PBS has just started showing a new Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts.
According to Jonathan Tobin, Burns allows Evan Thomas to denounce Theodore Roosevelt as a war-mongering imperialist and colonialist. For Thomas TR laid down the predicates that led America into Iraq.
Tobin summarizes the argument:
Thomas’s thesis was that the Spanish-American War was the precedent that served to entice Americans to wage other seemingly small wars over the course of the next century but especially the conflict in Iraq. In his reading of Roosevelt’s behavior, TR committed the original sins not only of imperialism and military adventurism but also embodying a lust for blood and war that should be regarded as evidence of madness, not courage. Burns allows Thomas to brand TR as “a dangerous figure” whose “glorification of war can’t be a good thing in the long run.”
He continues that George Will, no leftist he, also disparages Roosevelt’s affection for warfare:
Will says the fact that TR “liked war” and thought “might makes right” gives an “unpleasant dimension” to his legacy and should cause us to view him with “dry eyes.”
Today this counts as the conventional wisdom.
But let’s look at it all in a slightly different context.
In 1912 the American people elected a president who did not like war. Woodrow Wilson was an academic intellectual. He was not inclined to intervene militarily anywhere, and mostly stood aside when the world started falling apart.
When Germany sank the Lusitania in early 1915, Wilson famously declared that he was “too proud to fight.” (Evidently, the event resembles the Spanish sinking of the U. S. S. Maine in Havana... event that incited a war in which TR fought bravely.)
The Great War began in September, 1914. It produced immeasurable carnage, millions of dead, millions more injured, a Bolshevik takeover in Russia, a post-war flu epidemic that killed millions more and a peace treaty that paved the way for Nazism.
At the time Theodore Roosevelt was writing newspaper columns. They are collected in four volumes, beginning with America and the World War.
In his columns TR offered a contemporaneous analysis of events in the theatre of war. Beginning in late 1914 he began arguing forcefully for American mobilization and believed that only American intervention could stop the horrors that were taking place. The columns provide a brilliant analysis of events. They are more impressive for having been written as events were unfolding. They are anything but the fulminations of a warmonger.
Anyway, Woodrow Wilson eventually sent an American expeditionary force to Europe in the summer of 1918. Within a few months the war was over. Interestingly, he argued that he wanted to make the world "safe for democracy."
George Kennan famously argued that World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century. Would it have happened if TR had been elected president in 1912? We do not know.
We do know that the feckless and pusillanimous Woodrow Wilson sat out one of the worst calamities in human history. We do know that a small American force could have ended the hostilities and perhaps prevented some of the unspeakable calamities that defined the twentieth century. We believe that a better and less arrogant diplomat could have negotiated a fairer outcome.
While he is denouncing about TR, Evan Thomas should defend the record of the Wilson administration during World War I.
True enough, actions have consequences. But, so does inaction.