- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
On a bright sunny morning in the spring of 1913, I stood beside the coxswain of the commandant’s barge as we made our way up the East River. I had been detailed by the commandant to pick up the newly appointed assistant secretary of the Navy at the New York Yacht Club landing, and bring him to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was a half hour’s trip up the busy East River, and we passed by all the bustling harbor traffic, past piers loading and unloading, past ships from all over the world. Back of it the skyline of New York reared up like some mountain city, a sight that never fails to stir the pulse of even the most hard-boiled seaman. The barge was one of the smartest in the whole Navy. Its mahogany hull shone like a mirror, its brass work could decorate a Tiffany window, and a hand-picked crew showed their pride in the boat by some of the fanciest woven mats, hand lines, and boat cloths the eye of seaman ever beheld.
The story was young at that time about the prairie congressman who, upon visiting his first ship, stared down an open hatch in genuine astonishment. “By gum,” he exclaimed, “it’s hollow, ain’t it!” Would the new assistant secretary prove to be as ignorant as this? Probably not, I decided, for he was a Roosevelt and a Harvard graduate. We were almost the same age—just thirty. Like nearly everyone else in the Navy I had become a staunch admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, not only for his leadership, but his showmanship, flamboyant though it was.
All I knew of Theodore’s young cousin, Franklin, was that he’d stepped into politics not long after leaving Harvard. I’d met few Harvard men and shared some of the prejudices against them. In the mind of a Navy man, there was also the usual curiosity about a political civilian executive. Would Franklin Roosevelt be friendly or aloof? Would he be an effective leader in developing a strong Navy or would he actively resist that effort? All of us were fearful that the entire Wilson Administration, just elected to four years of power, would be hostile to the armed services. The new Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, had lectured throughout the country on the virtues of pacifism and the need for total disarmament. Our new Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was believed to be a fervent disciple of Mr. Bryan. Would his assistant, this young Roosevelt, likewise follow in those pacifist footsteps? Such thoughts ran through my mind as we made our way up the East River. Then the coxswain put over his helm. The barge eased alongside the New York Yacht Club wharf and tied up.
I can see to this day the new assistant secretary-to-be as he strode down the gangplank to the club float with the ease and assurance of an athlete. Tall, broad-shouldered and smiling, Mr. Roosevelt radiated energy and friendliness; his physique would have caught the eye of every crew coach in the country. We shook hands, and he introduced me to some friends with him; then we all made our way back to the barge. Most sailors are accustomed to the gushing enthusiasm of visitors aboard ship. We take it for granted, and we take for granted, too, an enthusiasm which leads them either to muster a misplaced vocabulary in an attempt to show themselves at home or to maintain a guarded silence in the hope of avoiding mistakes.
As we stepped aboard the barge I wondered just how much young Mr. Roosevelt knew about the sea and ships and the naval establishment over which his new office would give him authority. I didn’t know then that he was a good yachtsman, a skilful pilot, and an expert small boat handler; nor that he was already an authority on naval history in general and of United States naval history in particular.
Once aboard the barge the prospective assistant secretary showed immediately that he was at home on the water. Instead of sitting sedately in the stern sheets as might have been expected, he swarmed over the barge from stem to stern during the passage to the Navy Yard. With exclamations of delight and informed appreciation he went over every inch of the boat from coxswain’s box to engine room. When she hit the wake of a passing craft and he was doused with spray, he just ducked and laughed and pointed out to his companions how well she rode a wave. Within a few minutes he’d won the hearts of every man of us on board, just as in the years to come he won the hearts of the crew of every ship he set foot on.
In that first inspection of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, made impetuously before he was even sworn in, Franklin Roosevelt learned a great deal about its building and repair capacity and the possibilities for expansion, things he never forgot. He demonstrated then that he had the invaluable quality of contagious enthusiasm—a quality which Calvin Coolidge did not have, and which Herbert Hoover showed only occasionally.
When I put him ashore at East 23rd Street I felt that the Navy had drawn a fine assistant secretary.
No study of Franklin Roosevelt is complete without considering what his service as assistant secretary of the Navy did to prepare him for his job as President in World War II. I was privileged to watch this development and saw much that now has greater significance than I realized at the time.