Wednesday, March 27, 2013


 A review of Thomas J. Knock’s To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (1992)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Thomas Knock’s book To End All Wars is a study of President Wilson’s foreign policy.  There is a bit of a mini-biography in the beginning the traces President Wilson’s intellectual development and rise to the presidency.  Everything else focuses on the President’s work abroad. In his first term the book's focus is on United States’ relationship with other nations in the Americas.  The Knock's focus on second term is partly on World War I but more so the battle to create the League of Nations.  

One of the ironies the Knock points out is: with all the major foreign policy issues that would arise with President Wilson’s time in office, the 1912 election had almost nothing to do with foreign policy.  Knock however is quick to defend Wilson’s own remark about how it would be ironic if foreign policy were to cover his Administration.  Knock argues that Wilson’s comment was based on the content of the election campaign not on his personal study of the issues. 
            “The election of 1912, like almost all the others of the preceding century, did not hinge on foreign policy.  President Taft now and then reflected upon his futile exertions for reciprocal trade with Canada and arbitration treaties with the European powers.  Debs viewed foreign policy as irrelevant to working-class interests, just as he had done during the debate over imperialism in 1900.  The Progressive platform advocated free passage through the Panama Canal for American coastwise shippers and recommended the construction of two battleships per year, while the Democratic platform called for independence for the Philippines.  But none of the candidates said much about even these rather innocuous issues.” (pg. 19)

Wilson was an idealist but Wilson was not alone in his idealism.  There were many people and movements on both sides of the political spectrum who wanted to change from the theories that used balance of power and national interest in guiding foreign policy, and to replace it with a new internationalism that would embrace the rule of law over nations. 
            “Jane Addams played a key a pivotal in this wing of the internationalist movement; indeed, she personified its purposes and values perhaps better than anyone else.  Dismayed by the failure of the established peace societies to show any muscle, Addams, with the help of Paul Kellogg and Lillian Wald, organized the Woman’s Peace party in January 1915.  The Woman’s Peace party distinguished itself as the first organization of its kind--unlike the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or the World Peace Foundation--to engage in direct political action (and on a variety of fronts) in order to achieve its goals.” (pg.50-1)
There is very little in this book about World War I as a conflict.  It discusses how Wilson had America enter as an associate belligerent power rather than an ally.  Wilson was disgusted with the allies and their plans to divide up the spoils after the war.  Wilson wished for a new way of doing things and the actions of the allies, to him, represented what was wrong with the world. 

            “In addition to arbitration, Wilson concentrated on disarmament.  Sounding much like a card-carrying member of the American Union Against Militarism, he posed to alternatives to his audiences--disarmament through the League or the eventuality of a national security state.  Should it stand apart, he argued, the United States would have to be ‘physically ready for whatever comes.’” (p.261)
Wilson’s view of what America might become has become reality.  I am not sure his ideas for change were a realistic alternative.  The League was not worth much and even the U.N. that replaced it has some terrible flaws.  It is ironic that the ship Wilson used to go France in was the called the George Washington.  I can think of no president whose views on foreign policy were closer to the exact opposite of Wilson than Washington.  I am not talking about entangled alliances either.  Washington was a realist who felt that nations would only go along with whatever aligned with their interests.  Wilson talked of ‘equity of nations’.  Why would a great power like Great Britain want to be on an equal footing with Luxemburg?  Wilson’s goals were admirable and maybe one day be attainable, but his methods were questionable at best.   

{Video was posted on YouTube by historycomestolife}

Saturday, March 23, 2013


A review of Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex (2001)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Morris’ earlier book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt that focused on the mere forty-two years Roosevelt went from birth to being the President of the United States, the fastest rise on record.  The election of 1900 was supposed to silence the rebellious Governor of New York by making him the Vice President.  However when an assassin’s bullet mortally wounded President McKinley fate put Roosevelt in a great position to act.  This book covers the accomplishments and failures of an administration.

The first thing of significance that Roosevelt decided to do was infuriate the entire solid south over their favorite issue: Black people.  Booker T. Washington was the least offensive African-American that white southerners could ask for.  Popular in the African-American community in his own time, Washington has since fallen out of favor after the ‘black power’ movement in the 60s and 70s.  Washington’s philosophy was focused on practical things now, political rights later.  Roosevelt, on race, was enlightened for his time, although not quite with ours.  He tended to agree with society’s view on race (that White people were the best), but Morris points out that Roosevelt viewed was different in that he thought White supremacy would be temporary.  He thought races could become better as time went on and ‘catch up’, and that each individual should be judged on his or her own merits.  And Roosevelt thought absolutely nothing about inviting the accomplished Washington to the White House for dinner, but the South had other ideas. 

“The storm squalled louder when reporters discovered that Roosevelt had entertained blacks before, in the gubernatorial mansion at Albany and at Sagamore Hill.  Hate mail and death threats swamped the White House and the Tuskegee Institute.  In Richmond, Virginia, a transparency of the President’s face was hissed off the Bijou screen.  In Charleston, South Carolina, Senator Benjamin R. Tillman endorsed remedial genocide: ‘The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing of a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.’” (p.55)
One has to wonder how Senator Tillman would react after the 2008 election.
Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

After infuriating the South the new President decided to take on the seemingly all-powerful trusts.  When Northern Securities Co. threatened to take over all the railroads in the United States, it was President Roosevelt who stood up and stopped it.  Morgan was shocked because no President of the United States had ever stood up to him before.

 “Whatever qualms the President may have had in granting an interview, he had little difficulty handling Morgan.  Or at least Roosevelt chose not to remember any, when recounting the conversation afterward.  Morgan had seemed less furious than puzzled.  Why had the Administration not asked him to correct irregularities in the new trust’s charter?

Roosevelt: That is just we did not want to do.
Morgan: If we had done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.
Roosevelt: That can’t be done.
Knox: We don’t want to fix it up, we want to stop it.
Morgan: Are you going to attack my other interests, the Steel Trust and others?
Roosevelt: Certainly not—unless we find out that in any case they have done something we regard as wrong.

Alone with Knox later, Roosevelt mused, ‘That is a most illuminating illustration of the Wall Street point of view.’  Morgan could think of the President of the United States only as ‘a big rival operator’ with whom he could cut a deal.” (p.91-2)
Roosevelt vs. the Trusts

Roosevelt would gain a reputation for being pro-labor, but he was not pro-labor so much as he was pro-fairness, and for the last few decades management did not need to negotiate as the government was always there to back them up.  Roosevelt moved the government into a more neutral corner, and allowed for labor to deal in a fairer environment. 

“Some weeks after the Coal Strike Commission had begun its work, and anthracite fires were glowing in forty million grates, George Baer encountered Owen Wister and roared at him, ‘Does your friend ever think?’  The railroad executive was still furious over Roosevelt’s ‘imperious’ intervention between free-market forces.  Even the most conservative economic experts were predicting that United Mine Workers would win at least 10 percent wage increase, plus fairer and safer working conditions and the right to arbitrate all disputes.” (p.169)
Roosevelt shared the international stage with a host of other characters.  King Edward VII of England was one who Roosevelt rather liked.  One who Roosevelt despised was King Edward’s psychotic nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.  

“What made Roosevelt wary was Wilhelm’s inclination toward bejeweled fantasy.  ‘He writes to me pretending that he is a descendent of Frederick the Great!  I know better and feel inclined to tell him so.’  The Kaiser liked to dress up like Frederick; when he posed for photographs in his hero’s thigh-boots he revealed rather wide hips.  Roosevelt, alive to any hint of effeminacy, understood that in negotiating with Wilhelm he must at all times remember the importance of show.  It would be foolhardy to humiliate him in the Caribbean.  The Kaiser was enough of a man to stand tough, confidential message—and enough of a woman, presumably, to retreat if it could be made to look glamorous.” (p.186)
Roosevelt’s most famous and long-lasting accomplishment was the Panama Canal.  When Columbia decided to back out of its deal with the United States Roosevelt turned his eye to a little revolution that was going in the province of Panama.  If Columbia did not want to deal than perhaps the revolutionaries would. 

“There was no doubt now that the province would soon—must—secede from the Colombian federation.  Bogota’s rejection of the canal treaty, and Washington’s apparent acceptance of that rejection, amounted to dual deathblows to the Istmusenos.  Not only had they lost their long-dreamed waterway, spilling wealth on both sides forever, but their railroad, too, would become redundant, once the Nicaragua Canal opened for business.  With no paved highways, no bridges, little industry, and less commerce, they might just as well revert to jungle living. 
 The President could not help feeling sympathetic.  Here was a little ridge of country, about as wide as southern Vermont, a half-drowned hogback of mostly impenetrable rain forest, walled off from the rest of Colombia by mountains.  Geographically, it belonged to Central America.  Its only surface communications with the southern continent were by sea or mule train.  Letters took fifteen days to get to Bogota, if they got there at all; about the only reliable deliveries were those carrying tax money out of the Isthmus.
 Panama’s political status as a provincia of Colombia was equally tenuous.  It had spontaneously joined the New Granadian Federation in 1821, and seceded with its disintegration in 1830.  Bogota had reasserted control twelve years later, and from then on Panama had alternated stormily between semi-autonomy and subjugation.  Roosevelt counted no fewer than fifty-three isthmian insurrections, riots, civil disturbances, and revolts since 1846.  None had been perpetrated with any American help.  On at least ten occasions (six times at Bogota’s request, twice during his own presidency), Washington had blocked rebel movements and shipments along the Panama Railroad.” (p. 273)
It is easy to see how useful the Panama Canal was

No President who entered the office by means of succession was ever elected—much less nominated—to a term of their own.  Roosevelt would achieve both at the expense of the party elders and conservatives.  Roosevelt would redefine how a President campaigned to retain his office.  After President Jackson, only three incumbent presidents retained their office after a presidential election. (Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley)  In over a hundred years since Roosevelt left office only five have failed to retain it. (Taft,Hoover, Ford, Carter, and Bush I)
“In the meantime, the President felt free to set his own Republican agenda, in a series of indiscretions calculated to heave fresh sod on Hanna’s grave.  He preached conservation to the National Wholesale Lumber Dealers’ Association, and political morality to Republican professionals.  He meddled in the gubernatorial politics of New York and Missouri, ordered a draft platform for the convention, considered and approved a mysterious proposal to translate American campaign literature into Bohemian, and grossly flattered the first national assembly of American periodical publishers: ‘It is always a pleasure for a man in public life to meet the real governing classes.’
 Old Guard Republicans worried about the undignified spectacle of a President campaigning for his own office.  He was supposed to put himself in the hands of party professionals.  McKinley had successfully sat out two campaigns at home in Canton, Ohio; here was ‘Teddy’ virtually setting up pre-convention headquarters in the White House.” (p.319)

Roosevelt loved being a member in the party of Lincoln; it was Roosevelt who put Lincoln on the penny.  John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, who was U.S. Secretary of State when Roosevelt took office, gave him a special ring to where at his inauguration in 1905.   

“Close observers noticed a strange, heavy gold ring on his third finer.  It contained a strand of Abraham Lincoln’s hair.  John Hay had given it to him with a request that he wear it when he was sworn in: ‘You are one of the men who most thoroughly understand and appreciate Lincoln.’” (p.376)
Another great Roosevelt achievement that occurred in Kittery, Me, despite the claim that it took place in Portsmouth NH.  In Kittery, Roosevelt mediated the settlement of the result of the war between Russia and Japan.  Roosevelt had a great respect for Japan and could not stand the Tsar or his government.  The great challenge for Roosevelt was having to deal with a Tsar that did not want to deal with reality. 

“Roosevelt detected a resurgence of the Russian lack of logic that had so infuriated him with Count Casini.  His Majesty would not give up Sakhalin, yet Sakhalin, was already occupied by the Japanese.  Russia was not conquered—she had merely been beaten in every land battle of the war, and lost almost all of her navy.  He soil was undefiled, but if she did not soon treat with Japan, she could say good-bye to eastern Siberia.” (p.410)
Treaty of Portsmouth

The one sour spot on Roosevelt’s record was his action during the Brownsville Affair.  Some African-American infantrymen were accused of murdering a bartender and injuring a cop.  When none came forward Roosevelt discharged the entire black regiment for engagement in a ‘conspiracy of silence’.  These orders would not be reversed until the Nixon administration.   

“Roosevelt remained silent.  He closeted himself with the original Brownsville report of Major Blocksom, rereading it carefully.  Its findings did not alter his conviction as to the guilty of the men.  But after studying another view of the case, by a retired Union Army general, he betrayed the first trace of regret over the hastiness of his action.  He wrote Taft a confidential note, saying he was now ‘uncertain whether or not the officers of the three colored companies… are or are not blamable,’ and asking for ‘a thoro investigation’ to clarify his thinking.”  (472-3)
            Roosevelt’s crowning achievement on his presidency was the ‘Great White Fleet’.  Ever since he was a boy he loved his country's Navy.  He wrote the Naval War of 1812 and served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy as an adult.  After Roosevelt was done the U.S. Navy had become the third best in the world ranking only under Great Britain and Germany.  The tour of the Great White Fleet confirmed it. 

“Roosevelt considered the options, and his own as President and Commander-in-Chief.  He had just seventeen months left in office, and wanted to make a grand gesture of will, something that would loom as large historically in his second term as the Panama Canal coup had in his first.  What could be grander, more inspirational to the Navy, and to all Americans, than sending sixteen great white ships halfway around the world—maybe even farther?” (p.494) 
Great White Fleet

 Morris’ book is very well done.  It has a great following narrative and would be enjoyable to someone who knows a lot about history or a causal reader.  In terms of style I really like that he includes his pictures within the text not in a separate section like many other books do.  I really like the capitalization.  Morris is thorough back who capitalizes titles, as I believe we should.  I would recommend this book to anyone.

{Video is from TR's inauguration in 1905}

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


A review of Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979, original) (2001, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a house divided with a father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., who favored the North and a mother Martha Roosevelt who favored the South while two sides were engaged in the Civil War.  The young Theodore was cheering for the same side his father was.  Edmund Morris produced what would one day be the first of a trilogy that would trace the life of the twenty-sixth president.  This book covers the first forty-two years of this President’s life, tracing—as the title suggests—his rise to the nation’s highest office.  This story is actually a collection of several stories.  You have Theodore Roosevelt the naturalist, Theodore Roosevelt the young politician, Theodore Roosevelt the reformer, Theodore Roosevelt the rancher, Theodore Roosevelt the author, and Theodore Roosevelt the solider.   

After the war his family traveled around the world and TR became an amateur naturalist, a fascination that would last all his life.  His own father was cheated by the corrupt politics of the early post-Civil War period that created in him a desire to get involved with politics and be a reformer.  

“He could, of course, have entered the government the respectable way—by cultivating the society of men in leather armchairs, qualifying as a lawyer himself, and, in ten years or so, running for a seat in the United States Senate.  But some instinct told him that if he desired raw political power—and from this winter on, for the rest of his life, he never ceased to desire it—he must start on the shop floor, learn to work the greasy leavers one by one.  Besides, he had private score to settle.  It had been the New York State Republican machine, still controlled by Boss Roscoe Conkling, that had destroyed Theodore Senior; might not Theodore Junior, by mastering its techniques, use that same machine to avenge him?” (p.124)
Young TR

 While in his twenties TR was elected as a member of New York State Assembly.  As an Assemblyman he championed reformed legislation.  He exposed the corruption of Jay Gould and would have an on again off again alliance with the Governor of New York, a Democrat named Grover Cleveland. 
Young legislator
After the death of his first wife and his mother, Roosevelt heads west and buys a ranch in Dakota.  This allowed him to explore the rough side of himself that he had been honing since his father told him to build his body, to overcome the handicaps he had been born with.   
Roosevelt family

When Benjamin Harrison became President, Roosevelt was appointed to the Civil Service Commission that was designed to be the beginning of the end of the Jacksonian spoils system.  Roosevelt became an embarrassment to the administration because he kept exposing corruption. 

“The new Commissioner was not interested in audiences of one. Experience had taught him that him that he had in abundance the power of was publicity, that it could by as effective, if not more so, than regular political clout.  He intended so to dramatize the good gray cause of Civil Service Reform that the electorate would be forced to take notice of it—and if of himself as well, why, so much the better.” (p.408)

After getting done with the Civil Service Commission he went home to New York to serve on the Police Commission.  There he rendered a great service to the city despite at times being undermined by jealous co-commissioners.  Roosevelt would be the driving force behind laying the foundation for the modern New York Police Department. 

“He had proved that it was possible to enforce an unpopular law, and, by enforcing it, had taught that doctrine of the respect for the law.  He had given New York City its first honest election in living memory.  In less than two years, Roosevelt had depoliticized and deethnicized the force, making it once more a neutral arm of government.  He had broken its connections with the underworld, toughened the police-trial system, and largely eliminated corruption within the ranks.  The attrition rate of venal officers had quadrupled—in spite of Roosevelt’s decisions to raise physical admissions standards above those of the U.S. Army, lower maximum-age requirement, and apply the rules of the Civil Service Reform to written examinations.  As a result, the average New York patrolman was now bigger, younger, and smarter.  He was also more honest, since badges were no longer for sale, and more soldierlike (the military ideal having been a particular feature of the departing commissioner’s philosophy).” (p.584-5)
Police reformer

After McKinley’s election in 1896 Roosevelt returned to Washington as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Roosevelt had cared about the Navy since he wrote The Naval War of 1812, now he was in position to affect the Navy.  After the disaster of the Maine, Roosevelt did all he could to prepare the Navy for possible war with Spain. 

“This momentous message, which Dewey later described as ‘the first step’ toward American conquest of the Philippines, was by no means the only order Roosevelt issued during his three or four hours as Acting Secretary.  He sent similar instructions to ‘Keep full of coal’ to squadron commanders all over the world, and to make sure they got it, authorized the Navy’s coal-buying agents to purchase maximum stocks.  He alerted European and South Atlantic stations to the possibility of war, and designated strategic points where they were to rendezvous in the event of a declaration.  He ordered huge supplies of reserve ammunition, requisitioned guns for a project auxiliary fleet, and summoned experts to testify on the firepower of the Vesuvius.  He even sent demands to both House of Congress for legislation authorizing the unlimited recruitment of seamen.” (p.629)
Hard working Assistant Secretary of the Navy

Unlike modern politicians who thorough out their life apply for deferments and then get into positions of power and send other people’s children to die,  Theodore Roosevelt after the war started found himself a uniform, a commission, and went to fight the war in person. 
Rough Riders

“The Rough Riders sailed out of Santiago Harbor on 8 August, leaving Leonard Wood behind as Military Governor of the city.  They were not sorry to see Cuba sink into the sea behind them.  In seven weeks of sweaty, sickly, acquaintance with it, they had seen it transformed from a tropical Garden of Eden to a hell of denuded trees, cindery fields, and staring shells of houses.  The island’s bugs were in their veins, the smell of its dead in their nostrils, the taste of horsemeat and fecal water in their mouths.  It would be days before the Atlantic breezes, cooling and freshening as they steamed north, swept away this sense of defilement.” (p.693)
Returning to America, Roosevelt was a hero.  The Republican Party was in jeopardy due to mass scandals and involving the leadership of its present governor.  Seeing the incumbent as un-winnable the Party decided to back Roosevelt despite some reservations of the party bosses who saw him as trouble.  To them, he was better than a Democrat.  Roosevelt would work with the organization when he could but he would not tolerate corruption.  In fact he continued to reform, telling the companies that ran public utilities that they would now have to pay taxes, especially since they benefit from state protection.  The machine would fight him but Roosevelt would win. 

“So short, indeed, was the distance between his pen and the document lying open before him that Platt’s leaders gave up the attempt to write a new bill more favorable to corporations.  All they could do was to insert various strengthening clauses into the original bill, exactly as Roosevelt had intended.  No amendment was made without his approval, and the revised measure cleared both Houses in three days.  The Governor proudly and accurately described it as ‘the most important law passed in recent times by any State Legislature.’ He signed it with a flourish on 27 May, and set back to enjoy the sweetness of victory.” (p.738)
Reform minded Governor

This irritated the bosses to no end so they decided to get rid of him.  And there was no better way to do that publicly than to promote him.  Vice Presidency of United States was the most useless office in the land without any real authority.  The first Vice President, John Adams stated “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”.  So in 1900 they nominated him to replace the late Garrett Hobart, this would get Roosevelt out of their hair.  However as Adams also mentioned, “As Vice President I am nothing, but I could be everything.”

            “Observers wondered again at the Chairman’s strange fear of Roosevelt.  Hanna had never liked the man, and dislike had deepened into something like hatred after the fist-shaking incident at the Gridiron Club in the spring of 1898.  But this terror, this premonition of a national disaster should Roosevelt be allowed to stand at McKinley’s side, was entirely new. At last Hanna, losing all self-control, blurted it out.

‘Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madmen and the Presidency?’” (p.762-3)
Elected Vice President

The book ends when Theodore Roosevelt, who already saw enough action for seven lives is being sent a message to return to Washington and become the President.  Roosevelt was about to begin his greatest adventure.

This book is very well done.  Morris is a great writer with very smooth prose.  On the books style I really like the fact that he capitalizes titles something that other historians are falling out of the habit.  I also like the way he includes pictures within the text and not in some special section.  I highly recommend this book to anyone.
{Video is a documentary produced by the History Channel called Theodore Roosevelt: An American Lion}