All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
Chapter XVI: The Great American
by Pearson, Edmund Lester
Death closes all; but something ere the end, Some work of noble
note, may yet be done. ... Tho' much is taken, much abides; and
tho' We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth
and heaven, that which we are, we are,--One equal temper of
heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To
strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
Not many months after Roosevelt came back from South America, the
Great War in Europe broke out. It is but dreaming now to surmise
what might have been done in those fearful days of July 1914, when
the German hordes were gathering for their attack upon the world.
Once before, and singlehanded, this country had made the German
Kaiser halt. Had there been resolution in the White House in 1914,
could all the neutral nations have been rallied at our side, and
could we have spoken in tones so decisive to the Hun that he would
have drawn back even then, have left Belgium unravaged, and spared
the world the misery of the next four years? It may be so; Germany
did not expect to have to take on England as an enemy. If she had
been told, so that there was no mistaking our meaning, that she
would have us against her as well, then it might have been her
part to hesitate, and finally put back her sword.
Roosevelt supported the President at first, in his policy of
neutrality, supposing him to have some special information. He
supported him with hesitation, and with qualifications however,
pointing out that neutrality is no proud position, and has many
disadvantages. Perhaps he had some inklings of the danger to the
country when our foreign affairs are managed by pacifists.
Certainly America had noticed the grim fact that a Government
which forever talked about peace had in actual practice, shed more
blood in a few hours at Vera Cruz than had been spilled in all the
seven years while Roosevelt was President. Moreover, this blood
was shed uselessly; no object whatever having been gained by it.
It is impossible to understand Roosevelt; it is impossible to get
any idea of what he did during his term of office; it is
impossible to learn anything from his career, unless we contrast
him and his beliefs and actions with the conduct of our Government
during the Great War. An object lesson of the most illuminating
sort is afforded by this contrast, and we may make up our minds
about the wisest paths to be followed in the future if we notice
what Roosevelt said and did at this time, how far and how wisely
his counsel was accepted or rejected.
He disapproved, for instance, President Wilson's speech, made a
day or two after the sinking of the Lusitania in which the
President spoke of a nation being "too proud to fight." Roosevelt
said that a nation which announced itself as too proud to fight
was usually about proud enough to be kicked; and it must be
admitted that the Germans took that view of it, and for a year and
more continued to kick. He did not deem it wise, when President
Wilson informed the Germans, ten days later, that we remembered
the "humane attitude" of their Government "in matters of
international right," for he happened to recall that Belgium was
at that moment red with the blood of its citizens, slain by the
Germans in a sort of warfare that combined highway robbery with
revolting murder. Neither did it seem useful to him to speak about
German influence as always "upon the side of justice and
Mr. Roosevelt had always been strong for having the nation ready
for war if war should come. Mr. Wilson first said that persons who
believed this were nervous and excited. Next he joined these
persons himself, so far as words went, and finally he let the
matter drop until we were at war. Mr. Roosevelt believed that when
you once were at war it was a crime to "hit softly." Mr. Wilson
waited until we had been at war a year and over, and then
announced in a speech that he was determined to use force!
Mr. Roosevelt wrote regularly for The Outlook, later for the
Metropolitan Magazine and the Kansas City Star. Thousands of his
countrymen read his articles, and found in them the only
expression of the American spirit which was being uttered.
Americans were puzzled, troubled and finally humiliated by the
letters and speeches which came from Washington. To be told that
in this struggle between the blood-guilty Hun, and the civilized
nations of the earth, that we must keep even our minds impartial
seemed an impossible command. School-boys throughout the country
must have wondered why President Wilson, with every means for
getting information, should have to confess that he did not know
what the war was about! And when Mr. Wilson declared in favor of a
peace without victory, his friends and admirers were kept busy
explaining, some of them, that he meant without victory for the
Allies, and others that he meant without victory for Germany, and
still others that he meant without victory for anybody in
It was not strange that Americans began to wonder what country
they were living in, and whether they had been mistaken in
thinking that America had a heroic history, in which its citizens
took pride. No wonder they turned their eyes to Europe, where
scores of young Americans, sickening at the state of things at
home, had eagerly volunteered to fight with France or England
against the Hun. One of these, named Alan Seeger, who wrote the
fine poem "I have a Rendezvous with Death," died in battle on our
Independence Day. He also wrote a poem called "A Message to
America." [Footnote: Seeger. Poems, pp. 164, 165.] In it he said
that America had once a leader:
... the man
Most fit to be called American.
In it he spoke further of the same leader
I have been too long from my country's shores
To reckon what state of mind is yours,
But as for myself I know right well
I would go through fire and shot and shell
And face new perils and make my bed
In new privations, if Roosevelt led.
One did not have to be long with the men who volunteered at the
beginning of the war to know that Roosevelt's spirit led these
men, and that they looked to him and trusted him as the great
American. The country's honor was safe in his hands, and no
mawkish nor cowardly words ever came from his lips.
He pointed out the folly of the pacifist type of public men, like
Mr. Bryan and Mr. Ford. The latter, helpless as a butterfly in
those iron years, led his quarreling group of pilgrims to Europe,
on his "Peace Ship," and then left them to their incessant fights
with each other. The American public was quick to see the
contrast, when war came, and Roosevelt's four sons and son-in-law
all volunteered, while Mr. Ford's son took advantage of some law
and avoided military duty, in order to add more millions to his
already enormous heap. The lesson of Roosevelt's teaching and
example was not lost, and the people recognized that the country
would endure while it had men like the Roosevelts, but that it
would go down in infamy if the other sort became numerous.
In the election of 1916 Mr. Roosevelt, after refusing the
Progressive nomination, supported Mr. Hughes, the Republican,
against President Wilson. He tried hard to get Mr. Hughes to come
out with some utterance which would put him plainly on record
against the Germans and Pro-Germans who were filling America with
their poisonous schemes. For we continued to entertain German
diplomats and agents (paymasters, as they were, of murderers and
plotters of arson) and to run on Germany's errands in various
countries. The cry "He kept us out of war" was effectively used to
reelect Mr. Wilson, although members of the Government must have
been thoroughly well aware that war was coming and coming soon.
It had long been Mr. Roosevelt's hope that if war came he might be
allowed to raise a division, as he had once helped to raise a
regiment, and take them, after suitable training, to the front. He
knew where he could put his hands on the men, regular army
officers, ex-volunteers and Rough Riders of the Spanish War, and
other men of experience, who in turn could find other men, who
could be made into soldiers, for they knew the important parts of
a soldier's work, and could be trained quickly.
But the War Department and the President would have none of Mr.
Roosevelt's services. The President replied that the high officers
of the Army advised him against it, which was undoubtedly true. It
is also extremely likely that the high officers of the Democratic
Party would advise against letting Mr. Roosevelt serve his
country, as they still feared him, and still vainly hoped that
they could lessen his influence with the American people. Unlike
President Lincoln, who would gladly accept the services of any man
who could serve the country, Mr. Wilson could work only with men
who were personally pleasing, who thought as he did on all
subjects. The officer of the Army best known to European soldiers,
and the one who trained one of the best divisions, was Roosevelt's
old commander, General Leonard Wood. But he, like a statesman, had
been advising preparedness for years, and he was therefore
displeasing to the politicians who only began to prepare after war
was declared. America and the Allies did not have the benefit of
this distinguished officer's services in France.
Against the slothfulness of the Government in these years,
Roosevelt voiced the true opinion of America. He did not merely
criticize, for he offered his own services, and when he
disapproved of what was being done, he pointed out what might be
done by way of improvement. In spite of much condemnation of his
course, his suggestions were nearly all adopted--six months or a
year later. His offer to raise a division showed how many men were
eager to fight, and spurred the Government into action.
The Germans and their friends in this country, the peace-at-any-
price folk who defended or apologized for the worst crimes of the
Germans, and all the band of disloyal persons who think that
patriotism is something to be sneered at,--all these hated
Roosevelt with a deadly hatred. It was not a proud distinction to
be numbered with these, and all who joined with them have made
haste to forget the fact.
In his own family, his eldest son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became
first a Major and later a Lieutenant-Colonel of Infantry; Kermit
and Archibald were both Captains; and Quentin was a Lieutenant in
the Aviation force. His son-in-law, Dr. Richard Derby, was a Major
in the Medical Corps. All of them sought active service, made
every effort to get to the front, and succeeded. Two of them were
wounded, and Quentin was killed in a battle in the air.
The death of his youngest son was a terrible blow to him, but he
would not wince. His son had been true to his teaching; he had
dared the high fortune of battle.
"You cannot bring up boys to be eagles," said he, "and expect them
to act like sparrows!"
Some distinguished Japanese visitors calling on Mr. Roosevelt at
this time came away deeply affected. To them he recalled the
Samurai, with their noble traditions of utter self-sacrifice.
Throughout his life, but now as never before, he told his
countrymen, there was no place in America for a divided loyalty.
No German-Americans, nor Irish-Americans, nor Scotch-Americans. He
would have no man try to split even, and be a "50-50 American."
Shortly after war had ended, he sent this message to a patriotic
There must be no sagging back in the fight for Americanism merely
because the war is over. Any man who says he is an American, but
something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for
but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag,
which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just
as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we
are hostile. We have room for but one language here, and that is
the English language, for we intended to see that the crucible
turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and
not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for
but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.
[Footnote: Hagedorn, p. 384.]
It was practically his last word to the country he had loved and
served so well. That was on January 5, 1919.
Years before, when he and his children had played together, he had
told them a story about lions. Some of the boys had been called
the lion cubs, and henceforth their father was to them "The Old
On the sixth of January, one of his sons, who was at home
recovering from his wounds, sent a message to his brothers in
The Old Lion is dead.
He was buried in a small cemetery near his Long Island home. A
plain grave-stone marks the place. To his grave have come a King
and a Prince and other men of great name from Europe, to lay
wreaths there, as they put them on the tombs of Washington and
Lincoln. But what would have pleased him even more is that every
Sunday and holiday thousands of men, women and children who knew
him, thousands who loved him, although they never saw him, men who
fought at his side, and men who fought against him, go out to
stand for a moment at his grave, because they know him now as a
wise, brave, and patriotic American.