PBS is broadcasting the premiere of Ken Burns’ latest blockbuster documentary—The Roosevelts: An Intimate History—this week so it is to be expected that the film will rekindle a host of controversies about his subjects. That is especially true of Theodore Roosevelt, on whom most of the first episode that aired last night focused. But while in recent years the 26th president has taken more flack from right-wingers like Glenn Beck for his role in the birth of the progressive movement, Burns gave significant airtime to those who are angry about TR’s attitude toward war and American power. In doing so, they told us more about the politics of the 21st century than the last decade of the 19th.
The Roosevelts rightly notes that the key moment that facilitated Teddy’s rise to national prominence resulted from the U.S. decision to fight Spain in 1898 and his subsequent heroism during the American invasion of Cuba. But the loudest voice in the film’s account of TR’s remarkable story in this chapter of history is Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers, a book I reviewed in COMMENTARY in March 2010 alongside another liberal critique of the first President Roosevelt by James Bradley. Thomas’s thesis was that the Spanish-American War was the precedent that served to entice Americans to wage other seemingly small wars over the course of the next century but especially the conflict in Iraq. In his reading of Roosevelt’s behavior, TR committed the original sins not only of imperialism and military adventurism but also embodying a lust for blood and war that should be regarded as evidence of madness, not courage. Burns allows Thomas to brand TR as “a dangerous figure” whose “glorification of war can’t be a good thing in the long run.”
In this opinion, Thomas is echoed by conservative writer George Will, another Iraq war critic, whose lack of enthusiasm for Roosevelt is also a product of his disgust for his willingness to expand the power of the executive at the expense of the Constitution. Will says the fact that TR “liked war” and thought “might makes right” gives an “unpleasant dimension” to his legacy and should cause us to view him with “dry eyes.”
Are they right both about the consequences of the drive to war with Spain, and should TR’s attitude toward war cause him to be viewed negatively?
Roosevelt’s rhetoric about manifest destiny smacked of the popular social Darwinism that was so popular in this time and is therefore tough to take in our own more politically correct time. It is also true that cynicism about the role the sensational “yellow” press of the time had in fueling sympathy for the Cuban independence movement as well as the likelihood that the U.S.S. Maine was not destroyed by Spanish sabotage when it blew up in Havana harbor—the incident that helped set off the war—has made the U.S. decision to declare war look more like aggression than support for U.S. positions against tyranny and for self-determination.
But viewing both TR and his war through the prism of 21st century American political obsessions (which have themselves recently undergone a transformation as horror about the decision to invade Iraq has lately been replaced by a realization that the U.S. must intervene again to defeat the ISIS terrorist movement) is an anachronism that does more to confuse viewers of Burns’ film than enlighten them.
In this formulation the drive for war is explained as the need for an otherwise effete patrician to vindicate his father’s failures. The same is true on a broader scale as Thomas depicts the push for America to take its place on the world stage as a function of the blood lust of a group of swells that were as mad as Roosevelt. But both of these points ignore more basic truths about TR and the choices America faced in those crucial years.
It is, admittedly, tough to explain why a 39-year-old man with a highly responsible government position (under secretary of the navy), bad eyesight, asthma, a sick wife, and six children would choose to gamble his life by heading to the front lines. For Thomas, the only explanation is that TR was made with “bloodlust” and a “war lover,” terms that he also applies to his son Ted, Jr. (who, at the age of 57, would lead American forces ashore onto Utah Beach during D-Day in 1944) in his book. Thomas is incapable of recounting the stirring exploits of either man without irony, something that says more about him than his subjects.
But while few of us could imagine ourselves doing as they did, would our country really be better without their example? If Teddy Roosevelt has always been admired by both conservatives and liberals as one of our country’s greatest presidents it is in no small measure because so many of us—regardless of our politics or our views about imperialism and the progressives—instinctively like his spirit of adventure, his belief in service and sacrifice for our nation, as well as his personal valor. Roosevelt went to war for the same reason he took on other political and personal quests: Because he believed that life was a constant struggle between right and wrong and thought neutrality or non-involvement in these battles was not an option.
It may be hard to get too enthused about the cause of Cuban independence today (do Thomas, Burns, or anyone else really think acquiescing to Spain’s brutal and repressive rule of the island was an attractive option for the United States?), but Roosevelt’s vision of America as a global power for which that war was the lynchpin is entirely defensible.
Even more to the point, do the critics of the first President Roosevelt really want to contemplate what the history of the 20th century would have been like if he had not helped drag his countrymen onto the global stage? Would those who urge us to view him with “dry eyes” or with horror for his embrace of military glory (an attribute that he shared with Winston Churchill) think the world would have been a safer or freer place had the West been left to face fascism and Japanese imperialism and then Communism without the global American power he helped forge?
Ken Burns’s films are always beautifully made, entertaining, and often enlightening excursions into history. But in the first episode of his Roosevelts, he clearly erred in allowing Iraq war critics to taint our view of his embrace of heroism and American power. As influential as his documentaries have become, I expect that his critiques, as well as those of people like Beck, will never succeed in diminishing enthusiasm for a man who embodied the idea of personal courage for his own generation and those that followed.