Chronicles of America 

The Last Four Years

When the Great War broke out in August, 1914, Roosevelt instantly stiffened to attention. He immediately began to read the lessons that were set for the world by the gigantic conflict across the sea and it was not long before he was passing them on to the American people. Like every other good citizen, he extended hearty support to the President in his conduct of America's foreign relations in the crisis. At the same time, however, he recognized the possibility that a time might come when it would be a higher moral duty to criticize the Administration than to continue unqualified support. Three weeks after war had begun, Roosevelt wrote in "The Outlook":

"In common with the immense majority of our fellow countrymen, I shall certainly stand by not only the public servants in control of the Administration at Washington, but also all other public servants, no matter of what party, during this crisis; asking only that they with wisdom and good faith endeavor to take every step that can be taken to safeguard the honor and interest of the United States, and, so far as the opportunity offers, to promote the cause of peace and justice throughout the world. My hope, of course, is that in their turn the public servants of the people will take no action so fraught with possible harm to the future of the people as to oblige farsighted and patriotic men to protest against it."

One month later, in a long article in "The Outlook", Roosevelt reiterated this view in these words:

". . . . We, all of us, without regard to party differences, must stand ready loyally to support the Administration, asking nothing except that the policy be one that in truth and in fact tells for the honor and interest of our Nation and in truth and in fact is helpful to the cause of a permanent and righteous world peace."

In the early months of the war, Roosevelt thus scrupulously endeavored to uphold the President's hands, to utter no criticism that might hamper him, and to carry out faithfully the President's adjuration to neutrality. He recognized clearly, however, the price that we must pay for neutrality, and he set it forth in the following passage from the same article: "A deputation of Belgians has arrived in this country to invoke our assistance in the time of their dreadful need. What action our Government can or will take I know not. It has been announced that no action can be taken that will interfere with our entire neutrality. It is certainly eminently desirable that we should remain entirely neutral, and nothing but urgent need would warrant breaking our neutrality and taking sides one way or the other. Our first duty is to hold ourselves ready to do whatever the changing circumstances demand in order to protect our own interests in the present and in the future; although, for my own part, I desire to add to this statement the proviso that under no circumstances must we do anything dishonorable, especially toward unoffending weaker nations. Neutrality may be of prime necessity in order to preserve our own interests, to maintain peace in so much of the world as is not affected by the war, and to conserve our influence for helping toward the reestablishment of general peace when the time comes; for if any outside Power is able at such time to be the medium for bringing peace, it is more likely to be the United States than any other. But we pay the penalty of this action on behalf of peace for ourselves, and possibly for others in the future, by forfeiting our right to do anything on behalf of peace for the Belgians in the present. We can maintain our neutrality only by refusal to do anything to aid unoffending weak powers which are dragged into the gulf of bloodshed and misery through no fault of their own. Of course it would be folly to jump into the gulf ourselves to no good purpose; and very probably nothing that we could have done would have helped Belgium. We have not the smallest responsibility for what has befallen her, and I am sure that the sympathy of this country for the men, women, and children of Belgium is very real. Nevertheless, this sympathy is compatible with full acknowledgment of the unwisdom of our uttering a single word of official protest unless we are prepared to make that protest effective; and only the clearest and most urgent national duty would ever justify us in deviating from our rule of neutrality and noninterference. But it is a grim comment on the professional pacifist theories as hitherto developed that our duty to preserve peace for ourselves may necessarily mean the abandonment of all effective efforts to secure peace for other unoffending nations which through no fault of their own are dragged into the War."

The rest of the article concerned itself with the lessons taught by the war, the folly of pacifism, the need for preparedness if righteousness is not to be sacrificed for peace, the worthlessness of treaties unsanctioned by force, and the desirability of an association of nations for the prevention of war. On this last point Roosevelt wrote as follows:

"But in view of what has occurred in this war, surely the time ought to be ripe for the nations to consider a great world agreement among all the civilized military powers TO BACK RIGHTEOUSNESS BY FORCE. Such an agreement would establish an efficient World League for the Peace of Righteousness. Such an agreement could limit the amount to be spent on armaments and, after defining carefully the inalienable rights of each nation which were not to be transgressed by any other, could also provide that any cause of difference among them, or between one of them and one of a certain number of designated outside non-military nations, should be submitted to an international court, including citizens of all these nations, chosen not as representatives of the nations, BUT AS JUDGES and perhaps in any given case the particular judges could be chosen by lot from the total number. To supplement and make this effectual it should be solemnly covenanted that if any nation refused to abide by the decision of such a court the others would draw the sword on behalf of peace and justice, and would unitedly coerce the recalcitrant nation. This plan would not automatically bring peace, and it may be too soon to hope for its adoption; but if some such scheme could be adopted, in good faith and with a genuine purpose behind it to make it effective, then we would have come nearer to the day of world peace. World peace will not come save in some such manner as that whereby we obtain peace within the borders of each nation; that is, by the creation of reasonably impartial judges and by putting an efficient police power--that is, by putting force in efficient fashion--behind the decrees of the judges. At present each nation must in the last resort trust to its own strength if it is to preserve all that makes life worth having. At present this is imperative. This state of things can be abolished only when we put force, when we put the collective armed power of civilization, behind some body which shall with reasonable justice and equity represent the collective determination of civilization to do what is right."

From this beginning Roosevelt went on vigorously preaching preparedness against war; and the Great War had been raging for a scant seven months when he was irresistibly impelled to utter open criticism of President Wilson. In April, 1915, in The Metropolitan Magazine, to which he had transferred his writings, he declared that "the United States, thanks to Messrs. Wilson and Bryan, has signally failed in its duty toward Belgium." He maintained that the United States, under the obligations assumed by the signature of The Hague Conventions, should have protested to Germany against the invasion of Belgium.

For two years thereafter, while Germany slapped America first on one cheek and then on the other, and treacherously stabbed her with slinking spies and dishonored diplomats, Roosevelt preached, with growing indignation and vehemence, the cause of preparedness and national honor. He found it impossible to support the President further. In February, 1916, he wrote:

"Eighteen months have gone by since the Great War broke out. It needed no prescience, no remarkable statesmanship or gift of forecasting the future, to see that, when such mighty forces were unloosed, and when it had been shown that all treaties and other methods hitherto relied upon for national protection and for mitigating the horror and circumscribing the area of war were literally "scraps of paper," it had become a vital necessity that we should instantly and on a great and adequate scale prepare for our own defense. Our men, women, and children--not in isolated cases, but in scores and hundreds of cases--have been murdered by Germany and Mexico; and we have tamely submitted to wrongs from Germany and Mexico of a kind to which no nation can submit without impairing its own self-respect and incurring the contempt of the rest of mankind. Yet, during these eighteen months not one thing has been done . . . . Never in the country's history has there been a more stupendous instance of folly than this crowning folly of waiting eighteen months after the elemental crash of nations took place before even making a start in an effort--and an utterly inefficient and insufficient effort-for some kind of preparation to ward off disaster in the future.

"If President Wilson had shown the disinterested patriotism, courage, and foresight demanded by this stupendous crisis, I would have supported him with hearty enthusiasm. But his action, or rather inaction, has been such that it has become a matter of high patriotic duty to oppose him . . . . No man can support Mr. Wilson without at the same time supporting a policy of criminal inefficiency as regards the United States Navy, of short-sighted inadequacy as regards the army, of abandonment of the duty owed by the United States to weak and well-behaved nations, and of failure to insist on our just rights when we are ourselves maltreated by powerful and unscrupulous nations."

Theodore Roosevelt could not, without violating the integrity of his own soul, go on supporting either positively by word or negatively by silence the man who had said, on the day after the Lusitania was sunk, "There is such a thing as a nation being too proud to fight," and who later called for a "peace without victory." He could have nothing but scorn for an Administration whose Secretary of War could say, two months after the United States had actually entered the war, that there was "difficulty .. . disorder and confusion . . . in getting things started," and could then add, "but it is a happy confusion. I delight in the fact that when we entered this war we were not like our adversary, ready for it, anxious for it, prepared for it, and inviting it."

Until America entered the war Roosevelt used his voice and his pen with all his native energy and fire to convince the American people of three things that righteousness demanded that the United States forsake its supine neutrality and act; that the United States should prepare itself thoroughly for any emergency that might arise; and that the hyphenated Americanism of those who, while enjoying the benefits of American citizenship, "intrigue and conspire against the United States, and do their utmost to promote the success of Germany and to weaken the defense of this nation" should be rigorously curbed. The sermons that he preached on this triple theme were sorely needed. No leadership in this phase of national life was forthcoming from the quarter where the American people had every right to look for leadership. The White House had its face set in the opposite direction.

In August, 1915, an incident occurred which set the contrast between the Rooseveltian and Wilsonian lines of thought in bold relief. Largely through the initiative of General Leonard Wood there had been organized at Plattsburg, New York, an officers' training camp where American business men were given an all too brief course of training in the art and duty of leading soldiers in camp and in the field. General Wood was in command of the Plattsburg camp. He invited Roosevelt to address the men in training. Roosevelt accepted gladly, and in the course of his speech made these significant statements:

"For thirteen months America has played an ignoble part among the nations. We have tamely submitted to seeing the weak, whom we have covenanted to protect, wronged. We have seen our men, women, and children murdered on the high seas without protest. We have used elocution as a substitute for action.

"During this time our government has not taken the smallest step in the way of preparedness to defend our own rights. Yet these thirteen months have made evident the lamentable fact that force is more dominant now in the affairs of the world than ever before, that the most powerful of modern military nations is utterly brutal and ruthless in its disregard of international morality, and that righteousness divorced from force is utterly futile. Reliance upon high sounding words, unbacked by deeds, is proof of a mind that dwells only in the realm of shadow and of sham.

"It is not a lofty thing, on the contrary, it is an evil thing, to practise a timid and selfish neutrality between right and wrong. It is wrong for an individual. It is still more wrong for a nation.

Therefore, friends, let us shape our conduct as a nation in accordance with the highest rules of international morality. Let us treat others justly and keep the engagements we have made, such as these in The Hague conventions, to secure just treatment for others. But let us remember that we shall be wholly unable to render service to others and wholly unable to fulfill the prime law of national being, the law of self-preservation, unless we are thoroughly prepared to hold our own. Let us show that a free democracy can defend itself successfully against any organized and aggressive military despotism."

The men in the camp heard him gladly and with enthusiasm. But the next day the Secretary of War sent a telegram of censure to General Wood in which he said:

"I have just seen the reports in the newspapers of the speech made by ex-President Roosevelt at the Plattsburg camp. It is difficult to conceive of anything which could have a more detrimental effect upon the real value of this experiment than such an incident . . . . No opportunity should have been furnished to any one to present to the men any matter excepting that which was essential to the necessary training they were to receive. Anything else could only have the effect of distracting attention from the real nature of the experiment, diverting consideration to issues which excite controversy, antagonism, and ill feeling and thereby impairing if not destroying, what otherwise would have been so effective."

On this telegram Roosevelt's comment was pungent: "If the Administration had displayed one-tenth the spirit and energy in holding Germany and Mexico to account for the murder of men, women, and children that it is now displaying in the endeavor to prevent our people from being taught the need of preparation to prevent the repetition of such murders in the future, it would be rendering a service to the people of the country."

Theodore Roosevelt could have little effect upon the material preparedness of the United States for the struggle which it was ultimately to enter. But he could and did have a powerful effect upon the spiritual preparedness of the American people for the efforts, the trials, and the sacrifices of that struggle. No voice was raised more persistently or more consistently than his. No personality was thrown with more power and more effect into the task of arousing the people of the United States to their duty to take part in the struggle against Prussianism. No man, in public or private life, urged so vigorously and effectively the call to arms against evil and for the right. His was the "voice crying in the wilderness," and to him the American spirit hearkened and awoke.

At last the moment came. Roosevelt had but one desire and one thought. He wanted to get to the firing-line. This was no impulse, no newly formed project. For two months he had been in correspondence with the Secretary of War on the subject. A year or more before that he had offered, in case America went into the war, to raise a volunteer force, train it, and take it across to the front. The idea was not new to him, even then. As far back as 1912 he had said on several different occasions, "If the United States should get into another war, I should raise a brigade of cavalry and lead it as I did my regiment in Cuba." It never occurred to him in those days that a former Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army, with actual experience in the field, would be refused permission to command troops in an American war. The idea would hardly have occurred to any one else. But that is precisely what happened.

On February 2, 1917, Roosevelt wrote to the Secretary of War reminding him that his application for permission to raise a division of infantry was already on file in the Department, saying that he was about to sail for Jamaica, and asking the Secretary to inform him if he believed there would be war and a call for volunteers, for in that case he did not intend to sail. Secretary Baker replied, "No situation has arisen which would justify my suggesting a postponement of the trip you propose." Before this reply was received Roosevelt had written a second letter saying that, as the President had meanwhile broken off diplomatic relations with Germany, he should of course not sail. He renewed his request for permission to raise a division, and asked if a certain regular officer whom he would like to have for his divisional Chief of Staff, if the division were authorized, might be permitted to come to see him with a view to "making all preparations that are possible in advance." To this the Secretary replied, "No action in the direction suggested by you can be taken without the express sanction of Congress. Should the contingency Occur which you have in mind, it is to be expected that Congress will complete its legislation relating to volunteer forces and provide, under its own conditions, for the appointment of officers for the higher commands."

Roosevelt waited five weeks and then earnestly renewed his request. He declared his purpose to take his division, after some six weeks of preliminary training, direct to France for intensive training so that it could be sent to the front in the shortest possible time. Secretary Baker replied that no additional armies could be raised without the consent of Congress, that a plan for a much larger army was ready for the action of Congress when ever required, and that the general officers for all volunteer forces were to be drawn from the regular army. To this Roosevelt replied with the respectful suggestion that, as a retired Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army, he was eligible to any position of command over American troops. He recounted also his record of actual military experience and referred the Secretary to his immediate superiors in the field in Cuba as to his fitness for command of troops.

When war had been finally declared, Secretary Baker and Roosevelt conferred together at length about the matter. Thereafter Mr. Baker wrote definitely, declaring that he would be obliged to withhold his approval from an expedition of the sort proposed. The grounds which he gave for the decision were that the soldiers sent across must not be "deprived . . . of the most experienced leadership available, in deference to any mere sentimental consideration," and that it should appear from every aspect of the expeditionary force, if one should be sent over (a point not yet determined upon) that "military considerations alone had determined its composition."

To this definite refusal on the part of the Secretary of War Roosevelt replied at length. In his letter was a characteristic passage commenting upon Secretary Baker's reference to "sentimental considerations":

"I have not asked you to consider any "sentimental value" in this matter. I am speaking of moral effect, not of sentimental value. Sentimentality is as different from morality as Rousseau's life from Abraham Lincoln's. I have just received a letter from James Bryce urging "the dispatch of an American force to the theater of war," and saying, "The moral effect of the appearance in the war line of an American force would be immense." From representatives of the French and British Governments and of the French, British, and Canadian military authorities, I have received statements to the same effect, in even more emphatic form, and earnest hopes that I myself should be in the force. Apparently your military advisers in this matter seek to persuade you that a "military policy" has nothing to do with "moral effect." If so, their militarism is like that of the Aulic Council of Vienna in the Napoleonic Wars, and not like that of Napoleon, who stated that in war the moral was to the material as two to one. These advisers will do well to follow the teachings of Napoleon and not those of the pedantic militarists of the Aulic Council, who were the helpless victims of Napoleon."

Secretary Baker replied with a reiteration of his refusal. Roosevelt made one further attempt. When the Draft Law passed Congress, carrying with it the authorization to use volunteer forces, he telegraphed the President asking permission to raise two divisions, and four if so directed. The President replied with a definite negative, declaring that his conclusions were "based entirely upon imperative considerations of public policy and not upon personal or private choice." Meanwhile applications had been received from over three hundred thousand men desirous of joining Roosevelt's volunteer force, of whom it was estimated that at least two hundred thousand were physically fit, double the number needed for four divisions. That a single private citizen, by "one blast upon his bugle horn" should have been able to call forth three hundred thousand volunteers, all over draft age, was a tremendous testimony to his power. If his offer had been accepted when it was first made, there would have been an American force on the field in France long before one actually arrived there. It was widely believed, among men of intelligence and insight, not only in America but in Great Britain and France, that the arrival of such a force, under the command of a man known, admired, and loved the world over, would have been a splendid reinforcement to the Allied morale and a sudden blow to the German confidence. But the Administration would not have it so.

I shall never forget one evening with Theodore Roosevelt on a speaking tour which he was making through the South in 1912. There came to our private car for dinner Senator Clarke of Arkansas and Jack Greenway, young giant of football fame and experience with the Rough Riders in Cuba. After dinner, Jack, who like many giants, is one of the most diffident men alive, said hesitatingly:

"Colonel, I've long wanted to ask you something."

"Go right ahead," said T. R., "what is it?"

"Well, Colonel," said Jack, "I've always believed that it was your ambition to die on the field of battle."

T. R. brought his hand down on the table with a crash that must have hurt the wood.

"By Jove," said he, "how did you know that?"

"Well, Colonel," said Jack, "do you remember that day in Cuba, when you and I were going along a trail and came upon ____ [one of the regiment] propped against a tree, shot through the abdomen? It was evident that he was done for. But instead of commiserating him, you grabbed his hand and said something like this, 'Well, old man, isn't this splendid!' Ever since then I've been sure you would be glad to die in battle yourself."

T. R.'s face sobered a little.

"You're right, Jack," he said. "I would."

The end of Theodore Roosevelt's life seemed to come to him not in action but in quietness. But the truth was other than that. For it, let us turn again to Browning's lines:

I was ever a fighter, so--one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And bade me creep past.

On the fifth of January in 1919, after sixty years of life, full of unwearied fighting against evil and injustice and falseness, he "fell on sleep." The end came peacefully in the night hours at Sagamore Hill. But until he laid him down that night, the fight he waged had known no relaxation. Nine months before he had expected death, when a serious mastoid operation had drained his vital forces. Then his one thought had been, not for himself, but for his sons to whom had been given the precious privilege, denied to him, of taking part in their country's and the world's great fight for righteousness. His sister, Mrs. Corinne Douglas Robinson, tells how in those shadowy hours he beckoned her to him and in the frailest of whispers said, "I'm glad it's I that lie here and that my boys are in the fight over there."

His last, best fight was worthy of all the rest. With voice and pen he roused the minds and the hearts of his countrymen to their high mission in defense of human rights. It was not given to him to fall on the field of battle. But he went down with his face to the forces of evil with which he had never sought a truce.