Mike Klonsky : Let’s Not Get All ‘Warm and Fuzzy’ About Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Diplomacy.” Political cartoon courtesy of Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog.

Before we start feeling all warm
and fuzzy about Teddy Roosevelt…

By Mike Klonsky | The Rag Blog | December 13, 2011

Let’s remember that Teddy Roosevelt, eulogized in President Obama’s Osawatomie speech on “New Nationalism” last week, was at his best a tame economic reformer and at his worst, a racist, imperialist warmonger. Publicly, Roosevelt spoke out against racism and discrimination at times, but also believed in Social Darwinism, the philosophical rock bed of white supremacy.

Here are a few of TR’s thoughts on race and politics that Obama failed to mention:

In 1894, he wrote an article entitled “National Life and Character” in which he said that, “negroid peoples, the so-called “hamitic,” and bastard semitic, races of eastern middle Africa were “not fit” to compete with whites and it would take “many thousands years” before the Black became even “as intellectual as the [ancient] Athenian.”

According to linguist and historian Noam Chomsky, “Theodore Roosevelt was a shocking racist. I don’t use the analogy lightly, but it’s a fact that you have to go to the Nazi archive to find anything similar.”

Roosevelt wrote:

The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries which should never be lost sight of, especially by those who denounce such expansion on moral grounds. On the whole, the movement has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place.

With regard to the conquest of a half of Mexico, Roosevelt explained:

…it was inevitable, and in the highest degree desirable for the good of humanity at large, that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans from their sparsely populated northern provinces.

And then, in a line that would do Texas’ Gov. Rick Perry and most of the Republican candidates proud, TR wrote, “It was out of the question to expect Texans to submit to the mastery of the weaker race.”

So I’m sorry, Pres. Obama. But I’m just not ready to embrace Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” quite yet. I hope you aren’t either.

[Mike Klonsky, an educator, writer, and school reform activist who lives in Chicago, was active with SDS in the Sixties. Mike blogs at SmallTalk, where this article also appears.]

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4 Responses to Mike Klonsky : Let’s Not Get All ‘Warm and Fuzzy’ About Teddy Roosevelt

  1. Anonymous says:

    As if Obama is really going to “embrace” the TR racism.

    As if any US President really COULD be an anti-capitalist revolutionary, rather than a populist reformer.

    OF COURSE, Roosevelt had dubious associations, beliefs, and actions alongside worthy ones (like conservation and trustbusting).

    Just as the author of this piece was an avowed Stalinist in his youth. Does that make him entirely an unfit source for inspiration?

    If so, then this post by Klonsky should be deleted.

    What a puerile commentary

  2. Allen Young says:

    I think Klonsky makes some very good points. Hey, this is a blog, a place for ideas to be posted. Klonsky was not writing a definitive book about TR. It was a reminder of some important facts. I’m also glad, for the sake of balance, that anonymous pointed out Roosevelt’s worthy goals, conservation and trust-busting. The ad hominem attack on Klonsky and the word “puerile” were just not necessary. And while I’m here, I have to share a little moment I recall from the past:
    Someone in SDS (1969) wanted to defend Mike Klonsky against an attack by one of Klonsky’s political foes. The foe called Klonsky a Stalinist. Klonsky’s defender said, “Yeah, he may be a Stalinist, but he’s OUR Stalinist.” And, just for the record, I am not a Stalinst and never was one. But my parents were Communists and extremely naive in their admiration of Stalin, something I had to overcome as I matured politically. Thank goodness for a blog that welcomes varied viewpoints, such as this one.

  3. Tom Keough says:

    Most Americans are weak on history at best. When TR was in power he was commonly called a tyrant by anybody in the labor movement or civil rights work in the US and abroad. ” Anonymous” sounds like he or she just does not like people criticizing US presidents. Of course TR was very racist most white Americans were in those times. He was also awful on child labor laws, women’s equality and an imperial war monger. These are not trivial things to overlook in TR or Obama or any other president ( of the US or any nation) . It is shocking to again see Obama send out another message about such a Republican. If Anonymous does not like bad news that does not make it smart or safe to just deny it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Where is the learning in this piece, the new constructive analysis? It’s not exactly news that Teddy was racist and imperialist.

    Where is the contemporary relevance?

    K attacked Obama for reaching back into the past for inspiration to deal with some bad situations with economic inequality right now.

    It isn’t that Obama walks on water, or that TR ever did either. How is K’s criticism helpful for political action or enlightening in terms of a new understanding of history?

    The days are long past when historic hagiography of Presidential virtue really needs any debunking.

    “Everyone already knows” Presidents had skeletons in their closet – illegitimate children, slave booty, growing hemp, whatever….This isn’t the 1960s any more.

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