Barack Obama is not the first nor the youngest US president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. That distinction belongs to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt who was awarded the honor in 1906 for his role ending the Russo-Japanese War. But “Peace” has never been a word associated with Roosevelt’s policies and world view, especially as they affected the Philippines.
Roosevelt was a young author (“The Naval War of 1812”) and noted adventurer in 1891 during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison when he and close friends Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and Commodore George Dewey had lunch in Washington DC to discuss the question: “How can we be a first-rate nation if we are a second-rate military power?”
Their solution was for the US to “become a first-tier naval power.” In Roosevelt’s words: “We build modern cruisers to start with…Then we build more powerful fighting vessels” which he proposed to call “coastal defense battleships.” They agreed that the US need to establish a string of naval bases from the Hawaiian Islands to the Philippine Islands so that the US could become a Pacific power.
To implement their imperial ambitions, Roosevelt secured an appointment from US Pres. William McKinley to the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in January of 1898. After securing the appointment, Roosevelt wrote Mahan: “What this country needs is a war – any little war will do.”
Their dream of war would be realized when the USS Maine was “blown up” in Havana harbor on February 16, 1898. The Spanish authorities who investigated the explosion determined that it was an accident in the boiler room of the American naval ship. But Roosevelt did not care what caused the explosion as it was the answer to his prayers.
On February 25, 1898, US Secretary of the Navy John Long took the afternoon off to see his physician. Taking advantage of Long's absence, Roosevelt immediately sent a cable to his friend, Commodore Dewey, ordering him to assemble the Asiatic Squadron in Hongkong and prepare it for offensive operations in the Philippine Islands in the event of a declaration of war with Spain. He then issued orders to US squadron commanders throughout the world to “keep full of coal”. He ordered ammunition in war-sized quantities to be purchased and he sent requests to both houses of Congress to pass bills authorizing the recruitment of enough sailors to man the expanded naval fleet he envisioned. He did all this in one afternoon.
As Roosevelt would later write, “Whenever I was left as Acting Secretary, I did everything in my power to put us in readiness. I knew that in the event of war, Dewey could be slipped like a wolf-hound from a leash, I was sure that if he were given half a chance he would strike instantly and with telling effect.”
When Sec. Long came back to work the next morning, he was shocked “because during my short absence, Roosevelt had come very near causing more of an explosion than happened to the Maine.” But, politically, neither Sec. Long nor Pres. McKinley could reverse the orders issued by Roosevelt.
The lust to avenge the Maine explosion, fanned by the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst, with cries of “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” pushed the US Congress to declare war on Spain on April 24, 1898, just as Roosevelt had calculated.
Admiral Dewey was dispatched to Manila on May 1, 1898 with orders to destroy what was left of the Spanish Navy which he accomplished without losing a man, making him a national hero overnight.
The Filipinos had waged a war of independence against Spain since 1896 and were on the verge of successfully driving the Spaniards out of their isolated fortress in Manila in August of 1898 when the Spaniards worked out a deal with the Americans to surrender to them if they would keep the Filipinos out of Intramuros. The Spaniards and the Americans then negotiated and signed the Treaty of Paris on December 12, 1898 where Spain "ceded" the Philippine Islands to the US for $20-M.
On December 21, 1898, Pres. McKinley issued his Benevolent Assimilation proclamation ordering his military forces to seize control of the entire Philippine archipelago in order to "Christianize" the population.
When the US had enough soldiers in Manila in February of 1899, newly promoted Rear Admiral Dewey trained his cannons on the Filipino positions and began the naval bombardment that signalled the start of the Filipino-American War. The US would send a total of 130,000 soldiers to invade and colonize the islands suffering casualties of 1,250 men. Estimates are that anywhere from 250,000 to 600,000 Filipinos were killed resisting US colonial occupation.
After the Spanish-American War broke out, Roosevelt resigned his post and led a small US Army regiment in Cuba called “the Rough Riders” earning the Medal of Honor at the Battle of San Juan Hill. As a war hero, Roosevelt returned to New York and was elected governor. Two years later, he was nominated for and elected Vice-President of the US. After Pres. McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt at 42 became the youngest US president in history and in 1906, the first and youngest to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, one year younger than Obama is today.
After Roosevelt received his Nobel Peace Prize, he dispatched the US Great White Fleet (16 Navy battleships of the Atlantic Fleet) on a worldwide tour to showcase US military might.
If Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, had instead established the Nobel War Prize, Roosevelt would have been hands down the perfect choice for the award in 1906.