PBS Doc: Teddy Roosevelt An 'Imperialist' 'Killer' Who Glorified War

During the first installment of PBS's The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on Sunday, historian Clay Jenkinson and former Newsweek editor turned historian Evan Thomas slammed Theodore Roosevelt as a bloodthirsty "imperialist" who promoted the "glorification of war" and built up a "cult" of personality. [Listen to the audio]

Speaking on Roosevelt's command of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, Jenkinson proclaimed: "There's no question that Roosevelt is an imperialist. Apologists like to try to play this down. But the fact is he's probably the most significant imperialist in American history." Jenkinson seemed troubled by Roosevelt's call for the United States to "take our place in the world's arena."

Minutes later, Jenkinson launched a more pointed attack against the nation's 26th president: "This is really important. There is a blood lust in Theodore Roosevelt. He was a killer. You can't – you can't sanitize that."

Thomas added to denunciation, declaring: "Teddy Roosevelt, although he's a wonderful figure and a glamorous figure, is a dangerous figure in some ways. This glorification of war can't be a good thing in the long run....And it was an illusion that this country from time to time succumbs to."

Thomas – who once compared Barack Obama to God – fretted: "Out of Roosevelt's self-importance, but also fed by a real adulation, there emerges a kind of cult of Roosevelt. People simply worshiped this guy in a cowboy hat..."

The Ken Burns documentary even brought on conservative columnist George Will to scold Roosevelt's belligerence: "Theodore Roosevelt, we should say this bluntly, liked war. He came along when Darwinism had become social Darwinism, and he was a believer in survival of the fittest. He was a believer, therefore, to a certain unpleasant extent, that might makes right. He believed that nature was read in tooth and claw, and political nature was read in tooth and claw, and only the sentimental flinched from that fact. And it gave him an unpleasant dimension, which, after a century of war, which the 20th century became, should cause us to look back on Theodore Roosevelt with dry eyes."

It should be noted that Theodore Roosevelt never brought the United States to a war as president and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Unlike Obama, Roosevelt actually earned his peace prize. 



Here are excerpts of the September 14 episode of the multi-part series:

9:22 PM ET

(...)

CLAY JENKINSON: There's no question that Roosevelt is an imperialist. Apologists like to try to play this down. But the fact is he's probably the most significant imperialist in American history.

And he gave a speech to the Naval War College which I think can be regarded as the most aggressive foreign policy speech in all of American history. He said, "We are going to take our place in the world's arena. The British empire is beginning to show signs of decline. Nature abhors a vacuum. One country and one country only will fill that vacuum, and it must be the United States. And I'm going to make sure with all of the powers inherent in me that that becomes the truth."

GEORGE WILL: Theodore Roosevelt, we should say this bluntly, liked war. He came along when Darwinism had become social Darwinism, and he was a believer in the survival of the fittest. He was a believer, therefore, to a certain unpleasant extent, that might makes right. He believed that nature was read in tooth and claw and political nature was read in tooth and claw, and only the sentimental flinched from that fact. And it gave him an unpleasant dimension, which, after a century of war, which the 20th century became, should cause us to look back on Theodore Roosevelt with dry eyes.

(...)

9:36 PM

JENKINSON: He later said of his time in Cuba to a reporter that the only thing he regretted was that he didn't get a disfiguring and ghastly wound in that war. This is really important. There is a blood lust in Theodore Roosevelt. He was a killer. You can't – you can't sanitize that.

(...)

9:37 PM

EVAN THOMAS: Teddy Roosevelt, although he's a wonderful figure and a glamorous figure, is a dangerous figure in some ways. This glorification of war can't be a good thing in the long run. Most wars are prolonged and miserable and wretched with great loss of life. And to think that war could be as neat and tidy and kind of over so quickly and so happily as Teddy Roosevelt's war is an illusion. And it was an illusion that this country from time to time succumbs to.

(...)

9:39 PM

THOMAS: He comes back from war and he senses that he is what America wants to be. Out of Roosevelt's self-importance, but also fed by a real adulation, there emerges a kind of cult of Roosevelt. People simply worshiped this guy in a cowboy hat, this easterner who had become a westerner and represented all the things that were vital and vibrant and strong about America.

(...)

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