Chronicles of America 

Rights, Duties, and Revolutions

It was a favorite conviction of Theodore Roosevelt that neither an individual nor a nation can possess rights which do not carry with them duties. Not long after the Venezuelan incident--in which the right of the United States, as set forth in the Monroe Doctrine, to prevent European powers from occupying territory in the Western Hemisphere was successfully upheld--an occasion arose nearer home not only to insist upon rights but to assume the duties involved. In a message to the Senate in February, 1905, Roosevelt thus outlined his conception of the dual nature of the Monroe Doctrine:

"It has for some time been obvious that those who profit by the Monroe Doctrine must accept certain responsibilities along with the rights which it confers, and that the same statement applies to those who uphold the doctrine . . . . An aggrieved nation can, without interfering with the Monroe Doctrine, take what action it sees fit in the adjustment of its disputes with American states, provided that action does not take the shape of interference with their form of government or of the despoilment of their territory under any disguise. But short of this, when the question is one of a money claim, the only way which remains finally to collect it is a blockade or bombardment or seizure of the custom houses, and this means . . . what is in effect a possession, even though only a temporary possession, of territory. The United States then becomes a party in interest, because under the Monroe Doctrine it cannot see any European power seize and permanently occupy the territory of one of these republics; and yet such seizure of territory, disguised or undisguised, may eventually offer the only way in which the power in question can collect its debts, unless there is interference on the part of the United States."

Roosevelt had already found such interference necessary in the case of Germany and Venezuela. But it had been interference in a purely negative sense. He had merely insisted that the European power should not occupy American territory even temporarily. In the later case of the Dominican Republic he supplemented this negative interference with positive action based upon his conviction of the inseparable nature of rights and obligations.

Santo Domingo was in its usual state of chronic revolution. The stakes for which the rival forces were continually fighting were the custom houses, for they were the only certain sources of revenue and their receipts were the only reliable security which could be offered to foreign capitalists in support of loans. So thoroughgoing was the demoralization of the Republic's affairs that at one time there were two rival "governments" in the island and a revolution going on against each. One of these governments was once to be found at sea in a small gunboat but still insisting that, as the only legitimate government, it was entitled to declare war or peace or, more particularly, to make loans. The national debt of the Republic had mounted to $32,280,000 of which some $22,000,000 was owed to European creditors. The interest due on it in the year 1905 was two and a half million dollars. The whole situation was ripe for intervention by one or more European governments.

Such action President Roosevelt could not permit. But he could not ignore the validity of the debts which the Republic had contracted or the justice of the demand for the payment of at least the interest. "It cannot in the long run prove possible," he said, "for the United States to protect delinquent American nations from punishment for the non-performance of their duties unless she undertakes to make them perform their duties." So he invented a plan, which, by reason of its success in the Dominican case and its subsequent application and extension by later administrations, has come to be a thoroughly accepted part of the foreign policy of the United States. It ought to be known as the Roosevelt Plan, just as the amplification of the Monroe Doctrine already outlined might well be known as the Roosevelt Doctrine.

A naval commander in Dominican waters was instructed to see that no revolutionary fighting was permitted to endanger the custom houses. These instructions were carried out explicitly but without any actual use of force or shedding of blood. On one occasion two rival forces had planned a battle in a custom-house town. The American commander informed them courteously but firmly that they would not be permitted to fight there, for a battle might endanger the custom house. He had no objection, however, to their fighting. In fact he had picked out a nice spot for them outside the town where they might have their battle undisturbed. The winner could have the town. Would they kindly step outside for their fight. They would; they did. The American commander gravely welcomed the victorious faction as the rightful rulers of the town. So much for keeping the custom houses intact. But the Roosevelt Plan went much further. An agreement was entered into with those governmental authorities "who for the moment seemed best able to speak for the country" by means of which the custom houses were placed under American control. United States forces were to keep order and to protect the custom houses; United States officials were to collect the customs dues; forty-five per cent of the revenue was to be turned over to the Dominican Government, and fifty-five per cent put into a sinking fund in New York for the benefit of the creditors. The plan succeeded famously. The Dominicans got more out of their forty-five per cent than they had been wont to get when presumably the entire revenue was theirs. The creditors thoroughly approved, and their Governments had no possible pretext left for interference. Although the plan concerned itself not at all with the internal affairs of the Republic, its indirect influence was strong for good and the island enjoyed a degree of peace and prosperity such as it had not known before for at least a century. There was, however, strong opposition in the United States Senate to the ratification of the treaty with the Dominican Republic. The Democrats, with one or two exceptions, voted against ratification. A number of the more reactionary Republican Senators, also, who were violently hostile to President Roosevelt because of his attitude toward great corporations, lent their opposition. The Roosevelt Plan was further attacked by certain sections of the press, already antagonistic on other grounds, and by some of those whom Roosevelt called the "professional interventional philanthropists." It was two years before the Senate was ready to ratify the treaty, but meanwhile Roosevelt continued to carry it out "as a simple agreement on the part of the Executive which could be converted into a treaty whenever the Senate was ready to act."

The treaty as finally ratified differed in some particulars from the protocol. In the protocol the United States agreed "to respect the complete territorial integrity of the Dominican Republic." This covenant was omitted in the final document in deference to Roosevelt's opponents who could see no difference between "respecting" the integrity of territory and "guaranteeing" it. Another clause pledging the assistance of the United States in the internal affairs of the Republic, whenever the judgment of the American Government deemed it to be wise, was also omitted. The provision of the protocol making it the duty of the United States to deal with the various creditors of the Dominican Republic in order to determine the amount which each was to receive in settlement of its claims was modified so that this responsibility remained with the Government of the Republic. In Roosevelt's opinion, these modifications in the protocol detracted nothing from the original plan. He ascribed the delay in the ratification of the treaty to partisanship and bitterness against himself; and it is certainly true that most of the treaty's opponents were his consistent critics on other grounds.

A considerable portion of Roosevelt's success as a diplomat was the fruit of personality, as must be the case with any diplomat who makes more than a routine achievement. He disarmed suspicion by transparent honesty, and he impelled respect for his words by always promising or giving warning of not a hairsbreadth more than he was perfectly willing and thoroughly prepared to perform. He was always cheerfully ready to let the other fellow "save his face." He set no store by public triumphs. He was as exigent that his country should do justly as he was insistent that it should be done justly by. Phrases had no lure for him, appearances no glamour.

It was inevitable that so commanding a personality should have an influence beyond the normal sphere of his official activities. Only a man who had earned the confidence and the respect of the statesmen of other nations could have performed such a service as he did in 1905 in bringing about peace between Russia and Japan in the conflict then raging in the Far East. It was high time that the war should end, in the interest of both contestants. The Russians had been consistently defeated on land and had lost their entire fleet at the battle of Tsushima. The Japanese were apparently on the highroad to victory. But in reality, Japan's success had been bought at an exorbitant price. Intelligent observers in the diplomatic world who were in a position to realize the truth knew that neither nation could afford to go on.

On June 8, 1905, President Roosevelt sent to both Governments an identical note in which he urged them, "not only for their own sakes, but in the interest of the whole civilized world, to open direct negotiations for peace with each other." This was the first that the world heard of the proposal. But the President had already conducted, with the utmost secrecy, confidential negotiations with Tokyo and with St. Petersburg to induce both belligerents to consent to a face to face discussion of peace. In Russia he had found it necessary to go directly to the Czar himself, through the American Ambassador, George von Lengerke Meyer. Each Government was assured that no breath of the matter would be made public until both nations had signified their willingness to treat. Neither nation was to know anything of the other's readiness until both had committed themselves. These advances appear to have been made following a suggestion from Japan that Roosevelt should attempt to secure peace. He used to say, in discussing the matter, that, while it was not generally known or even suspected, Japan was actually "bled white" by the herculean efforts she had made. But Japan's position was the stronger, and peace was more important for Russia than for her antagonist. The Japanese were more clear-sighted than the selfish Russian bureaucracy; and they realized that they had gained so much already that there was nothing to be won by further fighting.

When the public invitation to peace negotiations was extended, the conference had already been arranged and the confidential consent of both Governments needed only to be made formal. Russia wished the meeting of plenipotentiaries to take place at Paris, Japan preferred Chifu, in China. Neither liked the other's suggestion, and Roosevelt's invitation to come to Washington, with the privilege of adjourning to some place in New England if the weather was too hot, was finally accepted. The formal meeting between the plenipotentiaries took place at Oyster Bay on the 5th of August on board the Presidential yacht, the Mayflower. Roosevelt received his guests in the cabin and proposed a toast in these words: "Gentlemen, I propose a toast to which there will be no answer and which I ask you to drink in silence, standing. I drink to the welfare and prosperity of the sovereigns and the peoples of the two great nations whose representatives have met one another on this ship. It is my earnest hope and prayer, in the interest not only of these two great powers, but of all civilized mankind, that a just and lasting peace may speedily be concluded between them."

The two groups of plenipotentiaries were carried, each on an American naval vessel, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and there at the Navy Yard began their conference. Two-thirds of the terms proposed by Japan were promptly accepted by the Russian envoys. But an irretrievable split on the remainder seemed inevitable. Japan demanded a money indemnity and the cession of the southern half of the island of Saghalien, which Japanese forces had already occupied. These demands the Russians refused.

Then Roosevelt took a hand in the proceedings. He urged the Japanese delegates, through the Japanese Ambassador, to give up their demand for an indemnity. He pointed out that, when it came to "a question of rubles," the Russian Government and the Russian people were firmly resolved not to yield. To Baron Rosen, one of the Russian delegates, he recommended yielding in the matter of Saghalien, since the Japanese were already in possession and there were racial and historical grounds for considering the southern half of the island logically Japanese territory. The envoys met again, and the Japanese renewed their demands. The Russians refused. Then the Japanese offered to waive the indemnity if the Russians would yield on Saghalien. The offer was accepted, and the peace was made.

Immediately Roosevelt was acclaimed by the world, including the Russians and the Japanese, as a great peacemaker. The Nobel Peace Prize of a medal and $40,000 was awarded to him. But it was not long before both in Russia and Japan public opinion veered to the point of asserting that he had caused peace to be made too soon and to the detriment of the interests of the nation in question. That was just what he expected. He knew human nature thoroughly; and from long experience he had learned to be humorously philosophical about such manifestations of man's ingratitude.

In the next year the influence of Roosevelt's personality was again felt in affairs outside the traditional realm of American international interests. Germany was attempting to intrude in Morocco, where France by common consent had been the dominant foreign influence. The rattling of the Potsdam saber was threatening the tranquillity of the status quo. A conference of eleven European powers and the United States was held at Algeciras to readjust the treaty provisions for the protection of foreigners in the decadent Moroccan empire. In the words of a historian of America's foreign relations, "Although the United States was of all perhaps the least directly interested in the subject matter of dispute, and might appropriately have held aloof from the meeting altogether, its representatives were among the most influential of all, and it was largely owing to their sane and irenic influence that in the end a treaty was amicably made and signed."1 But there was something behind all this. A quiet conference had taken place one day in the remote city of Washington. The President of the United States and the French Ambassador had discussed the approaching meeting at Algeciras. There was a single danger-point in the impending negotiations. The French must find a way around it. The Ambassador had come to the right man. He went out with a few words scratched on a card in the ragged Roosevelt handwriting containing a proposal for a solution.2 The proposal went to Paris, then to Morocco. The solution was adopted by the conference, and the Hohenzollern menace to the peace of the world was averted for the moment. Once more Roosevelt had shown how being wise in time was the sure way to peace.

Roosevelt's most important single achievement as President of the United States was the building of the Panama Canal. The preliminary steps which he took in order to make its building possible have been, of all his executive acts, the most consistently and vigorously criticized.

It is not our purpose here to follow at length the history of American diplomatic relations with Colombia and Panama. We are primarily concerned with the part which Roosevelt played in certain international occurrences, of which the Panama incident was not the least interesting and significant. In after years Roosevelt said laconically, "I took Panama." In fact he did nothing of the sort. But it was like him to brush aside all technical defenses of any act of his and to meet his critics on their own ground. It was as though he said to them, "You roundly denounce me for what I did at the time of the revolution which established the Republic of Panama. You declare that my acts were contrary to international law and international morals. I have a splendid technical defense on the legal side; but I care little about technicalities when compared with reality. Let us admit that I did what you charge me with. I will prove to you that I was justified in so doing. I took Panama; but the taking was a righteous act."

Fourteen years after that event, in a speech which he made in Washington, Roosevelt expressed his dissatisfaction with the way in which President Wilson was conducting the Great War. He reverted to what he had done in relation to Panama and contrasted his action with the failure of the Wilson Administration to take prompt possession of two hundred locomotives which had been built in this country for the late Russian Government. This is what he said:

"What I think, of course, in my view of the proper governmental policy, should have been done was to take the two hundred locomotives and then discuss. That was the course that I followed, and to which I have ever since looked back with impenitent satisfaction, in reference to the Panama Canal. If you remember, Panama declared itself independent and wanted to complete the Panama Canal and opened negotiations with us. I had two courses open. I might have taken the matter under advisement and put it before the Senate, in which case we should have had a number of most able speeches on the subject. We would have had a number of very profound arguments, and they would have been going on now, and the Panama Canal would be in the dim future yet. We would have had half a century of discussion, and perhaps the Panama Canal. I preferred that we should have the Panama Canal first and the half century of discussion afterward. And now instead of discussing the canal before it was built, which would have been harmful, they merely discuss me--a discussion which I regard with benign interest."

The facts of the case are simple and in the main undisputed. Shortly after the inauguration of Roosevelt as President, a treaty was negotiated with Colombia for the building of a canal at Panama. It provided for the lease to the United States of a strip six miles wide across the Isthmus, and for the payment to Colombia of $10,000,000 down and $250,000 a year, beginning nine years later. The treaty was promptly ratified by the United States Senate. A special session of the Colombian Senate spent the summer marking time and adjourned after rejecting the treaty by a unanimous vote. The dominant motive for the rejection was greed. An attempt was first made by the dictatorial government that held the Colombian Congress in its mailed hand to extort a large payment from the French Canal Company, whose rights and property on the Isthmus were to be bought by the United States for $40,000,000. Then $15,000,000 instead of $10,000,000 was demanded from the United States. Finally an adroit and conscienceless scheme was invented by which the entire rights of the French Canal Company were to be stolen by the Colombian Government. This last plot, however, would involve a delay of a year or so. The treaty was therefore rejected in order to provide the necessary delay.

But the people of Panama wanted the Canal. They were tired of serving as the milch cow for the fattening of the Government at Bogota. So they quietly organized a revolution. It was a matter of common knowledge that it was coming. Roosevelt, as well as the rest of the world, knew it and, believing in the virtue of being wise in time, prepared for it. Several warships were dispatched to the Isthmus.

The revolution came off promptly as expected. It was bloodless, for the American naval forces, fulfilling the treaty obligations of the United States, prevented the Colombian troops on one side of the Isthmus from using the Panama Railroad to cross to the other side where the revolutionists were. So the revolutionists were undisturbed. A republic was immediately declared and immediately recognized by the United States. A treaty with the new Republic, which guaranteed its independence and secured the cession of a zone ten miles wide across the Isthmus, was drawn up inside of two weeks and ratified by both Senates within three months. Six weeks later an American commission was on the ground to plan the work of construction. The Canal was built. The "half century of discussion" which Roosevelt foresaw is now more than a third over, and the discussion shows no sign of lagging. But the Panama Canal is in use.

Was the President of the United States justified in preventing the Colombian Government from fighting on the Isthmus to put down the unanimous revolution of the people of Panama? That is precisely all that he did. He merely gave orders to the American admiral on the spot to "prevent the disembarkation of Colombian troops with hostile intent within the limits of the state of Panama." But that action was enough, for the Isthmus is separated from Colombia on the one hand by three hundred miles of sea, and on the other by leagues of pathless jungle.

Roosevelt himself has summed up the action of the United States in this way:

"From the beginning to the end our course was straightforward and in absolute accord with the highest of standards of international morality . . . . To have acted otherwise than I did would have been on my part betrayal of the interests of the United States, indifference to the interests of Panama, and recreancy to the interests of the world at large. Colombia had forfeited every claim to consideration; indeed, this is not stating the case strongly enough: she had so acted that yielding to her would have meant on our part that culpable form of weakness which stands on a level with wickedness . . . . We gave to the people of Panama, self-government, and freed them from subjection to alien oppressors. We did our best to get Colombia to let us treat her with more than generous justice; we exercised patience to beyond the verge of proper forbearance . . . . I deeply regretted, and now deeply regret, the fact that the Colombian Government rendered it imperative for me to take the action I took; but I had no alternative, consistent with the full performance of my duty to my own people, and to the nations of mankind."

The final verdict will be given only in another generation by the historian and by the world at large. But no portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, and no picture of his times, can be complete without the bold, firm outlines of his Panama policy set as near as may be in their proper perspective.

  1. Willie Fletcher Johnson, "America's Foreign Relations", vol. II, p. 376.
  2. The author had this story direct from Mr. Roosevelt himself.