Sidney M. Milkis is the White Burkett Miller professor of politics and a faculty associate in the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He is the author of “Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party and the Transformation of American Democracy.”
Scholars and journalists have pored over Theodore Roosevelt for so long, it is difficult to imagine a contemporary author revealing anything novel about his life and times. Clay Risen’s “The Crowded Hour” takes on the challenge. Risen, the deputy op-ed editor of the New York Times, argues that Roosevelt’s swashbuckling command of the Rough Riders’ charge up Kettle Hill in the battle of San Juan Heights, although deeply enshrined in American folklore, has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Books that discuss “the Rough Riders at any length tend to be either biographies of Roosevelt, in which the regiment plays a colorful but passing role, or folksy adventure tales that ignore almost entirely the regiment’s historical importance,” Risen writes.
To be sure, there are legions of books on the Spanish-American War and its importance in launching the American empire, but Risen rightfully contends that these accounts “downplay the events of the war itself, including its most famous regiment.” Risen’s objective is to tell the story of the fighting, the soldiers involved and the public’s reaction to the invasion of Cuba, the key struggle in the United States’ conquest of Spain. Risen is a good storyteller, and his fast-paced narrative on the Rough Riders’ travails in Cuba — no other regiment in the Spanish-American War suffered as many casualties — makes “The Crowded Hour,” Roosevelt’s term for his regiment’s bloody struggles across the island, a gripping tale. But Risen is not content to chronicle the Rough Riders’ 45 days in Cuba. His more ambitious goal is to show how Roosevelt’s volunteer regiment was an important catalyst in the emergence of a new understanding of America’s place in the world. The Rough Riders, Risen argues, “put a name and a face” on the belief that the United States had to abandon its long-standing commitment to remain aloof from world affairs. The regiment established the exalted and mischievous “promise that American power would always promote not just America’s interests, but its values,” Risen writes, “a mission that the publisher Henry Luce claimed imbued the ‘American Century.’ ”
At times, Risen’s argument that Roosevelt and his volunteer regiment represent a new era of American engagement seems a stretch; not until after World War II did the United States finally abandon George Washington’s admonition in his farewell address that the country “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” But there is no question that Roosevelt’s war experience was critical to his emergence as a leading figure in American politics. As the historian John Milton Cooper has written, “Except for the acquisition of the Philippines, the political making of Theodore Roosevelt looms as the most significant consequence of the Spanish-American War.” Nor is there any doubt that his presidency, which greatly expanded the country’s role in international relations, marked the first major test of the proposition that the United States had a natural right — a duty — to expand as much as necessary for freedom to survive and prosper.
Roosevelt is the protagonist of this tale, but one of the most compelling features of “The Crowded Hour” is the attention paid to the mélange of characters who followed him in battle. Risen depicts the Rough Riders as representatives of modern America. The volunteers who gathered in San Antonio were not “cowboys and ruffians,” as avid reporters described them. Rather, “they comprised a broad slice of America — white male America at least — at the end of the nineteenth century”: rich and poor; Catholics, Jews and Protestants; East and West. Although Roosevelt and the press often depicted this bunch as “American through and through,” they were, Risen laments, “an advertisement for a type of American ‘unity’ that excluded blacks, Latinos and women.” Yet in the lives and deaths of characters like William O’Neill, the former mayor of Prescott, Ariz., and Hamilton Fish, a grandson of President Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of state and scion of the New York establishment, Risen spies the potential for Americans to rise above the greed and prejudice of an era Mark Twain excoriated as the “Gilded Age.” These were “citizens who set aside families, careers, wealth, and celebrity to fight and die for something other than themselves.”
Risen gives welcome attention to this cast of characters. Still, Roosevelt is the most effective publicist and major beneficiary of their heroism. A combination of personal redemption and calculated ambition led Roosevelt to abandon his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to lead the celebrated Rough Rider regiment. He felt aggrieved by his father’s hiring a substitute to take his place in the Civil War, an abdication that was perfectly legal but left Roosevelt determined to prove his manliness. He also had the premonition that heroism on the battlefield might propel him from a desk job to high political office. Indeed, Roosevelt did not leave the celebration of his exploits to chance. He deftly cultivated the press and made special provisions for journalists and photographers to accompany the regiment, including two men with motion picture equipment. The dispatches of the highly regarded journalist Richard Harding Davis were especially full of rich detail that glorified the achievements of Roosevelt and his men. The charge up Kettle Hill, Davis wrote in the popular magazine Scribner’s, “gave us such a thrill as can never stir us again.” It was “a miracle of self-sacrifice, a triumph of bull-dog courage, which one watched breathless with wonder.”
Roosevelt proved his mettle by risking his life, and the publicity of his heroism was well deserved. However, his courting of the press enshrined his charge up a hill in the battle of San Juan Heights as the best-remembered episode of the Spanish-American War. Moreover, as Risen documents, it established this son of a wealthy Civil War draft dodger as the embodiment of America’s emergence as a world power. For the rest of his life, Roosevelt was reverently and fondly known as the Colonel, an identity that infused his celebration of the “strenuous life” as New York’s governor and as president.
Risen views the Spanish-American War and the ascendance of Roosevelt with deep ambivalence. He acknowledges that the Colonel was a “great leader.” But Roosevelt’s vision extended the messianic doctrine of “manifest destiny” to world affairs, when it had earlier been thought to be limited to the North American continent. As Risen writes, his vision “bequeathed a narrow, chauvinistic idea of what that common good meant — a set of values defined by the powerful, to be imposed on the powerless.”
Roosevelt’s sense of American justice, Risen charges, was marred by garden-variety racism, which allowed him to yearn for a sense of national unity, including a reconciliation of North and South, that not only tolerated but justified white supremacy. The Colonel played down the accomplishments of the stellar soldiers of the segregated African American 10th Cavalry who fought with particular courage in the assault on San Juan Heights. In his memoir of the war, published in 1899, Roosevelt credited African American soldiers with bravery, but only “as simple soldiers, who need white men to lead them,” Risen writes.
Even in its most idealistic rendering, Roosevelt’s patriotism — given institutional form after World War II by the national security state — “would later drive the country into Europe, the Pacific, Vietnam, Iraq, and dozens of other conflicts, at times to the benefit of humanity, but often at great cost.” This “blinkered view of American power . . . forged in [Roosevelt’s] experience with the Rough Riders” is powerfully relevant at a time when the country is torn apart by competing visions of globalism and “America First.” Risen’s war narrative thus leaves the reader with a fundamental question expressed by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in “The Irony of American History,” written at the height of the Cold War: Can the United States be a force for good in the world without succumbing to “dangerous illusions about the possibilities of managing the whole of man’s historical destiny”?
By Clay Risen
355 pp. $30