Biographies & Memoirs

Shadows of Lofty Words

Far journeys and hard wandering
Await him in whose crude surmise
Peace, like a mask, hides everything
That is and has been from his eyes.

AS A BOY2, ROOSEVELT USED TO PLAY a running game with his siblings and friends, called “stagecoach.” It involved bursts of motion, interrupted by imaginary collisions that caused all passengers aboard to fly off in various directions.

In recent years3, he had suffered similar feelings of acceleration and ejection, often enough to wonder if the game had not been a forecast of his future. He lay now amid the dust of yet another political crash, feeling no particular desire to get back on the road. Reading The Man Against the Sky had revived his interest in poets and poetry. “A poet,” he liked to say, “can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory.” He devoured Spoon River Anthology and invited Edgar Lee Masters to visit him at Sagamore Hill. Hearing that the nature bards Bliss Carman and Madison Cawein were in financial straits, he quietly raised funds for them.

His taste in verse was unpredictable. One of Robert Frost’s bitterest poems, “A Servant to Servants,” with its central image of a caged, naked psychotic, spoke to him more than the popular lyrics in North of Boston. He astonished the poet by reciting some lines from it at a meeting of the Poetry Society of America. What may have appealed to him was the dogged voice of the first-person narrator, a caretaker resigned to unending, thankless responsibilities: By good rights4 I ought not to have so much / Put on me, but there seems no other way.

In that spirit, Roosevelt heard himself promising once again to take part in an election campaign, although this time he so disliked the ticket (vitiated by Senator Fairbanks in the number two spot) that he resented being asked. It was bad enough having to endorse Charles Evans Hughes, who had never shown any gratitude for his help in 1910, and who had developed a severe attack of amnesia5 when asked to testify for the defense in Barnes v. Roosevelt.

However, the prospect of four more years of Woodrow Wilson was so unthinkable that Roosevelt felt he should do whatever was necessary to put Hughes in the White House. On 26 June6 1916, he announced his support for Hughes, and dined with the candidate a couple of days later. He agreed to kick off the Republican campaign with a major address in Lewiston, Maine, at the end of August, and to follow up with four or five shorter speeches at spaced intervals, on the understanding that Hughes would back him up on preparedness and a strong policy toward Mexico. More than that Roosevelt declined to do, on the unarguable ground that his forceful personality would make the candidate seem weak. Privately, he referred to Hughes as “the Bearded Lady.”

Strength would appear to be required in Mexico, since General Carranza, the de facto ruler of that country, was objecting to Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa, and as a sign of displeasure, had just killed fourteen American soldiers. He had also taken twenty-three prisoners. Clearly Pershing was going to need massive reinforcements. Roosevelt donned the imaginary uniform of a major general and cast about for recruiters. “I don’t believe7 this administration can be kicked into war, for Wilson seems about as much a milksop as Bryan,” he wrote Seth Bullock. “But there is, of course, the chance that he may be forced to fight. If so, are you too old to raise a squadron of cavalry in South Dakota?”

He was concerned that Kermit, who was in New York pending reassignment to another foreign branch of National City Bank, was the only one of his sons who had not had the benefit of military training at Plattsburg in 1915. General Wood was running a similar camp this summer, and the other boys were already registered for it. Kermit could try8 to catch up with them by joining the “TBM” program in July.

Roosevelt underestimated the President’s willingness to go to war in Mexico. “The break seems9 to have come,” Wilson privately concluded. But before he and his new secretary of war, Newton D. Baker, could agree on a plan of action, Carranza released the prisoners and offered to negotiate terms that would permit Pershing to continue operations.

COINCIDENTALLY10, AN ENGLISH infantryman going into battle on the Somme on the first day of July used Wilson’s phrase, the break, to describe his feeling, as twenty-one thousand men fell dead around him, that what was left of the pre-war world and its values had finally split and fallen apart. Memory was not erased so much as made irrelevant, in the face of Maxim-gun fire that drilled efficiently through line after line of uniforms. Even at Verdun (where French and German soldiers were now reduced to hand-to-hand combat in caves) there had never been such butchery as this.

CARRANZA’S PEACE GESTURE did not slow Roosevelt’s drive to raise11 a volunteer division. When the War Department heard about it, Secretary Baker was more amused than angry. On 6 July, having received an encouraging flood of applications, the Colonel formally requested authority to proceed with recruitment. His letter to Baker12 was less boastful and more detailed than the one he had sent President Taft at the time of the first Mexican troubles, and he dropped none of the distinguished names, military and civilian, he had already settled on for command posts. The influence of his younger son was detectable in a proposal to create “one motor-cycle regiment with machine guns … an engineering regiment, [and] an aviation squadron.”

Baker referred his letter to the adjutant general of the army, who replied, much as Taft had done, that “in the event of13 war with Mexico,” the administration would consider his offer.

Roosevelt, fretful and still coughing with dry pleurisy, had said nothing about wanting to fight anywhere else in the world. But his current reading included the military memoirs of Baron Grivel14 in French. He also wrote an article for Collier’s Weekly entitled “Lafayettes of the Air15: Young Americans Who Are Flying for France.”

ON 4 AUGUST16, Miss Flora Whitney, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the owner of Metropolitan magazine, came out in Newport. In local parlance, she was the “first bud” of the debutante season. Five hundred guests danced fox-trots in the blue-and-gold ballroom of the Whitney mansion on Bellevue Avenue, and Flora, slender as a calla lily in a white dress with silver trim, twirled in the arms of her dinner partner, Mr. Quentin Roosevelt of Oyster Bay. They danced all night, then took a sunrise dip in the sea.

Quentin was on a pass from Plattsburg, and in no hurry to return. He admitted17, even to his father, that he did not enjoy himself there. Ted loved it. So did Archie, who had just graduated from Harvard. Kermit was at least no gloomier there than anywhere else. Quentin found camp life a bore. He was not lazy, nor did he lack courage. But parade-ground drill bothered his back, agonizingly sometimes. His ironic sense18 of humor, unshared by any of his siblings except Alice, made it difficult for him to take military life seriously.

He was the same age as Flora—or would be in the fall—and he shared her eager appetite for fun. There was plenty of that available at Newport, and on the other Whitney estates in upstate New York, South Carolina, and Old Westbury, Long Island. Slick-haired, fast-driving boys19 like himself zoomed in on these places, their autos crammed with girls daringly dressed in the latest modes from Paris—none more daring than Flora, who was20 arty, if not a teensy bit affected, in her love of “modern” jewelry and fabrics that only she could mix and carry off. She smoked straw-tipped Benson & Hedges cigarettes, which she kept in a red-beaded case. Her spiffy Scripps-Booth torpedo roadster had wire wheels and a silver radiator shell. Since her mother was the famous sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a hint of la bohème was to be expected of her. Flora dreamed of being a designer one day. Her small chiseled face was more unusual than pretty, with long-lashed hazel eyes and gull’s-wing brows that made her look fiercer than she was.

Flora Payne Whitney. (photo credit i24.1)

Quentin had been friendly with her for almost a year. Before going up to Harvard, he had gotten into the habit of driving out to Westbury and enjoying the society of people more entertaining than the dour Brahmins forever visiting his parents. He was not the only Roosevelt attracted to Flora. Archie had briefly paid court21, and although he was a handsome youth, blond and skinny as a whippet, she had made clear her preference for his younger brother. So far, Quentin had no stronger feelings for her than affection and a mutual interest in poetry. This was just as well, from the point of view of Flora’s parents: he was just the sort of name-but-no-money college boy they wanted to protect her from. Now that she was “introduced to society,” there would be many scions of the Four Hundred seeking to add a Whitney to their portfolios.

Nevertheless, Quentin’s claims on her—should he choose to exercise them—could not be discounted. He was the son of a former President of the United States. He had his father’s charm, but none of the obsessive need to cajole and convert that was making the Colonel so difficult to take these days. Growing up in the White House had given Quentin a sense of self-worth that had little in it of vanity. He did not need to work at impressing people, being used to their deference. At Harvard he had fitted right in with the best sort. “You get a22 speaking acquaintance with a lot of others,” he reported to Kermit, “but you don’t know them any more than the little Yids I sit next to in class.”

Flora could have found someone better looking to squire her on the night she “came out.” With his lofty forehead, Rooseveltian teeth, and furrowed brows, Quentin was not likely to improve with age. But he was tall and powerfully built and to her, adorable.

ROOSEVELT’S ARTICLE ABOUT American volunteer pilots in France (“We are all23 of us indebted to these young men of generous soul … proudly willing to die for their convictions”) reflected a growing popular awareness that war was no longer constrained by gravity. One “aeroplane” dispatched across no-man’s-land with a camera could survey more battleground in half an hour than a reconnaissance patrol in a month. For days before the German attack on Verdun, the French had been alerted to its imminence by a steady droning east of the Meuse.

Secretary Baker was pleased24 to confirm in mid-August that Congress had voted $13 million toward the reorganization and equipping of an army air arm. Aspiring fliers thrilled to the size of this appropriation, building as it did on passage of an ambitious National Defense Act. Now patriotic young men unattracted to ground or naval warfare could, if they wanted in any future emergency, serve their country in the skies. Quelle gloire!

Quentin dutifully completed his course at Plattsburg, then spent as many late-summer days as he could with Flora. He had to cram for his next semester at Harvard, having determined to pass through university in three years and then add two more at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He told Kermit25 he would like to be a mechanical engineer.

ON 31 AUGUST, ROOSEVELT inaugurated the Republican fall campaign as promised, with a major policy statement in Lewiston, Maine. Absentmindedly, he referred to it as “my Lusitania speech.” The verbal slip was telling. Instead of musing how he could best help Hughes as a candidate, he was still brooding over an act of war that had found Woodrow Wilson wanting fifteen months before. His speech—an unfavorable comparison of the President to Pontius Pilate—was roaringly received, and reached millions of newspaper readers in transcript. It buttressed his new image as an elder statesman of the GOP, but disturbed many undecided voters who felt that he was too pugnacious a campaigner for Hughes’s good. “Roosevelt would be26 a really great man,” the naturalist John Burroughs wrote in his journal, “if he could be shorn of that lock of his hair in which that strong dash of the bully resides.”

Two days later, the President effortlessly reclaimed national attention by appearing on the porch of “Shadow Lawn,” his summer cottage at Long Branch, New Jersey, and thanking a delegation of Democratic officials for renominating him to another term. Slim and laughing, natty in white slacks and a dark blazer, he looked almost young, the happiness of his remarriage radiating from him. It was difficult for reporters who had covered the Colonel in recent months to believe that Wilson, soon to be sixty, was the older man.

There was much for him to be happy about. He had just negotiated an end to a threatened railroad strike that would have paralyzed the country and damaged his candidacy. In doing so he had openly sided with labor against capital, and persuaded Congress to reduce the daily hours worked by rail union members from ten to six, with no loss of pay. The public rejoiced, and Roosevelt fumed. He wanted to boast about the time he had settled the great anthracite strike of 1902, without partiality, but thought it would hurt Hughes if he carped against a piece of progressive legislation.

The United States was prospering, with exporters reaping huge profits from war-related sales. Americans dismissed the President’s unpopularity abroad, seeing him as a patient but firm negotiator who—as his propagandists were forever trumpeting—“kept us out of war.” It even redounded to Wilson’s advantage that he no longer showed any partiality toward Great Britain. That country’s cruel crackdown on Irish unrest, and its continuing harassment of Europe-bound merchant ships, had created widespread voter anger.

Canadian air signaled the end of summer. Yachts returned to their docks. Maids stripped the linen covers from parlor furniture. Department stores stocked up with black velvet caps and the new zebra boa. Charlie Chaplin’s new movie The Count opened on Broadway. Quentin Roosevelt returned27 to college, beset by memories of Flora in an orange bathing suit, and realized that he had fallen in love with her.

THE CAMPAIGNS OF THE two parties cranked up. Roosevelt fretted28 over Hughes’s dryasdust speaking style, and in a letter to the candidate, repeated the advice he had given Henry Stimson in 1910: “What the average voter wants is not an etching, but a poster, a statement so broad and clear and in such simple language that he can thoroughly understand it.” Hughes took the advice of an old pro with good grace. In return, he politely asked Roosevelt to stay off the subject of hyphenated minorities through the election, and the Colonel just as politely agreed. Then they went their separate rhetorical ways.

Wilson chose to follow the tradition that a sitting president should not stump for himself. He remained at Shadow Lawn while Democratic orators itemized his record of progressivism, preparedness, and peace. Hughes was uncertain how to attack him on these issues without seeming reactionary in one direction and warlike in the other. Party wags suggested that the former justice had moved “from the bench29 to the fence.”

For the sake of30 solidarity, Roosevelt agreed to do the RNC a favor on 3 October, and shake hands with William Howard Taft at a reception for Hughes in the Union League Club. “It was one of those friendly affairs,” he said afterward, “where each side, before entering the meeting place, made sure its hardware was in good working order.” The clasp between the two former presidents was brief and virtually wordless. For the rest of the evening, GOP stalwarts kept them apart, as if afraid that Roosevelt might use his right fist for some other purpose. Hughes complained in mock chagrin, “I was only the side show.”

Four days later31, the Woodrow Wilson College Men’s League, consisting of 2,500 bright young progressives and independents, paid court to the President at Shadow Lawn. Wilson saw an opportunity to mock the Republican Party for fielding a surrogate candidate. Without naming Roosevelt directly, he won cheers when he observed that there was only one oracle in the GOP—“a very articulate voice [that] professes opinions and purposes at which the rest in private shiver and demur.” It was a voice for war not peace, “shot through with every form of bitterness, every ugly form of hate, every debased purpose of revenge … discontented and insurgent.”

AS HE SPOKE, residents of Newport boggled at the insurgence offshore of a sea-green, 213-foot German submarine. It cruised into32 the inner harbor, where thirty-seven warships of the U.S. North Atlantic squadron lay at anchor, and docked as coolly as if it had been a yacht putting in for tea at the Casino. The captain emerged, a neat bearded figure with an Iron Cross on his breast, and said something to the crowd clustering the waterfront. Miss Margaret Fahnestock, a fellow debutante of Flora’s, translated for him. He identified himself as Lieutenant Hans Rose, and produced a letter for the German ambassador in Washington, Count Bernstorff. An Associated Press reporter, hardly able to believe the dimensions of his scoop, undertook to mail it. Somebody asked if the submarine was in need of supplies.

“We require nothing, thank you,” Rose said. He added, smiling33, that he and his crew of thirty-three had been at sea for seventeen days. They had more than enough food and fuel to get home to Wilhelmshaven. “Maybe soon, maybe never!” Anyone who wanted was welcome to tour his vessel, the U-53.

Men, women, and children took turns clambering down its stairwell and found the interior spotless and comfortable. Six torpedoes were clearly visible. “A constant comment of those permitted on board,” the AP man noted, “was on the thorough preparedness which the vessel seemed to exhibit despite her many days at sea.” One of Newport’s hyphenated citizens presented an officer with an Irish Republican flag. This elicited some more Prussian humor.

The U-53 pays a visit to America, 7 October 1916. (photo credit i24.2)

“The first British ship34 we sink,” the officer promised, “we will hoist this flag in honor of Ireland.”

People ashore observed that the new banner was already flying when, at 5:17 P.M., the U-53 set off again. A flotilla of pleasure craft followed it out of the harbor, but as it approached Fort Adams it settled low as an alligator and began to accelerate. The small boats hove to, rocking in its wash. It remained in sight until darkness fell, then its lights doused and it slid underwater, leaving behind nothing but a trail of moonlit foam.

Early the next morning, Sunday, SOS signals from the sea lane off Nantucket began to bombard radio receivers at Newport Naval Station. Six eastbound ships loaded with contraband had been sunk by the U-53, including a British liner carrying a large number of American citizens. All had been permitted to lower lifeboats before they were struck. Eighteen children were among the many in need of rescue.

Rear Admiral Albert Greaves, commander of the U.S. Atlantic fleet, dispatched all his available warships. Throughout the day35, a crescendo of crackling in the radio office heralded the approach of Royal Navy destroyers looking for the U-53. But it was nowhere to be found. By nightfall, two hundred refugees had been brought to Newport, and were being luxuriously comforted by Beeckmans and Vanderbilts.

President Wilson remained36 noncommittal at Shadow Lawn, saying that he had no “official” knowledge of the sinkings. On Monday afternoon he issued a statement: “The country may rest assured that the German government will be held to the complete fulfillment of its promises to the government of the United States.”

Roosevelt followed up with a statement of his own. He sounded more sick at heart than outraged in affirming, “Now the war37 has been carried to our very shores.” The administration’s dismissive attitude to seaborne terrorism, going back to the Lusitania, had made it inevitable that something like this would happen. “President Wilson’s ignoble shirking of responsibility has been clothed in an utterly misleading phrase, the phrase of a coward, He kept us out of war. In actual reality, war has been creeping nearer and nearer, until it stares at us from just beyond our three-mile limit, and we face it without policy, plan, purpose or preparation.”

THE COLONEL’S PROMISED “swing” for Hughes—a high-speed tour of the West and Southwest—was marked by tumultuous, sometimes hysterical receptions. They left him unmoved. On his way back through Indiana, he turned fifty-eight. George Perkins and Henry L. Stoddard drove him back to Oyster Bay, raw-voiced and spent, in the small hours of 29 October.

“Old trumps,”38 he said as the car wound its way through Long Island fog, “let me tell you.… I’ve done my bit for Hughes.… I am positively through campaigning forever.”

TR on the campaign trail, fall 1916. (photo credit i24.3)

Yet he stayed at home only long enough to hear, two days later, that a pair of British steamers39, the Marina and the Rowanmore, had been torpedoed in the Atlantic, with eight American travelers lost between them. The administration could argue—in fact, was arguing—that the U-53 had previously not broken international law in its sinkings off Nantucket. This double attack, however, proved that Germany had decided to ignore Wilson’s Sussex ultimatum of five months before.

The first of November found Roosevelt on a flying trip through Ohio. He felt he had to compensate for Hughes, who kept maundering about the tariff in order to avoid saying anything that might alienate antiwar voters. John Leary became concerned at Roosevelt’s red-faced fervor and told him that some reporters were saying he had arteriosclerosis.

“Just what40 is that?”

Leary explained.

“Well, they are right.”

His blood pressure was not reduced by an announcement that eleven of the nineteen41 Progressives who had helped him formulate his policies in 1912 were going to vote Democratic. On 2 November, Amos Pinchot publicly taunted him with an assertion that the Bull Moose platform had been “out-and-out pacifist.”

The Colonel contained himself for twenty-four hours, then wrote Pinchot, “Sir, when I42 spoke of the Progressive Party as having a lunatic fringe, I specifically had you in mind.”

That night he appeared at Cooper Union in New York. He was greeted with a whistling, stomping chorus of “We want Teddy!” that went on for ten minutes. There was not a single cry for Hughes.

A sense spread through the audience that Roosevelt was going to let rip, as he had when he jumped onto a table in Atlanta in 1912. But nothing he had said then, or since, compared with the attack on Woodrow Wilson that now rasped into every corner of the hall.

During the last43 three years and a half, hundreds of American men, women, and children have been murdered on the high seas and in Mexico. Mr. Wilson has not dared to stand up for them.… He wrote Germany that he would hold her to “strict accountability” if an American lost his life on an American or neutral ship by her submarine warfare. Forthwith the Arabic and the Gulflight were sunk. But Mr. Wilson dared not take any action.… Germany despised him; and the Lusitania was sunk in consequence. Thirteen hundred and ninety-four people were drowned, one hundred and three of them babies under two years of age. Two days later, when the dead mothers with their dead babies in their arms lay by the scores in the Queenstown morgue, Mr. Wilson selected the moment as opportune to utter his famous sentence about being “too proud to fight.”

Roosevelt threw44 his speech script to the floor and continued in near-absolute silence.

Mr. Wilson now dwells45 at Shadow Lawn. There should be shadows enough at Shadow Lawn: the shadows of men, women, and children who have risen from the ooze of the ocean bottom and from graves in foreign lands; the shadows of the helpless whom Mr. Wilson did not dare protect lest he might have to face danger; the shadows of babies gasping pitifully as they sank under the waves; the shadows of women outraged and slain by bandits; the shadows of … troopers who lay in the Mexican desert, the black blood crusted round their mouths, and their dim eyes looking upward, because President Wilson had sent them to do a task, and then shamefully abandoned them to the mercy of foes who knew no mercy.

Those are the shadows proper for Shadow Lawn: the shadows of deeds that were never done; the shadows of lofty words that were followed by no action; the shadows of the tortured dead.

ON THE FOLLOWING NIGHT, with thirty-six hours to go before the election, Roosevelt slumped in the back of Regis Post’s car, humming to himself. They were returning from a Republican rally in Connecticut.

“The old man’s46 working out something,” Post said to John Leary, who sat up front. “He always thinks hardest when he makes that queer noise. I wonder what’s up?”

What was up was a drift of voter sympathy toward Wilson that Roosevelt feared would erode the last of Charles Evans Hughes’s support. Leary had already, with a young man’s optimism, predicted that a defeat for Hughes would bode well for Roosevelt in 1920.

“You are wrong there,” the Colonel said. “This was my year—1916 was my high twelve. In four years I will be out of it.”

HUGHES MANAGED, all the same, to attract enough votes on 7 November that The New York Times called the election for him. Wilson took the news47 with a grace that said much for his inner equilibrium. But then returns from late-counting states showed that Republicans and former Progressives had deserted Hughes in the Midwest, canceling out his early gains elsewhere. The great bulk of those desertions could be ascribed to Roosevelt’s warlike rhetoric, which had made Hughes’s candidacy seem more pro-intervention than it actually was. In the end, after two days of statistical swings, the normally Republican state of California reelected Wilson by a margin of only 3,773 votes. Hughes was so angry in defeat that he did not concede until 22 November.

“I hope you are48 ashamed of Mr. Roosevelt,” Alice Hooper wrote Frederick Jackson Turner. “If one man was responsible for Mr. Wilson he was the man—thus perhaps Mr. Roosevelt ought to see the Shadows of Shadow Lawn and the dead babies in the ooze of the Sea!”

At Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt began to pack49 up his papers for deposit in the Library of Congress. Hamlin Garland came to visit and found him cheerful, clomping around in spurred boots, but grayer and more slowly spoken than before.

“I am of no use50, Garland. I feel my years.”

IN A SERIES OF quick coincidences that seemed like coordination, Wilson’s election was followed by leadership changes51 in four of the belligerent powers. All portended a protraction of the war and a worsening of the fighting. Emperor Franz Joseph died, and was succeeded by his great-nephew Karl, an impulsive young man convinced that the Habsburg monarchy was eternal. Two new, aggressive prime ministers came to power: Alexander Trepov in Russia and David Lloyd George in Britain. At the Wilhelmstrasse, an even more aggressive commoner, Arthur Zimmermann, replaced Count Jagow as secretary of state for foreign affairs.

On 12 December, Count Bernstorff visited the White House with a surprise proposal from Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. The German ambassador52 had never revealed what was in the letter Captain Rose had handed over in Newport, except to dismiss it as “unimportant.” It had certainly not advised him that Germany was about to moderate its war at sea. Since then, Britain and France had been losing shipments at the rate of sixty thousand tons a month. Sir Edward Grey wrote a panicky envoi to Arthur Balfour, his successor as foreign minister: “The submarine danger seems to me to be increasing so rapidly that unless in the next two months or so we abate it, the Germans will see their way to victory.”

The document Bernstorff53 now gave to the President, copied to all the Allied powers, expressed Germany’s “willingness to enter henceforth into peace negotiations.” But its language—probably Zimmermann’s—was so truculent, warning of “further bloodshed” if it was rejected, that Wilson read it in disbelief.

He was put out because the proposal, already making headlines around the world, preempted one he had been secretly working on himself. Cecil Spring Rice had suspected for some time that Wilson was up to something. “The President’s54 great ambition,” the ambassador informed Balfour on 15 December, “is to play a high and moral part on a great stage.”

Four days later55, Wilson cabled his own peace note to the belligerents, calling on them to make “an avowal of their respective views as to the terms upon which the war might be concluded.” He pointed out that none of the fourteen powers now variously at war had ever said, in precise words, what they wanted of one another. Precision was necessary, because to him their general objectives seemed to be “virtually the same.” He offered to serve as the facilitator of a conference that would result in “a league of nations to ensure peace and justice throughout the world.”

Wilson had touched on this idea before, in his address to the League to Enforce Peace, but now he zealously promulgated it to the world. “If the contest56 must continue to proceed toward undefined ends by slow attrition until the one group of belligerents or the other is exhausted; if million after million of human lives must continue to be offered up … hopes of peace and of the willing concert of free peoples will be rendered vain and idle.”

Secretary Lansing felt57 obliged to offer an extraordinary public qualification: “The sending of this note will indicate the possibility of our being forced into the war.” He was reprimanded by Wilson and tried to withdraw his words, but the effect of them remained.

Roosevelt, massively attired58 as Santa Claus for the Cove School Christmas party at Oyster Bay, guffawed. “The antics of the last few days have restored what self-respect I lost in supporting Hughes.”

PLAYING ALONG WITH WILSON, Germany replied more favorably than Britain or France to the notion of a peace conference. The Allies published a joint note on 11 January 1917 that took exception to the President’s remark about the similarity of the aims of the warring powers. They declined to specify all their settlement demands in advance of any negotiations, but provided a sample list59 so unacceptable to Germany (including liberation of the Slavs, and expulsion of the Turks from Europe) that Wilson saw that the time had come for him to exert rhetorical force, rather than mere argument, in separating nations bent on self-destruction.

Sneer as Roosevelt might about his preference for “elocution” over acts, a close reading of the President’s policy statements to date indicated a steadily increasing willingness to go to war in defense of democracy. Amid the camouflage of elegant circumlocutions, certain phrases glinted60 like gunmetal: thrust out into the great game of mankind.… America will unite her force and spill her blood.… The business of neutrality is over.… Even his campaign slogan, He kept us out of war, had always been carefully phrased in the past tense.

Wilson saw, now, the paradox that every belligerent was desperate for peace, yet determined to win without concession. The apocalyptic battles of Verdun and the Somme had only just come to an end, with no clear victor. Germany was malnourished by the blockade, yet energized industrially by its conquest of oil-rich Romania (the Kaiser’s new chief of staff, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, had tripled artillery and machine-gun production). Britain had lost ninety-six thousand men in the Somme alone, while developing a formidable new weapon, the tank. France was nearly prostrate, although triumphant that Verdun had not fallen. Russia was crippled by strikes and impoverished by the influx of three and a half million refugees, while the Tsar looked for protection to an army almost stripped of arms.

On 22 January61, Wilson made one of his sudden appearances before Congress. He said he was speaking “for the great silent mass of mankind” in calling for “a peace without victory” in Europe. Victory achieved at the cost of more Verduns, and worse, “would mean peace forced upon the loser … at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.”

It was inconceivable62, he said, that the United States should not try to bring about some concord stronger and more liberal than this. He spelled out the essentials of the agreement he had in mind—freedom of the seas; general disarmament; self-determination for all nations (including “a united and autonomous Poland”); and common membership, after the war’s end, in a league of nations “which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe would ever overwhelm us again.”

Congress heard the word us, and gave him only moderate applause63.

GERMANY’S RESPONSE, on the last day of the month, was to announce an immediate resumption of all-out submarine warfare.

Count Bernstorff wept after he delivered this advisory to Lansing. The President’s first reaction, as he read it, was incredulity. If he could believe his eyes, the German foreign minister was64 offering him a special concession. One American passenger liner a week would be permitted to sail to Falmouth, England, provided it was painted with vertical white-and-red stripes, followed a specific course via the Scilly Isles, arrived on Sunday, and departed on Wednesday. With Prussian exactitude, Herr Zimmermann begged to state that the stripes were to be “one meter wide.” Any deviation from these requirements would result in the liner being sunk on sight.

Colonel House visited the White House the next morning and found Wilson in near despair, saying he felt “as if the world65 had suddenly reversed itself.”

House knew what66 Roosevelt was psychologically barred from believing: that Wilson the man had wanted to go to war with Germany for almost a year and a half. However, Wilson the politician was constrained by the enormity of such a step, involving as it would a regearing of the entire economy of the United States—and requiring a degree of popular support unimaginable even now. Germany’s insolent note was not just a provocation. It was a casus belli, like the list of demands Austria-Hungary had sent Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Both instruments were phrased in such a way as to be unacceptable. Unless he was truly the “coward” Roosevelt kept calling him, Wilson had no choice now but to sever diplomatic relations with Germany, and then, if the Reich sent one more torpedo into any American ship, ask Congress for a declaration of war.

Captain Rose of the U67-53 obliged on 3 February by sinking the USS Housatonic off the Scillies. At 2 P.M. Count Bernstorff was handed his passports. Wilson went back to Capitol Hill to announce that he had instructed Secretary Lansing to recall Ambassador Gerard from Berlin. He did not mention the attack on the Housatonic, details of which were still coming through to the State Department. But he did significantly say: “If American ships68 and American lives should in fact be sacrificed … I shall take the liberty of coming again before the Congress to ask that authority be given to me to use any means that may be necessary for the protection of our seamen and our people … on the high seas.”

Even as Wilson’s threat was being released to the press, an awareness that war was coming provoked various acts of vandalism along the Eastern seaboard. The water cocks69 of an American submarine in Philadelphia were opened in an effort to scuttle her. The crew of an Austrian freighter interned in New York harbor wrecked their own engine room. The Kronzprinzessin Cecilie was disabled in Boston by direct order of the German government.

Overnight, the youngest and least prepossessing member of Wilson’s cabinet became the second most powerful man in Washington. Secretary of War Newton Diehl Baker was short, pale, bookish, and bespectacled, a lawyer whose only previous distinction was a spell as mayor of Cleveland. He was also—ludicrously, in view of his title—a pacifist who had spoken out against militarism within days of the attack on the Lusitania.

Here he was now, deciding as one of his first emergency responsibilities what to do about a letter from a former President of the United States. Roosevelt had not bothered to wait for Wilson’s speech before sending it:


I have already on file in your Department, my application to be permitted to raise a Division of Infantry, with a divisional brigade of cavalry in the event of war.… In view of the recent German note, and of the fact that my wife and I are booked to sail next week for a month in Jamaica, I respectfully write as follows.

If you believe that there will be war, and a call for volunteers to go to war, immediately, I respectfully and earnestly request that you notify me at once, so that I may not sail.

Baker’s reply was dismissive. “No situation71 has arisen which would justify my suggesting a postponement of the trip you propose.” He wrote too late to block another letter from the Colonel, scribbled in extreme haste: “In view of72 the breaking of relations with Germany I shall of course not go to Jamaica, and will hold myself in readiness for any message from you as to the division. I and my four sons will of course go if volunteers are called for against Germany.”

Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. (photo credit i24.4)

The secretary could see further correspondence looming. In peacetime, his job was one of the laziest sinecures in Washington, involving little more than supervision of a small army spread out thin as pepper grains across the tablecloth of the country. But he had never doubted that should the United States ever mobilize, he would be transformed into a converter of energies sweeping back and forth between Congress and the armed services, the press and secret agencies, commission seekers and their backers, contractors and quartermasters, and dozens of other conduits that were bound to multiply for as long as the war lasted. Over the past73 eleven months, Baker had prepared himself for such an emergency in ways slightly comic—practicing, for example, a one-stroke zigzag signature. But his main asset was a brain that saw most clearly under stress.

Among his urgent74 priorities was the securing of all foreign ships held in American harbors from further acts of sabotage, and rapid action to prevent the Panama Canal from being blocked at either end. He had also to prepare for a possible order from Congress to raise, train, and equip a million-man army, by whatever means Wilson thought best. That order might never come: a group of isolationists in the Senate, led by Robert La Follette, was already ganging up in opposition to it. But whatever happened, Baker was determined not to send Theodore Roosevelt into battle.

Ironically, on75 5 February he had to slash his zigzag beneath the commission of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., as a major of infantry in the Officers’ Reserve Corps. The President countersigned.

SIR CECIL SPRING RICE sent Arthur Balfour a cogent explanation as to why Wilson would have to resort to a draft to get a million men into uniform. “It is not76 immediately evident to an American citizen of German descent resident in Omaha, Nebraska, that he should shed his German blood because an American negro from New Orleans has been drowned on a British ship, carrying munitions to France.”

The ambassador did, all the same, see signs of domestic bellicosity spreading as U-boats continued to destroy neutral ships. A majority of the President’s cabinet now favored intervention. Wilson went back before Congress on the twenty-seventh to ask for authority to arm American merchantmen. He emphasized that77 he was not “proposing or contemplating war.” However, a great nation had a right and a duty to defend itself. The House Democratic leadership introduced a bill appropriating $1,000,000,000 for the purpose. As a result, the word billion began to creep into everyday speech, along with a new Wilsonism, armed neutrality.

Nothing in the President’s stately demeanor that day betrayed the fact that he was in possession of intelligence so explosive as to remove all doubt that he would soon be forced to ask for a declaration of war. British cryptographers had provided him with the decoded text of an incendiary telegram from Arthur Zimmermann to the German minister in Mexico. Wilson was waiting for a State Department retranslation of the decode, but some of the original, operative words leaped out bold and clear:


U-boat warfare had begun. Germany would try to keep America neutral. Contract an alliance with Mexico if unsuccessful. Declare joint war against the United States. Provide finances. Mexico could recover Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Japan might join in.…

On the face of it, the Zimmermann telegram looked delusional. Carranza was currently well-disposed toward the Wilson administration, and Japan was allied with Britain. However, if Britain collapsed (German submarines had sunk 536,000 deadweight tons of her shipping this month alone), who doubted that the Japanese would realign themselves?

Certainly not Theodore Roosevelt. He had never felt easy about “that polite, silent79 and inscrutable race of selfish and efficient fighting men.” Zimmermann’s plot jibed with the scenario he had tried to impress on President Taft in 1910 (“a war in which80Mexico was backed by Japan or some other big powers”), and also with one he had sketched81 out in 1914, of Germany defeating Britain, then forming an alliance with Japan against the United States.

Wilson released the verified text of the telegram to the press overnight on 28 February. The sun rose next morning, Thursday, 1 March, on a nation shocked from its complacency. Everything the Colonel had been saying for two and a half years, at the cost of becoming a screechy-voiced scold, now sounded prophetic—as did the supporting chorus of his fellow interventionists. A new degree of neurosis82 attached to Texan memories of the Alamo, and to Californian dread of the Yellow Peril. Irish and German hyphenates clung to their sentimental notions of “home,” but no longer flaunted them.

With only four days to go before the end of the Sixty-fourth Congress, events accelerated toward decisive action, if not—yet—a declaration of war. The House at once passed the Armed Ships bill. It would have cleared the Senate, but for a last-minute filibuster by Robert La Follette. Wilson issued a statement blaming him and ten other isolationist senators for thwarting popular desire: “A little group83 of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

There was now as much of a sense of emergency on Capitol Hill as in the White House. Republicans and Democrats alike84 appealed to the President to summon a premature session of the Sixty-fifth Congress, which otherwise would not assemble until December.

On Monday, 5 March85, the President drove in gusty rain to the Capitol to deliver his second inaugural address. He had been sworn in privately the day before. Thirty-two secret service agents guarded his carriage, and more than twice as many swordsmen of the Second Cavalry framed them in a nervously jiggling square. Pennsylvania Avenue was lined on both sides with National Guardsmen in olive drab, rifles at the ready. Many of them were bronzed from recent service in Mexico. The roofs of neighboring buildings bristled with sharpshooters. Machine gunners covered the crowd waiting in East Capitol Park.

“I beg your tolerance86, your countenance, and your united aid,” Wilson shouted into the wind. He gave no hint of when, or even whether, he would ask Americans to take up arms, but talked of “the shadows that now lie dark across our path,” and prayed to God to give him “wisdom and prudence” in the days that lay ahead. Few spectators could hear what he was saying, but they were visually reassured by the long jaw jutting over the balustrade, the confident poise, and the statuesque proximity of Edith Wilson. Rolling cheers followed the presidential car all the way back downtown, along with impromptu choruses of “America.”

ROOSEVELT, WHOSE FIRST reaction to the Zimmermann telegram had been to crumple his newspaper in rage, exulted to Kermit that “the lily-livered skunk87 in the White House” had at last begun to act like a man. He restrained himself from public commentary, not wanting to appear disloyal to the President at a time of crisis, or to jeopardize his dream of raising a volunteer division (or two, or three, or four) with Secretary Baker’s approval.

Even now, Wilson seemed to hope that “armed neutrality” would be enough to keep the United States at peace. On 9 March88, professedly bedridden with a cold, he summoned the new Congress. However, he postponed the date of its assembly to 16 April, six weeks off. That rendered Senator La Follette powerless in the interim to stop an executive order requiring all American freighters to arm themselves. For the next ten days the President remained out of sight, while his wife fronted for him.

In Russia, meanwhile, half-starved workers revolted against an imperial ban on organized demonstrations. The first news89 of food riots in Petrograd and Moscow reached Washington via Stockholm on 12 March. Vast crowds were reported to be on the rampage, roaring “Down with autocracy!” The Russian army90, weakened by the loss of three and a half million men, was either unable or unwilling to restore order. Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik exile living in New York, rejoiced that after twelve years of seismic buildup, the revolution of the proletariat was at last happening. Five days later The Washington Post confirmed that the Tsar had abdicated. A socialistic “provisional government” headed by Prince Lvov and dominated by the social democrat Aleksandr Kerensky was announced. “Unless improbable events occur,” The New York Times reported, “Russia has today become a republic.”

The news caused more satisfaction in the United States than in Britain and France. Both were in terror that Russia would now withdraw from the war and enable the Central Powers to turn all their firepower on the Western Front. This, plus the deaths of fifteen Americans in yet another “submarining” (the word had become a verb) put pressure on Wilson to summon Congress sooner.

On 20 March91 the President met with his cabinet and asked each member for advice. All were in favor of a prompt declaration of war against Germany, although Josephus Daniels, the secretary of the navy, cried as he committed himself. Newton D. Baker, all vestiges of past pacifism shed, argued for rapid rearmament with an earnestness that impressed Robert Lansing.

After the meeting92, which Wilson closed without indicating his own feelings, Baker returned to the War Department to be confronted by a telegram from Roosevelt: 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.

Baker wrote back93 to say that no additional forces could be raised except by an act of the new Congress. When that body reassembled, the administration would present a plan “for a very much larger army than the force suggested in your telegram.” He let Roosevelt know that there was unlikely to be a commission for him. “General officers for all the volunteer forces are to be drawn from the regular army.”

The result was an impatient speech by the Colonel that night in the Union League Club of New York City. Entirely at home again among Republicans who, four years before, had shunned him, he joined Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, and Joseph Choate in endorsing a resolution, “War now exists by act of Germany.” He noted that more than two years had passed since the administration had demanded strict accountability for all U-boat attacks on American citizens. Germany was now killing more of them than ever, “and she has94 proposed to Japan and Mexico an alliance for our dismemberment as a nation.”

It was irresponsible, he said, to wait another year for revenge, while the administration raised its million-man army. “We can perfectly95 well send an expeditionary force abroad to fight in the trenches now—” He corrected himself. “Within four or five months.”

Closeted afterward with Root, Hughes, and Robert Bacon, he begged them to do everything they could to persuade the President to let him fight in Europe. Hughes was struck by Roosevelt’s emotion as he said, “I shall not come96 back, my boys may not come back, my grandchildren may be left alone, but they will carry forward the family name. I must go.”

WILSON RESPONDED TO his cabinet’s consensus for war only by announcing that he would advance the forthcoming session of Congress by two weeks. He said he would then present lawmakers with “a communication97 concerning grave matters of national policy.” In an almost perverse display of calm, he let state papers pile up while he relaxed with his wife, socialized, and shot pool.

Roosevelt, too, took time off before what he knew would be one of the most momentous addresses in American history. He told reporters that he was heading for Punta Gorda, Florida, to hunt shark and devilfish for the rest of the month. “I shall be98 back by April 2, when Congress assembles.”

When he passed through Washington on his way south, the city was already flaming with flags99.

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