There is an old book (published 1916) on my bookshelf titled “Fear God and Take Your Own Part” by Theodore Roosevelt. TR was no longer president when he wrote the book, but he was alarmed at the pacifist policies followed by President Woodrow Wilson while England and France were fighting in the first years of World War I. In a prior post, I write on how one of his sons, after himself fighting in World War I, spoke out strongly against any involvement in a European war. You can see why: the total number of military and civilian casualties in that war were about 40 million: estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The U.S. eventually did participate in World War I, and lost over 53,000 dead and missing. But this book was written by TR before America got into the war.
In the First World War Germany attempted to blockade the British and French coastlines from not only French and British ships, but also from neutral ships. As in the second World War, Germany used submarines to torpedo ships, including American ships. But it was in a British ship that more than a hundred American citizens lost their lives: RMS Lusitania was an ocean liner and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. The ship was sunk on 7 May 1915 by a German U-boat 11 mi (18 km) off the southern coast of Ireland.
Two days after the Lusitania sank, TR made a speech, which is in an appendix of the book. Here are some paragraphs:
The day after the tragedy the newspapers reported in one column that in Queenstown there lay by the score the bodies of women and children, some of the dead women still clasping the bodies of the little children they held in their arms when death overwhelmed them. In another column they reported the glee expressed by the Berlin journals at this “great victory of German naval policy.”…
Blogger note: German Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz stated it was sad that many Americans “in wanton recklessness, and in spite of the warnings of our Ambassador, had embarked in this armed cruiser, heavily laden with munitions” and had died, but that Germany had been within her rights to sink the ship.
TR then says:
In the teeth of these things, we earn as a nation measureless scorn and contempt if we follow the lead of those who exalt peace above righteousness, if we heed the voices of those feeble folk who bleat to high heaven that there is peace when there is no peace. For many months our government has preserved between right and wrong a neutrality which would have excited the emulous admiration of Pontius Pilate-the arch-typical neutral of all time.
In that speech TR did not call for war, but added:
I do not believe that the firm assertion of our rights means war, but, in any event, it is well to remember there are things worse than war.
In the book, in a chapter about defense, he argues for universal military service, writing that
The poltroon and the professional pacifist are out of place in a democracy. The man fit for self-government must be fit to fight for self-government. Universal service means preparedness not for war but primarily against war….
Today we have a volunteer army, but TR did not like the concept back then:
People speak in praise of volunteers. I also praise the volunteer who volunteers to fight. But I do not praise the volunteer who volunteers to have somebody else fight in his place…
As for budgetary constraints:
The question of expense is of wholly secondary importance in a matter which may as well be of life or death significance to the nation. Five years hence it may be altogether too late to spend any money! We will do well at this time to adopt, which a slight modification, the motto popular among our forefathers a century ago: Millions for defense but not a cent for either tribute or aggression.
TR was dismayed that despite the war raging in Europe, the U.S. had not invested in preparedness.
For eighteen months, with this world-cyclone before our eyes, we as a nation have sat supine without preparing in any shape or way. It is an actual fact that there has not been one soldier, one rifle, one gun, one boat, added to the American Army or Navy so far, because of anything that has occurred in this war…such national folly is almost inconceivable…
American opinion did eventually swing toward war, because of the Zimmermann Telegram, which was a secret diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico. It proposed that in the event that the United States entered World War I against Germany, Mexico would recover Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence. Revelation of the contents enraged Americans, especially after German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann publicly admitted the telegram was genuine.
Could the U.S. have stayed out anyway? Even at that time, there was a slogan of “America First”. (Woodrow Wilson’s campaign slogan was: “ He kept us out of War, America First.”) After the war was over, there was a period of seeming peace, until the Nazis rose to power in Germany and conquered Europe and were bombing Britain, and even then, the slogan “America First” resonated among many, including TR’s son, Teddy Jr.. Some people still argue today that we should have stayed out of the First World War.
TR was not only a believer in defending Americans lives, he was also a believer in rescuing other peoples. He writes in frustration about the German invasion of neutral Belgium and also the Turkish massacre of the Armenians that “…this government has not raised its hand to do anything to help the people who were wronged or to antagonize the oppressors.”
In the case of Germany, there was also American self-interest, from TR’s point of view, since American lives being lost in the Atlantic, and American munitions factories were being dynamited – the arson and destruction was blamed by TR on German propaganda. He backs up his blame with several examples including this:
The Austrian Ambassador, Dr. Dumba, wrote to the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs: “We can disorganize and hold up, if not entirely prevent, the manufacture of munitions in Bethlehem and the Middle West.” …Three months after this was written, the threat was made good as regards Bethlehem, and the Germania Herald in Milwaukee expressed joy over the deed, saying on November 12th: “We rejoice from the depths of our heart over the destruction of these murderous machines.”
But the issues are still relevant today – the power of the U.S. is limited, and we can ask in what cases are we defending ourselves by also rescuing others, and in what cases is a pre-emptive war necessary for self-defense, and so forth. Should Woodrow Wilson have made war on Turkey to rescue the Christian Armenians? Would the U.S. today, in 2019, be better off if we had?
One argument of TR’s that I find hard to disagree with is on preparedness. In 2019 the oceans on our borders would not be any defense against a sudden attack by a high-tech enemy supplied with nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, and futuristic weapons such as swarms of drones controlled by Artificial Intelligence. There would be no time to prepare. And yet our 20 trillion dollar deficit and our huge expenses for social-services make preparedness very hard to achieve. Perhaps this is a weakness of all Democracies that will be fatal to us one day..