Friday, February 15, 2019

“A Very Sad Thing”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919)
From Theodore Roosevelt: Letters & Speeches

Left to right: Quentin, President Roosevelt, Ted, Archie, Alice, Kermit, First Lady Edith, and Ethel, July 12, 1903, at their summer home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, New York. Hand-colored photograph by the Pach Brothers studio. From the New York Public Library, Prints and Photographs division.
On July 14, 1918, twenty-year-old Army pilot Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, was shot down over France—the only child of a U.S. president ever to be killed in combat. By July 16 the Roosevelt family began hearing rumors: that something about Quentin’s mission had gone awry, that he and his fellow fighters had been captured behind enemy lines, that he was missing in action. On July 18 the death was reported in the press, and the Roosevelts received official confirmation on the 20th.

Quentin’s death was a blow to Roosevelt, who had prominently advocated against American neutrality, had harshly criticized President Woodrow Wilson’s hesitation to declare war, and had very much encouraged his sons to join the war effort. In April 1917, days after the American declaration of war, Roosevelt met with Wilson and requested permission to raise a volunteer division to fight in France—an offer the administration turned down. In his stead, all four of Roosevelt’s sons enlisted within a few months. “We looked at it as an exclusive war,” Archie Roosevelt told historian Henry Berry sixty years later. “We all knew how badly Dad wanted to go, so we went for him. He always told us to lead meant to serve.”

Theodore Jr. (Ted) and Archie were commissioned as officers and sailed to France to serve with the 1st Infantry Division, Quentin arrived in late July, and Kermit joined the British forces fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia and later served as an artillery officer in France. The following March Archie was seriously wounded in the knee and arm by shell fragments. Months later, just days after Quentin was killed, Ted was wounded in the leg.

“To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death, has a pretty serious side for a father,” Roosevelt wrote to one of Quentin’s friends, “and at the same time I would not have cared for my boys and they would not have cared for me if our relations had not been just along that line.” The former president died six months after his son, on January 6, 1919. Shortly before his death a French journalist asked Roosevelt if he had anything to say now that the war was over. "I have no message for France,” he answered. “I have already given her the best I had.”

The three surviving sons would go on to serve in the armed forces during World War II. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the only general to land with the first wave of troops on D-Day, leading an infantry regiment and tank battalion at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. He died of a heart attack a month later. As a lieutenant colonel, Archie led an infantry regiment in New Guinea, where he was severely wounded by a grenade in the same knee that had been hit in 1918. Kermit fought with the British in Norway, where he was injured during the Battle of Narvik, and was reassigned to North Africa. Suffering from a years-long battle with depression and alcoholism, he was discharged and was eventually given a U.S. Army post as an intelligence officer in Alaska. He shot and killed himself in June 1943.

For our Story of the Week selection, we present four letters Theodore Roosevelt wrote in the weeks following the death of his son: to King George V of England, to French premier Georges Clemenceau, to former British ambassador to the U.S. James Bryce (a correspondent of Roosevelt’s for nearly thirty years), and to Kermit’s wife, Belle Willard Roosevelt.

Notes: In his letter to King George, Roosevelt sends his regards to King Haakon VII of Norway, formerly Prince Carl of Denmark, who had married George’s sister (and Haakon’s first cousin) Maud of Wales in 1896. They became king and queen of Norway in 1905. Six days before Roosevelt wrote this letter, the Bolsheviks executed Russian czar Nicholas II and his family. Roosevelt also discusses two German documents that had recently been published in the American press. The first was a forgery, allegedly written by German steel manufacturer August Thyssen, describing how in 1912 the Kaiser had planned a war of global conquest. The second, a memorandum by Karl von Lichnowsky, was authentic. The German ambassador to Britain from 1912 to 1914, Lichnowsky reflected on the mistakes of German policy and acknowledged German responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914.

The letter to James Bryce includes a quote (“proved their truth by their endeavor”) that appears frequently in Roosevelt’s writings and speeches. The original is a line from the frequently anthologized “Dirge for a Soldier, in Memory of General Philip Kearny” (1864) by American poet George Henry Boker: “As man may, he fought his fight, / Proved his truth by his endeavour; / Let him sleep in solemn night, / Sleep forever and forever.”

The letters to Bryce and Belle Willard Roosevelt were sent from the Maine home of Edith Roosevelt Derby, the Roosevelts’ daughter; she and her husband had two children, Richard and Edie. Belle, Kermit’s wife, was the daughter of Joseph Edward Willard, the U.S. ambassador to Spain. By 1918 they had two children: Kermit Jr. (Kim) and Joseph Willard. Flora was Quentin Roosevelt’s fiancée. Eleanor Alexander Roosevelt, the wife of Theodore Jr., was a volunteer in Paris with the YMCA and was thus able to attend to her husband while he was recovering from his injuries.

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