Rehearsal of Glory: FDR as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy

By Taylor, Blaine | Sea Classics, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Rehearsal of Glory: FDR as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy


Taylor, Blaine, Sea Classics


Like his uncle Republican President Theodore Roosevelt before him, President Franklin Delano was a man of the sea, who loved the water. Like him, too, he was an ardent yachtsman who liked to swim. Indeed, on the very day of his death on 12 April 1945, FDR was taking the water cure for his polio at Warm Springs, Georgia.

Ironically, although both were from the same family but from different political parties, they held not one but two of the same posts, and both ran for Vice President as well.

Aside from the Presidency of the United States, the job that both held was as Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy and, indeed, TR's birthday is still known as Navy Day. In 1882, as a young man of 23, TR established his reputation as a nautical historian worldwide when he published his groundbreaking book The Naval War of 1812, which is still in print and published by the US Naval Institute at Annapolis, Maryland.

Late in 1911, New York Democratic State Senator Franklin D. Roosevelt visited New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, a known candidate for President the following year who would be - again, ironically - running against his familial uncle TR for the Presidency. The two Democrats formed an alliance, and in June 1912, Gov. Wilson was nominated in the current author's hometown of Baltimore at the fortress-like 5th Regiment Armory that still stands.

On 5 November 1912, Wilson was elected over TR, William Howard Taft (the incumbent GOP President) and Socialist candidate Eugene Debs.

Now was the time for a patronage payback for young Senator Roosevelt of New York State, and he was sounded out by William Gibbs McAdoo, the prospective Secretary of the Treasury, for a place in that department, but young FDR already had something else in mind that he wanted: His famous uncle's former post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This desire was aided on Inauguration Day, 1913, when he ran into the new Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, an editorpolitician from North Carolina who took to FDR immediately.

Straight away he asked FDR, "How would you like to come to Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy ?" Ecstatic, FDR answered, "How would I like it? I'd like it bully well! It would please me better than anything in the world." Daniels shepherded the appointment past the new President and through Congress, but met with an anxious question from Republican US Senator from New York Elihu Root: "You know the Roosevelts, don't you? Whenever a Roosevelt ride, he wishes to ride in front."

It was to prove a prophetic statement about the rest of FDR's public life over the next 32 years.

Two days later - while the new Secretary was out of town - his new number two man joked with reporters thusly: "There's a Roosevelt on the job today. You remember the last time a Roosevelt occupied a similar position?" A reminder of when TR prepared Admiral Dewey for the SpanishAmerican War two months before the fighting actually broke out. During the First World War, FDR would be accused of conspiring with his opposite number in Britain as the First Sea Lord - Winston Churchill - to help sink the liner LUSITANIA and get the United States involved in the fighting against American wishes. Later still, as President, he would be accused of starting an undeclared naval war against the Germans in the North Atlantic and allowing to happen the Japanese attack at the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Even today, these are all still hot and controversial subjects for historical debate.

Roosevelt's job as Assistant Secretary - even before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was a big one by the standards of today, responsible as he was for many civilians in several yards and other naval installations around the world, as well as the maintenance of a growing fleet of battleships. Like his uncle before him, FDR believed in naval strength and preparedness.

As the only Assistant Secretary in the entire Department, FDR managed all civilian personnel, prepared Navy budgets for Congressional review and handled all relations between the military and civilian officials that reached his desk. …

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