James Holmes

Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson: The Warrior and the Priest

The chief difference between them: Wilson got the chance to accomplish big goals through direct means.

The Naval Diplomat is winging his way back from San Francisco to Rhode Island in a Teddy Roosevelt frame of mind. That's because tomorrow (today when you read this) I lecture on the diplomacy and strategy of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson before the slavering hellhounds of our Senior Level Course. My overall take on Roosevelt and Wilson is an unconventional one, and probably represents a minority view. Such will remain my lot until enlightenment reaches the rest of you! John Milton Cooper designated this mismatched pair The Warrior and the Priest in a book by that title. And the contrast makes outward sense. The combative Roosevelt ranched in the Dakotas and led the infantry charge up San Juan Hill, parleying his cowboy persona into the presidency. Indeed, he inspired the phrase "cowboy diplomacy." The contemplative Wilson came from a university background, serving as president of Princeton University before vaulting into the White House (with a short sojourn as New Jersey governor along the way). That implies a stark dichotomy between the two presidents.

Henry Kissinger draws another seemingly unbridgeable contrast between TR and Wilson. Kissinger is a Roosevelt booster. That's because he sees Roosevelt as a realpolitiker, an amoral master of balance-of-power politics … a sort of proto-Kissinger! He portrays Wilson as an idealist who let principles get the best of him, putting in place international instutions unable to withstand the ravages of power politics or the murderous ideologies that arose by the 1930s. Here again, there's an either/or feel to a side-by-side comparison between these two statesmen.

Sorry. Neither Kissinger nor Cooper gets this one right. The differences between Roosevelt and Wilson stemmed more from expediency than from some fundamental difference in philosophy. Both men were Progressive reformers, intent on taming all manner of domestic ills. In fact, it was hard to see daylight between their domestic platforms in 1912, when TR bolted the Republican Party to mount a third-party campaign to regain the Oval Office. Both — contra Kissinger — wrote and spoke in avowedly moral terms, appealing to ideals as well as interest. Both envisioned gradually reforming the international system, both to safeguard America from predatory Old World politics and to put in place laws and institutions to maintain order while furthering the blessings of peace and civilization. Wilson had his League of Nations; Roosevelt formulated the idea for a more muscular, more judicially oriented "League of Peace" years before.

In short, the chief difference between them was that, of the two Progressive reformers, only one, Wilson, got the chance to accomplish big goals through direct means. The linear route matters. Our old friend Admiral J. C. Wylie writes compellingly about the contrast between "sequential" military campaigns that proceed stepwise in time or on the map, with each action dependent on the last, and "cumulative" campaigns in which individual actions are unconnected to one another in time or space. Reform is a cumulative endeavor. In domestic policy, reform-minded leaders battle common crime, prepare for emergencies and disasters, try to improve working conditions for labor, and so forth. They hope to achieve aggregate effects for the better. Much the same can be said of peacetime diplomacy, when officials and diplomats try to modify conditions gradually, bolstering not just the national interest but international peace and prosperity. But again, these are scattershot endeavors, unlikely to lead straight to some final goal. Reformers tinker.

War, especially a maelstrom like World War I, is more sequential in character than domestic reform or peacetime diplomacy. It upends the established order, so you no longer need to tinker. Like a revolution, then, a system-shattering conflict supplies the opportunity to sweep away the old and replace it with something better. That's the difference between the Progressive presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. TR led the country through an interval of relative quiet, whereas Wilson got the opportunity to put his vision into practice through sequential if not revolutionary methods. By leading the United States to war in 1917, he helped demolish the European system and design something new. Did he succeed? Not in the short run. But it's commonplace to observe that all Americans are Wilsonians now. No one says they're all Rooseveltians, despite the affection TR still commands. Seems people respect a stand-up guy who not just pushes big ideas but has the gumption to act on them should the opportunity present itself.

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Too bad we can't run an experiment in which TR wins the 1912 election and guides the United States through World War I. Now that would reveal some interesting lessons, letting posterity compare his handling of war and peace to Wilson's. Alas, that's the quandary of social science: there are no controlled, laboratory-grade experiments. Guess we have to content ourselves with what-ifs.