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“Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead”
John Hay’s ringing phrase helped nominate T. R., but it covered an embarrassing secret that remained concealed for thirty years
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
They were the more sullen because Roosevelt and his strategists, preparing against any possible slip-up, had so steam-rollered and stage-managed the proceedings ahead of time that there was nothing left for the delegates to do. No scurrying, no back-room bargaining, no fights, no trades, no smoke-filled deals. Harper’s Weekly reported an Alabama delegate’s summation: “There ain’t nobody who can do nothin’ ” and added: “It is not a Republican Convention, it is no kind of a convention; it is a roosevelt.”
The resulting listlessness and pervading dullness were unfortunate. Although Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, and other hand-picked Roosevelt choices filled the key posts, most of the delegates and party professionals did not make even a pretense of enthusiasm. The ostentatious coldness of the delegation from New York, Roosevelt’s home state, was such that one reporter predicted they would all go home with pneumonia. There were no bands, no parades, and for the first time in forty years there were hundreds of empty seats.
Roosevelt knew he had the nomination in his pocket, but all his life, like Lincoln, he had a haunting fear of being defeated in elections. He was worried lest the dislike and distrust of him so openly exhibited at Chicago should gather volume and explode at the ballot box. Something was needed to prick the sulks and dispel the gloom of the convention before it made a lasting impression upon the public.
At this moment came Gummere’s plea for an ultimatum. Again we have no record of what went on in high councils, but President and Secretary must have agreed upon their historic answer within a matter of hours. The only relevant piece of evidence is a verbal statement made to Hay’s biographer, the late Tyler Dennett, by Gaillard Hunt, who was chief of the State Department’s Citizenship Bureau during the Perdicaris affair. Hunt said he showed the correspondence about Perdicaris’ citizenship to Hay, who told him to show it to the President; on seeing it, the President decided to overlook the difficulty and instructed Hunt to tell Hay to send the telegram anyway, at once. No date is given for this performance, so one is left with the implication that Roosevelt was not informed of the facts until this last moment—a supposition which the present writer finds improbable.
When Roosevelt made up his mind to accomplish an objective he did not worry too much about legality of method. Before any unusual procedure he would ask an opinion from his Attorney General, Philander Knox, but Knox rather admired Roosevelt’s way of overriding his advice. Once, when asked for his opinion, he replied, “Ah, Mr. President, why have such a beautiful action marred by any taint of legality?” Another close adviser, Admiral Mahan, when asked by Roosevelt how to solve the political problem of annexing the Hawaiian Islands, answered, “Do nothing unrighteous but … take the islands first and solve afterward.” It may be that the problem of Perdicaris seemed susceptible of the same treatment.
The opportunity was irresistible. Every newspaperman who ever knew him testified to Roosevelt’s extraordinary sense of news value, to his ability to create news, to dramatize himself to the public. He had a genius for it. “Consciously or unconsciously,” said the journalist Isaac Marcosson, “he was the master press agent of all time.” The risk, of course, was great, for it would be acutely embarrassing if the facts leaked out during the coming campaign. It may have been the risk itself that tempted Roosevelt, for he loved a prank and loved danger for its own sake; if he could combine danger with what William Allen White called a “frolicking intrigue,” his happiness was complete.
Next day, June 22, the memorable telegram, “This Government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” flashed across the Atlantic cable over Hay’s signature and was simultaneously given to the press at home. It was not an ultimatum, because Hay deliberately deprived it of meaningfulness by adding to Gummere, “Do not land marines or seize customs without Department’s specific instructions.” But this sentence was not allowed to spoil the effect: it was withheld from the press.