Eric Rauchway: John McCain styles himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. But he's taken exactly the wrong lessons from TR





[Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.]

"I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold," John McCain told The New York Times last Friday. The presumptive Republican nominee for president speaks often of Roosevelt, another child of privilege who sought to make himself over into a man's man. He has referred to him as his "ultimate hero," and quoted approvingly Roosevelt's speech calling for a renewed commitment to American rule in the Philippines, in which Roosevelt declared, "Resistance must be stamped out. The first and all-important work to be done is to establish the supremacy of our flag." But Roosevelt gave that speech in 1899. A hundred years ago this summer, while occupying the White House, he exhibited a very different approach to foreign policy. Roosevelt is best known for saying "Speak softly and carry a big stick." But in truth he preferred to speak loudly and negotiate softly, a strategy that served him well.

Perhaps the best example of this underappreciated tendency of Roosevelt's is celebrating its centennial this month: the cruise of the Great White Fleet, which departed from San Francisco in July 1908. The previous December, President Roosevelt dispatched sixteen battleships from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to pass through the Straits of Magellan in February and wind their way north to California. After a dramatic naval parade in May in San Francisco Bay, with more than forty ships lined up in four columns in the harbor, crews firing the big guns, bands playing the national anthem, and crowds in their thousands along the waterfronts of the Bay cheering, early in July the fleet departed to cross the Pacific. Painted white, they represented white might. Roosevelt himself explained afterwards, "I thought it a good thing that the Japanese should know ... that there were fleets of the white races which were totally different from the fleet of poor Rojestvensky," the Russian admiral whose forces the Japanese defeated at Tsushima Strait in 1905. And other observers thought likewise. "The American fleet is a symbol; it embodies the determination of the white man to keep what he has got on the shores of the Pacific," the London Daily Graphic reported.

In short, if you didn't look too carefully at the White Fleet's voyage, it looked like (as the Graphic's headline had it) "the big stick afloat." But if Roosevelt meant the fleet to awe America's rivals with the United States's ability to act forcibly on its own, he failed.

The exercise showed off America's naval weakness as much as its strength. The battleships in the fleet were already obsolete, supplanted by the all-big-gun ships named after Britain's Dreadnought, launched in 1906. By the time the White Fleet sailed, Japan had launched its own first dreadnought, while the U.S. would launch its own such ships during the White Fleet's sail.

Further, the voyage showed how much the projection of American force around the world depended on the material support of allies. The U.S. lacked the coaling stations necessary to keep its ships going, and had to rely on foreign sources of supply--awkward to secure during wartime--for the fleet's continued sail....



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