Teddy Roosevelt And World War I: An Alternative History

Jeff Nilsson reconsiders the events of the election of 1912 and answers the question "What if the U.S. re-elected Roosevelt?"

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It’s impossible to declare precisely what would have happened had Theodore Roosevelt been re-elected in 1912. But throughout his career, he was interested in global politics and spreading American influence. There is no question that, as president in 1913, he would have taken a far different course during World War I than the one taken by Wilson. Here’s how we think it might have happened.

In this alternative history …

How It Might Have Looked: President Roosevelt reviews tanks from 1st Armored “Rough Riders” battalion heading to France.

• America enters World War I two years earlier.
Teddy Roosevelt could never sit by and watch a fight: he either had to break it up or join in. So when the old Rough Rider hears, in 1914, that Germany has marched over neutral Belgium to attack France, he commits our resources, and then our soldiers, to the Allied cause.

• World War I ends two years sooner.
It takes almost a year to build the ships, arm the troops, train them, and land them in France. By late 1915, though, the American Expeditionary Force of 10 million soldiers is fighting alongside the French and English armies on the Western Front. Even with the wasteful tactics of the European generals, which sometimes wipe out thousands of soldiers in hours, the Allies put enough pressure on the Germans to crack their defenses. The Kaiser’s army falls back, across France, into Germany, with the Allies in pursuit. As winter begins in 1916, the Germans are asking for peace terms.

• Adolf Hitler never comes to power.
The German people see their army in retreat, and the Allied armies occupying their cities. They blame their defeat on the military adventurers who run the Kaiser’s government. When young Adolf Hitler starts proclaiming the invincibility of the German army, and the need to prepare again for war, few Germans are interested. Mostly, they’re relieved when the occupying Allied forces arrest him and keep him in a French prison. Without him, the National Socialist party withers away.

The global peacemaker.

• The Communists never gain power in Russia.
Although the Russian army suffers a paralyzing defeat on the Eastern Front, it is mostly intact when the war ends and the troops march home. The German government is too busy saving itself in 1917 to send the exiled Lenin back into Russia. Without their charismatic leader, the Bolsheviks of Moscow make little progress stirring up revolution. Russian veterans happily round up the loudest revolutionaries and ship them off to Siberia. By November, when the Bolsheviks would have seized the government, they have disappeared underground.

• Europe forms a union.
Since the war ends almost two years earlier, Roosevelt is able to talk the Allies into seeking reasonable reparation costs from the Germans and their allies, the Austrians. Before he dies in office in 1918, he has convinced England, France, and Italy to a continental plan similar to that created for France after Napoleon’s defeat. Having exiled its Kaiser and become a Republic, Germany is invited to rejoin the European nations. For the next 30 years, the Congress of Paris ensures the status quo between nations and suppresses any talk of revolution or nationalism.

All these benefits wouldn’t have accrued without some problems. According to one way of looking at history, if Communism didn’t get a strong foothold in Russia, it would have done so in Germany. Japan would still have emerged as a world power and very likely would still have invaded China. If successful, Japan and the US would have very likely found themselves in conflict over control of the Pacific.

Very probably, the atom bomb would have still been developed. Given human nature, it’s very likely one country or another would have had the curiosity to use it. Which country that might have been is anyone’s guess …

See also “100 Years Ago—A Chaotic Presidential Election.”

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  1. Mr. Stone raises a good objection to the idea that America could have entered the war in 1914. I think we should remain skeptical of alternative histories, which often seem based more on fantasy than history. (i.e., the “What-if-Batman-had-been-made-a-Supreme-Court-justice” school of historiography.)
    Yes, there would have resistance to entering the war in 1915. The 63rd Congress had a democratic majority in both the House and Senate, and they would certainly have owed Teddy Roosevelt no favors. But we can’t discount his great popular appeal, business interest in war, the widespread hatred for Germany after its Belgian invasion, and the ability of the press to sway public opinion, as they had in the nearly pointless Spanish American war. Congress would probably have given Roosevelt a minimal, token force. But once they had landed and suffered casualties, the country would have been stirred up to a full effort.
    I use the number 10 million because that was the military’s original goal. While it took a great deal of effort for President Wilson to deploy 4 million Americans, I think Roosevelt would have started rebuilding the military as soon as he assumed the presidency again, which would have brought America closer to war-readiness.
    Roosevelt might not have been able to enter the war until 1916, and America’s earlier appearance on the Western Front might not have changed many of the events. The Russian revolution might still have taken place, but Teddy would have kept American troops in Russia longer than Wilson did, and probably have supported the White Russian counter-revolution.
    Well, this is the problem with alternative histories. They can never be pinned down to be proven or disproven.

  2. There is no way that TR or any other POTUS could have gone to war in 1915 or even 1916. Congress and the public were nowhere near ready for such a step. They came round only when the Germans started sinking American merchant ships (as distinct from Allied ones which sometimes had Americans aboard)and offerng US territory to the Mexicans. These things didn’t happen until 1917.

    Had TR been President (and re-elected in 1916, which isn’t inevitable) he might have brought America into the war two months earlier (going directly to war instead of experimenting with “armed neutrality”) but two years, or even one, is ASB.

    So, incidentally, is an AEF of ten million men. OTL it took two years even to get to the one million mark, and there is no reason to think that having a different POTUS could have changed this more than marginally. Congress would be just as negative about military spending in peacetime, regardless of who was in the White House, so America wouldn’t have been noticeably more prepared, no matter how loudly TR shouted for it.

  3. I would agree with most of your conclusion of what might have happens if T.R. had won in 1912,but I would argue that he would not have died in 1918. Being in office he would not have made his disastrous expedition into The Amazon and damaged his health by contracting malaria, his son Quentin may not have been killed in action and left him heartbroken with grief which probably hastened his death in 1919. He may even have become the first 4 term president Roosevelt. In any case history would have been much different with Teddy in charge rather then Wilson.

  4. I’ve never contemplated what could have happened if Teddy Roosevelt had been re-elected in 1912. It would have affected the outcome of World War I and Hitler wouldn’t have had his rise to power becoming the largest mass murderer in human history and so much more stated in this feature. Indeed, had the outcome of the 1912 election been different, the remaining decades of the 20th century (and into the 21st) no doubt would have been quite different as well.


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