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Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
If I have made young F.D.R. seem a fire-eater, spoiling for a fight, I must point out that, while he condemned our failure to prepare for war long before we did, he always held that President Wilson was right to delay joining the Allies until public opinion demanded it. He cited it as a fine piece of timing—a consideration he held to be of greatest importance in all democratic processes. In fact, in those neutral days, Franklin was one of the mildest Roosevelts in town, quite overshadowed by strenuous Cousin Theodore and his beautiful daughter Alice, who was married to Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Despite the differences in political faith, young Franklin stood in some awe of his famous cousin; there was no doubt about how Colonel Roosevelt, as he best liked to be called, stood on the issue of intervention. I still recall vividly one day when Assistant Secretary Roosevelt and I were going over the mail and Louis Howe burst into the office, a strange gleam in his eye, to lay a calling card down on F.D.R.’s desk. It read “Colonel Roosevelt.” Franklin took one look at the card and sprang to his feet as though Howe had exploded a bomb. “What!” he exclaimed in alarm, and it was obvious he thought his belligerent cousin had come to the Navy Department to breathe fire at Wilsonism and demand some impetuous action.
Then the door opened and in strode—not Teddy—but Harry Roosevelt, still another cousin, with a grin on his face stretching from ear to ear. As the shouts of laughter and Howe’s guffaws subsided we learned that Harry, who was in fact a captain in the Marines, had become, albeit technically and briefly, a colonel in the Haitian Gendarmerie. He had cards printed up at once, purposely confusing him with Cousin Theodore, and in this guise was doing the town.*
* Harry Roosevelt himself later became assistant secretary of the Navy under F.D.R., and I suspect nominated me for my second tour as Naval Aide.
War came soon enough, although few will remember the unusual way in which word of the declaration was flashed to the Navy Department. It was common knowledge, of course, that the moment would come soon and, following the famous example of von Moltke, we had all the necessary instructions to the forces afloat prepared and ready for issue at a moment’s notice. Several hundred dispatches were coded and ready to go except for the addition of dates and times. Our offices in the old State, War and Navy Building overlooked the White House grounds. In readiness to signal us as soon as the President’s message requesting a declaration of war was approved by Congress, an officer was stationed in the President’s ante-room. The day came, and the hour. Tensely we watched through the windows the figure of Commander Byron McCandless. Suddenly he began to wave his white handkerchief up and down in our direction for the prearranged number of times. War was on! Our dispatches were sent on the instant, but never before, I imagine, has the customary token of surrender been used as a signal to start the fighting.
Orders for sea duty came to me in December, 1917: command of a destroyer out of Queenstown. Roosevelt too wanted to go to sea, and wanted it badly, taking his requests right up to President Wilson. But there was no hope for him; the assistant secretary had proved himself too valuable. He it was who had been primarily responsible for the yacht conversions, the subchaser building, the construction of new ship yards. Condemned to civilian life, Roosevelt nevertheless discovered one urgent matter after another which called him to the battle areas. There were European naval and air bases to be inspected personally; he had to visit our Marine forces fighting with the Army in France. And he had a pet project to oversee. At the time when the Germans threatened Paris with the famous Big Berthas, which outranged all Allied land artillery, Admiral “Cy” Plunkett, an ordnance enthusiast whom Roosevelt admired, insisted that we had high velocity naval guns which alone could match the Berthas. His argument was that, if we couldn’t take battleships to Paris, “by God, we could take the guns there on railroad cars!” And it was done, with flatcars and 14-inch naval guns. All obstacles were hurdled, including strong and, I suppose, well-founded Army opposition. Plunkett was a picturesque character, reminiscent in some ways of the late General George Patton, given to odd uniforms and plain speech. Young Roosevelt enjoyed twitting the determined, if land-locked old salt, and the quixotic audacity of two seafaring guns charging into the thick of Europe’s biggest war appealed to his always well-developed sense of the dramatic.
Although when Franklin Roosevelt accepted his naval asignment in 1913 he was a carefree, rather inexperienced young lawyer, when he left office in 1920 he was a veteran office-holder of the then greatest war in history.