FDR Sees the Elephant

By Joseph E. Persico
8/1/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt met with kings and presidents, toured the front, fired an artillery piece and declared to all that he had seen the face of war.

He belonged in uniform. His country was at war. He was thirty-six years old and bursting with vitality. Before going to work in the morning at the Navy Department, he often played a round of golf. On weekends, he rarely got in less than thirty-six holes. During the week he worked out with Walter Camp, the football coach and fitness enthusiast.

Lathrop Brown, his Harvard roommate, was serving in the new tank corps. Harry Hooker, his former law partner, was now Major Hooker, on the staff of the 53rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces. Another law partner and Harvard pal, Langdon Marvin, was driving an ambulance in France with the Red Cross. His four distant cousins, Archibald, Kermit, Theodore Jr., and Quentin, sons of Franklin’s idol, former President Theodore Roosevelt, had all enlisted. The exploits of T.R.’s boys filled newspapers, arousing in Franklin competing emotions of pride and envy. Even his nearsighted brother-in-law, Hall Roosevelt, had volunteered.

On the very day that war had been declared, April 6, 1917, the Roosevelt clan gathered at the home of T.R.’s married daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. There the former commander in chief seized Franklin by the shoulders, fixed him with his myopic gaze, and pleaded with him to resign as assistant secretary of the navy. “You must get into uniform at once,” T.R. urged. “You must get in.”

Franklin was all too willing. Patriotism was the main reason, but politics intruded as well. Franklin’s chief, navy secretary Josephus Daniels, easily detected the parallels between the two Roosevelts: “…Theodore left the position of assistant secretary to become a Rough Rider, later Governor of New York and then President, and both had served in the legislature of New York,” Daniels noted. “Franklin actually thought fighting in the War was the necessary step toward reaching the White House.”

Franklin’s mother, Sara, had recently written her son, “The papers say buttons and pictures of you are being prepared to run for Governor.” Nevertheless, Franklin preferred to take T.R.’s route, military service first.

Theodore Roosevelt, now fifty-nine, blind in one eye, partially deaf, his body wracked by punishing expeditions into the disease-infested Brazilian jungle, was itching to answer his country’s call again. He hoped to raise a volunteer division just as he had raised a regiment in the earlier war. He pleaded with Franklin to get him an appointment with President Woodrow Wilson.

This request could prove ticklish. Ever since Wilson had beaten the former president, running as a third-party candidate, in the 1912 presidential election, T.R. had been lambasting the winner for everything from woolly-headedness to cowardice for not getting America into the European war sooner. Nevertheless, the day after the Roosevelt gathering at cousin Alice’s house, Franklin did go to the secretary of war, Newton Baker, and persuade him to intervene on T.R.’s behalf. Wilson would later say of meeting with his old foe, “I was charmed by his personality…you can’t resist the man.” Evidently, he was able to resist, since he told Baker afterward, “I really think the best way to treat Mr. Roosevelt is to take no notice of him.”

Theodore Roosevelt was baffled by Wilson’s failure to seize upon his heartfelt offer. As he left the White House with Wilson’s confidant, Colonel Edwin M. House, he complained, “I don’t understand. After all, I’m only asking to be allowed to die,” to which Colonel House reportedly responded, “Oh, did you make that point quite clear to the president?”

Uncle Ted had not made it back into uniform himself, but his admonition still echoed in Franklin’s ear: “I should be ashamed of my sons if they shirked war.” After Theodore Roosevelt’s White House visit, Franklin did submit his resignation as assistant secretary, in order to enlist. But when the letter landed on Wilson’s desk, the president rejected what he considered military romanticism. He told Secretary Daniels to inform his subordinate that he was no different from any draftee. “Neither you nor I nor Franklin Roosevelt has the right to select the place of service,” he warned. “Tell the young man…to stay where he is.”

Unfazed, Roosevelt next went to Wilson personally, only to be turned down again. The rejection, nevertheless, did illuminate Roosevelt’s rising star. Wilson’s former army chief of staff, General Leonard Wood, observed that “Franklin Roosevelt should under no circumstances think of leaving the Navy Department; that would amount to a public calamity.” The real power in the U.S. Navy, Wood believed, was not Secretary Daniels but his aggressive deputy.

As the country entered its fifteenth month of the war, a still-frustrated Franklin managed to wrangle an assignment that lifted him, if not exactly to combatant status, at least to something more than a desk-bound civilian. He urged Secretary Daniels to allow him to go to Europe “to look into our Naval administration in order to work more closely with the other services.”

The essentially pacifist Daniels felt no necessity to witness the bloodletting firsthand and eventually yielded to Franklin’s ceaseless importuning, even allowing his assistant to write his own orders, essentially a blank check to pursue “such other purposes as may be deemed expedient upon your arrival.” Franklin confided to his wife that he had been promised a commission as a navy lieutenant commander upon his return.

Before leaving, he sent President Wilson a letter saying he hoped the speculation about his running for governor of New York would end. He was not going to “give up war work for what is frankly very much a local political job in these times.”

That summer of 1918, as the day of his departure approached, his behavior began taking on an air of mystery. He told Eleanor only that he must leave her alone with their five children, but could not disclose where or for how long. She was not to see him off, since the mission was secret. “Don’t tell a soul,” he warned her, “not even Mama.”

Franklin had one more goodbye to make before he left, one unknown to Eleanor, and one that moved him to mixed longing and pride. Meeting secretly, he and a beautiful woman made impassioned promises of letters to be exchanged, how this was to be safely carried out during his absence, and what needed to be resolved on his return, for Franklin Roosevelt was in love.

He sailed for Europe from the Washington Navy Yard on July 9, 1918, aboard the destroyer USS Dyer, rushed into service just eight days before and heading into the war zone without benefit of sea trials. Despite his position, he told his wife that he had requested no ceremonies. Once aboard ship, Franklin started a diary, the basis for a book he intended to write, an intention that showed through in the grandiloquence of his first entry: “The good old ocean is so absolutely normal just as it always has been, sometimes tumbling about and throwing spray, sometimes gently lolling about…but now though the ocean looks much unchanged the doubled number of lookouts shows that even here the hand of the Hun False God is reaching out to defy nature; ten miles ahead of this floating City of Souls a torpedo may be waiting to start on its quick run….”

Dyer joined a troop convoy delivering another twenty thousand doughboys to the more than one million already in France. It was “a wonderful sight,” Franklin noted in the diary, “five monsters in the half light…it thrills to think that right there another division is on the way to the front.” Every element of danger quickened his sense that at last he was in the war. He was thrilled when Dyer zigzagged to thwart marauding U-boats, “9 different course changes” in an hour; when he learned that “only 15 or 16 of the crew” had ever been in the war zone; and when he was assigned his “abandon ship” station, Whaleboat No. 2, should the worst happen.

He was gone just over ten weeks. Looking back, he counted the mission a brilliant success. He had met personally with all the Allied leaders, including the fiery British prime minister, David Lloyd George, whom Franklin was delighted to find “is just like his pictures.” Even more impressive to Roosevelt, with his weakness for royalty, was his private audience at Buckingham Palace with King George V. Franklin recorded in his diary that the king had given him forty minutes alone and seemed genuinely impressed that his American visitor had crossed the Atlantic on a warship.

“His one regret,” the king told him, “was that it had been impossible for him to do active naval service during the war…,” perhaps reflecting Franklin’s own disappointment. The king then confided that though he had blood relatives in Germany, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm II, “in all my life I have never seen a German gentleman.”

Franklin had next gone on to France, where he was again welcomed at the summit, meeting French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier Georges Clemenceau. “I was in the presence of the greatest civilian in France,” he wrote in his diary of Clemenceau. “He almost ran forward to meet me and shook hands as if he meant it.”

The seventy-six-year-old premier, known as “The Tiger,” related to Roosevelt a thrilling account of his recent visit to the front where a French and German soldier were found “trying to bite each other to death when a shell had killed them both,” their upright bodies still clinched. “And as he told me this,” Roosevelt recalled, “he grabbed me by both shoulders and shook me with a grip of steel.…”

Before the mission was over, Roosevelt had met with Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, de facto commander in chief of all Allied forces; Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the leader of the British army; General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces; and Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando—everyone who was anyone in the war. At each stop, he checked eagerly with the army postal service and the American embassy’s diplomatic pouch for letters from his wife, his mother, and his secret passion.

Though he savored his reception at the top, for Roosevelt, these moments paled alongside what had been the real objective of the trip. Before it was over, he could claim, with enough justification to satisfy his ego, that he had seen the face of war. His military escort, the American naval attaché in Paris, Captain R.H. Jackson, had interpreted his orders as making sure that Assistant Secretary Roosevelt came through this journey with his hide intact. As Roosevelt wrote Eleanor, Jackson’s “plans called for easy trips and plenty of bombed houses thirty miles or so behind the front.” He brushed Jackson aside and “from now on for four days I ran the trip,” he boasted.

Wearing vaguely military dress of his own invention—khaki pants tucked into leather puttees, a gray knee-length coat, a French army helmet and a gas mask looped around his neck—he arrived at Verdun, where the previous year the French and Germans had bled each other white with losses totaling 696,000 men. He was standing at an angle in a road, snapping pictures of a devastated village, when an officer raced out and yanked him to safety just as “the long whining whistle of a shell was followed by the dull boom and a puff of smoke of the explosion at the Dead Man’s Corner we had just left.” He added in the diary, “It is indeed quite evident that we are on the battlefield.”

He was briefly embarrassed at another village where a great bang of artillery sent him diving for cover. A well-concealed American battery was firing into the German lines. The artillerymen howled with laughter as Roosevelt rose and dusted himself off. His equanimity quickly recovered, he strode over and greeted the doughboys with hearty handshakes. As they reloaded, they allowed him to pull the gun’s lanyard, propelling a shell toward the German lines. Years later, retelling this experience, he would say, “I will never know how many, if any, Huns I killed.”

Roosevelt did eventually witness death and destruction. In Belleau Wood, site of the first full-scale battle involving the U.S. Marine Corps on European soil and so of obvious interest to the assistant secretary of the navy, he slogged through oozing mud, weaving his way around waterlogged hellholes. There he came upon “discarded overcoats, rain-stained love letters…and many little mounds, some wholly unmarked, some with a rifle stuck, bayonet down, in the earth, some with a helmet, and some too with a whittled cross with a tag of wood or wrapping paper hung over it and in a pencil scrawl an American name.”

The sight of these marine graves especially moved Roosevelt since the corps was under the Navy Department. He asked an officer to show him a list of the latest casualties among “my marines,” which revealed 760 killed and three times as many wounded. The sight of German dead moved him not at all. Near Rheims he came upon a stack of unburied enemy corpses and found the stench an offense to “our sensitive naval nostrils.”

Before leaving the war zone, Roosevelt authorized the marines to wear the corps insignia on their collars, although as they were temporarily attached to the 2nd Division, they were then under army command. He did so without consulting Washington. How else, he told friends, could he get anything done? When, during the mission, he met a Harvard acquaintance, Robert Dunn, who asked, “How’s the job and Josephus?” referring to Franklin’s chief, Roosevelt answered, “Gosh, you don’t know, Bobby, what I have to bear under that man.”

Back in Paris, he stopped to visit his Roosevelt kin in a house near the Arc de Triomphe. There he found two of Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Archie and Ted Jr., recuperating from serious wounds. Another brother, Kermit, had volunteered for a machine gun unit. He “will at no very distant time share the fate of his brothers,” T.R. had written.

The younger Roosevelts spoke somberly but proudly of Quentin, the youngest brother. On July 14, Bastille Day, when Franklin Roosevelt was still aboard Dyer, Quentin had died while flying his French Nieuport 28 behind German lines near Château Thierry, where a Fokker D.VII shot him out of the sky. Theodore Roosevelt put up a brave front, but a friend, Hermann Hagedorn, observed that after the death of his son in a war he had so vigorously supported, “the boy in him had died.” Even so, the effect of these calamities on his cousins only sharpened Franklin Roosevelt’s eagerness to get into uniform.

He ended his European adventure in a frenzy of activity, fearful that he might miss something. He began a marathon inspection of airfields and navy bases from the Spanish border to Brest. He slept on the floor of a barn, his slumber broken by an artillery bombardment and two air raids, followed by lunch the next day with King Albert of Belgium. Then it was up to Scotland’s Firth of Forth to inspect the British Grand Fleet and a squadron of American battleships, and to ride in a navy dirigible.

He wrote Eleanor of his “frightfully busy week on the road each day from 6 am to midnight.” Most gratifying, back in France, he was able to see a tactic of his own invention come to life. American battleships carried fourteen-inch guns that could hurl a shell twenty-five miles. Why not place such guns on railroad flatcars, Roosevelt had suggested, and have them blast deeply deployed German fortifications? He inspected, with ill-concealed pride, the first rail-borne guns headed for the front, with large white letters painted on the side reading “U.S.N.”

His mission had followed his patented formula: work hard, play hard. Captain Edward McCauley wrote his wife, “…it didn’t seem to matter to [Roosevelt] what he ate, where or when he slept or if he ever got a bath.”

To facilitate playing hard, Franklin had brought a friend with him to Europe. Livingston Davis was a pedigreed but not necessarily proper Bostonian, whom Roosevelt had made his special assistant. Eleanor Roosevelt found the rakish, hard-drinking, womanizing Davis a thoroughly bad influence on her husband—which was precisely his appeal to Franklin. Roosevelt called him “Livy,” and Davis called Franklin “Rosey” or “Old Top.”

Livy had official duties, but it was at night that his true value to Roosevelt shone. After inspecting the battleships in Scotland, the two pals had gone into town, drinking like the sailors serving under them. They spent the night singing raucously and consuming copious drafts of “sublime scotch,” as Livy put it. In London they went to a music hall to see a show called “The Good Humoured Ladies,” then to the American Officers Club, followed by a pub crawl to their hotel. “Everybody got drunk,” Livy recorded in his diary. He and Roosevelt finally turned in at 4:30 A.M., only to be “up at 7 to pack, all feeling pretty rocky.”

The punishing pace of work and play left Franklin with a fever for the last two weeks of the trip, rising at one point to 102 degrees. Still he refused to slow down.

As the mission ended, there was no doubt in his mind that, in the old Civil War metaphor for battle, he had “seen the elephant.” After the war, when the Groton School raised a memorial to its sons who had served, Roosevelt was miffed that his name had been omitted and wrote that he should be included. “I saw service on the other side, was missed by torpedoes and shells and had actual command,” he insisted. It was quintessential Roosevelt, not quite dishonest but an improvement on the truth that he persuaded himself was fact.

On September 8, 1918, he boarded the world’s largest ship, SS Leviathan, a thousand-foot-long, smoke-belching behemoth, formerly Vaterland, that had been in New York Harbor at the outbreak of World War I and had been confiscated from the Germans. He carried with him a leather valise he had packed with clothes, his shaving kit, and medicines. In one corner, he wedged a thick packet of letters bound with a velvet ribbon. He anticipated a hero’s welcome from a dutiful wife, a doting mother, and the woman he loved. It was not to be.

It was as if his abused body had finally given him permission to collapse the moment he reached his bunk. A ship’s doctor diagnosed him with double pneumonia and possibly influenza, the latter disease just then beginning its worldwide pandemic. As he lay prostrate in his stateroom, other victims of the flu, men who had survived the perils of the trenches and were now going home, were dying instead and being buried at sea.

Meanwhile at the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York, Eleanor received an alarming phone call from Elliot Brown, a socially prominent builder, whom Franklin had lured into the navy with a commander’s commission. Brown was calling to advise Eleanor that when the ship docked in New York on September 19, she should be prepared to meet it with a doctor and an ambulance. By now, the flu epidemic was raging. More than 1,350 New Yorkers would succumb to the disease in a single day. Draft calls were being postponed to hold down the contagion.

Livy Davis, who had arrived earlier on another vessel, Great Northern, boarded Leviathan and recorded in his diary, “Saw F.D. for the first time. Looked rotten.” Eleanor, with Franklin’s mother, took the train to New York, where she enlisted a family physician, Dr. George H. Draper, to accompany her to the ship. She tracked down her husband’s stateroom and directed four navy orderlies to lift Roosevelt onto a stretcher and carry him down the gangway into the waiting ambulance.

The Roosevelts had a townhouse at 45 East 65th Street, a wedding gift from Franklin’s mother and adjacent to her twin townhouse. The couple’s home was currently rented, and so, to Eleanor’s disappointment and his mother’s satisfaction, the sailors carried Franklin to a guest bedroom on Sara’s side. While her husband was put to bed, a distraught Eleanor tried to be helpful by unpacking his luggage. Her hand fell upon the packet of letters tied with the velvet ribbon, faintly scented, and addressed to Franklin in a familiar hand.

An uneasy curiosity overcame her ingrained good breeding and she opened the first letter. What she read struck her like a body blow. Every succeeding letter hammered home what was unmistakable. Her husband was involved in a love affair. The letters were signed by Lucy Mercer, the young woman she had for a time employed as her social secretary, and made part of her family. As she later described the moment, “The bottom dropped out of my particular world.”

As for the mission to Europe, prior to this fiasco, Franklin Roosevelt, never one to underplay his role on any stage, wrote a friend, Major Frederick Huidekoper, “I have really had a great opportunity to get a birds-eye view of the whole situation, Army, Navy and political, than any other American who has come over.”


From Franklin and Lucy, by Joseph Persico. ©2008 by Joseph Persico. Published by arrangement with Random House, Inc.

Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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