Teddy Roosevelt and the Big Stick
It’s difficult now to imagine a time when the United States was not the world’s most significant power, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was an emerging world power that was only beginning to look beyond its borders. In the 1890s, the United States became involved in foreign conflicts, notably the Spanish-American War, in which the US intervened on behalf of Cuban rebels who wanted independence from Spain.
In 1901, shortly after the war, Theodore Roosevelt became President following the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt had long been an advocate of American expansionism and had become widely popular with the American people after leading the “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt, who had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy before becoming McKinley’s Vice-President, was also a proponent of increasing the United States Navy’s size.
Shortly before McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt outlined his views about foreign policy and American power while speaking at the Minnesota State Fair. Borrowing from an African proverb, Roosevelt referred to his policy as “walk softly and carry a big stick.” For Roosevelt, the approach involved careful diplomacy (speak softly) reinforced by the unspoken threat of American military prowess (the big stick).
A classic example of Roosevelt’s policy is the Great White Fleet’s worldwide tour from 1907 to 1909. The fleet of 16 American battleships, which were manned by some 14,000 sailors, were then on the cutting edge of naval warfare, as steel ships had only recently come into use. The massive American armada toured the world, with stops on every continent except for Antarctica. It was a dramatic peacetime venture (the ships were painted white, the Navy’s peacetime color), but the message was clear: the US is now a significant naval power and should be taken seriously. The mere existence of this Navy, Roosevelt believed, was enough to deter potential enemies.
Once again, Roosevelt put the Navy to use in 1902, when several European countries blockaded Venezuela over that nation’s unpaid debts to them. The blockade devastated Venezuela’s economy, and Roosevelt tried to work out an agreement that would bring it to an end. When diplomacy failed to resolve the matter, Roosevelt sent US warships to Cuba, a move that sent a clear message to the nations of Europe. In case they misunderstood, in 1904, the President issued the Roosevelt Corollary, which stated that the United States would intervene in the economic affairs of Latin America as needed to keep Europe out of the Western Hemisphere.
But Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy didn’t stop with a mere show of force. When Congress approved a bill to construct a canal in a part of Colombia known as Panama—a canal which would dramatically increase trade by linking the Atlantic with the Pacific—Colombia rejected the treaty. In response, the US aided rebels in Panama’s break from Colombia to form a new, independent nation, and the US constructed the Panama Canal as it wanted.
What’s not to admire about a President who favored thoughtful diplomacy but carried—and used—a “big stick” when the situation demanded it?