before the quake. The Board’s move was an overtly and unapologetically racist response to growing Japanese immigration to the West Coast. And it not only angered Japanese immigrant parents but provoked an international incident with Japan.

Unwilling to risk war with the rising Pacific power, TR negotiated with Japanese officials and with authorities in California. The result was the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, in which San Francisco allowed Japanese American children to attend integrated schools, while the Japanese government no longer issued passports to male laborers hoping to immigrate to the US (although Japanese men already in the US could still bring their wives and children to join them). More quietly, TR issued an executive order barring Japanese immigrants living in the Territory of Hawaii (a magnet for Japanese immigration) from moving to the US mainland.

San Francisco’s Oriental Public School, 1914. Courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

San Francisco’s Oriental Public School, 1914. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

The Gentlemen’s Agreement averted an international crisis, but it did not satisfy California’s white supremacists, who continued to organize against Japanese Americans. The Agreement also reflected the power hierarchy that TR himself helped create. Chinese American children remained segregated in the Oriental School, but now they were joined by San Francisco’s handful of Korean American kids. Japan might claim Korea, but it did little to protect Koreans abroad–and the Gentlemen’s Agreement did not include them.

Sources for this post include Richard S. Kim, The Quest for Statehood: Korean Immigrant Nationalism and U.S. Sovereignty, 1905-1945; New York Times; and the files of the Survey of Race Relations on the Pacific Coast, Hoover Institution.

Read Full Post »