18. World War I

Tell the truth. If conditions are good, tell the truth. If they are bad, tell the truth. If they have been bad and become good, tell the truth. - Theodore Roosevelt

Men of vision “realized, fully, that in a world aflame, no nation could possibly escape the danger of Conflagration.”1

“If Germany should ever overthrow England and establish the supremacy in Europe she aims at, she will be almost certain to want to try her hand in America,” Theodore told Bamie.2

Germany wanted to control Belgium and a strip of the coast of France. From here, they intended to invade Britain. They knew early on, years before they tried it, that they would first have to occupy Belgium, next immobilize France and then invade England.

Their ultimate wish was to destroy Britain’s fleet and gain world supremacy. They wanted “not just a ‘place in the sun,’ but a commanding ‘place in the sun,’” Theodore told Nicholas. Lord Robert’s spoke in 1912 of Germany’s attitude:

In their heart of hearts they know, every man of them, that--just as in 1866 [when Prussia attacked Austria] and just as in 1870 [when Germany engineered the Franco-Prussian War] war will take place the instant the German forces on land and sea are, by their superiority at every point, as certain of victory as anything in human calculations can be made certain. Germany strikes when Germany’s hour has struck. That is the time-honored policy of her foreign office.3

Students of world affairs knew these facts. Most Americans were unaware of them. If Germany won the war, the United States was in danger.4 Wilson “knew nothing about the administration of foreign affairs,” wrote Arthur S. Link, Wilson’s biographer.5

T.R. stopped talking of reforms after World War I started because he did not want to “turn the whole matter over to some body of alien conquerors.”6 Germany if she “smashed the English Fleet and destroyed the British Empire” would be certain to look across the ocean at America. It was pointless to talk about reforms while facing a very real and dangerous enemy.

He wanted us to be prepared militarily so that Germany would be afraid to fight us. He was also tired of Wilson going after the German-American vote. German-Americans were Americans now, not hyphenated Americans.

He intended to retire when his sons got on their feet financially. He felt he was a has-been, that people didn’t want to hear what he had to say anymore. For now he might be able to needle the Administration into preparing for war, but he knew Wilson cared little about what he thought. He said, “I tend to be regarded as merely a scold.”7

When Belgium was attacked he was outraged. “As a matter of fact, it has been very hard for me to keep myself in,” he wrote. “[T]his is a wrong against which all the civilized world ought to protest,” he also said.8

If Germany were wronged, I should like to see the United States stand by it to the last and to any degree. But when Germany wrongs an entirely innocent and well-behaved small civilized power like Belgium, I would in similar fashion like to see the United States stand by Belgium.9

If he had been president, he said in October of 1914:

I would have acted on the thirtieth or thirty-first of July, as head of a signatory power of the Hague treaties, calling attention to the guaranty of Belgium’s neutrality and saying that I accepted the treaties as imposing a serious obligation which I expected not only the United States but all other neutral nations to join in enforcing. Of course I would not have made such a statement unless I was willing to back it up.10

From 1914 on Roosevelt preached preparedness:

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. That orderly liberty which is both the foundation and the capstone of our civilization can be gained and kept only by men who are willing to fight for an ideal; who hold high the love of honor, love of faith, love of flag, and love of country.11

Unless we fit ourselves to guard our own rights we shall be impotent to defend the rights of any one else.12

He often quoted St. Luke, chapter 11, verse 21: “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace.”13

Thirteen year old Marjorie Sterrett sent a dime to the editor of the New York Tribune to start a fund to be used to build a battleship called the America. Roosevelt contributed to the fund and enclosed a letter to Marjorie:

Dear little Miss Marjorie,

On behalf of my four grandchildren I join in the effort to help you and your schoolfellows put our country in shape to “Fear God, and Take Her Own Part.”

I enclose a dollar. Forty cents--a dime apiece--are for:--

Gracie Roosevelt
Richard Derby II
Theodore Roosevelt III
Cornelius Van Schaak Roosevelt

Cornelius is the youngest. He is only about two months old. He is’n’t as long as his name. But he will grow up to it. He is named after his great-great-grandfather, who when I was very small, over fifty years ago, helped teach me a Dutch baby-song. ...Richard Derby...loves the bulldog--a nice, friendly, almost toothless bulldog. Little Ted is really Theodore IV; for my father was Theodore Roosevelt. He was the best man I ever knew; strong, fearless, gentle...Gracie is four...
The other sixty cents are for my other six grandchildren. They are not born yet. If they are girls I think some of them will be named Edith, Alice, Ethel, Eleanor and Belle. If they are boys some of them will be named Kermit, Archie, Quentin and Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards was an ancestor of their Grandmother’s who lived in colonial times...he always acted in accordance with the strongest sense of duty, and there was’n’t a touch of the molly-coddle about him.

Your friend,

He knew the only way to keep us out of war was to be prepared to defend ourselves. “Our Navy in point of efficiency stood second to that of England alone in 1909. It is certainly inferior to-day both to the Navy of Germany and the Navy of Japan; and this is largely due to the policy of Wilson,” he told his sister. “Improvement can only come,” he said, “when [the facts] are recognized and faced [and] Wilson and Bryan are attacked.”14 We have to “increase greatly the naval and military strength of the United States.”15 We should express our disapproval of Germany’s attack of Belgium and even join other nations to prevent Germany from going any further. He said the formation of a “League For Peace and Righteousness” could adjudicate disputes between nations.16

Most Americans wanted to stay out of the war. “The melancholy thing,” Lodge wrote, “is the apparently general feeling of satisfaction with Wilson so long as he keeps us out of war, without any reference to the methods by which he does it.”17

Roosevelt was in the position of “an expert watching an inexperienced man following a course that the expert foresaw was self-defeating and would be paid for in human lives,” said Nicholas Roosevelt.18

Roosevelt knew international affairs. Wilson did not. Roosevelt hated to stand by while Wilson made mistake after mistake. “More and more I come to the view that in a really tremendous world struggle, with a great moral issue involved, neutrality does not serve righteousness, for to be neutral between right and wrong is to serve wrong.”19

He openly attacked Wilson. He felt Wilson was a physically cowardly man. “He was born in Virginia, and comes of a family none of whose members fought on either side in the Civil War,” he said. He came from a family of cowards. He was “a scholarly, acrid pacifist of much ability and few scruples.”20

Theodore loved to tell the story of a bullfight in Mexico. “One bull would not fight. Thereupon the audience began to call ‘He is a Woodrow Wilson; he is an American bull; take him out; take out Woodrow Wilson and bring in a Mexican bull that will fight.’”21

The Lusitania
Germany developed a submarine campaign against neutral shipping. Ships were sunk in the war zone around England. Nevertheless, Americans continued to travel in that area.

On May 1, 1915, the German embassy warned “travelers intending to embark” on “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or of any of her allies” that they did so “at their own risk,” for such ships were “liable to destruction...in the war zone.”

If Theodore had been President he would have warned Germany that if any of our people were sunk with the Lusitania, “I would confiscate all the German interned ships, beginning with the Prinz Eitel.” The day after Roosevelt wrote that statement the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. Over 1,000 passengers died.22

“If I were President now, I would take the most emphatic action about the German conduct in sinking the Lusitania. I regard this as sheer murder, and the German attitude in this war has been a return...toward the attitude of the Huns. There is only one way to meet people who adopt such an attitude, and that is, to make them suffer for maintaining it.”23

This represents not merely piracy, but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than old-time pirates ever practiced...It is warfare against innocent men, women and children, traveling on the ocean, and our own fellow-countrymen and country women, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity but to our own self-respect.24

He was growing tired of people who spoke proudly of their German heritage and called themselves “German-Americans.” “We have a right to ask of all these immigrants,” all the Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants, “that they become Americans and nothing else.”25

“We are making a new race, a new type, in the country,” he said.26
As far as Anglo-Americans were concerned, “I doubt if there is such a thing as an Anglo-Saxon,” he said, “but at any rate I am not one. I have hardly any English blood in my veins. I am just plain straight American.”27

Our citizens must act as Americans; not as Americans with a prefix and qualifications; not as Irish-Americans, German-Americans, native Americans--but as Americans pure and simple.28

We must have only one language here, he said, “the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech and Second Inaugural, and of Washington’s farewell address.”29

Declaration of War
Germany felt that even if the United States went to war they wouldn’t be able to stop the takeover of England.

Wilson sent a note of protest to Germany and they promised to pay an indemnity and order U-boat captains to spare the passenger liners. To an audience in Philadelphia Wilson said, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”30 Before long however the Germans announced warfare on any ship found in the war zone, passenger liner or not. Wilson responded by sending another note. The Germans responded by torpedoing three American vessels.31 Finally Wilson asked Congress to declare war. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he said.

Roosevelt wrote:

We did not go to war to make democracy safe, and we did go to war because we had a special grievance. We went to war, because, after two years, with utter contempt of our protests, she had habitually and continually murdered our noncombatant men, women and children on the high seas, Germany formally announced that she intended to pursue this course more ruthlessly and vigorously than ever. This was the special grievance because of which we went to war, and it was far more than an empty justification for going to war. As you know, my own belief is that we should have acted immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania.32

Volunteer Division
Roosevelt, fifty-nine-years-old, weakened by tropical fever and blind in one eye, asked Wilson for permission to raise a division of volunteers and lead it to fight in France.33 He wrote Wilson, “In view of the fact that Germany is now actually engaged in war with us, I again earnestly ask permission to be allowed to raise a division for immediate service at the front.” He offered to raise money himself to arm and train the men.

He told a small group of friends that if sent to the front he did not expect to return. He expected to die in France. Root said, “Theodore, if you can convince Wilson of that I am sure he will give you a commission.”34

He told the French ambassador, “If I am allowed to go, I could not last; I am too old to last long under such circumstances. I should crack but I could arouse the belief that America was coming...That is what I am good for now, and what difference would it make if I cracked or not!”35

“It would be criminal not...to provide volunteers for immediate use,” he told Lodge.36 He was told that no additional armies could be raised without congressional approval. Desperate, he went to see Wilson. Wilson thought Roosevelt charming. “There is a sweetness about him that is very compelling. You can’t resist the man,” he said. 37 But Wilson refused him the chance to give up his life for his country. “I really think the best way to treat Mr. Roosevelt is to take no notice of him. That breaks his heart and is the best punishment that can be administered,” he said.38

T.R.’s valet, James Amos, said that T.R.’s heart was broken and he “was really in a state of great depression such as I seldom saw him in.” Another friend said he had never seen T.R. “in a blacker mood.”

Senator Hiram Johnson said:

It is asked only by a man who is now really in the twilight of life that he may finally lay down his life for the country that is his. It is only that he asks that he may serve that country, may go forth to battle for his country’s rights, and may do all that may be done by a human being on behalf of his nation. My God! When was it that a nation denied to its sons the right to fight in its behalf?...To say that Roosevelt desires, for personal ambition and political favor hereafter, to go to war is to deny the entire life of this patriot.39

When John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force finally arrived in France, the French cheered and called them “the Teddys.”40

Negotiated Peace
Our rule should be the same for the nation as it is for the individual. Do not get into a fight if you can possibly avoid it. If you get in, see it through. Don’t hit if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting, but never hit soft. Don’t hit at all if you can help it; don’t hit a man if you can possibly avoid it; but if you do hit him, put him to sleep. - Theodore Roosevelt

In 1918 when Wilson was considering a negotiated peace Theodore said, “Unless we knock out Germany we will have to fight again, probably within the lifetime of men now old, certainly within the lifetime of those now young.”41 “At this point, if we make an armistice we have lost the war and we shall leave Germany about where she started. I am sure that the American people want a complete victory and an unconditional surrender,” he told Lodge.42

The only way to make a Hun feel friendly is to knock him out. Don’t hit a man soft, because he will come back and hit you hard. Put this war through right, so that no nation will look cross-eyed at you.

It is a sad and dreadful thing to have to face some months or a year or so of additional bloodshed but it is a much worse thing to quit now and have the children now growing up obliged to do the job all over again, with ten times much bloodshed and suffering when their time comes.43

Prevention of War
Had he been President, could T.R. have prevented World War I? According to Senator Fess of Ohio, Roosevelt wrote that he would have issued a proclamation declaring that every nation represented at the Hague Convention respected the “inviolability of neutral nations in time of war.” The United States and other nations would have insisted on the rights of the neutral Belgium. All neutral nations “particularly those states contiguous to Germany” would have heartily approved Roosevelt’s proclamation. With so many nations against him, the Kaiser would not have invaded Belgium. Then, Great Britain would not have “resorted to arms.” She would have told “her neighbor across the Straits of Dover” that there was no cause for war. France, in turn, would have notified the Czar that “she, too, could not go to war for the Sarajevo affair.” Russia would have had further talks with the Kaiser who by this time would have become “thoroughly alarmed by the overwhelming forces arrayed against his dynasty.” At this stage a little discussion would have brought peace.

If this had worked, the “Everlasting Boy of Sagamore Hill...could have had all the Nobel Prizes rolled into one,” wrote biographer Edward Wagenknecht.44

The fever he got in Cuba and later in Brazil kept recurring. He entered the hospital February 6, 1918, for treatment of infections in his ear and thigh. “My old Brazilian trouble, both the fever and the abscesses recurred and I had to go under the knife. It was entirely trivial,” he said. He lost the hearing in one ear from the operation.45

After this, he began to write Taft again. They both heartily agreed in their hatred of Wilson. “Taft and I are now in absolute accord about present needs and about our failure and shortcomings and the cause of them during the past year,” he wrote.46

In May he went on a speaking tour of the West. By chance, he checked into the same hotel at which Taft was staying. Taft, learning that T.R. was eating lunch in the dining room, asked to be shown to Theodore’s table. T.R. jumped up. “Will!” he said. “Theodore!” Taft said. They shook hands and sat down. Everyone in the room cheered.47

His Sons
To my mind it is all, life here, and life later, in short, Life,--just like an adventure...-- Louise Pond Jewell, The Great Adventure

After the war started, a heckler at Madison Square Garden asked him what he was doing for his country.

What am I doing for my country in this war? I have sent my four boys over there. I have sent my four boys, for each of whose lives I care a thousand times more than I care for my own...48

Archie was badly crippled and considered by the army to be permanently disabled. Ted was wounded and in France with his wife.

On July 16, 1918, a newspaperman showed Roosevelt a telegram that said: WATCH SAGAMORE HILL FOR--. The rest was censored out. “Something has happened to one of the boys,” said Theodore. Archie and Ted were wounded. Kermit was sick with malaria. It had to be Quentin.

The next day he was notified that Quentin had been shot down behind enemy lines. Three days later his death was confirmed.

Theodore made this statement:

Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the front and had a chance to render some service to his country and to show the stuff there was in him before his fate befell him.49

Theodore never recovered from his grief. The day he heard of Quentin’s death he went to the library and began to dictate his day’s mail, with tears running down his face.50 Edith said, “Quentin’s death shook him greatly.” An acquaintance said, “The boy in him has died.”51

His sister watched him pretending to read on a train. She could see that he was not reading. “His sombre eyes were fixed on the swiftly passing woodlands and the river, and that the book had not the power of distracting him from the all-embracing grief which enveloped him.”52

He may have been reviewing his beliefs about death. Death, he may have thought, is not a cessation of life. It is a continuation. And the afterlife may even continue here, on this earth, so that we may continue to enjoy nature, just as Theodore did during his entire life. Death is an exciting change, something that we should look forward to. It should not make us sad because we soon will see those of our friends who have “gone before.”

Everyone, he felt, is involved in the fight between good and evil. This fight may continue for us even after death. In this life, and perhaps in the next, we are expected to enjoy life but also to do what we can to make good triumph over evil. If we fail to do this, it will have a detrimental effect on humanity as a whole.

Each person effects the "whole." Each person's life "must be made to serve the larger and continuing life of the whole." "Both life and death are part of the same Great Adventure." In the next life there will probably be knowledge to gain, duties to perform and problems to solve. Even though we are but a "link in the chain of creation and causation," after death we may still retain our identity, our soul, our ability to think, work, enjoy ourselves and pray.

He had discussed ideas like the above with Corinne after the tragic death of her son, Stewart, in 1909. Now he would be addressing other mothers, mothers whose sons, like his, had died in the war.

He picked up a pen and began to write, thus striking another blow against evil:

Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are part of the same Great Adventure. Never yet was worthy adventure worthily carried through by the man who put his personal safety first. Never yet was a country worth living in unless its sons and daughters were of that stern stuff which bade them die for it at need; and never yet was a country worth dying for unless it sons and daughters thought of life not as something concerned only with the selfish evanescence of the individual but as a link in the great chain of creation and causation, so that each person is seen in his true relations as an essential part of the whole, whose life must be made to serve the larger and continuing life of the whole.

In America today all our people are summoned to service and sacrifice. Pride is the portion only of those who know bitter sorrow or the foreboding of bitter sorrow. But all of us who give service, and stand ready for sacrifice, are the torch-bearers. We run with the torches until we fall, content if we can then pass them to the hands of other runners. The torches whose flame is brightest are borne by the gallant men at the front, and by the gallant women whose husbands and lovers, whose sons and brothers are at the front. These men are high of soul, as they face their fate on the shell shattered earth, or in the skies above or in the waters beneath; and no less high of soul are the women with torn hearts and shining eyes; the girls whose boy lovers have been struck down in their golden morning, and the mothers and wives to whom word has been brought that henceforth they must walk in the shadow.
These are the torch bearers; these are they who have dared the Great Adventure.53

It is interesting that he said, “ Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.” M. Scott Peck says the same thing in his book, The Road Less Traveled and Beyond. The more we journey away from self-centeredness “the more we discover ourselves becoming not only less fearful of death but also less fearful of life.” We are able to truly see others (rather than concentrating on how others see us). Free from narcissism and filled with a spirit of self-sacrifice, we feel a great sense of “spiritual calm and tranquility.” “It is beautiful to see,” Peck says, “but it is not very common.” I believe this is the beauty that T.R.’s contemporaries saw in him.54

His grandchildren were a great comfort to Theodore during World War I. Ethel had gone to Europe in 1914 to help her husband, a doctor, treat wounded soldiers. She left her infant son Richard behind with the Roosevelts. She came back in December and stayed with young Richard at her parent’s house.55

Theodore loved babies and said of Richard “he smiles and coos to be taken up and waves his little arms and legs; and then I hold him up to the gas fixture, and he strives with absorbed eagerness to get the glass globe off, and then...endeavors to remove my spectacles...when he’s on his back and I can only amuse him with my watch, he promptly stuffs it into his mouth, microbes and all.”56

He wrote Ted’s wife Eleanor that having Ethel and baby Richard there made him a little homesick for “you and blessed Gracie and little Ted-peds.” Ted-peds was Theodore Roosevelt III, born June 14, 1914. Theodore wished he was rich enough to afford sprawling additions to his house for the “little Derbys” and the Ted Jr’s, “- all the beloved little families.”57

Ted had three children, Gracie, Theodore Roosevelt III and Cornelius Van Schaak born October 12, 1915, whom Roosevelt called “Cornelius of the white head and the black heart.” Cornelius “isn’t as long as his name,” Roosevelt wrote when Cornelius was just two months old. “But he will grow up to it.” He was named after his great-great-grandfather.58

Ted III wasn’t very clear on who Theodore was. “What is that man’s name,” he asked a “delighted bystander.” At supper he put the question to Theodore again, in an attempt to make friendly conversation. Gracie explained that he was grandfather, “adding that she had two Grandmothers, who were twins.” She also explained that he was the third Theodore Roosevelt. That was beyond Ted III’s understanding. Cornelius meanwhile was running toy cars up and down Theodore’s arm.59

Theodore loved having his grandchildren stay at Sagamore Hill and when they left, missed them even though Ted III doctored his coffee every morning.60

In 1917 Ethel had “a very cunning wee baby,” Edie, who Theodore completely lost his heart to.61 He described her as “most alluring.” Edith said that to hear Theodore talk, “there is the Baby and the rest of them are just babies.”62 “Edie is about the dearest one-year-old baby I have ever known. She loves me very much...she hails me with little outstretched arms, and of course my heart is like water and I can’t resist taking her up,” he wrote.63

Archie’s wife Gracie, pregnant with her first child, came in 1917 to stay at Sagamore Hill. “Mother and I will look after her exactly as if she were Ethel,” Theodore told Archie.64 They were “in the seventh Heaven of delight” when Archie junior was born. “It’s just as fine a thing as ever happened,” the proud grandfather exclaimed.65

Gracie and “wee Archie” were staying with Theodore and Edith now and “we are enjoying them to the full.” Theodore wrote Belle, Kermit’s wife, “How I long to see Kim and little Willard!” Kermit junior “Kim” was born May 23, 1917, in South America. His brother, “blessed little Joseph Willard,” as Theodore called him, was born on January 16, 1918. “We now have eight grandchildren,” Theodore wrote King George V.66

The grandchildren were a great comfort when Quentin died. Theodore said they helped “ease the dull, steady aching of [Edith’s] heart.” Richard seemed devoted to Edith and always asked her to sleep beside him when he took his naps. Edie, too, was “pretty as a picture and a little darling.” She wanted everyone to pick her up and cuddle her. She looked like “a fairy princess, but no fairy princess ever scrambled over the floor with unceasing industry and energy.”67

On his sixtieth birthday, he said, “It doesn’t matter what the rest is going to be. I have had fun the whole time.”

By early November one foot was so swollen he couldn’t wear a shoe. On November 9, 1918, he was admitted to the hospital for treatment of inflammatory rheumatism.68 He remained in the hospital until Christmas. There was nothing more the doctors could do. He would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. “All right!” he said, “I can work and live that way, too.”

While still in the hospital he said to Corinne, “Well, anyway, no matter what comes, I have kept the promise that I made to myself when I was twenty-one.” “Which promise are you talking about,” she asked. “I promised myself,” he said, bringing his fist down on the arm of the chair, “that I would work up to the hilt until I was sixty, and I have done it. I have kept my promise, and now, even if I should be an invalid, or if I should die,” he said with a snap of his finger and thumb, “what difference would it make?”

“Would you rather have died for your country?” she asked. “Yes,” he said, “I wish that I might, like Quentin, have died for my country.” “Theodore,” Corinne said, “You not only are anxious and willing to die for your country, you live for your country every day.”69