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Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: Theodore Roosevelt

23 September 1914

Within weeks after the start of World War I (1914-1918) and Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Theodore Roosevelt chided President Woodrow Wilson for his stubborn neutrality. Roosevelt, who had done much to reshape American foreign policy during his own presidency from 1901 to 1909, encouraged Wilson to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” This explanation of the big stick policy appeared in an article in Outlook, a magazine that Roosevelt used as a platform to air his views. Roosevelt had many criticisms of Wilson, who defeated him in the 1912 election.

One of the main lessons to learn from this war is embodied in the homely proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Persistently only half of this proverb has been quoted in deriding the men who wish to safeguard our national interest and honor. Persistently the effort has been made to insist that those who advocate keeping our country able to defend its rights are merely adopting "the policy of the big stick." In reality, we lay equal emphasis on the fact that it is necessary to speak softly; in other words, that it is necessary to be respectful toward all people and scrupulously to refrain from wronging them, while at thesame time keeping ourselves in condition to prevent wrong being done to us. If a nation does not in this sense speak softly, then sooner or later the policy of the big stick is certain to result in war. But what befell Luxembourg six weeks ago, what has befallen China again and again during the past quarter of a century shows that no amount of speaking softly will save any people which does not carry a big stick.…

We must so conduct ourselves that every big nation and every little nation that behaves itself shall never have to think of us with fear, and shall have confidence not only in our justice but in our courtesy. Submission to wrongdoing on our part would be mere weakness and would invite and insure disaster. We must not submit to wrong done to our honor or to our vital national interests. But we must be scrupulously careful always to speak with courtesy and self restraint to others, always to act decently to others, and to give no nation any justification for believing that it has anything to fear from us as long as, it behaves with decency and uprightness.…

…The worst policy for the United States is to combine the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.…

In view of what has occurred in this war, surely the time ought to be ripe for the nations to consider a great world agreement among all the civilized military powers to back righteousness by force. Such an agreement would establish an efficient World League for the Peace of Righteousness. Such an agreement could limit the amount to be spent on armaments and, after defining carefully the inalienable rights of each nation which were not to be transgressed by any other, could also provide that any cause of difference among them, or between one of them and one of a certain number of designated outside nonmilitary nations, should be submitted to an international court, including citizens of all these nations, chosen not as representatives of the nations but as judges — and perhaps in any given case the particular judges could be chosen by lot from the total number. To supplement and make this effectual it should be solemnly covenanted that if any nation refused to abide by the decision of such a court the others would draw the sword on behalf of peace and justice and would unitedly coerce the recalcitrant nation.…

Source: Roosevelt, Theodore. “The World War: Its Tragedies and Its Lessons,” Outlook, September 23, 1914.