The New York Sunday Times on November 28, 2010 published noted historian Geoffrey C. Ward’s review of a biography of President Theodore Roosevelt [TR]. His review reveals something distressing about the way some of our scholars gloss over our iconic figures and write history as the U.S. fights multiple wars. A popular war hero, President for seven years, a prominent international figure [awarded the Nobel Peace Prize], arguably the man who built the U.S. overseas empire, TR’s brash aggressiveness has long made him Mount Rushmore in size and a favorite of school texts. He is always listed among our best and most important leaders.
At one point Ward refers to Roosevelt having “a bloodlust impossible to excuse.” First a fact: In and out of the White House TR wielded enormous power at home and across the globe, and at the moment the U.S. rushed onto the world scene. Question: does not a bloodlust from this high a global perch have huge consequences? Ward simply mentions TR’s bloodlust and then hurries on.
TR was an energetic, impetuous, rarely contained figure. What about his bloodlust? Did he open his heart to war and violence? In 1897 TR wrote a friend “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one” — and carried around a list of six target nations on three continents. The next year the U.S. declared war on Spain, and TR at forty rushed to serve — and did serve heroically as a Rough Rider. Years later he regretted he had not been “seriously wounded in Cuba in some striking and disfiguring way.”
In what ways did TR’s bloodlust impact the world stage? Reviewer Ward does not say, but TR does. “All the great masterful races have been fighting races,” he claimed. To fellow Anglo-Saxons he said, “It is wholly impossible to avoid conflicts with the weaker races,” and added, “The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages.” He urged Anglo Saxon men to embrace war as a form of “spiritual renewal” that would prevent “race suicide” and stimulate “a clear instinct for racial selfishness.” TR as a statesman embraced war as inevitable, justifiable, and politically useful. As an historian TR called “heroic” shocking U.S. Army massacres of innocent Indian villagers. He believed “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and promoted the genocide of Native Americans.
President during a time when a hundred African Americans were killed by brutal lynch mobs each year, TR said he opposed lynching. He also spoke to Black audiences about lynching and announced the “rapists and criminals” among them “did more harm to their race than any white man can possibly do them.”
During his White House years, TR boasted, “not a shot was fired at any soldier of a hostile nation by any American soldier or sailor.” But when Filipinos demanded the right of self-determination, he ordered a U.S. Army occupation of the Philippines that continued throughout his presidency and beyond . . . and took hundreds of thousands of civilian lives.
During World War I TR’s bloodlust was still kicking. At 60 he rushed to join the Army so he could die gloriously for his country, but was turned down. But when his son Archie was wounded overseas TR and his family raised a toast. TR died two years later peacefully in his bed.
Roosevelt’s bloodlust carried a strong racial bias, a flawed memory, and lived deep in his soul. Like him it became a part of American policy. Confining it to four words is not the whole truth. Nor is it useful as the U.S. fights three Middle Eastern wars and contemplates another invasion.
Americans need to understand our leaders, our history and how to avoid bloodlust-driven policies.
William Loren Katz, author of forty books on American history, is a visiting scholar at New York University. His website is: williamlkatzl.com