“I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold,” John McCain told The New York Times last Friday. The presumptive Republican nominee for president speaks often of Roosevelt, another child of privilege who sought to make himself over into a man's man. He has referred to him as his "ultimate hero," and quoted approvingly Roosevelt's speech calling for a renewed commitment to American rule in the Philippines, in which Roosevelt declared, "Resistance must be stamped out. The first and all-important work to be done is to establish the supremacy of our flag." But Roosevelt gave that speech in 1899. A hundred years ago this summer, while occupying the White House, he exhibited a very different approach to foreign policy. Roosevelt is best known for saying "Speak softly and carry a big stick." But in truth he preferred to speak loudly and negotiate softly, a strategy that served him well.

Perhaps the best example of this underappreciated tendency of Roosevelt’s is celebrating its centennial this month: the cruise of the Great White Fleet, which departed from San Francisco in July 1908. The previous December, President Roosevelt dispatched sixteen battleships from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to pass through the Straits of Magellan in February and wind their way north to California. After a dramatic naval parade in May in San Francisco Bay, with more than forty ships lined up in four columns in the harbor, crews firing the big guns, bands playing the national anthem, and crowds in their thousands along the waterfronts of the Bay cheering, early in July the fleet departed to cross the Pacific. Painted white, they represented white might. Roosevelt himself explained afterwards, "I thought it a good thing that the Japanese should know ... that there were fleets of the white races which were totally different from the fleet of poor Rojestvensky," the Russian admiral whose forces the Japanese defeated at Tsushima Strait in 1905. And other observers thought likewise. "The American fleet is a symbol; it embodies the determination of the white man to keep what he has got on the shores of the Pacific," the London Daily Graphic reported.

In short, if you didn't look too carefully at the White Fleet's voyage, it looked like (as the Graphic's headline had it) "the big stick afloat." But if Roosevelt meant the fleet to awe America's rivals with the United States's ability to act forcibly on its own, he failed.

The exercise showed off America's naval weakness as much as its strength. The battleships in the fleet were already obsolete, supplanted by the all-big-gun ships named after Britain's Dreadnought, launched in 1906. By the time the White Fleet sailed, Japan had launched its own first dreadnought, while the U.S. would launch its own such ships during the White Fleet's sail.

Further, the voyage showed how much the projection of American force around the world depended on the material support of allies. The U.S. lacked the coaling stations necessary to keep its ships going, and had to rely on foreign sources of supply--awkward to secure during wartime--for the fleet's continued sail.

Perhaps most important of all, rather than being cowed by the ships, the Japanese met the White Fleet with open arms and careful diplomatic remarks. On their arrival in Yokohama harbor in October, each accompanied by a Japanese escort ship, they again met the U.S. national anthem, this time sung by thousands of Japanese schoolchildren (in English). And, as the historian David Silbey notes in an article forthcoming in American History magazine, Japanese officials also provided a subtle warning, assuring the U.S. ambassador that no fleet arriving in Japan had received such a warm welcome--at least, not since the Japanese fleet returned after defeating the Russians.

In fervid imaginations and florid rhetoric, the White Fleet represented America's ability to get its way by flexing its muscles, but in reality it showed that a hubristic United States did not necessarily dominate all the foreign shores some Americans hoped it might. Notably, Roosevelt's actual policy--as opposed to his sometimes heated language--reflected his awareness of the limits to U.S. power. Whatever he said about the White Fleet's sail, whatever jingoes in the press said about it, he privately asked the Japanese government to regard the global cruise as a peaceful gesture. And shortly after the White Fleet left Japan, Roosevelt's administration reached the Root-Takahira agreement with Tokyo, which stymied the advocates of war within his administration by recognizing Japan's rights in Asia.

Theodore Roosevelt said a great deal of complimentary things about war, and he went to battle when war came his way. But we shouldn't mistake his rhetoric or his personal commitment for strategy--he didn't. As the historian John Blum wrote, "By his own intent ... his actions spoke for him better than did his words." "Speak softly and carry a big stick" is an elegant and catchy aphorism, but they aren’t words that Roosevelt lived by. His near-constant bluster undermined the first part, and the second half of the phrase was likewise unrealized, because it was (and is) so unrealistic. No stick was ever big enough to match the force of TR’s language, or be the panacea for the world’s ills that McCain seems to think it could be. Even more technology, more modern battleships wouldn't do the trick; a U.S. war plan begun under Roosevelt and completed just before World War I concluded prophetically that in case of Japanese attack the U.S. dependency in the Philippines was indefensible, and naval relief couldn't reach it in time. So the right move for the time being was to reach an accommodation with America's rising rivals on the other side of the world.

Indeed, Roosevelt himself went even further than realistic accommodation, calling for international arms limitations, an international court at the Hague to adjudicate the actions of nations, and an international police power to enforce the Hague court's decisions. Perhaps this is what McCain and other modern politicians really mean when they invoke Theodore Roosevelt: We can influence global affairs only by supporting the rules of international law and avoiding war whenever possible. It would be pretty to think so.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.


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By Eric Rauchway