It is almost not worth raising the issue of racism, as many people in [Teddy Roosevelt]’s era still suffered from various levels of it, and on many levels it was socially accepted. It could easily be said that TR was merely a man of his age—whether excusable by modern standards or not. But some modern apologists wish to present TR as above racism and indeed a pioneer in the improvement of race relations. As is typical with other areas we have discussed, his more general side gets whitewashed or edited out of the story, while his “good side,” as little and calculated as it may be, is magnified as the whole Teddy. While he did make some motions favorable to minorities during his presidency, we will see that the balance of his experience reveals he was a creature of his time—and a particularly imperialistic one.
We read earlier how in the lead-up to WWI, TR expressed his views that the nation “could not endure half American and half foreign.” His words were addressed particularly against German-Americans, as Germany was seemingly building its empire in Europe.
Teddy’s criticism of Germany soon intensified. Earlier we noted the Foreword to his 1917 book The Foes of Our Own Household. He immediately proceeded to write, “We should hold Germany in horror for what she has done.” Her atrocities truly were extensive.
But as far as warmongering imperialism, especially against her non-German neighbors, Germany was doing little more than TR has earlier advocated in his books on winning the West. In fact, in regard to nationalism involving racial superiority, Germany had not yet ascended to the heights outlined by TR. The lengthy quotation which follows was Teddy’s American version of pure-race imperialism:
The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman. The rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him. American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori,—in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people. The consequences of struggles for territory between civilized nations seem small by comparison. Looked at from the standpoint of the ages, it is of little moment whether Lorraine is part of Germany or of France, whether the northern Adriatic cities pay homage to Austrian Kaiser or Italian King; but it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.
Yet the very causes which render this struggle between savagery and the rough front rank of civilization so vast and elemental in its consequence to the future of the world, also tend to render it in certain ways peculiarly revolting and barbarous. It is primeval warfare, and it is waged as war was waged in the ages of bronze and of iron. All the merciful humanity that even war has gained during the last two thousand years is lost. It is a warfare where no pity is shown to non-combatants, where the weak are harried without ruth, and the vanquished maltreated with merciless ferocity. A sad and evil feature of such warfare is that the whites, the representatives of civilization, speedily sink almost to the level of their barbarous foes, in point of hideous brutality. The armies are neither led by trained officers nor made up of regular troops—they are composed of armed settlers, fierce and wayward men, whose ungovernable passions are unrestrained by discipline, who have many grievous wrongs to redress, and who look on their enemies with a mixture of contempt and loathing, of dread and intense hatred. When the clash comes between these men and their sombre foes, too often there follow deeds of enormous, of incredible, of indescribable horror. It is impossible to dwell without a shudder on the monstrous woe and misery of such a contest.1
Why could Germany not simply place themselves in the shoes of Teddy’s “rough front rank of civilization” as a superior race among Europe? Yeah it is a stretch, but only in degree and as a matter of individual judgment. The principle is the same. Whether any given case fit this principle well or not, easily or not, we cannot escape the fact that TR’s view of American empire included a strong and fierce racist element.
His racism appeared in other ways as well. TR is lauded by some conservative Christians because he criticized Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger even as early as his own day. Bravo! But the same writers neglect to realize that Teddy’s criticism was typically short-sighted and quite hypocritical. His 1917 criticism of Sanger was against her advocacy for birth control for the end of improving the race. She responded by noting that these critics, TR included, believed in eugenics just as much as she did. She wrote,
They want large numbers of high quality citizens. Therefore, they contend, let the existing high quality citizens have more children. . . . We advocates of birth control know that one cannot make quality by insisting on quantity. One cannot make better people simply by having more people.2
Had she known the whole truth, she could have really skewered TR with his own words. Merely a few years earlier, he had penned a spine-tingling letter to the father of eugenics in America, Charles Davenport, the contents of which one author stated “could have been written by Adolf Hitler.”3 It is no exaggeration. Teddy opined:
[S]ociety has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally. . . . Some day we will realize that the prime duty—the inescapable duty—of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.4
Following in this course and this worldview, Teddy’s appointee Justice Holmes decided the 1917 case Buck v. Bell, in which a woman had been forcibly sterilized according to a state statute. Teddy’s boy Holmes upheld the state statute, saying,
[I]t is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.5
There was indeed a generation of imbeciles. If it is no exaggeration to include Sanger and Holmes among them, we must by the same standard include Theodore Roosevelt as well.
(Purchase the whole eBook American Fascist: The Real Theodore Roosevelt.)
- Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons and The Knockerbocker Press, 1894), 45–46.(↩)
- Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt,” The Metropolitan Magazine, Dec. 1917, 66-67; http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=320325.xml (accessed May 9, 2014).(↩)
- Andrew Napolitano, Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 106.(↩)
- Jan. 3, 1913; cp. quoted in Napolitano, 107.(↩)
- Holmes, Buck v. Bell, 1927; cp. Napolitano, 106–107.(↩)