- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
When Roosevelt took office in 1913 he found the Navy Department in a turmoil. Trouble was blowing up in Mexico. British oil interests, in an effort to gain control of the fields in the Tampico area, were stirring up anti-American feeling with a violence that threatened the safety of our nationals on the spot. The United States Fleet was dispatched to Mexican waters in the hope that its mere presence would prevent violence, a gesture which was weakened, to put it mildly, by the declaration of our secretary of state that we would never use force. Such irresolute behavior on the part of a republic, which most chancelleries regarded as a second or third class power at best, naturally convinced the European nations that it might be a good time to test the Monroe Doctrine. Indeed, a German seizure of Haiti was averted only by the outbreak of the first World War.
Eventually, of course, we landed at Vera Cruz, in the spring of 1914, but this convulsive final action was preceded by a confusion so classic in its proportions that it taught many of us, including the young assistant secretary, valuable lessons for the future. At the time I had not yet gone on duty in the Navy Department but instead was lying off Tampico myself, as gunnery officer of the fleet flagship Connecticut , sharing the general exasperation of men awaiting word to go into action. Fully dressed and armed, I slept on deck with the landing party, ready to pile into the boats and make for shore whenever the orders came from Washington. But, when that then primitive contraption worked at all, what did the wireless bring? Get ready! No, wait! Get ready! No, don’t make a move!
Not only was President Wilson undecided, but there was plenty of plain old-fashioned bungling at the Navy Department. To advise him about the instructions he should issue, Secretary Daniels had chosen a group of three senior officers headed by old Admiral Fiske. Then, instead of taking their combined judgment, he began playing one off against the other, consulting with them separately. The advice was often conflicting, and given in ignorance of action that had gone before, but Mr. Daniels took it. So unsatisfactory was this experience that a group of naval officers at length conspired with members of Congress to create a central naval authority with the power to make decisions—the present Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. To Secretary Daniels this smacked of Prussianism, of the German General Staff, but it was established despite his bitter opposition. Fiske was retired and Admiral Benson appointed the first “CNO.”
When I came on duty in Washington, and Admiral Benson gave me a part in the work of setting up the new office, I found the assistant secretary quite out of sympathy with his chief. We sometimes discussed my experiences in the Mexican campaign and the problem of giving our growing military forces modern organization. Mr. Roosevelt could not, of course, openly oppose his chief, but as time went on he showed his political adeptness, his ability to get things done in spite of obstacles. Consider, for example, the need for preparedness, which the assistant secretary saw much more clearly than Daniels and, apparently, Wilson himself. Striving for neutrality, the President forbade us to repair our ships, even when a refit was overdue, as though the very act might be interpreted as a preparation for war. For the same reason, nothing whatever was done to develop naval aviation, nor were any plans perfected to build anti-submarine craft.
Meanwhile from all over the Navy flowed in urgent messages pleading for equipment and repairs and permission to prepare for what so many of us, including Franklin Roosevelt, saw was inevitable. Time after time our naval representative in London, Admiral Sims (who had, incidentally, once been Naval Aide himself), reported that the rising fury of the Kaiser’s U-boat campaign was bringing England face-to-face with starvation if help did not come soon. I brought these gloomy dispatches to Mr. Roosevelt daily. He shared the Navy’s view that preparation should be started at once, whatever any belligerent might think about it, but there was little enough he could do except to keep pressing the President and the secretary. At least, he urged, let us repair a few of the ships that need it most! But the faithful Daniels searched every letter and dispatch for the slightest deviation from neutrality or his policy of inaction. When all other methods of delay failed, he took correspondence home and left it there. Every afternoon at one I had to wait upon him in his anteroom, ready to explain naval problems or technicalities contained in his mail, and this went on for a year. Never have I seen a man so indefatigable at delay, so dedicated to doing nothing.
After a while, however, Roosevelt found a way around his boss which helped us a little. When Daniels was away, he would seize his pen and sign orders to which the secretary had refused his assent. To my surprise Daniels never seemed to resent such action and the two remained the best of friends all their lives, but it was an embarrassing state of affairs…