Theodore Roosevelt’s Valedictory – Previously Unpublished – Issued For the Sake of Future Generations, and Sent to One of His Rough Riders

We must “endeavor to keep history straight, so that our children’s children may not grow up in the dreadful creed that successful hypocrisy turns the hypocrite, the coward, the cold-blooded…into a great man.”

A leader must be judged, he says specifying President Wilson, on not only “the things he said and did, and those he left unsaid and undone.”

His heart is torn, as he poignantly discusses the service of all four of his sons in World War I, stating what...

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Theodore Roosevelt’s Valedictory – Previously Unpublished – Issued For the Sake of Future Generations, and Sent to One of His Rough Riders

We must “endeavor to keep history straight, so that our children’s children may not grow up in the dreadful creed that successful hypocrisy turns the hypocrite, the coward, the cold-blooded…into a great man.”

A leader must be judged, he says specifying President Wilson, on not only “the things he said and did, and those he left unsaid and undone.”

His heart is torn, as he poignantly discusses the service of all four of his sons in World War I, stating what might be seen as a credo of parents whose sons went to war: “I suppose we must make up our minds that we shall not see all, nor perhaps any, of the three again. And our hearts are torn; but we are very proud of them and we would not for anything have had them act otherwise.”

Yet he sees himself as having left the stage: “The day is past when I could appeal to the American people.”

 

Theodore Roosevelt had been advocating a U.S. entry into World War I since 1915, and bitterly and vocally criticized President Woodrow Wilson for his failure to plunge in. When the U.S. finally declared war in April 1917, TR moved immediately to recreate the Rough Riders and send them to France. He intended to raise four divisions, and he selected eighteen officers and directed them to begin actively recruiting volunteer troops. It was all in process and TR was set to go. But the War Department failed to act to authorize this.

So on May 18, 1917, TR wrote Wilson, saying “I respectfully ask permission immediately to raise two divisions for immediate service at the front…and hold myself ready to raise four divisions, if you so direct.” Wilson, who had suffered much at Roosevelt’s hands and believed TR to be a reckless and dangerous adventurer, had no intention of allowing him to raise regiments, head to France, and become a factor in not just the war but the peace that would follow. He responded, “I very much regret that I cannot comply with the request…I need not assure you that my conclusions were based entirely upon imperative considerations of public policy and not upon personal or private choice.” This letter, perhaps a bit disingenuous regarding Wilson’s true reasons, effectively ended TR’s hopes to go and serve in France. As the spring turned to summer and summer to fall, TR came to the realization that his career in the public limelight was over. He pondered the verdict of history.

All four of Roosevelt’s sons had either absorbed or inherited his fearless, all-or-nothing approach to hazards. Throughout World War I, Ted Jr. would be alternately praised and criticized as an officer who routinely and boldly moved ahead of the line in battle after battle. General Patton wrote of him: “Great courage.” Archie, Kermit, and Quentin were the same way. One contemporary from the Great War called Arch “an absolutely selfless gladiator who insisted on being the first to smell the enemy’s bad breath, regardless of the risk.” Kermit fought with the British in the Middle East, showing great bravery. As for Quentin, he was made a flight commander in the 95th Aero Squadron, in action near the Aisne River in France. He soon shot down his first plane.

The recipient of this letter was R.H.M. Ferguson, TR’s hunting companion in 1890, and a few years after his partner in his Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota. In 1898 Ferguson joined the Rough Riders and served under TR in Cuba. The Vigilantes TR references were an organization, formed in part by German-Americans, who conducted a pro-America campaign when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Roosevelt associated himself with their work.

Autograph letter signed, apparently unpublished, on his Sagamore letterhead, 4 pages, Oyster Bay, NY, August 22, 1917, to Ferguson, filled with his reflections on history, leadership, his feelings about Wilson, and his personal emotions as a parent seeing his sons go to war. “I shall send your letter on to the Vigilantes; they seem to do more than any other of these associations and are young and enthusiastic. I haven’t found that the government bodies really accomplish much, and the unofficial organizations although well meaning usually do not know how!

“Yes, Kermit is to serve in Mesopotamia just as you served in Cuba. He has just written me a dear letter, telling of his lunch with Lord Derby, who offered him his choice of a captaincy or majority. Kermit very properly took the former, as he felt that men already on the ground might resent a new man being put over them. Kipling wrote me a very nice letter telling of the visit of Kermit and Belle to him. He says, quite truly, that of the four boys Kermit will have the least comfortable but also the least dangerous job. Ted is a major and Archie a lieutenant in the 26th Infantry; the colonel has spoken well of them, although of course they are in, and hold command over, regulars. Quentin is in France, one of the first nine American aviators to be sent there for the intensive training. The three are in the most dangerous positions the army yields. I suppose we must make up our minds that we shall not see all, nor perhaps any, of the three again. And our hearts are torn; but we are very proud of them and we would not for anything have had them act otherwise.

“I intend to do as you suggest and make a record of Wilson’s actions – and words – as President. (By the way, I hope you saw my last piece in the Metropolitan [in it, he called for peace through victory]). I am about to publish a little book, “The Foes of Our Own Household”, which will contain one or two statements about, or rather, from, him. I’ll send you a copy. But this book does not meet the need of which you speak; and if I am able I shall endeavor to keep history straight, so that our children’s children may not grow up in the dreadful creed that successful hypocrisy turns the hypocrite, the coward, the cold-blooded, utterly selfish time server, into a great man. For every ill from which we now suffer Wilson is more responsible than any other man. The pacifists and pro-Germans at this moment find their main weapons in the phrases he uttered, and the feelings he stimulated, during the first 2 1/2 years of the war. Yet not only Americans but Englishmen tend to forget this and to praise him for now not too effectively opposing the very forces which gained most of their strength from his action and inaction, the things he said and did, and those he left unsaid and undone. But I doubt if I can do anything. The day is past when I could appeal to the American people.

“Dearest love to blessed Martha and the warlike shot and rider [referring to Ferguson himself]. Ever yours, T.R.”

He adds some family news. “Ethel [his daughter Ethel Roosevelt Derby) was at St. Lukes with poor little Richard [TR’s grandson] who was operated on for appendicitis. She is now at Oglethorpes with Dick [Ethel’s husband surgeon Richard Derby] who expects to go over next month. Richard and the baby are with us.” This is an apparently unpublished letter and was acquired directly from the recipients descendants.

In the book he references, he states that “The leaders who have led us wrong are these foes ; and in so far as our own weakness and short-sightedness and love of ease and undue regard for material success have made us respond readily to such leadership, we ourselves have been our own foes.”

TR’s injunctions to keep history straight, to avoid hypocrisy and cowardice, and to judge leaders on not only what they say and do, but what they omit, are important and timeless.

His personal injunction proved all too prescient. On July 14, 1918, Quentin was participating in the Second Battle of the Marne when his plane was engaged by three German fighters. Shot down, Quentin’s plane fell behind the German lines. He was killed, and TR left devastated. So TR was right, and as he said in this letter, he and his wife would have to “make up our minds that we shall not see all…again.”

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