Then & Now: Early 1900s, Early 2000s

History as a National Security Issue | 3 of 6

This is the third of six installments on ‘History as a National Security Issue.’ This post considers how our current challenges echo those of the early-twentieth-century America.


The divisions in American politics and culture today are disquieting, but our circumstances are not without precedent. There are notable commonalities between our challenges and those of our predecessor generations at the turn of the twentieth century.

Then as now, new technologies yielded untold prosperity—and destabilized longstanding arrangements in life and work. A century ago, Americans experienced the wrenching transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy—just as we are moving inexorably into a post-industrial future.

Then as now, the relative places of capital and labor were in flux.

Then as now, financialization and globalization were astonishingly creative and destructive.

Then as now, regional imbalances occasioned concern.

Then as now, oligarchy loomed. In 1901, one company, U.S. Steel, possessed a market capitalization exceeding the amount of the entire federal budget. In 2021, one firm holds assets exceeding the amount of the entire federal budget. A small group of tech companies today, like the “trusts” of early twentieth century, holds outsized power in the economy and wields undue influence in politics.

Then as now, violence coursed through our public and private spaces.

Then as now, sensational, often irresponsible media organizations achieved unprecedented reach through new technology platforms.

Then as now, institutional and individual corruption occasioned a widespread sense of the inadequacy and illegitimacy of our political arrangements.

Then as now, unprecedented immigration—nearly fifteen percent of the population being foreign-born—increased wealth and opportunity at the same time as its pace strained local communities and national cohesion.

Then as now, there were rising assertions of racial, ethnic, and gender identity and corresponding demands for recognition and respect.

Then as now, there were questions about America’s role in the world. Are we a republic—or an empire?

Then as now, the legitimacy, durability and continuing relevance of our core constitutional values and institutions were in question. History moved to the center stage of public debate.

Reconstructing a Nation

Our forebears in the early twentieth century sensed the hand of history on their shoulders. The past was at once a burden and an inspiration, an injunction of obligation and a source of consolation.

In September 1901, following an unlikely series of events, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded the assassinated William McKinley. At age 42, he was, and remains, the youngest president in our history. He was the first commander-in-chief who had come of age after the Civil War.

In the early twentieth century, the lingering effects of the war were evident everywhere. They were reflected in pronounced differences and disparities between regions. At public events it was routine to pause and express gratitude to the veterans of the Blue and Gray in attendance.

Roosevelt’s family was riven by the conflict. His father served the Union cause in voluntary capacities. His mother was a Southerner, a Georgian, a Bulloch. Her family served the Confederate cause with swashbuckling gallantry. In April 1865, young Teedie, age six, watched from his grandfather’s second-story window as Lincoln’s cortege slowly, solemnly wended its way through New York City.

The Civil War indelibly marked Roosevelt’s perspective. TR’s public ebullience was tempered by a tragic sensibility. The writer Owen Wister related that at a private lunch in 1896 Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge agreed that the nation might last “about fifty years.”

Roosevelt’s great rival, Woodrow Wilson, would become president in 1913, the first from the South since the Civil War. One of his earliest recollections was from the age of eight. In Augusta, Georgia, young Tommy, as he was then called, watched as Jefferson Davis, disgraced ex-president of the Confederacy, was marched under guard to Fortress Monroe. Wilson witnessed the humiliation, shame, and degradation imposed by the United States as a victorious military power and occupying force.  

Roosevelt and Wilson were fated to be political antagonists of fearsome ferocity. They shared an implacable commitment to the nation, a determination to advance the project of creating a more perfect union. Each sought to apply history to create a vision of national reconstruction.

New Nationalism, New Freedom

Roosevelt, Wilson, and their generation saw themselves as successors to Washington and his generation, and to Lincoln and his generation.

History was not only a source of guideposts for policy. It held the prospect of a unifying narrative. A shared comprehension of the past could knit together the uniquely diverse elements comprising the American people.

Roosevelt and Wilson not only were practicing politicians; they were practicing historians. Each thought deeply and wrote extensively about American history. Each served as president of the American Historical Association.

Wilson pointed the United States toward “new frontiers.” He saw the need for a clarifying national goal in the aftermath of the closing of the western frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. Wilson proposed to update the founders’ work for the new conditions of the new century, under the banner of the “New Freedom.”

Roosevelt distilled his comprehension of the American experiment in 1910, in his two greatest speeches. One was delivered at Osawatomie, Kansas, a site of John Brown’s bloody raids that became landmarks in the path to the Civil War. TR sought to extend Lincoln’s legacy through “The New Nationalism.” Where Wilson looked in part to the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Roosevelt turned to the tradition of Alexander Hamilton.

TR’s second address focused on “the national character.” Presented at the Sorbonne, it was entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic.”

Roosevelt concisely declared his national vision in 1918:

There is no limit to the greatness before America, before our beloved land. But we can only realize it if we are Americans, if we are nationalists, with all the fervor of our hearts and all the wisdom of our brains. We can serve the world at all only if we serve America first and best.

The term “nationalist” was a point of pride, an object of aspiration. Roosevelt derided Wilson as not a nationalist—suggesting that he was simply not worthy of the label, not up to the task.


Image credits: ‘When McKinley is President,” Puck, J.S. Pughe, Public Domain via Library of Congress; Woodrow Wilson speaks in Big Tent to Gettysburg veterans, 1913, Bain News Service, Public Domain via Wikipedia.