Unlike his immediate predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt came to the presidency with an expansive view of its power and an appetite to use it. Immediately, he decided to continue the war in the Philippines, cloaking his reliance on force there with irrelevant rhetoric. For example, he justified it as part of a mission to keep "barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples" in line, or as "a necessary international police duty which must be performed for the sake of the welfare of mankind." The casualties in this presidential policing, which he called the most glorious war in the nation's history, were lopsided. Some 4,200 Americans died while they killed 18,000 Filipino military, and through war-induced hunger and disease well over 100,000 Filipino civilians died.
Roosevelt also claimed success for presidential power in thwarting Germany in a crisis involving debts owed by Venezuela and for extorting a favorable boundary for Alaska at Canada's expense. In the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and the Algeciras Conference in 1906 over the fate of Morocco, he meddled in foreign quarrels that only remotely touched American national interests. In haste to build a canal at the Isthmus of Panama, he used executive power to order warships and marines to wrench a province from Colombia, a weak country unable to counter with either effective diplomacy or force. Critics denounced his contention that he had a right to take Colombia's land as the robber's claim of might makes right. Admirers, though, perceived his Panama diplomacy as a symbol of presidential strength and a new American internationalism.
The president used similar big-stick tactics to coerce other small Latin American countries, rationalizing his actions with what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Their "chronic wrong doing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society," he explained, required him on behalf of a civilized nation, to exercise "an international police power." When he sent marines to occupy Cuba in September 1906, he defended his sidestepping of Congress with the argument "that it is for the enormous interest of this Government to strengthen and give independence to the Executive in dealing with foreign powers."
This conduct reflected Roosevelt's personal conception of executive authority. He believed "there inheres in the Presidency more power than in any office in any great republic or constitutional monarchy in modern times." He perceived no harm "from the concentration of powers in one man's hands," boasting he had "been President most emphatically" and had "used every ounce of power there was in the office." At another time he stated, "I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power." This attitude stemmed from Lincoln's exercise of executive power that Roosevelt adopted as his own and came to be known as the stewardship theory of the presidency. It claimed that "the executive power was limited only by specific restrictions appearing in the Constitution or imposed by Congress under its constitutional powers." Historians, popular writers, and others credit Roosevelt with transforming the presidency by bringing to it a popularity, an aggressiveness, a dynamic leadership, and an empowerment greater than in the past. Roosevelt's conduct marked a significant incremental change rather than a new transition from passiveness to strength.
Historians paint William Howard Taft as a passive executive who governed in the Whig tradition. Still, in foreign affairs he exercised his power aggressively in interventionist polices in Asia and Latin America, derided often as dollar diplomacy. Less flamboyantly than Roosevelt, he took upon himself the role of policeman. He ordered marines into Nicaragua and Honduras, ostensibly to protect American lives and property but basically to advance American economic interests. As in the past, Congress acquiesced in these uses of force. Some legislative skeptics, though, wanted to deny appropriations for these interventions without the consent of Congress, except in emergencies. When out of office, Taft defended his presidential style and attacked the stewardship theory. He maintained "that the President can exercise no power" unless granted by the Constitution or by an act of Congress. He had "no residuum of power which he can exercise because it seems to him to be in the public interest." Even so, Taft did not regard himself a passive leader.
Well before reaching the White House, Woodrow Wilson held clear-cut views on presidential power. As a young academic, he regarded Congress as possessing the dominant federal power and the chief executive as feeble. Four years before running for president, he reversed his outlook on how much power a president could command in competition with Congress. Once a president assumed control with popular backing, he maintained, no single force could withstand him. He "is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit." Wilson believed the president could exercise his greatest power in foreign affairs, primarily because of his ability to initiate policy. In sum, Wilson maintained that the executive "office will be as big and as influential as the man who occupies it."
In 1914, in a minor incident involving American sailors and a Mexican revolutionary leader Wilson detested, he decided to use military force. He claimed constitutional authority to act as he wished "without recourse to the Congress" but said he preferred to have its consent. The House approved his request. Before the Senate acted on the measure, however, a German ship with arms for revolutionaries headed for Vera cruz, and Wilson, on his assumed authority as commander in chief, ordered warships to bombard the city and troops to occupy it. The legislators then consented to a fait accompli. Outside Washington, most observers found no satisfying justification for this violence. Many perceived it as a capricious use of executive power against a feeble opponent.
Wilson relied on the same personal conviction of being compelled to act in support of a righteous cause in policing Haitians. When he wanted to extend the occupation of Haiti, his secretary of state told him international law could not justify it but humane reasons might. The president said he too feared "we have not the legal authority to do what we apparently ought to do." Nonetheless, he proceeded with the occupation. He reported his action to Congress only after he had taken control. As usual, by now in such unilateral intervention, Congress acquiesced. With similar reasoning, Wilson policed the Dominican Republic with U.S. troops commanded by a naval officer.
In 1916, when Mexican rebels command by Francisco "Pancho" Villa raided American border towns, raising demands in Congress and elsewhere for retaliation and even war, Wilson resisted. Then, for a number reasons, including an assumed need to appear tough to an electorate that would soon vote on his bid for a second term, he ordered an invasion of Mexico to capture and punish Villa. It brought the nation to the brink of war before the president pulled back to face a crisis with Germany.
When World War I erupted, Wilson proclaimed neutrality and, despite his feelings of kinship with England, tried to maintain a balanced policy toward the belligerents. When he took a hard position against Germany because of its submarine warfare against Allied and neutral shipping, his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, resigned in protest. He said the country opposed the intervention in Mexico and to being drawn into the war in Europe. Nonetheless, on his own authority in defiance of Congress and "without special warrant of law," the president armed merchant ships and took other measures against Germany.
Finally, Wilson declared German submarine attacks "a warfare against mankind" but did not ask Congress to declare war. Instead, he requested it to declare Germany's actions "nothing less than a war against the…United States," asserting that "the status of a belligerent" had been "thrust upon" the nation. People from all walks of life begged the legislators to vote against war, but Congress did as the president desired. As some biographers and others point out, Wilson's will and his exercise of presidential power stand out as decisive in taking the nation from neutrality to armed neutrality and then to war. Immediately, as commander in chief he requested, and Congress granted, vast authority to mobilize the nation's resources, a power he used dictatorially because he believed it necessary to win the war. He curbed civil liberties and squelched dissenters at home more fiercely than had Lincoln.
At his own discretion, the president also thrust 14,000 troops into Russia to fight Bolshevism, or what skeptics dubbed "Mr. Wilson's little war with Russia." On his own authority, he also dispatched troops to Manchuria. Critics attacked these interventions as usurping congressional authority. In 1919, Wilson broke the tradition of having the secretary of state and others negotiate with foreign leaders by himself leading the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He thus set the precedent for presidents to participate in summit conferences. At Paris he exploited the prestige of his office and the force of his personality to achieve personal goals he identified with those of the nation. In this instance, his use of power backfired. When, as a semi paralyzed invalid, he insisted that the Senate approve the Treaty of Versailles with the League of Nations embedded in it, his exploitation of presidential power came to an end that he refused to recognize. He had lost the confidence of both Congress and the public.
In subsequent years, evaluators differed sharply, and sometimes emotionally, over Wilson's wielding of power in foreign relations. Friendly biographers and historians viewed his extension of presidential power, mostly in foreign affairs, as virtuous. They contend he performed extraordinarily well and praise him as a splendid example of the strong, decisive executive. Critics argue that he abused his powers, pointing out he had resorted to force more often than any previous president. Regardless of the varying perspectives on his handling of power, Wilson set new precedents for expanding the president's role in foreign affairs and domestically in matters related to war.
In part as a backlash against Wilson's perceived arrogance in wielding power, the electorate chose Warren G. Harding and then Calvin Coolidge to lead the nation. Both men usually left management of foreign affairs to their secretaries of state and diplomats in the field. Coolidge, though, drew on presidential authority according to precedent in what he termed police actions to protect American lives and property abroad. When he intervened in China with warships and marines, he said that the civil turmoil there had compelled him to employ force. When he deployed some 5,500 marines in Nicaragua, ostensibly to protect Americans and their investments but especially to battle revolutionaries he called bandits, Democrats called the clash his private war. Coolidge shot back that his actions no more constituted making war than those of a policeman carrying out his job. He demonstrated again that even a weak president could unilaterally use his power abroad on the basis of ideology or a personal agenda.
Herbert Hoover believed "the increasing ascendancy of the Executive over the Legislative arm…has run to great excesses" and that the legislature's authority "must be respected and strengthened." In his memoirs he stated that the "constitutional division of powers…was not designed as a battleground to display the prowess of Presidents." Yet as president, he wanted to shape foreign policy in his own way. He repudiated dollar diplomacy and promised not to use his foreign relations power to intervene in small states, as in Latin America. When Japan in 1931 seized Manchuria, he withheld recognition of the conquest but resisted pressure to impose economic sanctions on Japan because he believed they would trigger war. He opposed employing force because "it would be a recommendation that Congress should declare war." Contemporaries and numerous historians mark him as a failed president because he embraced what they called isolationism and refused to exercise his power expansively to combat the Great Depression or to police Japanese, Cubans, and others. Yet he did not act as a weakling. Unlike some other presidents, he used his power in foreign affairs to keep the nation at peace when some advisers wanted to court war.