Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Forgotten American Bastard Blogging: Elihu Root

Elihu Root was Secretary of State under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was a leading architect of American imperialism. He may not quite be on the bastard level of, say, Philander Knox, but in my view, he was a pretty bad guy. If you think American imperialism was great, maybe you'll feel differently.

Elihu Root was born a member of the New York elite in 1845. The men of this elite class from New York would come to dominate American foreign policy (and much of American domestic policy) during the McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft administrations. Among them was Theodore Roosevelt, born in 1858. Root became one of America's leading corporate lawyers during the Gilded Age, representing such fine Americans as Boss Tweed and Jay Gould among others.

In 1899, Root was named Secretary of War by the new president, William McKinley. In this role, he did do a good thing. He dedicated himself to professionalizing the U.S. military. While I'm certainly no fan of the military today, the amateur nature of the institution in the 19th century was pretty unacceptable, including the reliance on the militia, i.e., the National Guard, for major conflicts. Root expanded West Point, established the U.S. Army War College, as well as the General Staff.

Root was an ardent imperialist. He was the primary author of the Platt Amendment. Imperialists were upset over the Teller Amendment of 1898, which forbade the United States from taking Cuba as a colony. So Root and others did all they could to make Cuba a quasi-colony after the Spanish-American War. The Platt Amendment forced Cuba to allow the United States to station troops in Cuba, limited Cuba in the conduct of its foreign relations, and allowed the U.S. to establish a permanent naval base on the island at Guantanamo Bay. And nothing bad ever happened there again. The U.S. army ended its official occupation of Cuba in 1902 but the survival of Cuban governments depended almost entirely on U.S. approval until the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959.

In 1905, Root became Secretary of State for Theodore Roosevelt's second term. Root was primarily responsible for the Open Door policy. I like calling the philosophy of the Open Door "Equal Imperialism for All." By 1900, Chinese ports had been divided up among the European powers, as well as Japan. The U.S. wanted access to Chinese markets. European powers were less interested in providing that access. Feeling left out of the general looting of China, Root and U.S. policy makers pleaded with Europe to accept the Open Door policy, which would allow everyone to trade everywhere in China. To say the least, this was ignored by Europe. John Hay, McKinley's Secretary of State, first promulgated this policy in 1900 and Root pushed it during the latter half of that decade.

Root also pressed for increased intervention with Latin America, hoping to turn the area into a corporate colony for U.S. interests. In 1906, he returned to the U.S. after a trip to the region. He told a convention of businessmen that the time had come for the U.S. to dominate Latin America. He discussed the differences between the two regions: "Where we accumulate, they spend. While we have less of the cheerful philosophy" which finds "happiness in the existing conditions of life," they have less of the inventive faculty which strives continually to increase the productive power of men." Very nice.

Root also helped press for the Gentleman's Agreement between the United States and Japan in 1907. Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. in large numbers during the late 19th century. White Californians, who saw their state as a place for whites only, were furious, especially once the Japanese began having economic success in farming. At the same time, the Japanese government was growing and becoming more powerful. They were less interested in having their citizens leave since their work at home could lead to a more powerful Japan. So Root and Roosevelt agreed with the Japanese to stop most permanent immigration from Japan. The Japanese government and racist Californians were happy. As for the Japanese people, no one asked them.

In 1909, Root became a senator from New York, where he continued his influential role in American foreign policy. He only served one term, leaving office in 1915. He spent the rest of his life working for influential agencies and corporations that dealt with international issues. In particular, he the president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace from 1910 until 1925. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for his work. That said, it's not as if the Nobel Peace Prize always goes to people who really believe in peace. After all, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger are also past winners. Root belongs closer to this group than to real peace advocates.

Root opposed Woodrow Wilson during his first term. Part of this is that he wanted the Republican nomination for president in 1916, which went to Charles Evans Hughes instead. But Root also wanted the U.S. to join World War I. Root was part of a generation of men who believed that war defined masculinity. Like Roosevelt, Madison Grant, and other New York elites, Root hoped that war would regenerate the United States, allowing for a glorious Anglo-Saxon race that would properly rule the world. The carnage of World War I pretty much killed this extreme romanticization of war, though the connections between masculinity and war remain strong in American culture to this day.

Once the U.S. joined World War I in 1917, Root supported Wilson more or less. He began advising the president. After the overthrow of the Russian Czar in 1917, Wilson sent Root to Russia to help shore up the new government, an abject failure given the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Root's final accomplishment was growing really old. For awhile he was the nation's oldest living senator. He finally died in 1937 at the age of 91.

Does Elihu Root qualify for Bastard Blogging? For the Platt Amendment alone I have to say yes. On the other hand, his professionalization of the military actually was a good thing. But not good enough to make up for his excitement over fighting World War I, his role in the Open Door, and the Gentleman's Agreement, as well as the Platt Amendment.

Much of this information comes from Michael H. Hunt's The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained & Wielded Global Dominance, a newish book I hope to write a full review on by the end of the week, and Walter LaFeber's classic work, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America.