7. Assistant Secretary of the Navy

My power for good... would be gone if I didn’t try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach. - Theodore Roosevelt

The newly appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy was invited to speak at Groton. He gave “a splendid talk on his adventures when he was on the Police Board. He kept the whole room in an uproar for over an hour, by telling us killing stories about policemen and their doings in New York,” wrote young Franklin, his distant cousin.1

From that time on, Franklin modeled his career on Theodore Roosevelt’s, who was, he said, the greatest man he ever knew.2

Secretary of the Navy Long didn’t want to be bothered with details, so Roosevelt took over the technical side of the job. It was a great deal of fun. Theodore was aboard ships as they practiced shooting at targets to “satisfy [himself] definitely of the great superiority of the battleship as a gun platform.” He met and talked to every captain and inspected the ships’ equipment at every opportunity.3 He interrogated everybody who crossed his path. Long was now free to take days off, putter around the house and write poetry.

Naval expansion was Theodore’s goal. Only by building the Navy would we be prepared in the event of war. “Diplomacy is utterly useless when there is no force behind it,” he said. He wanted battleships for the Pacific in case Japan tried to seize Hawaii, but Congress refused to appropriate funds for them. “I suspect Roosevelt is right,” said McKinley, “and the only difference between him and me is the greater responsibility.”4

At a speech at the Naval War College in Rhode Island he said:

No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war...It may be that at some time in the dim future of the race the need for war will vanish; but that time is yet ages distant. As yet no nation can hold its place in the world, or can do any work really worth doing, unless it stands ready to guard its rights with an armed hand.

It is too late to prepare for war when the time for peace has passed.5

Theodore was impressed by Langley’s flying machine and wrote:

The machine has worked. It seems to me worth while for this Government to try whether it will not work on a large enough scale to be of use in the event of war.

He recommended that a board of four engineers study the possibility of producing such machines on a large scale.

A Cuban revolution started in October, 1868, which demanded freedom from Spanish rule. The Ten Years War followed. The United States did not intervene in this war but an incident happened which increased American sympathy for the revolutionaries.

Joseph Fry, a former Confederate officer, left Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in a steamboat, the Virginius, carrying guns, sabers, explosives and medical supplies for the revolution. He had on board four Cuban officers and a hundred rebel soldiers. They were spotted between Jamaica and Cuba by a Spanish battleship which gave chase. The Virginius was forced to surrender and follow the Spanish ship into Santiago Harbor.

The four Cuban officers were shot and decapitated. Their heads were displayed on posts for all to see. Fry and his men were executed by firing squad.
President Grant considered intervention in Cuba, but sent a strongly worded message to Spain instead. The revolution ended in 1878 when a treaty was signed with Spain that abolished slavery on the island and promised more reforms which did not take place.

A newspaperman visiting the island in the 1890’s said, “Spain is stumbling down a dark and bloody road to her doom.” Cubans lived in squalor and were struggling with starvation and hopelessness. Since Spain would do nothing to address their problems, Cubans were forced to fight injustice by any method they could.6

Guerrilla warfare was begun in 1895. Sugar cane fields were burned, railroads dynamited and weapons captured.7 In 1896 the new governor-general of Cuba ordered all Cubans in villages know to be rebel strongholds to be put in fortified towns which were really concentration camps. An estimated 100,000 Cubans died in the camps from disease and starvation.8

Winston Churchill, wounded in Cuba, wrote:

Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones.9

Roosevelt felt we would be required to help Cuba in the event of an uprising.10

He also felt that a War with Spain would get us “a proper Navy and a good system of coastal defense.”11

When Long departed for a month’s vacation, Theodore wrote him that he wouldn’t bother him unnecessarily. “I shan’t send you anything, unless it is really important,” he wrote. “You must be tired, and you ought to have an entire rest.” He said not to bother answering his letters “for I don’t want you bothered at all.” As for coming back by Labor Day there was “not the slightest earthly reason” to return before the end of September.12

“The Secretary is away, and I am having immense fun running the Navy,” he wrote happily.13

A journalist wrote:

The liveliest spot in Washington at present is the Navy Department...The decks are cleared for action. Acting Secretary Roosevelt, in the absence of Secretary Long, has the whole Navy bordering on a war footing. It remains only to sand down the decks and pipe to quarters for action.14

The President was pleased with what Theodore had done in Long’s absence. “Of course,” Theodore wrote Lodge, “The President is a bit of a jollier.” Theodore reminded McKinley that “I myself would go to the war.” When McKinley asked what Mrs. Roosevelt would think of it, Theodore replied “that both [Lodge] and she would regret it but that this was one case where I would consult neither.” The President laughed, “and said that he would do all he could, and thought he could guarantee that I should have the opportunity I sought if war by any chance arose.”

The President had Theodore to dinner and the next day took him out in his carriage. Theodore showed him a map of where all the ships were and sketched for him “what [Theodore] thought ought to be done if things looked menacing about Spain.”15

In the event of a war Roosevelt planned to base the fleet in Key West and establish a blockade of Cuba. He planned for the squadron in Asia to destroy the Spanish squadron in the Philippines. President McKinley agreed to Roosevelt’s plans.16

There were exaggerated accounts of barbarous treatment of Cuban civilians by the Spanish. What was not mentioned in the press was the fact that the rebels committed some atrocities of their own. McKinley sent a strong message to Spain that if the atrocities continued the United States would be forced to take action. Spain correctly perceived this as a threat of war and stopped rounding up civilians and putting them into camps. They also allowed the Cubans some say in the government. By this time, though, Cubans would accept nothing less than complete independence.

In 1898 violence broke out in Cuba and McKinley sent the battleship Maine to Havana. On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded killing 260 sailers out of 360. Bodies were vaporized. Only 76 bodies were able to be identified.17 It was unknown whether it was an act of treachery on the part of the Spaniards or an accident, but Roosevelt had no doubts. “I would give anything if President McKinley would order the fleet to Havana tomorrow. This Cuban business ought to stop. The Maine was sunk by an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards, I believe; though we shall never find out definitely, and officially it will go down as an accident.”18 Then Long, who was beginning to think that Roosevelt “goes off very impulsively,” made the mistake of taking an afternoon off.

Roosevelt swung into action. He ordered Commodore Dewey in Hong Kong to make his ships combat ready. He sent this telegram:

Washington, February 25, ‘98

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.


Next, Roosevelt put in a request for legislation to authorize the immediate enlistment of men, and ordered guns.

Long was thunderstruck. He had left for just an afternoon and Roosevelt, obviously a highly hysterical and impulsive person, had let his temporary authority go to his head.19

However, Long allowed the orders to stand. The press had whipped the public into a frenzy and Theodore was doing what would have to be done eventually.

Americans were sympathetic to the plight of the Cubans. Newspapers were filling their minds with real and imagined images of Spanish atrocities. Also there was a revolution taking place in the Philippines and the Japanese wanted to annex Hawaii.

Leonard Wood
McKinley asked his physician Leonard Wood, “Have you and Theodore declared war yet?” “No, Mr. President,” Wood answered, “but we think you should.”

Leonard Wood loved to walk. He could out walk (but not out talk) Roosevelt.20 “You will be pleased to hear that at Washington I finally developed a playmate who fairly walked me off my legs,” Theodore wrote Lodge.21 “It was a pleasure to deal with a man of high ideals who scorned everything mean and base, and who also possessed those robust and hardy qualities of body and mind, for the lack of which no merely negative virtue can ever atone.”22

The President was informed that the Court of Inquiry would declare that the Maine was blown up by a submarine mine.23

McKinley did not want war. “I have been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another,” he said.24 However, pushed by popular demand, he asked Congress to declare war on Spain.

McKinley called for 125,000 volunteers to augment the 28,000 man regular army.25 Congress authorized raising three cavalry regiments from the Rockies and the great plains. Roosevelt was offered command of a regiment, but asked that the more experienced Leonard Wood be given command, with himself as second in command. Roosevelt was made lieutenant colonel of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry. The public called them the Rough Riders.26

Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, took twelve pairs of spectacles, and headed off to San Antonio for training, against everyone’s advice.

“Theodore Roosevelt has left the Navy where he had the chance of his life and has joined a cowboy regiment,” wrote John Hay. Long said, “He has lost his head to this folly of deserting the post where he is of the most service and running off to ride a horse and, probably, brush mosquitoes from his neck on the Florida sands and yet how absurd this will sound if by some turn of fortune he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark.”27

Cabot Lodge warned him to think of the injury to his political career and even President McKinley asked him to reconsider his decision.28

He felt compelled to serve because it would not be right for someone “who has consistently advocated a warlike policy” not to go to war. He had a “horror,” he said, “of the people who bark but don’t bite. If I am ever to accomplish anything worth doing in politics...it is because I act up to what I preach...”29

He explained further:

If I should consult purely my own feelings I should earnestly hope that we would have peace. I like life very much. I have always led a joyous life. I like thought and I like action, and it will be very bitter to me to leave my wife and children; and while I think I could face death with dignity, I have no desire before my time has come to go out into the everlasting darkness. So I shall not go into a war with any undue exhilaration of spirits or in a frame of mind in any way approaching recklessness or levity.
Moreover, a man’s usefulness depends upon his living up to his ideals in so far as he can. Now, I have consistently preached what our opponents are pleased to call ‘Jingo doctrines’ for a good many years. One of the commonest taunts directed at men like myself is that we are armchair and parlor Jingoes who wish to see others do what we only advocate doing...I cannot afford to disregard the fact that my power for good, whatever it may be, would be gone if I didn’t try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach. Moreover, it seems to me that it would be a good deal more important from the standpoint of the nation as a whole that men like myself should go to war than that we should stay comfortably in offices at home and let others carry on the war that we have urged.30