by Philip C. Jessup [Dodd, Mead, 2 vols., $7.50]
ELIHU ROOT stands out as the wisest American of the first decade of this century. This is possibly a challenging statement, but it is hard to read Philip Jessup’s life of Mr. Root without reaching this conclusion. This does not mean that Jessup portrays him as the greatest leader of this period. His strength lay not in popular leadership but in keenness of judgment, in wisdom, and in discretion — attributes which to-day seem to be more or less at a discount among those whom the people of the world look to as their leaders.
We are very fortunate in having so soon after Mr. Root’s death a biography that is authoritative. Admittedly written by a keen admirer and one who had close association with Mr. Root during the later years of his life and had been under the spell of his genius, Jessup’s biography is, however. far from being merely a eulogy. It is analytical and at times mildly critical. It leaves the reader in no doubt, however, that the record is faithfully portrayed and that this record justifies us in ranking Root high among American statesmen.
Jessup’s biography brings out that Mr. Root’s most important contribution to American institutions was made between the years 1899 and 1909, which cover his services first as Secretary of War and then as Secretary of State. He had a passion for organization, and these Departments and their conduct of our policies were modernized under his influence. In fact, contrasting this period with the later years of his life, one might almost, say that his mind was too orderly, possibly too legalistic, to adapt itself to the disorganized world which he had to face after 1914.
Jessup has added valuable chapters to the history of our foreign policy, particularly in the handling of Philippine and Cuban problems, and in regard to our South American relations. He brings out clearly that the ‘good neighbor’ policy really dates back to Root, who followed in the footsteps of Clay and Blaine in adopting new methods in dealing with our South American neighbors.
The biography is extremely pertinent to our present-day international problems. Even in looking over the relatively quiet times during which he conducted our foreign policy, Root was impressed with the fact that ’the very people who are most ardent against entangling alliances insist most fanatically upon our doing one hundred things a year on humanitarian grounds, which would lead to immediate war. . . . All we might have done was to make threats which we would not carry out.’ Thus the problems we face in Europe and the Far East, far more acute than in the days of Root, raise the same issues and call for the same calmness of judgment Root displayed.
Throughout the book there runs a theme of particular interest and concern to lawyers: how far does the type of legal practice which falls to a successful corporation lawyer disqualify him for leadership in political life? Whatever our answer, certainly Mr. Root was denied the highest political honor, the Presidency, because of the nature of his private law practice.
For the student of American political life and foreign policy during the years immediately preceding and following the turn of the century, this biography is a vitally important contribution.