October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
Comment by John A. Garraty, professor of history at Columbia University and biographer of many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century figures:
The Russians’ description of Theodore Roosevelt proves once again that you don’t have to resort to outright lies to be a good prevaricator. There are few factual errors in their story, but they achieve their objective of picturing him as a typical capitalist warmonger by selection and omission, not by direct falsification. Shrewdly, they concentrate their fire on Roosevelt’s attitude toward big business and his handling of foreign affairs. Both subjects provide material admirably suited to Soviet purposes.
To question Roosevelt’s sincerity as a trust-buster is clever because, despite his reputation, he was never wholly committed to this method of dealing with the monopoly problem. He would have preferred a system of federal regulation of giant corporations, but could not get the necessary legislation through Congress. Actually, in associating Roosevelt with the “Morgan financial oligarchy” the Russians are following the line taken by William Howard Taft in 1911. Taft charged that Roosevelt had blocked an antitrust suit against the International Harvester Corporation to please the House of Morgan, and winked at a flagrant violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by allowing Morgan’s U.S. Steel Corporation to swallow the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company during the Panic of 1907. American historians do not generally accept this thesis, although a recent article by Professor Robert H. Wiebe on “The House of Morgan and the Executive” points out that the Morgan interests did seek to prevent suits against their “monopolies” by making informal agreements with the Roosevelt Administration. Certainly no reputable writer would claim that Roosevelt’s trustbusting was simply demagoguery.
In treating Roosevelt’s Latin American policy, the Russians are also exploiting a fruitful source. Roosevelt was undoubtedly an imperialist; he did wield the big stick and throw his weight around in the Caribbean. But here the article seems to me curiously unperceptive and flat. Any American historian could do a much better “hatchet job” if he set his mind to it. Nothing, for example, is said of Roosevelt’s repeated glorification of war in the eighties and nineties. The casually dismissed Panamanian revolution (complete as it was with an American cruiser, a puppet regime recognized with indecent haste, and the questionable transfer of $40,000,000 to a group of “foreign capitalists”) is another opportunity missed. On the other hand, to attack Roosevelt’s intervention in the Venezuela Bond Dispute, which was triggered by the imperialism of European powers, is hardly fair, and to condemn his Cuban policy without mentioning his genuine reluctance to intervene in the 1906 revolution is equally unjust.
The account of Roosevelt’s part in the Russo-Japanese War is wildly distorted. While it is true that Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Japanese in 1905, he gave them no “substantial aid,” and his sympathy grew out of his not-unreasonable suspicion of Russian motives in Manchuria. The article fails to mention that Roosevelt sponsored the Portsmouth Peace Conference, which ended the war, and that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for this work. It also creates the impression that the war led to a general U.S.-Japanese rapprochement , but as a matter of fact the Treaty of Portsmouth caused anti-American riots in Tokyo. The Japanese thought it too easy on the defeated Russians. Some American historians consider Portsmouth the first milestone along the road to Pearl Harbor.
Given the standard Russian preconceptions, their interpretations make sense of a sort. Can we fairly quarrel with Lenin when he says that the Progressive party sought to save capitalism by bourgeois reforms? But why has so much about Roosevelt been omitted? His career as politician, civil servant, writer, and rancher before 1897 is not even mentioned. Surely in a work of reference it merits some coverage. And why is there no discussion of Roosevelt as a man? His flamboyant personality would lend itself easily to Russian distortion: his egotism, his prudery, his almost-insane interest in physical fitness are as easy to caricature as his thick-lensed squint, bristling mustache, bull neck, and flashing teeth. It would be too much to expect a balanced portrait from the Large Soviet Encyclopedia , but this sketch is not even a decent caricature. Perhaps this is a general weakness of biography in a land where the individual counts for so little.