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(Excerpt from Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt)
"A just war is in the long run far better for a man’s soul than the most prosperous peace."
–Theodore Roosevelt (26th President of the United States)
Critics of Theodore Roosevelt often found it difficult to oppose a man of such immense popularity, unbounded energy, and unmatched competency. He was practically immune to the ordinary discourse of political contention. The only tactic with which they found consistent success was to accuse him of reckless impetuousness, ambitious adventurism, and hotheaded warmongering in the all too delicate area of international affairs.
To be sure, Roosevelt was plainspoken in his pronouncements about the advantages of war and the dangers of peace in certain circumstances: "The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life."
Though he had seen the horrors of war firsthand, he maintained a romantic image of its manly rectitude: "No qualities called out by a purely peaceful life stand on a level with those stern and virile virtues which move the men of stout heart and strong hand who uphold the honor of their flag in battle."
Indeed, he felt that a willingness to go to war for a just cause was a kind of litmus test of its integrity and honor: "A nation is not wholly admirable unless in times of stress it will go to war for a great ideal."
Conversely, his view of peace—particularly the sort of peace at any price that many isolationists advocated—was all too often a misnomer for something less than a shameful betrayal of all that the American experiment in liberty stood for:
Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaiden of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy.
Quite naturally, many men and women across the country feared that once he attained the office of the presidency, the nation would be perpetually mired in one misbegotten military adventure after another. But of course, that simply was not the case. In fact, the two Roosevelt administrations were among the most peaceful and harmonious in all of American history. And as if that were not enough, the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the end to the bitter Russo Japanese War in 1905 the first American so honored.
A reporter once asked Roosevelt about this paradox. He kiddingly replied, "I certainly would never have started a war I couldn’t have fought in." In truth, Roosevelt’s military policy was designed to enforce peace through strength: "I only advocate preparation for war in order to avert war; and I should never advocate war itself unless it were the only possible alternative to shame and dishonor."
In 1908 he commissioned a complete American battle fleet under the command of Adm. Robert Evans to circle the globe. The ships were painted a brilliant white for their forty two thousand mile show of force. Though critics were appalled at such blatant saber rattling, Roosevelt contended that the famed "Great White Fleet" had "exercised a greater influence for peace than all the peace conferences of the last fifty years."
He believed that the essence of leadership was the ability to maintain great strength without any impulsive compulsion to use it. That strength was to be held in reserve until, and unless, it became necessary to use it for the cause of right:
I abhor unjust war. I abhor injustice and bullying by the strong at the expense of the weak, whether among nations or individuals. I abhor violence and bloodshed. But it takes strength to put a stop to abhorrent things.
And so the peace was kept.