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Theodore Roosevelt and His Times
Being Wise in Time
by Howland, Harold


Perhaps the most famous of Roosevelt's epigrammatic sayings is, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The public, with its instinctive preference for the dramatic over the significant, promptly seized upon the "big stick" half of the aphorism and ignored the other half. But a study of the various acts of Roosevelt when he was President readily shows that in his mind the "big stick" was purely subordinate. It was merely the ultima ratio, the possession of which would enable a nation to "speak softly" and walk safely along the road of peace and justice and fair play.

The secret of Roosevelt's success in foreign affairs is to be found in another of his favorite sayings: "Nine-tenths of wisdom is to be wise in time." He has himself declared that his whole foreign policy "was based on the exercise of intelligent foresight and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis to make it improbable that we would run into serious trouble."

When Roosevelt became President, a perplexing controversy with Great Britain over the boundary line between Alaska and Canada was in full swing. The problem, which had become acute with the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1897, had already been considered, together with eleven other subjects of dispute between Canada and the United States, by a Joint Commission which had been able to reach no agreement. The essence of the controversy was this: The treaty of 1825 between Great Britain and Russia had declared that the boundary, dividing British and Russian America on that five-hundred-mile strip of land which depends from the Alaskan elephant's head like a dangling halter rope, should be drawn "parallel to the windings of the coast" at a distance inland of thirty miles. The United States took the plain and literal interpretation of these words in the treaty. The Canadian contention was that within the meaning of the treaty the fiords or inlets which here break into the land were not part of the sea, and that the line, instead of following, at the correct distance inland, the indentations made by these arms of the sea, should leap boldly across them, at the agreed distance from the points of the headlands. This would give Canada the heads of several great inlets and direct access to the sea far north of the point where the Canadian coast had, always been assumed to end. Canada and the United States were equally resolute in upholding their claims. It looked as if the matter would end in a deadlock.

John Hay, who had been Secretary of State in McKinley's Cabinet, as he now was in Roosevelt's, had done his best to bring the matter to a settlement, but had been unwilling to have the dispute arbitrated, for the very good reason that, as he said, "although our claim is as clear as the sun in heaven, we know enough of arbitration to foresee the fatal tendency of all arbitrators to compromise." Roosevelt believed that the "claim 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 claim the island of Nantucket." He was willing, however, to refer the question unconfused by other issues to a second Joint Commission of six. The commission was duly constituted. There was no odd neutral member of this body, as in an arbitration, but merely three representatives from each side. Of the British representatives two were Canadians and the third was the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Alverstone.

But before the Commission met, the President took pains to have conveyed to the British Cabinet, in an informal but diplomatically correct way, his views and his intentions in the event of a disagreement. "I wish to make one last effort," he said, "to bring about an agreement through the Commission 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." If this should seem to any one too vigorous flourishing of the "big stick," let him remember that it was all done through confidential diplomatic channels, and that the judgment of the Lord Chief Justice of England, when the final decision was made, fully upheld Roosevelt's position.

The decision of the Commission was, with slight immaterial modifications, in favor of the United States. Lord Alverstone voted against his Canadian than colleagues. It was a just decision, as most well-informed Canadians knew at the time. The troublesome question was settled; the time-honored friendship of two great peoples had suffered no interruption; and Roosevelt had secured for his country its just due, without public parade or bluster, by merely being wise--and inflexible--in time.

During the same early period of his Presidency, Roosevelt found himself confronted with a situation in South America, which threatened a serious violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Venezuela was repudiating certain debts which the Venezuelan Government had guaranteed to European capitalists. German capital was chiefly involved, and Germany proposed to collect the debts by force. Great Britain and Italy were also concerned in the matter, but Germany was the ringleader and the active partner in the undertaking. Throughout the year 1902 a pacific blockade of the Venezuelan coast was maintained and in December of that year an ultimatum demanding the immediate payment of the debts was presented. When its terms were not complied with, diplomatic relations were broken off and the Venezuelan fleet was seized. At this point the United States entered upon the scene, but with no blare of trumpets.

In fact, what really happened was not generally known until several years later.

In his message of December, 1901, President Roosevelt had made two significant statements. Speaking of the Monroe Doctrine, he said, "We do not guarantee any state against punishment, if it misconducts itself." This was very satisfactory to Germany. But he added--"provided the punishment does not take the form of the acquisition of territory by any non-American power." This did not suit the German book so well. For a year the matter was discussed. Germany disclaimed any intention to make "permanent" acquisitions in Venezuela but contended for its right to make "temporary" ones. Now the world had already seen "temporary" acquisitions made in China, and it was a matter of common knowledge that this convenient word was often to be interpreted in a Pickwickian sense.

When the "pacific blockade" passed into the stage of active hostilities, the patience of Roosevelt snapped. The German Ambassador, von Holleben, was summoned to the White House. The President proposed to him that Germany should arbitrate its differences with Venezuela. Von Holleben assured him that his "Imperial Master" would not hear of such a course. The President persisted that there must be no taking possession, even temporarily, of Venezuelan territory. He informed the Ambassador that Admiral Dewey was at that moment maneuvering in Caribbean waters, and that if satisfactory assurances did not come from Berlin in ten days, he would be ordered to proceed to Venezuela to see that no territory was seized by German forces. The Ambassador was firm in his conviction that no assurances would be forthcoming.

A week later Von Holleben appeared at the White House to talk of another matter and was about to leave without mentioning Venezuela. The President stopped him with a question. No, said the Ambassador, no word had come from Berlin. Then, Roosevelt explained, it would not be necessary for him to wait the remaining three days. Dewey would be instructed to sail a day earlier than originally planned. He added that not a word of all this had been put upon paper, and that if the German Emperor would consent to arbitrate, the President would praise him publicly for his broadmindedness. The Ambassador was still convinced that no arbitration was conceivable.

But just twelve hours later he appeared at the White House, his face wreathed in smiles. On behalf of his Imperial Master he had the honor to request the President of the United States to act as arbitrator between Germany and Venezuela. The orders to Dewey were never sent, the President publicly congratulated the Kaiser on his loyalty to the principle of arbitration, and, at Roosevelt's suggestion, the case went to The Hague. Not an intimation of the real occurrences came out till long after, not a public word or act marred the perfect friendliness of the two nations. The Monroe Doctrine was just as unequivocally invoked and just as inflexibly upheld as it had been by Grover Cleveland eight years before in another Venezuelan case. But the quiet private warning had been substituted for the loud public threat.

The question of the admission of Japanese immigrants to the United States and of their treatment had long disturbed American international relations. It became acute in the latter part of 1906, when the city of San Francisco determined to exclude all Japanese pupils from the public schools and to segregate them in a school of their own. This action seemed to the Japanese a manifest violation of the rights guaranteed by treaty. Diplomatic protests were instantly forthcoming at Washington; and popular demonstrations against the United States boiled up in Tokyo. For the third time there appeared splendid material for a serious conflict with a great power which might conceivably lead to active hostilities. From such beginnings wars have come before now.

The President was convinced that the Californians were utterly wrong in what they had done, but perfectly right in the underlying conviction from which their action sprang. He saw that justice and good faith demanded that the Japanese in California be protected in their treaty rights, and that the Californians be protected from the immigration of Japanese laborers in mass. With characteristic promptness and vigor he set forth these two considerations and took action to make them effective. In his message to Congress in December he declared: "In the matter now before me, affecting the Japanese, everything that is in my power to do will be done and all of the forces, military and civil, of the United States which I may lawfully employ will be so employed . . . to enforce the rights of aliens under treaties." Here was reassurance for the Japanese. But he also added: "The Japanese would themselves not tolerate the intrusion into their country of a mass of Americans who would displace Japanese in the business of the land. The people of California are right in insisting that the Japanese shall not come thither in mass." Here was reassurance for the Californians.

The words were promptly followed by acts. The garrison of Federal troops at San Francisco was reinforced and public notice was given that violence against Japanese would be put down. Suits were brought both in the California State courts and in the Federal courts there to uphold the treaty rights of Japan. Mr. Victor H. Metcalf, the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, himself a Californian, was sent to San Francisco to make a study of the whole situation. It was made abundantly clear to the people of San Francisco and the Coast that the provision of the Federal Constitution making treaties a part of the supreme law of the land, with which the Constitution and laws of no State can interfere, would be strictly enforced. The report of Secretary Metcalf showed that the school authorities of San Francisco had done not only an illegal thing but an unnecessary and a stupid thing.

Meanwhile Roosevelt had been working with equal vigor upon the other side of the problem. He esteemed it precisely as important to protect the Californians from the Japanese as to protect the Japanese from the Californians. As in the Alaskan and Venezuelan cases, he proceeded without beat of drum or clash of cymbal. The matter was worked out in unobtrusive conferences between the President and the State Department and the Japanese representatives in Washington. It was all friendly, informal, conciliatory--but the Japanese did not fail to recognize the inflexible determination behind this courteous friendliness. Out of these conferences came an informal agreement on the part of the Japanese Government that no passports would be issued to Japanese workingmen permitting them to leave Japan for ports of the United States. It was further only necessary to prevent Japanese coolies from coming into the United States through Canada and Mexico. This was done by executive order just two days after the school authorities of San Francisco had rescinded their discriminatory school decree.

The incident is eminently typical of Roosevelt's principles and practice: to accord full measure of justice while demanding full measure in return; to be content with the fact without care for the formality; to see quickly, to look far, and to act boldly.

It had a sequel which rounded out the story. The President's ready willingness to compel California to do justice to the Japanese was misinterpreted in Japan as timidity. Certain chauvinistic elements in Japan began to have thoughts which were in danger of becoming inimical to the best interests of the United States. It seemed to President Roosevelt an opportune moment, for many reasons, to send the American battle fleet on a voyage around the world. The project was frowned on in this country and viewed with doubt in other parts of the world. Many said the thing could not be done, for no navy in the world had yet done it; but Roosevelt knew that it could. European observers believed that it would lead to war with Japan; but Roosevelt's conviction was precisely the opposite. In his own words, "I did not expect it; . . . I believed that Japan would feel as friendly in the matter as we did; but . . . if my expectations had proved mistaken, it would have been proof positive that we were going to be attacked anyhow, and . . . in such event it would have been an enormous gain to have had the three months' preliminary preparation which enabled the fleet to start perfectly equipped. In a personal interview before they left, I had explained to the officers in command that I believed the trip would be one of absolute peace, but that they were to take exactly the same precautions against sudden attack of any kind as if we were at war with all the nations of the earth; and that no excuse of any kind would be accepted if there were a sudden attack of any kind and we were taken unawares." Prominent inhabitants and newspapers of the Atlantic coast were deeply concerned over the taking away of the fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The head of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, who hailed from the State of Maine, declared that the fleet should not and could not go because Congress would refuse to appropriate the money; Roosevelt announced in response that he had enough money to take the fleet around into the Pacific anyhow, that it would certainly go, and that if Congress did not choose to appropriate enough money to bring the fleet back, it could stay there. There was no further difficulty about the money.

The voyage was at once a hard training trip and a triumphant progress. Everywhere the ships, their officers, and their men were received with hearty cordiality and deep admiration, and nowhere more so than in Japan. The nations of the world were profoundly impressed by the achievement. The people of the United States were thoroughly aroused to a new pride in their navy and an interest in its adequacy and efficiency. It was definitely established in the minds of Americans and foreigners that the United States navy is rightfully as much at home in the Pacific as in the Atlantic. Any cloud the size of a man's hand that may have been gathering above the Japanese horizon was forthwith swept away. Roosevelt's plan was a novel and bold use of the instruments of war on behalf of peace which was positively justified in the event.

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