The dramatic story of the most famous regiment in American history: the Rough Riders, a motley group of soldiers led by Theodore Roosevelt, whose daring exploits marked the beginning of American imperialism in the 20th century.
When America declared war on Spain in 1898, the US Army had just 26,000 men, spread around the country—hardly an army at all. In desperation, the Rough Riders were born. A unique group of volunteers, ranging from Ivy League athletes to Arizona cowboys and led by Theodore Roosevelt, they helped secure victory in Cuba in a series of gripping, bloody fights across the island. Roosevelt called their charge in the Battle of San Juan Hill his “crowded hour”—a turning point in his life, one that led directly to the White House. “The instant I received the order,” wrote Roosevelt, “I sprang on my horse and then my ‘crowded hour’ began.” As The Crowded Hour reveals, it was a turning point for America as well, uniting the country and ushering in a new era of global power.
Both a portrait of these men, few of whom were traditional soldiers, and of the Spanish-American War itself, The Crowded Hour dives deep into the daily lives and struggles of Roosevelt and his regiment. Using diaries, letters, and memoirs, Risen illuminates a disproportionately influential moment in American history: a war of only six months’ time that dramatically altered the United States’ standing in the world. In this brilliant, enlightening narrative, the Rough Riders—and a country on the brink of a new global dominance—are brought fully and gloriously to life.
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About the Author
Clay Risen is the deputy op-ed editor at The New York Times and the award-nominated author of The Crowded Hour; Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland; The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act; the best-selling American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit; and A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
The Crowded Hour “THE PUERILITY OF HIS SIMPLIFICATIONS”
On January 13, 1898, John D. Long, the secretary of the navy, was sitting in his office in the State, War and Navy Building, a Second Empire jumble of columns and mansard roofs next to the Executive Mansion that Mark Twain had called the ugliest edifice in America. Long, fifty-nine, was a stoop-shouldered, gently cerebral former governor of Massachusetts whom President William McKinley had called out of private legal practice in Hingham, a coastal town south of Boston, to serve in his cabinet. He was an able administrator and politician, but he was happiest writing poetry and reading Latin; one of his proudest achievements was publishing a verse translation of The Aeneid.1
Long was, in other words, the exact opposite of Theodore Roosevelt, his assistant secretary, who at that minute burst into his boss’s morning reverie. Roosevelt shut the door and, Long recalled, “Began in his usual emphatic and dead-in-earnest manner” to run through his latest efforts on the part of the department. Then, his face reddening, Roosevelt turned to Cuba, along with Puerto Rico the last remnant of the once vast Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere, and his certainty that Spain and the United States would soon come to blows over the island’s struggle for independence. “He told me that, in case of war with Spain, he intends to abandon everything and go to the front,” Long wrote.2
The cause of Roosevelt’s eruption that day was an anti-American riot in Havana on January 12. The McKinley administration was putting diplomatic pressure on Spain to reach an end to its war in Cuba; after rumors reached Havana that the government in Madrid had finally agreed to Washington’s demands, Spanish loyalists and soldiers had rampaged across the center of the island’s capital, attacking newspaper offices and the American consulate. Fitzhugh Lee, the consul general in Havana, cabled Washington with the news: While there was little damage to American property, the violence bode poorly for any hope of a negotiated settlement to the nearly three-year war, which had decimated the Cuban economy and killed well over 100,000 civilians, along with tens of thousands of Spanish soldiers and Cuban rebels.3
Long kept quiet as his assistant seethed. One didn’t just listen to Roosevelt; one felt him. He seemed to have no inside voice. He expounded grandiloquently before crowds as small as one, in forums as intimate as the office of the secretary of the navy. He had a slightly high pitch to his voice and he spoke in rapid spurts, with long vowels and chopped-off consonants. He boomed, he hissed, he spat out words—“bully!,” “delighted!”—like a Gatling gun. And he didn’t speak merely with his mouth: His whole body shook in rhythm, his fists banging into his palms to drive home a point. But while he was often full of bluster, it wasn’t hot air. Roosevelt was widely regarded as one of the most intelligent, well-read people in Washington, with a steel-trap of a mind and an ability to recall minor facts consumed years before. Even his detractors found Roosevelt’s extemporaneous orations a thing to behold: He could speak off the cuff about everything from New England wildlife to German politics, whatever fit the moment.4
Still, it could be a lot to take in, and those who tolerated Roosevelt usually did so with resignation, rarely with enthusiasm. In the months since they had joined the department together, Long had learned to manage Roosevelt’s energies, a full-time job in itself. When he wasn’t preparing for war with Cuba, Roosevelt was ordering up new warships, or restructuring the department’s procurement policy, or investigating mismanagement at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “He bores me with plans of naval and military movement,” Long wrote in his journal the night after Roosevelt barged into his office. “By tomorrow morning, he will have got half a dozen heads of bureaus together and have spoiled twenty pages of good writing paper, and lain awake half the night.”5
Roosevelt had been thrust upon Long by President McKinley, and he in turn had been thrust upon McKinley by New York politics and Roosevelt’s close friend Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican senator from Massachusetts. Long appreciated Roosevelt for his energy, but he would have much preferred a quietly competent career naval officer as his second. Unlike Roosevelt, Long did not think war was coming. If anything, he was naive about the situation in Cuba and Spain’s desire and ability to improve it. “My own notion is that Spain is not only doing the best it can, but is going very well in its present treatment of the island,” Long wrote in his diary. “Our government certainly has nothing to complain of.”6
More than temperament divided the two men. They came from different generations—both born on October 27, Long was exactly twenty years older than Roosevelt—and had vastly different ideas about America and its place in the world. Long’s generation was both scarred and motivated by the experience of the Civil War; they knew what war was, and they believed that their achievements since—social stability, economic growth, industrialization, and the closing of the Western frontier—had made large-scale conflict unnecessary, at least as far as the United States was concerned. Minor wars might embroil Europe, but Europe was far away. Wise, sustained growth and a restrained, conservative foreign policy, the hallmarks of the Republican Party and its domination of national politics in the late nineteenth century, would ensure that America would never again face the horrors of war, domestic or otherwise. With no small amount of self-awareness, Long called a published edition of his diary America of Yesterday.
Roosevelt stood out even among his generation in taking exception to Long’s vision of the world. He had grown up in the shadow of the Civil War and its veterans; he admired (and envied) their experience, but also questioned why, after such a searing war, they should be so afraid of another one that they refused even to prepare for it—an error that, Roosevelt believed, made another war more likely. Even more, it was America’s responsibility, to its own interests as well as the world’s, to use its growing power to shape foreign affairs. In his own autobiography, Roosevelt called the chapter on the Spanish-American War “The War of America the Unready.”
• • •
Born in Manhattan in 1858 and called Teedie by his family, Roosevelt later described himself as a scrawny, sickly child, hindered by asthma and poor eyesight—“a great little home-boy,” his sister Bamie said. To make up for his self-perceived deficiencies, he spent long hours as a boy exercising, hiking, and swimming. He kept daily records of his physical activity and subsequent gains in strength, weight, and stamina. He worked out alone when necessary, but he liked a partner because he favored violent sports, especially boxing. His love for the pugilistic arts continued long after he reached maturity, even after he returned from Cuba—as governor of New York, he had a ring installed in his mansion in Albany.7
Whatever physical ailments Roosevelt suffered, his greatest debilitation was his hero worship of his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. “My father was the best man I ever knew,” Theodore Junior said. In letters and diary entries, he called his father “Greatheart,” after the heroic giant-slayer in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Theodore Senior was born into wealth and proved a proficient if sometimes distracted businessman; he engaged with politics but resisted the opportunities that America’s unbound postwar corruption offered. He cofounded New York institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. But he had also avoided service during the Civil War by hiring someone to go in his place—a legal, not uncommon avenue for wealthy Americans to get out of their martial obligations, but one that his son could never quite square with his faith in his father’s courage. Nor was his father able to give him the paternal support his son needed; Roosevelt Senior loved his family deeply, but was also often absent from it, away on business. And then he died, of stomach cancer, when his Teedie was nineteen and a sophomore at Harvard. What this all amounted to, in the figure of Theodore Junior, was a man who burst with energy and intelligence, came from sufficient wealth to give him room to exploit his gifts, and carried an enormous chip on his shoulder. A man who had nothing to prove seemed to believe that he had everything to prove.
While still a teenager, Roosevelt climbed mountains in Maine and Switzerland, Germany and upstate New York. He taught himself taxidermy, and practiced it avidly, frequently emerging from his room covered in the blood of some animal he had killed on a weekend hunting trip. At Harvard he lifted himself from a middling B average as a freshman to Phi Beta Kappa; he was invited to join the Porcellian Club, the most exclusive undergraduate social organization on campus; and on the side wrote a book, The Naval War of 1812, that remained a standard text in college classrooms for decades. Along the way, he built himself from being “a youth in the kindergarten stage of physical development,” as one classmate recalled, into a physical brute, strutting about the Yard, often shirtless, with gnarly muttonchops bewhiskering his cheeks. He once rowed from Long Island to Connecticut, alone, in a single day, a full twenty-five miles. Some of the stories told about Roosevelt as a Harvard man later proved apocryphal, but like so much in his life, their veracity is beside the point: The myth is inextricable from the man. Roosevelt also developed a reputation as an ill-tempered, prudish elitist—uninterested in anyone not of the “gentleman-sort”—and as a result had few friends around Cambridge. In fact, what he disdained were the leisure classes. He admired those whom he judged, fairly or not, to come from hearty, hardy New England stock, whether they had used their brains and brawn to build wealth or simply earn a good day’s pay. He had no time for those who took to the lighter side of life, who accepted the “gentleman’s C,” at Harvard or later as adults.8
As he neared the end of his studies, Roosevelt wasn’t sure where to go next. Looking back, his career from graduation to inauguration as president—spanning just twenty-one years—seems to follow a straight line from achievement to achievement, from strength to strength. But in fact he often felt undirected and unwilling to commit to one single endeavor. He inherited a small fortune from his father, paying about $8,000 a year (a little under $200,000 in 2018), which allowed him to live comfortably without having to work for an income. His real love was science, especially what would later be called evolutionary biology, but was put off by the fact that serious graduate work, at the time, meant years studying in Germany, home to the world’s best research institutions.9
Lacking a specific direction, Roosevelt went to law school, at Columbia. But he had already fallen into local politics, and left school in 1881 without graduating to run for, and win, election to the New York State Assembly. He proved an able and energetic politician, committed to the Republican Party but also willing to buck against its establishment in pushing reform bills. He led an anticorruption campaign against the railroad tycoon Jay Gould, and another campaign to ban the home manufacture of cigars. In all this he made no shortage of enemies, who called the twenty-three-year-old legislator “Young Squirt,” “Weakling,” and, most colorfully, “Jane-Daddy.” Two years later, just as his political career was taking off, Roosevelt’s wife, Alice, died from Bright’s disease (kidney inflammation) soon after she had given birth to their daughter, and on the same day that his mother passed away, in the same house. Though he rarely spoke about his first wife again, Roosevelt was devastated. A few months afterward (and following the 1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, where he tried, and failed, to block the nomination of James G. Blaine) he left political life and his daughter behind and moved to the Dakota Territory, where he intended to become a cattle rancher.10
Roosevelt had already spent time in the Dakotas, hunting deer and bison along the Little Missouri River. It was more than a hobby; his connection to the West was part of his self-identity: Almost immediately and for the rest of his life, he liked to tell crowds that he was “at heart as much a Westerner as an Easterner.” Still, when he arrived in the town of Medora, near his new ranchstead, he was greeted skeptically, even derisively, on account of his thick glasses and unsullied clothing. He was, by appearance, a dude. As a group of cowhands watched, he dismounted and walked into the town’s general store. While he was inside one of the men switched his saddle and bridle to a similar-looking, but very wild, bronco they called White-Faced Kid. Roosevelt came out of the store, mounted the horse—and the animal bucked him straight in the air.
The shopkeeper, Joe Ferris, came running out. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
“Not a bit,” said Roosevelt. He remounted the horse, and once again went skyward.
“It’s too bad I broke my glasses” was all he said, and he went inside for a new pair. And once again, he got back on the horse, who this time went flying off down the street with Roosevelt still in the saddle, dust clouds whirling behind them. The crowd grew worried; someone went looking for a doctor. But after a few minutes Roosevelt returned, shouting and grinning and trotting along on White-Faced Kid. “We took a shine to him from that very day,” recalled one of the ranch hands, Fred Herrig, who years later would join Roosevelt as a Rough Rider in Cuba. “Any fellow who could ride White-Faced Kid at one trial and holler like that was the man for our money; except that we didn’t have any money, until we’d hired out to Roosevelt.”11
Despite his dramatic entrance, ranching proved one of the few failures of Roosevelt’s life. He simply couldn’t commit to the unending demands that came with being a cattle baron. He frequently returned to New York to see his daughter and keep his hand in state politics. On those trips he also began to court a childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow; the two were married in 1886. After a blizzard killed off most of his cattle, he conceded that one could not be a part-time rancher, like one could be a gentleman farmer back East, and sold his stock and property for a loss. It was inevitable, blizzard or not—his life was on the East Coast. In 1887 Edith gave birth to their first of five children, Theodore III (later known as “Junior,” despite being third in the line), and Roosevelt began building a sprawling house for his new family in the village of Oyster Bay, on the North Shore of Long Island. He called his home Sagamore Hill. And as if politics and ranching and grieving and raising a family were not enough, he kept up a steady output of books—a series of memoirs and essay collections on hunting and the outdoors, biographies of Thomas Hart Benton and Gouverneur Morris, and the four-volume The Winning of the West. He also wrote a stream of magazine articles, on topics varying from machine politics to Civil War history to buffalo hunting, and cofounded the Boone and Crockett Club, the country’s first organization of outdoorsmen dedicated to wildlife and wilderness conservation.
In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison, whom Roosevelt had stumped for in the 1888 campaign, appointed him to the United States Civil Service Commission, and he and Edith moved their family to Washington. The city was still small, in places verging on bucolic, with long trails winding through Rock Creek Park along which Roosevelt would hike or ride for hours. In the summers most of the population that could fled the city entirely, the better to avoid the malarial lowlands around the National Mall and the oppressive heat of the lower Potomac River basin. Roosevelt stayed. He joined a small social scene of like-minded Republicans, many of whom he knew already from New York and national party politics, like the writer Henry Adams, the diplomat John Hay, and the then-congressman Henry Cabot Lodge. Like Roosevelt, they were literary as well as political men, who loved nothing more than to argue into the night—Henry James called them “charming men, but exceedingly undesirable companions for any man not of strong nature”—and they would gather at Adams’s house at 1603 H Street, on Lafayette Square, for long salons debating and eating and drinking (though Roosevelt himself rarely touched alcohol).12
The Civil Service Commission itself was something of a backwater, and though he made a typically Rooseveltian stab at energizing it, he made only moderate progress against the corrupt system of political patronage that drove much of American politics—and much of Washington’s daily life. He held extensive hearings around the country, and eventually produced a masterfully crafted report, which hardly anyone read. And so it went, with Roosevelt writing his books, holding his committee hearings, and chatting away with his newfound circle in Washington, waiting for his next move. It appeared, for the moment, like Roosevelt’s career had stalled.
Then, finally, opportunity arrived in the form of William Lafayette Strong, a reformist Republican who won the New York mayor’s office in 1894, and offered Roosevelt a spot as president of the board of police commissioners. Roosevelt took it, and ran with it, remaking the city’s police force in just a few years. He instituted physical and firearms exams, created merit-based awards, and eliminated political considerations from hiring and placement of officers. He became famous—or infamous, depending on which side of his favor one fell—for walking the city late at night in mufti, looking for wayward officers catching a nap. For company, he often took along reporters from the local papers, a habit that introduced him to rising-star journalists like Jacob Riis and Richard Harding Davis. Intentionally or not, that habit also won him praise in local newspapers and magazines, and he began his ascent as a national figure.13
But Roosevelt also had a unique capacity for angering the wrong people at the wrong moment. When he proved too conscientious as the head of the police board, enforcing Sunday closing laws that ran afoul of the commercial interests of New York’s political establishment, Senator Thomas Platt, a backbencher in Washington but the most powerful politician in the state, arranged for the board to be shuttered. By 1896, Roosevelt’s tenure at the top of the New York police force was rapidly coming to an end.
Roosevelt was happy to leave; he had had his fill of New York politics, for now, and he already had his sights set on a job with the incoming administration of William McKinley. Roosevelt had campaigned for him (and against the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whom he detested), and he leaned on his friends in Washington—especially Lodge, now a senator—to find him his coveted spot: the assistant secretary (later known as the under secretary) of the navy. “I do not think the Assistant Secretaryship in the least below what I ought to have,” Roosevelt wrote Lodge. McKinley, a Civil War veteran, was wary of the pugnacious young Roosevelt—“I am told your friend Theodore . . . is always getting into rows with everybody,” he said to one of Roosevelt’s advocates—but after considerable delay gave in to the multifront assault waged by Lodge and others (it helped that Platt, after considerable delay, endorsed Roosevelt as well, to get him out of New York).14
• • •
McKinley, a former governor of Ohio, entered office an avowed pacifist. When he said, in his inaugural address, that “war should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency,” he was doing more than paying lip service to peace; he was expressing a deeply held belief that war was, in virtually every case, a losing proposition. McKinley did not spend much time thinking about foreign policy and what it might involve. In his address, he said nothing about military preparedness—Roosevelt’s pet obsession—and nothing about international crises far-flung (Armenia, Greece) or near (Cuba).15
In this regard, McKinley was not unlike his post–Civil War predecessors, Republican and Democrat, all of them veterans, all of whom abhorred the thought of sending American men to die in the national interest. This was not just antiwar idealism—antimilitarism was a guiding principle in American boardrooms, where “business pacifism” opposed military buildup because it meant higher taxes, more powerful government, and a good chance that a war would drain the country’s economic and human capital. With the closing of the Western frontier, America was a country rich in natural and industrial resources, a place that could afford, many politicians believed, to ignore the rest of the world for generations to come.16
Unlike many in his party and their supporters on Wall Street, however, McKinley was amenable to economic and territorial expansion. Though he rarely said so in public, he was a strong believer in the need for the United States to add territory, directly or through economic dominance. As he told George Cortelyou, his personal secretary, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California . . . it is manifest destiny.” He understood that economic growth would inevitably involve the country in global affairs, and it was best to make moves now to be in a dominant position later. He believed that Hawaii, for example, was the gateway to Asia, and America should grab it—as long as it could do so without a fight. McKinley’s was a nuanced, carefully forceful position, one that required the utmost discretion, with success to come through economic and diplomatic, not military, strength.17
Roosevelt had other plans. He had long believed that America’s economic and diplomatic power meant nothing if it did not also improve its military power—and McKinley had put him in a position to do something about that. For several years already, the Navy had been recovering from its post–Civil War senescence. Spurred by a mix of commercial imperatives—the need to protect American shipping interests overseas—and an intellectual renaissance led by the historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, the department had undertaken an extensive expansion of its fleet, adding modern armored cruisers and plotting detailed strategies and plans for any conceivable contingency, from war with Germany in the South Pacific to a naval conflict with Spain in the Caribbean.
Roosevelt supported the Navy’s reawakening—without it, he feared a repetition of the country’s early military mistakes. “There would have been no War in 1812 if, in the previous decade, America, instead of announcing that ‘peace was her passion,’ instead of acting on the theory that unpreparedness averts war, had been willing to go to the expense of providing a fleet of a score of ships of the line,” he wrote in his autobiography. And yet the Navy’s efforts to rebuild itself were still not enough, he felt, especially since they went unmatched by the Army. Roosevelt had watched, in the decades since the end of the Civil War, as the United States had let its military readiness slip—and it scared him. “A rich nation which is slothful, timid, or unwieldy is an easy prey for any people which still retains those most valuable of all qualities, the soldierly virtues,” he said in a wildly popular address at the Naval War College, a combination think tank and officer graduate school in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1897, which was later printed in newspapers across the country.18
Roosevelt had pressured Long and, during the occasional presidential carriage ride around the city, McKinley himself to support his plans for naval construction: immediately, six new battleships, six cruisers, and seventy-five torpedo boats. McKinley and Long gave halfhearted consent, but that was all Roosevelt needed. Secretary Long was fond of taking vacations, and when he did, he left Roosevelt as acting secretary, a temporary position of which Roosevelt took full advantage. He ordered the Naval War College to update its Pacific and Caribbean war plans, and authorized summertime maneuvers for the North Atlantic Squadron, which he even joined for a few days to see the fleet’s big guns at work (always keen on public promotion, he persuaded the artist Frederic Remington to come along and sketch the scene for later publication). Roosevelt launched a war on paperwork and investigated inefficiencies at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of the country’s largest producers of naval vessels. And he maneuvered to have Commodore George Dewey, who had floated in and around his circle of hawks in Washington, named commander of the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron.19
Roosevelt liked to talk about preparedness as an end in itself, as if war were something he opposed; in fact, it was something he desired. He often spouted off about going to war with Germany or Britain, even if it meant the sacking of an American city—an outcome he even welcomed, as long as it jolted the country out of its fin-de-siècle slumber. He would, John Hay said, “declare war himself . . . and wage it sole.” During the 1890s Roosevelt’s writing had become more forceful and bellicose. Gone were the long treatises on American history; in came the pointed essays on American character and manliness. Roosevelt bemoaned the decline of the American “spirit,” by which he meant the individualistic, aggressive posturing he imagined his forefathers possessed, and that he imagined had defined the men he met during his sojourns in the West. He saw “grave signs of deterioration,” a “lack of fighting edge” brought on by “oversentimentality” and “oversoftness. . . . Washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and this people.” A war every now and then, he argued, was a tonic for national well-being. “It was a good thing, a very good thing, to have a great mass of our people learn what it was to face death and endure trial together,” he wrote of the Civil War.20
Reading them today, Roosevelt’s essays from the 1890s are noteworthy for their racism and misogyny; though he used “race” loosely, as a synonym for nationality, he clearly thought much less of peoples not born of Anglo-Saxon stock, and feared what would happen if too many of them immigrated to the United States. And while he supported women’s suffrage, he believed that the nation’s future depended on its men, and he was wary of any move toward real gender equality. On both counts, Roosevelt was well within the mainstream of American thought at the time; still, his critics—and there were many—dismissed his essays as fatuous and self-righteous, focused more on attacking his purported enemies than laying out a constructive argument. His head was full of ideas, but he lacked the focus and experience to make them cohere. The novelist Henry James dismissed Roosevelt’s work, saying it was “impaired for intelligible precept by the puerility of his simplifications.”21
That bellicosity, however puerile, stood Roosevelt in good company upon his return to Washington, because Washington was becoming a bellicose town. Wall Street and the Republican Party elite might still cling to the idea of business pacifism, but in the nation’s capital, jingoism was coming into fashion. The second administration of Grover Cleveland, from 1893 to 1897, had been aggressively anti-expansionist: Alongside rejecting all entreaties to declare the Cuban rebels equal belligerents on the island, Cleveland also rejected a congressional move to annex Hawaii. McKinley, at the outset and in public, did not seem to promise much different, and he continued his predecessor’s policy of nonintervention in Cuba. But the tides were shifting, and regardless of who occupied the presidency, a new generation of thinkers and politicians and general officers were coming into leadership positions, and by and large they took a decidedly different attitude toward American power. At the center of this generation stood Theodore Roosevelt.
It seemed like fate that Roosevelt would arrive in Washington, in this job, at this moment. He soon reentered his old social circle of Adams, Hay, and Lodge; they lunched at the Metropolitan Club, then met again in the evening at Adams’s home. They were, almost to a man, advocates of American expansion—their detractors called them “jingoes,” and they embraced the term as a badge. Some jingoes advocated for outright, European-style imperialism, complete with colonies abroad and a massive navy and army to maintain them. Some were simply bruising for a war. Still others wore their imperialism more subtly, advocating for commercial and military alliances, not crass territorial grabs, and often cloaked their rhetoric in the language of liberty and freedom, American-made products ready for export. For most expansionists, it was a bit of all three. However dubious some of their conclusions, the question they raised was an important one: At the end of the nineteenth century, America stood unrivaled in its economic growth, and destined to soon overtake the rest of the world in sheer wealth. But how should America protect that wealth, and what should it do with it? As it became a world power, this was a moment when decisions were being made that would shape America’s future for decades to come.
• • •
One evening at a dinner party, Roosevelt met President McKinley’s personal doctor, an Army captain named Leonard Wood. Like Long and very much unlike Roosevelt, Wood was a reserved son of South Shore Massachusetts. Unlike Long and very much like Roosevelt, though, Wood was what a later generation would call an adventure junkie. As an Army surgeon, he spent years on the front lines of the Indian Wars; later, while stationed in Atlanta, he played with and coached for the Georgia Tech football team. After he cut his head open during a game, he sewed the wound shut himself. In September 1895 Wood moved to Washington to serve as President Cleveland’s personal doctor (and frequent companion at the poker table); when McKinley took office, such was Wood’s reputation that there was no question of replacing him—especially since Mrs. McKinley was frail and persistently ill. But even while Wood was tending to presidential ailments and making a name for himself on the Washington social scene, no one expected he was done with his martial aspirations. “If we ever have another war, you will be sure to hear of Wood,” Henry Lawton, with whom Wood had tracked and captured the Apache leader Geronimo, said. Wood was, in short, everything Roosevelt admired in an American male. The two became fast friends.22
They hiked Rock Creek Park. They kicked footballs. They got in the boxing ring and punched each other in the face. During the winter they tried out cross-country skis that Roosevelt had ordered by mail. Wood was one of the few people Roosevelt had met, besides his father, who could push him beyond his physical limits. Roosevelt was smitten. In a letter dated January 11, 1898, he wrote to Wood: “Tomorrow (Wednesday) can you take a walk, or a football kick, or something vigorous? For ten days I have done nothing, and I am feeling as if I had been stewed; but I had a nice walk with the children on Sunday in spite of the rain, and only regretted that Leonard could not go.” Wood engaged not only Roosevelt’s obsession with physical exertion, but his imagination as well, at one point nearly persuading him to go to the Klondike in the middle of winter to locate stranded miners. Clearly, the two needed a project, a goal, for their intellectual and physical efforts. And soon they found one: Cuba.23