The Legacy of Intervention

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The same presumptions of superior wisdom and virtue behind the interventionism of Progressive Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the domestic economy also led them to be interventionists in other countries.

Theodore Roosevelt was so determined that the United States should intervene against Spain’s suppression of an uprising in Cuba that he quit his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to organize his own private military force — called “Rough Riders” — to fight in what became the Spanish-American war.

The spark that set off this war was an explosion that destroyed an American battleship anchored in Havana harbor. There was no proof that Spain had anything to do with it, and a study decades later suggested that the explosion originated inside the ship itself.

But Roosevelt and others were hot for intervention before the explosion, which simply gave them the excuse they needed to go to war against Spain, seizing Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Although it was a Republican administration that did this, Democrat Woodrow Wilson justified it. Progressive principles of imposing superior wisdom and virtue on others were invoked.

Wilson saw the indigenous peoples brought under American control as beneficiaries of progress. He said, “they are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice.”

If that sounds racist, it is perfectly consistent with President Wilson’s policies at home. The Wilson administration introduced racial segregation in Washington government agencies where it did not exist when Wilson took office.

Woodrow Wilson also invited various dignitaries to the White House to watch a showing of the film “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan — and which Wilson praised.

All of this was consistent with the Progressive era in general, when supposedly “scientific” theories of racial superiority and inferiority were at their zenith. Theodore Roosevelt was the exception, rather than the rule, among Progressives when he did not agree with these theories.

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  • truebearing

    Brilliant analysis. Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it, and the Progressives have learned nothing in the last 100 years…. other than new ways to tell the same lies.

    The Progressives are at it again in the Middle East and so far have helped the region transition from relative stability, to the "Arab Spring", to the Arab Silent Spring and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Caliphate that Obama has worked to enable is well underway. Once again the agents of evil have set in motion a World War.

  • mrbean

    Interesting, but interventionists in general, are people who consider the military should can be used as an extension of politics rather than in defense of the nation against enemies goreign and domestic. The policy of nation building, so-called humanitarian missions, and the ridiculous rules of engagement imposed on combat soldiers in these wars of containment without a plan for victory are examples. It is the sacrifice of American lives for foreigners and the sacrifoce of American wealth that is worse than criminal.

  • Alexander Gofen

    The reasonability or outcome of "interventionism" or "foreign nation building" is not a "yes/no" issue. It depends on the properties of the enemy and on the wisdom of our own strategic vision (or lack thereof).

    For exclusive enemies such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, the nation building happened to be successful and wise, quite beneficial for American interests.

    Otherwise, the enemy must be just crushed into submission. Islamic nations cannot and must not be rebuilt. Mecca and Medina ought to be nuked on 9/12/2011, instead of policing islamic crapistans that followed.

    The tactic of the so called "contained war" or a war with limitations on the applied power is suicidal and treasonous, just as leaving the job unfinished. That is why we still have bleeding problems with North Korea and Communist China, later with Iran, Afghanistan. At that, Carter took the wrong side with Iran, Clinton – the wrong side with Serbia: against the interests of America!

    If America had the right strategic vision in 1917 and just eliminated the sealed carriages in the train delivering Lenin and Bolsheviks into Russia, the world would be saved from the WWII, from the Soviet and Nazis evil empires. The same was still doable in 1919-1921, if America had helped the White Army to win.

    And if America did recognize the emerging global threats of Marxism and islam 100 years ago, we would not be on a way of our demise now. The strategically wise "interventionism" is a tool to protect, preserve, and properly build our own nation.

  • waterwillows

    The lefties do meddle. All this babble of an Arab Spring. Really?

    So where do they expect the arabs will spring out from? Unfettered and unchecked, the mad mullahs will spring them into the western lands, armed and ready to murder all white Christian males.
    Europe is already over run with muslims. All that is left to do is create the 'spring' board.

  • Theo Prinse

    That is a welcome article and deep thoughts on state philosophy.
    I as a Dutchman – based near the Hague – am fighting and clarifying complex Lutheran anti-Semitic, Lord Alfred Milners (1854-1925) and Lionel George Curtis (1872–1955) white anglo-saxon racism (Pilgrims Society) and federalist imperialism and Daniel Francois Malans organic nationalism (Afrikaner Broederbond) … based racism as merely and ultimately a reactionary political activity that – in fact – helps ANC (1912-2012) communists into power …
    Not the whites surrendered State power to the blacks … but European nationalist ideology surrendered to European communist ideology …
    2. As to Wilson, Clemenceau and Loyd George their nation carving concerned mostly oil interests. Franklin D. Roosevelt negotiated near Suez the Clinton-Muslim Brotherhood-Outreach in that the US military complex can only fight two substantial wars … with Saudi- sunni-oil why it is that Nigerian black Christians and Kenyans must suffer from the birth-certificate Kenyan in the White House table mates Boko Haram, Al Sabaab, Al Qaeda Taliban , Pakistan Taliban etc
    No neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute interpretation of jihad as freedom fighters can do about it … except – like with communism – put an Iron Curtain around the Islamic dark world.

  • dysgenic

    Sowell's critique applies just as well to neocon interventionism as liberal interventionism.

  • 080

    Well, it is true that intellectuals worship their verbiage. On the other hand there is some intellectual content in what they say whether it's right or wrong. Even advertisments convey some information. Each person must come equipped with a filter of some kind to admit some things and reject others. After all, it wouldn't do for everyone to say nothing.

    • mrbean

      Huhh errr Hmmm… ahhhh yes there is what you think is true, and what others think is true, and what is really true. Only the last one counts.

  • guest

    What exactly is the point of this rambling piece? That Wilson was a racist who saw non-whites as unfit to rule themselves? And which major European and American of the time didn't believe that? Churchill? The man who said of using poison gas in Iraqis, "I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes."? Teddy Roosevelt? Who said "it was out of the question that the Texans should long continue under Mexican rule; and it would have been a great misfortune if they had. It was out of the question to expect them to submit to the mastery of the weaker race"?

    Making the argument that intervention driven by a belief in manifest destiny was (or is) a particularly liberal trait only underscores what a charlatan Sowell is.

    • Robert Pinkerton

      The major burden hereof, IMHO, is that hybris (overweening arrogance) leads to misadventure, subsuming unintended consequences. The secondary burden was demonstration of the presence of hybris in the character of three iconic "progressives."

  • kblink45

    No, Roosevelt's motivation was a combination of pathology and ambition. Roosevelt famously invited press to accompany him to Cuba. His charge up San Juan Hill was part death wish, part publicity stunt. Roosevelt showed all of his cards in two subsequent episodes, when he pleaded with Presidents Taft and Wilson to allow him to reconstitute the Rough Riders to fight in Mexico and Europe, respectively. Roosevelt was obsessed with war and moreso with the opportunities it afforded…

  • kblink45

    A further indictment of TR's actual motivation for resigning at the Navy was his woeful neglect of the Philippines. Though TR originally wished fervently that he would be selected by McKinley to serve as Civil Governor of the Philippines, as President he neglected the archipelago. He did so under political pressure. He was, like Obama, a perpetual campaigner.

  • Don_Watson

    Woodrow Wilson certainly had a world view that was over the top and I'll take it that he was a racist to boot but it may be a distraction to evaluate the character of those who are participants in the creation of history whether for good or bad. Failed empires have frequently brought about tyrannies and I don't think it will be a surprise to see this played out again in Egypt. The more interesting point though is that military intervention did eventually bring about democracy in Europe, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the average Muslim would love to live in a democracy with a thriving economy. The problem is that the cultural impediments are huge; extreme racism, supremacy and intolerance. Sound familiar? Look for a seismic shift before we see any progress at this level or as Shakespeare put it, pride goeth before a fall. It takes total abject failure to produce cultural reform.

  • ebonystone

    "What was “heartening” to Wilson was the overthrow of the czars. What it led to in fact was the rise of a totalitarian tyranny that killed more political prisoners in a year than the czars had killed in more than 90 years."

    To be abit more precise, the Bolshevik regime killed more political prisoners in its FIRST year than the czars had killed in 90 years. Subsequent years were even worse, far worse.