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Ambassadors To The Court Of Theodore Roosevelt
Personal friendships were important when T.R. was President. Ultimately, they had great effect on America’s foreign policies.
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
The friendships of the President of the United States inevitably have a significance far transcending those of an ordinary citizen. When these friendships are with members of the foreign diplomatic corps, the relationships may influence the course of world politics. Theodore Roosevelt’s likes and dislikes for particular ambassadors stationed at Washington during his presidency proved to be peculiarly important.
International relations were then at a critical stage, with the alliances that were destined to clash in 1914 already taking shape. The friendship of the United States alter its impressive show of strength in the Spanish-American War was regarded as a prize of great value. And, finally, the highly personal character of Roosevelt’s leadership invited attempts to win favor through the establishment of intimate contacts between the embassies and the White House.
On October 1, 1901, less than three weeks after the death of President William McKinley, his successor sent oft two letters to foreign addresses. To Cecil Spring Rice, serving as a British commissioner in Cairo, Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “fust a line to say how much I have thought of you. I do wish you could come over now and be my guest at the White House. Is there any chance of it?” And to Baron Hermann Speck von Sternberg, German consul at Calcutta, he wrote: “Just a line to say how much I wish you and your wife could come to America sometime during the next three and a half years. I am very fond of you, as you know, and I should so like to have both of you at the White House.”
Sternberg and Spring Rice were both old friends of the President. Spring Rice had introduced himself to Roosevelt in November, 1888, when the two men were aboard an Atlantic liner bound for England. So quickly did they take to each other that three weeks later Spring Rice served as best man at Roosevelt’s wedding. During the Harrison Administration Roosevelt, as Civil Service commissioner, and Spring Rice, as second secretary of the British legation, were both living in Washington. Almost exactly the same age, the two young men enjoyed a vigorous comradeship. They played tennis daily at the British legation and settled the affairs of the world in spirited conversation. Mrs. Roosevelt was as delighted with Spring Rice as was her husband.
While Roosevelt was Civil Service commissioner, he had also established a firm friendship with Huron Speck von Sternberg, then a secretary in the German legation. “Speck” was an old soldier with a record of heroism in the Franco-Prussian War. He was a crack rifle shot, an excellent horseman, and an indefatigable walker—which made him, in Roosevelt’s opinion, “quite a companion.” In 1891 Sternberg was at Oyster Bay, learning polo “with German solemnity and thoroughness.”
Close relationship with this German diplomat h:id an important influence on Roosevelt’s ideas about American foreign policy. Sternberg was a patriotic German with a deep affection for his emperor, William II. There is little doubt that Roosevelt thought better of the Kaiser because of his friendship for “Speck.” “What you say about the Kaiser is interesting,” he wrote to Sternberg in 1899. “He is far and away the greatest clowned head of the present day. He is a Monarch—a King in deed as well as in name, which some Kings are not. He is a fit successor to the Ottos, the Henrys, and the Fredericks of the past.”
The appraisal was significant, because the currents of American public opinion were running in the other direction. Following the Spanish-American War. England was enjoying an unwonted popularity in the United States, while Germany was regarded with dislike and suspicion. But Roosevelt dreamed of a different alignment of the powers. Soon alter his election to the vice presidency, he wrote to the Baron: “As you know, I have a very strong hope that Germany, England and the United States will more and more be able to act together.”
Roosevelt’s indulgence in high diplomacy while serving as Vice President was more amusing than important. But McKinley’s death dramatically changed the situation, and the new President’s attempts to get Sternberg and Spring Rice near him had great significance.
These maneuvers occurred at a critical moment in the history of international relations. The United States was a new force in world politics, and the European powers were eager to exert influence at Washington. Throughout the early months of Roosevelt’s presidency, both England and Germany made strenuous efforts to flatter and influence the new President.
Embarrassingly for Germany, the assassination of McKinley had occurred just as the German press was engaged in a campaign of denunciation of the American peril, using a recent speech of Vice President Roosevelt as a deplorable example of American jingoism. The Kaiser threw the machinery into reverse with a clash of gears. Before any of the other diplomats could act, the German charge called upon the President to deliver a personal message of felicitations from the Emperor. When Baron Theodor von Holleben, the regular German ambassador, returned to America shortly thereafter, he not only called at the White House but also expressed in a newspaper interview Germany’s good will toward the United States.