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Benevolent Imperialist

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
December 7, 2005
Wall Street Journal


By Jack McCallum

(New York University Press, 357 pages, $34.95)

The American Empire in the early 20th century produced a cornucopia of striking characters: Marines like Smedley Butler and Dan Daly; soldiers like Frederick Funston and Frank Ross McCoy; colonial administrators like William Cameron Forbes and Charles Magoon. Almost all are forgotten today. That’s a shame, because the American Empire has seen a resurgence in recent years. Modern-day proconsuls in Kabul or Baghdad could do a lot worse than to study their predecessors’ experiences in Havana or Manila for tips on how to run a liberal imperium.

Of the great American imperialists, Leonard Wood is certainly among the most remarkable, but he too has fallen into undeserved obscurity. Thus we can be grateful for Jack McCallum’s dutiful biography, which gives us a reliable, if uninspired, chronicle of Wood’s meteoric ascent and a detailed record of his imperial achievements.

Born of impoverished Mayflower descendants in 1860, Wood grew up in rural Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard Medical School. He was fired for insubordination from his hospital internship and had no choice but to sign up as an assistant Army surgeon in 1885. His first assignment was in the still-wild West, where he took part in an expedition to recapture renegade Apaches led by Geronimo.

In an epic feat of endurance, a small number of troopers covered more than 3,000 miles, mostly on foot. Wood emerged as an iron man who could not be stopped by lack of food, extremes of heat and cold, or even a spider bite that left his leg badly infected. His feats of endurance won him a Medal of Honor and an officer’s commission.

Before long, he wound up in Washington, where he showed a talent for making friends such as President Grover Cleveland and Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, the restless surgeon seized a chance to leave his medical career behind. He became commander of the First Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders, with Roosevelt as his No. 2.

The Rough Riders’ exploits in Cuba are well-known. Less famous is the sequel. While Roosevelt went home to enter politics, Wood stayed on, first as governor of Santiago city, then, from 1900 to 1902, of the entire country.

As befits a medical man, Wood’s most impressive achievement was his war on tropical disease. He began by cleaning up unsanitary conditions, at gunpoint if necessary, and ended up by supporting a medical commission whose investigations found that yellow fever and malaria were spread by mosquitoes. In 1900, more than 1,000 people died of malaria in Havana; within a few years not a single death was recorded.

In addition to saving countless lives, Wood opened up schools, reformed courts and police forces, and held elections. Along the way, this pillar of Calvinist rectitude passed up easy opportunities for enrichment and made sure that no American carpetbaggers exploited the Cubans either. He was hailed as a model administrator by no less than Lord Cromer, the legendary British proconsul in Egypt.

Upon leaving Cuba as a two-star general, Wood was dispatched to the southern provinces of the Philippines, where Islamic Moro extremists were in perpetual revolt against the central government. Here Wood showed another side of his character as he dealt ruthlessly with all opposition. The primary threat came from juramentados, knife-wielding assassins who thought that they could win a place in paradise if they died fighting Christian infidels. To defeat them, Wood shelled numerous cottas (forts) containing not only enemy fighters but also women and children. His scorched-earth policy sparked controversy but achieved results. Moroland had been temporarily pacified by the time Wood left for Manila to take over as military commander of the entire Philippines in 1905.

Five years later, by virtue of seniority, he became the first and only medical officer to lead the Army. Despite (or because of) a total lack of formal military education, he proved an energetic chief of staff who consolidated a baroque bureaucracy, launched officer-training programs for college students and bought the Army’s first airplanes. He stepped down in 1914 but stayed on active duty. An ardent Republican, he antagonized Woodrow Wilson by giving speeches in which he blasted the administration’s failure to do more to prepare for war. When the U.S. did enter World War I, the president got his revenge by forcing Wood to train troops at home rather than lead them to France.

Following Theodore Roosevelt’s death in 1919, Wood, though still in uniform, sought the Republican presidential nomination as TR’s rightful heir. This political neophyte came to the 1920 convention as the front-runner, only to find himself out-maneuvered by Warren Harding’s canny managers. He might have gone on to prosper in the private sector, but, driven by a strong sense of duty, he chose to return to the Philippines as governor-general. Ailing from a brain tumor that wound up killing him in 1927, Wood proved more querulous and less successful the second time around.

Mr. McCallum, a neurosurgeon at Baylor Medical Center who also teaches history at Texas Christian University, would seem ideally suited to chronicle the life of this eminent surgeon-soldier-statesman. But his writing is too pedestrian to breathe life into his subject, and he doesn’t make any attempt to place Wood’s varied experiences into the context of the current debate over American Empire. That’s too bad, because never has Wood’s example been more timely.

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