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American Crucible

Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century

by Gary Gerstle

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Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century
Gary Gerstle

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Excerpt: American Crucible

American Crucible

Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2002 Gary Gerstle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691102775

Chapter One

Theodore Roosevelt's
Racialized Nation,

    In the 1890s many American nationalists believed that agood war would impart the unity, vigor, and prosperity that theyfelt their increasingly troubled and fractious society needed. A longeconomic depression, spanning the years 1893-97, had deepenedpoverty, exacerbated tensions between the rich and poor, and sowndoubts about the virtues of industrialization. Cities were awash inimmigrants, many of whom appeared to care little about Americaand its democratic heritage. Many northerners and southerners stillseemed unwilling to let go of the anger and resentments arousedby the Civil War thirty years earlier. And the new industrial andbureaucratic order seemed to be robbing men of precious masculinevirtues—independence, strenuous living, patriarchal authority—whilegiving women an expanded role in economic and politicalaffairs. International developments also appeared to threatenAmerica, especially the rush by European powers for territory,trade, and conquest in Africa and Asia. If America wanted to stayabreast of its economic competitors, many nationalists argued, ithad to establish an international military presence, at minimum toprotect foreign markets and, at maximum, to demonstrate thepower of America and the superiority of its industrious, freedom-loving,and aggressive people.

    A victorious war against a European rival could enhance America'sinternational stature. The calls for unity that such a war wouldinevitably entail might also heal the divisions between North andSouth, rich and poor, and even between the native- and foreign-born.Men who fought, meanwhile, might be able to recover amanliness that seemed to be slipping from their grasp.

    Few wished for such a war more ardently than Theodore Roosevelt,a rising star in the Republican Party who, in the 1890s, hadserved as a civil service commissioner, New York City police commissioner,and, by 1897, assistant secretary of the navy. In 1898,when war erupted between the United States and Spain over thelatter's increasingly brutal efforts to end an insurrection in Cuba,one of its few remaining colonies, Roosevelt could barely containhis enthusiasm for the coming fight. He resigned his position asassistant secretary, raised a volunteer cavalry regiment that wouldbe immortalized as the Rough Riders, and then rushed to Cubawhere he led his troops to victories in battles that decided the outcomeof the war. Covering himself in glory, he returned to Americaa hero, a status he would quickly parlay into political advancement.He became governor of New York in 1898, vice-presidentof the United States in 1900, president in 1901, and leader of theprogressive movement that, energized by the American victory in1898, launched a remarkable crusade to heal the republic's deepeconomic, social, and political wounds and restore its historicpromise.

    As we shall see, Roosevelt's progressivism expanded and enrichedAmerican civic nationalism. But first we must reckon withRoosevelt's racial nationalism, which powerfully informed his conceptionof what he was doing in Cuba. This racial nationalism wasmanifest not only in his attitude toward Cubans and other groupsof Latin Americans, whom he judged to be too racially inferior tobe entrusted with the responsibility of self-government. It was alsoevident in his conception of the mission and composition of theRough Rider cavalry. This regiment's mission was to throw Americanmen into the kind of racial and savage warfare that earliergenerations, especially the backwoodsmen of the mythic DanielBoone era, had experienced in their struggles against the Indians.In Roosevelt's recounting of that pioneer history, the battles ofthese rural warriors against the savage red man had forged theminto a powerful, superior, and freedom-loving race. It also servedthe indispensable purpose of uniting disparate groups of Europeansinto one American people. America, in the 1890s, Roosevelt believed,desperately needed to recapture the strength, vitality, unity,and race consciousness of those pioneer Americans. This belief underlayhis eagerness for war and impelled him to envision theRough Rider regiment as a crucible that would bring together variousgroups of Euro-Americans and give them solidarity and purposethat, in his eyes, they so conspicuously lacked. At the sametime, Roosevelt excluded blacks from his regiment, for he deemedthem too base a race to become true Americans. They would pollutehis regiment, rob it of its superiority, and prevent Euro-Americansin it from invigorating the "American" race and nation.

    In Cuba, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders carried out their reenactmentof the nation's founding myth with panache. In two of thewar's most important battles—for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill,ridges that guarded the approach to Santiago, the Spanish capitalin Cuba—they had charged into the teeth of tough Spanish defensesand overran them. But a problem had arisen. As Roosevelt stoodon the crest of San Juan Hill, a moment he would always regardas the greatest in his life, he saw black Americans everywhere. Theybelonged to the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and the Twenty-fourthInfantry; they were among the finest regular soldiers in the U.S.Army, and Roosevelt knew this. In his heart, Roosevelt understoodthat the Rough Riders and, by extension, America, would not havetriumphed in this crucial battle without the assistance of these"buffalo soldiers," and in the flush of victory, he admitted as much.

    Something extraordinary had happened during those battles, asblack American soldiers had fought alongside and intermixed withwhite ones, demonstrating that racial division could be overcomeand that a fighting force including all Americans, not just those ofEuropean descent, could operate effectively. Roosevelt possessedthe material for constructing a radically new and racially egalitarianmyth about the American people. Even though his civic nationalistprinciples ran deep, he was not prepared for the opportunitythat the victory at Kettle and San Juan Hills had handed him. Ashe wrote the history of his battles in Cuba, he diminished the blackcontribution to his victory to the point of insignificance. The nationto which he wanted to give birth and lead had to be a white nation.The greatness of America, he believed, could only lie in the exploitsof Euro-Americans forged by battle into a single and superior race.Out of such convictions was the twentieth-century nation born.


If for Karl Marx history was the history of class conflict, for Roosevelthistory was the history of race conflict: of the world's variousraces struggling against each other for supremacy and power. Rooseveltwas hardly an accomplished racial theorist, but he had absorbedthe racialist thought that permeated literary and academiccircles in the late nineteenth century. Like many of his contemporaries,Roosevelt equated race with peoplehood. The British, theAmericans, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, theJapanese, the Africans—each of these groups was thought by Rooseveltto possess a distinct culture rooted in inborn racial traitsthat had been transmitted from generation to generation. In hisepic work, The Winning of the West (1889), Roosevelt traced theprocess by which the American "race" had come into being andmade itself into the greatest English-speaking race the world hadeven known.

    The history of racial conflict, in Roosevelt's eyes, pointed in thedirection of civilization and progress: more often than not, thehigher civilized races triumphed over the lower savage or barbaricones. But this tendency was not an iron law. There had been shatteringreversals—the Dark Ages most notably—when the forces ofbarbarism had overwhelmed the citadels of civilization. No race,no matter how civilized its people or how superior their mentalability, could afford to become complacent about its destiny. Racialtriumph came only to those peoples willing to fight for it. Successin battle required the cultivation of manly, warlike, even savagequalities: physical toughness and fitness, fearlessness, bravery, singlemindedness,ruthlessness.

    The fierce Germanic peoples who streamed southward out of thecentral European forests in the fourth and fifth centuries possessedthese qualities, which is why they laid waste to the once mightyRoman Empire, whose warriors and rulers had gone soft. TheseTeutons possessed the intelligence, the independence, the love ofliberty and order, and the intense tribal loyalty (patriotism) necessaryto push civilization forward. But they had often failed to impresstheir qualities or superiority on the peoples whom they hadconquered, allowing themselves instead to be absorbed by theSpanish, French, and other "subject-races." These latter races benefitedfrom this infusion of Germanic blood, becoming strong,powerful, and conquering peoples themselves. But after a few centuries,the Germanic elements of these subject races faded for lackof replenishment and the latter then reverted to their more natural,and mediocre, racial condition.

    In Britain, however, the fifth-century Germanic invasion hadtaken a different course. The conquest of the indigenous Briton andCeltic peoples had not been easy, and large numbers had been killedor driven off. The invading Teutons, as a consequence, formed alarge portion of Britain's population and were able to impress theircustoms, beliefs, laws, and language on the conquered local peoples.The Teutons, in effect, successfully assimilated the indigenousCelts and Britons into their race, and thereby improved the qualityof their own racial stock. Here Roosevelt first revealed his ownbelief in the benefits that could accrue from racial mixing and racialassimilation, provided that these processes were properly controlledby the superior race.

    Periodic attempts at invasion from abroad kept the Teutonic instinctfor self-preservation razor sharp, while Britain's physical separationfrom Europe prevented Latin and other continental culturesfrom penetrating and enervating Britain's Teutonic core. Inthese circumstances of Teutonic domination, war, isolation, andlimited assimilation, a super-Teutonic race incubated, strengtheningitself through the incorporation of conquered Celtic and Scandinavianpeoples and their customs, and preparing to embark onthe greatest adventure the world had ever seen: "the spread of theEnglish-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces." This adventurelasted three hundred years until the English race, once limitedto a small island "between the North and Irish seas," held"sway over worlds whose endless coasts are washed by the wavesof the three great oceans." To Roosevelt, it was no accident thatthe spread of this race had inaugurated an extraordinary period ofeconomic growth, technological innovation, and democracy. TheTeutonic-English race had raised the quality of civilization and carriedit to the farthest reaches of the globe.

    In this saga of worldwide triumph, the most important conquesthad occurred on the North American continent, where an English-speakingpeople had duplicated the feats of the Teutons in Britain,but on a larger and more heroic scale. In Roosevelt's eyes, the settlerswho mattered were not the godly Puritans of New England orthe virtuous farmers who diligently worked the land or the merchantswho made great fortunes by acquiring and trading the continent'sabundant resources. Rather, they were the backwoodsmenwho bravely ventured forth into the trans-Appalachian wildernessto battle the Indians and clear the land. These backwoodsmen, inRoosevelt's eyes, like the Germans who had invaded Britain, werewarriors above all, and their primary task was not placid husbandrybut relentless war against the savage Indians who claimedthese lands as their own. Roosevelt had no use for a Turnerianview of the frontier as an uninhabited place awaiting cultivationby diligent bands of husbandmen. "A race of peaceful, unwarlikefarmers," Roosevelt argued, "would have been helpless before suchfoes as the red Indians, and no auxiliary military forces could haveprotected them or enabled them to move westward.... The Westwould never have been settled save for the fierce courage and theeager desire to brave danger so characteristic of the stalwart backwoodsmen."

    Roosevelt loathed the savage red man but admired him, too, forhis bravery, cunning, and, most of all, ferocity. The backwoodsmanachieved his greatness as a result of the extraordinary battles hehad fought to subdue the remarkable Indian foe. Here is a typicalRooseveltian account of the terrifying but ennobling character ofthe backwoodsmen-red men encounters:

Often the white men and red fought one another whenever they met, and displayed in their conflicts all the cunning and merciless ferocity that made forest warfare so dreadful. Terrible deeds of prowess were done by the mighty men on either side. It was a war of stealth and cruelty, and ceaseless, sleepless watchfulness. The contestants had sinewy frames and iron wills, keen eyes and steady hands, hearts as bold as they were ruthless.... The dark woods saw a myriad lonely fights where red warrior or white hunter fell and no friend of the fallen ever knew his fate, where his sole memorial was the scalp that hung in the smoky cabin or squalid wigwam of the victor.

On the field of battle, the Indian was every bit the backwoodsman'sequal.

    Roosevelt regarded the conquest of the Indians and the winningof the West as "the great epic feat in the history of our race." Therelentless westward march was "a record of men who greatly daredand greatly did, a record of wanderings wider and more dangerousthan those of the Vikings; a record of endless feats of arms, ofvictory after victory in the ceaseless strife waged against wild manand wild nature." And just as the struggle to subdue the Celts hadgiven rise to a super-Teutonic race in Britain, so too the war toexterminate the Indian created the "Americans," the fittest English-speakingrace yet to appear on earth.

    The backwoodsmen could not assimilate the Indians as the Teutonshad done to the Celts, for the racial gap between them andthe Indians was simply too great to be bridged. Those Europeanswho had mixed with the Indians—the French and the Spanish—hadmerely created new, inferior races. But the war against theIndians had accelerated a different kind of assimilatory process,one that fashioned a single American people out of many Europeanstrains. The backwoodsmen, according to Roosevelt, were primarilythe descendants of two British races—the Scotch Irish and theEnglish—but included in their ranks significant numbers of Germans,Huguenots, "Hollanders," and Swedes. Although these distinct"racial" groups were still conscious of their differences whenthey arrived in the wilderness, they had become oblivious to themwithin the course of their lifetimes. "A single generation, passedunder the hard conditions of life in the wilderness," Rooseveltwrote, "was enough to weld [them] together into one people." Andso, "long before the first Continental Congress assembled, thebackwoodsmen, whatever their blood, had become Americans, onein speech, thought, and character." "Their iron surroundings,"Roosevelt continued, "made a mould which turned out all alike inthe same shape." Here, for the first of many times, Roosevelt referredin a positive way to the melting-pot origins of the Americanpeople.

    This assimilation was different from the sort undertaken by theconquering Teutons in Britain, for there the Teutons assimilatedthe Celts into their own culture. Roosevelt might have claimed thatthe American culture was essentially English or Anglo-Saxon; and,at times, he came close to labeling the backwoodsmen cultureScotch Irish. But he pulled back from both claims, perhaps becauseeither would have put him into the awkward position of havingto admit that his own heritage—mixed but primarily Dutch—layoutside the core American culture. Instead he stressed themixed, hybridized character of the American, unconsciously reiteratingthe perspective expressed 100 years earlier by J. Hector St.John de Crevecoeur. "What then is the American, this new man?"Crevecoeur had queried in a famous passage in his 1782 book,Letters from an American Farmer. "He is either an European, orthe descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture ofblood, which you will find in no other country. I could point outto you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wifewas Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose presentfour sons have now four wives of different nations." Thisstatement precisely anticipated Roosevelt's view regarding the originsof the American people.

    There was, however, one important similarity between the melting-potcharacter of assimilation in the United States and the Teutonic-conformityassimilation that had occurred in Britain. Bothwere controlled processes. The control in Britain lay in making surethe Celts assimilated to a dominant Teutonic culture; the controlin America lay in limiting the American mix to European strains.Both Crevecoeur and Roosevelt only included in their Americanbrew races emanating from Europe. They excluded all nonwhiteraces—not only Indians but Africans as well.

    Roosevelt did not worry much about the proper place of Indiansin the nation, for the savage wars with the Americans had culminatedin their expulsion or extermination. But he was troubled bythe place and role of blacks. Roosevelt regarded the importationof African slaves to the North American continent as a racialand national catastrophe. The European races who conqueredAmerica, Roosevelt intoned, "to their own lasting harm, committeda crime whose short-sighted folly was worse than its guilt, forthey brought hordes of African slaves, whose descendants nowform immense populations in certain portions of this land."These "hordes" could never be truly assimilated into Americansociety: the distance separating them from the white races wassimply too great. Nor could they play the role of the proudsavage foe against whom American warriors defined their race andpeoplehood, for the Africans were already a bowed and conqueredpeople when they arrived, forced to obey their masters' everycommand. Regrettably, the black man could "neither be killednor driven away." He had to be found a place in the nation.But where? Giving blacks an equal place would violate theracial order of things, while hemming them into a subordinatestatus vitiated the American commitment to democracy and equalopportunity.

    Roosevelt blamed this dilemma not on his heroic backwoodsmenbut on the "trans-oceanic aristocracy" of the seventeenth and eighteenthcenturies that had allegedly created and sustained the internationalslave trade. The racial crime committed by these aristocratshad already triggered one national disaster—the Civil Warmthat almost destroyed the mighty nation that the backwoodsmenhad so painstakingly and courageously built. And even emancipation,an act that Roosevelt supported, provided no simple cure tothe race problem because Negroes, Roosevelt believed, would nottake well to democracy, a form of government that depended onthe kind of self-control and mastery that only the white races hadattained. As president, Roosevelt would struggle to devise whatwere, in his eyes, decent remedies to the race problem. But hewould always regard the Negro as an indelible black mark on thewhite nation that had so gloriously emerged in the mid-eighteenthcentury, a constant reminder of America's racial imperfection, ofan opportunity compromised by the nefarious dealings of corrupt,antidemocratic, and immoral aristocrats. There would never be,Roosevelt once conceded in private correspondence, a true solutionto "the terrible problem offered by the presence of the negro onthis continent."

    In his frettings about the Negro problem, Roosevelt admittedwhat is everywhere implicit in his racialist history of America: thatdemocracy was a form of government appropriate only to the Europeanor white races. This view appeared, too, in his occasionalwritings in the 1890s about Chinese immigrants. Roosevelt applaudedthe 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (as well as similar legislationpassed in Australia): "From the United States and Australiathe Chinaman is kept out because the democracy, with much clearnessof vision, has seen that his presence is ruinous to the whiterace." "Had these regions been under aristocratic governments,"Roosevelt wrote, "Chinese immigration would have been encouragedprecisely as the slave trade is encouraged by any slave-holdingoligarchy, and the result in a few generations would have been evenmore fatal to the white race." Fortunately, "the democracy, withthe clear instinct of race selfishness, saw the race foe, and kept outthe dangerous alien" and thus preserved "for the white race thebest portions of the new world's surface."

    In his probe of the process through which democracy had actuallytaken root in the "best portions of the world's surface," Rooseveltsubscribed to some of the same views about the socially levelingand purifying effects of the frontier that Frederick JacksonTurner would soon popularize. The harsh wilderness, Rooseveltargued, stripped people of their Old World ranks and privileges. Inthe backwoods of Kentucky and in what would become Tennessee,conditions of rough equality prevailed. A sense of entitlement orprivilege was worthless; a man could get only what he worked for.Self-reliance was perhaps the most important ingredient of success,but each man also depended on the labor of his family and thesupport of his neighbors. A democratic ethos emerged from thissense of mutual interdependence, an ethos that prompted the settledbackwoodsmen to devise institutions of self-government thatwould bring security, justice, and equality to the wilderness.

    But Roosevelt, unlike Turner, refused to base his entire accounton environmental factors. "It has often been said that we owe allour success to our surroundings; that any race with our opportunitiescould have done as well as we have done." This view, Rooseveltasserted, was demonstrably false. "The Spaniards, the Portuguese,and the French, not to speak of the Russians in Siberia, have allenjoyed, and yet have failed to make good use of, the same advantageswhich we have turned to good account." The Americans hadmade plenty of mistakes and missed more than their share of opportunities.But "we have done better than any other nation or raceworking under our conditions." For Roosevelt the explanation forthe rise of democracy in the wilderness rested ultimately on theracial superiority of the English-speaking peoples.