TR’s Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, The Great War, and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy
by David Pietrusza.
Lyons Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 424 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Carl Rollyson

TR’s Last War is about an ex-president who believed he could not retire from history. Too much was a stake in an America ill prepared for a war TR knew was coming, and with a President Wilson, who was “too proud to fight” and who did little to prepare the country for global conflict. Times were different then, of course, since TR could actually run for the highest office again. His own ambition colored everything he said and did. This vociferous man, unafraid or imprudent—depending on your political position—did not want to play the part of elder statesman. And he saw no virtue in remaining silent, even though his increasingly virulent attacks on Wilson aroused recurring questions about Roosevelt’s own mental health.

The Roosevelt revival was quite extraordinary, considering he had split his party in 1912, making Wilson’s election possible with only a 40 percent plurality. Hard feelings persisted, but such was the fervor of TR’s followers that it seemed possible he could capture the 1916 nomination. Why he did not do so is a puzzle—one that no one has quite been able to solve. David Pietrusza stands back and lets TR have at it, which is to say the biographer does not judge his subject, he allows Roosevelt to reveal himself. While his followers called on TR to assert control of his party—eager to win even if that meant forgiving the former president’s perfidy in dividing their loyalties in the last presidential contest—TR waited for the Republican Convention to call on him. His passivity in this respect is remarkable. Heretofore, never one to shun a fight, he was, in effect, too proud to fight. He wanted, like Adlai Stevenson, to win a third run with the acclamation of his party.

It is hard to imagine a TR who dithered, sending mixed messages to his confidants, but that seems to be the truth. As harsh as TR was on Wilson, the ex-president seemed wary of challenging an incumbent, one who had passed a good deal of the progressive legislation that built on earlier Roosevelt reforms. Not that TR had even a grudging respect for Wilson, who seemed all too professorial and passive, rebuffing Roosevelt’s desire to go to war with his own volunteer regiment of warriors. Next to Wilson, TR’s martial spirit seemed out of another age, even though he understood the horrors of modern warfare and dreaded that his four sons would be caught up in the grinding machinery of big-power conflicts.

For TR, Woodrow Wilson’s dereliction of duty came down to lack of preparedness. The best way to avoid war was also the best way to wage war: have the best military organization in the world. Otherwise, the United States would become increasingly irrelevant. Woodrow Wilson was a man of words but not of action. When the United States did declare war—after a close election that Wilson almost lost—TR scoffed at slogans about making the world safe for democracy and then repudiated Wilson’s post-war push to join the League of Nations.

Heading into the years just before the 1920 election, TR looked like the favorite to win the Republican nomination and restore Republican hegemony in Congress. But the Amazon adventure which almost cost him his life, and other physical ailments, exacerbated by obesity, began to weaken a man who nevertheless could seem, on the platform, the picture of ruddy health. Roosevelt was game but also grief-stricken over the death of his son, the dashing Quentin, shot down by German airplanes. TR seemed to age quickly in these postwar years, alternately realizing his powers were waning and yet ready to do battle once again.

As much biography as history, David Pietrusza’s book reveals the man and his world in meticulous and scrupulous complexity. Pietrusza presents a flawed man from that man’s own point of view and from that of his friends, sometimes too willing to overlook their chief’s weaknesses in their desire to believe in a savior. For all his histrionic courage—taking San Juan Hill and continuing a speech after he was shot—TR understood his mortality and perhaps even staved off depression by pursuing such a vigorous life. Pietrusza’s account is suggestive while never psychoanalyzing TR, never claiming to know the man beyond what the evidence can yield.

What makes this book stand out is the dramatic moment-by-moment interplay of personalities and events and unexpected developments—when TR, for example, puts forward his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge as a presidential nominee for 1916 when TR’s own forces cannot put him over. To many Republicans, Lodge was the anti-progressive and ought to have been anathema to TR. Pietrusza might have said a little more about the reasons for Roosevelt’s late-in-the-day touting of Lodge. They were friends, Pietrusza notes, but he does not make clear enough perhaps, how Lodge had carefully nurtured and looked out for TR in the early stages of TR’s career. It was the man, the friend, not his policies, that TR wanted to promote when his own ambitions came to naught. In short, without psychoanalyzing TR, Pietrusza might nevertheless have explored the psychology of TR’s choice at that crucial moment in the 1916 Republican Convention.

Such quibbles aside, this is a riveting narrative that does full justice to the triumphs and the sorrows of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. Pietrusza creates a modern man carrying with him the martial valor of an earlier age even as he sought to wrest the country away from a president who seemed ill prepared to deal with an imploding Europe. Not having understood what was at stake on the European continent as the war began, Woodrow Wilson, in TR’s estimation, could not possibly establish the postwar peace. Another kind of statesmanship was wanted, another understanding of big-power mentalities was needed. Pietrusza does not make such an argument, but he leads us to it, and to this question: What would the world have looked like if TR had not died in January 1919 but had lived to manage the aftermath of a war and a world that Woodrow Wilson so manifestly misunderstood?  

Carl Rollyson is the author of American Biography and the forthcoming two-volume biography, This Alarming Paradox: The Life of William Faulkner