As his presidency neared its end, Roosevelt seemed to grow proudest of the things he had done to make the United States into a major military power. In a letter dated 28 December 1908 to a journalist acquaintance who was planning an article on his administration, T. R. cited first of all his "doubling" of the size of the navy. Possibly that was because at that moment, the Great White Fleet was on its trip around the world advertising America's big stick while signaling (with the white paint and the exposure of the American coasts) the country's pacific intentions. Roosevelt also stressed his actions in the coal strike; his steps "toward exercising proper national supervision and control over the great corporations"; his massive increase in the country's forest reserves; the Reclamation Act, which he believed was matched only by the Homestead Act of 1862 in the development of America's farm economy; and "the great movement for the conservation of our national resources." But second on his list was the Panama Canal, about which he wrote: "I do not think any feat of quite such far-reaching importance has been to the credit of our country in recent years, and this I can say absolutely was my own work, and could not have been accomplished save by me or by some man of my temperament." To this he added his pride in the reorganization of the War Department, in the inauguration of regular army and navy maneuvers, and the military interventions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which he believed would leave both countries with better prospects for "a stable and orderly independence" than they had ever enjoyed before. He noted furthermore how many of these deeds were "done by me without the assistance of Congress."
Next to such accomplishments, the outgoing president added without elaboration: "I think the peace of Portsmouth was a substantial achievement. You probably know the part we played in the Algeciras conference." In fact, for his efforts in settling the Russo-Japanese War and in calming the tensions between Germany and France over influence in Morocco, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. So it is curious that he used such tame words to note them in a long letter otherwise uncharacterized by modesty. He had no reason to be modest about either the prize or about his triumphs at Portsmouth and Algeciras; they represented Roosevelt at his best as an international leader. Although Roosevelt turned easily to military measures when he treated with small countries, he was the model diplomatist when he negotiated with sizable powers. The prize testified to that. Yet it was clearly strength rather than finesse of which he was most proud, a fact that remains among his most dubious legacies.
When Roosevelt stepped down in 1909, he had set well in motion a powerful current that propelled the American state into the mainstream of its modern responsibilities. His successors, most notably Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, moved even more substantially toward committing the federal government to restoring the congruity of the American business system to the country's chief priorities, to protecting the nation from the less constructive effects of the industrial and corporative transformation of the economy, and to bringing the country's resources to bear on international problems. Roosevelt himself would contribute further to the current over the remaining ten years of his life, but as a goad and gadfly rather than as a direct force.
At fifty, he was still a young man when he retired from the presidency. In that respect alone it was probably inevitable that he would return to presidential politics. His 1904 vow not to seek reelection in 1908 did not mean he would never seek the presidency again. After a brief interlude in 1909 and 1910 hunting in Africa and hobnobbing with Europe's aristocracy, T. R. returned to the United States amid reform Republicans' growing disenchantment with William Howard Taft, Roosevelt's chosen successor in the White House. Among other things, Taft's dismissal of Gifford Pinchot from the Forest Service rankled particularly because it suggested the undoing of Roosevelt's much cherished conservation program. When Taft chose in the fall of 1911 to prosecute the United States Steel Corporation for antitrust violations in its 1907 merger with the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, Roosevelt took the move as a personal affront because of his own role in that affair. That winter T. R. threw his own hat in the ring against Taft for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination.
Taft defeated Roosevelt for the nomination, and T. R. bolted from the Grand Old Party to run for president as the standard-bearer of the newly organized Progressive party. Woodrow Wilson was elected with only 42 percent of the popular vote over both Roosevelt and Taft. It is worth noting that it was in the 1912 election campaign that T. R. gave full expression to the "New Nationalism," a view of government that he had sought unsuccessfully during his presidency to make Republican party policy. It was a program that called upon Americans to put the national interest above their own special competitive interests; to accept government supervision of business, of labor relations, and of resource use and allocation; to take up responsibility for aiding the poor, the disabled, and the aged with federal unemployment, welfare, and retirement insurance plans; to accept both consolidation of economic power and government regulation of such power; and to make cooperation and control rather than competition and cupidity the new model for an American commonwealth.
Roosevelt's New Nationalist campaign forced Wilson to counter with his own version of an industrial policy. Wilson called it the "New Freedom." It contrasted with Roosevelt's proposals in some significant matters, but the two programs held in common a firm commitment to a strong central government prepared to intervene in the nation's business economy whenever compelling reasons of state—including a considered judgment about intolerable levels of human suffering—might require. Except for the regressive Republican interlude in the 1920s, it would become the established political posture of both major parties for almost seventy years.
On the other hand, by leading progressive Republicans out of the Republican party, Roosevelt in effect conceded the party to the reactionaries, who in a single generation turned the GOP into the minority party it basically remained for more than half a century. Meanwhile, Roosevelt quickly abandoned the Progressive party after the 1912 campaign, leaving it to dissolve without a leader or a cause before even the next election came around. It was not a noble performance. Nor did the years after 1912 add stature to Theodore Roosevelt as a citizen or statesman.
In office and campaigning for office, T. R. usually tempered his moral enthusiasm with a strong sense of realism and responsibility. Out of office, and especially on foreign policy matters, Roosevelt often gave in to his less generous impulses. The Great War, as contemporaries referred to it, would bring out the worst in Roosevelt. Long committed to at least an informal Anglo-American alliance, the expresident railed intemperately in public and in private for an early United States intervention on Britain's side against Germany. He denounced President Wilson and others who strained to keep the country neutral as mollycoddles, cowards, hybrid Americans, and even traitors. When the United States did enter the war in 1917, he led the cry for punishment of all dissenters whether they were pacifists who opposed the war on religious or ethical principles or were critics of the government's particular domestic and foreign policies. As always, suggestions about constitutionally protected individual rights won no favor from Roosevelt. In a war, he believed, loyalty to the nation, right or wrong, must be prompt, vigorous, unquestioning, and complete.
That the Woodrow Wilson administration often enough acted on those principles during the 1917–1920 period was in no small measure because of the pressure for a draconian repression that men like Roosevelt persistently demanded. The blows suffered by civil liberties during that period in fact shattered for years the confidence that progressive reformers had once placed in a strong central government. Roosevelt's final years did much to undo what he had achieved for reform as president.