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The American Missionary Network and Theodore Roosevelt’s Middle East Policy

by David Grantham

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.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

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 localitiesincluding 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 to brave the region. More so than commerce or trade, U.S. Protestant missionaries had become the major U.S. interest in the Ottoman Empire from the early years of the nineteenth century. The friend Roosevelt encountered during his childhood trip to the Middle East, Howard Bliss, was one such missionary. Howard’s father, Dr. Daniel Bliss, was the founder and first President of the Syrian Protestant College. Opening its doors in 1866, the school specialized in leadership training designed to development Christian leaders among Beirut’s Protestant community. By 1905, the college had grown to include a department of medicine, a nursing school, and the first dental school in the Ottoman Empire. By the early 1900s, the Syrian Protestant College (later the American University of Beirut) had become the leading educational institution in the entire region. For Howard Bliss, Middle East connections ran deep. Born in Syria, Bliss would eventually attain the same notoriety as his father in the U.S. missionary network and, himself, become the President of the Syrian Protestant College.18

The college was not the only educational institution that gave missionaries a foothold in the region. Back in 1868, Robert College was established on the European coast of Constantinople. During its development, significant correspondence between Robert College trustees and U.S. officials confirmed the impressive missionary influence in U.S. politics, and as operations expanded so did missionaries’ requests for protection.19 By the late eighteenth century, the relationship between missionaries and Ottoman authorities had become increasingly uneasy. It was well known that Robert College was a “distinctly” Christian institution, and as a result missionaries began claiming they were under religious persecution.20 Ottoman officials were quick to defend themselves against those claims.  The Ottoman Empire “has always condemned religious hatred and persecution,” wrote the Sublime Porte in a response to the U.S. Department of State’s request for information on alleged missionary persecution and property damage. Those allegations, he continued, are the result of “unmeasured zeal of proselytism” by U.S. missionaries.21 Relations between the U.S. and the Turks were further complicated when Ottoman authorities accused U.S. missionaries of aiding Armenian and Bulgarian subversive, revolutionary movements.22

The alleged human rights abuses directed at Armenian and Bulgarian independence fighters by Ottoman authorities had, for decades, been a festering wound in U.S.-Ottoman relations. The first collision of American and Ottoman policies on independence came in 1866 when Cretan revolutionaries — a majority Christian community — were fighting to gain freedom from the Ottoman Empire. The U.S. consul in Crete, William Stillman, claimed, in one instance, “a battalion” of Turkish troops with “flag in hand, paraded the streets preaching a war of extermination against all Christians.”23 Cretan revolutionaries received a positive response from U.S. representatives. After hearing the reports, Congress immediately drafted an official resolution expressing sympathy for the revolutionaries on behalf of the American people.

Diplomatic relations took another major turn after the Bulgarian Massacre in 1876. Reports came in that Ottoman authorities had violently suppressed a Bulgarian rebellion. Horace Maynard, the U.S. Minister to Constantinople, wrote in 1876, to then Secretary of State Hamilton Fish that the rebellion was “promptly suppressed with circumstances of cruelty.” 24 More instrumental in bringing awareness of the suffering were Rev. Dr. George Washburn, President of Robert College and Rev. Dr. Albert Long, professor of natural science. Rev. Dr. Long, Maynard explains, had been a missionary to the Bulgarian people for 15 years, translated Scripture into Bulgarian, and published a newspaper in the same language. Many Robert College students, and at least one professor, were Bulgarian.25 This relationship, no doubt, frustrated Turkish authorities. The London Times carried reports of brutality largely based on the accounts of Washburn and Long.26 The New York Times called it “A Slaughter of 320,000 Bulgarians” while Harpers Weekly wrote that “every village surrendered at once, and the slaughters and crimes were wanton.” 27 This news inflamed an American public supportive of missionary efforts towards the Bulgarian people.

American sensibilities were again shaken with accusations that Ottoman authorities had selectively persecuted Christian Armenians in the 1890s. These reports seriously strained relations between the two powers and aggravated an increasingly anti-Turkish American public.28 The American press kept the Turkish atrocities in the spotlight throughout the decade. For example, The New York Times ran a column in December 1894 titled “The Armenian Massacres,” which stated from the outset that the Turkish actions were “the same course which” they [Turkish authorities] “pursued with the Bulgarians, culminating in the horrible massacre of 1876.” 29 This reality forced U.S. officials to again reconcile the cost of intervention versus Turkish authoritarian policies. Armenians with dual U.S. citizenship, and missionaries stationed throughout Armenian territories further complicated the U.S. government’s concern. A Congressional inquiry sent to President Cleveland asked “whether any such cruelties were committed upon citizens.” 30

This citizen protection question dominated diplomatic correspondence between Constantinople and Washington during the mid 1890s. Missionaries had ministered to the Armenian people for decades, missionary schools commonly graduated Armenian students, and now Ottoman authorities suspected U.S. missionaries of supporting Armenian revolution. Turkish leaders took action. Ottoman authorities arrested two members of the American Bible Society and brought charges against U.S. consular Frederic Poche “for introducing seditious books” and pamphlets that U.S. authorities felt were hardly seditious.31 Ottoman authorities were drawing a hard line. “I trust the American Missionaries, on their side, will abstain from all acts which might assist the subversive tendencies of the agitators,” Sublime Porte Pasha, clearly skeptical of missionary neutrality, wrote to U.S. minister A.W. Terrell. 32 Communication coming out of Constantinople and Beirut made it clear that missionaries feared violent repercussions. In November, Ottoman subjects ransacked buildings at the Marash mission complex and later looted missionary schools in Harput. This incident caused at least $100,000 worth of damage.33 The influential ABCFM continued to lobby the U.S. government for protection as Ottoman authorities appeared unwilling, complicit, or incapable of securing their organization’s interests. Dispatches suggest the situation involved an amalgamation of the three.

Sultan Abdulhamid II
Sultan Abdulhamid II

Meanwhile, the U.S. public responded with an Armenian relief movement led by the Red Cross and the National Armenian Relief Committee. Churches held Armenian Sundays, while money poured in from colleges, societies, and religious organizations to support missionary humanitarian efforts. In April 1895, with pressure mounting, President Cleveland had acting Naval Secretary F.M. Ramsey direct the U.S.S. Marblehead and U.S.S. San Francisco to “be sent to Turkish waters” to secure the safety of American citizens.34 President Cleveland made clear, however, that he took this action strictly to protect U.S. interests and property and not to engage in or support rebellion. President Cleveland affirmed his non-interventionist objectives by responding to an 1896 Senate Resolution on Armenian cruelties, concluding that “our interference” in a European matter, based on the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, could be “beyond the limits of justification or propriety.”35 Nevertheless, the American missionary network had demonstrated its influence in U.S. policy by having two U.S. warships deployed to the region.

The American missionary network’s influence continued to manifest itself at the highest levels of American society and government. Men such as John D. Rockefeller, J. Piermont Morgan, and then Congressman William McKinley agreed to sign the Blackstone Memorial petition calling for a Jewish return to Palestine.36 McKinley’s Presidential election victory in 1896 made for an ironic twist as McKinley’s chosen Secretary of State John Hay was also the cousin of the aforementioned Rev. Dr. George Washburn.

Meanwhile, the American public continued to read stories of Armenians’ abuses at the hands of the Turks.37 With McKinley in office and Hay as Secretary of Secretary, the missionary network now had influence in the highest levels of the U.S. government. The missionaries took advantage. Ottoman authorities still refused to give restitution to missionaries for property damages suffered during the 1895 rebellions. In response, U.S. missionaries convinced the commander of the USS Kentucky to change course for Turkey as a show of force to Turkish authorities. U.S. missionaries felt they deserved indemnity.38 Some scholars finger the Hay connection as the reason that the government approved such an action, but no matter the source, this unprecedented maneuver exhibited the missionary network’s overwhelming clout. These events and the growing turmoil in United States-Ottoman relations set the stage for President Roosevelt. He was intimately connected to missionary organizations, a devout expansionist, and had an unsettled thirst for intervention against the Turks.

Taking the Presidential reigns in 1901, Roosevelt immediately confronted the American Missionary and Ottoman dilemma.  By this point, the crux of United States-Ottoman diplomacy revolved around missionary protection. In September 1901, only days after Roosevelt assumed office, dispatches from Constantinople stated that U.S. Missionary Ellen Stone had been “carried off by brigands.”39 Fear gripped the Bible House Society to which she was attached. Ten days passed with no ransom request, and U.S. officials feared if the Turkish military pursued, the bandits might kill her. Interestingly, some released captives testified that the bandits were “dressed like Turks, speaking bad Turkish.” Furthermore, witnesses claimed that the bandits spoke good Bulgarian and killed an unknown Turkish captive before their eyes. 40 Speculation abounded. Ambassador to Turkey John G.A. Leishman explained to Secretary of State Hay that the station had received numerous reports alleging the bandits were either Turkish soldiers in disguise, Macedonian agitators, or Bulgarian bandits. Although he regrettably had no evidence to support such a claim, Leishman believed the last theory. By September 24, U.S. officials in Constantinople were all but convinced Bulgarian bandits were to blame.. However, no one could discern their motives. Dispatches cited unspecified evidence of central Bulgarian Macedonian committee sponsorship “with the hope of stirring up foreign intervention.”41 This committee supposedly had connections to the revolutionary party in Bulgaria and the upper ranks of Bulgarian government. Dr. Washburn felt certain the kidnapping was politically motivated, claiming American missionaries had been the target of this group earlier. However, tactics indicated that the bandits were framing the Turks, no doubt hoping to stir up conflict between western and Turkish authorities. A ransom letter demanding 25,000 Turkish pounds finally arrived and convinced Leishman the kidnapping had no political connection. It was pure banditry in costumes designed to throw off pursuers. Newspapers from New York to San Francisco ran the story as the American public was “thrilled with horror” at the abduction.42 The American public raised $70,000 in ransom money for Stone’s release. However, the Roosevelt administration, while intimately involved, remained officially neutral, allowing Dr. Washburn to lead in negotiating release. Finally, the ransom received in March 1902, the abductors released Miss Stone in good health. As it turned out, the kidnappers were Bulgarian-Macedonian, bandits intent on falsely implicating the Turks, but Roosevelt still directed his agitation towards the Ottoman authorities. The President did not like having to diplomatically engage the Ottomans during the ordeal, even considering deploying gunboats to the region in response. Roosevelt decided then that he would never again be at the mercy of traditional, slow-paced diplomacy with the Turks. Immediate action would be taken when necessary.43

The Stone kidnapping had frustrated Roosevelt, and the increasing discrimination against U.S. missionary institutions only exacerbated his frustrations. In 1903, Roosevelt finally swung his big stick in the Ottoman’s direction. In a dispatch to Constantinople, Secretary Hay communicated “that the attention of the President has recently been called, by a numerous delegation of prominent citizens, to the embarrassments of American educational and religious institutions in the Turkish Empire.”44 The missionary network had a champion in the President, one increasingly willing to engage the Ottoman Empire. President Roosevelt requested that Leishman deliver a personal message to the Sultan demanding American citizens and institutions receive the same guarantees and privileges as Europeans under the most favored nation treaty. In addition, Roosevelt demanded that the Turks treat the Protestant Medical College in the same fashion as the French medical school in Beirut. Roosevelt did not see “such material difference in the schools as to warrant the discrimination practiced.”45 Angry that Turkish authorities were unfairly targeting Americans, Roosevelt did not mince words and took the unusual step of issuing a stern response on their behalf. While Leishman should approach the Sultan “in the utmost spirit of friendship and goodwill,” Hay concluded, he should “impress” upon the Sultan “the fixed desire and expectation of the President that this country will be treated on the same terms” as those favored nations. 46 Roosevelt had drawn the preverbal line in the sand. The definitive language revealed that Roosevelt seemed increasingly more willing to intervene in Ottoman territories. The Sultan met Roosevelt’s tough words with promising of change from, but months later the situation had not improved as Leishman reported that the Ottoman authorities appeared “to be absolutely incapable of carrying out its numerous promises.”47 Incensed, Roosevelt was also facing another regional incident known as the Magelssen affair.

In August 1903, William C. Magelssen, a preacher’s son, and the United States Vice Consul at Beirut since 1899, reportedly had been assassinated in the center of town. The assassination was surprising since Beirut was considered safe for Americans after decades of Dr. Bliss’s rapport with the local community through the Syrian Protestant College. The President wasted no time sending three U.S. naval vessels to Lebanon to press Ottoman authorities to arrest the assassin. As it turned out, Magelssen was very much alive. Unfortunately, Washington already received Leishman’s dispatches and a frustrated Roosevelt was ready to move. After receiving word that celebratory fire from a nearby wedding was to blame for gunshot heard near Magelssen, Roosevelt refused to rescind the orders, and instead, ships full of battle-ready Marines docked in Beirut with new orders to protect U.S. missionaries.48 Beirut’s Governor continued to claim a stray bullet from a wedding celebration was to blame, which Leishman refused to accept, stating that this version of the story was “in direct contradiction to the reports made by our consul,” Mr. Magelssen.49 Different news outlets carried the Magelssen version as an editor for The Independent felt that although the shots “missed their mark,” Americans should not ignore must not ignore the fact that a Vice Consul of the U.S. “was shot at with the intention of killing him.”50

With U.S. ships docked in the harbor, attacks against Christians only escalated. Leishman informed Washington the Sublime Porte “has been using every effort to create the impression that the troubles in Beirut are the result of the presence of the squadron instead of being merely the culmination of what has been going on for months.”51 Still angered by the Sultan’s unfulfilled promises of protection, Roosevelt chose to use the opportunity of having ships in port to confront the Ottomans no matter the reason for initially being there. The naval deployment was a show of American might, and a diplomatic tactic that would become all too common in Roosevelt’s seemingly ad hoc Middle East foreign policies.

A second U.S. citizen abduction in May 1904 spurred Roosevelt to his most forceful action yet. A local Berber chief forcibly took American businessman Ion Perdicaris, stationed in Tangiers, from his home. Raisuli, the Berber Chief, demanded U.S. intervention against the Moroccan Sultan’s oppression of Riffian Berbers, along with a large monetary ransom. Roosevelt had had enough and instructed U.S. officials to not surrender “to the demands of Moroccan brigands,” stating emphatically he would rather be a “real President” for a one term than a “figurehead” for two.52 In an interesting twist, Roosevelt invited Britain and France to a joint military effort to rescue Perdicaris. Both governments refused, but the mere request indicated Roosevelt’s ease in operating unilaterally in a traditionally European sphere. By the end of the month, on Roosevelt’s orders, seven U.S. warships docked in Morocco, and over one thousand marines took to the shore, ready to occupy the capital. In a telegram to the Sultan, Roosevelt stated if Perdicaris were killed “this Government will demand the life of the murderer”, concluding “we want Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”53 The pressure worked. The Moroccan leaders relented, paid the ransom, and the captors released Pedicaris in June 1904.

Unfortunately, indemnity and treaty issues regarding U.S. missionary protection were still unresolved. Roosevelt had clearly become more comfortable using U.S. Naval forces for diplomatic purposes and decided to send ships to Smyrna only six weeks after ships had deployed to Tangier. “The opposition in Turkey,” Roosevelt penned to General Sickles, “to the just protests of our missionaries and the protests of our Minister have made it imperative that some action be taken.” With ships in dock, Roosevelt threatened that if the Turks did not meet U.S. demands he would recall Leishman. After years of threats and the deployment of Roosevelt’s famed Navy, Porte finally agreed. He granted the American missionaries indemnity in the face of military intervention and the severing of diplomatic ties.54

That same year, Roosevelt further bolstered U.S. presence in the region from an international policing force for U.S. citizens to a cosponsor in international deliberation. The U.S. government had not participated in European conferences involving the Middle East until the Algeciras Conference in January 1906. The Conference pitted French interests in Morocco against German expansionist ambitions. The European scramble for the Greater African region left Morocco in the middle of a tug-of-war between two agitated foes. Roosevelt instructed U.S. representatives to remain neutral, displaying no partialities, while he actively engaged the French, British, and Germans behind the scenes.55 Roosevelt preferred a French and British presence over a German presence, likely a response to the Kaiser’s encroachment into the Western Hemisphere by way of Venezuela. Roosevelt’s actual influence is debatable, but nevertheless, the conference ended with all parties agreeing to imperial boundaries. And although he publically claimed to be neutral, Roosevelt bragged that “at the end I stood him [the Kaiser] on his head with great decision.”56 The peaceful meditation that resulted in Roosevelt’s desired outcome was only a part of the President’s political bounty. Roosevelt explained that the Algeciras Treaty, in addition to undermining German ambitions, secured for the United States “commercially, and as regards the individual rights of our citizens, the same rights as other nations.” Diplomatic efforts in a European conference had achieved an “open door” commercial policy in the Middle East and guaranteed the rights of U.S. citizens.57 Roosevelt had simultaneously secured protections for U.S. citizens equal to their European counterparts while also, and with a touch of irony, expanding trade possibilities in territories of that regime he so deeply despised.

Not everyone appreciated Roosevelt’s legacy of aggressive action. In fact, many in Congress were upset at Roosevelt’s combative Middle East policies and his involvement in negotiating European expansion. Roosevelt was not as concerned. He wondered, somewhat sarcastically, if Congress objected to the fact that when ships were sent to Beirut or Tangier “the wrong complained of was righted and expiated?” Or did those in Congress complain when ships in Smyrna forced the “long-delayed” concessions?58 In Roosevelt’s mind, the end justified the means and in the end Roosevelt stuck to his convictions. He made certain that the so-called civilized nations engaged in negotiations, not hostilities, while the Ottoman Turks faced gunship diplomacy.

As a conclusion to Roosevelt’s presidency, he ordered the U.S. Navy battle group, known as the Great White Fleet, to circumvent the globe as a testament to America’s naval supremacy. On its Middle East leg in 1909, the fleet sailed to the Arabian Sea and up through the Gulf of Suez. One year later, Roosevelt attended the Fleet’s trek up the Nile and concluded his travels with an important speech supporting the British occupation of Egypt. The fleet was, to date, the largest U.S. military force ever to enter the Middle East. Roosevelt had successfully exercised a final show of force in the region. He cemented his legacy in the Middle East as one of command, not compromise.

Historian Lewis Gould described McKinley’s Latin American policy, and one could also characterize Roosevelt’s Middle East policy, as “somewhere between accident and design.” Roosevelt entered the Presidency fully intent on expanding U.S. interests, but had little idea that policy formation would come at the cross-section of naval ambition, disdain for the Turks, and U.S. Protestant missionaries. Indeed, these missionary men and women became the focal point for Roosevelt’s Middle East policy. Their influence was evident throughout U.S government. And while the network had managed to secure government intervention, it should “not be understood that the missionaries exploited American diplomacy or that American diplomacy exploited the missionaries.”60 One’s interest served the other’s. Missionaries needed official protection and Roosevelt saw an outlet for intervention against an empire that, in his mind, did not warrant civilized diplomatic considerations. This small window into Roosevelt’s Middle East foreign policy strategies should add another layer to his well documented international endeavors. The unprecedented military interventions are a key component in painting the full picture of the history of Roosevelt’s foreign affairs. While this project is not an exhaustive retelling of Roosevelt’s diplomacy in the Middle East, the major events covered here will hopefully be a start to a more comprehensive understanding of Roosevelt’s diplomatic record and a resurrection of an overlooked facet of his foreign policy agenda.bluestar


Bibliography Bryson, Thomas A. American Diplomatic Relations with the Middle East, 1784-1975: A Survey. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977.

Burton, David H. Theodore Roosevelt: Confident Imperialist. Pennsylvania: University of
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Chessman, Wallace G., Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Power. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.

Christian Missionary Herald

DeNovo, John A. American Interest and Policies in the Middle East 1900-1939. Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1963.

Dogan, Mehmet Ali and Heather J. Sharkey, eds. American Missionaries and the Middle East, Foundational Encounters. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2011.

Donald, Aida D. Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt. Basic Books, New York: 2007.

Grabill, Joseph L. Protestant Diplomacy and the Near East: Missionary Influence on American Policy, 1810-1927. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.

Harpers Weekly

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Relations. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc, 2006.


Johnson, R. Park. Middle East Pilgrimage. New York: Friendship Press Inc, 1958.

Marks III, Frederick W. Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Millard, Candice. Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, The River of Doubt. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

The New York Times

Oren, Michael B. Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to present. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

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University Press, 1951-54.

The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt & Brander Matthews. edited by Lawrence J. Oliver.
Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches. edited by Louis Auchingloss.New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004.

The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt. edited by H.W. Brands. New York: First Cooper Square Press, 2001.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Winning of the West. 4 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1995.

­­­­­———————. Theodore Roosevelt Diaries of a Boyhood and Youth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928.

U.S. President. Letter. “Increase of Navy — Letter from the President”, Committee on Naval Affairs. Congressional Session 59-2 (1906).

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1. James R. Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International
Relations (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc, 2006), 73.

2. Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt Diaries of a Boyhood and Youth (New York: Scribner, 1928), 276.

3. Ibid, 277.

4. Ibid, 278.

5. Ibid, 282.

6. Ibid, 288.

7. Ibid, 313.

8. Ibid, 316, 318.

9. The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. H.W. Brands (New York: First Cooper Square Press, 2001) Roosevelt to Spring, August 11, 1899, 231 (hereafter Selected Letters)

10. Theodore Roosevelt, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. Elting E. Morison and others, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951-54) letter to Elihu Root, April 5, 1898, vol 2, 812-813 (hereafter Letters).

11. Ibid, Theodore Roosevelt to William Sewall, May 4, 1898, vol 2, 823.

12. Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West. 4 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

13. Theodore Roosevelt Letters and Speeches, ed. Louis Auchingloss (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004), 184.

14. Brands, Selected Letters, 132.

15. Theodore Roosevelt, ”Increase of Navy — Letter from the President”, Jan. 11, 1907. Committee on Naval Affairs. 59-2 (1906), 2.

16. Theodore Roosevelt, “State of the Union Address,” December 3, 1901, Foreign Relations of the United States, XXXVI. (Hereafter FRUS: 1901).

17. The Christian Missionary Herald (1818-1825). Mission to Jerusalem. Nov 27, 1819, 68.

18. Joseph Grabill, Protestant Diplomacy and the Near East: Missionary Influence on American Policy, 1810-1927 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 47.

19. Ibid.

20. Andrew Johnson, “Presidential message establishment of Robert’s College at Constantinople”; February 11, 1869 in FRUS: 1869, 3.

21. Sublime Porte Ali to E. Joy Morris, April 7, 1863. In FRUS: 1863, 1186.

22. The background information on summarized U.S. Protestant missionary history in the Ottoman Empire was derived from, Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy;  John A. DeNovo, American Interest and Policies in the Middle East 1900-1939, (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1963); Thomas A. Bryson, American Diplomatic Relations with the Middle East, 1784-1975: A Survey,  (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977) ; James Fields, America and the Mediterranean World 1776-1882 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969).

23. Mr. Stillman to Mr. Seward in FRUS: 1866, 3.

24. Mr. Maynard to Mr. Fish, August 10, 1876. In FRUS: 1876, 582.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid, 3.

27. The New York Times, national edition. Nov 5, 1876, A SLAUGHTER OF 320,000 BULGARIANS, 9; Harpers Weekly, Oct 7,1876, vol 1876, issue 10/7.

28. The background information on U.S.-Ottoman relations summarized here was derived from, Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy;  John A. DeNovo, American Interest and Policies in the Middle East 1900-1939, (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1963); Thomas A. Bryson, American Diplomatic Relations with the Middle East, 1784-1975: A Survey,  (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977) ; James Fields, America and the Mediterranean World 1776-1882 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969).

29. The New York Times, national edition, December 16, 1894, 16.

30. Ibid, 1.

31. Mr. Gibson to Mr. Short, March 5, 1895 in FRUS: 1895, 1239

32. Said Pasha to Mr. Terrell, March 14, 1895 in FRUS: 1895, 1240.

33. Bryson, American Diplomatic Relations with the Middle East, 32.

34. Admrial Ramsay to Mr. Gresham, April 5, 1895, in FRUS: 1895, 1243.

35. Ibid, 2.

36. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy. 279.

37. The background information on missionary activity in the Middle East summarized here was derived from: Mehmet Ali Dogan and Heather J. Sharkey, eds. American Missionaries and the Middle East, Foundational Encounters (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2011); R. Park Johnson, Middle East Pilgrimage (New York: Friendship Press Inc, 1958); Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy; Grabill, Protestant Diplomacy, 41.


39. Mr. Leishman to Mr. Hay, September 5, 1901. In FRUS: 1902, 997.

40. Ibid, 998.

41. Mr. Leishman to Mr. Hay; September 24, 1901, in FRUS: 1901, 1000.

42. Ibid.

43. Summary of kidnapping events based on dispatches found in FRUS: 1901, 997 – 1000.

44. Mr. Hay to Mr. Leishman, February 2, 1903, in FRUS: 1903, 735.

45. Ibid, 735.

46. Ibid.

47. Mr. Leishman to Mr. Hay, November 15, 1903, In FRUS: 1903, 761.

48. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, 312.

49. Mr. Leishman to Tewfik Pasha [Beirut Governor], September 2, 1903, In FRUS: 1903, 776.

50. The Independent, Volume 55, Part 2, 1903, 2125.

51. Mr. Leishman to Mr. Hay, September 10, 1903, in FRUS: 1903, 779-780.

52. Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (New York: Harper Collins, 2003) 329, 327.

53. Ibid, 335.

54. Theodore Roosevelt to General Sickles, August 8, 1904, Letters, vol 4, 885.

55. Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy, 315-316; Fredrick W.Marks III, Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 67-69.

56. Theodore Roosevelt to Whitelaw Reid, June 27, 1906, Letters, vol. 5, 318-319.

57. Theodore Roosevelt to Senator Eugene Hale, June 27, 1906, Letters, vol. 5, 318.

58. Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy, 315-316.

59. Gould’s characterization of President McKinley’s Latin American policy. Lewis L Gould. The Spanish-American War and President McKinley (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1982), 69.

60. Grabill, Protestant Diplomacy, 49.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


David Grantham
David Grantham

David Grantham is a PhD Candidate in Modern Latin American History with supporting fields in Modern Middle East History and Modern U.S. Diplomacy at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. He earned his Masters of Science in International Relations from Troy University and his Bachelors of Art in History from University of South Florida. He specializes in Latin American foreign policy and U.S. diplomacy in both the Middle East and Latin America, namely Argentina and the Caribbean. David is currently concluding his dissertation project on Argentina’s Middle East foreign policy during the Cold War. He is a contributor to several Latin American and Middle East academic journals and is a member of both the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). David is also a graduate of the University of Texas’ Arabic Summer Language Institute. Before coming to academia, David was an officer in the United States Air Force and a Special Agent with Office of Special Investigations. He held positions as an area specialist, international security advisor, and intelligence operator having served tours of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar.


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