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“my Dear Selous…”
A long-buried series of letters to an African game hunter reveals T. R. as half thinker, half boy scout
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Thanks for your letter. I am rather saddened by it. I know how anxious you are to be at the front. Personally I do not believe in these ironclad rules.…I have a great admiration and respect for the Germans. I wish to heavens that this country would wake up to the hideous damage, moral and physical, caused by the deification of mere industrialism, of softness, and of self-indulgence.…If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water —especially of skimmed milk and dishwater—why I am for the policy of blood and iron.…But my admiration for the Germans does not blind me to the fact that for the last fifty years their development along die lines of policy advocated by Frederick the Great and Bismarck and so enthusiastically championed by Carlyle has resulted in their becoming a very grave menace to every nation with which they are brought in contact.…I wish I were in the war myself!
Of Roosevelt’s political attacks on the “pro-pacifist” Wilson, nothing explicit is said in his letters to Selous, nor does he seem to have told the embattled lion, caged up in Surrey, that he was putting up a similar struggle on his side of the Atlantic to get into the fight. In January, 1915, he seized eagerly on an army friend’s suggestion that he raise a division, and when the friend said he doubted if President Wilson would be inclined to favor such a project, considering the enmity shown him by Roosevelt, the Colonel (as he now preferred to be called) replied, “I am going to see Mr. Wilson and tell him that if he will give me this commission and authority to organize and take this division to France, I will give him my promise never to oppose him politically in any way whatsoever.” Three months later, on April 2, 1915, he had the bittersweet task of congratulating Selous for managing to get into the war in roundabout fashion, by taking ship for East Africa and joining up there: I have received your letter of February 23 and send this to Nairobi. I am exceedingly glad you have gone to British East Africa. I am sorry to say that very reluctantly I have come to the same conclusion that you have about the purposes and conduct of Germany.…I am very sorry that it did not happen that my term as President occurred while this war was on…I do not believe in neutrality between right and wrong; and I am very sorry that the United States is not in the struggle. If there were a war, my four boys would go, although I suppose that the two younger ones would have to go as enlisted men; and I should ask permission to raise a division of nine regiments of the same type as the regiment I commanded in Cuba.…
The final letter of the series, addressed to “Lieut. F. C. Selous”—who had found a berth in the 25th Royal Fusiliers—is dated August 20, 1915, from Oyster Bay.
Your letter of July nth has just come. I congratulate you with all my heart. It is simply first class to have you a fighting officer in the fighting line, leading your men in the very work that you are particularly and peculiarly fitted to do. I was wholly unable to understand Lord Kitchener refusing you a commission.…The Germans have used Von Hindenburg, who was away over the legal age limit for Generals; and he has been their best General.…I send you herewith two articles I have just written in reference to what I regard as the frightful misconduct of my own country.…If you come through all right and if, in the event of war, I come through all right, I shall look forward eagerly to seeing you when the war is over…
Selous was killed on January 4, 1917, in his sixtysixth year, in an action in East Africa, having won the D.S.O. before he died. But his old friend Roosevelt had still a short course to run. Part of Roosevelt’s wish was fulfilled that year when America entered the war, but he was never permitted to raise the division he so longed to command. After the youngest Roosevelt boy, Quentin, was killed in battle in 1918, people noticed that Theodore was aging noticeably. Roosevelt died of a stroke on January 6, 1919. He was in bed; his boots were off; it is to be hoped that he didn’t realize what was happening to him. He would have been bitterly ashamed.