Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

The Big Stick and the Square Deal

The new President was speaking:

"There is a homely old adage which runs, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.' If the American nation will speak softly, and yet build and keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient Navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far."

The phrase, "the big stick," instantly "caught on," and thereafter a huge club was the favorite weapon supplied to the President by the cartoonists. They seemed to forget the first part of the proverb, "speak softly," although Roosevelt himself tried to remember. Occasionally he broke over, for he was only human, but one or two notable incidents will serve to illustrate this double policy of quiet words, backed up by force of arms.

He had spoken of protecting the Monroe Doctrine which, we recall, has been the foreign policy of the United States ever since the time when President Monroe in a message to other Powers had advised them that America, both northern and southern hemispheres, must be kept free from outside interference. Now this policy was to be put to the acid test.

Venezuela owed large sums of money abroad, and three nations, England, Italy, and Germany, undertook to collect it by blockading her ports. They threatened seizure of her soil. At this point Roosevelt warned them against landing troops, as an infraction of the Monroe Doctrine. England and Italy expressed their willingness to arbitrate, but Germany insisted upon seizing coast cities, declaring that such occupation would be only "temporary."

Roosevelt summoned the German ambassador to the White House, a certain Von Holleben, whom Secretary Hay described as a man "absolutely without initiative and in mortal terror of his Kaiser."

"My dear sir," said Roosevelt, "please inform his majesty the Kaiser that he is driving us both into an untenable position. He must countermand his order to land troops, and must consent to arbitrate."

"There is nothing to arbitrate," replied the ambassador haughtily. "My Imperial master has gone over the question and cannot change his mind now."

"Then I must lay certain other facts before you," said the President quietly, but with deadly earnestness. "An American squadron under Admiral Dewey lies off the coast of Cuba. I shall have to instruct him to sail within ten days for Venezuela and intercept the German troops by force if necessary."

The ambassador could hardly believe his ears. Defy Germany? Preposterous! He decided it was a bit of American bluff. He bowed himself out politely, but did not transmit this message to the War Lord, Wilhelm.

A week later he called again at the White House and, after several topics were discussed, Roosevelt asked him pointblank about news from Berlin.

"I did not deem it wise, for the sake of the friendship existing between our two countries, to send that message," said Von Holleben, smiling.

Roosevelt clicked his teeth together.

"Very well then," he said. "I shall instruct Admiral Dewey to sail in three days instead of ten."

Von Holleben's jaw dropped. He saw that he had made the worst blunder of which a diplomat is capable—of underestimating his opponent's power and sincerity.

"But"—he stammered—"you do not know my Imperial master! This means war!"

"That," rejoined Roosevelt, "rests with the German Emperor. Please cable him the facts at once: that the first move to land troops means war; but that if he will agree to arbitrate, I will publish to the world that it was upon his initiative, and praise him as a power for peace."

As the crestfallen ambassador turned to leave the room, Roosevelt added: "Remember, I must have my reply in forty-eight hours, or Dewey sails."

Well within the allotted time Von Holleben presented himself at the White House again, beaming. He had just received a message from Berlin saying that the Kaiser would arbitrate.

The other incident no less typical occurred at home.

For months the coal industry in Pennsylvania had been paralyzed by a strike. The miners protested that their wage scale was not fair and their working hours too long. They walked out in a body, leaving the mines idle. With the approach of winter the fuel situation became acute. Coal rose to famine prices. This was in the autumn of 1902.

The big coal operators were banded together, and positively refused to take any steps looking toward a settlement of the question. Granted Government protection, they felt that either the miners would be starved out or the public frozen out, in either event of which they themselves would win.

Roosevelt invited both sides to a conference at the White House. The miners' representatives came willingly enough; but the coal operators grudgingly. Roosevelt proposed an Arbitration Commission which should decide upon the merits of the case. Meanwhile the miners were to return to work at once. The miners agreed to this, but the operators refused. Like the Kaiser, they felt that there was "nothing to arbitrate." As Roosevelt says:

"They were curiously ignorant of the popular temper; and when they went away from the interview they, with much pride, gave their own account of it to the papers, exulting in the fact that they had 'turned down' both the miners and the President."

Roosevelt refused to accept the rebuff, however, and after much parleying he at last got the two sides together and a Commission appointed. It was done quietly and amicably, and not until this big issue was settled and the whole country breathed a sigh of relief, did Roosevelt confess what other measures he had in mind. He had arranged with the Governor of Pennsylvania to send Federal troops into the mining district, seize the mines in the name of the Government, operate them, and appoint a Commission headed by ex-President Grover Cleveland.

He was convinced that here was a national crisis second only to the Civil War, and that the people would have been with him even in the most drastic measures.

It was this determination on the part of Roosevelt which made "the big stick" his particular emblem. People forgot that the big stick, while it was flourished on occasion, very seldom hit anybody.

The other slogan most generally associated with Roosevelt after he became President was "the square deal." What he meant by this may be shown from his own words:

"The labor unions shall have a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal, and, in addition, all private citizens shall have a square deal."

Behind these simple words there lurked the possibilities of a great fight—as the President himself well knew. This was the era of "big business," of gigantic mergers or trusts which threatened to engulf every industry in the land. Roosevelt instructed the Attorney-General to bring suit for the dissolution of one of these vast railroad mergers, and after a struggle of two years it was dissolved. The "Beef Trust," a combination of the big Chicago packing houses which absolutely controlled prices of meat, also came in for regulation. Born of this was the Pure Food Law, which aimed to prevent adulteration of foods.

The labor unions, on their side, came in for castigation more than once. "I am a union man myself," he told the labor leaders, "but will not stand for unfair methods on your part any more than in the case of big business."

In one instance, a man named Miller was discharged from the Government Printing Office because he was non-union. Roosevelt promptly reinstated him. When some of the labor leaders called upon the President to protest, he told them quietly but firmly that he was President of all the people, and not merely of the labor unions.

This doctrine of "a square deal for all the people" struck a popular chord; and people learned that it was not a mere pose on his part; he meant what he said. He proved it also in his daily life at the White House. He was accessible morning, noon, and night to any caller who had business.

"The doors of the White House swing open just as easily to any cowboy from the plains as to any Wall Street magnate—but no easier."

One day a Senator came to call, and found Roosevelt closeted with some stranger, with whom he was having a royal time, judging from the laughter frequently heard from the inner room.

"Who is in to see him?" asked the Senator of Secretary Loeb.

"One of his old Rough Rider regiment, I believe," was the reply.

"Then what chance has a mere Senator?" retorted the other, smiling.

So popular did Roosevelt's policies become that the old-school politicians, both Republican and Democrat, viewed them with alarm. They threatened to wipe out party lines. Roosevelt himself was as nearly cosmopolitan as any President who had ever served. The West claimed him no less than the East; while the South regarded him as a "grandson," and showed him every mark of affection when he visited his mother's old home.

At the end of the unexpired term of three and a half years, which he served for McKinley, he was unanimously nominated for President "in his own right," as he expressed it, and was elected by the largest majority ever given a candidate. He was no longer "His Accidency," as he laughingly said.