We Americans are still trying to figure ourselves out. Who are we really? What does it mean to be a citizen of this country? And how are we to view the world?
Dignity, honor, respect and understanding remain crucial in our personal, national and international relationships. How we conduct ourselves will determine much during the tumultuous days of this current administration.
Teddy Roosevelt, that wildly energetic president in the early and heady days of the 20th century, embodies well the evolution of our current needs and perspectives. His life offers both the bold, optimistic zeal rising with the American experiment, along with a highly public but less discussed world view. It is this latter perspective Roosevelt then and many others now, continue to cling to.
In James Bradley’s well-researched The Imperial Cruise, his broad scope reveals a much less familiar Teddy Roosevelt. Impetuous, ego-centric, and highly influenced by the ubiquitous “Anglo-Saxon” supremacy myth, Roosevelt secretly negotiated “deals” with the Japanese in 1905. In Bradley’s assessment, and with an enormous treasure trove of previously untapped evidence, Roosevelt’s subversive dealings with foreign powers outside the constraints of State Department and governmental oversight, gave tacit permission, even encouragement, to the Japanese to take over the entire Korean peninsula for Japanese imperial oversight and exploitation.
Allegedly, Teddy hoped Japan’s Korean takeover would pave the way for speedy industrialization there, along with increased openness to Western (American) industry, and a ready market for American goods. Bradley asserts these secret agreements and back-room deals Roosevelt initiated set the stage for World War II and the unimaginable horrors that would be unleashed in the coming three decades.
Roosevelt’s world view at the time understood simply that the white race was preeminent, and that white supremacy was self-evident, that Asian, Slavic, Latino and African societies were inferior. It was therefore the “White man’s burden” to help them rise in order to be “taught” and ultimately exploited by Anglo-Saxon superiors. Numerous speeches, letters, and secret documents support Bradley’s premise: Roosevelt exhibited a world view based on a fundamental understanding of white supremacy yielding a future controlled and run by Anglo-Saxon descendants. His world view largely reflected the perspectives of white America as a whole. And the damage from both contributed to untold misery for countless people.
But Roosevelt evolved. And so would the country he struggled to represent.
In Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, we hear of a different, more reflective Teddy. Following his embarrassing defeat in the 1912 election that undermined his Republican party and set the stage for Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Roosevelt crashed. Struggling with depression and desperately looking for an adventure that would revive his spirits and regenerate his carefully manufactured “Rough Rider” image, he settled upon a journey into the Amazon jungles of Brazil.
Doing so would change him. It would also almost kill him. Millard’s excellent recounting of Roosevelt’s journey into the wilderness pulls the reader into the wild, vast, untamed and unexplored reaches of human endurance. In her telling, Roosevelt’s courage, endurance, honor and emerging cultural appreciation stand in contrast with his narrow, bigoted view of non-white humanity in 1905. His learning occured by daily, hourly exposure to men of skill, courage and honor who were not white. The eclectic, multi-ethic group of Brazilians accompanying Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and his other American escorts, demonstrated remarkable discipline and a wisdom and dignity that helped the former president view the world through different eyes.
His near-death and the risks these courageous “non-whites” endured to save him taught invaluable lessons. While this successful journey cemented his image as the consummate adventurer/explorer and naturalist, and his return facilitated broader understanding of the mysterious Amazon rainforest, he failed in a broader sense. Sadly, Roosevelt did little following his adventure to further the cause of race relations or to share overtly the clear lesson of racial equity and its potential for international cooperation.
In these strange and divisive days, our nation stands in need of similar reminders.
Roosevelt’s journey could have opened new arenas of understanding and broadened views of dignity and honor. His new sense of equity and his deeper appreciation of another culture different from his should have ushered in a more enlightened era of equality at home.
But during and following Roosevelt’s adventures, Jim Crow laws in the southern United States increased in their scope and intensity. African Americans throughout the American South suffered mightily as white privilege expanded and white prejudice became more pathological.
Isabel Wilkerson, in her very important book, The Warmth of Other Suns, reminds us of a stunning fact: during the first decades of the 20th century, an average of four black men were killed in public every day in the South. White people had total power. No trial. No jury. Lynching, burning and torture at the whim of white Southerners were ubiquitous, often for perceived slights or misinterpreted or misrepresented or misheard remarks from a black man to a white woman. The KKK, revamped and on active duty, terrorized the black community with impunity.
Meanwhile, statues of Southern generals and Confederate leaders began to be erected. Note, these statues were not called for following defeat in 1865. Instead, this was less about honoring Southern heroes and more about reasserting Southern, white authority. The message to African Americans seemed to be: “We lost the war, but we still control you.”
The creation of these “monuments” increased in intensity and ubiquity during the very time Teddy was learning his important lessons. He could have, he should have, assisted his growing nation to be a better, more open, inclusive and caring land. Roosevelt could have been a transformative catalyst of vision and hope in a society bereft of calm, wise voices of moderation.
Instead, we have reaped the whirlwind from long decades of tragic racial tensions, economic disparities and lack of racial justice. Let us not waste the clear and present opportunities now afforded us in these important days. Let our voices and experiences speak. Doing so might well facilitate the humble beginning of a more equitable society, an arena of compassion and understanding in our time so necessary for all time.