McCain, Militarism, and the Legacy of Teddy Roosevelt

American advocates of imperialism have been few and far between, and we have to go all the way back to the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th to unearth the most explicit. Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps the best known, but there were others: notably, Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, who advocated a big American Navy with island possessions to serve as bases, and Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who forced Japan to submit to Western intrusion, a turn of events that both sides would later have good reason to regret. Other champions of Empire included Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles A. Conant, and Jeremiah W. Jenks.

These influential men, some associated with or directly employed by the Morgan financial interests, argued that American capitalism could not sustain itself without forcibly opening up foreign markets. They argued that America must become, like the monarchies of Europe, an imperial power on a world scale: it was either that or economic ruination.

This, of course, is the Leninist theory of imperialism: since capitalist markets must either expand or collapse completely, the system requires an imperialistic foreign policy. The ruling class, having commandeered the state, uses its armed fist to smash overseas competition, bust open foreign markets, and loot conquered lands. Instead of condemning this policy, however, as predatory and immoral, the “right-wing Leninists,” as Joe Stromberg dubbed them in a perceptive piece on this site, advocated it as the only right and proper course.

Yet the “right-wing Leninists” turned out to be wrong. The costs of imperialism, as the war in the Philippines made clear, far outweighed the benefits – which were narrowly distributed, at any rate. The major American critics of Rooseveltian imperialism, who advocated an international division of labor and free trade between nations – the doctrine of economic liberalism – were disdained equally by the House of Morgan and the Leninists. Yet their analysis of the probable course of empire – that it would end in bankruptcy, tyranny, and the end of the old republic – has been confirmed by events.

If our leaders should ever trade in their republican cloth coats for the imperial purple, the leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League such as Edward Atkinson averred, it would signal the decline and fall of our civilization. If bankruptcy is the first symptom of that decline, then the looming prospect of economic catastrophe that seems to hang over us these days augurs ill: they’re already calling it the “Iraq recession,” and, indeed, and allied groups are mounting a campaign around this theme. They might as well call it the Imperial Depression, because it’s all about the tremendous drain on otherwise productive resources down the rat-hole of “nation-building.” The Bush administration is boasting about how many schools they’ve built – in Iraq! Yet our own schools are overcrowded, under-funded, and downright dangerous.

America’s road to empire has taken quite a different turn than that imagined by the early advocates of American imperialism. It turns out that imperialism benefits the imperialists (i.e., the citizens of the aggressor state) not at all: it is the undeveloped nations, competing with the “dominant” West, that now have the advantage. Without Chinese investors buying into our debt, the U.S. economy would sink like a stone. Chinese workers are increasingly the source of a wide range of products we no longer have the capacity to make: as the industrial core of the U.S. is hollowed out, China grows fat with massive capital investments.

In this context, it is instructive to recall the words of Roosevelt before an audience in Chicago, in praise of what he called “the strenuous life“:

“We cannot, if we would, play the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in a scrambling commercialism; heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk, busying ourselves only with the wants of our bodies for the day, until suddenly we should find, beyond a shadow of question, what China has already found, that in this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities.”

If ever a stance has been discredited by history, then surely it is the Rooseveltian disdain for China’s alleged “scrambling commercialism.” If Beijing decided to cut our purse-strings tomorrow, the mighty American Empire would fall quicker than its Soviet counterpart, albeit with a much louder crash. The strenuous life leads to exhaustion. In the life of a nation, this means economic exhaustion, otherwise known as bankruptcy.

Yet “the strenuous life” has its contemporary advocates in the “national greatness” school of neoconservatism, and specifically in the person of John McCain, Teddy Roosevelt’s modern incarnation. In a 2002 speech at the University of Southern California, McCain specifically invoked Roosevelt’s strenuous imperialism as his political credo:

“Theodore Roosevelt is one of my greatest political heroes. The ‘strenuous life’ was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. ‘We cannot sit huddled within our borders,’ he warned, ‘and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond.'”

Putting the phrases McCain cites in context, let us see what else T.R. brayed that day:

“We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond. Such a policy would defeat even its own end; for as the nations grow to have ever wider and wider interests, and are brought into closer and closer contact, if we are to hold our own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy, we must build up our power without our own borders. We must build the isthmian canal, and we must grasp the points of vantage which will enable us to have our say in deciding the destiny of the oceans of the East and the West.

“So much for the commercial side. From the standpoint of international honor the argument is even stronger….”

The ideology of T.R. and his academic and political acolytes was crude mercantilism: “grasp” those markets, boys! This “grasp and grab” foreign policy was carried out by the U.S. military, from Panama to Nicaragua and outward to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and even the distant Philippines – where the dream of empire expired, albeit only temporarily, in a paroxysm of bloody resistance.

The policy of imperialism, far from being the cause of riches descending on the nation, was an expensive and divisive “solution” to the alleged crisis of American capitalism, one that could not be sustained then any more than it cannot be sustained now. As underscored by the costs involved in setting up and defending our newly conquered Iraqi province, our empire is not a gain, economically, but a drain – although a new, rising class of war profiteers, colonial administrators, and investment bankers underwriting the whole imperial project directly benefits from our policies. McCain is their voice and their champion.

Republican critics of McCain’s immigration stance will see in his 2002 speech the origins of his peculiar indifference to the concept of American sovereignty – peculiar, that is, in an apparent American nationalist. Yet McCain’s nationalism is not the inward-looking sort but an aggressively extroverted variety that seeks to impose itself and its will as far as the eye can see. As McCain puts it in his 2002 paean to Roosevelt:

“His Americanism was not fidelity to a tribal identity. Nor was it limited to a sentimental attachment to our ‘amber waves of grain’ or ‘purple mountains majesty.’ Roosevelt’s Americanism exalted the political values of a nation where the people were sovereign, recognizing not only the inherent justice of self-determination, not only that freedom empowered individuals to decide their destiny for themselves, but that it empowered them to choose a common destiny. And for Roosevelt that common destiny surpassed material gain and self-interest. Our freedom and our industry must aspire to more than acquisition and luxury. We must live out the true meaning of freedom, and accept ‘that we have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither.'”

Those who would shirk their “duty” to uplift the world – the enemies of the strenuous life – were excoriated by Roosevelt in thunderous tones, a heavy fusillade of self-righteous fury that only McCain, in our own day, could match:

“The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift that thrills ‘stern men with empires in their brains’ – all these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a navy and an army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag. These are the men who fear the strenuous life.”

The bluster, the boasting, the volcanic anger barely suppressed, the stern admonition to “bring order out of chaos” – as if he were a god, or God Himself! The megalomania, the posturing, the call to empire – it all sounds like McCain. As The Atlantic‘s Matthew Yglesias put it in his commentary on McCain channeling Roosevelt, the putative GOP presidential nominee “is, among practical politicians, perhaps the single most committed advocate of an imperial vision of American foreign policy out there.” Yglesias very smartly points out that

“To McCain, a commitment to universalism requires American expansionism. Indeed, to McCain it is precisely commitment to this imperial vision that makes American patriotism superior to other brands of nationalism. Our own patriotism would become compromised by stinginess and selfishness were we to show more restraint in world affairs.”

The economic argument for expansionism having been long ago discredited, McCain must lean on what T.R. deemed “the standpoint of international honor”:

“Some critics, in his day and ours, saw in Roosevelt’s patriotism only flag-waving chauvinism, not all that dissimilar to Old World ancestral allegiances that incited one people to subjugate another and plunged whole continents into war. But they did not see the universality of the ideals that formed his creed.”

Republicans are not rallying around McCain’s ascetic militarism, as they were expected to, and conservatives distrust him on a wide range of issues. This distrust is rooted in the very universalism so beloved by McCain: it accounts for his de facto open borders position, as well as his foreign policy. After all, if America is to be the center of a world empire, then we can hardly deny entry to our foreign subjects, who will be linked to us in myriad legal, social, political, and administrative networks – all this, in addition to the normal commercial ties. The policy of imperialism, carried to its end, means the de facto abolition of borders.

This same militant universalism means the creation of a warrior caste as its priesthood, and McCain is the living symbol of this type. The differences with the traditional bourgeois Republican were underscored by McCain during the Republican debates, where the candidate’s disdain for Mitt Romney’s career as a successful entrepreneur was all too plain. This made a large part of the Republican base distinctly uncomfortable: after all, what’s wrong with being a businessman, anyway?

Romney’s career trajectory is held in contempt by McCain because it violates the precepts of the warrior ethic he brings to public life. It is selfish, self-serving, and has nothing to do with “national greatness,” that concept so beloved by T.R. and his current imitator. Tax cuts? Why, the very idea is wedded to – as Teddy put it – “that base spirit of gain and greed which recognizes in commercialism the be-all and end-all of national life, instead of realizing that, though an indispensable element, it is, after all, but one of the many elements that go to make up true national greatness.”

This is going to be a very interesting presidential election year. For the first time, a presidential candidate is going to campaign on a platform of open, out-of-the-closet imperialism. A war-weary nation will be hectored endlessly by McCain, and exhorted to “sacrifice” – when their homes are being foreclosed. The Republicans’ only hope, it seems to me, is copying the Clintons‘ smear campaign against Barack Obama and hoping that America will never elect a black man with a middle name like “Hussein” and a last name that rhymes with “Osama.” That photo of Obama in what one Clintonite referred to as “his native garb” will come in handy, I’m sure.


I see on Amazon that the official publication date of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement is May 30. You can pre-order, though, either through Amazon or through the Web site recently set up by the publisher, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

I wrote Reclaiming in 1992, and it was published the next year by the Center for Libertarian Studies, went through two editions, and then went out of print. It is an alternative, and admittedly polemical, history of conservatism in America, seen through the prism of changing foreign policy perspectives, from the “isolationism” of the Old Right to the openly imperialistic doctrines of neoconservatism.

ISI is bringing it back, with a new introduction by George W. Carey and commentaries by Scott Richert and David Gordon, as well as the original introduction by Pat Buchanan. The book’s reissue could not be more timely. Certainly the rise of the neoconservatives – predicted in the book – along with the rise of the Ron Paul movement, have confirmed the book’s thesis and its relevance for today. I see that word is already getting out, so get your copies while they last.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].