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Former newspaper publisher Conrad Black examines America’s role in the world in his new book, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies that Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership (Encounter). Black digs into little-known crannies of history, including a late 19th-century dustup over the border between British Guyana and Venezuela, with President Grover Cleveland warning Britain that he might intervene militarily. As this excerpt shows, such posturing stirred a fever for war in a future commander in chief.

THE 37-YEAR-OLD PRESIDENT of the board of police commissioners in New York, Theodore Roosevelt, revealed his cowboy belligerence, writing: “Let the fight come if it must. I don’t care whether our seacoast cities are bombarded or not. We would take Canada. If there is a muss, I shall try to have a hand in it myself!…It seems to me that if England were wise, she would fight now. We couldn’t get at Canada until May, and meanwhile, she would play havoc with our coast cities and shipping. Personally, I rather hope that the fight will come soon. The clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war.”

This was nonsense from every angle; the British could probably defend Canada quite well unless the United States reconstituted at least half of the strength of the Grand Army of the Republic, and could reduce to rubble every American city on every ocean coast, from Seattle to San Diego, Galveston to Pensacola, and Jacksonville to Boston, for as long as pleased it. Further, from the British standpoint, it would be insane, as Chamberlain wrote, to get into war with the United States over such a trivial issue. Theodore Roosevelt would soon become one of the great executants of American strategic policy and would be very successful. At this point, he was just a blustering, ill-tempered schoolyard pugilist.