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Did Roosevelt's Racism Cause WWII?

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That was the argument made in a U.S. bestseller in 2009 written by a WWII historian whose father had raised the US flag on Iwo Jima. And the Roosevelt he had in mind was Teddy, not Franklin.

Needless to say, although countless people will say it quite angrily in my Email inbox in response to this article, you cannot simply blame an event on actions that occurred years before. A war is started by the people who start that war, in that instant, and there is no way for them to wiggle out of that responsibility. But, as everyone is eager to recognize when the context is more comfortable, all actions have consequences, and those consequences have further consequences. (As a warning that may further temper the vitriol, I would like to point out that Teddy was not a Democrat.)

When the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won the White House campaigning on a platform of humanitarian war and benevolent overseas empire, and William Jennings Bryan's opposition to all imperialism did not carry the day, that event had consequences. And actions that Roosevelt took in his later career, legal and illegal, public and secret, had devastating consequences.

That Teddy Roosevelt, along with McKinley (see magazine cover), Taft, and much of the country were racists is not exactly news. Teddy Roosevelt supported the slaughter of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Cubans, Filipinos, and Asians and Central Americans of nearly every variety. He believed only whites capable of self-rule (which was bad news for the Cubans when their U.S. liberators discovered them to be black). He created a display of Filipinos for the St. Louis World's Fair depicting them as savages who could be tamed by white men. He invented the notion of illegal immigration by blocking the entry of Chinese, who -- darn them -- were just not as lazy or unhealthy as white workers.

But we tend to think of racism as a secondary defect. Someone is first and foremost a politician or a lawyer or a fireman or a novelist and only secondarily a racist. Roosevelt, we imagine, was driven by personal interest, family relationships, economic influences, and so forth, and his actions were only to some degree, large or small, influenced by racism. This appears to be wrong. The major guiding force in Teddy Roosevelt's life seems to have been the advancement of the Aryan race over all other races. His machismo and his playing dress-up in Brooks Brothers designed uniforms was racial machismo; he was promoting himself as a model for the advancement of the world's most superior race.

The Aryans had supposedly come from the Middle East to Germany and from there to England in the form of the Anglo-Saxons. America's Manifest Destiny was understood by many from the beginning as global in scope. The Anglo-Saxons had come west to the New World, would move west to the Pacific (slaughtering/benefitting anyone in the way) and proceed west through the Pacific and Asia (slaughtering/benefitting anyone in the way) until coming full-circle to the birthplace of the race near an area that Washington still very much wants to conquer, a nation whose name derives from Aryan: Iran.

The same race theories maintained that the process of warmaking and conquering was necessary for the health of the race. When the Aryans had reached the Pacific, the mission had to continue, not just to fulfill a prophecy or to open markets or to win elections, but so that the race might not degenerate in the dangerous luxury of peace. General Arthur MacArthur, whose son Douglas would later effectively rule Japan, start a war in Korea, and do his best to get World War III going, was himself -- for a time -- the benevolent ruler of the Philippines, and explained to a U.S. Senate committee:

"Many thousands of years ago our Aryan ancestors raised cattle, made a language, multiplied in numbers, and overflowed. By due process of expansion to the west they occupied Europe, developed arts and sciences, and created a great civilization, which, separating into innumerable currents, inundated and fertilized the globe with blood and ideas, the primary basis of all human progress, incidentally crossing the Atlantic and thereby reclaiming, populating, and civilizing a hemisphere. As to why the United States was in the Philippines , the broad actuating laws which underlie all these wonderful phenomena are still operating with relentless vigor and have recently forced one of the currents of this magnificent Aryan people across the Pacific -- that is to say, back almost to the cradle of its race."

Incidentally, more Filipinos died in the first day of fighting off their American benefactors than Americans would die storming the beaches at Normandy. American soldiers in the Philippines sang a pleasant little song about waterboarding Filipinos. Here's a verse:

"Oh pump it in him till he swells like a toy balloon.
The fool pretends that liberty is not a precious boon.
But we'll contrive to make him see the beauty of it soon.
Shouting the battle cry of freedom."

In a 1910 lecture at Oxford, Teddy Roosevelt argued that recent white gains might be more temporary than those of the past, because modern Anglo-Saxons had allowed captive races to (partially) survive, whereas "all of the world achievements worth remembering are to be credited to the people of European descent . . . the intrusive people having either exterminated or driven out the conquered peoples." Roosevelt praised this as "ethnic conquest" and it seems to have been his driving force.

Roosevelt was not different in this regard from many of his contemporaries. He is to be singled out only because he was a vice president and president who advanced this agenda. This meant death and suffering for millions of people, but what does that have to do with starting World War II decades after the man here accused had been dead?

This is the central argument, among many others, in James Bradley's "The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War." In 1614 Japan had cut itself off from the West, resulting in centuries of peace and prosperity and the blossoming of Japanese art and culture. In 1853 the U.S. Navy had forced Japan open to U.S. merchants, missionaries, and militarism. The Japanese studied the Americans' racism and adopted a strategy to deal with it. They sought to westernize themselves and present themselves as a separate race superior to the rest of the Asians. They became honorary Aryans. Lacking a single god or a god of conquest, they invented a divine emperor borrowing heavily from Christian tradition. They dressed and dined like Americans and sent their students to study in the United States. The Japanese were often referred to in the United States as the "Yankees of the Far East." In 1872 the U.S. military began training the Japanese in how to conquer other nations, with an eye on Taiwan.

Charles LeGendre, an American general training the Japanese in the ways of war, proposed that they adopt a Monroe Doctrine for Asia, that is a policy of dominating Asia in the way that the United States dominated its hemisphere. Japan established a Bureau of Savage Affairs and invented new words like koronii (colony). Talk in Japan began to focus on the responsibility of the Japanese to civilize the savages. In 1873, Japan invaded Taiwan with U.S. military advisors. And Korea was next.

Korea and Japan had known nothing but peace for centuries. When the Japanese arrived with U.S. ships, wearing U.S. clothing, talking about their divine emperor, and proposing a treaty of "friendship," the Koreans thought the Japanese had lost their minds, and told them to get lost, knowing that China was there at Korea's back. But the Japanese talked China into allowing Korea to sign the treaty, without explaining to either the Chinese or Koreans what the treaty meant in its English translation. In 1894 Japan declared war on China, a war in which U.S. weapons carried the day. China gave up Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula, paid a large indemnity, declared Korea independent, and gave Japan the same commercial rights in China that the U.S. and European nations had. Japan was triumphant, until China persuaded Russia, France, and Germany to oppose Japanese ownership of Liaodong. Japan gave it up and Russia grabbed it. Japan felt betrayed by white Christians, and not for the last time.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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