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Obama's Corollary To Teddy Roosevelt's Famous Policy

Against Iran -- Speak Softly, And Carry A Big Stick


Obama's Corollary To Teddy Roosevelt's Famous Policy

Teddy Roosevelt, who popularized the phrase "speak softly, and carry a big stick."

Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Updated March 10, 2012

In his March 4, 2012, address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, United States President Barack Obama invoked the name of one of America's most popular presidents and his famous policy -- Teddy Roosevelt and Big Stick Diplomacy -- as he explained his position against a nuclear Iran.


Throughout 2011, reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is attempting to enrich uranium at levels consistent with nuclear weapons advancement have scared Israel and its western allies. Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad has made no secret of his hatred of Israel, and he has suggested that the Holocaust of World War II -- in which German Nazis murdered more than six million Jews in the terror that led directly to creation of the Jewish state of Israel -- never occurred.

As Republicans in the 2012 presidential election year have challenged Obama's tactics to prevent a nuclear Iran, Obama told the conference, "Let's begin with a basic truth that you all understand: No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction."

Obama continued, "A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel's security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States."

Obama has used a strategy of leveling sanctions against Iran to prevent oil sales from funding nuclear development. Amid criticism that sanctions are not tough enough (and rumors that Israel may be contemplating unilateral military attacks if the U.S. does not strike Iran first), Obama has repeatedly said he has not discounted the use of American force to shut down Iranian nuclear facilities.

Thus Obama's reference to Teddy Roosevelt. Citing "too much loose talk of war" in the Iranian crisis, Obama said "For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly; carry a big stick."

T.R. And The Big Stick

What exactly was Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Stick Diplomacy" and how did he use it?

Roosevelt -- known affectionately to most Americans simply as "T.R." -- first used the famous quote in 1900 when he was governor of New York. A political progressive (that is, one who wanted to reform government and make it more responsible to the citizenry), T.R. opposed the Republican party's renomination of corrupt politician Louis Payne as New York insurance commissioner.

When he learned that his efforts were apparently successful, T.R. explained his tactics to friend Henry Sprague. "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,'" he wrote.

T.R. explained, "If I had not carried the big stick [in this case, the weight of his political incumbency and war-hero status from the Spanish-American War] the [Republican] organization would not have gotten behind me, and if I had yelled and blustered . . . I would not have had ten votes."

Roosevelt became U.S. vice president under President William McKinley in 1901. He became president later that year after McKinley's assassination. The phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick" became synonymous with Roosevelt's tactics, both in foreign policy and in domestic politics. In his tactics, diplomacy and negotiation was always the "speak softly" element; the U.S. military and threat of force was the "big stick."

Some instances in which T.R. used the policy include:

  • The Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902: U.S. coal miners went on strike for better hours and working conditions. T.R. hosted both sides in negotiations at the White House. When mine owners approached T.R. for help, they expected him to use the U.S. army to break the strike on their behalf, as earlier presidents had done in similar situations. They were wrong. Fearing economic disaster if the mines shut down, T.R. threatened to use the army to run the mines until miners and mine owners reached an agreement. They did, and the mines continued operating.
  • Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, 1905: When Venezuela began reneging on foreign debts, Great Britain and Germany sent warships to blockade the Venezuelan coast until the South American nation paid up. T.R. saw that as a basic affront to the Monroe Doctrine (1823) when declared the Western Hemisphere off limits to European Powers. He crafted the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in which he said that the United States would be the only power to intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries, on behalf of European nations if necessary. He would back up the policy with the United States Navy.
  • The Panama Canal: western nations long knew the value of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. France had been unable to complete one in the 19th Century, and T.R. renewed the process under American leadership. He negotiated with Colombia, which owned Panama, to acquire rights to a canal zone. When Colombia demanded better terms, Roosevelt sponsored a revolution that declared Panamanian independence from Colombia, backed up by the U.S. Navy. Panama granted the U.S. canal rights, and Americans had completed the Panama Canal by 1914.

Parallels With The Iranian Crisis

Obama has repeatedly used diplomacy to construct a web of sanctions around Iran. Western nations, Russia, and China have all joined in those sanctions.

"Few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime," Obama said. "They have, slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt in 2011."

Despite allegations of critics, Obama has not discounted the possibility of American military strikes against Iran. He said, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."

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