“The people here hate the French more than they do the British. They much prefer the Americans as troops of occupation. Since the Americans have arrived the German people have learned to like them.”
—Karl Felder of Bieder Breisig
As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the conclusion of the Great War and the commencement of the so-called Roosevelt Peace, an old question must be addressed: was President Theodore Roosevelt’s role in the Great War an essential one?
Of course, how one addresses this question is largely determined by whether one views history as largely the impact of impersonal forces, economic, cultural, scientific, etc, upon humanity, or whether one holds to the Great Man school, by which the path of Man through history is largely the result of some unique individual altering the flow of events. To a large extent this debate is unanswerable, as history is history and so-called alternate history is the domain of dreamers and writers of fiction. However, in regard to Theodore Roosevelt, elected President in 1912 following the collapse of the Republican ticket, after the assassination of President Taft in Milwaukee by John Schrank, it is hard to see how any American President would have implemented policies much different than he did.
1. Entry into the War-From the outset of the War, President Roosevelt left little doubt that his sympathies lay with the Allies and he had only disgust for Prussian militarism. However, he maintained a testy neutrality until the sinking of RMS Lusitania. With the loss of 128 American lives, it is difficult to believe that any American President could have withstood the rush to War. Roosevelt demanded that the German crew be handed over to America to answer charges of murder and that no further attacks be made on passenger liners. The Kaiser’s statement that he was willing to agree to the latter but not the former, was angrily rejected by Roosevelt, who received a thunderous standing ovation from Congress when he called for a declaration of war.
2. Building of the Army-Utilizing the Civil War method of the states initially raising the regiments to serve drew criticism, but Roosevelt responded that a huge military had to be built overnight and that the Civil War had demonstrated that this was a tried and true method. The regiments then reported to training camps where officers and men were trained in their duties, uniformed and equipped. Many career officers complained that the officers of the regiments were often incompetent or well-meaning amateurs. Roosevelt quashed much of this criticism by giving the Army full power to relieve officers who proved unsuitable. As it turned out, about twenty percent of officers were relieved and another ten percent resigned. General Pershing in his memoirs indicated that he would have preferred to eliminate the state role, but admitted that the state regiments had a cohesion and high morale that would have been lacking if men had not been serving with other men they knew.
3. Tanks-Although Roosevelt was traditional in how he raised the American Expeditionary Force, many regular Army officers found him frighteningly radical in his embrace of new technology. Tanks were seized upon by Roosevelt as an essential replacement for horse cavalry and he made certain that the American force would be motorized to an extent that astonished the European armies. Roosevelt made certain that American troops would go into battle with double the machine guns, mortars and supporting artillery allotted to units of their German foes. Air power was to be an essential component of each American division, along with a tank regiment. It was perhaps inevitable that the tankers became known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. American love of new technology probably would have ensured that any American president would have followed a similar policy, albeit perhaps not with quite the “Bully, Bully!” enthusiasm of Roosevelt.
4. Roosevelt Command-Would another American President have crossed the sea to take personal command of the American troops as Roosevelt did? Perhaps not, although the example of President Lincoln suggests that any president would likely have been involved heavily in day to day management of the War. In any case, the role of Roosevelt as on the spot commander in chief has been exaggerated. Striding around in his old Rough Rider uniform in Paris, TR was a press magnet, however, as he frequently stated at the time, he relied heavily upon General Pershing, an old friend from San Juan Hill, who led the American Expeditionary Force. The release of the telegraph and phone conversations of Roosevelt and Pershing, spurred by the publication of Pershing’s memoirs, have long since dispelled the notion that Roosevelt was an active commander, except in his insistence that all American forces be kept together, and that they be reserved for a huge offensive, which Roosevelt unforgettably designated the Fourth of July Grand Push, set for July 4, 1916, in coordination with French and British assaults. Pershing has since said over and over again that in this policy Roosevelt was simply showing military common sense and such policies would have been adopted by him even if Roosevelt had never set foot in Europe during the War. However, it must be acknowledged that Roosevelt’s presence eliminated strong European objections to this supreme effort offensive.
5. Navy-For a man who had served in the Army, Roosevelt had displayed a strong preference for the Navy throughout his initial terms in office. The admirals were therefore dismayed when Roosevelt stressed, after the declaration of War, that his radical expansion of the Navy would focus on building transports. His reasoning was that the British and French fleets had overwhelming naval superiority, and that the American navy had one mission: to transport his five million man American force, with all equipment, to Europe safely. The admirals grumbled but obeyed. It is difficult to see that any other American president could have adopted a different policy.
Well, we all know the result. The Fourth of July offensive, after two months of stalemate and hideous casualties, was a huge success, with American forces leading the breakthrough in the Ardennes. The German government sued for an armistice on October 1, 1916, a call that was rejected out of hand by Roosevelt, who, recalling Civil War history, demanded unconditional surrender. Other Allied leaders were privately dismayed, but went along with the man who the peoples of all the Allied countries were now hailing as a military genius. As several Rough Rider regiments of tanks were piercing into Germany led by the youngest American general since the Civil War, Brigadier General George S. Patton, the German government capitulated on Victory Day, October 12, 1916. No one can gainsay this brilliant victory, but considering the overwhelming superiority of the Allied forces with the introduction of the American army group, it is difficult to see how the result would have been different under another American president.
As almost an afterthought, Roosevelt was re-elected, in absentia, President with the largest landslide in American history. It is perhaps just as well for Roosevelt that the outlines of his peace were still nebulous by election day. His decision that at least one million Americans would stay in Europe to occupy Germany and enforce the terms of the peace proved initially controversial, as did his insistence that all Allied Powers, and the defeated Central Powers, must belong to a Peace League, dedicated to resolving disputes peacefully, including the use of force to impose peace if necessary. Wise heads in America and Europe predicted that the League would lead to endless war and not endless peace. However, the collapse of Russia into anarchy in 1917 demonstrated the need for the League. With American leadership and force Europe has not known a major war since the Great War, albeit that dispensation has not proved global. Roosevelt’s death in January 1919, after confirmation of the Treaty of Versailles, by the Senate, confirmed his hero status in the eyes of most Americans, who believed that Roosevelt had literally worked himself to death in the cause of world peace.
Looking at the Roosevelt Memorial, next to the Lincoln Memorial, it is easy to believe that no other American president could have accomplished this. Perhaps. However, Governor Wilson in his little read memoir, contends strongly that he would have pursued exactly the same post war policy if he had been elected president in 1912.
Theodore Roosevelt was a very great man, but a careful examination of his role in the Great War and its aftermath, clearly indicates that it was the product of forces that would have imposed similar policies on virtually any American president in his place.