Theodore Roosevelt and the American Century

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July 9, 2019
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July 9, 2019

Theodore Roosevelt and the American Century

The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen, Scribner, US $30.00, Pp 368, June 2019, ISBN 978-1501143991

The Rough Riders was probably the most famous and politically most important regiment in the history of the United States. In 1898, when the United States declared war on Spain, the US Army had just 28,000 men — spread all over the country. It was hardly an army as we understand the term today. Consequently, the Rough Riders were raised to aid the regular army. The Rough Riders were a group of volunteers that included Ivy League athletes to Arizona cowboys and led by Theodore Roosevelt. The Rough Riders under Roosevelt helped secure victory in Cuba and elsewhere. This was a turning point not only for American but also for Roosevelt. With the Rough Riders started the American century and the rise of Roosevelt to the White House. Clay Risen’s The Crowded Hour, is the story of the Rough Riders and the American century as well as the rise of Roosevelt.

In The Crowded Hour, Clay Risen says that the story of Roosevelt and the Rough Riders is not just a matter of presidential biography. Historians often dismiss the regiment as a cartoonish band of cowboys but, in reality, they played a central role in the emergence of a new idea about American power and the military’s role in projecting that power. It was unlike anything America had ever seen. Organized hastily to supplement the meager 28,000 men who comprised the Regular Army in 1898, the regiment brought together Westerners and Easterners, cowboys and college kids, the New York City cops and frontier sheriffs, football stars and gold miners. They were men like Theodore Miller, the son of an Ohio industrial magnate and a promising New York law student who quit his studies to join the regiment.

Roosevelt left his lucrative job as the assistant secretary of the navy at the Department of the Navy to lead the Rough Riders. Clay Risen argues that even if Roosevelt had stayed put in the Department of the Navy, these men would still have captured the national imagination because they represented a quintessentially American story to so many back home — ragtag, provisional, drawn from the country’s vast distances and disparate communities, forged by patriotic fervor and sent out into the world to fight for what was right. Clay Risen writes, “Roosevelt made the Rough Riders and the Rough Riders made Roosevelt. Together, they comprised one of the most storied, and most important, military units in American history.” Roosevelt’s experience as a wartime leader raised his national profile and changed him utterly. Until then, his career had included politics, ranching, history writing, and biology. He was good at most of these pursuits but he had struggled to unify them into a single intellectual project. Many people nevertheless dismissed him as a gadfly and a blowhard. By 1895, he worried that history had passed him by. He ended up, in early 1897, as the assistant secretary of the navy and an ardent advocate of war with Spain. When he quit that job to join the army, his friends all said he was crazy – that even if he wasn’t killed, he had cast off is career one time too many.

Roosevelt proved all of them wrong and, instead, he blossomed as a leader. Clay Risen says that he trained and led his men into battle, then watched over them during a grueling three-week siege outside Santiago, in which the bigger enemies, more so than the Spanish, were heat, disease, rats, and rainstorms. He kept his men in line, and he kept them loyal — years later, when Roosevelt was president, groups of Rough Riders would stop by the White House for a visit, and they were always allowed to skip past the crowd outside his office. It was these skills, as much as his charisma and unending appetite for work, that made Roosevelt such an effective public executive – first, as governor and, in 1901, as president.

Clay Risen says that it is only in hindsight that we can recognize how America’s many subsequent interventions under the cover of promoting human rights and liberty often hurt the country, and the world. We can recognize that the story of the Rough Riders became one of the many myths that helped twentieth-century America build an empire yet deny that it had any intention of doing so. We can recognize that the rhetoric of human rights and freedom abroad has often been abused by the powerful to promote their own interests. And yet in the Rough Riders story, we can also recognize the best of America — citizens who set aside families, careers, wealth, and celebrity to fight and die for something other than themselves. We can recognize that the story of the American century is neither entirely heroic nor entirely tragic — rather, it is both.

The Crowded Hour is an important addition to the scholarly literature on how the Rough Riders under Theodore Roosevelt later led to the American Century. It is as beautifully written as a history book can be. With his unmatched scholarly credentials as a historian, Clay Risen writes about the wars as if he is reporting from the actual theatres of war which makes it highly readable and enjoyable. It fills many gaps in the scholarly literature on the role of the Rough Riders under Roosevelt and the American Century. It is equally an account of Spanish-American war and war in Cuba and why these wars happened when they happened and how they changed history. Anyone interested in American history and how America rose to be a global power in the early twentieth century will love it. As a gifted storyteller, Clay Risen has made history enjoyable for everyone.

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