William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XXIV. Prometheus Bound
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XXIV. Prometheus Bound
THE event which put Roosevelt’s patriotism to the final test, and, as it proved, evoked all his great qualities in a last display, was the outbreak of the Atrocious World War in August, 1914. By the most brutal assault in modern times, Germany, and her lackey ally, Austria, without notice, overran Belgium and Northeastern France, and devastated Serbia. The other countries, especially the United States, were too startled at first to understand either the magnitude or the possible implications of this war. On August 18th, President Wilson issued the first of his many variegated messages, in which he gave this warning: “We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.” He added that his first thought was of America. Any one who analyzed his message carefully must have wondered how it was possible, in the greatest moral issue which had ever been thrust before the world’s judgment, to remain impartial “even in thought” between good and evil. Perhaps it was right, though hardly necessary, to impress upon Americans that they must look after their own interests first. Would it not have been more seemly, however, especially for President Wilson, who on the previous Fourth of July had uttered his sanctimonious tribute to the superiority in virtue of the United States to all other nations, to urge his countrymen to put some of this virtue into practice at that crisis?   1
  But the masses did not reason. They used his admonition to remain neutral “even in thought” to justify them in not having any great anxiety as to who was right and who wrong; and they interpreted his concern for “America first” as authorizing them to go about their affairs and profit as much as they could in the warlike conditions. Some of us, indeed, took an opposite view. We saw that the conflict, if fought to a finish, would decide whether Democracy or Despotism should rule the earth. We felt that the United States, the vastest, strongest, and most populous Republic in the world, pledged to uphold Democracy, should throw itself at once on the side of the European nations which were struggling, against great odds, to save Democracy from the most atrocious of despots. Inevitably, we were regarded as incorrigible idealists whose suggestions ran counter to etiquette and were, after all, crazy.   2
  For several years, Roosevelt had been a contributing editor of the Outlook, and although his first instinct, when the Germans ravished Belgium, was to protest and then, if necessary, to follow up our protest by a show of force, he wrote in the Outlook an approval of our taking immediately a neutral attitude. Still, he did not let this preclude stern action later. “Neutrality,” he said, “may be of prime necessity to maintain peace … but we pay the penalty of this action on behalf of peace for ourselves, and possibly for others in the future, by forfeiting our right to do anything on behalf of peace for the Belgians at present.” Three years afterwards these sentences of his were unearthed by his enemies and flung against him; but his dominant purpose, from the start, was too well known for any one to accuse him of inconsistency. He assumed, when President Wilson issued his impartial “even in thought” message, that the President must have some secret diplomatic information which would vindicate it.   3
  As the months went on, however, it became clear to him that Mr. Wilson was pursuing towards the European War the same policy of contradictions, of brief paroxysms of boldness, followed by long periods of lassitude, which had marked his conduct of our relations towards the Mexican bandits. He saw only too well, also, into what ignoble depths this policy led us. Magnificent France, throttled Belgium, England willing but not yet ready, devastated Serbia, looked to us for sympathy and help, and all the sympathy they got came from private persons in America, and of help there was none. Meanwhile, the Germans undermined and gangrened the American people. Every ship brought over their slyest and most unscrupulous propagandists, who cooperated with the despicable German professors and other agents already planted here, and opened the sewers of their doctrines. Their spies began to go up and down the land, without check. Count Bernstorff, the German Ambassador, assumed to play with the Administration at Washington as a cat might play with half a score of mice, feeling sure that he could devour them when he chose. A European gentleman, who came from a neutral country, and called on Bernstorff in April, 1915, told me that when he asked the Ambassador how he got on with the United States, he replied: “Very well, indeed; we pay no attention to the Government, but go ahead and do what we please.” Within a fortnight the sinking of the Lusitania showed that Bernstorff had not boasted idly.   4
  Roosevelt understood the harm which the German conspiracy was doing among our people, not only by polluting their ideals, but actually strengthening the coils which the propagandists had been winding, to strangle at the favorable moment American independence itself. We discovered then that the process of Germanization had been going on secretly during twenty years. Since England was the chief enemy in the way of German world domination, the German-Americans laid themselves out to render the English odious here. And they worked to such good purpose that the legal officers of the Administration admonished the American people that the English, in holding up merchant vessels laden with cargoes for Germany, committed breaches against international law which were quite as heinous as the sinking by German submarines of ships laden with American non-combatants. They magnified the loss of a cargo of perishable food and set it against the ferocious destruction of neutral human beings. Senator Lodge, however, expressed the clear thought and right feeling of Americans when he said that we were more moved by the thought of the corpse of an innocent victim of the Hun submarines than by that of a bale of cotton.   5
  These enormities, these sins of omission and commission, of which Roosevelt declared our Government guilty, amazed and exasperated him, and from the beginning of 1915 onward, he set himself three tasks. He wished to expose and circumvent German machinations over here. Next, he deemed it a pressing duty to rouse our country to the recognition that we must prepare at once for war. He saw, as every other sensible person saw, that as the conflict grew more terrible in Europe and spread into Asia and Africa, we should be drawn into it, and that therefore we must make ready. He seconded the plan of General Leonard Wood to organize a camp for volunteers at Plattsburg and other places; and what that plan accomplished in fitting American soldiers to meet and vanquish the Kaiser’s best troops, has since been proved. President Wilson, however, would not officially countenance any preparation which, so far as the public was allowed to know his reasons, might be taken by the Germans as an unfriendly act. Finally, Roosevelt labored unceasingly to revive and make militant the ideals of true Americanism.   6
  That the Germans accurately gauged that President Wilson would not sanction any downright vigorous action against them, was sufficiently proved on May 7, 1915, when German submarines torpedoed and sank, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the British passenger steamship Lusitania, eastward bound, a few miles south of the Point of Kinsale on the Irish coast. With her went down nearly thirteen hundred persons, all of them non-belligerents and more than one hundred of them American men, women, and children. This atrocious crime the Germans committed out of their stupid miscalculation of the motives which govern non-German peoples. They thought that the British and Americans would be so terrorized that they would no longer dare to cross the ocean. The effect was, of course, just the opposite. A cry of horror swept over the civilized world, and swiftly upon it came a great demand for punishment and retribution.   7
  Then was the moment for President Wilson to break off diplomatic relations with Germany. The very day after the waters of the British Channel had closed over the innocent victims, President Wilson made an address in which he announced that “a nation may be too proud to fight.” The country gasped for breath when it read those words, which seemed to be the official statement of the President of the United States that foreign nations might out rage, insult, and degrade this nation with impunity, because, as the rabbit retires into its hole, so we would burrow deep into our pride and show neither resentment nor sense of honor. As soon as possible, word came from the White House that, as the President’s speech had been written before the sinking of the Lusitania, his remarks had no bearing on that atrocity. Pride is a wonderful cloak for cowards, but it never saves them. Perhaps the most amazing piece of impudence in Germany’s long list was the formal visit described by the newspapers which the German Ambassador, Bernstorff, paid to Mr. Bryan, the Secretary—of State, to present to our Government the formal condolence of Germany and him self at this painful happening. Bernstorff, we know now, planned the sinking and gave the German Government notice by wireless just where the submarines could best destroy the Lusitania, on that Friday afternoon.   8
  Ten days later, Mr. Wilson sent a formal protest to Germany in which he recalled “the humane and enlightened attitude hitherto assumed by the Imperial German Government in matters of international right, and particularly in regard to the freedom of the seas”; and he professed to have “learned to recognize the German views and the German influence in the field of international obligation as always engaged upon the side of justice and humanity.” If Mr. Bryan had written this, no one would have been astonished, because Mr. Bryan made no pretense of knowing even the rudimentary facts of history; but that President Wilson, by profession a historian, should laud, as being always engaged in justice and humanity, the nation which, under Frederick the Great, had stolen Silesia and dismembered Poland, and which, in his own lifetime, had garroted Denmark, had forced a wicked war on Austria, had trapped France by lies into another war and robbed her of Alsace-Lorraine, and had only recently wiped its hands, dripping with blood drawn from the Chinese, was amazing! Small wonder if after that, the German hyphenates lifted up their heads arrogantly in this country, or that the Kaiser in Germany believed that the United States was a mere jelly-fish nation which would tolerate any enormity he might concoct. This was the actual comfort President Wilson’s message gave Germany. The negative result was felt among the Allied nations which, struggling against the German Monster like Laocoon in the coils of the Python, took Mr. Wilson’s praise of Germany’s imaginary love of justice and humanity as a death-warrant for themselves. They could not believe that he who wrote such words, or the American people who swallowed them, could ever be roused to give succor to the Allies in their desperation.   9
  Three years later I asked Roosevelt what he would have done, if he had been President in May, 1915. He said, in substance, that, as soon as he had read in the New York newspaper 1 the advertisement which Bernstorff had inserted warning all American citizens from taking passage on the Lusitania, he would have sent for Bernstorff and asked him whether the advertisement was officially acknowledged by him. Even Bernstorff, arch-liar that he was, could not have denied it. “I should then have sent to the Department of State to prepare his passports; I should have handed them to him and said, ‘You will sail on the Lusitania yourself next Friday; an American guard will see you on board, and prevent your coming ashore.’ The breaking off of diplomatic relations with Germany,” Roosevelt added, “would probably have meant war, and we were horribly unprepared. But better war, than submission to a humiliation which no President of this country has ever before allowed; better war a thousand times, than to let the Germans go on really making war upon us at sea, and honeycombing the American people with plots on land, while our Government shamelessly lavishes praise on the criminal for his justice and humanity and virtually begs his pardon.”   10
  Thus believed Roosevelt in the Lusitania crisis, and many others of us agreed with him. The stopping of German intrigues here, the breaking-off of diplomatic relations, would have been of inestimable benefit to this country. It would have caused every American to rally to the country’s defense. It would have forced the reluctant Administration to prepare a navy and an army. It would have sifted the patriotic sheep from the sneaking and spying goats. It would have brought immense comfort to the Allies and corresponding despondency to the Huns. For Germany plunged into the war believing that England would remain neutral. When England came in, to redeem her word of honor, Germany’s frantic purpose was to have us keep neutral and supply her with food and munitions. Had she known that there was any possibility of our actively joining the Allies, she would have hastened to make peace. Our first troops could have reached France in the early spring of 1916. They would not have been, of course, shock troops, but their presence in France would have been an assurance to the Allies that we were coming with all our force, and the Germans would soon have understood that this meant their doom. By the summer of 1916, the war would have been over.   11
  Think what this implies! Two years and a half of fighting would never have taken place. At least three million lives among the Allied armies would have been saved. Russia would have been spared revolution, chaos, Bolshevism. Some, at least, of the myriads of massacred Armenians would not have been slain. Thousands of square miles of devastated territory would not have been spoiled. A hundred billions of dollars for equipping and carrying on the war would never have been spent. All this is not an idle dream; it is the calm statement of what would probably have happened if President Wilson, after the Lusitania outrage, had dared to break with Germany. History will hold him accountable for those millions of lives sacrificed, for the unspeakable suffering which the people of the ravaged regions had to endure, for the dissolution of Russia, which threatened to throw down the bases of our civilization, and for the waste of incalculable treasure. President Wilson’s apologists assert that the country was not ready for him to take any resolute attitude towards Germany in May, 1915. They argue that if he had attempted to do so there would have been great internal dissension, perhaps even civil war, and especially that the German sections would have opposed preparations for war so stubbornly as to have made them impossible. This is pure assumption. The truth is that whenever or wherever an appeal was made to American patriotism, it met with an immediate response. The sinking of the Lusitania created such a storm of horror and indignation that if the President had lifted a finger, the manhood of America, and the womanhood, too, would have risen to back him up. But instead of lifting a finger, he wrote that message to Germany, praising the Germans for their traditional respect for justice and humanity. And a long time had yet to pass before he made the least sign of encouragement to those Americans who would uphold the honor of the United States and would have this, the greatest of Republics, take its due part in defending Democracy against the Huns’ attempt to wipe Democracy off the earth forever.   12
  Having missed his opportunity then, Mr. Wilson could of course plead that the country was less and less inclined to go to war, because he furnished the pro-German plotters the very respite they had needed for carrying on their work. By unavowed ways they secured a strong support among the members of the National House of Representatives and the Senate. They disguised themselves as pacifists, and they found it easy to wheedle the “lunatic fringe” of native pacifists into working for the domination of William of Hohenzollern over the United States, and for the establishing of his world dominion. The Kaiser’s propagandists spread evil arguments to justify all the Kaiser’s crimes, and they found willing disciples even among the members of the Administration to repeat and uphold these arguments.   13
  They told us, for instance, that their massacre served the victims of the Lusitania right for taking passage on a British steamship. They even wished to pass a law forbidding Americans from traveling on the ocean at all, because, by doing so, they might be blown up by the Germans, and that would involve this country in diplomatic difficulties with Germany. Next, the Germans protested against our selling munitions of war to the Allies. Neither custom nor international law forbade doing this, and the protest stood out in :stark impudence when it came from Germany, the country which, for fifty years and more, had sold munitions to every one who asked and had not hesitated to sell impartially to both antagonists in the Russo-Japanese War. By playing on the sentimentality of this same “lunatic fringe,” the German intriguers almost succeeded in driving through a bill to stop this traffic. They knew the true Prussian way of whimpering when bullying did not avail them. And so they not only whimpered about our sending shells over to kill the German soldiers, but they whimpered also over the dire effects which the Allied blockade produced upon the non-combatant population of Germany. These things went on, not only a whole year, but far into the second after the sinking of the Lusitania. Roosevelt never desisted from charging that the person ultimately responsible for them was President Wilson, and he believed that the President’s apparent self-satisfaction would avail him little when he stands at the bar of History.   14
  It may be that an entire people may lose for a time its sense of logic. We have just had the most awful proof that, through a long-continued and deliberate education for that purpose, the German people lost its moral sense and set up diabolical standards in place of those common to all civilized races. We know that religious hysteria has at different times, like the influenza, swept over a nation, or that a society has lost its taste for generations together in art, and in poetry. We remember that the Witchcraft Delusion obsessed our ancestors. It is not impossible, therefore, that between 1914 and 1918 the American people passed through a stage in which it threw logic to the winds. This would account at least for its infatuation for President Wilson, in spite of his undisguised inconsistencies and appalling blunders. A people who thought logic ally and kept certain principles steadily before it, could hardly otherwise have tolerated Mr. Wilson’s “too-proud-to-fight” speech, and his message to Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania, or his subsequent endeavor to make the Americans think that there was no choice between the causes for which the Allies and the Teutons were fighting. Was it not he who said that Europe was war-mad, and that America had better mind her own business, and look the other way? Did he not declare that we were forced into war, and then that we were not? That a President of the United States should assert or even insinuate these things during the great War for Humanity—and by Humanity I mean every trait, every advance which has lifted men above the level of the beast, where they originated, to the level of the human with its potential ascent to heights undreamed of—is amazing now: what will it be a generation hence?   15
  Roosevelt watched impatiently while these strange phases passed before him. He listened angrily at the contradictory utterances. He felt the ignominy of our country’s being at such a depth. He knew Germany too well to suppose that she could be deterred by President Wilson’s messages. He saw something comic in shaking a long fore-finger and saying, “Tut, tut! I shall consider being very harsh, if you commit these outrages three more times..” To shake your fist at all, and then to shake your finger, seemed to Roosevelt almost imbecile. Cut off from serving the cause of American patriotism in any public capacity, Roosevelt struggled to take his part by writing. Every month in the Outlook, and subsequently in the Metropolitan Magazine, he gave vent to his pent-up indignation. The very titles of some of his papers reveal his animus: “Fear God and Take Your Own Part”; “A Sword for Defense”; “America First: A Phrase or a Fact?”; “Uncle Sam’s Only Friend is Uncle Sam”; “Dual Nationality”; “Preparedness.” In each of these he poured forth with unflagging vehemence the fundamental verities on which our American society should rest. He showed that it was not a mere competition in letter-writing between the honey-worded Mr. Wilson and the sophisticated Bernstorff or the Caliban-sly Bethmann Hollweg, but that God was in the crisis, and that no adroitness of phrase or trick of diplomacy could get rid of Him. He showed that there could not be two kinds of Americans: one genuine, which believed wholly and singly in the United States, and the other cunning and mongrel, which swore allegiance to the United States—lip service—and kept its allegiance to Germany—heart service. He lost no opportunity to make his illustrations clear. On resigning as Secretary of State after the sinking of the Lusitania, because President Wilson insisted on mildly calling Germany’s attention to that crime, Mr. Bryan addressed a large audience of Germans.   16
  Then Roosevelt held him up to the gaze of the American people as a man who had no true Americanism. Lest I should be suspected of misinterpreting or exaggerating Roosevelt’s opinion of President Wilson, during the first two years of the war, I quote two or three passages, taken at random, which will prove, I hope, that I have summarized him truly. He says, for instance:
  Professional pacifists of the type of Messrs. Bryan, Jordan, and Ford, who in the name of peace preach doctrines that would entail not merely utter infamy, but utter disaster to their own country, never in practice venture to denounce concrete wrong by dangerous wrongdoers….
  These professional pacifists, through President Wilson, have forced the country into a path of shame and dishonor during the past eighteen months. Thanks to President Wilson, the most powerful of Democratic nations has refused to recognize the binding moral force of international public law. Our country has shirked its clear duty. One outspoken and straightforward declaration by this government against the dreadful iniquities perpetrated in Belgium, Armenia, and Servia would have been worth to humanity a thousand times as much as all that the professional pacifists have done in the past fifty years…. Fine phrases become sickening when they represent nothing whatever but adroitness in phrase making, with no intention of putting deeds behind the phrases.
  After the American messages in regard to the sinking of the Lusitania had brought no apology, much less any suggestion of redress, Roosevelt said:
  Apparently President Wilson has believed that the American people would permanently forget their dead and would slur over the dishonor and disgrace to the United States by that basest of all the base pleas of cowardly souls which finds expression in the statement: “Oh, well, anyhow the President kept us out of war!” The people who make this plea assert with quavering voices that they “are behind the President.” So they are; well behind him. The farther away from the position of duty and honor and hazard he has backed, the farther behind him these gentry have stood—or run.
  Finally, Roosevelt stated with deadly clearness the position into which Wilson’s vacillating policy had driven us:
  The United States has not a friend in the world. Its conduct, under the leadership of its official representatives, for the last five years and, above all, for the last three years, has deprived it of the respect and has secured for it the contempt of every one of the great civilized nations of mankind. Peace treaties and windy Fourth-of-July eloquence and the base materialism which seeks profit as an incident to the abandonment of duty will not help us now. For five years our rulers at Washington have believed that all this people cared for was easy money, absence of risk and effort, and sounding platitudes which were not reduced to action. We have so acted as to convince other nations that in very truth we are too proud to fight; and the man who is too proud to fight is in practice always treated as just proud enough to be kicked. We have held our peace when our women and children were slain. We have turned away our eyes from the sight of our brother’s woe.
  “He kept us out of war,” was a paradoxical battle-cry for one who in a very short time thereafter wished to pose as the winner of the greatest war in history.   20
  But the battle-cry, it turned out, was used chiefly for political purposes. The year 1916 was a Presidential year and his opponents suspected that every thing President Wilson had done at home or abroad had been planned by him with a view to the effect which it might have on his reelection. Politicians of all parties saw that the war was the vital question to be decided by the political campaign. For the Democrats, Wilson was, of course, the only candidate; but the Republicans and the Progressives had their own schism to settle. First of all, they must attempt to reunite and to present a candidate whom both factions would support; if they did not, the catastrophe of 1912 would be repeated, and Wilson would again easily win against two warring Progressive and Republican candidates. The elections in 194 showed that the Progressive Party was disintegrating. Should its leaders strive now to revive its strength or should they bow to the inevitable, combine with the Republicans on a satisfactory candidate, and urge all the Progressives as a patriotic duty to support him?   21
  All depended on Roosevelt’s decision. After reflection, he consented to run for nomination by the Progressives. It soon became plain, however, that the Republicans would not take him back. The Machine did not want him on any terms: many of the Republicans blinding themselves to the fact that, as the number of votes cast in 1912 proved, Taft and not he had split the Republican Party, held Roosevelt responsible for the defeat in that year. One heard also of some Republicans who, for lack of a better reason, opposed Roosevelt because, they said, that Roosevelt having put Taft into the Presidency, ought not to have “gone back” on him. Yet these same persons, if they had taken a partner into their firm to carry on a certain policy, and had found him pursuing a different one, would hardly have argued that they were in loyalty bound to continue to support this partner as long as he chose. The consideration which weighed with a much larger number, however, was that Roosevelt had so antagonized the German vote and the Pacifist vote and all the other anti-American votes, that he might not be a winning candidate. Accordingly, the Republicans sought for somebody who would please everybody, and yet would have enough personal strength to be a leader. They pitched on Charles E. Hughes, former Governor of New York State, and then a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The unwisdom of going to the Supreme Bench for a standard-bearer was immediately apparent; because all the proprieties prevented justice Hughes from expressing any opinion on political subjects until he resigned from the Court. Hence, it followed that no great enthusiasm could be aroused over his candidacy for nomination since nobody knew what his policy would be.   22
  The Progressives held their Convention in Chicago on June 5th, the same day that the Republicans met there. Some of the original, Simon-Pure Progressives disapproved of this collusion, declaring that it represented a “deal,” and that the Progressive Party, which had come into existence as a rebuke of Machine politics, ought never to soil itself by entering into a “deal.” Nevertheless, the will of the more worldly-minded prevailed, and they probably thought that there would be a better chance to have the Republicans nominate Roosevelt if he were already the nominee of the Progressives. But they were disappointed. They nominated Roosevelt and the Republicans Justice Hughes. Suspense followed as to whether Roosevelt, by accepting, would oblige the Progressives to organize another campaign. He sent only a conditional acceptance to the Progressive Committee and, a few days later, he announced publicly that he would support justice Hughes, because he regarded the defeat of Wilson as the most vital object before the American people. I find among my correspondence from him a reply to a letter of mine in which I had quite needlessly urged this action upon him. I quote this passage because it epitomizes what might be expanded over many pages. The letter is dated June 16, 1916:
  I agree entirely with you. I shall do all I can for Mr. Hughes. But don’t forget that Mr. Hughes alone can make it possible for me to be efficient in his behalf. If he merely speaks like Mr. Wilson, only a little more weakly, he will rob my support of its effectiveness. Speeches such as those of mine, to which you kindly allude, have their merit only if delivered for a man who is himself speaking uncompromisingly and without equivocation. I have just sent word to Hughes through one of our big New York financiers to make a smashing attack on Wilson for his actions, and to do it immediately, in connection with this Democratic Nominating Convention. Wilson was afraid of me. He never dared answer me; but if Hughes lets him, he will proceed to take the offensive against Hughes. I shall do everything I can for him, but don’t forget that the efficiency of what I do must largely depend upon Hughes.
  Roosevelt was as good as his word, and made four or five powerful speeches in behalf of Mr. Hughes, speeches which gave a sharper edge to the Republicans’ fight. But their campaign was obviously mismanaged. They put their candidate to the torture of making two transcontinental journeys, in which he had to speak incessantly, and they warned him against uttering any downright criticism of the anti-American throng, whose numbers being unknown were feared. President Wilson, on the other hand, unexpectedly flared up in a retort which doubtless won votes for him. Jeremiah O’Leary, an Irish agitator in relations with the German propagandists, tried to catch Mr. Wilson in a pro-British snare. The President replied: “I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to so many disloyal Americans, and I have not, I will ask you to convey this message to them.”   24
  The result of the election, which took place on November 5th, hung in suspense for many days. Then it appeared that Wilson, by capturing thirteen California votes, had won by 277 electoral votes to 254. for Hughes. Of the popular vote, Wilson got 9,128,00 and Hughes, 8,536,000. So the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” accomplished its purpose.   25

Note 1. The advertisement was printed in the New York Times of April 23, 1915. [ back ]



Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.