William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XI. Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XI. Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy
IN taking the oath of office at Buffalo, Roosevelt promised to continue President McKinley’s policies. And this he set about doing loyally. He retained McKinley’s Cabinet, 1 who were working out the adjustments already agreed upon. McKinley was probably the best-natured President who ever occupied the White House. He instinctively shrank from hurting anybody’s feelings. Persons who went to see him in dudgeon, to complain against some act which displeased them, found him “a bower of roses,” too sweet and soft to be treated harshly. He could say “no” to applicants for office so gently that they felt no resentment. For twenty years he had advocated a protective tariff so mellifluously, and he believed so sincerely in its efficacy, that he could at any time hypnotize himself by repeating his own phrases. If he had ever studied the economic subject, it was long ago, and having adopted the tenets which an Ohio Republican could hardly escape from adopting, he never revised them or even questioned their validity. His protectionism, like cheese, only grew stronger with age. As a politician, he was so hospitable that in the campaign of 1896, which was fought to maintain the gold standard and the financial honesty of the United States, he showed very plainly that he had no prejudice against free silver, and it was only at the last moment that the Republican managers could persuade him to take a firm stand for gold.   1
  The chief business which McKinley left behind him, the work which Roosevelt took up and carried on, concerned Imperialism. The Spanish War forced this subject to the front by leaving us in possession of the Philippines and by bequeathing to us the responsibility for Cuba and Porto Rico. We paid Spain for the Philippines, and in spite of constitutional doubts as to how a Republic like the United States could buy or hold subject peoples, we proceeded to conquer those islands and to set up an American administration in them. We also treated Porto Rico as a colony, to enjoy the blessing of our rule. And while we allowed Cuba to set up a Republic of her own, we made it very clear that our benevolent protection was behind her.   2
  All this constituted Imperialism, against which many of our soberest citizens protested. They alleged that as a doctrine it contradicted the fundamental principles on which our nation was built. Since the Declaration of Independence, America had stood before the world as the champion and example of Liberty, and by our Civil War she had purged her self of Slavery. Imperialism made her the mistress of peoples who had never been consulted. Such moral inconsistency ought not to be tolerated. In addition to it was the political danger that lay in holding possessions on the other side of the Pacific. To keep them we must be prepared to defend them, and defense would involve maintaining a naval and military armament and of stimulating a warlike spirit, repugnant to our traditions. In short, Imperialism made the United States a World Power, and laid her open to its perils and entanglements.   3
  But while a minority of the men and women of sober judgment and conscience opposed Imperialism, the large majority accepted it, and among these was Theodore Roosevelt. He believed that the recent war had involved us in a responsibility which we could not evade if we would. Having destroyed Spanish sovereignty in the Philippines, we must see to it that the people of those islands were protected. We could not leave them to govern themselves because they had no experience in government; nor could we dodge our obligation by selling them to any other Power. Far from hesitating because of legal or moral doubts, much less of questioning our ability to perform this new task, Roosevelt embraced Imperialism, with all its possible issues, boldly not to say exultantly. To him Imperialism meant national strength, the acknowledgment by the American people that the United States are a World Power and that they would not shrink from taking up any burden which that distinction involved.   4
  When President Cleveland, at the end of 1895, sent his swingeing message in regard to the Venezuelan Boundary quarrel, Roosevelt was one of the first to foresee the remote consequences. And by the time he himself became President, less than six years later, several events—our taking of the Hawaiian Islands, the Spanish War, the island possessions which it saddled upon us—confirmed his conviction that the United States could no longer live isolated from the great interests and policies of the world, but must take their place among the ruling Powers. Having reached national maturity we must accept Expansion as the logical and normal ideal for our matured nation. Cleveland had laid down that the Monroe Doctrine was inviolable; Roosevelt insisted that we must not only bow to it in theory, but be prepared to defend it if necessary by force of arms.   5
  Very naturally, therefore, Roosevelt encouraged the passing of legislation needed to complete the settlement of our relations with our new possessions. He paid especial attention to the men he sent to administer the Philippines, and later he was able to secure the services of W. Cameron Forbes as Governor-General. Mr. Forbes proved to be a Viceroy after the best British model and he looked after the interest of his wards so honestly and competently that conditions in the Philippines improved rapidly, and the American public in general felt no qualms over possessing them. But the Anti-Imperialists, to whom a moral issue does not cease to be moral simply because it has a material sugar-coating, kept up their protest.   6
  There were, however, matters of internal policy; along with them Roosevelt inherited several foreign complications which he at once grappled with. In the Secretary of State, John Hay, he had a remarkable helper. Henry Adams told me that Hay was the first “man of the world” who had ever been Secretary of State. While this may be disputed, nobody can fail to see some truth in Adams’s assertion. Hay had not only the manners of a gentleman, but also the special carriage of a diplomat. He was polite, affable, and usually accessible, without ever losing his innate dignity. An indefinable reserve warded off those who would either presume or indulge in undue familiarity His quick wits kept him always on his guard. His main defect was his unwillingness to regard the Senate as having a right to pass judgment on his treaties. And instead of being compliant and compromising, he injured his cause with the Senators by letting them see too plainly that he regarded them as interlopers, and by peppering them with witty but not agreeable sarcasm. In dealing with foreign diplomats, on the other hand, he was at his best. They found him polished, straightforward, and urbane. He not only produced on them the impression of honesty, but he was honest. In all his diplomatic correspondence, whether he was writing confidentially to American representatives or was addressing official notes to foreign governments, I do not recall a single hint of double-dealing. Hay was the velvet glove, Roosevelt the hand of steel.   7
  For many years Canada and the United States had enjoyed grievances towards each other, grievances over fisheries, over lumber, and other things, no one of which was worth going to war for. The discovery of gold in the Klondike, and the rush thither of thousands of fortune-seekers, revived the old question of the Alaskan Boundary; for it mattered a great deal whether some of the gold-fields were Alaskan—that is, American-or Canadian. Accordingly, a joint High Commission was appointed towards the end of McKinley’s first administration to consider the claims and complaints of the two countries. The Canadians, however, instead of settling each point on its own merits, persisted in bringing in a list of twelve grievances which varied greatly in importance, and this method favored trading one claim against another. The result was that the Commission, failing to agree, disbanded. Nevertheless, the irritation continued, and Roosevelt, having become President, and being a person who was constitutionally opposed to shilly-shally, suggested to the State Department that a new Commission be appointed under conditions which would make a decision certain. He even went farther, he took precautions to assure a verdict in favor of the United States. He appointed three Commissioners—Senators Lodge, Root, and Turner; the Canadians appointed two, Sir A. L. Jette and A. B. Aylesworth; the English representative was Alverstone, the Lord Chief Justice.   8
  The President gave to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the Supreme Court, who was going abroad for the summer, a letter which he was “indiscreetly” to show Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Balfour, and two or three other prominent Englishmen. In this letter he wrote:
  The claims of the Canadians for access to deep water along any part of the Alaskan Coast is just exactly as indefensible as if they should now suddenly claim the Island of Nantucket….
  I believe that no three men [the President said] in the United States could be found who would be more anxious than our own delegates to do justice to the British claim on all points where there is even a color of right on the British side. But the objection raised by certain Canadian authorities to Lodge, Root, and Turner, and especially to Lodge and Root, was that they had committed themselves on the general proposition. No man in public life in any position of prominence could have possibly avoided committing himself on the proposition, any more than Mr. Chamberlain could avoid committing himself on the question of the ownership of the Orkneys if some Scandinavian country suddenly claimed them. If this claim embodied other points as to which there was legitimate doubt, I believe Mr. Chamberlain would act fairly and squarely in deciding the matter; but if he appointed a commission to settle up all these questions, I certainly should not expect him to appoint three men, if he could find them, who believed that as to the Orkneys the question was an open one.
  I wish to make one last effort to bring about an agreement through the Commission [he said in closing] which will enable the people of both countries to say that the result represents the feeling of the representatives of both countries. But if there is a disagreement, I wish it distinctly understood, not only that there will be no arbitration of the matter, but that in my message to Congress I shall take a position which will prevent any possibility of arbitration hereafter; a position … which will render it necessary for Congress to give me the authority to run the line as we claim it, by our own people, without any further regard to the attitude of England and Canada. If I paid attention to mere abstract rights, that is the position I ought to take anyhow. I have not taken it because I wish to exhaust every effort to have the affair settled peacefully and with due regard to England’s honor. 2
  In due time the Commission gave a decision in favor of the American contention. Lord Alverstone, who voted with the Americans, was suspected of having been chosen by the British Government because they knew his opinion, but I do not believe that this was true. A man of his honor, sitting in such a tribunal, would not have voted according to instructions from anybody.   10
  Roosevelt’s brusque way of bringing the Alaska Boundary Question to a quick decision, may be criticised as not being judicial. He took the short cut, just as he did years before in securing a witness against the New York saloon-keepers who destroyed the lives of thousands of boys and girls by making them drunkards. Strictly, of course, if the boundary dispute was to be submitted to a commission, he ought to have allowed the other party to appoint its own commissioners without any suggestion from him. But as the case had dragged on interminably, and he believed, and the world believed, and the Canadians themselves knew, that they intended to filibuster and postpone as long as possible, he took the common-sense way to a settlement. If he had resolved, as he had, to draw the boundary line “on his own hook,” in case there was further pettifogging he committed no impropriety in warning the British statesmen of his purpose. In judging these Rooseveltian short cuts, the reader must decide whether they were justified by the good which they achieved.   11
  Of even greater importance was the understanding reached, under Roosevelt’s direction, with the British Government in regard to the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. By the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and Great Britain agreed to maintain free and uninterrupted passage across the Isthmus, and, further, that neither country should “obtain or maintain to itself any control over the said ship-canal,” or “assume or exercise any dominion … over any part of Central America.” The ship canal talked about as a probability in 1850 had become a necessity by 1900. During the Spanish-American War, the American battleship Oregon had been obliged. to make the voyage round Cape Horn, from San Francisco to Cuba, and this served to impress on the people of the United States the really acute need of a canal across the Isthmus, so that in time of war with a powerful enemy, our Atlantic fleet and our Pacific fleet might quickly pass from one coast to another. It would obviously be impossible for us to play the role of a World Power unless we had this short line of communication. But the conditions of peace, not less than the emergencies of war, called for a canal. International commerce, as well as our own, required the saving of thousands of miles of distance.   12
  About 1880, the French under Count De Lesseps undertook to construct a canal from Panama to Aspinwall, but after half a dozen years the French company suspended work, partly for financial reasons, and partly on account of the enormous loss of life among the diggers from the pestilent nature of the climate and the country. Then followed a period of waiting, until it seemed certain that the French would never resume operations. American promoters pressed the claims of a route through Nicaragua where they could secure concessions. But it became clear that an enterprise of such far reaching political importance as a trans-Isthmian canal, should be under governmental control. John Hay had been less than a year in the Department of State when he set about negotiating with England a treaty which should embody his ideas. In Sir Julian Pauncefote, the British Ambassador at Washington, he had a most congenial man to deal with. Both were gentlemen, both were firmly convinced that a canal must be constructed for the good of civilization, both held that to assure the friendship of the two great branches of the English-speaking race should be the transcendent aim of each. They soon made a draft of a treaty which was submitted to the Senate, but the Senators so amended it that the British Government refused to accept their amendments, and the project failed. Hay was so terribly chagrined at the Senate’s interference that he wished to resign. There could be no doubt now, however, that if the canal had been undertaken on the terms of his first treaty, it would never have satisfied the United States and it would probably have been a continual source of international irritation. Roosevelt was at that time Governor of New York, and I quote the following letter from him to Hay because it shows how clearly he saw the objections to the treaty, and the fundamental principles for the control of an Isthmian canal:
Albany, Feb. 18, 1900
  I hesitated long before I said anything about the treaty through sheer dread of two moments—that in which I should receive your note, and that in which I should receive Cabot’s. 3 But I made up my mind that at least I wished to be on record; for to my mind this step is one backward, and it may be fraught with very great mischief. You have been the greatest Secretary of State I have seen in my time—Olney comes second—but at this moment I can not, try as I may, see that you are right. Understand me. When the treaty is adopted, as I suppose it will be, I shall put the best face possible on it, and shall back the Administration as heartily as ever, but oh, how I wish you and the President would drop the treaty and push through a bill to build and fortify our own canal.
  My objections are twofold. First, as to naval policy. If the proposed canal had been in existence in ‘98, the Oregon could have come more quickly through to the Atlantic; but this fact would have been far outweighed by the fact that Cervera’s fleet would have had open to it the chance of itself going through the canal, and thence sailing to attack Dewey or to menace our stripped Pacific Coast. If that canal is open to the warships of an enemy, it is a menace to us in time of war; it is an added burden, an additional strategic point to be guarded by our fleet. If fortified by us, it becomes one of the most potent sources of our possible sea strength. Unless so fortified it strengthens against us every nation whose fleet is larger than our own. One prime reason for fortifying our great seaports, is to unfetter our fleet, to release it for offensive purposes; and the proposed canal would fetter it again, for our fleet would have to watch it, and therefore do the work which a fort should do; and what it could do much better.
  Secondly, as to the Monroe Doctrine. If we invite foreign powers to a joint ownership, a joint guarantee, of what so vitally concerns us but a little way from our borders, how can we possibly object to similar joint action, say in Southern Brazil or Argentina, where our interests are so much less evident? If Germany has the same right that we have in the canal across Central America, why not in the partition of any part of Southern America? To my mind, we should consistently refuse to all European powers the right to control in any shape, any territory in the Western Hemisphere which they do not already hold.
  As for existing treaties—I do not admit the “dead hand” of the treaty making power in the past. A treaty can always be honorably abrogated—though it must never be abrogated in dishonest fashion. 4
  Fortunately, Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, remained benevolently disposed towards the Isthmian Canal, and in the following year he consented to take up the subject again. A new treaty embodying the American amendments and the British objections was drafted, and passed the Senate a few months after Roosevelt became President. Its vital provisions were, that it abrogated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and gave to the United States full ownership and control of the proposed canal.   14
  This was the second illustration of Roosevelt’s masterfulness in cutting through a diplomatic knot. Arrangements for constructing the Canal itself forced on him a third display of his dynamic quality which resulted in the most hotly discussed act of his career.   15
  The French Canal Company was glad to sell to the American Government its concessions on the Isthmus, and as much of the Canal as it had dug, for $40,000,000. It had originally bought its concession from the Government of Colombia, which owned the State of Panama: At first the Colombian rulers seemed glad, and they sent an accredited agent, Dr. Herran, to Washington, who framed with Secretary Hay a treaty satisfactory to both, and believed, by Mr. Hay, to represent the sincere intentions of the Colombian Government at Bogota. The Colombian politicians, however, who were banditti of the Tammany stripe, but as much cruder as Bogota was than New York City, suddenly discovered that the transaction might be much more profitable for themselves than they had at first suspected. They put off ratifying the treaty, therefore, and warned the French Company that they should charge it an additional $10,000,000 for the privilege of transferring its concession to the Americans. The French demurred; the Americans waited. Secretary Hay reminded Dr. Herran that the treaty must be signed within a reasonable time, and intimated that the reasonable time would soon be up.   16
  The Bogotan blackmailers indulged in still wilder dreams of avarice; like the hasheesh-eater, they completely lost contact with reality and truth. In one of their earlier compacts with the French Company they stipulated that, if the Canal were not completed by a certain day in 1904, the entire concession and undertaking should revert to the Colombian Government. As it was now September, 1903, it did not require the wits of a political bandit to see that, by staving off an agreement with the United States for a few months, Colombia could get possession of property and privileges which the French were selling to the Americans for $40,000,000. So the Colombian Parliament adjourned in October, 1903, without even taking up the Hay-Herran Treaty.   17
  Meanwhile the managers of the French Company became greatly alarmed at the prospect of losing the sum which the United States had agreed to pay for its rights and diggings, and it took steps to avert this total loss. The most natural means which occurred to it, the means which it adopted, was to incite a revolution in the State of Panama. To understand the affair truly, the reader must remember that Panama had long been the chief source of wealth to the Republic of Colombia. The mountain gentry who conducted the Colombian Government at Bogota treated Panama like a conquered. province, to be squeezed to the utmost for the benefit of the politicians. There was neither community of interest nor racial sympathy between the Panamanians and the Colombians, and, as it required a journey of fifteen days to go from Panama to the Capital, geography, also, added its sundering influence. Quite naturally the Panamanians, in the course of less than half a century, had made more than fifty attempts to revolt from Colombia and establish their own independence. The most illiterate of them could understand that, if they were independent, the money which they received and passed on to Bogota., for the bandits there to spend, would remain in their own hands. An appeal to their love of liberty, being coupled with so obvious an appeal to their pockets, was irresistible.   18
  Just what devices the French Company employed to instigate revolution, can be read in the interesting work of M. Bunau-Varilla, one of the most zealous officers of the French Company, who had devoted his life to achieving the construction of the Trans-Isthmian Canal. He was indefatigable, breezy, and deliberately indiscreet. He tells much, and what he does not tell he leaves you to infer, without risk of going astray. Mr. William Nelson Cromwell, of New York; the general counsel of the Company, offset Varilla’s loquacity by a proper amount of reticence. Bunau-Varilla hurried over from Paris, and had interviews with President Roosevelt and Secretary Hay, but could not draw them into his conspiracy. The President told him that, at the utmost, he would only order American warships, which were on the Panama coast, to prevent any attack from outside which might cause bloodshed and interfere with the undisturbed passage across the Isthmus, a duty which the United States was pledged to perform.   19
  The French zealot-conspirator freely announced that the revolution at Panama would take place at noon on November 3d. It did take place as scheduled without violence, and with only the accidental killing of a Chinaman and a dog. The next day the Revolutionists proclaimed the Republic of Panama, and on November 6th the United States formally recognized its existence and prepared to open diplomatic relations with it. The Colombian Government had tried to send troops to put down the rebellion, but the American warships, obeying their orders to prevent bloodshed or fighting, would not allow the troops to land.   20
  As soon as the news of these events reached Bogota, the halls of Parliament there resounded with wailing and gnashing of teeth and protests, and curses on the perfidious Americans who had connived to free the Panamanians in their struggle for liberty. The mountain bandits perceived that they had overreached themselves. Instead of the $10,000,000 which their envoy Herran had deemed sufficient; instead of the $40,000,000 and more, which their greed had counted on in 1904, they would receive nothing. The Roosevelt Government immediately signed a contract with the Republic of Panama, by which the United States leased a zone across the Isthmus for building, controlling, and operating, the Canal. Then the Colombians, in a panic, sent their most respectable public man, and formerly their President, General Rafael Reyes, to Washington, to endeavor to persuade the Government to reverse its compact with the Panama Republic. The blackmailers were now very humble. Mr. Wayne MacVeagh, who was counsel for Colombia, told me that General Reyes was authorized to accept $8,000,000 for all the desired concessions, “and,” Mr. MacVeagh added, “he would have taken five millions, but Hay and Roosevelt were so foolish that they wouldn’t accept.”   21
  The quick decisions of the Administration in Washington, which accompanied the revolution in Panama and the recognition of the new Republic, were made by Roosevelt. I have seen no evidence that Mr. Hay was consulted at the last moment. When the stroke was accomplished, many good persons in the United States denounced it. They felt that it was high-handed and brutal, and that it fixed an indelible blot on the national conscience. Many of them did not know of the long-drawn-out negotiations and of the Colombian premeditated deceit; others knew, but overlooked or condoned. They upheld strictly the letter of the law. They could not deny that the purpose of the Colombians was to exact blackmail. It meant nothing to them that Herran, the official envoy, had drawn up and signed a treaty under instructions from Marroquin, the President of Colombia, and its virtual dictator, who, having approved of the orders under which Herran acted, could easily have required the Colombian Parliament to ratify the treaty. Perfervidly pious critics of Roosevelt pictured him as a bully without conscience, and they blackened his aid in freeing the Panamanians by calling it “the Rape of Panama.” Some of these persons even boldly asserted that John Hay died of remorse over his part in this wicked deed. The fact is that John Hay died of a disease which was not caused by remorse, and that, as long as he lived, he publicly referred to the Panama affair as that in which he took the greatest pride. It is only in the old Sunday-School stories that Providence punishes wrongdoing with such commendable swiftness, and causes the naughty boy who goes skating on Sunday to drown forthwith; in real life the “mills of God grind slowly.” Roosevelt always regarded with equal satisfaction the decision by which the Panama Canal was achieved and the high needs of civilization and the protection of the United States were attended to. He lived long enough to condemn the proposal of some of our morbidly conscientious people, hypnotized by the same old crafty Colombians, to pay Colombia a gratuity five times greater than that which General Reyes would have thankfully received in December, 1903.   22
  Persons of different temperaments, but of equal patriotism and sincerity, will probably pass different verdicts on this incident for a long time to come. Mr. Leupp quotes a member of Roosevelt’s Administration as stating four alternative courses the President might have followed. First, he might have let matters drift until Congress met, and then sent a message on the subject, shifting the responsibility from his own shoulders to those of the Congressmen. Secondly, he might have put down the rebellion and restored Panama to Colombia; but this would have been to subject them against their will to a foreign enemy—an enormity the Anti-Imperialists were still decrying in our holding the Philippines against the will of their inhabitants. Thirdly, he might have withdrawn American warships and left Colombia to fight it out with the Panamanians—but this would have involved bloodshed, tumult, and interruption of transit across the Isthmus, which the United States, by the agreement of 1846, were bound to prevent. Finally, he might recognize any de facto government ready and willing to transact business—and this he did. 5   23
  That the Colombian politicians, who repudiated the treaty Herran had framed, were blackmailers of the lowest sort, is as indisputable as is the fact that whoever begins to compromise with a blackmailer is lured farther and farther into a bog until he is finally swallowed up. Americans should know also that during the summer and autumn of 1903, German agents were busy in Bogota. and that, since German capitalists had openly announced their desire to buy up the French Company’s concession, we may guess that they did not urge Colombia to fulfill her obligation to the United States.   24
  Many years later I discussed the transaction with Mr. Roosevelt, chaffing him with being a wicked conspirator. He laughed, and replied: “What was the use? The other fellows in Paris and New York had taken all the risk and were doing all the work. Instead of trying to run a parallel conspiracy, I had only to sit still and profit by their plot—if it succeeded.” He said also that he had intended issuing a public announcement that, if Colombia by a given date refused to come to terms, he would seize the Canal Zone in behalf of civilization. I told him I rather wished that he had accomplished his purpose in that way; but he answered that events matured too quickly, and that, in any case, where swift action was required, the Executive and not Congress must decide.   25

Note 1. In April, 1901, J. W. Griggs had retired as Attorney-General and was succeeded by P. C. Knox; in January, 1902, C. E. Smith was replaced by H. W. Payne as Postmaster-General. [ back ]

Note 2. W. R. Thayer: John Hay, II, 209, 210. [ back ]

Note 3. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who also opposed the first treaty. [ back ]

Note 4. W. R. Thayer: John Hay, II, 339–41. [ back ]

Note 5. Leupp, 10–11. [ back ]



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