Click to enlarge:
“I am mighty pleased that you liked the article, and what I said about Wilson’s proposal…”
Roosevelt collaborates with a fellow critic to attack Woodrow Wilson’s failed proposal to mediate peace between Germany and the Allies in December 1916. He reveals an uncharacteristic frustration with the American people here, two months after Wilson’s close reelection victory over Charles Evans Hughes, in which Wilson campaigned on the promise to “keep us out of war.” THEODORE ROOSEVELT.
Typed Letter Signed, to James M. Beck. New York City, January 8, 1917. On “Metropolitan / Office of Theodore Roosevelt” letterhead, with holograph corrections.
January 8, 1917
My dear Mr. Beck:
I am mighty pleased that you liked the article, and what I said about Wilson’s proposal. But, is it not extraordinary that American people should be so [inserted in hand: completely] taken in?
Mr. James M. Beck,
55 Wall Street,
New York City.
[in Roosevelt’s hand:] P.S. Good for you! I am glad you dared to speak so frankly that men could not mistake your meaning.
Beginning with the explosive election campaign of 1912 (in which Wilson defeated Taft and Roosevelt), Roosevelt and Wilson were at loggerheads on nearly every issue. Wilson, in Roosevelt’s eye, disparaged Roosevelt’s honor by apologizing to Colombia for the “mishandling” of the Panama Canal Zone controversy (by which Panama won its independence from Colombia) thirteen years before. When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt was the most passionate and consistent advocate for American intervention on the side of Britain and France. Wilson, however, invoking the legacy of George Washington, committed the nation to a course of neutrality, even after German submarines began to attack British shipping in the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in American deaths.
Dr. Beck, to whom Roosevelt writes here, was another passionate critic of Wilson’s foreign policy. Beck published two books during the war. The first, The Evidence in the Case, blamed Germany for the onset of world war, castigated the Kaiser for allowing his military to make war on civilians in Belgium, and called on the United States to rise to defend the core tenets of civilization. Roosevelt himself penned the foreword to Beck’s second book, The War and Humanity, published in early 1917. Roosevelt insisted on “the duty of American in this great world crisis … There must be a keen sense of international duty, and of the shamefulness of neglecting this duty.” Privately, Roosevelt grew more incensed with his president, exclaiming to Henry Cabot Lodge that Wilson “is yellow all through in the presence of danger, either physically or morally … I don’t believe he is capable of understanding what the words ‘pride of country’ mean.”
Germany, on the verge of knocking Russia out of the war on the Eastern front, rejected Wilson’s offer to mediate peace. On February 1, 1917, Kaiser Wilhelm II announced his decision to commence unrestricted submarine warfare on American trade with Britain in the Atlantic Ocean. This decision, along with the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram (tempting Mexico with return of the American Southwest in exchange for alliance with Germany), prompted Wilson to finally ask Congress for a declaration of war in April.
Coincidentally, a year to the day after this letter, Wilson delivered his famous “Fourteen Points” address, introducing the idea of a League of Nations.
James Montgomery Beck (1861-1936) was a Pennsylvania-born lawyer, politician, and conservative writer. Admitted to the bar of New York City in 1903, and in 1922 to the bar of England, he rose to be one of America’s leading corporate lawyers. He served as U.S. Attorney (1896-1900), and was subsequently appointed Assistant Attorney General by President William McKinley. Beck resigned in 1903, when he joined the New York law firm of Shearman and Sterling. He continued his law practices in New York, Philadelphia and Washington until 1921. In that year President Harding, whose election Beck had actively promoted, appointed him U.S. Solicitor General. He was later elected as a Republican to Congress in 1927. Reelected three consecutive times, he resigned in 1934, frustrated by his inability to fight the measures of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which conflicted with his principles of limited government and laissez-faire.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), a fervent nationalist, environmentalist, and reformer. He was a Republican state assemblyman, then president of the New York Police Board in 1895-1897, where he fought administrative corruption. Roosevelt organized and led a regiment, “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. He used his newfound celebrity to win election as governor of New York (1898-1900), and was nominated as vice president under William McKinley for the Election of 1900. In 1901, he became president upon the assassination of McKinley and was re-elected in 1904. He insisted on a strong navy, civil service reform, national conservation efforts, and federal regulation of trusts, monopolies, and meatpackers. Roosevelt declined to run again in 1908, instead throwing his support behind William Howard Taft, but he decided to run as a third-party candidate against Taft in 1912 because he was disappointed in his successor’s performance. The split in the Republican Party enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win in 1912. Though he was mentioned as a candidate in 1916, Roosevelt retired from politics, but was a strong advocate of entering World War I on the side of Britain and France.
Brands, H.W. T.R.: The Last Romantic (New York, 1997), pp. 776-779.
Roosevelt, Theodore. Foreword to James M. Beck, The War and Humanity (New York, 1917).