William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XIV. The President and the Kaiser
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William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
 
XIV. The President and the Kaiser
 
DURING the first years of Roosevelt’s Administration he had to encounter many conditions which existed rather from the momentum they had from the past than from any living vigor of their own. It was a time of transition. The group of politicians dating from the Civil War was nearly extinct, and the leaders who had come to the front after 1870 were also much thinned in number, and fast dropping off. Washington itself was becoming one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with its broad avenues, seldom thronged, its circles and squares, whose frequenters seemed never busy, its spirit of leisure, its suggestion of opulence and amplitude, and of a not too zealous or disturbing hold on reality. You still saw occasionally a tiny cottage inhabited by a colored family cuddled up against a new and imposing palace, just as you might pass a colored mammy on the same sidewalk with a millionaire Senator, for the residential section had not yet been socially standardized.   1
  Only a few years before, under President Cleveland, a single telephone sufficed for the White House, and as the telephone operator stopped work at six o’clock, the President himself or some member of his family had to answer calls during the evening. A single secretary wrote in long hand most of the Presidential correspondence. Examples of similar primitiveness might be found almost everywhere, and the older generation seemed to imagine that a certain slipshod and dozing quality belonged to the very idea of Democracy. If you were neatly dressed and wide awake, you would inevitably be remarked among your fellows; such remark would imply superiority; and to be superior was supposedly to be undemocratic.   2
  Nevertheless this was a time of transition, and the vigor which emanated from the young President passed like electricity through all lines and hastened the change. He caused the White House to be remodeled and fitted on the one hand for social purposes which required much more spacious accommodation, and on the other for offices in which he could conduct the largely increased Presidential business. Instead of one telephone there were many working night and day, and instead of a single longhand secretary, there were a score of stenographers and typists. Before he left Washington he saw a vast Union Station erected instead of the over-grown shanties at Sixth Street, and he had encouraged the laying-out of the waste places beyond the Capitol, thus adding to the city another and imposing section. His interest did not stop at politics, nor at carrying through the reforms he had at heart. He attended with equal keenness and solicitude to external improvements.   3
  Now at first, as I have suggested, his chief duty was to continue President McKinley’s policies, which concerned mostly the establishment of our insular dependencies, and the readjustment of our diplomatic relations. I have described how he closed the dispute over the Alaskan Boundary, over our joint control with England over the Isthmus of Panama, and how he circumvented the attempt of the Colombian blackmailers to block our construction of the Canal.   4
  We must now glance at a matter of almost equal importance—our relations with Germany. The German attack on civilization, which was openly delivered in 194, revealed to the world that for twenty years before the German Emperor had been secretly preparing his mad project of Universal Conquest. We see now that he used all sorts of base tools German exchange professors, spies, bribers, conventional insinuators and corrupters, organizers of pro-German sentiment, and of societies of German Americans. So little did he and his lackeys understand the American spirit that they assumed that at the given signal the people of the United States would gladly go over to them. He counted on securing North and South America by commerce and corruption, and not by armed force. The reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine by President Cleveland in 1895 seriously troubled him; for he contemplated planting German colonies in Central and South America without resistance, but the Monroe Doctrine in its latest interpretation forbade him or any foreign government from establishing dominion in either American continent. Still, two things comforted him: the Americans were, he thought, a loose, happy-go-lucky people, without any consecutive or deep-laid policy, as foolish republicans must be; and next, he knew that he had the most powerful army in the world, which, if put to the test, would crush the undisciplined American militia at the first onset. He adopted, therefore, a double policy: he pretended openly to be most friendly to the Americans; he flattered all of them whom he could reach in Berlin, and he directed an effusive propaganda in the United States. In secret, how ever, he lost no occasion to harm this country. When the Spanish War came in 1898, he tried to form a naval coalition of his fleet with those of France and England, and it was only the refusal of England to join in it which saved this country from disaster. The United States owe Mr. Balfour, who at that time controlled the British Foreign Office, an eternal debt of gratitude, because it was he who replied to the Kaiser’s secret temptation: “No: if the British fleet takes any part in this war, it will be to put itself between the American fleet and those of your coalition.”   5
  The Kaiser expressed his real sentiment towards the United States in a remark which he made later, not expecting that it would reach American ears. “If I had had ships enough,” he said, “I would have taken the Americans by the scruff of the neck.” As it was, he showed his purpose to those who had eyes to see it, by ordering the German Squadron under Diederichs to go to Manila and take what he could there. Fortunately before he could take Manila or the Philippines he had to take the American Commodore, George Dewey, and when he discovered what sort of a sea-fighter the mountains of Vermont had produced in Dewey, he decided not to attack him. Perhaps also the fact that the English commander at Manila, Captain Chichester, stood ready to back up Dewey caused Diederichs to back down. The true Prussian truculence always oozes out when it has not a safe margin of superiority in strength on its side.   6
  The Kaiser was not to be foiled, however, in his determination to get a foothold in America. As the likelihood that the Panama Canal would be constructed became a certainty, he redoubled his efforts. He tried to buy from a Mexican Land Company two large ports in Lower California for “his personal use.” These would have given him, of course, control over the approach to the Canal from the Pacific. Simultaneously he sent a surveying expedition to the Caribbean Sea, which found a spacious harbor, that might serve as a naval base, on an unoccupied island near the main line of vessels approaching the Canal from the east, but before he could plant a force there; the presence of his surveyors was discovered, and they sailed away.   7
  He now resorted to a more cunning ruse. The people of Venezuela owed considerable sums to merchants and bankers in Germany, England, and Italy, and the creditors could recover neither their capital nor the interest on it. The Kaiser bethought him self of the simple plan of making a naval demonstration against the Venezuelans if they did not pay up; he would send his troops ashore, occupy the chief harbors, and take in the customs. To disguise his ulterior motive, he persuaded England and Italy to join him in collecting their bill against Venezuela. So warships of the three nations appeared off the Venezuelan coast, and for some time they maintained what they called “A peaceful blockade.” After a while Secretary Hay pointed out that there could be no such thing as a peaceful blockade; that a blockade was, by its very nature, an act of war; accordingly the blockaders declared a state of belligerency between themselves and Venezuela, and Germany threatened to bombard the seacoast towns unless the debt was settled without further delay. President Roosevelt had no illusions as to what bombardment and occupation by German troops would mean. If a regiment or two of Germans once went into garrison at Caracas or Porto Cabello, the Kaiser would secure the foothold he craved on the American Coast within striking distance of the projected Canal, and Venezuela, unable to ward off his aggression, would certainly be helpless to drive him out. Mr. Roosevelt allowed Mr. Herbert W. Bowen, the American Minister to Venezuela, to serve as Special Commissioner for Venezuela in conducting her negotiations with. Germany. He, himself, however, took the matter into his own hands at Washington. Having sounded England and Italy, and learned that they were willing to arbitrate, and knowing also that neither of them schemed to take territorial payment for their bills, he directed his diplomatic attack straight at the Kaiser. When the German Ambassador, Dr. von Holleben, one of the pompous and ponderous professorial sort of German officials, was calling on him at the White House, the President told him to warn the Kaiser that unless he consented, within a given time—about ten days—to arbitrate the Venezuelan dispute, the American fleet under Admiral Dewey would appear off the Venezuelan coast and defend it from any attack which the German Squadron might attempt to make. Holleben displayed consternation; he protested that since his Imperial Master had refused to arbitrate, there could be no arbitration. His Imperial Master could not change his Imperial Mind, and the dutiful servant asked the President whether he realized what such a demand meant. The President replied calmly that he knew it meant war. A week passed, but brought no reply from Berlin; then Holleben called again at the White House on some unimportant matters; as he turned to go the President inquired, “Have you heard from Berlin?” “No,” said Holleben. “Of course His Imperial Majesty cannot arbitrate.” “Very well,” said Roosevelt, “you may think it worth while to cable to Berlin that I have changed my mind. I am sending instructions to Admiral Dewey to take our fleet to Venezuela next Monday instead of Tuesday.” Holleben brought the interview to a close at once and departed with evident signs of alarm. He returned in less than thirty-six hours with relief and satisfaction written on his face, as he informed the President, “His Imperial Majesty consents to arbitrate.”   8
  In order to screen the Kaiser’s mortification from the world, Roosevelt declared that his transaction—which only he, the Kaiser, and Holleben knew about—should not be made public at the time; and he even went so far, a little later, in speaking on the matter as to refer to the German Emperor as a good friend and practicer of arbitration.   9
  Many years later, when Roosevelt and I discussed this episode we cast about for reasons to account for the Kaiser’s sudden back-down. We concluded that after the first interview Holleben either did not cable to Berlin at all, or he gave the message with his own comment that it was all a bluff. After the second interview, he consulted Buenz, the German Consul-General at New York, who knew Roosevelt well and knew also the powerfulness of Dewey’s fleet. He assured Holleben that the President was not bluffing, and that Dewey could blow all the German Navy, then in existence, out of the water in half an hour. So Holleben sent a hot cablegram to Berlin, and Berlin understood that only an immediate answer would do.   10
  Poor, servile, old bureaucrat Holleben! The Kaiser soon treated him as he was in the habit of treating any of his servile creatures, high or low, who made a fiasco. Deceived by the glowing reports which his agents in the United States sent to him, the Kaiser believed that the time was ripe for a visit by a Hohenzollern, to let off the pent-up enthusiasm of the German-Americans and to stimulate the pro-German conspiracy here. Accordingly Prince Henry of Prussia came over and made a whirlwind trip, as far as Chicago; but it was in no sense a royal progress. Multitudes flocked to see him out of curiosity, but Prince Henry realized, and so did the German kin here, that his mission had failed. A scapegoat must be found, and apparently Holleben was the chosen victim.   11
  The Kaiser cabled him to resign and take the next day’s steamer home, alleging “chronic illness” as an excuse. He sailed from Hoboken obediently, and there were none so poor as to do him reverence. The sycophants who had fawned upon him while he was enjoying the Imperial favor as Ambassador took care not to be seen waving a farewell to him from the pier. Instead of that, they were busy telling over his blunders. He had served French instead of German champagne at a banquet for Prince Henry, and he had allowed the Kaiser’s yacht to be christened in French champagne. How could such a blunderer satisfy the diplomatic requirements of the vain and petty Kaiser? And yet! Holleben was utterly devoted and willing to grovel in the mud. He even suggested to President Roosevelt that at the State Banquet at the White House, Prince Henry, as a Hohenzollern, and the representative of the Almightiest Kaiser, should walk out to dinner first; but there was no discussion, for the President replied curtly, “No person living precedes the President of the United States in the White House.”   12
  Henceforth the Kaiser understood that the United States Government, at least as long as Roosevelt was President, would repel any attempt by foreigners to violate the Monroe Doctrine, and set up a nucleus of foreign power in either North or South America. He devoted himself all the more earnestly to pushing the sly work of peaceful penetration, that work of spying and lying in which the German people proved itself easily first. The diabolical propaganda, aimed not only at undermining the United States, at seducing the Irish and other hyphenate groups of Americans, but at polluting the Mexicans and several of the South American States; and later there was a thoroughly organized conspiracy to stir up animosity between this country and Japan by making the Japanese hate and suspect the Americans, and by making the Americans hate and suspect the Japanese. I alluded just now to the fact that German intrigue was working in Bogota, and influenced the Colombian blackmailers in refusing to sign the Hay Herran Canal Treaty with the United States, and peered about in the hope of snapping up the Canal rights for Germany.   13
  Outwardly, during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Kaiser seemed to be most active in interfering in European politics, including those of Morocco, in which the French were entangled. In 1904 the war between Russia and Japan broke out. Roosevelt remained strictly neutral towards both belligerents, making it evident, however, that either or both of them could count on his friendly offices if they sought mediation. At the beginning of the war, it was generally assumed that the German Kaiser shed no tears over the Russian reverses, for the weaker Russia became, the less Germany needed to fear her as a neighbor. At length, however, when it looked as if the Japanese might actually shatter the Russian Empire, Germany and the other European Powers seemed to have had a common feeling that a decided victory by an Asiatic nation like Japan would certainly require a readjustment of world politics, and might not only put in jeopardy European interests and control in Asia, but also raise up against Europe what the Kaiser had already advertised as the Yellow Peril. I have no evidence that President Roosevelt shared this anxiety; on the contrary, I think that he was not unwilling that a strong Japan should exist to prevent the dismemberment of Eastern Asia by European land-grabbers.   14
  By the spring of 1905, both Russia and Japan had fought almost to exhaustion. The probability was that Russia with her vast population could continue to replenish her army. Japan, with great pluck, after winning amazing victories, which left her weaker and weaker, made no sign of wishing for an armistice. Roosevelt, however, on his own motion wrote a private letter to the Czar, Nicholas II, and sent George Meyer, Ambassador to Italy, with it on a special mission to Petrograd. The President urged the Czar to consider making peace, since both the Russians and the Japanese had nearly fought them selves out, and further warfare would add to the losses and burdens, already tremendous, of both people. Probably he hinted also that another disaster in the field might cause an outbreak by the Russian Revolutionists. I have not seen his letter—perhaps a copy of it has escaped, in the Czar’s secret archives, the violence of the Bolshevists—but I have heard him speak about it. I have reason to suppose also that he wrote privately to the Kaiser to use his influence with the Czar. At any rate, the Czar listened to the President’s advice, and by one of those diplomatic devices by which both parties saved their dignity, an armistice was arranged and, in the summer of 1905, the Peace was signed. The following year, the Trustees of the Nobel Peace Prize recognized Roosevelt’s large part in stopping the war, by giving the Prize to him.   15
  Meanwhile, the irritation between France and Germany had increased to the point where open rupture was feared. For years Germany had been waiting for a propitious moment to swoop down on France and overwhelm her. The French intrigues in Morocco, which were leading visibly to a French Protectorate over that country, aroused German resentment, for the Germans coveted Morocco themselves. The Kaiser went so far as to invite Roosevelt to interfere with him in Morocco, but this, the President replied, was impossible. Probably he was not unwilling to have the German Emperor understand that, while the United States would interfere with all their might to prevent a foreign attack on the Monroe Doctrine, they meant to keep their hands off in European quarrels. That he also had a clear idea of William II’s temperament appears from the following opinion which I find in a private letter of his at this time: “The Kaiser had weekly pipe dreams.”   16
  The situation grew very angry, and von Billow, the German Chancellor, did not hide his purpose of upholding the German pretensions, even at the cost of war. President Roosevelt then wrote—privately—to the Kaiser impressing it upon him that for Germany to make war on France would be a crime against civilization, and he suggested that a Conference of Powers be held to discuss the Moroccan difficulty, and to agree upon terms for a peaceful adjustment. The Kaiser finally accepted Roosevelt’s advice, and after a long debate over the preliminaries, the Conference was held at Algeciras, Spain.   17
  That Roosevelt understood, or even suspected, the great German conspiracy which the Kaiser’s hirelings were weaving over the United States is wholly improbable. Had he known of any plot he would have been the first to hunt it down and crush it. He knew in general of the extravagant vaporings of the Pan-Germans; but, like most of us, he supposed that there was still enough sanity, not to say common sense, left in Germany to laugh such follies away. Through his intimate friend, Spring-Rice, subsequently the British Ambassador, he had early and sound information of the conditions of Germany. He watched with curiosity the abnormal expansion of the German Fleet. All these things simply confirmed his belief that the United States must attend seriously to the business of making military and naval preparations.   18
  Secretary Hay had already secured the recognition by the European Powers of the policy of the Open Door in China, the year before Roosevelt became President, but the struggle to maintain that policy had to be kept up for several years. On November 21, 1900, John Hay wrote to Henry Adams: “At least we are spared the infamy of an alliance with Germany. I would rather, I think, be the dupe of China, than chum of the Kaiser. Have you noticed how the world will take anything nowadays from a German? Billow said yesterday in substance—‘We have demanded of China everything we can think of. If we think of anything else we will demand that, and be d—d to you’—and not a man in the world kicks.” 1   19
  By an adroit move similar to that by which Hay had secured the unwilling adherence of the Powers to his original proposal of the Open Door, he, with Roosevelt’s sanction, prevented the German Emperor from carrying out a plan to cut up China and divide the slices among the Europeans.   20
  Equally adroit was Roosevelt’s method of dealing with the Czar in 1903. Russian mobs ran amuck and massacred many Jews in the city of Kishineff. The news of this atrocity reached the outside world slowly: when it came, the Jews of western Europe, and especially those of the United States, cried out in horror, held meetings, drew up protests, and framed petitions, asking the Czar to punish the criminals. Leading American Jews besought Roosevelt to plead their cause before the Czar. As it was well known that the Czar would refuse to receive such petitions, and would regard himself as insulted by whatever nation should lay them before him by official diplomatic means, the world wondered what Roosevelt would do. He took one of his short cuts, and chose a way which everybody saw was most obvious and most simple, as soon as he had chosen it. He sent the petitions to our Ambassador at Petrograd, accompanying them with a letter which recited the atrocities and grievances. In this letter, which was handed to the Russian Secretary of State, our Government asked whether His Majesty the Czar would condescend to receive the petitions. Of course the reply was no, but the letter was published in all countries, so that the Czar also knew of the petitions, and of the horrors which called them out. In this fashion the former Ranchman and Rough Rider outwitted, by what I may call his straightforward guile, the crafty diplomats of the Romanoffs.   21

Note 1. W. R. Thayer: John Hay, II, 248. [ back ]

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