Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency

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What is the difference in Roosevelt's, Taft's, and Wilson's foreign policies?

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Roosevelt was an interventionist who used the military to demonstrate American might abroad. He sent the Great White Fleet around the world to signify that the American Navy was a powerful force and to intimidate Japan in case that nation had any designs on the United States's Pacific holdings. Roosevelt sent troops into Central America and the Caribbean, as did Taft and Wilson, in order to ensure that the governments there were pro-American. One of the strongest interventions of the Roosevelt era was his intervention in Panama during its war for independence from Colombia. Roosevelt stationed a warship off the coast of Panama as a deterrent to Colombian forces. After Panama gained its independence, Roosevelt authorized the digging of the Panama Canal and negotiated a treaty that stated the United States had a right to the Canal Zone.

Taft was known for using business interests and bank loans to assert American independence in Central America and the Caribbean. One of Taft's key interventions was to unite bankers to lend aid in the form of loans and grants to banks in Honduras.

Out of the three presidents, Wilson is best known for his foreign policy. Wilson intervened during Mexico's revolutions during his term, even sending in a column of troops under the leadership of Jack Pershing to track down the bandit leader Pancho Villa. Wilson was president when World War I began and was criticized for not joining the war on the side of the Entente by former President Roosevelt. Wilson's response to the sinking of the Lusitania at the cost of 128 American lives was to write an angrily worded letter to the German consul, who quickly convinced the Kaiser to back off submarine warfare. Wilson's solution to bringing the Central Powers and Entente to the negotiating table in early 1917 was to attempt to cut off loans to the belligerents, a move that caused an economic panic in France and Britain. It was only the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, combined with the Zimmerman note, that pushed Wilson in favor of going to war as an associated power with the Allies. Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, a road-map to a postwar peace, in early 1919. Wilson wanted to create a League of Nations; while this did come to pass, it was ultimately powerless, as the Republican-led Congress disliked Wilson personally and his desire to make the United States an internationalist power with responsibilities to the world. The League would fail, but it would set the precedent for creating the United Nations in 1945.

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Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson had quite different approaches to foreign policy, partly reflective of the differing challenges each faced.

Roosevelt came to office in an era where the United States was expanding into an imperial power. He supported this and had an aggressive foreign policy, described by some as "big stick diplomacy" (from a line he coined about how the US must "walk softly but carry a big stick"). Roosevelt continued with the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, and his foreign policy was focused on South America. In the wake of the Spanish-American War, he expanded the navy and started building the Panama Canal. In essence, he oversaw America's development into a true imperial power.

Taft was more conservative in his foreign policy, although he was also focused on Central and South America as important areas. Less inclined to use military force, his foreign policy was characterized as "dollar diplomacy," and he did much to encourage US businesses to invest in the Americas. Taft's conservatism in foreign policy and beyond actually drew Roosevelt out of retirement and encouraged him to run for office in 1912, where he eventually developed a "third-party" platform, the progressive and reform-oriented "Bull-Moose" party.

Wilson's foreign policy was most deeply influenced by his intellectual background (he was president of Princeton University before becoming US president) and principled ideals. He initially remained neutral in the outbreak of World War I, but when the US was drawn into the conflict, he thereafter used it as an opportunity to imprint his idealism, becoming one of the chief architects of the League of Nations. This organization was rooted in Wilson's "Fourteen Points" speech, which expressed democratic ideals of openness and free trade that became hallmarks of American foreign policy moving forward.

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Although I would argue that the differences between these three presidents are exaggerated, historians generally say that each had a distinctive foreign policy.  Theodore Roosevelt is associated with “big stick diplomacy,” William Taft is said to have practiced “dollar diplomacy,” and Woodrow Wilson’s diplomacy is characterized as “moral” or “idealistic.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy stance is usually called “big stick diplomacy.”  This comes from a supposed African saying that he liked to quote: “walk softly but carry a big stick.”  Roosevelt’s “big stick” was the US military.  He believed that it was appropriate to use military power to impose America’s will around the world.  He was most able to do this in Latin America.  In contrast to Roosevelt, Taft is said to have used American economic might, more than its military power, to get other countries to do what the US wanted.  He wanted American companies to invest in foreign countries so the US could use its economic importance in those countries to push them to do what the US wanted.  For example, if an American fruit company would run large banana plantations in a Latin American country, it would be so important to that country’s economy that the US would be able to have a great deal of influence on the country.

In contrast to both of these presidents, President Wilson is said to have engaged in moral or idealistic foreign policy.  In other words, he is supposed to have tried to do what was right, rather than trying to use American power to push other countries around.  For example, he did not try to stop the Mexican Revolution in which a Mexican dictator was overthrown and a democratic government was elected.  The democratic government was less friendly to the US than the dictator, but Wilson did not step in.  This is seen as an example of his more idealistic approach to foreign policy.

In these ways, historians have tended to say that these three presidents had different foreign policies.


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