13. Foreign Policy

The only safe rule is to promise little, and faithfully to keep every promise; to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ - Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography

When he first became President someone expressed the fear that he would immediately get us into a war. “What, a war?” he said, “with me cooped up here in the White House!” Whenever he got wind of the slightest chance of war he took great care to prevent it. He could see what was coming around the next corner and do something about it. Edward Wagenknecht wrote, “on the one occasion when he believed war with a major power possible, with Japan between 1906 and 1908, he made valiant efforts to prevent it.”1 Whenever the United States offended any foreign power whether it be Japan over the disgraceful treatment of Japanese immigrants or France over the arrest of French engineers in Puerto Rico, he immediately straightened the problem out using both letters and meetings with foreign dignitaries.

During his Presidency “this Nation behaved in international matters toward all other nations precisely as an honorable man behaves to his fellow-men. We made no promise which we could not and did not keep. We made no threat which we did not carry out. We never failed to treat both strong and weak with courtesy and justice; and against the weak when they misbehaved we were slower to assert our rights than we were against the strong.”2

Russo-Japanese War
Early in 1905 it became apparent that the Russo-Japanese War was destructive to both countries. It was a continual expense to Japan and was a hopeless cause for Russia. Theodore, who didn’t want Russia driven out of Asia, began talking with Japan’s Ambassador Takahira.3

He asked Ambassador to Russia Meyer to request that “representatives of Russia meet with representatives of Japan to confer as to whether peace can now be made.”

“With infinite labor and by the exercise of a good deal of tact and judgement - if I do say it myself - I have finally gotten the Japanese and Russians to agree to meet to discuss the terms of peace,” he wrote.4

Both parties agreed to meet at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The President received them first on the Mayflower, the Presidential yacht at Oyster Bay. Afterwards they would sail on the Mayflower to New Hampshire.5

Both the Russian and Japanese envoys watched carefully to see if Roosevelt would show favoritism over one or the other. They looked with a microscope for mistakes in protocol and were anxious to see who would be seated at Roosevelt’s right at lunch. “I will not suffer a toast to our Emperor offered after one to the Mikado,” said one Russian delegate. The Japanese delegates were Ambassador Takahira and Baron Jutaro Komura. They were at least a full foot shorter than the Russian delegate Witte and demanded respect in spite of their size.
The President was anxious too:

I looked forward to this affair with a good deal of anxiety knowing that a single slip on my part which could be construed as favoring one set of envoys over the others would be fatal. No such slip occurred, and I think we are off to a good start. I know perfectly well that the whole world is watching me and the condemnation that will come down on me if the conference fails, will be world-wide too. But that’s all right. I thought it my plain duty to make the effort.6

Speaking French with a horrendous accent, Roosevelt grabbed the arms of both Witte and Takahira and guided them into the ship’s dining room. There was no problem with who would sit on his right and who would get slighted and sit on his left. The table was round and it was a buffet. The President then drank “to the welfare and prosperity of the sovereigns and people of the two great nations whose representatives have met one another on this ship.” It was his “most earnest hope and prayer, in the interest...of all mankind that a just and lasting peace may speedily be concluded among them.”7

He played a large part in the negotiations without being at all heavy handed or overly intrusive. It wasn’t easy. “I am having my hair turned gray by dealing with the Russian and Japanese negotiations,” he said to his son.8 “To be polite and sympathetic in explaining for the hundredth time something perfectly obvious,” he wrote Jusserand, “when what I really want to do is to give utterance to whoops of rage and jump up and knock their heads together--well, all I can hope is that the self-repression will be ultimately helpful for my character.”9

Theodore came away from the conference with a new respect for Japan. Japan had “infinitely more knowledge [than Russia] of what it wants and capacity to get it...” “We should treat her courteously, generously and justly, but we should keep our navy up and make it evident that we are not influenced by fear,” Theodore said.10

Of Russia Theodore once said, “Someday she will experience a ‘red terror’ compared to which the French Revolution would seem pale.” He thought that someday she might crush Germany and “if she ever does take possession of Northern China and drill the Northern Chinese to serve as her Army she will indeed be a formidable power.”11

Japan had insisted on a monetary indemnity. An agreement was reached because Roosevelt talked them out of it.

The delegates from both countries developed a warm respect for the President, whom they had judged before the peace talks as “impetuous to the point of rudeness.” An advisor to the Russian envoys and an expert on international law said of T.R.:

His conduct during the whole time that the peace negotiations lasted has been a marvel of tact. Without appearing to inject himself into the course of the conversations and discussions which took place between the delegates, he contrived to keep himself exactly informed as to all that was going on, and more than once intervened in the most discreet manner by conveying a hint or a message to the plenipotentiaries which cleared the skies and brought things back to their true level.
I have often wondered where Roosevelt could have acquired the immense amount of information which he suddenly displayed, and I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of it was due to his extraordinary powers of intuition which made him draw deductions and conclusions where others saw only the bare facts. And, moreover, that Portsmouth Conference, which will surely mark in the history of the world the first effort made by the United States to stand as an equal at the side of the great nations of other continents, was essentially Roosevelt’s work, and as such he showed us immediately that he intended, and that indeed he would, bring it to a good and safe conclusion.
That he contrived to do so without showing openly his hand, and while abstaining from everything that could have been interpreted as an attempt to interfere in matters which were not supposed to concern him, was a work which perhaps no one in the whole world outside of himself would have been able to perform. The hints which he conveyed to the plenipotentiaries, and which invariably threw a new light upon the points that they had not been able to see or to bring to a solution, were something quite wonderful. All through our conferences the personality of Roosevelt made itself felt, but this was done so artistically, if such a word may be used, that nobody could have been offended at the advice which he tendered with such consummate discretion. We Russians had come to Portsmouth without taking anything that he had said seriously and yet when we left the United States it was with the knowledge that all through our stay there we had been brought in close proximity with one of the most powerful personalities now alive in the whole of the world.....The man who had been represented to us as impetuous to the point of rudeness displayed a gentleness, a kindness, and a tactfulness mixed with self-control that only a truly great man can command.12

Roosevelt had gotten the Czar to agree to the peace talks. He had broken the deadlock in the conference by convincing the Japanese to moderate their terms. He had saved the lives of thousands of men.
A treaty was signed on September 5, 1905. As a result he was given the Nobel Peace Prize.13

The Pope said, “This is the happiest news of my life. Thank God for President Roosevelt’s courage.”

Roosevelt was uncomfortable with so much praise. “Now I am over-praised,” he said. “Don’t be misled by the fact that just at the moment men are speaking well of me. They will speak ill soon enough.”14 He was credited with being extremely farsighted. But he did it because, he said, “I would have felt as if I was flinching from a plain duty if I had acted other wise.”15

Algeciras Conference
Although he did intend to stay out of international affairs, he took a leading role in forming the Algeciras Conference which prevented a confrontation between Germany and France over Morocco. His part in this was to be “a dead secret,” he told Lodge. “Not a word of it has gotten out into the papers; but I became the intermediary between Germany and France when they got into an impasse.”

The President had suggested to the French that they might “flatter the excessive vanity of William II” to resolve the problem. He himself took the Kaiser aside and said, “It was a genuine triumph of German diplomacy to undertake the conference. I do not want your deserved fame to be clouded should questions about minor details start a war.” Wilhelm agreed to the conference and promised to rely on Theodore if difficulties arose.

When the conference deadlocked, Theodore spoke directly to the German Emperor reminding him that it was a matter of honor for him to stick by his promise to let Theodore decide what to do in the event of a difference between the French and German governments.16 Then he and the French ambassador Jusserand together “finally worked out a conclusion which I think was entirely satisfactory” - recognition of an independent Morocco with France and Spain policing Morocco.17 Wilhelm submitted to the compromise and the President sent his “sincerest felicitations on this epochmaking political success at Algeciras” and said the Kaiser’s policy had been “masterly from beginning to end.” The President remained silent about his own role in the Moroccan dispute, allowing the Kaiser to take the credit.18

By doing this he probably postponed World War I by ten years.
He also received the following from Ambassador Jusserand:

I leave greatly comforted by the news concerning Morocco, the agreement arrived at is in substance the one we had considered and the acceptation of which you did so very much to secure. Letters just received by me from Paris show that your beneficent influence at this grave juncture is deeply and gratefully felt. They confirm also what I guessed was the case, that is that there was a point where more yielding would have been impossible.

“I stood [the Kaiser] on his head with great decision,” Theodore declared.

The Kaiser
Don’t bluster, don’t flourish a revolver, and never draw unless you intend to shoot. - Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt, wrote his biographer Harbaugh, was well aware that a conflict in Europe or Asia might well result in a World War into which the U.S. would be drawn. He felt “in honor bound” to try to prevent war. “[A] new conflict might result in what would literally be a world conflagration,” he wrote.19
For this reason, he always kept a close eye on Kaiser Wilhelm, whom the English thought he was under the influence of.

He wrote Lodge who was getting ready for a trip to England:

I hope you will tell the King exactly my relations with the Kaiser. I want to remain on good terms with him; there are certain things I admire about him; but it is preposterous to say that I am under his influence...as regards the Kaiser I intend to keep the relations of Germany and the United States on a good footing, but that it is a simple wild nightmare to suppose that he can use me to the detriment of any other nation.20

While talking to Henry Adams, Lodge “happened to say that the English thought [Roosevelt was] under the Kaiser’s spell.” “For Heaven’s sake,” Adams said, “let them think so. The President’s influence with the Kaiser is one of the strongest weapons we have in a really perilous condition. We know he understands the Kaiser and that is enough.”21

We must always remember that it would be a fatal thing for the great free peoples to reduce themselves to impotence and leave the despotisms and barbarians armed. It would be safe to do so if there were some system of international police; but there is now no such system. - Theodore Roosevelt

“It is folly of the criminal type for the Nation not to keep up its navy, not to fortify its vital strategic points, and not to provide an adequate army for its needs,” he said.22 “It would be a fatal thing for the great free peoples to reduce themselves to impotence and leave the despotisms and barbarisms armed.”23

His objective was to keep America prepared for war so that it would be too dangerous and too expensive to fight her. Peace at any price, he said, and justice and righteousness are incompatible.

People who ask for “peace at any price” are asking for something akin to disbanding the police force in our cities.

The only safe rule is to promise little, and faithfully to keep every promise; to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”24

The Monroe Doctrine
My whole foreign policy was based on the exercise of intelligent fore-thought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis to make it improbable that we would run into serious trouble. - Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography

“The Monroe Doctrine lays down the rule that the Western Hemisphere is not hereafter to be treated as subject to settlement and occupation by Old World powers. It is not international law; but it is a cardinal principle of our foreign policy,” T.R. wrote.25

The island of Santo Domingo had defaulted on the interest due to their creditors, who then “insisted upon their governments intervening.” Two or three European powers “intended to take and hold several of the seaports which held custom houses.” Unless the President acted at once, foreign powers would be in charge of Santo Domingo.26

Roosevelt ordered a naval commander in the area to protect the custom houses and then asked that the Dominican government put the custom houses under American control. They agreed to this request and let the United States collect customs fees and turn 55% over to its creditors. The Dominican government was told to keep the rest of the money to improve conditions on the island.

As a result of the wise handling of customs fees, conditions greatly improved. Roads and schools were built and unhygienic conditions corrected.27

The Santo Dominican Government received more money than ever before. The creditors were satisfied and all this was done without loss of life. Theodore chalked it up to “intelligent forethought,” that is, acting in advance of a crisis that might occur. “No excuse for interference by European powers remained,” he said.28

When accused of trying to annex Santo Domingo he said he had “about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.”29

The Panama Canal
By far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President related to the Panama Canal. - Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography

Our country is bordered by two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. A way had to be found to connect the two oceans, a way that would put the United States in charge as the owner and protector of the canal.30

The Hay-Pauncefote treaty with Columbia stated that the United States would build the Isthmian canal, control it and protect it and keep it open to all nations. The Columbian government wanted to seize the French Panama Canal Company and the forty million dollars the United States had agreed to pay it. So Columbia rejected the Hay-Pauncefote treaty.

The President leaked a story to the press which said that he was “determined to have the Panama Canal route.” He had “no intention of beginning negotiations for the Nicaraguan route.” There was likely to be a revolution. “The state of Panama,” the story said, “stands ready to secede from Columbia and enter into a canal treaty with the United States.” Once it seceded the United States would be given “the equivalent of absolute sovereignty over the Canal Zone.” And, the article added, “leading Senators” had given the President “unanimous encouragement.”

Senator Shelby Cullom, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations said after lunching with Roosevelt, “We might make another treaty, not with Columbia, but with Panama...this country wants to build that canal and build it now.”
Roosevelt ordered two or three Army men to go to Panama in civilian clothes and see what the situation was.

Meanwhile, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, head of the revolutionaries, met with the President to try to find out whether the United States would back a revolution, in Panama. They both talked carefully, watching every word as if they were being recorded.

Bunau-Varilla predicted a revolution and Roosevelt acted surprised. “Could Roosevelt prevent the landing of Columbian troops during the revolution,” Bunau-Varilla asked. Then he added, “I don’t suppose you can say.” Roosevelt said, “I can’t say but I have no use for the Colombian government after what it has done.” He wasn’t able to spell it out in so many words that the United States would support a revolution but he said of Bunau-Varilla, “he is a very able fellow, and it was his business to find out what he thought our Government would do. I have no doubt that he was able to make a very accurate guess and to advise his people accordingly. In fact, he would have been a very dull man had he been unable to make such a guess.”

The gunboat Nashville was ordered to sail immediately. The destination was Columbia.31

T.R. also “directed the Navy Department to station various ships within easy reach of the Isthmus, to be ready to act in the event on need arising.”32 The ships were to prevent landing of any enemy ships within fifty miles of Panama in order to prevent Columbia from reinforcing its garrison in Panama.33

T.R. wrote what happened next:

These ships were barely in time. On November 3 the revolution occurred. Practically everybody on the Isthmus, including all the Colombian troops that were already stationed there, joined in the revolution, and there was no bloodshed...On the Pacific side a Colombian gunboat shelled the City of Panama, with the result of killing one Chinaman--the only life lost in the whole affair...By the unanimous action of its people, and without the firing of a shot, the state of Panama declared themselves an independent republic.34

He said, “I did not lift my finger to incite the revolutionists....I simply ceased to stamp out the different revolutionary fuses that were already burning. I deeply regretted, and now deeply regret, the fact that the Colombian Government rendered it imperative for performance of my duty to my own people, and to the nations of mankind.”35

“I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” Privately he was probably thinking, “I took Panama because Bunau-Varilla brought it to me on a silver platter.”36

Panama became an American protectorate and the United States got “use, occupancy and control” of a ten mile wide strip across the Isthmus.37
“After a sufficient period of wrangling, the Senate ratified the treaty with Panama, and work on the canal was begun,” he wrote later.38

Trip to Panama
Now then, men, three cheers for Theodore Roosevelt, the typical American citizen! - Petty officer, USS Louisiana

On November 13, 1906, Theodore wrote his son, Kermit, from a ship heading towards Panama:

As for me, I of course feel a little bored, as I always do on shipboard, but I have brought on a great variety of books, and am at this moment reading Milton’s prose works, “Tacitus”, and a German novel called “Jorn Uhl.”39

No President had ever left the country while in office. The public was assured that their beloved “Teddy” would be well protected and in constant touch with Washington by wireless. The newspapers said it was good for a President to get out and see the world. Maybe one day a President would even go to Europe.40

He wanted to see Panama at its worst--at the height of the rainy season-- and he did. He got to ride in an open carriage in the pouring rain. 41 “I tramped everywhere through the mud,” he reported happily.42

His guide said as he traveled around Panama “he was continually pointing to some feature and asking, ‘What’s that?...Well, I want to see it’...he was continuously stopping some black man and asking if he had any complaint or grievance.” And he was always stopping to give some impromptu speech. “You are doing the biggest thing of the kind that has ever been done and I wanted to see how you are doing it,” he said.43
He wrote his son:

There the huge steam shovels are hard at it; scooping huge masses of rock and gravel and dirt previously loosened by the drillers and dynamite blasters, loading it on trains which take it away to some dump, either in the jungle or where the dams are to be built. They are eating steadily into the mountain cutting it down and down. Little tracks are laid on the side hills, rocks blasted out, and the great ninety-five ton steam shovels work up like mountain howitzers until they come to where they can with advantage begin their work of eating into and destroying the mountainside. With intense energy men and machines do their task, the white men supervising matters and handling the machines, while the tens of thousands of black men do the rough manual labor where it is not worth while to have machines do it.
It is an epic feat, and one of immense significance.

When he saw a 95-ton steam shovel scooping up dirt and rocks, he could not resist climbing in the driver’s seat to have his picture taken. 45 No doubt he tried the controls.

He wrote about what happened when they got back home:

When we finished our trip on the Louisiana I made a short speech to the assembled crew, and at its close one of the petty officers, the very picture of what a man-of-war’s man should look like, proposed three cheers for me in terms that struck me as curiously illustrative of America at her best; he said, “Now then, men, three cheers for Theodore Roosevelt, the typical American citizen!” That was the way in which they thought of the American President--and a very good way, too.46

White Fleet
[The Japanese] are a formidable outfit. I want to try to keep on the best possible terms with Japan and never do her any wrong; but I want still more to see our navy maintained at the highest point of efficiency, for it is the real keeper of the peace. - Theodore Roosevelt, letter to Lodge, 1907

San Franciscans, “those Pacific coast people,” wanted to keep Japanese immigrants out of California “on the grounds that they are an immoral, degraded and worthless race.” As a consequence, all oriental children in the area were forced to attend a segregated school.47 This was “a wicked absurdity,” “an intolerable outrage on the part of news papers and public men to use offensive and insulting language about a high-spirited, sensitive and friendly people.” The President felt that “the nation and not the individual States must deal with matters of such international significance and must treat foreign nations with entire courtesy and respect.”48 He ordered the San Francisco Board of Education to admit any child who knew English and fell into the proper age group.49

He then sat down with an ex-Cabinet Minister of Japan. “I kept explaining to him that what we had to do was to face facts; that if American laboring men came in and cut down the wages of Japanese laboring men they would be shut out of Japan in one moment; and that Japanese laborers must be excluded from the United States on economic grounds.”50

They came to a “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Both the U.S. and Japan agreed to limit emigration of laborers.51

“No small part of our success, he said, “was due to the fact that we succeeded in impressing on the Japanese that we sincerely admired and respected them, and desired to treat them with the utmost respect.” As a result of the talks, the “obnoxious school legislation” was abandoned, and “the Japanese themselves prevented any emigration to our country of their laboring people.”52

Because of the situation with Japan (“I am more concerned over the Japanese situation than almost any other. Thank heaven we have the navy in good shape.”), he decided to send the American fleet on a cruise around the world. “In the first place I think it will have a pacific effect to show that it can be done; and in the next place...I became convinced that it was absolutely necessary for us to try in time of peace to see just what we could do in the way of putting a big battle fleet in the Pacific, and not make the experiment in time of war.”53

Sixteen battleships and 12,000 men, under the command of Admiral Robley D. Evans, were sent around the world. It was called the White Fleet.

Still worried about offending the Japanese he wrote Admiral Evans:

I need not tell you that you should exercise the most careful watch throughout the time that you are in Oriental waters--for you will naturally exercise the most careful watch at all times both before and after you leave the Orient. I wish to impress upon you, what I do not suppose is necessary, to see to it that none of our men does anything out of the way while in Japan. If you give the enlisted men leave while at Tokio or anywhere else in Japan be careful to choose only those upon whom you can absolutely depend. There must be no suspicion of insolence or rudeness on our part.
I firmly believe that the Japanese Government will use every effort to see that the highest consideration and courtesy are accorded to our people, and you of course will do everything in your power to show the utmost consideration and courtesy to the Japanese with whom you are brought in contact, not only in Japan but elsewhere. We want to take peculiar care in this matter.

In a friendly letter to the Kaiser he casually mentioned the White Fleet:

It has been a very real pleasure to me to be able so often to cooperate with you and to second your efforts...I trust you have noticed that the American battleship fleet has completed its tour of South America on schedule and is now having its target practice off the Mexican coast. After visiting San Francisco and Puget Sound, it will start on its return voyage via Australia, Japan, China, the Philippines, and the Suez Canal...Their target practice has been excellent.

In another letter he wrote the Kaiser thanking him for his letter and a book he had given him. He told Wilhelm he has been asked to speak at the University of Berlin and will of course accept with pleasure the invitation:

partly because I shall be glad to speak before the university, and still more, I must frankly add, because it gives me a legitimate excuse for seeing you....By the way, I am sure you would be delighted if you could see the accounts that have come from our battle fleet, which is now returning from its trip around the world. In gunnery and in battle tactics no less than in the ordinary voyage maneuvers, there has been a steady gain; and the fleet is far more efficient, collectively and individually, now than when it left these waters over a year ago...Very Faithfully yours, Theodore Roosevelt.