15 February 1916 – Root

Former Senator Elihu Root addresses the state Republican Party convention at Carnegie Hall in New York City today. An ally of Theodore Roosevelt, the former American president now campaigning for the United States to prepare itself for modern war, his speech is immediately seen as a key moment in the development of this year’s presidential election. 

Gentlemen of the Convention:

We are entering upon a contest for the election of a President and the control of government under conditions essentially new in the experience of our country. The forms which we are about to follow are old and familiar; but the grounds for action, the demand of great events for decision upon national conduct, the moral forces urging to a solution of vaguely outlined questions, the tremendous consequences of wisdom or folly in national policy, all these are new to the great mass of American voters now living.

Never since 1864 has an election been fraught with consequences so vital to national life. All the ordinary considerations which play so great a part in our presidential campaigns are and ought to be dwarfed into insignificance.

For the first time in twenty years we enter the field as the party of opposition, and indeed it is a much longer time, for in 1896, in all respects save the tariff, the real opposition to the sturdy and patriotic course of President Cleveland was to be found in the party that followed Mr. Bryan. It is our duty as the opposition to bring the Democratic Party to the bar of public judgment, to put it upon its defense so far as we see just and substantial grounds to criticize its conduct, and to ask the voters of the country to decide whether that party, organized as it is, represented as it has been since it came to power, has shown itself competent to govern the country as it should be governed, and whether its spirit, its policies, and its performance are the best that the American people can do in the way of popular self-government.

In remarks that are clearly partisan, Root calls the Democratic Party ‘anti-business’ in terms that would not be out of place a century later, accusing the Wilson administration of  “a nervous dread lest someone should make money.” Then he pivots to foreign policy.

The events of the last few years have taught us many lessons. We have learned that civilization is but a veneer thinly covering the savage nature of man; that conventions, courtesies, respect for law, regard for justice and humanity, are acquired habits, feebly constraining the elemental forces of man’s nature developed through countless centuries of struggle against wild beasts and savage foes. We have been forced to perceive that a nation which fulfills the conditions on which alone it can continue to exist, which preserves its independence and the liberty of its people and makes its power a shield for the rights of its citizens, must deal with greed and lust of conquest and of power and indifference to human rights. We have seen that neither the faith of treaties nor the law of nations affords protection to the weak against the aggression of the strong! We have begun to realize that America, with its vast foreign trade, with its citizens scattered over the whole earth, with millions of aliens upon its soil, with its constantly increasing participation in world-wide efforts for the benefit of mankind, with a thousand bonds of intercourse and intimacy uniting it to other nations, is no longer isolated; that our nation can no longer live unto itself alone or stand aloof from the rest of mankind; that we must play some part in the progress of civilization, recognize some duties as correlative to our rights. For the first time within the memory of men now living, the international relations of the United States, long deemed of trifling consequence, are recognized as vital. How can this nation, which loves peace and intends justice, avoid the curse of militarism and at the same time preserve its independence, defend its territory, protect the lives and liberty and property of its citizens? How can we prevent the same principles of action, the same policies of conduct, the same forces of military power which are exhibited in Europe from laying hold upon the vast territory and practically undefended wealth of the new world?

Can we expect immunity? Can we command immunity? How shall we play our part in the world? Have selfish living and factional quarreling and easy prosperity obscured the spiritual vision of our country? Has the patriotism of a generation never summoned to sacrifice become lifeless? Is our nation one, or a discordant multitude? Have we still national ideals? Will anybody live for them? Would anybody die for them? Or are we all for ease and comfort and wealth at any price? Confronted by such questions as these and the practical situations which give rise to them, is the country satisfied to trust itself again in the hands of the Democratic Party?

Root is particularly harsh in his criticism of Wilson’s Mexico policy, regretting the perceived lost stability of a deposed strongman out of a misguided desire to advance democracy in America’s southern neighbor.

(Wilson’s) duty then was plain. It was, first, to use his powers as President to secure protection for the lives and property of Americans in Mexico and to require that the rules of law and stipulations of treaties should be observed by Mexico towards the United States and its citizens.

His duty was, second, as the head of a foreign power to respect the independence of Mexico, to refrain from all interference with her internal affairs, except as he was justified by the law of nations for the protection of American rights.

The President of the United States failed to observe either of those duties. He deliberately abandoned them both and followed an entirely different and inconsistent purpose. He intervened in Mexico to aid one faction in civil strife against another. He undertook to pull down Huerta and set Carranza up in his place. Huerta was in possession. He claimed to be the constitutional president of Mexico. He certainly was the de facto president of Mexico. Rightly or wrongly, good or bad, he was there. From the north Carranza and a group of independent chieftains were endeavoring to pull down the power of Huerta. President Wilson took sides with them in pulling down that power.

In August, 1913, through Mr. John Lind, he presented to Huerta a communication which was in substance a demand that Huerta should retire permanently from the government of Mexico. When Huerta refused, the power of the United States was applied to turn him out. Foreign nations were induced to refuse to his government the loans of money necessary to repair the ravages of war and establish order. Arms and munitions of war were freely furnished to the Northern forces and withheld from Huerta.

Finally the President sent our army and navy to invade Mexico and capture its great seaport, Veracruz, and hold it and throttle Mexican commerce until Huerta fell. The government of the United States intervened in Mexico to control the internal affairs of that independent country and to enforce the will of the American President in those affairs by threat, by economic pressure, and by force of arms.

Upon what claim of right did this intervention proceed? Not to secure respect for American rights; not to protect the lives or property of our citizens; not to assert the law of nations; not to compel observance of the law of humanity. On the contrary, Huerta’ s was the only power in Mexico to which appeal could be made for protection of life or property. That was the only power which in fact did protect either American or European or Mexican. It was only within the territory where Huerta ruled that comparative peace and order prevailed. The territory over which the armed power of Carranza and Villa and their associates extended was the theater of the most appalling crimes. Bands of robbers roved the country with unbridled license.

Americans and Mexicans alike were at their mercy, and American men were murdered and American women were outraged with impunity. Thousands were reduced to poverty by the wanton destruction of the industries through which they lived. The payment of blackmail was the only protection of property against burnings and robbery. No one in authority could or would give protection or redress. It had become perfectly plain that the terms upon which both Carranza and Villa held their supporters were unrestricted opportunity and license for murder, robbery, and lust.

In fact, the Huerta government fell due to military defeat at the hands of powerful warlords without any real material support from Washington, then conspired with German agents to return to power and make war on the United States, though this is not public knowledge yet. Wilson actually withheld recognition of the Carranza government until last October. Turning to the Great War raging in Europe now, Root identifies “fundamental errors” that boil down to a call for increased military expenditures.

When the war in Europe began, free, peaceable little Switzerland instantly mobilized upon her frontier a great army of trained citizen soldiers. Sturdy little Holland did the same, and, standing within the very sound of the guns, both have kept their territory and their independence inviolate. Nobody has run over them because they have made it apparent that the cost would be too great.

Great, peaceable America was farther removed from the conflict, but her trade and her citizens traveled on every sea. Ordinary knowledge of European affairs made it plain that the war was begun not by accident but with purpose which would not soon be relinquished.

Ordinary knowledge of military events made it plain from the moment when the tide of German invasion turned from the Battle of the Marne that the conflict was certain to be long and desperate. Ordinary knowledge of history — of our own history during the Napoleonic Wars — made it plain that in that conflict neutral rights would be worthless unless powerfully maintained. All the world had fair notice that, as against the desperate belligerent resolve to conquer, the law of nations and the law of humanity interposed no effective barriers for the protection of neutral rights. Ordinary practical sense in the conduct of affairs demanded that such steps should be taken that behind the peaceable assertion of our country’s rights, its independence and its honor, should stand power, manifest and available, warning the whole world that it would cost too much to press aggression too far.

The Democratic government at Washington did not see it.

Accusing the patriotic Wilson of ignoring calls for ‘preparedness,’ Root drives the partisan point home. 

If an increase of our country’s power to defend itself against aggression is authorized by the present Congress it must be largely through Republican votes, because the representatives of the Republican party in Washington stand for the country no matter who is president; and all the traditions and convictions of that party are for national power and duty and honor.

Then Root turns his criticism to American diplomacy with Germany regarding u-boat warfare against transatlantic commerce.

By all the usages and traditions of diplomatic intercourse those words meant action. They informed Germany in unmistakable terms that in attacking and sinking vessels of the United States and in destroying the lives of American citizens lawfully traveling upon merchant vessels of other countries, she would act at her peril. They pledged the power and courage of America, with her hundred million people and her vast wealth, to the protection of her citizens, as during all her history through the days of her youth and weakness she had always protected them.

On the 28th of March, the passenger steamer Falaha was torpedoed by a German submarine, and an American citizen was killed, but nothing was done. On the 28th of April, the American vessel Gushing was attacked and crippled by a German aeroplane. On the first of May, the American vessel Gulflight was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, and two or more Americans were killed, yet nothing was done.

On the 7th of May, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, and more than one hundred Americans and eleven hundred other non-combatants were drowned. The very thing which our government had warned Germany she must not do, Germany did of set purpose and in the most contemptuous and shocking way. Then, when all America was stirred to the depths, our government addressed another note to Germany. It repeated its assertion of American rights, and renewed its bold declaration of purpose. It declared again that the American Government “must hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for any infringement of those rights, intentional or incidental,” and it declared that it would not “omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment.”

Still nothing was done, and a long and technical correspondence ensued; haggling over petty questions of detail, every American note growing less and less strong and peremptory, until the Arabic was torpedoed and sunk, and more American lives were destroyed, and still nothing was done, and the correspondence continued until the Allied defense against German submarine warfare made it unprofitable and led to its abandonment, and the correspondence is apparently approaching its end without securing even that partial protection for the future which might be found in an admission that the destruction of the Lusitania was forbidden by law.

The later correspondence has been conducted by our State Department with dignity, but it has been futile. An admission of liability for damages has been secured, but the time for real protection to American rights has long since passed. Our government undertook one year ago to prevent the destruction of American life by submarine attack, and now that the attempt has failed and our citizens are long since dead and the system of attack has fallen of its own weight, there is small advantage in discussing whether we shall or shall not have an admission that it was unlawful to kill them.

The brave words with which we began the controversy had produced no effect, because they were read in the light of two extraordinary events. One was the report of the Austrian Ambassador, Mr. Dumba, to his government, that when the American note of February 10th was received, he asked the Secretary of State, Mr. Bryan, whether it meant business, and received an answer which satisfied him that it did not, but was intended for effect at home in America.

The other event was the strange and unfortunate declaration of the President in a public speech in Philadelphia the fourth day after the sinking of the Lusitania that “a man may be too proud to fight.” Whatever the Austrian Ambassador was in fact told by the Secretary of State, the impres- sion which he reported was supported by the events which followed. Whatever the President did mean, his declaration, made in public at that solemn time, amid the horror and mourning of all our people over the murder of their brethren, was accepted the world over as presenting the attitude of the American Government towards the protection of the life and liberty of American citizens in the exercise of their just rights, and throughout the world the phrase “too proud to fight” became a byword of derision and contempt for the Government of the United States.

Criticizing Wilson for teaching the world that “it was safe to kill Americans,” Root — winner of the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize — begins to make his pitch for a more aggressive attitude towards Germany.

No man should draw a pistol who dares not shoot. The government that shakes its fist first and its finger afterwards falls into contempt. Our diplomacy has lost its authority and influence because we have been brave in words and irresolute in action. Men may say that the words of our diplomatic notes were justified; men may say that our inaction was justified; but no man can say that both our words and our inaction were wise and creditable.

Waxing eloquent, Root points towards an international order based on morality and justice rather than power, with America as the natural guarantor of that order.

To (Americans) liberty means not liberty for themselves alone, but for all who are oppressed.

Justice means not justice for themselves alone, but a shield for all who are weak against the aggression of the strong.

When their deeper natures are stirred they have a spiritual vision in which the spread and perfection of free self-government shall rescue the humble, who toil and endure, from the hideous wrongs inflicted upon them by ambition and lust for power, and they cherish in their heart of hearts an ideal of their country loyal to the mission of liberty for the lifting up of the oppressed and bringing in the rule of righteousness and peace.

To this people, the invasion of Belgium brought a shock of amazement and horror.

Echoing the British casus belli, Root makes much of Germany’s invasion and occupation of Belgium, saying that Wilson has failed America’s responsibility to democracy and rule of law by adopting a policy of strict neutrality — an argument that seems quite at odds with everything that he has just said about Mexican strongmen, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Furthermore, Root apparently thinks that harsher words would have deterred the Kaiser, which is laughable.

And so the Government of the United States appeared as approving the treatment of Belgium. It misrepresented the people of the United States in that acquiescence and apparent approval.

It was not necessary that the United States should go to war in defense of the violated law. A single official expression by the Government of the United States, a single sentence denying assent and recording disapproval of what Germany did in Belgium, would have given to the people of America that leadership to which they were entitled in their earnest groping for the light.

It would have ranged behind American leadership the conscience and morality of the neutral world. It would have brought to American diplomacy the respect and strength of loyalty to a great cause. But it was not to be. The American Government failed to rise to the demands of the great occasion. Gone were the old love of justice; the old passion for liberty; the old sympathy with the oppressed; the old ideals of an America helping the world towards a better future; and there remained in the eyes of mankind only solicitude for trade and profit and prosperity and wealth.

The American Government could not really have approved the treatment of Belgium, but under a mistaken policy it shrank from speaking the truth. That vital error has carried into every effort of our diplomacy the weakness of a false position.

[…] When our government gave notice to Germany that it would destroy American lives and American ships at its peril, our words, which would have been potent if sustained by adequate preparation to make them good, and by the prestige and authority of the moral leadership of a great people in a great cause, were treated with a contempt which should have been foreseen; and when our government failed to make those words good, its diplomacy was bankrupt.

Swerving back towards partisanship, Root spends some breath on the Democratic Party, then contrasts the Republican vision for a more vigorous foreign policy — and a larger, modernized military with European-style conscription of all able-bodied males.

The best possible course for the preservation of peace will be followed by a foreign policy which, with courtesy and friendliness to all nations, is frank and fearless and honest in its assertion of American rights, and leaves no doubt anywhere in the world of America’s purpose and courage to protect and defend her independence, her territory, and the lives and just rights of her citizens under the law of nations.

They may expect that their Government will stand for full and adequate preparation by the American people for their own defense.

[…] The Republican party stands for a citizenship made competent by training to perform the freeman’s duty of defense for his country.

[…] (T)he Republican Party stands for the gospel of patriotic service to our country by every citizen according to his ability in peace and in war.

Root will in fact be a key figure in the development of American foreign policy in the 20th Century. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Wilson will send him to Petrograd to lure the new Bolshevik government back into the war; when that forlorn hope fails, he will return to New York to found the Council on Foreign Relations. Already the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he will be supportive of the League of Nations and help start the American Peace Society, which publishes World Affairs, America’s very first periodical on international relations. All in all, it is an impressive career for a man who started out in the Tammany Hall political machine, served as Secretary of War, and oversaw the bloody colonial pacification of the Philippines. You can read his full speech at the New York Times website.