With successive presidential administrations – including those of Clinton, Bush and Obama failing to confront North Korea’s nuclear weapons program - President Donald Trump has decided to try a new approach, making it clear that all options —including the use of military force — are now on the table to deal with the rogue nation.
His strategy seems eerily similar to one President Theodore Roosevelt employed against the rising Japanese threat over 100 years ago. Like Trump, Roosevelt was ridiculed for his muscular policies, but they worked. Trump is seeking the same result.
President Trump dispatched the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group, and a submarine loaded with cruise missiles, to the waters off North Korea. He has also deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield in South Korea to intercept missiles fired from North Korea at its southern neighbor. According to leaked transcripts of the President’s phone call with the Philippine president, two nuclear submarines are now patrolling off the North Korean coast,
Making it crystal clear that he is willing to use these military assets if North Korea continues to menace its neighbors with more nuclear weapons tests and missile launches that bring it closer to obtaining a nuclear-armed ICBM that could reach Washington, D.C., Trump has also ratcheted up his rhetoric, telling Reuters, "There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely," when asked if war was possible.
With war drums growing louder, some are worried that Trump's policy of confronting North Korea head-on might trigger a war on the Korean peninsula, but there is also a good chance Trump's new hard-line approach will actually work.
Teddy Roosevelt must be smiling in his grave in Oyster Bay watching President Trump—another brash New Yorker who didn’t dither when confronted with threats to the United States — pick up the "Big Stick" of American naval might and brandish it over the head of hostile power.
Over a century ago President Roosevelt confronted a similar crisis with a much more powerful adversary, Japan, which had risen up to challenge the Western powers in the Asia-Pacific region. A boiling point was reached in July 1907 when Roosevelt informed his Secretary of State, Elihu Root, of troubling intelligence he had received from Europe.
“In France, England and Germany the best information is that we shall have war with Japan and that we shall be beaten,” said Roosevelt.
Friction between the two nations had risen rapidly since the American acquisition of the Philippines and Hawaii in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (1898). Japan saw this eye-opening American territorial expansion across the breadth of the Pacific Ocean as a menace to its vital interests. It had long coveted the Philippines and realized that if it could seize these islands it would dramatically increase its own empire and simultaneously push the United States out of the western Pacific.
With the Panama Canal still under construction (it did not open until 1914), Roosevelt realized the acute vulnerability of the Philippines to invasion, calling it "our heel of Achilles."
The islands were within easy reach of Japan's navy, but the American navy was based in the far away Atlantic Ocean. If war erupted it would take American warships over two months to steam around South America and across 9,000 miles of Pacific Ocean to reach Manila.
Seeing the need to reposition the American fleet in case war did in fact erupt, but hoping a dramatic show of force would prevent Japanese aggression, Roosevelt made a bold decision, announcing to the world that he would send a gigantic armada of 16 battleships along with numerous support vessels (i.e., the entire U.S. navy at the time) into the western Pacific Ocean on a "training mission."
Stunned by the unexpected news from the White House, Roosevelt’s enemies in the press howled in hysterical protest. The New York Sun denounced the enterprise as nothing less than a crazy and reckless provocation.
“The navy is going to the Pacific Ocean for war with Japan,” it declared. “It is an insane project.”
The New York Evening Post joined the chorus, suggesting that Roosevelt’s mind was “unhinged.” “We cannot too strongly emphasize the folly of any such action,” it wrote. “A cruise to California or the Philippines would be accepted, the world over, as a threat to the Japanese.”
Coming to Roosevelt’s defense, the London Times condemned the “absolutely blackguardly” attacks by the partisan press on the president, "the innuendo conveyed that the President is suffering from mental aberration. Such attacks on the President defeat their own purpose. The country regards them as inspired by interest and malice."
When the "Great White Fleet" (as the American armada came to be called because the ships were painted white to emphasize its peaceful orientation) finally completed its voyage around the world—an event which silenced Japan’s war drums—the newspaper was happy to report on the successful flexing of American naval power.
“President Roosevelt’s judgment in ordering this venturesome naval movement has been splendidly vindicated,” it declared, finally putting doubts about Roosevelt’s sanity to rest.
With the benefit of a century of hindsight we can see now the dimensions of Theodore Roosevelt’s achievement in sending the “Great White Fleet” into the Pacific Ocean on a "training mission." It heralded the arrival of the United States as a great naval power and, just as importantly, prevented war with Japan for over thirty years.
A Bismarckian practitioner of realpolitik, Roosevelt’s long forgotten achievement came about because he had the foresight to double the size of the U.S. Navy during his presidency, quadrupling the number battleships in the fleet from 4 to the 16 just as Germany and Japan were rapidly building new and larger warships. He understood that a formidable American navy was needed to deter these rising powers—the greatest threats to the United States at that time. He also realized that a powerful navy gave teeth to American diplomacy, provided critical leverage at the negotiating table.
Seeing that the burgeoning naval might of the United States made an invasion of the Philippines untenable, Japan offered Roosevelt a sweetheart deal: if the United States agreed to acquiesce in Japan's annexation of Korea, Japan would guarantee that it would not menace the Philippines and Hawaii. Without hesitating Roosevelt said yes and the rest is history. The deal held until Dec. 7, 1941.
No one knows how President Trump’s "Big Stick" approach to eliminating the North Korean threat will turn out in the end, but we can be hopeful. The historical evidence shows that a “peace through strength” approach to foreign policy works (as proven by the voyage of the “Great White Fleet” and also by President Reagan’s deployment of nuclear cruise missiles to Europe during the early 1980’s).
Daniel Ruddy is the author of "Theodore the Great: Conservative Crusader" (Regnery, 2016) — a vigorous defense of Theodore Roosevelt’s historical reputation.
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