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Cowboy Diplomacy: How the Myth of the American West Influences American Politics

Page history last edited by Stacy Takacs 14 years, 7 months ago

"Now look! That damned cowboy is President of the United States!"


~Mark Hanna, about President Theodore Roosevelt


The following section discusses how the myth of the cowboy has influenced some of America’s modern political leaders and their political views. It is important to note that the mythic cowboy also contains a certain level of machismo which these leaders also incorporated into their policy.  Below are a few examples in which U.S. Presidents have adopted cowboy-like roles, specific eras in which the mythic cowboy mentality has cropped up in the White House during times of conflict, and the effect that mentality has had during those conflicts. 


Cowboy Diplomacy: "is a term used by critics to describe the resolution of international conflicts through brash risk-taking, intimidation, military deployment, or a combination of such tactics." ~Wikipedia.org


President Theodore Roosevelt


President Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican and was the 26th President of the United States. 

Cowboy & Masculine Persona(s):



  • According to The Wimp Factor by Stephen J. Ducat, when Roosevelt first entered the political arena, he was called names like “’Punkin-Lily,’… ‘Jane-Dandy,’… [and] ‘the exquisite Mr. Roosevelt’” because of his “aristocratic couture” (78). Knowing Roosevelt would have to beef up his image to win elections and he chose to go the route of the cowboy in the Badlands of South Dakota.  On his cattle ranch, Roosevelt told the New York Tribune that he spends his time, “galloping over the pains, day in and day out, glad in a buckskin shirt and leather chaparajos, with a big sombrero on my head” (qtd. in Wimp 79). 
  • In 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt became the Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, also known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The Rough Riders became famous for their heroic presence in the battles of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill.
  • During his presidency, Roosevelt “agonized about ‘a certain softness of fibre in civilized nations’” (Ducat 79). This he applied to his desire to expand the United States into non-white territory, which was a way to assert dominance over primitive forms of masculinity. Roosevelt also feared that white men were becoming too soft. This fear stemmed from the theory of Sociologist Edward A. Ross, which asserted that white civility and their capacity to restrain their sexual impulses results in “race suicide” (Ducat 79), which is a lowering of the birthrate of a particular race. To combat this anxiety, Roosevelt encouraged procreation and it soon became a form of patriotic duty. He even “praised as heroes those citizens who took it upon themselves to produce large families” (Ducat 80).  This large family was a precursor to the "baby boom" generation of post World War America.


President Lyndon B. Johnson


President Lyndon B. Johnson was a Democrat and was the 36th President of the United States.

Cowboy & Masculine Persona(s):


  • He owned a ranch in Johnson City, Texas, and became a full-time rancher after he left the White House.
  • Aside from the mistakes President Johnson made with the war in Vietnam, he ran a very socially conscious administration.  During the Johnson administration "a total of 47 educational laws were enacted during the Johnson administration, and federal education programs increased from approximately 20 to 130" (Vestal 31).  Johnson was also very active in combating poverty.  However, Stephen J. Ducat remarks that because in the past women have been at the forefront of combating issues such as "aid to the poor, charity and social welfare have been gendered female" (80), and therefore Johnson' had to de-feminize his efforts.  To do so he branded his efforts "The War on Poverty" (Ducat 80). 


President Ronald Reagan


President Ronald Reagan was a Republican and was the 40th President of the United States. 

Cowboy & Masculine Persona(s):


  • Before he was President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was an actor and in several movies he portrayed cowboys.  The type of cowboy President Reagan had portrayed on the silver screen was always on of mythic origin, which was common in the 1930s.

  • President Reagan also owned a ranch that he would visit on his vacations from his duties at the White House.  The ranch, located in California was termed the Western White House.

  • During the Cold War, he used mythic language to depict the Soviet Union and referred to them as the "Evil Empire," making the standoff seem as nothing less than a battle for good or evil.  Also, in Soviet newspapers President Reagan was depicted as "a wild 'cowboy,'... waving a Stetson as he gleefully sat atop a ballistic missile.  He may have called them the Evil Empire, but in the Soviet view, Reagan was evil incarnate" (Barnathan 39). 


President George W. Bush


President George W. Bush is also a Republican and is the 43rd President of the United States.

Cowboy & Masculine Persona(s):



  • In 1999 George W. Bush bought Prairie Chapel Ranch just outside of Crawford, Texas as a vacation home.  This ranch is also referred to as a Western White House.

  • President Bush likes to portray a regular-guy persona, and to do this he feels he must be anti-intellectual and inarticulate.  He once joked at Yale that "you can get a C-average and still become President" of the United States (Ducat 172).  This reinforces the image of the semiliterate cowboy and suggests that education is not as manly as having an instinctive knowledge of things.
  • President Bush frequently uses cowboy terminology such as "'I want justice. And there's an old poster out West, I recall, that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive'" (qtd in Aint No Cowboy).  However much he wishes to project an image of a tough, American cowboy, critics say that he doesn't employ the positive aspects of what (mythological) cowboys stand for, as evidenced by the rules of the Gene Autry "Cowboy Code."



Cowboy Imagery during the Cold War era:



In times of war, societies often turn to their traditional myths.  When this happens generally the battle appears to be between a good froce vs. an evil force.  This definitely occured during the Cold War era, which was a prolonged period of paranoia from about the 1940s to the 1990s, that stemmed from a fear of the spread of Communism and the threat of nuclear warfare. 


During the 1950s television was chock-full of western televsion shows.  The first were primarily for juveniles and they depicted heroes such as "Rin Tin Tinn," "The Lone Ranger," and "Roy Rogers," who became examples of "the perfect father, uncle, big brother... [that demonstrated a strong] love of country, respect for just government, and communion with the creators of the nation" (Mac Donald 135).  These images of the flawless do-no-wrong cowboys helped to instill a sense of patriotism in the youth of America.  It also "contained secular parables for a nation whose citizens bulit bomb shelters in their backyards, whose government leaders threatened massive nuclear retaliation against evil 'bad guys,' whose external enemies seemed perpetually poised for attack, and whose internal politics generated fear of subversion and disloyalty" (Mac Donald 140). 


Later, during the Reagan administration, President Reagan invoked the myth image of a struggle between "Good vs. Evil" between anti-Communist forces (good) and Communist forces (evil).  



America: Post 9-11 and the "War on Terror"


As stated above, President Bush uses a lot of western terminology, especially about the War in Iraq.  He has likened the search for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to old western posters that cited "Wanted: Dead or Alive!" (Baard). 


A personal website called The Bradley Report discusses how the executions of Saddam Hussein and his sons were carried out in a rather western style.  Saddam himself was executed by hanging, a popular method of execution during the American west.  Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay "died is similar to the inglorious ways that frontier lawmen ended the careers of many outlaws; that is, by outnumbering, outgunning and surrounding them, and then riddling them without mercy. Often the bodies were then brought back to the nearest town and affixed to boards so they could be leaned against a wall or sidewalk for all to view" (Bradley). 


That's not to say Saddam and his sons weren't bad people that hadn't done incredibly bad things.  That's not to say that they didn't deserve death for their crimes against humanity.  However, to parade dead bodies around the world through the media "in such a crude, frontier fashion" (Bradley), is a real disservice to the western myth of justice and dignity and gives the world at large the impression that America is a very cruel nation.  In this sense, the use of the western myth has actually damaged the perception of America on the world stage.



What does this use of cowboy imagery mean for American identity?


If one looks at the historical figure of the cowboy, it really isn't a very dignified occupation.  However, if one uses this form of cowboy to equate with Americans that's not entirely a bad rap as the cowboy worked incredibly hard every season to make sure the cattle in his charge made it to the market and with little pocket money to show for it.  The cowboy was resourceful and diligent.  All in all, the historical figure of the cowboy is a symbol to be proud of.


The mythical cowboy is either the perfect man or somewhat flawed but still ends each day riding off into the sunset.  This is the image that most people have in their minds when they think of the American cowboy.  The most harmful aspect of the mythical cowboy is that his image can be used to justify hasty action rather than patience and diplomacy.  Using this figure as justification is misleading simply because that version of the cowboy never really existed outside the realm of various fictional productions.   Although this figure stands unwaveringly for the good in society and is seen to be as a veritable knight in shining armor, he also lets his actions speak louder than his words, which can give some the impression that America would prefer quick action to a lengthy diplomatic process.  The mythical figure of the cowboy is a proud figure, albeit an unrealistic one. 



Works Cited:  


Baard, Erick.  "George W. Bush Aint No Cowboy."  The Village Voice. 28 Sept. 2004.  12 Dec. 2007. 



Barnathan, Joyce.  "The Cowboy Who Roped Russia."  Business Week.  21 June 2004. 39-40.  Academic Search Elite.  Tulsa City-County Lib., Tulsa, OK.

5 Dec. 2007.


Bradley, Michael.  "Cowboy Diplomacy Inflames Others and Greatly Lowers American Values."  The Bradley Report.  7 Dec. 2007.  <http://www.bradleyreport.net/republicans/OldWest.htm>


Ducat, Stephen J.  The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, & the Politics of Anxious Masculinity.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2004


MacDonald, J. Fred. "Television and the Red Menace: The Video Road to Vietnam." The American Historical Review. Vol 91. 3 ed.: 1986. 134-



Vestal, Theodore M.  International Education: Its History and Promise for Today.  Westport: Praeger, 1994.



Further Reading:


The Village Voice has an article called "George W. Bush Aint No Cowboy," which uses the Gene Autry "Cowboy Code" to demonstrate that President George W. Bush is using the myth of the American Cowboy to his advantage but disregarding the positive aspects of the Code.


Time magazine has an article called "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy," that discusses how President Bush's cowboy imagry has affected his administration during the war in Iraq. 


Check out Ronald Reagan's filmography at the Internet Movie Database




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