How ‘Big Stick Policy’ Still Influences US Foreign Relations Today

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt standing next to a large globe at the White House, 1903.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

This maxim can be parroted on command when you ask someone what they know about President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. The phrase fits with the popular persona of Roosevelt: a self-taught man, a fighter, hunter, and, arguably, war hero. It’s hard to imagine the rough-and-tumble Roosevelt of San Juan Hill fame speaking softly until you also realize that he negotiated peace between the Japanese and Russians, ending their conflict in 1905. Did the phrase really embody Roosevelt’s foreign policy, where did he get the phrase, and why has it survived to this day?

Roosevelt himself claimed to have picked up the saying while on safari in Africa. In a letter to Henry Sprague of the Union League Club of New York in 1900, Roosevelt wrote: “I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’” The usage in the letter meant that one had to use different tactics when dealing with different groups of people; some responded well to cajoling and diplomacy, while others respected force alone. Its authenticity as a West African proverb is disputer. Roosevelt’s first public use of the phrase took place on Sept. 2, 1901, in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair. Like all historical events, the speech did not occur in a vacuum.

Roosevelt was then vice president of the United States. Ten days later, he would be pushed into the presidency by the assassination of President William McKinley. The United States was facing an unprecedented time in its existence; the Spanish-American War had given the U.S. its first overseas possessions in Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. For the first time, the U.S. had to come to terms with the ultimate conclusion of the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine, named for President James Monroe, posited that it was the duty of America to spread freedom and free trade throughout North and South America with no interference from European powers. Paired with the idea of Manifest Destiny — that it was the fate of the United States to control all lands west of the Mississippi River by moral virtues — the Monroe Doctrine was the closest that the U.S. has come to adopting European notions of imperialism, and it made the largely isolationist nation very uncomfortable.

It was to this idea that Roosevelt was speaking to on Sept. 2. He hearkened back to the idea of America as a “nation of pioneers,” always pushing westward with hope and energy. Roosevelt reminded his audience that they were but one generation removed from these pioneers who had, “pushed to completion the dominion of our people over the American wilderness.” They had embodied the “pioneer spirit” of meeting and overcoming challenges that was necessary to keep America great. Here Roosevelt was speaking much of his own personal philosophy, which was based on hard work, individual initiative, and hope in the face of adversity. He appealed to parents to “bring up their children not to shirk difficulties, but to meet and overcome them; not to strive after a life of ignoble ease, but to strive to do their duty, first to themselves and their families and then to the whole state.”

What was this hard work that Roosevelt was referring to? Many believed that he was making reference to an important issue of the day: labor relations between workers and large corporations. Labor unions and corporations were facing off as competing parties and many wanted to know where the federal government was going to side. It became quickly apparent, however, that Roosevelt was speaking in much larger terms: Where did the U.S. fit in the world with its new possessions? Roosevelt in essence laid out what would become his foreign policy plan when he became president:

Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and of acting without hesitation up to whatever we say. A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.” If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.

Let us make it evident that we intend to do justice. Then let us make it equally evident that we will not tolerate injustice being done us in return. Let us further make it evident that we use no words which we are not which prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.

Roosevelt made it very clear that he would use both diplomacy and military force in American interest. He spoke further to allay Americans’ fears of becoming a despotic empire, such as they saw in the European powers of the day. Where Europeans acted out of self-interest, said Roosevelt, Americans acted to defeat barbarism and install civilization:

Barbarism has and can have no place in a civilized world. It is our duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can only free them by destroying barbarism itself.

Roosevelt was speaking out in defense of the Monroe Doctrine. To those who pointed out that the results of the Monroe Doctrine toward American Indians was akin to genocide, Roosevelt said, “Not only in our own land, but throughout history, the advance of civilization has been of incalculable benefit to mankind, and those through whom it has advanced deserve the higher honor.

In so many words, you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. He added a further warning, stating, “We shall make mistakes; and if we let these mistakes frighten us from work, we shall show ourselves weaklings.” Civilization had to be promoted, no matter the cost. These words formed the basis for what would later become the corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, called the “Roosevelt Corollary.” Namely, that the U.S. wanted the best for nations in North and South America, but that they must, in the words of the Roosevelt Corollary, “maintain order within their borders and behave with a just obligation toward outsiders.”

Roosevelt’s words ring very brutal on our ears, as present generations recoil against any type of imperialist rhetoric. Roosevelt himself was aware that his audience at the time was also deeply divided, and he sought to reassure them:

We are not trying to subjugate a people; we are trying to develop them, and make them a law-abiding, industrious and educated people, and we hope, ultimately, a self-governing people. In short, in the work we have done, we are but carrying out the true principles of our democracy.

Echoes of Roosevelt’s words can be seen throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, in the fight against communism in South, Central, and Latin America, in Korea and Vietnam, and most recently, the Global War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although much of the rhetoric has softened, the message remains the same: Americans will stand for the ideals of freedom and democracy for oppressed people around the world. Whether and how the U.S. will continue this policy into the 21st century remains to be seen, but the influence of Roosevelt is still writ large on American foreign policy.

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