Theodore Roosevelt’s Nationalism

This week, I had James Strock on the podcast to discuss his newsletter on Theodore Roosevelt and new nationalism

Theodore Roosevelt “viewed the term ‘nationalist’ as a point of pride and honor,” writes author and speaker James Strock. “Intending disrespect, he dismissed his rival Woodrow Wilson as ‘not a nationalist.’” But is nationalism a word that could be—or should be—salvaged?

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: You’ve been writing about Theodore Roosevelt and nationalism. Why is this an important topic for us today? 

James: Well, you know, the old term of nationalism at the moment is highly contested, and it tends to be marginalized as being a right-wing populist phenomenon. It's not. In fact, you can look at some of the great nationalists of history, whether it's Gandhi [or] the start of the American nation as an anti-colonial enterprise. Nationalism is like a force of nature, or like water, or fire… it can be good or bad, depending how it's used, and where you see it. But it's a force that needs to be dealt with on its own terms, if we're going to be effective in dealing with it.

Matt: George Orwell said that patriotism and nationalism are very different. Patriotism is devotion to a place or a way of life, and nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. When you say “nationalism,” or when T.R. says “nationalism,” how does that fit in with the Orwell critique?

James: Well, first, I am second to no one in my admiration for Orwell as a person and for his work. I think in this case, given the perspective he was seeing in the mid 20th century, he didn't get the whole picture on this one, and I would hope, if he were around today, [he would] take another look. Nationalism certainly can be like Nazi Germany, ethno-nationalism, it can be a force for evil. But basically, nationalism is a force that you find coming up, even in countries that claim to be universal rather than particular, acting as nations, particularly the communist nations, you find very rapidly they don't act in these universal values. When they're pressed, they turn to the nation state. Now, why do we do that? You know, it's been called memorably a state of “imagined community.” Now for some people, the easiest way to do that is based on shared ethnicity, shared history of that ethnicity, or race in a given place. The United States obviously has a very different kind of national idea. And it's deeper than mere patriotism, I would argue. Patriotism is part of it and it's very important, the love of country and the rituals around it. But nationalism also implies a narrative, a way of understanding the world, a way of connecting the past and the present and the future. And a way of recognizing among people in this national community a shared space that ought to be protected. And it means also, I think, if you take it seriously, that one gives the benefit of the doubt to fellow members of that national group. Now, in America, I think there's a real interesting situation where we have an unparalleled potential as individuals to create our own identity. That's always been true; it's truer now than ever before. What I think may be lost, is the fact that that capacity to create our individual identities is reliant upon the broader national identity that makes that possible. And time and again, that national project needs to be tended to—needs to be reset and reconstructed. And I think we're at one of those points right now. And it's a time of tremendous opportunity and excitement, I think if one sees it that way.

Matt: You write that “T.R. envisaged a new nationalism, a third founding, this time, it would be forged without the clarifying chaos and destruction of war.” Do you believe that T.R. accomplished that?

James: I think he played a big role in it… I think, ultimately, the nation was really founded into its next iteration of nationalism under Franklin Roosevelt… He attempted to have nationalism meld into internationalism as a positive force, and my thought is that the Franklin Roosevelt settlement of 1944-45, which has been a spectacular success, has now run its course, and that we need to—with great intention—reinvent it, and reset it for a new time.

Matt: You quote TR as saying, “We can help humanity at large very much to the extent that we are national—in the proper sense, not the chauvinist sense—that we are devoted to our own country first.” This seems like a recognition that, even then, “nationalism” had a negative connotation to some. Should we just accept the fact that it has been co-opted by some dark forces, and drop the term?

James: Theodore Roosevelt said that nationalism properly understood ought to be thought of in two parts. One is the love of your family, and that's like your nationalism at home, that has particular responsibilities and duties and benefits. And think of the world as your neighbors who you also want to get along very well with… but that involves a different set of interactions. I think that's probably a pretty useful way to think about it… Let me give you an example why it matters. You know, if you don't understand nationalism, we can get big things wrong. For example, in the past 50 years, I do not think we would have gone into Vietnam, or Iraq, or the greater Middle East in the way we did, had we understood nationalism and its power. Nationalism was the force we were fighting, and even the greatest massed power on earth, was unable to overcome it in a very asymmetrical series of situations… And one more thing about that, remember we're about to enter into a new era of pure competition with China. Now, how can we expect to meet the first criterion of wise statecraft, which is to seek to understand how the Chinese see the world, how they see themselves in their history, how that involves us and other past powers? We can't do that unless we look at nationalism as part of it, in my view.

Matt: Are you saying that we didn't understand that the North Vietnamese were really committed to their cause? And therefore, we could not break their spirit? Or are you saying something different?

James: If you go back to that period, and you look at the Domino Theory, a lot of the discussion about how to think about the Vietnam situation was in terms of International Communism, and they were viewed as merely one part of that. But remember Ho Chi Minh was outside the Versailles conference in 1919, trying to get Woodrow Wilson and others to honor the 14 Points and the related view of national self-determination for Vietnam. Even then, he got nothing but a closed door. And so, a number of these countries were seeking nationalist results. They were, in their view, betrayed by the United States as not following our own anti colonial-history and its implications. I think that was very important, and we just simply didn't give it sufficient weight. And I think, again, that's understandable [because] the whole notion of nationalism has been so discredited as linked, for example, to ethno-nationalism, Nazi Germany, national socialism, and so on, that we [had] begun to lose track of what it really is.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.