American Mussolini

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Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy, by Jim Powell

Jim Powell’s new book on Theodore Roosevelt (hereinafter T.R.) is more of an economic history of the Progressive era than a biography of the former president, but he completes a valuable trilogy with his prior books, Wilson’s War and FDR’s Folly. In these three books he conclusively refutes the mainstream historical myth that the free market failed and caused the 1929 Depression and that FDR solved the problem with his New Deal. The Progressive era’s two main presidents, T.R. and Wilson, share the blame of heaping more federal controls over the economy by creating both the Federal Reserve System and an income tax in 1913, as well as getting America into World War I. Powell’s book on FDR clearly shows that the New Deal prolonged the 1929 Depression rather than solving it.

Powell demonstrates how T.R. created governmental monopolies while alleging that he was fighting monopolies created by the free market. His conservation efforts were counterproductive and he was basically a champion of the "progressive" idea of increasing the power of the federal government while diminishing individual rights and the concept of Federalism created by our founders.

This book counters the usual mainstream history contained in such books as The Readers’ Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, which extols T.R. as the "most dynamic of American presidents." He is especially praised in this book for what became known as the "Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine" wherein he proclaimed that it was America’s right to intervene in any Latin American country that was not being managed well.

Powell does not compare T.R. with Mussolini, but having read an excellent biography of the Duce entitled Mussolini: A Biography by Denis Mack Smith shortly before reading Powell’s book on T.R., I noticed many glaring similarities. I believe Powell’s book shows that T.R. deserves the label of "America’s Mussolini." Powell provides a quote from T.R. which states "I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power into one man’s hands." Powell states further, "Roosevelt expanded the power of the executive branch at the expense of Congress." Smith states that Mussolini brought about the "extreme centralization of power that almost everything depended on him; if he was away from Rome, much of the administration simply came to a halt." Smith further states that Mussolini believed in personal rule by him even though he created a vast bureaucracy to control the economy. Powell states that T.R. believed that "politicians could solve the problems of the world if only they were given enough power." Powell quotes T.R. as saying, "I did greatly broaden the use of executive power" and concludes that "Indeed, Roosevelt ushered in the practice of ruling by means of executive orders, bypassing the congressional legislative process. There had been presidential directives since the beginning, but they had seldom been used. During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, they became known as executive orders. From Lincoln to Roosevelt’s predecessor, William McKinley, there was a total of 158 executive orders. Roosevelt, during his seven years in office issued 1,007 . . . . Only two other presidents issued more executive orders than he: his fellow progressive Woodrow Wilson (1,791) and his distant cousin, Franklin Deleno Roosevelt (3,723)."

Besides their egocentric personalities and their economic policies, the most glaring similarity between Mussolini and T.R. is their praise of war and its “benefits.” Smith states that "Imperial expansion became more and more a favorite theme" of Mussolini’s speeches. Smith goes on to state that Mussolini "began to refer more frequently to war as one of the few truly ennobling and energizing facts of human experience and to imperialism as the supreme test of a nation’s vitality." Smith states that Mussolini was "obsessed by the idea of war as something glorious" and that "war . . . was the only truly beautiful action that made life worth living." Smith quotes Mussolini as stating, "War is the most important thing in any man’s life" and that "only through military glory could a country become great, only battle makes a man complete . . . . "

Powell states that "Theodore Roosevelt believed war was glorious, even healthy for a nation. He thought that reasons for participating in war should not be limited to national defense. He insisted that the United States should intervene in affairs of other nations and enter into other people’s wars to do good." Powell further states that T.R. "Claimed that war would make better men and a better world. He longed for the excitement of war as he showed clearly in the Spanish-American War, when he resigned from his position as assistant secretary of navy to enter the fighting and secure a measure of glory." Powell reveals the fact that T.R. actively lobbied to obtain the Congressional Medal of Honor, but was denied this because he only served for two weeks and his "exploits were limited to a single day. More than a century later Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Bill Clinton." Powell goes further by quoting T.R. "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war."

Powell’s book points out the aggressive measures of T.R. in gaining Federal control of the economy in order to eliminate the free market. Powell states, "Theodore Roosevelt claimed that politicians and bureaucrats could achieve fairness by interfering with the economy." He "never recognized the fatal flaw of giving a few people enormous power over the entire economy." Powell points out that it was T.R. who introduced his slogan, "The New Nationalism" by which he meant, "Executive power as the steward of the public welfare." T.R. believed that it was within the president’s power "not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the constitution or by the laws."

Powell quotes T.R. as stating, "I am a Hamiltonian in my governmental views, especially with reference to the need of the exercise of broad powers by the national government." I believe that if you connect the dots you will see a straight line from Hamilton to Henry Clay to Lincoln to T. R. to Wilson and finally to FDR. All of these politicians believed that the federal government should be in control of the economy but certain businesses should be favored by a partnership with the government through subsidies and other benefits.

Powell points out that T.R. dropped out of law school and used some of his large inheritance to run a ranch but his own attempt at business was a complete failure. Powell states, "Roosevelt knew little about business, as his disastrous ranching losses made clear and he certainly never seems to have thought about the function of prices in an economy."

In conclusion Powell certainly depicts T.R. as one of the most energetic presidents but further concludes that this trait was disastrous for the peace and prosperity of America. Powell concludes this excellent book with the statement, "What we need, most of all is liberty and peace," but he demonstrates clearly that T.R. was not the man to give us either one.

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Freeman.

John V. Denson [send him mail] is the author of A Century of War, and editor of The Costs of War and Reassessing the Presidency.

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