Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

Assistant Secretary of the Navy

In the spring of 1897, President McKinley took his seat and began the selection of his official household. Roosevelt was tendered, and accepted, the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

We remember that the first book that Roosevelt wrote, while still in college, was "The History of the Naval War of 1812." The subject of the Navy had always interested him, and as a young man he saw with concern the first feeble efforts this country made to build up a modern sea force. In the eighties we did not have half-a-dozen first-class fighting ships.

Roosevelt, even as a young man, was an apostle of preparedness. "There would have been no war in 1812," he said, "if we had had a score of ships of the line."

"I suppose the United States will always be unready for war," he added, "and in consequence will always be exposed to great expense, and to the possibility of the gravest calamity, when the nation goes to war. This is no new thing. Americans learn only from catastrophes and not from experience."

The politicians were delighted when they heard of his appointment to this post. It removed a thorn in their side, in New York, and apparently shelved this too energetic man in an out-of-the-way Government job. So they thought, but again they reckoned without Roosevelt.

He saw in this new field merely another big opportunity; and he took off his coat and went at it. He found the Navy inadequate in both ships and men. Congress was very grudgingly adding a ship or two each year, but not calling them "battleships"; they were only "coast defense ships"! Many of the officers had held their positions for so many years that their eyesight was bad; and the gunnery was consequently poor. Annapolis was turning out young officers, but they were not being given a chance. Roosevelt made it one of his first duties to get these younger men into office, and insist upon scientific gunnery.

Soon after he took up his work as Assistant Secretary he became convinced that war with Spain over the Cuban situation was inevitable. For many years Spain had systematically mistreated this large island lying practically within our own domains. Both our motives of humanity and our business interests demanded that we intervene and put a stop to her cruelty. Roosevelt, with characteristic energy, worked night and day to build up a more efficient fighting force on the sea.

Here as elsewhere he encountered opposition. He was trampling upon traditions. "They didn't do it that way," he was told. The great masses of Governmental red tape maddened him. One day, after a fruitless lot of wrangling with a naval commission, he burst out with:

"Gentlemen, if Noah had been obliged to consult such a commission as this about building the ark, it wouldn't be built now!"

When our battleship Maine  was blown up in Havana harbor, while on a peaceful visit there, it sent a thrill of anger throughout the country. "Remember the Maine!"  became a war-cry. The deed, however, proved of immense help to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It strengthened his hands and "helped him to sharpen his tools," as he expressed it. He spurred on the work of his Department with feverish zeal, going ahead faster than his superior, Secretary Long, or President McKinley desired. They still hoped to keep the peace with Spain, even after that country sent a formidable navy to these waters.

Ten days after the Maine  disaster, Roosevelt cabled Rear Admiral George Dewey, then stationed at Hong Kong, as follows:

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

This message was the keynote and incentive of Dewey's brilliant dash across Manila Bay, and the victory that startled the world. Said Senator Cushman, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee: "If it had not been for Roosevelt, we would not have been able to strike the blow we did at Manila. It needed his energy and promptness."

Things happened quick and fast in those opening months of 1898, and before summer came, Spain and the United States were formally at war. Then Roosevelt did another unexpected thing. Congress authorized the formation of three new regiments of cavalry; and he volunteered to raise one of them.

The offer was accepted, but when he resigned from the Navy Department to undertake his new duties, he encountered a storm of protests. Some of the very persons who said that he had been going ahead too fast now urged him to remain in the Department. They insisted that he could not be spared.

Roosevelt, however, felt that he had done everything possible in the way of getting the Navy into shape; and, like the Irishman, if there was a fight, he wanted to be in it.

"I couldn't stay," he wrote his sister afterward. "That was the sum and substance of it—although I realize well what a change for the worse it means in my after life."