Elihu Root

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Elihu Root (February 15, 1845 – February 7, 1937) served as United States Secretary of War from 1899-1905, and United States Secretary of State from 1905-1909, both for his close friend President Theodore Roosevelt. Root was a thoughtful and brilliant lawyer, the very epitome of the New York establishment. He was a leading conservative during the Progressive Era, best known for modernizing the Army.


Root is best known for the "Root Reforms" that modernized the U.S. Army. The short Spanish-American War of 1898 had demonstrated that more effective control over the department and bureaus was necessary. In 1903 Secretary Root sought to achieve this goal in a businesslike manner by appointing a chief of staff as general manager and a European-type general staff for planning. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the General Staff was able to respond with facts and plans; its experienced officers served with distinction in both Washington and France. Other key reforms included modernization of the medical corps, new training procedures, upgrading West Point, and creating the office of commanding general.

Platt Amendment

Root in 1901 designed the Platt Amendment which authorized intervention in Cuba if needed; General Leonard Wood helped Root. Senator Orville Platt's role was that of sponsoring the program in the Senate. The goal of the amendment was strategic - to keep Cuba peaceful and the Caribbean secure. The Cuban desire for favorable commercial treatment led them to agree to the Platt Amendment in 1903. Roosevelt and Root emphasized the points of keeping order, paying obligations, and (as TR put it) acting "with decency in industrial and political matters." Dollar Diplomacy was the tactic by which settlement on the questions of naval bases, reciprocity, and the Permanent Treaty (embodying the Platt Amendment) was reached during 1903 and whereby the door to serious loan negotiations was opened.

Root served as Republican Senator from New York from 1909-1915.

Carnegie Endowment

Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for his leadership of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It had been established and funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1910 to promote world peace. It became not only an educational center but also a catalyst for political activities, and provided much of the early initiative in internationalist opposition to the coercive league of nations supported by the League to Enforce Peace. The dominant personalities in the Endowment were Root, Nicholas Murray Butler (President of Columbia University), and James Brown Scott. They were eager to develop public opinion in support of US participation in a postwar international organization, but one founded on the voluntarism of the prewar Hague system. In varying ways the three men took on President Wilson and the League to Enforce Peace, headed by William Howard Taft and A. Lawrence Lowell. The Endowment's three leaders were able to guide its Endowment's client internationalists into voluntarism. They maintained that the Endowment was above the fray, but actually used it to stiffen opposition in the United States to sanctionism and to mobilize discreetly the conservative internationalists.

Root Mission

With the fall of Russia's tsarist regime in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to support the fragile democratic government in Russia that filled the resulting power vacuum. American had several goals. Wilson believed that a democratic Russia would be a vital partner in the eventual creation of a league of democracies (the League of Nations, founded 1919) following the defeat of imperial Germany. A strengthened liberal democratic regime would also serve as an effective counterweight to the growing influence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Wilson sent money but realized troops might be needed. In 1917 Wilson sent a commission composed of senior statesmen, headed by Root, in order to better gauge the unfolding political situation. The mission's conclusions ultimately proved to be unrealistic and misinformed; no one fully appreciated the political dynamic, especially as it applied to the Bolshevik Party which took power later in 1917. Lacking other alternatives, Wilson continued to aid the provisional government until it too was swept away by Lenin.


Wilson blundered badly by not including Root, Taft or some other leading Republican on the delegation to the Paris Conference that wrote the Versailles Peace Treaty. Root called for revisions that were not made, and so he opposed American entry into the League. he was active in creating the World Court and calling for American entry, but the U.S. did not join until after World War II.


Conservative historian Clinton Rossiter has ranked Root among the greatest of American conservatives, along with Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Further reading

  • Dubin, Martin David. "Elihu Root and the Advocacy of a League of Nations, 1914-1917," Western Political Quarterly 1966 19(3): 439-455, online edition
  • Jessup, Philip C. Elihu Root. Vol. I, 1845-1909; Vol. II, 1905-1937. (1938), still the standard biography.
  • Leopold, Richard W. Elihu Root and the Conservative Tradition. (1954).
  • Rossiter, Clinton. "The Giants of American Conservatism," American Heritage 1955 6(6): 56-59, 94-96,
  • Zimmermann, Warren. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (2002), 544pp; covers five 'unabashed imperialists': Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, Elihu Root, and Alfred T. Mahan.