Chapter 11 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Appointed First Assistant Secretary of the Navy—The Condition of Affairs in Cuba—Preparing for War—Theodore Roosevelt's Resolve

While Theodore Roosevelt was serving as Police Commissioner of the city of New York, William McKinley ran for the Presidency of the United States the first time and was elected.

The young commissioner was a firm upholder of McKinley, for he did not believe in "free silver" as it was called, but in "sound money," which meant that in the future, as in the past, all national indebtedness should be made payable in gold, instead of in gold and silver, as many desired.

As soon as the new President was inaugurated, March 4, 1897, he appointed Hon. John D. Long to be Secretary of the Navy. Mr. Long knew Theodore Roosevelt well, and also knew of the "History of the Naval War of 1812," which the energetic author and commissioner had written.

"He is just the man we need here," said Mr. Long to President McKinley. "He has made a study of the navy, and he is not afraid of work," and without further delay Theodore Roosevelt was asked to resign his position in the metropolis and come to Washington, where he was duly installed as First Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

In his new position, certainly a high one for such a young man to occupy, Mr. Roosevelt had much to do. As first assistant, nearly the whole responsibility of the real workings of the department fell upon his shoulders. He took up these responsibilities manfully, and how well he succeeded in the work, history has abundantly proved.

"It was Roosevelt's work that made Dewey's victory at Manila possible," one who knew of the inner workings of the department has said, and another has said that the victory off Santiago Bay was also due in part to Roosevelt's watchfulness over the ships that took part in that conflict.

At Washington the Assistant Secretary found an era of extravagance equal to that which he had discovered in New York. The Navy Department was paying dearly for almost everything it bought, and many laborers and others were drawing high wages for doing little or no work. Against this Theodore Roosevelt set his face uncompromisingly, so that inside of a year the actual saving to our government was twenty-five per cent. When it is remembered that the Navy Department spends each year millions of dollars, something of what such a saving means can be realized.

For many years our country had been at peace with the whole world, but now a war cloud showed itself on the horizon, scarcely visible at first, but gradually growing larger and larger. Those at Washington watched it with great anxiety, wondering if it would burst, and what would be the result.

Cuba had been fighting for liberty for years. It was under Spanish rule, and the people were frightfully oppressed. To Spain they paid vast sums of money and got but little in return. Money that should have gone into improvements—that should have supplied good roads and schools—went into the pockets of the royalty of Spain. When a Cuban tried to remonstrate, he could scarcely get a hearing, and this state of affairs went from bad to worse until, in sheer desperation, the Cubans declared war on the mother-country, just as in 1776 our own nation threw off the yoke of England.

As my young readers know, Cuba lies only a short distance from the southeast coast of Florida. Being so close, it was but natural that our people should take an interest in the struggle at hand. Everybody sympathized with the Cubans, and some made offers of assistance. Then, when many Cubans were on the verge of starvation, we voted to send them relief in the way of something to eat.

The action of the United States was viewed with suspicion by Spain. The people of that country were certain we wanted to help Cuba only in order to "gobble her up afterward," as the saying went. Such was not our intention at all, and total Cuban liberty to-day testifies to that fact.

Not knowing how far matters might go, President McKinley and his advisers deemed it wise to prepare for the worst. This meant to put the army and navy on the best possible footing in the least possible time.

It was felt that should war come, it would be fought largely on the sea, and nobody realized this more than did Theodore Roosevelt. He was active day and night in the pursuit of his duty, seeing to it that this ship or that was properly manned, and this fortification and that put in proper order to resist attack. Our ships were in all parts of the world, on the Atlantic and the Pacific, in the far north and the far south, in European waters and Hong Kong Harbor. Each had to be supplied with coal and ammunition and with provisions. Those that were "out of commission," that is, laid up, generally for repairs, were put into commission with all speed. A thousand contracts had to be inspected, judged, and passed upon. Outwardly the Navy Department at Washington was moving along as peacefully as ever, internally it was more active than it had been at any time since the great Civil War.

"War may come at any moment," said Mr. Roosevelt to his friends. "And if it does come, there is nothing like being prepared for it."

About one thing Theodore Roosevelt was very particular. In the past, gun practice on board of our war-ships had been largely a matter of simply going through the motions of handling the guns.

"This will not do," said the Assistant Secretary. "Our gunners will never make good marksmen in that way. They must practise with powder and ball, shot and shell." And after that they did. Such practice cost a round sum of money, and the department was criticised for its wastefulness in this direction; but the worth of it was afterward proven when Commodore Dewey sank the Spanish ships in Manila Bay, and the Atlantic Squadron likewise destroyed the enemy's ships that were trying to escape from Santiago Harbor.

In those days at Washington, Theodore Roosevelt made a warm, personal friend of Dr. Leonard Wood. Dr. Wood was an army surgeon, who had seen considerable active service while under General Miles in the campaigns against the Apache Indians. Mr. Roosevelt has himself told how he and Dr. Wood would often, after office hours, take long walks out of the city, or play foot-ball, or go snow-skating when the weather permitted, and during such pastimes their conversation was invariably about the situation in Cuba, and what each intended to do should war break out.

"If war actually comes, I intend, by hook or by crook, to get out into the field," said Dr. Wood.

"I shall go with you," answered Theodore Roosevelt. "No more office work for me if there is any fighting to be done."

In the meantime, as already mentioned, matters in Cuba were rapidly approaching a crisis. Spain could not send a large enough army to the island to conquer the people while they were at liberty to roam through the jungles and mountains, and so began to drive men, women, and children into various cities or camps, where they were kept, under penalty of death if they tried to escape. Thus large numbers were torn from their homes, and sent miles and miles away, with no money, and nothing with which to support themselves. Food became scarce and high in price, and many grown folks and children were literally starved to death.

To help these starving people the Congress of our country voted to expend fifty thousand dollars from the national treasury. This excited Spain more than ever, and we were accused of trying to prolong the rebellion. But the deed was done, and many would have had us go farther, and recognize Cuba as a free and independent nation. This desire was overruled on the ground that our government could not with propriety endanger the peace of the world by taking so serious a step at that time. But the strength of popular sympathy with an oppressed people was shown by the fact that many Americans at grave personal risk went to Cuba, and joined the army in one capacity or another, fighting as bravely as if for their own individual rights.