Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Theodore Roosevelt, Congress, and the Military: U.S. Civil-Military Relations in the Early Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Theodore Roosevelt, Congress, and the Military: U.S. Civil-Military Relations in the Early Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

"Someone should kick ... Rosevelt [sic]," complained one naval officer about the assistant secretary of the navy in 1898 (Davis 1898). Hunter Davis disliked Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to end the squabbling over status between the navy's line and engineering officers in the late nineteenth century. Davis's protest foreshadowed the sentiments of many officers toward Theodore Roosevelt, once he became their commander in chief in September 1901. Although Roosevelt was one of the best friends of the military services ever to reside in the White House, civil-military relations were not always harmonious during his presidency. In fact, he presided during a period of notable stress, uncertainty, and adjustment in civil-military affairs, and his actions--and sometimes inaction--prompted considerable debate and tension.(1)

A confluence of factors at the turn of the twentieth century made Roosevelt's presidency, and those of his immediate successors, a time that tested old boundaries and established new ones in civil-military affairs. The period itself, the Progressive Era, brought transition and adjustment in American life. Reformers attacked the myriad problems associated with urbanization and industrialization; a new, post-Civil War generation assumed the mantle of political leadership; and the United States solidified its newly asserted status as a great power and protector of a modest overseas empire. During this period of rapid change, stress was inevitable, and military affairs were not immune.

Tensions in military matters became especially great around the turn of the twentieth century because four elements that went straight to the heart of civil-military relations managed to converge at the same time. The new brand of overseas expansionism in American foreign policy generated an emotional political debate and questions about resources and missions for the military services. In addition, jealousy over constitutional prerogatives flared as the executive branch under Roosevelt challenged congressional influence over the organization of the War and Navy Departments and the development of military policies. Officers, for their part, split into alliances (often self-serving) with members of the executive or legislative branches. At the same time, a generational shift in both people and values complicated the picture and divided loyalties. Those Americans raised in a largely preindustrial, preurban nation--and forged into a distinct generation by the fires of the Civil War--were gradually making way for a new crop of leaders, although without a complete surrender of the older values that they represented. Finally, the press added an extra dimension to the traditional civil-military troika of president, Congress, and uniformed military in the form of mass circulation newspapers and national magazines. Participants in civil-military disputes could sometimes find a ready ally in the press, or sometimes they found it to be an independent agent that, through the force of public opinion, brought new emphasis to the "civil" side in civil-military relations.

Theodore Roosevelt represented the principal axis around which civil-military relations turned in the first decade of the twentieth century. He assumed several roles, some official and others unofficial, that frequently made him the focus of civil-military debates. Officially, Roosevelt served, of course, as commander in chief and functioned, as well, as chief diplomat, but he also behaved as what could best be termed "chief dilettante," for he frequently dabbled in detailed aspects of military technology, training, planning, and operations (Oyos 1993). His expansive view of executive authority and his talent at generating publicity also contributed to his active role in remolding the civil-military architecture. All in all, across the range of military affairs, Roosevelt helped define debates, fuel controversies, solve problems, and focus expectations, although his ideas sometimes created more difficulties and disappointment than resolution and satisfaction.

Roosevelt's involvement in civil-military affairs reflected more than just the difficulties of adjusting complex institutions to the emerging realities of twentieth-century governance. His activities also illuminated in high relief the transitional character of the man himself as a governmental leader. In a sense, Roosevelt was a Janus-like figure. Even as he pointed toward a modern America of vigorous, rationalized, regulatory government, he looked very much to an idealized, mid-nineteenth-century past for the standards by which he judged individuals and established certain institutional priorities. Those times, indeed, when he drew most heavily on a romanticized outlook of the past, would be the times when he encountered the most trouble in civil-military relations.

Civil-Military Relations and the "New" Diplomacy

With characteristic forcefulness, Theodore Roosevelt championed an expansionist foreign policy, and he worked hard as president to ensure that the armed services would be able to protect American overseas interests. Roosevelt's vision of an American international role linked foreign and economic ambitions to cultural concerns in accordance with the social Darwinian thought of the time. He believed that Americans needed to engage in the "struggles and strife" of the world to remain "fit" as a people in the postfrontier era (Burton 1988, 72; Roosevelt 1951-54, 1:636).(2) Adequate military forces were crucial to national greatness, for with them Americans could participate in the international competition for markets and spread the benefits of their unique civilization with some degree of confidence and safety (Roosevelt 1902b, 4-6, 8; Roosevelt 1951-54, 4:761,4:777-78). As a result, Roosevelt made military affairs one of his top priorities as president (Abrahamson 1981, 68). His strong penchant for things military had already led him to become an accomplished author on the naval war of 1812, a captain in the New York National Guard, assistant secretary of the navy, and a colonel in the Rough Riders during the war with Spain.

Congress divided, and not necessarily along party lines, over whether to indulge the president in his foreign and military policies (Stillson 1959).(3) Some majority Republicans such as Senator Albert Beveridge surpassed Roosevelt in their rhetorical support for robust foreign and military policies.(4) Others expressed more reluctance. Senator Eugene Hale of Maine, the conservative head of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, provided a powerful contrary opinion. Hale had supported the growth of the navy in the 1880s and 1890s, but increasingly he recoiled at the economic and political costs of expansionist policies after the war with Spain. He did, however, lend guarded support to naval construction in order to safeguard the nation because the president and others continued to insist on an imperial course (Stillson 1959, 42). In part, generational differences accounted for the conflicting perspectives. Beveridge and Roosevelt, both in their forties, represented an America of burgeoning cities and industrial complexes, while the older Hale recalled a more Jeffersonian vision of the American republic. Thus, Hale and others like him responded to charges that overseas expansion burdened the United States with expensive armaments, diluted American democracy by elevating military institutions and martial values, and lessened the standing of the United States as a beacon of free government in a world of monarchies and colonial empires.(5)

Despite the benefits an expansionist policy brought to both the army and navy--swelling budgets, a growing fleet, enlarged land forces, and more modern organizations--not all military officers embraced them. Many, in fact, resented the changes. Objections to the new foreign commitments centered in the army, for the navy gave force, literally, to expansionist policies and represented the first line of national defense if trouble resulted (Abrahamson 1981,72-76). For many army officers, new missions threatened to overturn familiar ways of life at coastal fortifications and scattered, former frontier garrisons, where officers attained local standing (Coffman 1986,283,285-86; Gates 1980, 35-37). Others also questioned the wisdom and justice of imperialism when it involved the suppression of freedom-seeking people in the Philippines, although those critics tended to wait until retirement to voice such sentiments (Parker c. 1929,224-25). Furthermore, equipping the army professionally and organizationally for a new century of warfare threatened the wholesale turning out of Civil War veterans who held many senior posts. Lieutenant General Nelson Miles, the commanding general of the army, embodied much of this attitude. He resented Roosevelt as an upstaging amateur whose battlefield experience in the brief Spanish war paled in comparison to the deeds of Miles's generation in the Civil War. With no small measure of ego, ambition, and outspokenness, Miles openly opposed the administration's policies by investigating American atrocities in the Philippine War and by lambasting proposed organizational reforms for seeming to "Germanize and Russianize the small Army of the United States" (U.S. Senate 1902, 34; Wooster 1993, 268-70). His statements resonated with members of Congress worried about the political consequences of imperialism, and his testimony helped defeat the first bill for an Army General Staff in 1902.

Greater American assertiveness and involvement abroad also complicated life for army and navy planners and caused mixed feelings about the administration. As members of the Army General Staff, the Navy General Board, and the Joint Army-Navy Board viewed the world, the number of potential trouble spots had risen while the size of forces remained inadequate to handle them. Planners faced international commitments ranging from the eastern Caribbean and Central America to the Philippines and China. To be sure, the navy continued to increase in size--Congress authorized ten battleships in Roosevelt's first term alone--but it by no means maintained a two-ocean fleet (Love 1992, 320; Stillson 1961, 22).(6) Moreover the army remained small, no larger than 88,000 in authorized strength and even smaller in the actual number of active duty personnel (Weigley 1984, 318). The gap between commitments and forces made military planners nervous at times, but they could take comfort in the fact that the United States itself remained relatively secure behind an oceanic expanse. A serious strike by a foreign enemy would have required a monumental logistical effort. A frequent lack of communication from civilian policy makers about the direction of diplomatic policy proved more distressing (Challener 1973, 32-33, 45-53; Greene 1960, 354-77; Stillson 1961,22). The White House and State Department often left the army and navy in the dark about intentions and took the services for granted. For example, Army Chief of Staff J. Franklin Bell recalled that he began making plans for the 1906 intervention in Cuba only after newspaper reports had made him suspicious of American intentions. He relied on the press because State Department officials had not thought to provide him with information (Challener 1973, 52).

The smallest of the services, the Marine Corps, perhaps felt the greatest consequences of an expansionist foreign policy and therefore had the most to gain, or lose, in the new environment. Marines served increasingly as colonial infantry after the Spanish-American War, landing four times, for example, in Panama from 1901 to 1904. The General Board of the Navy planned an additional overseas mission for the Marine Corps. It wanted to form expeditionary battalions able to seize and defend advance bases so that the fleet could project power into distant waters. The marines could find the men for these battalions by relinquishing traditional shipboard roles as gunnery crews and security details. Naval line reformers had long wanted to remove marines from ships, and Theodore Roosevelt agreed with them. In fact, during the 1890s, he had favored a more far-reaching proposal to amalgamate the entire Marine Corps into the navy (Heywood 1897; Millett 1980, 127-28; Roosevelt 1951-54, 1:752-53).

Roosevelt's attitude toward the Marine Corps did not change as president and, in fact, appeared to harden. As a result, marines suspected his motives when he ordered them off ships in November 1908. Roosevelt presented the move in public as a first step toward forming advance base forces, but privately he confessed that he really wished to eliminate the Marine Corps so that "no vestige of their organization should be allowed to remain. They cannot get along with the navy, and as a separate command with the army the conditions would be intolerable" (Butt 1925, 184-85). The president's hostility seemed to stem from the marines' constant politicking in Washington, which from the Marine Corps's viewpoint was a necessity given its size and precarious status. Roosevelt had doubtlessly witnessed such activity as assistant secretary of the navy and as president stated, in confidence, that the marines' political appeals to congressional and popular opinion had "given them such an abnormal position for the size of their corps that they have simply invited their own destruction" (Butt 1925, 184-85). He also reflected the opinion of his friend and former commander in the Rough Riders, Leonard Wood. The ambitious Wood had parlayed his talent and his personal connections into promotion from an army contract surgeon to, ultimately, a commission as major general. Wood was not only friends with Roosevelt, but he had also married into the family of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field and served as physician to William and Ida McKinley. He encouraged Roosevelt in thinking that the abolition of the Marine Corps and the incorporation of its members into the army would benefit both the army and navy. The army would add needed infantry, and the navy would expel a self-aggrandizing element (Millett 1980, 139).

Not surprisingly, the Marine Corps resisted efforts to trade long-held duties for possible oblivion in the army or for a naval mission that lacked adequate funding, support, and doctrine. Naval support for Roosevelt's order also declined when it appeared that the navy might lose the marines altogether. The marines drew comfort from the naval reservations over their fate, and they turned readily to allies in Congress to counter the president's thinly disguised hostility. A House subcommittee, chaired by Thomas Butler, father of Marine Smedley D. Butler, conducted hearings that allowed marine headquarters staff to supply questions and badger witnesses (Millett 1980, 139, 141-43; U.S. House 1909b, 438-39,448-49,469,481-82, 578,586,588,591,605,609,612,619-39). When all was done, the House Naval Affairs Committee attached a rider to a naval appropriations bill, mandating the return of the marines to their ships. The naval bill also authorized two battleships, and Roosevelt, who cared more about the battleships, signed without hesitation (Millett 1980, 143). In this way, the marines joined congressional supporters to block the president.


The creation of planning agencies represented one of the most notable developments for the Progressive Era military and became one of the chief sources of difficulty in civil-military affairs. Army and navy general staffs were to conduct prewar planning and coordinate the various bureaus of the War and Navy Departments. The president endorsed the concept of a general staff, as did officers who believed such institutions would make the services more efficient and effective.

Although Roosevelt embraced the idea of general staffs, he did not fully appreciate their intended role and, as a result, would ultimately upset partisans on both sides of the issue. Military reformers, who looked to the chief executive for support, applauded Roosevelt's endorsement but soon became frustrated at his failure to make command staffs a top priority. Numerous opponents on Capitol Hill and in uniform, for their part, did not want the existing system to be revised. They liked the nearly autonomous bureaus of the army and navy for reasons of ideology and self-interest. As an institution builder, the president reflected the fact that he was a transitional figure in American governance. He sensed that the coming age was one of organizations, managers, and enlarged bureaucracies, but he could never rally much interest in pursuing such issues for long. In the end, he worried more about modernizing equipment and improving the quality of the officer corps than about abstract ideas regarding organizational structure and scientific efficiency.

Roosevelt became sympathetic to the creation of modern general staffs as a result of his experience in the Spanish-American War. He had been appalled at the chaos in embarking the Cuban expedition and at the suffering of his command during the campaign for Santiago (Roosevelt 1951-54, 2:837-44, 2:851-53, 2:855, 2:863, 2:872, 2:1092-93). During the war, he called for "a thorough shaking up" of the War Department, and as president he supported plans to establish both army and navy general staffs (Roosevelt 1925, 143; Roosevelt 1951-54, 2:842, 2:1085).(7) The proposed army legislation would create a completely new agency, while the navy proposal would turn the existing General Board, an advisory agency on naval policy chaired by Admiral George Dewey, into a body with administrative and planning responsibilities.

The prospective general staffs alarmed officers in the War and Navy Department bureaus, and they worked with allies on Capitol Hill to undercut the initiatives. Members of the congressional military and naval affairs committees, in particular, disliked any reforms that threatened to diminish the power of the bureaus, for they had a vested political interest in maintaining the status quo. A strong political organization depended on the ability to deliver patronage in home districts and states, and military facilities and contracts provided an important means of bestowing favors on constituents. General staffs might question the efficiency of having so many navy yards dot the coastline or so many army outposts guard a nonexistent frontier. Moreover, committee members, such as Eugene Hale of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee or Nathan Scott of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, suspected that general staff proposals represented the effort of an overactive chief executive to seize more influence in the conduct of military affairs. Senator Hale, for example, had seen presidents come and go, and he had acquired much expertise about the navy over the years. He felt that naval affairs were more his province than the executive's, especially given congressional predominance in the federal government during most of the nineteenth century (Skowronek 1993, 5).(8) Hale perhaps sensed the balance between federal branches shifting with the new international role of the United States and did not like it (Turner 1909, 398). He was fighting the tide, however, for increased international involvement put more emphasis on the unitary leadership in foreign affairs that only the chief executive could provide.

The strong resistance to both army and navy general staffs signaled that the balance of influence over military policy had by no means yet swung decisively toward the chief executive, although it nevertheless tilted. Bureau chiefs in the War and Navy Departments did have reason to be concerned, for early versions of reform linked the establishment of general staffs to the consolidation and elimination of certain bureaus (Heffron 1980b, 1:490; U.S. Senate 1902, 3-6; U.S. Senate 1909c, 4, 15, 26, 29; U.S. House 1909a, 879-80). The initial legislation for the army proposed not only a general staff but also eliminated the inspector general and formed a Department of Supply out of the Quartermaster, Subsistence, and Pay Departments (Roberts 1986, 212-13). Both army and navy bureau chiefs, along with some civilian officials, presented strong arguments against general staffs. In the 1904 hearings on a naval general staff, several bureau chiefs joined Charles Darling, assistant secretary of the navy, in claiming that the proposed legislation would reduce the navy secretary to a figurehead and allow a newly reconstituted General Board to exercise executive power in the Navy Department (Heffron 1969, 50-51; U.S. House 1904, 927, 935,946-47, 954-56, 962-65,981). Their testimony echoed that of Lieutenant General Miles two years before when he had helped wreck the first attempt at an army general staff by inflaming congressional fears of militarism (U.S. Senate 1902, 34). These ideological concerns, while sincerely felt, also provided political cover for the more practical matters of preserving the status of the bureaus and the patronage interests of Congress. The linkage between ideological and political priorities proved a formidable barrier, and Roosevelt was not about to incite Congress by throttling the voices of officers opposed to his bureaucratic reforms. The opposition delayed an army general staff until 1903 and sank naval general staff legislation entirely during Roosevelt's presidency. Naval reformers finally saw a good measure of their dream realized with the creation of the post of chief of naval operations in 1915.(9)

While the president voiced support for general staffs, thus helping to establish the terms of debate and attracting the hostility of opponents, he played a distinctly secondary role in the political campaigns for those institutions. His course confounded uniformed advocates of the new agencies, for he did not match his pronouncements with actions. Rather, Roosevelt left the legislative fights to trusted subordinates instead of wielding forcefully the power of his personality and office. In the case of the army, this delegation of responsibility sufficed. Secretary of War Elihu Root was an able political operator who had been working toward a general staff bill since 1899. The confused mobilization of 1898 also worked in Root's favor, for Congress felt pressured to do something about the army's shortcomings (Weigley 1984, 320). For the navy, Secretary William H. Moody and Rear Admiral Henry Taylor led the fight. Roosevelt assisted mainly by devoting a paragraph to a naval staff in his annual message for 1903, citing the need to ensure "proper readiness for emergencies" (Roosevelt 1925, 234). Despite a pledge that "I shall fight ... all I know how," the president did not campaign for a naval staff beyond the statement in his annual message (Roosevelt 1951-54, 3:601-2). His lack of strong support was all the more surprising considering that the navy was his favorite service and played a key role in his foreign and military policies. But reform-minded officers waited in vain for leadership from the president after the naval staff bill failed in 1904 and Secretary Moody vacated his post to become attorney general. The grand old man of the naval reformers, retired Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, joined others in hoping that Roosevelt would appoint another strong, reformist secretary to restart the movement toward a naval staff (Heffron 1980a, 1:469-70, 472; Heffron 1969, 51-53; Luce 1905; Rumble 1971, 202-3, 216-19; Taylor n.d.).(10) Instead, the president installed uninspiring men like Paul Morton, whom one officer referred to as "a bag of cold mush" (Barnette 1905a).

When a younger generation of reform-minded naval officers attempted to reignite the general staff issue in the year before Roosevelt left office, the president's lack of enthusiasm disappointed them. Commanders Albert L. Key and William S. Sims were relatively younger officers with access to the chief executive: respectively, they were past and present naval aides to the president. Sims, in particular, had benefited from Roosevelt's patronage for his work on improving naval gunnery. Sims and Key expected, perhaps rather naively, that the navy's great benefactor would weigh in vigorously on their side if they could generate popular backing for naval administrative reform. Employing muckraking tactics, they sponsored an article in McClure's Magazine that detailed flaws in American battleship designs and indicted a faulty system of naval administration for the problems. Their timing was impeccable--the battle fleet had just departed on its world cruise when the article appeared in December 1907--but their strategy was flawed (Reuterdahl 1908, 251-63). Roosevelt's reaction doubtlessly puzzled the two reformers. In the past, he had championed Sims's efforts to improve the speed and accuracy of naval gun fire, and he complained often about "woodeness" in the thinking and pace of naval bureaucrats in the development of technology (Oyos 1996, 644). The president, for example, had backed Sims in 1904 after bureau officers delayed in providing new gun sights, and then after a gunnery-related accident on the Missouri that same year, Roosevelt defended Sims against departmental critics who blamed his system of rapid firing (Morison 1968, 136-37, 140-41). This time, however, Roosevelt sided with the bureaucrats. He did not rush to the reformers' aid, beyond protecting Key and Sims from charges of insubordination (Navy Department 1908). Instead, he commissioned reports to reassure the public and Congress about the quality of American battleship designs, and he abandoned the reformers during hearings before a hostile Senate Naval Affairs Committee, which tolerated no criticism of the responsible naval bureaus (U.S. Senate 1908a, 1908b).(11) Roosevelt further undercut the reformers by claiming that they "sometimes exaggerate the defects" and that "discussion is more or less academic as regards our new vessels, which are well protected in either event" (Roosevelt 1951-54, 6:982, 1102). During the final year of his presidency, Roosevelt tried to suppress any controversy and ignored letters from Sims and Key asking him to call a commission on naval administrative reform (Key 1908; Roosevelt, 1951-54, 6:1171; Sims 1908a).(12) Finally, the president made a tepid, futile gesture on behalf of a naval staff during his last weeks in office (U.S. Senate 1909a, 1; 1909b, 1-4).

Although he advocated organizational reform in principle, Roosevelt gave higher priority to programs that promised immediate and tangible benefits. He wanted achievements that reflected more on his political effectiveness and historical reputation as president. A bigger battleship fleet could accomplish that purpose, while a naval general staff would not provide a memorable monument of his work or offer a visible symbol of national power. In fact, a strong fight for a naval staff could jeopardize executive requests for a larger fleet from a Congress increasingly tired of expanding naval budgets and protective of the naval bureaus.

Roosevelt's aloofness on organizational reform extended beyond political and military expediency. Although he endorsed new institutions for planning and command and also supported bureaucratic changes in other areas of government, the president never fully grasped that he was presiding over the birth of a society of organizations and bureaucracies (Skowronek 1982; Wiebe 1967). He may have viewed himself as the foremost representative of a new generation of leadership, but like many other progressives he derived his values from, and sought to recapture, a vision of an earlier, simpler America where energetic people of good character could conquer all (Crunden 1982; Danbom 1987). Roosevelt did speak for bureaucratic reforms; however, in action, he did little to follow up on his words and sometimes even distanced himself from reform efforts. His inconsistency puzzled administrative reformers and left them disappointed at his lack of fervor for their cause.

Improving Officership

If Roosevelt confused some officers on organizational reforms, then he upset many more with his efforts to overhaul promotions policy and raise the quality of the army and navy officer corps. The president had tangled with such prickly issues before as assistant secretary of the navy when he helped formulate legislation that became the Personnel Act of 1899--the episode mentioned at the outset of this article. Roosevelt's efforts to place younger officers in higher commands, and at a speedier rate of advance, would vex partisans on all sides--members of Congress, officers wedded to the seniority system of promotions, and even reform-minded officers who wished to install more merit-based standards of promotion.

As in so many other aspects of his work as commander in chief, Roosevelt was addressing a problem that he had identified during those crucial years of 1897 and 1898, when he had been a member of the Navy Department and part of the army's expedition to Cuba. The physical unfitness of the Cuban expedition's senior, and often elderly, officers in the unforgiving tropical heat of Cuba had particularly struck the robust and hard-driving Roosevelt. He lambasted the obese commander of the expedition, William R. Shafter, complaining that "not since the campaign of Crassus against the Parthians has there been so criminally incompetent a General as Shafter" (Roosevelt 1951-54, 2:849). Roosevelt believed that a younger, more vigorous man would have been better able to resolve the problems facing the expedition. To prevent future Shafters, he wanted tough physical standards and a system of promotion that would move individuals into top posts faster than the current seniority-based practice. Promotions based strictly on seniority advanced officers slowly according to time served, and then only when a vacancy occurred above them in their particular branch of the service. Reform of the seniority system, Roosevelt held, would put more men with courage, boldness, good character, and energy into wartime field commands, for in his opinion an officer's place was literally at the head of his troops. The president's expectations for the officer corps reflected, in many ways, his own self-image and experience. After all, during his "crowded hour" on the San Juan Heights he had not only succeeded in capturing the objective by leading from the front, but he had also confirmed his own sense of manliness and made his national political reputation (Roosevelt 1951-54, 2:854, 2:855-56). He did not fully comprehend that officership, even in the army, increasingly demanded formal theoretical education, full-time service, and professional attainment to deal with the complexities of modern warfare (Millett 1975, 3-10). Roosevelt wanted results and got them, but not without arousing jealousy and concern from officers near the end of long careers and from those officers who felt that the president was threatening their ability to establish and maintain standards of military professionalism.

Roosevelt focused on the army, for he believed its officer corps to be in worse shape than the navy's. Few of his efforts to improve officership, however, made him very popular in the services or on Capitol Hill. The president asked Congress repeatedly for legislation to install merit systems of promotion for both the army and navy. Every annual message from 1901 to 1908 requested that Capitol Hill abandon seniority promotions because "our men come too old, and stay for too short a time, in the high-command positions" (Roosevelt 1925, 639).(13) Each time, Roosevelt faced insurmountable opposition, especially from the army's older officers. Merit promotions threatened to turn out many Civil War veterans after decades of service, but before they received the final reward of a general's stars. Members of one of the nation's most honored generations of officers, these men felt slighted by a president whose "crowded hour" in the Spanish-American War hardly compared to the great four-year Civil War that they had endured. Roosevelt faced a similar reaction from veterans in Congress, many of whom held leadership posts. For example, the head of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, Joseph Hawley of Connecticut, was a Civil War veteran. Hawley and other members, even if they had not served in the Civil War, were in turn sensitive to the political power of veterans' organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic. Roosevelt mollified congressional opponents by permitting officers near retirement, or with forty years of service, to advance one rank upon retirement. By 1906, this measure induced 134 army officers to retire by simultaneously awarding veterans with a promotion and a higher pension, although it did not address the basic problem of a flawed system of promotions (Millett 1974, 8-9).(14)

Stymied on a thorough legislative overhaul of promotions, Roosevelt pushed his own expedient to add younger officers to the top ranks. In the navy, for example, presidential patronage rocketed William S. Sims from lieutenant to commander and to the coveted command of a battleship in less than eight years (Morison 1968, 256-58). The army, however, again represented the president's principal focus in pursuing his own program of promotions. Seniority governed the army's ranks from colonel on down, but Roosevelt could nominate men of any grade for brigadier general. In so doing, he expanded on a precedent set by William McKinley, and altogether he moved thirty-nine men ahead of their turn so they could serve at least a few years as general (Millett 1974, 11-12).(15) Of this number, Roosevelt made eight promotions that dramatically jumped men over dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of their seniors. He started these promotions just two months after taking office, when he advanced forty-seven-year-old Captain William Crozier to brigadier general, and halted them only in 1907 after congressional resistance became too fierce. His elevation of Captain John J. Pershing to brigadier general in 1906 had the most far-reaching consequences with Pershing's eventual rise to command the American Expeditionary Force during World War I (Canfield 1895; News Clippings 1906).

These promotions left members of Congress unsettled and many army officers embittered. In his more controversial appointments, Roosevelt selected men whom he personally knew and valued for their ability (Roosevelt 1951-54, 3:513, 3:519, 3:521-22).(16) Thus, the promotions smacked of presidential favoritism, especially to those officers passed over by their juniors. In addition, Roosevelt's actions jeopardized professional officers' efforts to police promotions themselves--either according to seniority or established standards of merit--to help ensure against blatant political manipulation. In reaction to Pershing's nomination, one officer complained that Roosevelt unduly elevated Pershing and that such promotions were arbitrary and discouraging. Another critic informed Pershing that "the principle is bad ... d--n bad," although he did not fault Pershing for accepting the promotion (Dorsett 1907; Hardeman 1906). Still another felt that the president and Secretary of War Root were trying to make the military into a personal organization (Millett 1974, 7). This last charge received a sympathetic hearing among members of Congress, many of whom feared these promotions provided a preview of Roosevelt's merit system. Promotions might be governed by politics more than ever under such a system and, worse yet in congressional eyes, the politics would favor the executive branch. As a result, Roosevelt's bid to improve officership in the short run actually undermined the larger objective of a wholesale overhaul of the promotion system.

If many officers disliked Roosevelt's promotions, then almost all despised his attempt to improve physical fitness. Late in his presidency, Roosevelt imposed a fitness test for both army and navy officers to guard against physical decay. The president demanded that army officers annually travel a total of ninety miles during the course of three successive days under conditions of a forced march, which meant alternately riding and leading a mount at a jog. Naval officers faced a yearly walk of fifty miles over three days (Sims undated notes, 1908b, 1908c; Army and Navy Journal December 7, 1907, 351, 355). Unaccustomed to long marches, members of the seagoing service felt particularly oppressed, and one reported that officers lost toenails, developed severe blisters, and suffered other afflictions during the first tests (Sims 1908d, 1916).(17) Beyond discomfort, officers resented the arbitrary nature of the standards, which made no allowances for age or for differences in climate, especially for those individuals serving in the tropics. Many viewed the requirement simply as a brief annual hurdle, and thus it did little to inspire a regular regimen of physical conditioning. Nor did it weed out the physically unfit; the Army and Navy Journal of June 26, 1909, reported that the test had not yet caused a single officer to retire from the navy (Sims 1908c; Army and Navy Journal June 26, 1909, 1223). Nonetheless, the navy reduced the rigor of the tests in 1911 and eventually dropped them altogether. The army test lasted until 1917, when the demands of World War I compelled its abandonment (Sims 1908d; Army and Navy Journal June 2, 1917, 1304).

Civil-Military Relations and the Role of the Media

Roosevelt's reaction to the unhappiness about physical testing would demonstrate how important the press and public opinion had become to civil-military relations. Episodes that might have received minor attention or attracted only local interest became part of a national political drama in an era of market-hungry mass circulation newspapers and magazines. This development seemingly gave the flamboyant chief executive an advantage in setting the agenda in military affairs and winning support for his proposals, for he had a flair for feeding and exploiting the appetite of the media. Roosevelt courted reporters and employed the attention-getting qualities of his office to attract support for his military policies. He figured prominently at naval reviews and made frequent appearances at military ceremonies to underscore the importance of pursuing military preparedness (Roosevelt 1951-54, 1:592n, 1:652 and note, 2:947 and note, 3:200, 3:357, 4:866-68, 6:1046-49; Washington Post September 18, 1903, 3; New York Times April 25, 1906, 8; New York Times September 4, 1906, 1-2).(18) In the case of physical exams, he decided to take the army test himself, but in one day, not three! He wished to show the reasonableness of the requirement in his typically strenuous fashion, so on a January day in 1909, he and a group of aides rode from the White House to Warrenton, Virginia, arriving back after nightfall in a snowstorm. He wanted to appeal to the popular imagination, shame critics into silence, and thereby make the test harder to abandon (Butt 1925,283-96). Roosevelt also tried to ensure the longevity of the requirement by issuing illustrated reports about the physical feats of European officers for media consumption. His efforts impressed observers and testified to the president's own fitness and ability to lead by example. His feat, of course, did not end the grumbling in the ranks about the physical tests (New York Times January 6, 1908, 1-2).

Roosevelt could be most effective at public relations if major questions of military and foreign policy were at stake. In his first term, he worried about a public reaction against imperialism because of the time, money, and lives invested in the Philippine War. When Lieutenant General Miles attempted to undercut the administration's Philippine policy, Roosevelt's ability to handle an important, yet sensitive issue became apparent. Although he ached to dismiss the commanding general, declaring in private "General Miles' usefulness is at an end and he must go," Roosevelt handled Miles with relative restraint, so as to avoid a backlash of sympathy for the general's position (Roosevelt 1951-54, 3:247; Wooster 1993, 246).(19) If any officer deserved harsh words from the president, Miles was the man. Stubborn and egotistical, the general disliked Roosevelt and the president's military and foreign policies, and he actively sought to embarrass the administration in those areas (Wooster 1993, 269-70). He not only testified against the General Staff bill in 1902, but when sent on an inspection mission to the Philippines, he raised charges of army atrocities in the islands (Wooster 1993, 242-46; New York Times August 27, 1902, 8; New York Times December 25, 1902, 2; New York Times May 15, 1903, 5). Roosevelt snubbed the commanding general at official functions such as the centennial celebration of the Military Academy in June 1902, but he kept his emotions in check and did not remove the politically prominent and well-connected general (New York Times June 12, 1902, 1-2). Rather, he employed his own considerable prominence and charisma to publicize the administration's version of events in the Philippines. During his western tour of 1903, for example, the president explained to a crowd in Fargo, North Dakota, that "the circumstances of the war made it one of peculiar difficulties." The foe was "very treacherous and very cruel" while the environment--dense tropical jungle--was inhospitable. Thus, he claimed, occasional wrongdoing was inevitable "among a hundred thousand hot-blooded and powerful young men" (New York Times April 8, 1903, 8). Still, he reminded the audience, good Americans regretted and deplored such violence, and the War Department was moving to punish the offenders and to prevent repetition of the offenses (New York Times April 8, 1903, 8). American forces, of course, ultimately prevailed in the conflict, and the United States governed the Philippines until nearly midcentury.

Publicity, however, cut two ways. The president often used it to strengthen his hand in military affairs, but at other times, especially when the stakes seemed more personal, he lost his better judgment and delivered ammunition to his foes. Roosevelt certainly felt the hot glare of public scrutiny for his summary dismissal of black veterans after they stood accused of shooting up Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, following racial tension in the town. Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio used Roosevelt's arbitrary action to attack and embarrass him, and to defend the soldiers. Unyielding, Roosevelt lashed out against Foraker in January 1907 at the usually jovial Gridiron dinner. That night, members of the Washington press witnessed an ill-tempered and stubborn president defend a poor decision out of personal pique (Clark 1920, 1:442-49; Foraker 1916, 249-54; Roosevelt 1951-54, 5:571 and note; Watson 1936, 70-73; Weaver 1970, 138-44).

Roosevelt's handling of the Admiral Brownson affair provoked less controversy, but it brought the president into direct public conflict with naval tradition and professionalism. In December 1907, Admiral Willard H. Brownson resigned as chief of the Bureau of Navigation after the president, over Brownson's protests, appointed a surgeon rather than a line officer to command a hospital ship (New York Times December 25, 1907, 1). The press picked up the story as an example of naval infighting, and to defend his decision, Roosevelt delivered a public blast against Brownson. In a published letter, he called the admiral's resignation "disloyal to the interests of the Navy, and therefore of the country as a whole" (New York Times January 6, 1908, 1-2). Furthermore, Roosevelt referred to Brownson's action as childish and the result of wounded personal pride. Even normally sympathetic newspapers and journals rebuked Roosevelt for his intemperate remarks, and Senator Hale saw an opportunity to nettle the president by rising to Brownson's defense (Current Literature 1908, 124-26; Reckner 1988, 66-67; New York Times December 28, 1907, 1; New York Times January 7, 1908, 3, 6). While not free to speak publicly, naval line officers privately applauded Brownson for defending their command privileges. One praised the admiral for going out in a blaze of glory (Reckner 1988, 67). They doubtlessly felt even more justified when Surgeon Charles E Stokes, commander of the Relief, steered the barely seaworthy vessel into a Pacific typhoon in 1908 and nearly lost the ship in mountainous seas (Reckner 1988, 140).

Roosevelt's intolerant outbursts in such episodes as the Brownson matter and the Brownsville disturbances revealed that his management of the media had definite limits in military affairs. To be sure, he was masterful at developing popular images of himself--as frontiersman, Rough Rider, and activist president--but he lost his equilibrium when he felt a personal slight, and he had, indeed, invested great personal pride in military matters.(20) He believed that he possessed considerable expertise in that area. Moreover, he cared deeply about military power and the international standing that it gave the United States. His actions, words, and emotions at these times resembled more those of an early nineteenth-century gentleman who had his honor affronted than the first chief executive of the twentieth century. Because of Roosevelt's conduct in the Brownson case and Brownsville affair, confidence slipped in the commander in chief and congressional foes had an easy target in the president.


The transitional nature of the era in which Theodore Roosevelt held office made stresses in civil-military relations almost inevitable. At the same time that new overseas interests transformed foreign and military policies, reform-minded officers, who were usually officers in the line of command, wished to install new administrative structures and promotion systems to make the services institutionally modern and organizationally efficient. Greater centralization and enhanced line officer influence raised concerns about militarism and the long-range consequences of imperial expansion on the republic. Furthermore, in this climate of change, which included rapid technological developments, the generation of Civil War warriors saw a new cohort of officers begin to supplant them and worried that they would not retire with the honor, accolades, and rank to which they believed their service had entitled them.

Larger, and sometimes impersonal, influences were not solely responsible for shaping civil-military relations during the Progressive Era. Theodore Roosevelt played a central role as he worked to improve American military preparedness, yet the ranks did not always appreciate his efforts. His intimate involvement in military affairs alienated some, and his failure to follow through on certain issues disappointed others. While Roosevelt's knowledge of martial matters impressed many, the demands of the presidency inhibited him from giving many issues full attention. As a result, the president came across as a dabbler, whose interference sometimes seemed more disruptive than constructive to military professionals. Moreover, the overseas expansionism that Roosevelt pushed so hard exacerbated rivalries within the services as they attempted to respond to the new challenges confronting them. Line and bureau officers bickered, and uniformed partisans looked to Congress or the White House for support. Roosevelt could not satisfy all sides and sometimes pleased none, especially when political caution led him to compromise.

Amid all of this contention, Theodore Roosevelt helped establish the outlines of modern-day civil-military relations. He enlarged the executive's role in peacetime military affairs, and that expansion continued after he left office in 1909 as international events imposed increasingly on the nation's priorities. International exigencies also brought greater pressure for administrative centralization and provided incentive for the creation of new institutions of policy coordination. The National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were two results and the position of uniformed advisers became increasingly strong. Most notably, the influence of the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has expanded in recent years. In contrast, Congress's grasp over military affairs seemed to loosen, especially during the first decades of the cold war out of bipartisanship and deference to the executive. Roosevelt likely would have smiled at this development, for he had helped to promote it earlier in the century. Congressional compliance lessened, however, with the Vietnam War and the reaction to the imperial presidency. With the expansion of congressional staffs, Capitol Hill became a stronger counterweight to White House influence by the 1970s. Finally, the efforts to court the media and influence public opinion, an area in which the effervescent Roosevelt had a truly powerful impact, would grow more sophisticated. The relatively primitive attempts to feed information and promote a popular image in the early 1900s gave way to elaborate public relations techniques on the part of the military services, the White House, and Capitol Hill, especially after the travail of the Vietnam War. As a result, fundamental issues regarding public access to information versus national security interests have remained open to question. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt and his contemporaries could not have foretold the form of civil-military relations at the century's end, yet they presented and debated many of the issues that still have currency, and they dealt with questions about the place of a military in a democratic republic that remain relevant today.

(1.) This article focuses on the topmost layer of civil-military relations, but it should be kept in mind that civil-military relations function at various levels. For example, the issue of civilian versus military governance in the Philippines provoked much contention between the military governor, Arthur MacArthur, and the head of the civilian commission, William Howard Taft. For accounts sympathetic to Taft, see Minger (1961) and Berthoff (1952-53). For more of MacArthur's side, see Young (1994).

(2.) For a general exposition on social Darwinism in America, see Hofstadter (1955). See also Bederman (1995) for a chapter on Roosevelt and his role as an expositor of manliness around the turn of the twentieth century.

(3.) Stillson's (1959) study presents a complex picture of congressional alignments on naval policy.

(4.) For example, when unrest returned to Cuba in 1906 and Roosevelt reluctantly authorized an American military occupation, Beveridge (1906) wrote, "It is the universal belief, so far as I find it expressed, that Cuba will in the end be permanently governed by American authority."

(5.) Some critics charged that Hales's motives were much less lofty. George Kibbe Turner of McClure's Magazine charged that Hale opposed the building of increasingly large battleships because the Portsmouth Naval Yard in his home state could not accept the behemoths, which might become an argument for closing the yard. See Turner (1909, 398).

(6.) In 1902 alone, Congress had approved five battleships, spurred by a crisis over Venezuela.

(7.) In his October 1899 letter (2:1085) to Root, Roosevelt (1951-54) writes about his conviction of the need for army reorganization. His five months in the army convinced him of this fact, for he claimed that the experience was so intense that one could learn much more in five months of war than in five years of peace.

(8.) Stephen Skowronek (1993) takes issue with the notion of presidential passivity during the nineteenth century as a modern conceit. See page 5 in particular.

(9.) Taft's navy secretary, George von Lengerke Meyer, determined to build on the legacy of the Roosevelt administration. He instituted a system of naval aids. (Meyer used the word aid rather than aide throughout his tenure.) Each naval aid was responsible for advising the secretary on one of four broad areas of the Navy Department: operations, personnel, material, and inspections. They possessed no executive authority, but their advice allowed the secretary to coordinate bureau activities much more effectively. Together with the General Board, the naval aids formed a de facto general staff. Meyer's successor in the Wilson administration, Josephus Daniels, let the aid system languish because he distrusted military men and their advice. In 1915, however, rising worries about the war in Europe and American preparedness finally forced this staunch advocate of civilian control to accept a chief of naval operations, who was charged with conducting fleet operations and preparing war plans. See U.S. Congress (1910, 5-7), U.S. House (1910, 34-35), Coletta (1980b, 2:537-39, 544), Ray (1968, 53), and Hooper (1978, 14-15).

(10.) For additional contemporary comments on naval reformers' expectations of Roosevelt, see Benjamin (1905), Barnette (1905b, 1905c, 1906), and Luce (1907). Moody's successor, Charles J. Bonaparte, did propose some changes in the Navy Department in his annual reports for 1905 and 1906 but was opposed to a naval general staff. Nothing came of his ideas at any rate. For more on Bonaparte's ideas, see U.S. Congress (1905, 3-4; 1906, 5-6).

(11.) "Sims Causes Strife by Criticising Navy," New York Times, March 3, 1908, p. 2.

(12.) The idea for a commission was a brainchild of Admiral Luce. See Luce (1908).

(13.) The quote comes from Roosevelt's eighth annual message of December 1908. Related comments from the preceding seven annual messages are found on the following pages of Roosevelt's State Papers, (1st) 143-44, (2d) 182, (3d) 232, (4th) 304-05, (5th) 360, (6th) 476-77, (7th) 552-53, 557-59. See Roosevelt (1925).

(14.) "Army Appropriation Bill," Army and Navy Journal, April 23, 1904, pp. 894-95; Army and Navy Journal, April 30, 1904, p. 911; Army and Navy Journal, June 18, 1904, p. 1105.

(15.) Professor Allan R. Millett, The Ohio State University, supplied the figures about Roosevelt's other promotions to general.

(16.) For example, when he advanced Colonel Thomas Barry over thirty-six others, Roosevelt expressed his personal confidence in the general: "From my association with you I believe you have the energy, the intelligence, the courage, and the power of immediate decision in any crisis, no less than the willingness to take responsibility, which are vital to well-doing." See Roosevelt (1951-54, 3:521-22). Also pertaining to Barry's elevation and other promotions: Memorandum (1903) (a handwritten note in the margin of this document relates the president's plans for upcoming promotions), Root (1903), and Roosevelt (1903a).

(17.) "Naval Physical Test," Army and Navy Register, January 17, 1914.

(18.) For an account of the naval review of August 1903, see "Destroyers Crash at Naval Review," New York Times, August 18, 1903, p. 1. The following materials also mention the planning that went into the 1903 review: Taylor (1903); Roosevelt (1903b); Army and Navy Journal, August 15, 1903, p. 1257; Memorandum (1904). For descriptions of the naval parades conducted for the departure and arrival of the Atlantic Fleet during the world cruise, see Reckner (1988, 23-24, 154-55).

(19.) The following letters reveal the deterioration of relations between Miles and the administration before his testimony: Miles (1902) and Roosevelt (1902a).

(20.) Although Roosevelt's personal secretary operated as something of a press secretary, the conduct of White House public relations still lay almost completely with the president, who sometimes forgot the fact that he had turned his office into a popular spectacle. See Gould (1991, 153-54), Hilderbrand (1981, 52-53), and Juergens (1981).


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Matthew M. Oyos is an assistant professor of history at Radford University in Virginia. His published works include the centennial republication of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, to which he contributed the introduction. He is currently working on a book-length study of Theodore Roosevelt as commander in chief.

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