Guest Essayist: Will Morrisey


Such radically changed circumstances, which would lead to the world wars of the next century, presented American strategists with a set of problems noticeably different from those seen by Washington and his successors. Would the strengthening empires block American trade? Would they again threaten American shores, as they had not done since 1812? Further, having fought a devastating civil war, we were less likely than ever to invite the prospect of another war on our own territory—especially given the increasingly devastating power of modern weapon wielded by the well-organized and trained mass armies raised by modern states. We needed to re-think the question of strategic depth, a question we thought we’d answered by turning the middle part of North America into an empire of liberty. And we also needed to re-think our policies regarding international commerce. All without eradicating the constitutionally legitimate powers of the state governments.

American strategists proposed several policy choices. The first, advocated by German immigrant and old Republican Party ally of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Schurz, was simply to continue Washington’s policy: to eschew not only empire beyond our own continent (“overseas empire,” as he called it) but even to eschew any major strengthening of the military—this, on the traditional grounds that big military establishments threaten republican regimes. By far the most distinguished American statesman to advocate this policy in the next century was Herbert Hoover, whose “magnum opus” (as he called it), Freedom Betrayed, lays out an argument for staying out of the Second World War, and for what critics called ‘isolationism’ generally. Whatever one thinks of this as a realistic foreign policy for the modern world, it would surely have kept American federalism intact.

The second, opposite, policy was advocated by the young Indiana Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge, who called for a vast imperial project based upon the alleged superiority of the white race, a notion itself based upon the ‘race science’ that formed part of early Progressivism. The most famous of Beveridge’s speeches remains “The March of the Flag,” delivered at a Republican Party convention in Indiana. In it, Beveridge called for American conquest of the rest of the Americas and their incorporation into the United States—not, to be sure, as equal states, but as colonial territories. At the time, theories of racial superiority were very much a part of the Progressive movement, and Beveridge might be described as the most vocal representative of the militarist wing of Progressivism, which ranged from the militarism of Beveridge to the pacifism of Jane Addams. This policy would have ended the American practice of considering newly-acquired territories as future states, instead turning the New World into a facsimile of European empires.

It took President Theodore Roosevelt to find a more realistic solution to the problem, the one that has prevailed for more than a century. Theodore Roosevelt advocated the use of a greatly-expanded navy, which he eventually succeeded in obtaining, and peacetime military conscription for the army, which he hinted at but never formally proposed. These forces, but especially the navy would be used not so much for imperial expansion but for obtaining naval bases throughout the world, usually but not always with the consent of foreign governments. These bases would counterbalance the much more expensive (and, as it turned out, untenable) imperialism of the Europeans. While happy to seize Cuba and the Philippines from the Spanish, he had no interest in retaining them, but he very much liked the idea of establishing naval bases at Guantanamo and Subic Bay. As for permanent acquisitions, he intended to hold on to Hawaii and Puerto Rico as outposts complicating foreign naval attack on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

To reinforce America’s opposition to European imperialism in the New World, and to answer Beveridge, Roosevelt also propounded his well-known “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, stipulating an American right to intervene in Latin American countries if they fell down on their debt payments to European nations. Such refusal to repay loans, if it became “chronic” (as Theodore Roosevelt put it), would invite European military intervention into the Western Hemisphere—exactly the thing the original Monroe Doctrine was intended to discourage. This policy soon provoked anger from the people it was intended to protect, and President Franklin Roosevelt replaced it with his “Good Neighbor” policy in the 1930s.

From this perspective, Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy becomes quite coherent: Drive the weakened Spanish imperialists out of the Caribbean and the Philippines while blocking other empires (especially the Brits and the Germans) from seizing them; then spur the peoples of the newly-acquired countries to govern themselves. This meant recurring to the old American policy of regime change (first used by the Washington Administration in the southeastern states in its dealings with the Cherokee and other nations in that area), while obviating the need to (quite implausibly) make them into U.S. states and avoiding their (un-American) use as permanent colonies of our own. Add the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for both trading and military purposes, and you see that Theodore Roosevelt aimed at recovering America’s strategic depth under the circumstances caused by the new technologies of war.

Such a policy held out the prospect of retaining American federalism while avoiding ‘containment’ strategies Great Britain and other regimes, then and in the future, would deploy against us.  American federalism was compromised in any event, by Presidents Wilson, FDR, Lyndon Johnson and their allies, but this was done for domestic reasons, although sometimes under the cover of the quite different policy of liberal internationalism, which looks forward to the weakening not only of American federalism but of American sovereignty altogether.

Will Morrisey is William and Patricia LaMothe Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and is a Constituting America Fellow; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

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1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Two great essays that provoke contemplative thought. I am especially appreciate the overview of the T. Roosevelt philosophy. TR is a favorite President who is coming under increasing criticism for being an expansionist. The explanation herein offers a markedly different view of someone who promoted American greatness without employing the highly risky colonial tactics employed by European countries.

    Thank you.


    PS, I like your wheels. Autonomous?


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