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He belonged in uniform. His country was at war. He was thirty-six years old and bursting with vitality. Before going to work in the morning at the Navy Department he often played a round of golf. On weekends, he rarely got in less than thirty-six holes. During the week he worked out with Walter Camp, the football coach and fitness enthusiast. Lathrop Brown, his Harvard roommate, was serving in the new tank corps. Harry Hooker, his former law partner, was now Major Hooker, on the staff of the 53rd Division American Expeditionary Forces. Another law partner and Harvard pal, Langdon Marvin, was driving an ambulance in France with the Red Cross. His four distant cousins, Archibald, Kermit, Theodore Jr., and Quentin, sons of Franklin’s idol, former President Theodore Roosevelt, had all enlisted. The exploits of TR’s boys filled the newspapers, arousing in Franklin competing emotions of pride and envy. Even his nearsighted brother-in-law, Hall Roosevelt, had volunteered.
On the very day that war had been declared, April 6, 1917, the Roosevelt clan gathered at the home of TR’s married daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. There the former commander-in-chief seized Franklin by the shoulders, fixed him with his myopic gaze, and pleaded with him to resign as assistant secretary of the navy. “You must get into uniform at once,” TR urged. “You must get in.”
Franklin was all too willing. Patriotism was the main reason, but politics intruded as well. In 1898, when America had gone to war against Spain over Cuba, TR had resigned from the very Navy post Franklin now held. He had formed his own regiment, the Rough Riders. He had worn the uniform, known war, and subsequently reached the political pinnacle. TR’s trajectory was not lost on his ambitious young relative. Franklin’s chief, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, easily detected the parallels. “Theodore left the position of assistant secretary to become a Rough Rider, later Governor of New York and then President, and both had served in the legislature of New York,” Daniels noted. “Franklin actually thought fighting in the War was the necessary step toward reaching the White House.” Franklin’s mother, Sara, had recently written her son, “The papers say buttons and pictures of you are being prepared to run for Governor.” But Franklin preferred to take TR’s route, military service first.
Theodore Roosevelt, now fifty-nine, blind in one eye, partially deaf, his body racked by punishing expeditions into the disease-infested Brazilian jungle, was itching to answer his country’s call again. He hoped to raise a volunteer division just as he had raised a regiment in the earlier war. He pleaded with Franklin to get him an appointment with President Woodrow Wilson. This request could prove ticklish. Ever since TR, as a third-party candidate, had been beaten by Wilson five years before in the 1912 presidential election, he had been lambasting the winner for everything from woolly-headedness to cowardice for not getting America into the European war sooner. Nevertheless, the day after the Roosevelt gathering at cousin Alice’s house, Franklin did go to the secretary of war, Newton Baker, and persuade him to intervene with Wilson on TR’s behalf. The president would later say of meeting with his old foe, “I was charmed by his personality . . . you can’t resist the man.” Evidently he was able to resist, since he told Baker afterward, “I really think the best way to treat Mr. Roosevelt is to take no notice of him.” TR was baffled by Wilson’s failure to seize upon his heartfelt offer. As he left the White House with Wilson’s confidant, Colonel Edward M. House, he complained, “I don’t understand. After all, I’m only asking to be allowed to die,” to which House reportedly responded, “Oh, did you make that point quite clear to the President?”
Uncle Ted had not made it back into uniform himself, but his admonition still echoed in Franklin’s ear: “I should be ashamed of my sons if they shirked war.” After TR’s White House visit, Franklin did submit his resignation as assistant secretary in order to enlist. But when the letter landed on Wilson’s desk, the president rejected what he considered military romanticism. He told Secretary Daniels to inform his subordinate that he was no different from any draftee. “Neither you nor I nor Franklin Roosevelt has the right to select the place of service,” he warned. “Tell the young man . . . to stay where he is.” Unfazed, Roosevelt next went to Wilson personally, only to be turned down again. The rejection, nevertheless, did illuminate Roosevelt’s rising star. Wilson’s former Army chief of staff, General Leonard Wood, observed that “Franklin Roosevelt should under no circumstances think of leaving the Navy Department; that would amount to a public calamity.” The real power in the U.S. Navy, Wood believed, was not Secretary Daniels, but his aggressive deputy.
As the country entered its fifteenth month of the war a still frustrated Franklin managed to wangle an assignment that lifted him, if not exactly to combatant status, at least to something more than a deskbound civilian. He urged Secretary Daniels to allow him to go to Europe “to look into our Naval administration in order to work more closely with the other services.” The essentially pacifist Daniels felt no necessity himself to witness the bloodletting firsthand and eventually yielded to Franklin’s ceaseless importuning, even allowing his assistant to write his own orders, essentially a blank check to pursue “such other purposes as may be deemed expedient upon your arrival.” Franklin confided to his wife that he had been promised a commission as a Navy lieutenant commander upon his return. Before leaving, he sent President Wilson a letter saying he hoped the speculation about his running for governor of New York would end. He was not going to “give up war work for what is frankly very much a local political job in these times.”
That summer of 1918, as the day of his departure approached, his behavior began taking on an air of mystery. He told Eleanor only that he must leave her alone with their five children, but could not disclose where he was going or for how long. She was not to see him off, since the mission was secret. “Don’t tell a soul,” he warned her, “not even Mama.” Franklin had one more goodbye to make before he left, one unknown to Eleanor, and one that moved him to mixed longing and pride. Meeting secretly, he and a beautiful woman made impassioned promises of letters to be exchanged, how this was to be safely carried out during his absence, and what needed to be resolved on his return, for Franklin Roosevelt was in love.
He sailed for Europe from the Washington Navy Yard on July 9, 1918, aboard the destroyer USS Dyer, rushed into service just eight days before and heading into the war zone without benefit of sea trials. Despite his position, he told his wife that he had requested no ceremonies. Once aboard ship, Franklin started a diary, the basis for a book he intended to write, an intention that showed through in the grandiloquence of his first entry: “The good old ocean is so absolutely normal just as it always has been, sometimes tumbling about and throwing spray, sometimes gently lolling about . . . but now though the ocean looks much unchanged the doubled number of lookouts shows that even here the hand of the Hun False God is reaching out to defy nature; ten miles ahead of this floating City of Souls a torpedo maybe waiting to start on its quick run.”
The Dyer joined a troop convoy delivering another twenty thousand doughboys to the over one million already in France: “a wonderful sight,” Franklin noted in the diary, “five monsters in the half light . . . it thrills to think that right there another division is on the way to the front.” Every element of danger quickened his sense that at last he was in the war, as when the Dyer zigzagged to thwart marauding U-boats, “9 different course changes,” in an hour; and when he learned that “only 15 or 16 of the crew” had ever been in the war zone; and when he was assigned his abandon ship station, whale boat number 2, should the worst happen.
He was gone just over ten weeks. Looking back, he counted the mission a brilliant success. He had met personally with all the Allied leaders, the fiery British prime minister, David Lloyd George, whom Franklin was delighted to find “is just like his pictures.” Even more impressive to Roosevelt, with his weakness for royalty, was a private audience at Buckingham Palace with King George V. Franklin recorded in his diary that the king had given him forty minutes alone and seemed genuinely impressed that his American visitor had crossed the Atlantic on a warship. “His one regret,” the king told him, “was that it had been impossible for him to do active Naval service during the war,” reflecting Franklin’s own disappointment. The king then confided that though he had blood relatives in Germany, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm, “in all my life I have never seen a German gentleman.”
Franklin had next gone on to France, where he was again welcomed at the summit, meeting French president Raymond Poincairé and premier Georges Clemenceau. “I was in the presence of the greatest civilian in France,” he wrote in his diary of Clemenceau. “He almost ran forward to meet me and shook hands as if he meant it.” The sixty-six-year-old premier, known as “The Tiger,” related to Roosevelt a thrilling account of his recent visit to the front where a French and German soldier were found “trying to bite each other to death when a shell had killed them both,” their upright bodies still clinched. “And as he told me this,” Franklin recalled, “he grabbed me by both shoulders and shook me with a grip of steel.” Before the mission was over Franklin had met with Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commanding all Allied forces, the leader of the British army, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, and Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando—everyone who was anyone in the war.
At each stop he checked eagerly with the Army postal service and the American embassy’s diplomatic pouch for letters from his wife, his mother, and his secret passion.
Though he savored his reception at the top, for Franklin, these moments paled alongside what had been the real objective of the trip. Before it was over, he could claim, with enough justification to satisfy his ego, that he had seen the face of war. His military escort, the American naval attaché in Paris, Captain R. H. Jackson, had interpreted his orders as making sure that Assistant Secretary Roosevelt came through this journey with his hide intact. As Franklin put it, Jackson’s “plans called for easy trips and plenty of bombed houses thirty miles or so behind the front.” He brushed Jackson aside and “from now on for four days I ran the trip,” he wrote Eleanor.
Wearing vaguely military dress of his own invention—khaki pants tucked into leather puttees, a gray knee-length coat, a French army helmet, and a gas mask looped around his neck—he arrived at Verdun where the previous year the French and Germans had bled each other white with losses totaling 696,000 men. He was standing at an angle in a road snapping pictures of a devastated village, when an officer raced out and yanked him to safety just as “the long whining whistle of a shell was followed by the dull boom and a puff of smoke of the explosion at the Dead Man’s Corner we had just left.” He added in the diary, “It is indeed quite evident that we are on the battlefield.”
He was briefly embarrassed at another village where a great bang of artillery sent him diving for cover. It turned out that a well-concealed American battery was firing into the German lines. The artillerymen howled with laughter as Franklin rose and dusted himself off. His equanimity quickly recovered, he strode over and greeted the doughboys with hearty handshakes. As they reloaded, they allowed him to pull the gun’s lanyard, propelling a shell toward the German lines. Years later, retelling this experience he would say, “I will never know how many, if any, Huns I killed.”
Roosevelt did eventually witness the end product of war. In Belleau Wood, site of America’s first full-scale battle, he slogged through oozing mud, weaving his way around water-logged shell holes, and came upon “discarded overcoats, rain-stained love letters . . . and many little mounds, some wholly unmarked, some with a rifle stuck, bayonet down, in the earth, some with a helmet, and some too with a whittled cross with a tag of wood or wrapping paper hung over it and in a pencil scrawl an American name.” The sight of these Marine graves especially moved Roosevelt since the Corps was under the Navy Department. He asked an officer to show him a list of the latest casualties among “my Marines,” which revealed 760 killed and three times as many wounded. The sight of German dead moved him not at all. Near Rheims he came upon a stack of unburied enemy corpses and found the stench an offense to “our sensitive naval nostrils.” Before leaving the war zone, Franklin authorized the Marines to wear the Corps insignia on their collars, though they were under Army command. He did so without consulting Washington. How else, he told friends, could he get anything done? When, during the mission, he met a Harvard acquaintance, Robert Dunn, who asked, “How’s the job and Josephus?,” referring to Franklin’s chief, Franklin answered, “Gosh, you don’t know, Bobby, what I have to bear under that man.”
Back in Paris he stopped to visit his Roosevelt kin in a house near the Arc de Triomphe. There he found two of TR’s sons, Archie and Ted Jr., recuperating from serious wounds. Another brother, Kermit, had volunteered for a machine gun unit. He “will at no very distant time share the fate of his brothers,” TR had written. The younger Roosevelts spoke somberly but proudly of Quentin, the youngest brother. On July 14, Bastille Day, while Franklin was still aboard the Dyer, Quentin had flown his French Nieuport 28 behind German lines near Château-Thierry where a Fokker shot him out of the sky and to his death. TR put up a brave front, but a friend, Hermann Hagedorn, observed that after the death of his son in a war he had so vigorously supported, “the boy in him had died.” The effect of these calamities on his cousins only sharpened Franklin’s eagerness to get into uniform.
He ended his European adventure in a frenzy of activity, fearful that he might miss something. He began a marathon inspection of airfields and Navy bases from the Spanish border to Brest. He slept on the floor of a barn, his sleep broken by an artillery bombardment and two air raids, followed by lunch the next day with King Albert of Belgium. Then it was up to Scotland’s Firth of Forth to inspect the British Grand Fleet, a squadron of American battleships, and to ride in a Navy dirigible. He wrote Eleanor of his “frightfully busy week on the road each day from 6 am to midnight.” Most gratifying, back in France, he was able to see a tactic of his own invention come to life. American cruisers carried fourteen-inch guns that could hurl a shell twenty-five miles. Why not place them on railroad flatcars, Franklin had urged, and have them blast deeply deployed German fortifications? He inspected, with ill-concealed pride, the first rail-borne guns headed for the front, with large white letters painted on the side reading “U.S.N.”