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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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