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

By Oyos, Matthew M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Oyos, Matthew M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


"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. …

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