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Colonial resolve
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     Theodore Roosevelt at home
     Theodore Roosevelt abroad
     Republican and Bull Moose
     USA and World War I
     The Fourteen Points

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Theodore Roosevelt at home: 1901-1909

Roosevelt continues at a national level the hands-on approach which he has earlier used in New York politics. Following several decades in which congress has had the upper hand over a succession of relatively weak presidents, Roosevelt's example restores to the White House the leading role which characterized the early years of the American republic and which becomes again the pattern for the 20th century.

Roosevelt achieves his pre-eminence by a sure sense of what will play well with the voters. The nation has recently experienced the buccaneering decades of the railway era, in which corruption and commercial cartels seemed to carry all before them. The public is ready for action on these issues.


The president shows his talent for the unexpected twice during 1902. The earlier occasion is in February when Roosevelt uses the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (passed by congress in 1890, but until now ineffective) to break up the Northern Securities Company, a railway monopoly put together by J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and other almost equally powerful representatives of American big business.

If this seems a blow struck for the ordinary man (the paying customer), Roosevelt takes an even more surprising step in the autumn of this year. A cold winter is in prospect for the public because miners are threatening to strike for better pay.


Roosevelt, intervening to a degree unusual for a president at this time, invites the mine owners to the White House and demands that they accept arbitration. When they refuse, he announces that he will send federal troops to extract coal for the nation. Under this duress the owners accept the decision of an arbitration board, which recommends an increase in the miners' pay.

Two other famous examples of presidential intervention concern food standards and the nation's national resources. The initiative on food follows sensational press exposés of unhygienic practices in the meat-packing and canning factories. The result is the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both passed in 1906.


The Pure Food and Drug Act introduces a clause which still has a modern ring to it. It stipulates that any substance added to food must be listed on the label.

Equally modern-seeming is the initiative of which Roosevelt later claims to be most proud. This is his policy for conserving the nation's natural resources. The continent has been opened up by large and often indiscriminate grants of territory to railway companies and other commercial interests. Now the public conceives an essentially 20th-century concern that the riches of nature are being irreversibly squandered.


Roosevelt (a keen outdoor man and hunter, whose enthusiastic slaughter of bears would put him on the wrong side of later conservationists) responds vigorously to this public mood. During his presidency 150 million acres of new national forest are planted. Money from the sale of public land in the west is earmarked for irrigation schemes (the great Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, opened in 1911, is the outstanding example). In 1908 a National Conservation Commission is established.

Such measures reflect a characteristic American belief - that free enterprise should be encouraged, but not beyond the point at which it threatens public interest. On the international scene Roosevelt also puts in place lasting American policies.


Theodore Roosevelt abroad: 1901-1909

Even before his presidential career, as assistant secretary to the navy (from 1896, in McKinley's first administration), Roosevelt has been a hawk in military terms, agitating always for a stronger American fleet. As president he can now achieve this aim. Demanding increased funds every year from congress, he commissions ten new battleships during his first term in office. In 1907 he sends a Great White Fleet of warships on a cruise round the world to show any potential enemies that America is not to be lightly meddled with.

This semi-peaceful gesture follows a series of incidents in which Roosevelt has staked out a new version of the US sphere of interest.


The Monroe Doctrine, in existence by now for eighty years, states that renewed European colonial interference in the American continent will not be tolerated. Roosevelt extends this principle (in what becomes known as his corollary to the doctrine) in response to crises in 1902-3 in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

These are caused by a new version of economic imperialism - one that might be called gunboat banking. In 1902 the Venezuelan government defaults on its interest payments to Britain, Germany and Italy. All three send warships to bombard the Venezuelan coast. In 1903 Germany threatens to collect a debt in the same way from the Dominican Republic.


Both issues are resolved diplomatically, but they prompt Roosevelt to formulate his Monroe corollary in 1904. His purpose is to prevent European interference by avoiding any pretext for it. In practice his corollary appoints the USA as policeman to the American continent. It states that intervention may be required if a region is in chaos, but that only the USA may take the necessary steps.

America, with new possessions from Hawaii to the Philippines, is now also a major power in the Pacific. This new role is reflected in Roosevelt's involvement in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. He hosts armistice negotiations in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and wins in 1906 one of the first Nobel Peace Prizes.


The two regions in which these various events take place, the Caribbean and the Pacific, point up one urgent American problem. They are extremely close, across the narrow isthmus of Panama, but very far apart by sea. This has been painfully clear in 1898 when the US battleship Oregon is in the Pacific but is urgently needed in the brief war against Spain in the Caribbean. She eventually makes it to the war zone, but her dash into action takes more than two months.

Plans for a canal between Atlantic and Pacific have been under discussion for decades. They suddenly come to fruition during Roosevelt's presidency in what can be seen as a somewhat underhand application of his Monroe corollary.


The isthmus at Panama is within the republic of Colombia, but the Colombian senate (distracted by a recent civil war) rejects a very reasonable treaty negotiated by the Colombian chargé d'affaires in Washington. The issue is then resolved by a coup which has tacit American support.

The US warship Nashville arrives off Colón on 2 November 1903. On the next day an uprising occurs in Panama and an independent republic is proclaimed. It is immediately recognized by the United States. This is followed by a treaty with the new republic on most advantageous terms. The USA is granted in perpetuity the exclusive control of a zone through the middle of Panama - in which, during the next ten years, the canal is finally built.


Republican and Bull Moose: 1908-1912

Roosevelt's prestige is such that he is virtually able to select the Republican candidate for the presidential election at the end of his second term in 1908. His choice falls on a loyal assistant, William Howard Taft. Taft wins, but only narrowly, against a Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who is fighting his third presidential campaign.

It is typical of Roosevelt that on leaving the White House he sets off on a tenth-month trip hunting big game in Africa. But he has left his successor a difficult legacy. During Roosevelt's time in office his reforming policies have caused increasing resentment among conservative Republicans. He can resist their pressure. But word now reaches him that Taft is tending to yield.


On Roosevelt's return, it is plain to him that a rift in the party is deepening. He campaigns vigorously to heal it, but the Republicans do badly in the mid-term elections of 1910. By the time of the party convention in 1912, Roosevelt is back at the centre of things and the conservatives and progressives are at loggerheads. Taft, the sitting president, is the preferred candidate of the conservatives. Roosevelt, the former president, has accepted the nomination of the progressives.

With the party machine under his control, Taft wins - whereupon the Roosevelt faction withdraws and forms a new party. It is to be called the Progressive party, but it soon acquires a more memorable name.


During the campaign, a reporter asks Roosevelt about his health. He replies that he feels 'like a bull moose'. So the Bull Moose party it becomes. But no catchy name can disguise the disadvantage of two Republican candidates fighting against a single Democrat. Roosevelt and Taft split the majority of the popular vote.

About 4 million votes are cast for Roosevelt, and some 3.5 million for Taft. But more than 6 million voters support the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is liberal and idealistic, a Princeton professor who has made a great success of his only previous political post (as governor of New Jersey since 1910). It is his misfortune that events in Europe will dominate his presidency. World War I straddles his first and second terms in office.


The USA and World War I: 1914-18

World War I, involving Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain as the main contestants, begins in Europe in August 1914. From the start public opinion and the majority of political leaders in the USA have been of one mind - America's best interest lies in remaining a neutral nation, uninvolved in the European conflict. Yet from the very first months this conviction already tends to be undermined by the maritime strategy of the two main combatants.

Britain is busy using her navy to blockade Germany, preventing even neutral ships from trading with continental ports. In doing so, she harms America's trade (and even seizes a few US ships for breaking the terms of the blockade). Meanwhile Germany, relying on submarine warfare to frustrate the blockade, represents a threat to the actual lives of American citizens on the high seas.


The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 provides the first crisis. Later in 1915, under US pressure, the Germans modify their submarine campaign. But there are regular demands from the military to revive it, and in February 1916 Germany announces a renewal of activity. On March 24 an unarmed Channel steamer, the Sussex, is sunk with the loss of many lives, among them US citizens.

The US president, Woodrow Wilson, is facing a presidential election later in the year. One plank in his campaign is that he has kept America out of the war. He demands and receives new assurances from the Germans that they will not attack other merchant ships without warning, while behind the scenes he tries to get himself accepted as a mediator between the warring parties.


His good offices are not entirely welcome, particularly when - after his re-election in November 1916 - he intrusively demands that both sides state the terms on which they would be willing to end the war. In subsequent months he develops his own plans for a lasting settlement, based on the concept that it must be a 'peace without victory' (meaning no recriminations if either side is perceived as the loser). But for the moment harsh reality is overtaking Wilson's idealism.


In January 1917 the German high command decides to resort once again to all-out submarine warfare. President Wilson is informed on January 31 that this will begin on the following day. Since this announcement breaks the pledge given to him after the Sussex incident, he severs diplomatic relations with Germany. And he persuades Congress to pass a bill allowing US merchant ships to be armed. Germany refrains from attacks on US ships during February, but three are sunk on March 18 with many lives lost. There is public outrage against Germany, and not for the first time this month. The previous occasion has been the publication, on March 1, of an intercepted German telegram.


The telegram, destined for Mexico, was sent by the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann. Intercepted, decoded and passed to President Wilson by the British admiralty, its content proves to be highly inflammatory. Zimmermann suggests that in the event of the USA entering the war, Mexico should side with Germany. Germany will in return back Mexican recovery of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Wilson therefore has widespread public support when he asks approval for a declaration of war on Germany, assuring Congress that the citizens of the USA will be privileged to make the necessary sacrifices to safeguard democracy. War is declared on 6 April 1917.


The USA can provide immediate support for the Allies in two areas. Credit and loans can be rapidly arranged (by the end of war, eighteen months later, these amount to as much as $9.5 billion). And the powerful US navy is in a state of readiness. But manpower is more problematical. The armed services number only 378,000 men when war is declared. Conscription is immediately introduced, in May 1917, and by November 1918 the number enlisted will amount to 4.8 million.

But it takes time to get the conscripts trained and ready for service in Europe. The Germans can rely on a breathing space on the western front before the arrival of the Americans. For a while they make exceptionally good use of this brief opportunity. In the spring of 1918, under the overall command of Erich Ludendorf, they launch three massive assaults against different parts of the line. They succeed as no such offensive has done in the past three years. Indeed the first, pushing towards Amiens, brings the Germans forty miles into France within a few days. The other two create similar great bulges into French territory. But it is too late. US troops are in action on the western front in large numbers from May 1918, and many more divisions are on their way.

In the second battle of the Marne (from July 18) and in the battle of Amiens (from August 8) the German forces are driven back. With these German defeats the psychological tide of the war finally turns.The German decision to seek an armistice comes with surprising speed after the start of a new Allied push in the west. The war ends with the signing of an armistice in France on November 11. In the peace talks that begin in Paris in January 1919 Woodrow Wilson's vision of the future plays an influential role.


The Fourteen Points: 1918

On 8 January 1918 President Wilson has addressed a joint session of the Congress in Washington. He uses the occasion to outline his concept of a future European peace, presented as a group of Fourteen Points. Some are general, some very specific (in particular nos. 6-13, which deal with the requirements of individual nations).

The first five points, idealistic and possibly utopian, outline the conditions for lasting international peace: - fully transparent peace treaties; freedom of navigation on the seas at all times; freedom and equality of trade for all; reliable guarantees put in place that national levels of armament will be reduced; and the rights of local people influence decisions in a colonial setting. There follow solutions to the particular problems brought about by the war. The 14th and final point is central to Wilson's personal idealism. In it he envisages a 'general association of nations' to guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of all nations. In his 'Four Ends' speech on 4 July 1918 he enlarges upon this, calling for the establishment of an 'organization of peace' to ensure that the 'combined power of free nations' will guarantee international justice for all.

The Fourteen Points are widely discussed during 1918. When Germany asks Wilson for an armistice, in October, it is on the basis of this document. Not all the clauses are met (Britain and France immediately reject freedom of the seas in wartime), but much of the peace agreed in Paris and signed at Versailles in 1919 follows Wilson's blueprint. Wilson has insisted that his fourteenth point be high on the agenda of the Paris conference, and it brings an early result. Within weeks the delegates agree to the establishment of an international peace-keeping administration, the League of Nations.

But the League of Nations also brings Wilson a major disappointment. The mood in the US public is deeply isolationist and this feeling is largely shared by their representatives in Washington. It is Wilson's personal tragedy that he fails to persuade the Congress to accept the treaty. No US president ever signs the treaty, and to the end of the League's existence the US seat remains empty.


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