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

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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.


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.