The American missionary project in the Middle East had a tremendous impact on Theodore Roosevelt's foreign affairs agenda. His actions are a forgotten chapter in U.S. diplomatic history. Roosevelt's perceived political indifference towards the Ottoman Empire quickly changed into a commanding and aggressive foreign policy after missionary requests for security sparked an unprecedented American intervention.
Historians have diligently researched the history of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century U.S. diplomatic activities in the Middle East. President Theodore Roosevelt and his infamous foreign policy strategies are equally ubiquitous in United States diplomatic historiography. Scholars have examined and reexamined Roosevelt's diplomatic record and the broader political implications of the period. It is surprising then that so little is written on Roosevelt's policies on Middle East affairs.
In fairness, Roosevelt commented little on Middle East affairs in comparison to his other lengthy foreign policy conversations. Aside from his express disdain for Turkish leadership, Roosevelt had few recorded statements on the topic both before and during his Presidency. The lack of comment gave the impression that the Ottoman Empire was a political afterthought. Scholar James R. Holmes points out that Roosevelt never actually elaborated on how he planned to carry out his "thirst for armed intervention" against Turkey. (1) Therefore, scholars have tended to underplay his interest in the region.
The evidence, instead, points to a President who dedicated an incredible amount of government resources to regional affairs during his time in office. Roosevelt's perceived indifference towards the Ottoman Empire was not a reflection of his actual policies and did not impede regional operations. Interestingly, those policies were directly related to the American missionary presence in the region. Missionaries were an essential part of Roosevelt's motivation to engage the empire. Without significant trade interests, the administration saw missionaries as the all-important regional asset that would provide justification for unprecedented intervention.
In childhood, Roosevelt's first experience in the Middle East region was one of exhilaration. Arriving at the shores of Egypt in 1872, he wrote years later "how I gazed upon it!" (2) The idea of the Middle East enthralled the young Roosevelt. Passing through the ancient Pompey's Pillar, Roosevelt, unable to fully comprehend the Corinthian architecture's former glory stated, "Oh seeing this ... I felt a great deal but said nothing, you cannot express yourself on such an occasion." (3) The experience of visiting Alexandria must have made an impression, as Roosevelt excitedly wrote about trained baboons doing tricks in the streets, camels waiting to be watered, "an ordinary carriage with a French lady inside" passing by, and a Greek priest strolling along the sidewalk. (4) Those experiences, however, paled in comparison to encountering the famous pyramids. As he said, "I could scarcely realize that I saw them." (5) Leaving the pyramids, Roosevelt embarked on a religious history tour during which he encountered centuries-old stones "which perhaps Abraham has seen!" (6) Only his arrival in Jerusalem surpassed the significance of seeing those stones. Entering the church of the Holy Sepulture, Roosevelt was in awe, thinking "that on the very hill which the church covers was the place where Jesus was crucified." (7) The family traveled to Biblical localities, including Pilate's house, the Mount of Olives, the Wailing Wall, and the Dead Sea. Roosevelt's father ensured the family visited Bethlehem, "the Birthplace of our Lord," and while there attended a Protestant service which Theodore enjoyed "a good deal." (8) Disembarking in Beirut days later, Roosevelt met up with his childhood friend Howard Bliss who, ironically, remained a close companion up and through his time as a prominent Protestant missionary in the Middle East.
Roosevelt's positive childhood experiences in the Middle East, however, were that of a tourist. The region was a pleasing adventure, but into adulthood Roosevelt's comments concerning the Turkish Empire was neither positive nor diplomatic. "As you know," he wrote to British diplomat and close friend Cecil Spring-Rice in 1899, "I have always regretted that the nations of Western Europe could not themselves put an end to the rule of the Turk, and supplant with some other nationality." (9) In a more revealing letter, Roosevelt told Elihu Root in 1898 that he was annoyed European powers had not interfered "on behalf of the Armenians," calling it a "duty to humanity" to intervene as the U.S. did in Cuba. (10) Perhaps the most emphatic expression of disdain came in Roosevelt's letter to William Sewall in an 1898 that "Spain and Turkey are the two powers I would rather smash than any in the world." (11) These statements were, for the most part, the extent of Roosevelt pre-Presidential comments on Ottoman affairs. Roosevelt gave little indication as to what his Presidential foreign policy strategies would be toward the Ottoman Empire even though he had a highly developed vision for U.S. foreign policy.
In his most famous work, The Winning of the West, Roosevelt demonstrated an enormous capacity for international geopolitics and political economy, describing what he considered beneficial and necessary U.S. westward expansion. (12) He noted in an 1899 letter to Rice that "I believe in the expansion of great nations" regarding U.S. annexation of the Philippines. (13) As Secretary of the Navy, he continued his unwavering support for U.S. expansion. In correspondence with Naval Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a man he much admired, Roosevelt stated quite plainly concerning annexation of Hawaii that "if I had my way we would annex those islands tomorrow." (14) By 1901, then Vice President Roosevelt would have his chance to exercise these convictions after being thrown into the office in the wake of President William McKinley's assassination.
Roosevelt believed expansion and international policing would only be a success with a robust Navy. Therefore, one of Roosevelt's first tasks was securing funding for a complete overhaul of his oceanic fleet. Roosevelt reminded George E. Foss, Chairman Committee on Naval Affairs, when requesting funding that "such a fleet is by far the most potent guaranty of peace which this nation has or can ever have." He called for "first class battleships" that had both "efficiency and economy" in order to streamline the force. (15) A stronger Navy gave the U.S. international reach and also gave Roosevelt credibility as a major player in international affairs. As a major player, Roosevelt felt convinced that stability came with "free and civilized nations" not engaging with one another in hostilities. (16) However, this diplomatic logic of non-entanglement did not include the Turkish Empire, and this principle would ultimately impact his Middle East strategies. Roosevelt's exportation of great nation characteristics and international policing left little doubt that his administration would be ready and willing to intervene should the situation arise.
Equally influential in Roosevelt's policy was the American missionary network. An undeniable political and social force in U.S. culture, Protestantism's biblical mandate for proselytizing had encouraged Christians to join the Foreign Service and, in turn, sparked the construction of numerous institutions designed to prepare volunteers for operating abroad. One of the first such institutions, The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), founded in 1815, quickly became the largest and most influential Protestant missionary institution in America. Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk, the two men largely responsible for its formation, were also the first two American Protestant missionaries permanently stationed in the Ottoman Empire. Parson's rousing speech at Boston's Park Street Church in 1819 exemplified the emerging emphasize on the Middle East region among American missionaries. Parsons stirred the audience, calling for the "prophetic" return of the Israelites to Jerusalem detailed in Hosea chapter 3. (17) One of the first examples of U.S. missionary clout occurred when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams supplied avouchment letters directly from Fisk and Pliny, prior to departure for the Middle East. The ABCFM would come to establish stations in modern day Turkey, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, and Iran.
The ABCFM were not the only Protestant missionaries...