Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 7, 2022

"I Have Seen War" FDR As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Part I: Peacetime and Neutrality

Wilson's Navy Department Team: Secretary Josephus Daniels & Asst. Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt

By Bob Clark, Supervisory Archivist
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

During the 1936 presidential campaign, President Franklin D. Roosevelt—running for a second term—was confronted with a difficult political situation. The country was overwhelmingly isolationist, but the situation abroad was growing more ominous. Civil war had broken out in Spain, and a new wave of fear was sweeping the nation—a fear that the Iberian conflict would spark a broader war into which the United States would then be drawn. The scars of the Great War still were unhealed. FDR chose Chautauqua, New York, to speak on the subject of peace on 14 August 1936.

His carefully crafted speech was designed to calm the fears of isolationists while hinting at the hard realities of foreign affairs. The president suggested that the United States was "not isolationist except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war. Yet we must remember that so long as war exists on earth there will be some danger that even the nation which most ardently desires peace may be drawn into war." As president, he was committed to doing all within his power to prevent such a calamity. For, as he told his audience in Chautauqua and the nation listening in via radio, "I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. 

I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping exhausted men come out of line-the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war!"

The speech was a direct attempt to calm the nation while calling on the other nations of the world to join with the United States in maintaining the peace-a wholly unsuccessful effort as it would turn out. It was the first of many speeches that FDR would make over the next several years moving the nation towards preparedness, until a surprise attack forced war upon us on the Day of Infamy. But the Chautauqua speech naturally raises the question—when did FDR see war?

Although he wanted to join the naval academy as a young man, his father would not permit him to do so. And the man who was now president never served in uniform. The answer lies in FDR's service in the Woodrow Wilson Administration for eight years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. A job he relished and thrived in, and a job he did so well that when the United States joined the fighting in 1917 President Wilson refused FDR's request to resign and enlist At the age of 30, FDR was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of the Navy on his eighth wedding anniversary, 17 March 1913. Later that day he wrote to his mother, "I am baptized, confirmed, sworn in, vaccinated—and somewhat at sea! For over an hour I have been signing papers which had to be accepted on faith—but I hope luck will keep me out of jail. All well, but I will have to work like a new turbine to master this job— but it will be done even if it takes all summer."

The assistant secretary position was one that FDR had aspired to for much of his life. His distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt had once held the post, and FDR saw TR as a role model, both in terms of his progressive politics as well as his career path. In 1907, as a young lawyer in the New York firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Millburn, FDR had told one of his colleagues that he thought he had a real chance of becoming president one day, and he intended to get there by first winning a seat in the New York legislature, then an appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy, and then becoming governor of New York before running for the presidency. The similarities to TR's career trajectory were unmistakable.

FDR obtained the assistant secretaryship as a result of his efforts in the 1912 presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson. A vigorous young New York state senator who had made a reputation for himself by challenging the state's political machine, Roosevelt had worked hard for Wilson's nomination and election. At the Democratic convention in Baltimore, FDR had come to the attention of Josephus Daniels, a North Carolina newspaperman and Wilson ally. Roosevelt impressed Daniels with both his strong progressive politics and his unwavering support for Wilson. When Wilson then named Daniels to be secretary of the Navy, Daniels offered Roosevelt the number two spot in the department on the very morning of Wilson's inauguration. 

Roosevelt's response was an enthusiastic yes- "It would please me better than anything in the world," he said. "All my life I have loved ships and have been a student of the Navy, and the assistant secretaryship is the one place, above all others, that I would like to hold." Before FDR's nomination went to the Senate, Daniels followed custom by consulting with New York's two senators, one of whom was Republican Elihu Root who had been President McKinley's secretary of war and Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of state. Root gave his assent to FDR's appointment, but with one word of caution: "You know the Roosevelts, don't you," he asked Daniels. "Whenever a Roosevelt rides, he likes to ride in front." 

They were an unlikely pair, Daniels and Roosevelt. Daniels knew almost nothing about the Navy, having come from landlocked Raleigh, North Carolina, but he was a calm and savvy politician who had the president's ear. Roosevelt was a brashly self-confident man who lived and breathed all things naval. Despite their differences, they served together well throughout the entire Wilson Administration. Their respective strengths and weaknesses complemented each other. Daniels primarily concentrated on working with the president on policy matters, dealing with Congress, and watching over the fleet. Roosevelt's domain was the business of the Navy-supervising the department's civilian staff, managing the Navy's various bureaus, and negotiating contracts. Roosevelt made Daniels' job easier, and from Daniels Roosevelt learned the ways of politicking in the nation's capitol. Roosevelt would never forget the debt he owed to Daniels for bringing him to Washington. For the rest of his life, FDR called Daniels "Chief," and when Roosevelt became president in 1933, one of his first acts was to name Daniels ambassador to Mexico.

Daniels and FDR Honoring a Young Naval Officer

FDR relished his new job. But the Navy's departmental structure, and indeed the fleet itself, was hopelessly outdated. Although ranked third in the world in size, the numbers concealed the age and antiquated design of the ships.

The bureaucracy was also out of date, not having been changed since 1842, before the age of the ironclads. The department was organized into eight semi-independent bureaus, with each headed by a powerful bureau chief responsible to Congress, not to the Navy secretary. The admirals who served as chiefs held their posts for years, mostly in isolation from one another, and fought over territory, appropriations, and glory. The Navy Department, now overseen by Daniels and Roosevelt, was widely perceived to be the most difficult Cabinet level department to manage. 

FDR was highly critical of the department's organizational structure, but despite his best efforts, it would not be until the attack at Pearl Harbor that he would finally be able to bring the Navy bureaus under the control of the executive branch. 

FDR's primary areas of responsibility in the peacetime Navy Department were the department's thousands of civilian workers and contracting issues. Labor relations with such a vast civilian staff did not prove easy, but FDR took labor's complaints seriously, using his authority when possible to settle their grievances with the Navy brass. Roosevelt also was adept at handling contracting matters. Although often frustrated by the department's system of bureaus, FDR worked to bring about more competitive bidding in contracts, to lower costs to the government, and to improve efficiency in the Navy yards. Although not as successful as he could have hoped, FDR learned an important lesson about the need for efficiency in government.

Another of his primary responsibilities as assistant secretary was to tour and inspect naval yards and stations. Nothing made FDR happier than to board a ship bound for the next destination. Because the president and navy secretary each had their own flag that flew when aboard ship, FDR designed his own assistant secretary flag, and he delighted as he received a 17-gun salute as he boarded
ship-that's four more guns than a rear admiral gets.

His inspection trips were valuable to FDR in two respects. First, they helped him to gain knowledge of local conditions throughout the country and to make contacts with local Democratic Party officials-building a network of supporters that would be useful to his later political ambitions.

And through these trips, FDR came in contact with young Navy officers whom he would remember later as commander in chief. Among these notable young officers were William D. Leahy, who would become President Roosevelt's chief of staff; Husband E. Kimmel, future commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor; Harold L. Stark, future chief of naval operations; and Chester Nimitz, destined to greatness in the Pacific war. Perhaps the most memorable encounter, though, came when FDR ordered the destroyer commanded by Lt. William F. "Bull" Halsey, Jr., to take him to a naval base near Campobello Island, the Roosevelt family's summer home off the coast of Maine. Roosevelt asked Halsey's permission to pilot the ship through the treacherous Lubec narrows, and Halsey reluctantly agreed. Halsey feared that the assistant secretary would not understand the difference between handling a 700-ton destroyer and a pleasure boat. Much to Halsey's relief, Roosevelt expertly guided theship through the dangerous channel.

Although FDR enjoyed the trappings and privileges of the assistant secretaryship, after his first year in office, FDR began to grow restless. Despite his position, Roosevelt felt like he merely performed tedious housekeeping duties while Daniels was engaged in the high politics and grand strategic design that FDR aspired to. Roosevelt could make recommendations, but ultimate authority rested with Daniels. 

It was at this point that Roosevelt dipped his toe back into the waters of New York elective politics. Perceiving his path to advancement in Washington blocked for the foreseeable future, he briefly considered running for New York governor, only to be disappointed when he did not receive the support of either Woodrow Wilson or Cousin Theodore, both of whom were mending fences with the state's Tammany Hall political machine.

Then in 1914 came an open United States Senate seat, and he decided to enter the primary against the advice of Josephus Daniels. But Tammany Hall put forth a rival that had been cleared by the White House, and Roosevelt went down to overwhelming defeat, ending his elective ambitions for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, of course, the situation in Europe deteriorated dramatically. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, beginning a cascade of events that would soon embroil the continent in a general war. FDR feared that there was no hope in averting a larger conflict. He wrote to Eleanor, who was at Campobello: "The best that can be expected is either a sharp, complete and quick victory by one side, a most unlikely occurrence, or a speedy realization of impending bankruptcy by all, and a cessation by mutual consent, but I think this is too unlikely."

Rare Photo of TR and FDR Together with Lawyer
 W.H. Vanbeschoten, Syracuse, NY, 1915

Roosevelt also had concerns about the leadership of President Wilson's advisers, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and his own boss Josephus Daniels, both of whom were noted pacifists. Roosevelt also fretted over the Navy's lack of preparedness. "To my astonishment in reaching the Dept." he wrote to Eleanor, "nobody seemed the least bit excited about the European crisis—Mr. Daniels feeling chiefly very sad that his faith in human nature and civilization and similar idealistic nonsense was receiving such a rude shock. So I started in alone to get things ready and to prepare plans for what ought to be done by the Navy end of things . . .These dear people like [Bryan] and [Daniels] have as much conception of what a general European war means as Elliott [the Roosevelt's' young son] has of higher mathematics."

Of course, Daniels and Bryan were much more in tune with Wilson's policies than was Roosevelt. President Wilson quickly issued the first of many neutrality proclamations, and at the President's direction Daniels ordered all officers to refrain from public comment of any kind about the European conflict. The Navy was charged with watching the coasts, protecting the neutrality of American ports, and preventing the shipment of any kind of munitions to the belligerents. Roosevelt was appointed to two Cabinet-level committees, one of which was to find practical ways to implement Wilson's neutrality policies and the other to provide aid and relief to Americans stranded in Europe by the war.

Roosevelt took his role in Navy preparedness seriously. He often bristled at Daniels' pacifism and neutrality, and Roosevelt anticipated that the Navy might have to be used later in active conflict and he moved as best he could to put the Navy on a war footing.

In late October, when Daniels was away from Washington, Acting Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt took advantage of Daniels' absence to release a memorandum by high-ranking Admirals spelling out fleet deficiencies in manpower-13 battleships were laid up because 18,000 men were needed to man them. The memorandum was published in the newspapers, much to the White House's displeasure. And upon his return to Washington, Daniels gave Roosevelt a dressing down. Although FDR issued a public disclaimer and later had to tow the administration line in Congressional hearings, he wrote to Eleanor "The country needs the truth about the Army and Navy instead of a lot of soft mush about everlasting peace."

FDR was eager to see the war firsthand. His first attempt to get there in December 1914 proved unsuccessful. An official request to the First Lord of the Admiralty—Winston Churchill—received the following reply through the American embassy: "The First Lord desires me to express his regret that the present pressure of work in the Department would render it impossible to offer the assistance necessary for the accomplishment of such a visit." Certainly an inauspicious beginning to what would, 25 years later, become one of the seminal friendships of the 20th century.

The war at sea accelerated as 1915 began. Germany declared the waters around Britain to be a war zone, threatening to sink Allied vessels and neutral merchant ships. Britain responded with a counter-blockade. Wilson maintained neutrality, but he was stunned was torpedoed in the Irish Sea with nearly 1,200 lives lost, including 128 Americans. Wilson and Berlin then exchanged protest notes, the last American dispatch resulting in the resignation of William Jennings Bryan from the Cabinet because he believed it would lead to war. 

Although widely seen as an act of disloyalty to Wilson, Bryan's resignation revealed fractures in American opinion, with much of the country becoming more militant in its view of the war. Facing reelection soon, Wilson decided to stay in step, and in July 1915 Roosevelt was called upon by Daniels to draft plans for the Navy's expansion. FDR was delighted. By December, a plan had been pushed through Congress to increasethe Navy by 176 ships within three years, at a cost of $600 million-the largest peacetime construction program in the nation's history to date. As the naval build-up proceeded, Roosevelt took steps to mobilize the nation even more rapidly. He designed and proposed to President Wilson the creation of a Council of National Defense to coordinate war production. But the President was unwilling to take so drastic a step. Roosevelt continued to lobby Wilson on the Council, and finally in August 1916, Wilson permitted it to be attached as a rider to an Army appropriation bill. The council was authorized to place defense contracts directly with suppliers and to draw up plans for the
coordination of the nation's resources towards full mobilization. FDR's role in the creation of the National Defense Council was important for the future as well, for FDR would reactivate the Council's advisory panel in 1940 after the fall of France. Another project spearheaded by Roosevelt was the establishment of a naval reserve.

Nineteen Sixteen also saw the reelection of Woodrow Wilson by a narrow margin, aided by Franklin Roosevelt's prominence as the Administration's preparedness Democrat. FDR's unwavering positions on military preparedness and a strong navy helped to offset the criticism of his Cousin Theodore Roosevelt and the interventionist wing of the Republican Party. FDR campaigned hard for Wilson in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, suggesting that Republican criticism of the administration's initial slow mobilization effort was unpatriotic and counterproductive in light of the steps now being taken by the government. In one speech, FDR asked his audience "How would you expect the public to be convinced that a dangerous fire was in progress if they saw members of the volunteer fire department stop their headlong rush toward the conflagration and indulge in a slanging match as to who was responsible for the rotten hose or lack of water at a fire a week ago?" This fire hose analogy would again prove useful in 1940 as FDR explained Lend Lease to the American people.

FDR After a Test Flight on a Navy Seaplane

With Wilson reelected, Roosevelt made plans to remain another four years in Washington. At the same time, Germany took another bold step-ordering unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to drive Britain out of the war. The subsequent sinking of the American freighter caused Wilson to sever diplomatic relations with Germany. Roosevelt, inspecting Marines in Santo Domingo, was urgently called back to Washington by Secretary Daniels.

Continued tomorrow in the 8 August 2022 posting on Roads to the Great War

Source: Originally presented in the Fall 2011 issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society

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