image of Theodore Roosevelt, (c) Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library
return to Ford
Presidential Library and Museum
“It was my one chance.”The Republican Party nominated William McKinley for the 1896 Presidential election. As a true party man, TR took on the role of attack dog lambasting Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan across the country. McKinley won handily and Roosevelt hoped for a job in the new administration. But TR was seen as a rabble rouser by many in his party, including Senator Tom Platt, the political boss for New York. Platt saw an opportunity to dump his state’s rabble in McKinley’s lap. The reluctant President-elect fumed, “I hope he has no preconceived plans which he would wish to drive through the moment he got in.”
TR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a prominent yet weak position. Undaunted, TR threw his whole being into the new job, determined to make the Navy stronger and combat ready. He pressured his boss, John Davis Long, the Secretary of the Navy, and the President to exert the nation’s influence in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Meanwhile tensions between the United States and Spain were running high. Spain’s handling of rebellions in Cuba, indeed its presence alone so close to the U.S., strained relations with America. But when in 1898, a Navy ship, the USS Maine, sent to Cuba to protect American lives, blew up in Havana harbor, America was outraged. The public clamored for action as newspapers fanned the flames of war. Caught up in the frenzy, TR sprang into action, pressing for wartime legislation, putting all ships on alert, ordering fuel and ammunition, and positioning the fleet for combat. This flurry of activity prompted President McKinley to sarcastically ask his doctor, Leonard Wood (a war hawk), “Have you and Theodore declared war yet?” Wood replied, “No, Mr. President, but we think that you should.”
Roosevelt, acting in the absence of Secretary Long, ordered Commodore George Dewey’s fleet to prepare to attack the Spanish navy at Manila in the Philippines. Dewey was in position when Congress finally declared war and he sank the Spanish fleet.
With the war officially begun, TR resigned his office and along with Wood raised a cavalry unit to fight in Cuba. Mixing Ivy Leaguers with cowboys, the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry became known as the Rough Riders, led by Colonel Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt. TR thought this his “one chance” to bathe himself in the glory of war. Long’s response to his brash underling was no less calculating. “He is acting like a fool,” said the Secretary. “And, yet, how absurd all this will sound if, by some turn of fortune, he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark.” Long had no idea how prophetic those words were.
After intense training in San Antonio, Wood and TR lobbied hard to Washington for their unit to be one of the first to see action in Cuba. They got their wish, landing on the island in June 1898, though without their horses, victims to poor logistics. In the next few days, Roosevelt would lead his men through skirmishes, including “the great day of my life,” his charge up San Juan Hill. With disregard for himself, Roosevelt led his men through blistering, Spanish gun fire. True courage at the most celebrated battle of the Spanish-American War, along with some self-promotion, made TR the war’s biggest hero and a coveted political figure.