STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The story many Americans learn as kids may reveal a lot about America's role in the world. It's a story involving Theodore Roosevelt. Before he was president, he volunteered to fight in a war. He organized the regiment in which he fought. The Rough Riders went ashore in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
On one level, this is an adventure story. Clay Risen of the New York Times felt there was more to it, that a story from the days of steam engines and horses and colonial empires was still relevant. His new book is "The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders And The Dawn Of The American Century."
Who were the Rough Riders?
CLAY RISEN: The Rough Riders were a unique volunteer regiment that was formed in the first days of the Spanish-American War. At the time, the U.S. military was really small, and they needed to bulk up really quickly. So the U.S. Army went out and recruited cowboys, athletes, people who you could train pretty quickly. And a lot of it was the brainchild of Theodore Roosevelt.
INSKEEP: It was his particular idea of who was manly enough to be in a regiment with him. Is that fair to say?
RISEN: Well, it was - he - yes, he did a lot of the vetting himself. And it certainly was a lot of, yes, his conception of what it meant to be manly. And so you not only had a lot of people from the West but also a lot of Ivy League football players. The No. 1 and the No. 2 tennis player in the country quit tennis to join, and that was the kind of thing that he loved.
INSKEEP: Were these celebrities in some cases?
RISEN: Yeah, they were. They were celebrities in the sense that they were the children of the tycoons and the kind of lords of the Gilded Age, the sort of people who grew up in Newport and Fifth Avenue and had names that resonated for a public that, you know, much like today, they know who has the money, who has the power.
INSKEEP: Who was Theodore Roosevelt at the time that he was helping to organize this regiment?
RISEN: So Theodore Roosevelt was - at the time, he was 38 years old. He had gone through a number of careers. He had been a politician. He had been a rancher. He was a historian. But he felt like life was actually passing him by and that he had not really found that thing that motivated him. And so when the war came along, which is something he advocated for, he knew immediately that he had to not just sit at a desk but actually go out and participate.
INSKEEP: So I get that you had heard of the Rough Riders. If you read very much American history, you encounter them because of, well, Theodore Roosevelt, for starters. But what made you think there was more to this story than a few brilliant names?
RISEN: Well, so a couple of things. So first of all is my Boy Scout troop when I was a kid was nicknamed the Rough Riders, and so I knew about this story. And we had this great sort of logo with a cartoon Theodore Roosevelt with big teeth and glasses. Yeah, it was really cool.
And, you know, I actually - I stumbled across an obituary from the New York Times for a Rough Rider, not even one of the famous Rough Riders. But it was from the '30s, and it went through his career. And it struck me that, you know, if here's a guy who's not even that famous, but he's significant enough that 40 - almost 40 years later, he gets an obituary in the New York Times. So what does that say about how famous and how significant these people were at the time? And what is that significance? So that really struck for me that match of thinking, OK, now I need to find the answer.
INSKEEP: Well, were they hugely famous when the United States organized an army and invaded Cuba in 1898?
RISEN: Absolutely. You know, there was this moment in 1898 where I think - and this is the significance of the war - is that it changed how America thinks about its military and about its role in the world. And it gave a positive spin to the idea that American can have a military and should go out into the world to intervene, to bring freedom.
And for a lot of people, even at the time - and editorialists wrote about this. They said the Rough Riders are emblematic of that new America, of this idea that we have this power and we have this - the strength and these values at home. And now we're going to arm them and take them out into the world. And to me, that resonates throughout the 20th century. Time after time, we do that same sort of thing.
INSKEEP: So let's note this is the beginning of the idea of America going out into the world to make the world a better place by force when that seems to make sense to Americans. But there's also the identity of the individuals themselves. What did the personnel of the Rough Riders suggest to Americans about who America was?
RISEN: Well, this is one of the ironies because one of the things that Roosevelt talked about and one of the things that he valued about the Rough Riders was this was not just his idea about American masculinity but also what in his mind was diversity, but within a very narrowly prescribed idea about what diversity was. They were all white. There were a few Native Americans who were in it. But there were - you know, there were no African Americans. There were there a couple of Hispanics.
But it was this idea of, well, that's what America is. And it was a very prescribed, very male, very white identity. And it linked up with, you know, I think a very chauvinistic idea about what we do with our military. I think this is all intertwined.
INSKEEP: What do you mean about what we do with our military?
RISEN: Well, in the sense that there is this very shoot-first-and-ask-questions later attitude about when we go out in the world. So I think when we take our values into the world throughout when this happens, throughout the 20th century, I think that there's a lot of good to be said about the intentions on a basic level. You know, we are going to go help people. But oftentimes the idea that the answer is military force, I think that that comes out of a lot of the same idea that this identity of the military as a very masculine, a very - you know, very prescribed idea.
INSKEEP: As you follow the news as a journalist over the past many years, which events make you think of this story of the Rough Riders? Which events have resonance?
RISEN: I think the Iraq War most of all. And I remember the tenor of the debate around particularly in sort of liberal circles and people talking about the importance of invading Iraq to free the Iraqi people and the commitment that America had to make to the world, and this is what we did. It was very resonant with the way people talked about Cuba in 1898.
There was no consideration really for, OK, we can invade Iraq, and we're going to win. There's no question. But can we actually rebuild the country? You know, what happens afterward? So when I was working on this book, I so often felt like I remember (laughter) when this happened in 2003, this same combination of principle and just lack of foresight. And I think it's something that we as a country do over and over again.
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INSKEEP: Clay Risen's new book on the Rough Riders is called "The Crowded Hour." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.