Magazine article The American Conservative

Theodore Roosevelt Builds an Empire

Magazine article The American Conservative

Theodore Roosevelt Builds an Empire

Article excerpt

Theodore Roosevelt Builds an Empire Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream, Gregg Jones, New American Library, 430 pages

Journalist Gregg Jones offers a notable, if somewhat inelegant, reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt's career and this country's embrace of empire between the years 1898-1902. Honor in the Dust shows how Roosevelt deftly maneuvered the U.S. and a war-weary President McKinley into a full-blown occupation of the Philippines, and how he managed the fallout. The conquest was a moral and historical disaster that Roosevelt - skilled in public relations - retooled for public consumption as the U.S. found itself in an unaccustomed imperial role.

As a student at Harvard, Roosevelt was steeped in the ideology of AngloSaxon superiority and grew infused with a sense of patriarchal purpose. Once a sickly, privileged child, he later went to extraordinary lengths to cultivate a tough Western identity. Roosevelt viewed military conflict as a chance to renovate America's soft Gay Nineties image. He prized war as a source of meaning and redemption, and as Jones notes, loved it so much that he was eager to wage it himself. As always, appearances mattered: after resigning as McKinley's assistant secretary of the Navy to lead a volunteer regiment in Cuba, Roosevelt commissioned what became known as his Rough Rider uniform. Brooks Brothers was the tailor.

IfTR was on the prowl for new global responsibilities, the restless country was also ginned up for a fight. Americans wondered if they were missing out on the empire-building game, and they read their own revolutionary heritage into the Cuban fight for independence from Spain. The fatal - but likely accidental - explosion of the USS Maine near Havana in the winter of 1898 brought tensions to a head. President McKinley, a Republican who desperately wanted to avoid war, urged caution and ordered an investigation. But there wasn't time to be certain, and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt had already laid the groundwork for campaigns against Spain in Cuba and the Philippine Islands.

Roosevelt's vision for the Philippines, unlike the limited intervention in Cuba, was decidedly open-ended. He sought annexation and "pacification." The young leader of the Filipino insurgency against Spanish rule, Emilio Aguinaldo, was assured that American interests were benevolent and shortterm. As James Bradley established three years ago in his startling history The Imperial Cruise, Aguinaldo was initially wary of U.S. intentions, but he took the Constitution at its word: "I have studied attentively the Constitution of the United States, and I find in it no authority for colonies, and I have no fear." But he soon figured out Roosevelt's game and went into revolt against the new imperial power. He was captured in 1901.

In the U.S., the rhetoric of munificence flourished: America's "little brown brothers" - William Howard Taft's phrase - in the Philippines were simply unprepared for independence and self-governance. As the Republican attorney Albert Jeremiah Beveridge teased, it "would be like giving a razor to a babe and telling it to shave itself McKinley, who had cautioned against the "temptations of territorial aggression" in his first inaugural address, was ultimately persuaded by appeals to humanitarianism and his obligations as a Christian. Not that pragmatic reasons were ignored: abandoning the islands would be irresponsible given their strategic adjacency to East Asia. The Philippines were also ripe with resources, including coffee, tobacco, and wood.

Having faced an empire before, Aguinaldo and his army understood that they could not win a conventional war. Determined to protect their sovereignty, they resorted to unconventional means: Filipino soldiers would pose as farmers and villagers, waiting for "opportune moments to strike." Meanwhile, U.S. military units arrived with "absolute ignorance of the Philippine archipelago in respect to geography, climate, people and general aspects of nature," according to Major General Arthur MacArthur. …

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