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Rooseveltian Imperialism

Daniel J. Castellano, M.A.

(2007, rev. 2012)

1. Background
2. The Desire for an American Empire
3. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine
4. The Empire in Practice
5. Analysis

The imperialist ideology of Theodore Roosevelt was in no small part motivated by a belief in the superiority of the race and civilization of Anglo-Saxon peoples, as articulated in his Autobiography and other writings. Many of the tropes and prejudices articulated under this overtly racist[1] theoretical framework have persisted today among American commentators when discussing “developing nations” as squabbling, “immature democracies,” full of unindustrious, corrupt, or cowardly leaders. Perhaps a recognition of the racist origins of these attitudes will give us pause in applying them instinctively in a neocolonialist context. Racism and nationalism are not as far apart as we would like to believe.

1. Background

To contextualize Roosevelt’s remarks, we must return to an era when racism was not considered a noxious moral evil, but a frank acceptance of the differences among the peoples of the world. Before the nineteenth century, the concepts of “race” and “nation” were interchangeable. Even the most enlightened thinkers of the late eighteenth century, such as Montesquieu, had no qualms about asserting the laziness of tropical peoples.

Enlightenment ideals actually accentuated nationalism, despite its cosmopolitan aspirations and emphasis on the liberty and equality of men, irrespective of social class. Immediately following the French Revolution, the republican government sought to unify all French-speaking lands under a single rule, leading to an aggressive military campaign in the Low Countries. Italian liberals dreamed of a unified nation ruled by Italians only, rather than a haphazard combination of domestic and foreign monarchs. Liberty demanded local self-rule, and thus fed on nationalist tendencies. For this reason, the supranational Catholic Church was strenuously opposed, as had been the case during Luther’s Reformation, which had appealed to German nationalism.

Nationalism, the idea that every “race” or “nation” should have its own state, became a dominant ideology in the nineteenth century. By the century’s end, most of the peoples of Europe had achieved this objective, so that the term “nation” became practically synonymous with the domain of the state or “nation-state.”

During this time, the notion of “race” began to acquire an independent meaning, as a theory of physical anthropology began to develop. The study of “ethnology,” eminent in the United States and Germany especially, attempted to explain the biological origins of the differences in physical and intellectual capabilities among the races, through examination of cranial sizes and other scientific observations. The term “race” in this context could refer either to the traditional European subgroups “Germanic,” “Latin,” “Anglo-Saxon,” or to the broader “scientific” classifications of caucasoid, negroid, mongoloid, and australoid.[2]

In the late nineteenth century, there was no consensus that the four “subspecies” of man were even of common origin, much less that they were of equal worth. The ascendant belief in the biological superiority of the Caucasian race, and of the Germanic peoples in particular, seemed to be vindicated by the rise of global colonial empires headed by European nations. Exposure to other cultures did not persuade the conquerors of their equality, but of the backwardness of other nations and their need for tutelage. This attitude of benign condescension was most famously expressed in Rudyard Kipling‘s “White Man’s Burden,” which may be taken as our point of departure for understanding Roosevelt.

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2. The Desire for an American Empire

Like most Americans, Roosevelt believed that his nation was greatest of all,[3] and he concluded from that belief that the United States most eminently ought to have an empire, since it stood for the highest ideals and was most capable of their practical implementation. Like European imperialists, he rationalized empire as a humanitarian endeavor by which the enlightened peoples educated the backward and preserved them from plague, famine, war, oppression and superstition.

In his private correspondence, Roosevelt confessed to having a “taste for ethnic contests,”[4] and he believed these were necessary so that the civilized nations should establish themselves over the barbaric nations. The great powers of the world had a twofold responsibility to suppress “savagery and barbarism” and “to help those who are struggling toward civilization.”[5] In Roosevelt's view, the expansion of the “civilized” races was essential to world peace; otherwise “warlike barbarians” such as the Turks and Sudanese Mahdists would gain ground, causing “endless war.”[6] The decrease in foreign wars at the turn of the century was “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace to the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”[7] Modern imperialism, like that of ancient Rome, is identified with the promotion of peace throughout the world.

Ethnic contests, whether they took the form of military conquest or economic penetration, not only protected backward peoples from self-destructive warfare, but also served to “prevent the higher races from losing their nobler traits and from being overwhelmed by the lower races.”[8] Roosevelt clearly saw the less civilized peoples as a threat to European and North American culture. By asserting and promoting Western culture aggressively, the West protected its own future against barbarian conquest. Active participation in ethnic contests forced Westerners to exercise their “nobler traits,” which could be lost if they were conquered or assimilated by intermarriage.

The latter concern is explicitly addressed by Roosevelt in his discussion of Latin Americans. Roosevelt did not consider the “Latin race” to be among the “Dominant Peoples,”[9] and he faulted the Spaniard for “the ease with which he drops to a lower ethnic level,” evidently referring to his tendency to breed with the “tropic aboriginal races.”[10] Roosevelt’s racist condescension toward Latin Americans is especially directed toward those of the tropics, following a centuries-old intellectual tradition regarding tropical people as congenitally dull and shiftless. His esteem for a people seems to rise as he moves away from the equator, and he even praises the republics of “the Argentine, Brazil and Chile.”[11]

The tropical races were by no means irredeemable or condemned to permanent barbarism. Despite their “non-aryan blood,” Roosevelt was confident that some would prove capable of “industrial and military prosperity,” and that their present lack of civilization was only temporary.[12] We note the implication that industrialization is essential to civilization, though the latter term historically has referred primarily to the social organization of a people, as represented by the establishment of cities. Roosevelt has a modern American belief that economic production is the hallmark of a sophisticated society.[13] Thus, when he calls the Philippines a nation “struggling toward civilization” (cf. note 5), he effectively means struggling toward industrialization, for otherwise that country was not lacking in cultural development.

We may see a similar attitude among today’s benevolent imperialists, who regard nations as less “developed” if they are not as heavily industrialized or as economically wealthy as the West. The possibility of opting for less industrialization as a cultural choice is not seriously considered. It is tacitly assumed that economic production is man’s highest social value, and therefore the most significant measure of a society’s degree of civilization. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” seem to agree that the cure for most of man’s social ills is increased economic productivity, a materialist panacea to which even a Communist might appeal.

A more astute cultural critic, on the other hand, might note that nothing serves to erode traditional social virtues more than placing economic values above all else, as we have witnessed the continuous destruction of Western cultural norms in the postwar era, transforming our societies into little more than free trade zones of self-indulgent individuals, with no other basis for cohesion. In the present age of vulgarity, the equation between economic modernization and higher civilization has never been more dubious.

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3. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

Whether we call it civilization or industrialization, Roosevelt felt it was the American’s duty to guide other nations to a higher form of society akin to that of the United States. Like his fellow imperialists in Europe, he did not see himself as a conqueror, but as a tutor and emancipator. Roosevelt believed the United States had a special responsibility to conduct this imperial enterprise in the New World, by virtue of his peculiar interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Historically, the Monroe Doctrine had been directed against European powers seeking to make colonies of the newly independent nation-states of the Americas. It declared that the New World was to be off-limits for colonial powers, and that the U.S. would aggressively defend the autonomy of this continent. At the time, the U.S. was woefully incapable of backing up such a declaration, and Europeans did successfully establish minor colonies throughout Latin America, some of which persist to this day. More significant, perhaps, is how, even at an early date in its history, the United States presumed the authority to speak and act on behalf of the entire continent, and to declare itself its protector.

This presumption became increasingly evident through the last sixty years of the nineteenth century, as the U.S. aggressively asserted itself in Central America, often under the pretext of maintaining order. For example, an 1846 treaty with Colombia authorized the U.S. to send troops if necessary to maintain order on the isthmus of Panama, so that commerce across the isthmus may continue unimpeded. The United States’ interest in Central America was principally economic, so most of its interventions were designed to defend American business interests, rather than to promote local economic development.

These early interventions foreshadowed Roosevelt’s “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, which makes it the United States’ assumed responsibility to maintain order in Latin American countries. This position is not to be confused with outright colonialism, which Roosevelt stridently opposed, nor did he see the Monroe Doctrine as cause for meddling in another nation’s internal affairs. Colonialism was the very antithesis of the original Monroe Doctrine, and Roosevelt regarded a colony as a “cramped and unnatural state” that generally “prevents any healthy popular growth.”[14]

Roosevelt recognized that the Monroe Doctrine was only an American policy, not international law, so he needed to defend his interpretation of the doctrine in the eyes of other nations. At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, he proclaimed: “This doctrine is not to be invoked for the aggrandizement of any one of us here at the expense of anyone else on this continent.” This disavowal of selfish intent is expressed elsewhere: “The United States has not the slightest wish to establish a universal protectorate over other American States, or to become responsible for their misdeeds.”[15] Despite his condescending tone, Roosevelt respected the principle of national autonomy.

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4. The Empire in Practice

In actuality, Roosevelt established several American colonies and protectorates, drawing justification from the ideology outlined above. The seizure of Panama from Colombia was defended on the economic necessity of American commerce across the isthmus, while Cuba and Puerto Rico were “liberated” from Spain only to become American colonies or protectorates, as would the Philippines, whose aspirations for independence were brutally suppressed by the American military. Asian peoples were for the most part not highly esteemed by Roosevelt (as he considered the presence of Chinese to be “ruinous to the white race”[16]), so they could not be trusted to govern themselves until they were educated in civic affairs.

Roosevelt’s disavowal of a pan-American empire came to mean that the U.S. would only make protectorates in Latin America when it was expedient, and that the U.S. would absolve itself of any responsibility for the misfortunes of the rest of the continent. This practical imperialism most closely reflects the current attitudes of neoimperialists. The U.S. is free to “liberate” whomever it chooses and to establish a protectorate, yet the rest of the world should not blame the United States for their problems. This selective interventionism seeks the benefits of empire without the costs or responsibilities.

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5. Analysis

We can see many elements of Rooseveltian imperialism in contemporary American society. First, there is the necessary conviction that the United States represents the highest ideals of society, and that other nations ought to emulate it. Second, there is a near universal association of economic production with the measure of a nation’s level of civilization, as evidenced by the term ‘standard of living.’ Third, there is a presumption that the U.S. may take upon itself the “burden” of “liberating” other peoples whenever it chooses.

In practice, the choice of which peoples to “liberate” closely matches American economic interests, and the means of “liberation” invariably involves either military intervention or economic penetration. In cases where the establishment of a protectorate is necessary, the occupation is justified by the greater good of educating the “developing” nation in the ways of democracy and capitalism, regardless of how ancient or venerable the so-called “developing” nation may be. Cultural antiquity means nothing if it is not accompanied by modern industrialization, which is the measure of development.

Since the Second World War, the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine has been applied globally, resulting in numerous military interventions and economic actions, including ownership of natural resources in Third World nations (and violently opposing any government that would abolish foreign ownership). A great model of this selfish benevolence is the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe, but at the same time enabled the U.S. to deeply penetrate the long-protected European market, as well as establish permanent military bases there.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a major pretext for the American empire had fallen away, yet military intervention abroad did not abate. On the contrary, it increased, and the U.S. maintained its military and economic presence throughout the world. It improved relations with totalitarian China, proving that commerce is more important than ideology. Now, the threat of terrorism may be invoked to justify a further wave of military interventionism, much of which is at best marginally related to real security threats. Keeping the world safe for business and opening new markets remains the primary mission.

The United States’ aggressive military interventions and promotion of “free trade” (meaning free capital transfers for businesses) as a panacea has led to more than a few humanitarian and economic disasters. The apostles of free trade are the first to deny any responsibility for the social fallout of their economic imperialism, and instead blame the “misdeeds” of the backward peoples who cannot seem to organize a functioning democracy and capitalist economy.

This conviction that a lack of prosperity results from the personal shortcomings of other peoples is a lingering remnant of the racism that informed the Rooseveltian imperialism Americans have inherited. The patronizing kindness with which we wish to help “those people” is hardly less racist than the subsequent disillusionment that “those people” do not appreciate our help or do not know how to benefit from it. Few will consider that we were always more concerned with helping ourselves, and helped others only incidentally. Thus “foreign aid” comes in the form of interest-bearing loans, or the implementation of technologies and products patented by American companies. We are so uncharitable to our fellow citizens, everything coming with a price or with interest, that we can hardly expect to be more charitable to other nations.

Most Americans would vehemently deny being racist in any substantive way, and in one sense this would be entirely accurate. Roosevelt himself was not a racist, in the sense that he was capable of admiring and fraternizing with black men such as Booker T. Washington, and he insisted on a basic equality of all men. This, however, did not prevent him from holding the overtly racist views we have discussed, so we should be wary of the argument that “Mr. X is not a racist because Mr. X has black friends and believes all men are equal.” While perhaps not as overtly racist as Roosevelt, most Americans are convinced, if not of the superiority of whites over blacks, at least of the superiority of Americans over non-Americans. This belief, whether explicit or not, underlies the presumption that Americans are entitled to do what they think is best for other nations, and the belief that other nations do not know how to organize governments and businesses as effectively as we do. By examining the origins of these assumptions in their nakedly racist form, we may be motivated to re-examine them and determine whether they can be established on some other ground, or ought to be abandoned.

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See also: U.S. Policy in Iraq | CIA Activities in Chile


[1] The terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ are here applied to anthropological theories that depend on the inequality of the races. Racism so defined need not entail any malice or animus toward other races. In the case of Roosevelt himself, there is scant evidence that he was ever a malicious racist.

[2] The fact that such ethnology was long considered a legitimate science illustrates the folly of regarding “science” as categorically good. Those who make blanket moral qualifications about “science” or “religion” fail to consider, as Roosevelt observes: “ There are many sciences and many religions, and there are many different kinds of men who profess the one or advocate the other.” [Administration—Civil Service (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1902), p. 245.]

[3] Roosevelt unabashedly defends this position as simple patriotic love, and holds that “the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife.” [“The Monroe Doctrine” (orig. in Bachelor of Arts, Mar. 1896), in Administration—Civil Service, op. cit., p. 119.] Yet Roosevelt claims more than that Americans should prefer their country to others, but that they should consider it objectively superior and fit to be elevated over others. This is more analogous to a man who insists that all other women should show deference to his wife.

[4] May 27, 1899 letter in Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge 1884-1918, Vol. I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), p. 401.

[5] “The Strenuous Life” (1899); “National Duties,” address at the Minnesota State Fair, September 2, 1901.

[6] “Expansion and Peace,” in the Independent, December 21, 1899.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “National Life and Character” in American Ideals (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920), p. 293.

[9] July 21, 1899 letter in Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 411.

[10] “National Life and Character” in American Ideals, op. cit., p. 274.

[11] “The great and prosperous civilized commonwealths, such as the Argentine, Brazil and Chile, in the southern half of South America, have advanced so far that they no longer stand in any position of tutelage toward the United States.” Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1913), p. 547.

[12] “National Life and Character” in American Ideals, op. cit., p. 282.

[13] Nonetheless, Roosevelt was not so crass as to make economics the sole measure of civilization. Indeed, he noted elsewhere that “of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.” Autobiography, op. cit., p. 464.

[14] “The Monroe Doctrine” in American Ideals, op. cit., p. 228.

[15] Ibid., p. 224.

[16] “National Life and Character” in American Ideals, op. cit., p. 280. Nonetheless, Roosevelt admired the Japanese for their military prowess and modernization, proving that his “racism” is based more on assessments of national achievement than on immutable physical characteristics.

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© 2007, 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org