Chronicles of America 

The Fighting Edge

Theodore Roosevelt was a prodigious coiner of phrases. He added scores of them, full of virility, picturesqueness, and flavor to the every-day speech of the American people. They stuck, because they expressed ideas that needed expressing and because they expressed them so well that no other combinations of words could quite equal them. One of the best, though not the most popular, of his phrases is contained in the following quotation:

"One of the prime dangers of civilization has always been its tendency to cause the loss of virile fighting virtues, of the fighting edge. When men get too comfortable and lead too luxurious lives, there is always danger lest the softness eat like an acid into their manliness of fiber."

He used the same phrase many times. Here is another instance:

"Unjust war is to be abhorred; but woe to the nation that does not make ready to hold its own in time of need against all who would harm it! And woe, thrice over, to the nation in which the average man loses the fighting edge, loses the power to serve as a soldier if the day of need should arise!"

That was it--THE FIGHTING EDGE. Roosevelt had it, if ever man had. The conviction of the need for that combination of physical and spiritual qualities that this represented, if a man is to take his place and keep it in the world, became an inseparable part of his consciousness early in life. It grew in strength and depth with every year that he lived. He learned the need of preparedness on that day in Maine when he found himself helpless before the tormenting of his young fellow travelers. In the gymnasium on Twentieth Street, within the boxing ring at Harvard, in the New York Assembly, in the conflicts with the spoilsmen in Washington, on the frontier in cowboy land, in Mulberry Street and on Capitol Hill, and in the jungle before Santiago, the lesson was hammered into him by the stern reality of events. The strokes fell on malleable metal.

In the spring of 1897, Roosevelt had been appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, largely through the efforts of his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. The appointment was excellent from every point of view. Though Roosevelt had received no training for the post so far as technical education was concerned, he brought to his duties a profound belief in the navy and a keen interest in its development. His first published book had been "The Naval War of 1812"; and the lessons of that war had not been lost upon him. It was indeed a fortuitous circumstance that placed him in this branch of the national service just as relations between Spain and the United States were reaching the breaking point. When the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, his reaction to that startling event was instantaneous. He was convinced that the sinking of the Maine made war inevitable, but he had long been certain that war ought to come. He believed that the United States had a moral duty toward the Cuban people, oppressed, abused, starved, and murdered at the hands of Spain.

He was not the head of the Navy Department, but that made little difference. The Secretary was a fine old gentleman, formerly president of the Massachusetts Peace Society, and by temperament indisposed to any rapid moves toward war. But he liked his Assistant Secretary and did not put too stern a curb upon his impetuous activity and Roosevelt's activity was vigorous and unceasing. Secretary Long has described it, rather with justice than with enthusiasm.

"His activity was characteristic. He was zealous in the work of putting the navy in condition for the apprehended struggle. His ardor sometimes went faster than the President or the Department approved . . . . He worked indefatigably, frequently incorporating his views in memoranda which he would place every morning on my desk. Most of his suggestions had, however, so far as applicable, been already adopted by the various bureaus, the chiefs of which were straining every nerve and leaving nothing undone. When I suggested to him that some future historian reading his memoranda, if they were put on record, would get the impression that the bureaus were inefficient, he accepted the suggestion with the generous good nature which is so marked in him. Indeed, nothing could be pleasanter than our relations. He was heart and soul in his work. His typewriters had no rest. He, like most of us, lacks the rare knack of brevity. He was especially stimulating to the younger officers who gathered about him and made his office as busy as a hive. He was especially helpful in the purchasing of ships and in every line where he could push on the work of preparation for war."

One suspects that the Secretary may have been more complacently convinced of the forehandedness of the bureau chiefs than was his impatient associate. For, while the navy was apparently in better shape than the army in those days, there must have been, even in the Department where Roosevelt's typewriters knew no rest, some of that class of desk-bound officers whom he met later when he was organizing the Rough Riders. His experience with one such officer in the War Department was humorous. This bureaucrat was continually refusing Roosevelt's applications because they were irregular. In each case Roosevelt would appeal to the Secretary of War, with whom he was on the best of terms, and would get from him an order countenancing the irregularity. After a number of experiences of this kind, the harassed slave of red tape threw himself back in his chair and exclaimed, "Oh, dear! I had this office running in such good shape--and then along came the war and upset everything!"

But there were plenty of good men in the navy; and one of them was Commodore George Dewey. Roosevelt had kept his eye on him for some time as an officer who "could be relied upon to prepare in advance, and to act promptly, fearlessly, and on his own responsibility when the emergency arose." When he began to foresee the probability of war, Roosevelt succeeded in having Dewey sent to command the Asiatic squadron; and just ten days after the Maine was blown up this cablegram went from Washington to Hong Kong:

"DEWEY, Hong Kong:

"Order the squadron, except the Monocacy, to Hong Kong. Keep full of coal. In the event of declaration of war Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast, and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands. Keep Olympia until further orders. Roosevelt."

The declaration of war lagged on for nearly two months, but when it finally came, just one week elapsed between the sending of an order to Dewey to proceed at once to the Philippines and to "capture vessels or destroy" and the elimination of the sea power of Spain in the Orient. The battle of Manila Bay was a practical demonstration of the value of the "fighting edge," as exemplified in an Assistant Secretary who fought procrastination, timidity, and political expedience at home and in a naval officer who fought the enemy's ships on the other side of the world.

When war actually came, Roosevelt could not stand inactivity in Washington. He was a fighter and he must go where the real fighting was. With Leonard Wood, then a surgeon in the army, he organized the First United States Volunteer Cavalry. He could have been appointed Colonel, but he knew that Wood knew more about the soldier's job than he, and he insisted upon taking the second place. The Secretary of War thought him foolish to step aside thus and suggested that Roosevelt become Colonel and Wood Lieutenant-Colonel, adding that Wood would do the work anyway. But that was not the Roosevelt way. He replied that he did not wish to rise on any man's shoulders, that he hoped to be given every chance that his deeds and his abilities warranted, that he did not wish what he did not earn, and that, above all, he did not wish to hold any position where any one else did the work. Lieutenant-Colonel he was made.

The regiment, which will always be affectionately known as the Rough Riders, was "raised, armed, equipped, drilled, mounted, dismounted, kept for two weeks on a transport, and then put through two victorious aggressive fights, in which it lost a third of the officers, and a fifth of the enlisted men, all within a little over fifty days." Roosevelt began as second in command, went through the battle of San Juan Hill as Colonel, and ended the war in command of a brigade, with the brevet of Brigadier-General. The title of Colonel stuck to him all his life.

When he became President, his instinctive commitment to the necessity of being prepared had been stoutly reinforced by his experience in what he called "the war of America the Unready." His first message to Congress was a long and exhaustive paper, dealing with many matters of importance. But almost one-fifth of it was devoted to the army and the navy. "It is not possible," he said, "to improvise a navy after war breaks out. The ships must be built and the men trained long in advance." He urged that Congress forthwith provide for several additional battleships and heavy armored cruisers, together with the proportionate number of smaller craft, and he pointed out the need for many more officers and men. He declared that "even in time of peace a warship should be used until it wears out, for only so can it be kept fit to respond to any emergency. The officers and men alike should be kept as much as possible on blue water, for it is there only they can learn their duties as they should be learned." But his most vigorous insistence was upon gunnery. "In battle," he said once to the graduates of the Naval Academy, "the only shots that count are those that hit, and marksmanship is a matter of long practice and intelligent reasoning." To this end he demanded "unceasing" gunnery practice.

In every succeeding message to Congress for seven years he returned to the subject of the navy, demanding ships, officers, men, and, above all, training. His insistence on these essentials brought results, and by the time the cruise of the battle fleet around the world had been achieved, the American navy, ship for ship, was not surpassed by any in the world. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, ship's crew for ship's crew; for it was the officers and men of the American navy who made it possible for the world cruise to be made without the smallest casualty.

The question of marksmanship had been burned into Roosevelt's mind in those days when the Spanish War was brewing. He has related in his "Autobiography" how it first came to his attention through a man whose name has in more recent years become known the world over in connection with the greatest task of the American navy. Roosevelt's account is as follows:

"There was one deficiency . . . which there was no time to remedy, and of the very existence of which, strange to say, most of our best men were ignorant. Our navy had no idea how low our standard of marksmanship was. We had not realized that the modern battleship had become such a complicated piece of mechanism that the old methods of training in marksmanship were as obsolete as the old muzzle-loading broadside guns themselves. Almost the only man in the navy who fully realized this was our naval attach at Paris, Lieutenant Sims. He wrote letter after letter pointing out how frightfully backward we were in marksmanship. I was much impressed by his letters . . . . As Sims proved to be mistaken in his belief that the French had taught the Spaniards how to shoot, and as the Spaniards proved to be much worse even than we were, in the service generally Sims was treated as an alarmist. But although I at first partly acquiesced in this view, I grew uneasy when I studied the small proportion of hits to shots made by our vessels in battle. When I was President I took up the matter, and speedily became convinced that we needed to revolutionize our whole training in marksmanship. Sims was given the lead in organizing and introducing the new system; and to him more than to any other one man was due the astonishing progress made by our fleet in this respect, a progress which made the fleet, gun for gun, at least three times as effective, in point of fighting efficiency, in 1908, as it was in 1902"1

Theodore Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing, bred-in-the-bone individualist, but not as the term is ordinarily understood. He continually emphasized not the rights of the individual, but his duties, obligations, and opportunities. He knew that human character is the greatest thing in the world and that men and women are the real forces that move and sway the world's affairs. So in all his preaching and doing on behalf of a great and efficient navy, the emphasis that he always laid was upon the men of the navy, their efficiency and their spirit. He once remarked, "I believe in the navy of the United States primarily because I believe in the intelligence, the patriotism, and the fighting edge of the average man of the navy." To the graduating class at Annapolis, he once said:

"There is not one of you who is not derelict in his duty to the whole Nation if he fails to prepare himself with all the strength that in him lies to do his duty should the occasion arise; and one of your great duties is to see that shots hit. The result is going to depend largely upon whether you or your adversary hits. I expect you to be brave. I rather take that for granted . . . . But, in addition, you have got to prepare yourselves in advance. Every naval action that has taken place in the last twenty years. . . has shown, as a rule, that the defeated party has suffered not from lack of courage, but because it could not make the best use of its weapons, or had not been given the right weapons . . .. I want every one here to proceed upon the assumption that any foe he may meet will have the courage. Of course, you have got to show the highest degree of courage yourself or you will be beaten anyhow, and you will deserve to be; but in addition to that you must prepare yourselves by careful training so that you may make the best possible use of the delicate and formidable mechanism of a modern warship."

Theodore Roosevelt was an apostle of preparedness from the hour that he began to think at all about affairs of public moment--and that hour came to him earlier in life than it does to most men. In the preface to his history of the War of 1812, which he wrote at the age of twenty-four, this sentence appears: "At present people are beginning to realize that it is folly for the great English-speaking Republic to rely for defense upon a navy composed partly of antiquated hulks, and partly of new vessels rather more worthless than the old." His prime interest, from the point of view of preparedness, lay in the navy. His sense of proportion told him that the navy was the nation's first line of defense. He knew that without an efficient navy a nation situated as the United States was would be helpless before an aggressive enemy, and that, given a navy of sufficient size and effectiveness, the nation could dispense with a great army. For the army he demanded not size but merely efficiency. One of his principal points of attack in his criticism of the army was the system of promotion for officers. He assailed sharply the existing practice of "promotion by mere seniority." In one of his messages to Congress he pointed out that a system of promotion by merit existed in the Military Academy at West Point. He then went on to say that from the time of the graduation of the cadets into the army "all effort to find which man is best or worst and reward or punish him accordingly, is abandoned: no brilliancy, no amount of hard work, no eagerness in the performance of duty, can advance him, and no slackness or indifference, that falls short of a court-martial offense, can retard him. Until this system is changed we cannot hope that our officers will be of as high grade as we have a right to expect, considering the material from which we draw. Moreover, when a man renders such service as Captain Pershing rendered last spring in the Moro campaign, it ought to be possible to reward him without at once jumping him to the grade of brigadier-general."

It is not surprising to find in this message also a name that was later to become famous in the Great War. Roosevelt had an uncanny gift of prophecy.

More than once, as President, he picked out for appreciation and commendation the very men who were to do the big things for America when the critical hour came.

  1. Autobiography (Scribner), pp. 212-13.