History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt and the Round-Robin Letter Incident

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iHeartRadio

Theodore Roosevelt has been in the news lately—not the president, but the ship named for him.

There’s no question that the novel coronavirus has radically changed the lives of millions of people around the globe. As medical professionals fight to save lives in overcrowded hospitals, and as delivery people and grocery store employees head to work every day to make sure we have the supplies we need, many non-essential workers have stopped going into their offices and are instead working from home to try to slow the spread of the virus. I’m recording this episode of the podcast in my closet, because clothes muffle echo, so if things sound a little different or weird, that's why.

Even Navy ships have felt the effects of the virus, perhaps none more so than the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was launched in 1984. The ship was at sea in the Pacific Ocean with more than 4000 crewmembers on board when COVID-19 began to appear among the sailors. After the outbreak started, the ship was docked in Guam, but the disease continued to spread.

Alarmed by the situation, the ship’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, wrote a letter to senior military officials. He pointed out that, in the cramped conditions of a Navy ship, social distancing and 14-day quarantines were not possible, which meant, Crozier wrote, that “the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.”

He asked that the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s crewmembers be allowed to disembark in Guam due to the rapidly deteriorating situation, writing, “Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. ... This is a necessary risk. Keeping over 4000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”

He ended by writing, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset—our Sailors.”

The letter, which Crozier emailed to senior military officials, was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle and published on March 31. Then-acting secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly removed Crozier from command on April 2. As Crozier disembarked the aircraft carrier, sailors cheered him from the decks.

Captain Crozier—who has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19—was forced out because, according to The New York Times, Modly “had lost confidence in Crozier’s ability to command the ship effectively as it dealt with the evolving crisis after Crozier sent the letter on an unclassified email system to 20 to 30 people, [which] Modly said caused unnecessary alarm about the operational readiness of the ship and undermined the chain of command.”

After Crozier’s removal, Modly went to the USS Theodore Roosevelt to assess the situation, where he made disparaging remarks about Crozier which were leaked to the public. Under public pressure, Modly resigned on April 7.

The actions of Crozier, Modly, and the Navy are obviously being hotly debated, and there will probably be more developments between when I record this episode and when it goes out.

I’m not an expert in the Navy, or in the military chain of command, so it doesn’t feel appropriate for me to dig into any of that here. But the current news does give me the opportunity to discuss an interesting historical precedent for this situation—one that involved Theodore Roosevelt himself. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to look at the round-robin letter incident of the Spanish-American War.

During and after the Siege of Santiago, one of the last major operations of the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops stationed in Santiago de Cuba were beset by malaria and yellow fever. Thousands of men were sick and dying, but the McKinley administration planned to keep the troops in Cuba until peace talks were over—and until they were healthy. According to some sources, there was a real fear that sick soldiers would come back to the states and start a yellow fever epidemic.

But the situation was growing untenable, and near the end of July, General William Shafter, commander of the Fifth Corps, gathered all of his commanders to discuss it. Roosevelt later recalled in his autobiography that “Although I had command of a brigade, I was only a colonel, and so I did not intend to attend, but the General informed me that I was particularly wanted, and accordingly I went.”

As Edmund Morris wrote in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, “All agreed that it was critical, and that the War Department’s apparent unwillingness to evacuate the Army was inexcusable. Somebody must write a formal letter stating that in the unanimous opinion of the Fifth Corps staff, a further stay in Cuba would be to the ‘absolute and objectless ruin’ of the fighting forces.”

None of the regular officers wanted to risk his career by writing such a letter, and suddenly, the reason Roosevelt’s presence had been requested became clear. He was a volunteer who had quit his post as assistant secretary of the Navy in order to fight, and he intended to go right back to being a civilian after the war. He had much less to lose by offending his former boss, President William McKinley, and McKinley’s secretary of war, Russell Alger. “To incur the hostility of the War Department would not make any difference to me, whereas it would be destructive to the men in the regular army,” Roosevelt later wrote. “I thought this true, and said I would write a letter or make a statement which could then be published.”

Theodore Roosevelt obviously wasn’t afraid to speak up—Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t afraid of anything, except inaction. As Alfred Henry Lewis would write of Roosevelt in 1910, “Mr. Roosevelt has often shown that it is better to do the wrong thing than do nothing at all. ...The best thing is to do the right thing; the next best is to do the wrong thing; [and] the worst thing of all things is to stand perfectly still.”

We’ll be right back.

 

In an effort to spur the McKinley administration to action, and bring American troops back to the states before they were decimated by yellow fever, a plan was hatched.

Roosevelt would write an initial letter addressed to the general, which would then be followed by a “round-robin” letter—a method typically used to conceal the identity of the ringleaders of a movement—which would be signed by Roosevelt and the other commanders.

Then they would leak those letters to the press.

In his letter, Roosevelt wrote that “To keep us here, in the opinion of every officer commanding a division or a brigade, will simply involve the destruction of thousands. There is no possible reason for not shipping practically the entire command North at once. … All of us are certain that as soon as the authorities at Washington fully appreciate the condition of the army, we shall be sent home.”

Roosevelt noted that, in the cavalry division at least, there were no true cases of yellow fever, but there were 1500 cases of malarial fever. “Hardly a man has yet died from it,” he wrote, “but the whole command is so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep, when a real yellow-fever epidemic instead of a fake epidemic, like the present one, strikes us, as it is bound to do if we stay here at the height of the sickness season, August and the beginning of September. Quarantine against [the] malarial fever is much like quarantining against the toothache. … If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die.”

The men were unable to penetrate into the interior, and moving them around the island, Roosevelt said, only sickened them further. To delay sending the men home was “not only terrible from the standpoint of the individual lives lost,” Roosevelt wrote, “but it means ruin from the standpoint of military efficiency of the flower of the American army, for the great bulk of the regulars are here with you.”

He closed by saying that “I write only because I cannot see our men, who have fought so bravely and who have endured extreme hardship and danger so uncomplainingly, go to destruction without striving so far as lies in me to avert a doom as fearful as it is unnecessary and undeserved.”

Roosevelt’s fellow commanders then signed their letter, which noted that they were all in agreement that the army “must be moved at once, or perish,” adding, “As the army can be safely moved now, the persons responsible for preventing such a move will be responsible for the unnecessary loss of many thousands of lives. Our opinions are the result of careful personal observation, and they are also based on the unanimous opinion of our medical officers with the army, who understand the situation absolutely.”

There are differing accounts of what happened next, but according to Roosevelt, he wrote his letter, and an Associated Press reporter tagged along when he went to give it to General Shafter … who promptly pushed it into the hands of the reporter. As Roosevelt later recalled, “I presented the letter to General Shafter, who waved it away and said: ‘I don't want to take it; do whatever you wish with it.’ I, however, insisted on handing it to him, whereupon he shoved it toward the correspondent of the Associated Press, who took hold of it, and I released my hold.”

Something similar happened with the round-robin, and when the letters hit the press, they caused a sensation.

The McKinley administration was incensed by the letters. According to historian Lewis L. Gould, the day after the letters were published, McKinley wrote a letter to Shafter that denounced the round robin as “most unfortunate from every point of view,” adding, “The publication of the letter makes the situation one of great difficulty. No soldier reading that report if ordered to [go to] Santiago but will feel that he is marching to certain death.” According to Morris, some within the administration even suggested court-martialing Roosevelt for his letter.

The administration had reason to be irritated. On August 3, the day before the round-robin hit the press, Alger had issued an order for the Army to be moved back to the U.S.—which meant that many newspapers printed Roosevelt’s letter right next to an announcement that troops were being brought back. To the public, it looked as though Roosevelt’s letter and the round-robin had forced the McKinley administration to act, which wasn’t the case.

By August 7, the first troops were heading back to the states to quarantine in Montauk on Long Island in New York.

Nothing ever came of the suggestion to court martial Roosevelt. Instead, Secretary Alger published a private letter in which TR bragged about the Rough Riders’ performance, saying they were “as good as any regulars, and three times as good as any State troops.”

While Alger might have hoped the letter would threaten TR’s chances at getting the governorship of New York, his tactic failed. Roosevelt returned a war hero. He became governor, and then vice president, and then president. He didn’t, however, get one thing he desperately wanted: the Medal of Honor.

Though some believe he was denied the honor because of the publicity stunt he had pulled, as Mitchell Yockelson writes for the National Archives’ Prologue magazine, there’s no evidence for this. “Exactly why the Brevet Board denied Roosevelt the award is not officially documented,” Yockelson writes. “Certainly no evidence exists to support the contention that Alger held a grudge over the Round Robin affair or Roosevelt's testimony to the congressional committee. On the contrary, letters from the War Department to Roosevelt indicate that they were more than willing to assist him in getting the Medal of Honor. One can only assume that the Brevet Board came to the conclusion that, though Roosevelt's conduct in Cuba was quite admirable, it was not worthy of a Medal of Honor.”

Later, Roosevelt would write that “I was recommended for it by my superior officers in the Santiago campaign, but I was not awarded it; and frankly, looking back at it now, I feel that the board which declined to award it took exactly the right position.” Around a century after his experiences in Cuba, TR would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Back to the present day. We’ve talked before on this podcast about how it’s impossible to know how TR would have reacted to situations today. In this case, however, one of Roosevelt’s descendants has a different opinion.

In a piece for The New York Times, Tweed Roosevelt—TR’s great-grandson, and chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Institute at Long Island University—wrote about Captain Crozier and the situation on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. “As a descendant of the namesake of Captain Crozier’s former command, I often wonder, in situations like this, what Theodore Roosevelt would have done,” Tweed Roosevelt wrote. “In this case, though, I know exactly what he would have done. In 1898, he found himself in almost the exact same position. … In this era when so many seem to place expediency over honor, it is heartening that so many others are showing great courage, some even risking their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, in his time, chose the honorable course. Captain Crozier has done the same.”

Before we go, I want to say a huge thank you to the medical professionals and the essential workers who are out there risking their lives for us. And to all of the History Vs. listeners: I hope you’re well, and safe, and healthy. Please hang in there.

We’ll be back soon with another bonus episode of History Vs.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante. If you want to find out more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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Apple

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History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt and the Perdicaris Affair

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iHeartRadio

The villa on the hill of Djebal Kebir, to the west of Tangier in Morocco, looks more like a palace than a home. Built in the Spanish style, it has white-clad stone walls, and turrets, and looks over the Strait of Gibraltar. The inside is resplendent: Rooms overflow with fine art, pristine porcelains, damasks, and Oriental rugs. There are many, many servants, and a menagerie of animals roam the grounds and the halls, among them dogs, cranes, pheasants, and two monkeys that jump into the owners’ laps and eat orange blossoms from their hands.

The villa is known as Aidonia, or the Place of Nightingales. It’s May 18, 1904, and inside the villa, 64-year-old globetrotter Ion Perdicaris, along with his wife, Ellen Varley, and her son, Cromwell, are sitting down to dinner, attended to by a servant in knee-length scarlet pants and a jacket embroidered with gold.

Ion is the son of Gregory Perdicaris, a Greek-American who made his fortune in the gas industry, and he has reaped the benefits of his family’s immense wealth by buying residences all around the world before he built the Place of Nightingales in 1877. Tonight, as every night, they dine lavishly, then retreat to the drawing room to relax—at least until the peace is shattered by the sound of screams coming from the servants’ quarters.

What happens next will soon become an international incident that garners the intervention of none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. In this bonus episode, we’ll take a look at how TR used his big stick diplomacy to make the most of an international incident in an election year. This episode is TR and the Perdicaris Affair.

When Ion and Cromwell sprint to source of the commotion, they come upon armed men standing in their home. The villa is under siege.

The bandits have given the butler a swift clubbing with their rifle butts, and Ion and Cromwell are bound and brought to meet the man in charge of this operation.

He introduces himself simply: “I am the Raisuli.”

Alternately described as a bandit, murderer, and folk hero, depending on who’s asking, the man known in English as Raisuli is a charismatic political idealist and insurgent, ruling over groups of bandits dedicated to disrupting the European influence in Morocco and waging war against the sultans who allowed it. And if you know Morocco—as Perdicaris does—you know his handiwork.

But bloodshed isn’t the motivator tonight. Raisuli has political demands he’ll soon reveal.

Ion, his stepson, and an attendant are whisked away on their own horses, leaving the staff and Mrs. Perdicaris to absorb what had just happened.

Word of the incident got out as it was happening—the phone lines to the villa had not been cut, and as Raisuli’s men tore through the Perdicaris home, one of the women of the house placed a call to the central office in Tangier alerting them to the attack and kidnapping. It wasn’t long before Samuel Gummere, the Consul General at Tangier, got involved. He became the point of contact between Mrs. Perdicaris and Washington.

The first cable from Morocco went straight to the State Department on May 19. Gummere described the situation as “most serious” and requested a Man-of-War—basically, the biggest battleship available.

The cable was received by Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis, who informed President Roosevelt. This was the era of “Big Stick” diplomacy, and Roosevelt ordered that seven warships head immediately to Tangier. But it wasn’t an act of war—it was more like an aggressive flex.

Days after the kidnapping, Raisuli contacted Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco with his demands to let Perdicaris and Varley free. He wanted political immunity for himself and his followers, the release of all political prisoners connected with his movement, the firing of a local official who had chained him years earlier, 70,000 Spanish silver dollars, and he wanted tax-free control over two of Morocco’s wealthiest districts.

The sheer extravagance of the demands, especially in exchange for the release of a foreigner like Perdicaris, was a non-starter for the sultan. When a messenger from the sultan informed Raisuli there would be no deal, Raisuli had one of his men slit the messenger’s throat.

By May 28, Roosevelt had finally read Raisuli’s demands, which Secretary of State John Hay described as “preposterous.” And while ships were on their way to speed up the talks, in reality, the men knew their hands were tied. The president couldn’t really force the sultan to accede to Raisuli’s outlandish list—he could only make strong suggestions. And he couldn’t just send troops into Morocco to retrieve Perdicaris by force—Gummere knew Raisuli would kill Ion and Varley long before they could reach him.

“I hope they may not murder Mr. Perdicaris, but a nation cannot degrade itself to prevent ill-treatment of a citizen,” Hay said.

Still, TR’s brand of pressure could be very persuasive, and early on the morning of May 30, the imposing USS Brooklyn was first seen near Tangier harbor. It would soon be joined by six other ships. Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris wrote that “some 30,000 tons of American gunmetal should soon persuade the sultan to start negotiating.”

Upon hearing the news of the arrival of American warships, Raisuli actually showed relief—with this type of pressure on the sultan, those “preposterous” demands were more likely to become a reality.

Once the fleet was settled in the harbor, Hay cabled Gummere:

“President wishes everything possible done to secure the release of Perdicaris. He wishes it clearly understood that if Perdicaris is murdered, this government will demand the life of the murderer.”

In America, the press and public were outraged at the situation and wanted action. Any crime against an American on foreign soil was seen as a crime against the country as a whole. For Roosevelt—a president both adored and criticized for his overt imperialist intentions—this was a prime opportunity to show the world what this so-called “American century” was all about.

As Barbara W. Tuchman wrote at American Heritage, “The president’s instant and energetic action on behalf of a single citizen fallen among thieves in a foreign land made Perdicaris a symbol of America’s new role on the world stage.”

The situation stretched into early June, and the number of countries involved kept growing. Now, a British warship, the Prince of Wales, had come to Tangier, and Hay had contacted the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to put more pressure on the sultan. France had been increasing its presence in Morocco, so this tactic carried plenty of weight.

Soon after, there seemed to be a breakthrough: The Moroccan government had apparently accepted all of Raisuli’s demands, outside of the ransom, which still needed to be “reasonably negotiated,” according to Morris.

But once Raisuli was close to getting what he asked for, he simply came back with more demands: He now wanted additional districts to control.

Secretary of State John Hay, clearly frustrated with Raisuli’s games, wrote to Roosevelt, “I feel that it would be most inexpedient to surrender to him. We have done what we can for Perdicaris.”

And something else was emerging at this time that may have weakened Hay’s already questionable enthusiasm for the whole episode: Evidence was mounting that Perdicaris might not actually be a U.S. citizen.

We’ll be right back.

 

In June 1904, with Ion Perdicaris and his stepson still being held hostage by Raisuli in Morocco, President Theodore Roosevelt was putting pressure on the sultan to acquiesce to the ransom demands to bring them back home.

But the president was about to learn that the man at the center of a potential international incident might not be a U.S. citizen at all.

This information first came to light on June 1, when Hay received a letter from a cotton broker named A.H. Slocomb who had read about the Moroccan crisis in the news. He claimed that he had met Perdicaris in Greece as the Civil War raged in America. Ion had apparently told Slocomb that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship for Greek citizenship during the war—likely in an effort to avoid being drafted by the Confederacy and have his property confiscated by the government.

Within days of the initial claims, Slocomb’s information was confirmed by Greek officials.

According to Morris, Hay sent the news to Roosevelt, who was apparently unaware of the initial whispers about Perdicaris’s citizenship … or lack thereof. Right away, everyone knew that the information simply couldn’t get out—the president had ordered American warships to Tangier, news of the kidnapping was filling newspapers, and even the French and British were involved in exerting pressure on the sultan to make a deal.

TR couldn’t just turn his back on the whole affair now—the political embarrassment would be terrible. It was also an election year, and quite frankly, backing down wasn’t an option.

As this crisis was unfolding, TR was dealing with the start of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. While TR was a no-brainer to secure the nomination, he still had plenty of enemies in his own party, and the last thing he needed was Perdicaris’s citizenship controversy coming out.

As Morris explains in Theodore Rex, Roosevelt chose to rationalize things. Since Raisuli had believed Perdicaris to be a U.S. citizen, he had, in Roosevelt’s mind, taken action against an American, whether it was technically true or not.

Hay recommended that the United States give Raisuli and the sultan one last warning before any real military action needed to be taken. Roosevelt agreed—despite these new findings, Roosevelt knew this was an issue of both pride and politics at this point.

It was up to Hay to write the ultimatum to the sultan, and it needed to be an aggressive one. The result was seven words that hit the exact right note:

“We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

Of course, there was more to the cable than just that one chilling warning. But that single sentence so perfectly captured the mood of the message that no one needed to read any further than that. TR, through the words of Hay, was dispatching a concise warning to the sultan, to Raisuli, and to anyone else who dared bring harm to an American citizen—even if they were only American in spirit.

As he prepared to send the wire to Gummere in Tangier, Hay read the draft to Edwin Hood, a news correspondent at the State Department, who loved it so much that he took a copy and sent it over the newswires right as Hay sent it to Morocco.

The warning soon made its way into the public, and it didn’t take long for Republican National Convention chairman Joseph Cannon to get a copy. At approximately 3 p.m. on June 22, he made his way near the convention stage, where Henry Cabot Lodge had just finished a vague spiel on the party’s stances on riveting topics like tariffs and the civil service.

Cannon took his copy of the cable and gave it to a clerk to read to the crowd. At the words “We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” the crowd went nuts.

Supporters stood on their chairs. The cheers were deafening. One Republican from Kansas exclaimed, “Our people like courage. We’ll stand for anything those two men do,” while another described it as “Good, hot stuff.”

The message showed action, it showed excitement, it showed that the American people had a president that meant business.

If it wasn’t already set in stone, it was now clear that Roosevelt’s nomination was secure—but over in Morocco, the cable was a moot point.

The sultan of Morocco had already agreed to Raisuli’s demands—paying a $70,000 ransom for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson. On top of that, an extra $4000 was sent to the U.S. for its expenses.

Perdicaris later wrote that “the memory of that evening is … associated with an ineffaceable sense of horror.” Still, he wasn’t terribly traumatized by the ordeal—in fact, he and Raisuli had struck up a friendship. Perdicaris would recall that he was treated more like an honored guest, rather than a prisoner. And upon parting, Raisuli told Ion that if anyone tried to harm him in the future, “I … will come with all [of] my men to your rescue.”

Later, the incident would serve as the basis for a movie starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen called The Wind and the Lion. Brian Keith, who you may know as the dad in The Parent Trap, played TR.

As for the truth behind Perdicaris’s Greek citizenship? It would remain a secret for another 30 years.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.