Prelude to the First World War
By Barbara W. Tuchman, 1966
To be sure, other topics engage her – the medieval era in her 1978 book “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century,”; the American presence in China during the first half of the 20th century in her biography of Joseph Stilwell published in 1970. But World War I, and our path to it, obsess her.
She published “The Zimmermann Telegram” in 1958 about a key incident that helped draw the U.S. into the war. “The Guns of August,” about the period 1910-1914 and beyond, became 1962’s most notable non-fiction book, a Pulitzer Prize winner that sold in droves. Among its fans was President John F. Kennedy, a serious student of history, who read the book in the spring of ’62, and whose successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of that year was influenced by his grasp of a main theme of the work – that blunders, miscalculations, rationalizations, hot-headedness, and arrogance can contribute to war. (Perhaps most wars have resulted from some combination of these things.) Another theme of “Guns” is that war is generally not the cakewalk that almost everyone, on all sides, expects.
Tuchman’s sequel to “Guns,” excerpted here, is “The Proud Tower,” describing the world from 1890 to 1914, when seeds of the Great War were sown. America during these years showed a new willingness to embrace a global presence. Another key development of this period was the arming-to-the-teeth of the industrialized nations. A key figure for both of these processes was Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), an American naval historian who came to prominence in the late 1880s and early ’90s by studying the effect of sea power on history. In terms of impact on events, Mahan is one of the most significant historians who ever lived.
Tuchman (pronounced TUCK-muhn) was not an academic historian – she was an independent scholar, a freelance writer. She said that her lack of a Ph.D., and avoidance of the tenure track, were “what saved me, I think.” She believed that academe can stifle enthusiasm, dry up the juices, and deaden the prose style; lifeless prose leads to consignment of a book to a lonely shelf on B Level of a college library. (This view of Tuchman’s is either a profound insight, or a rationalization, or both.) She was subjected to blatant envy by some academics. One source for this nasty feeling was her disdain of their career path; another was the bountiful success of “The Guns of August”; still another was sexism. The field of history had few first-rate women scholars in the early 1960s. (The situation has changed today.)
Here, then, is an excerpt from “The Proud Tower,” about Alfred Thayer Mahan in the 1890s, and several people whose lives he touched. The “Reed” mentioned here is Thomas B. Reed, Republican of Maine, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The “Roosevelt” is Teddy. See here for historian Page Smith on the U.S. journalism of these pivotal years, and here for a look at the pragmatist philosophers of the era. – H.F.
Alfred Thayer Mahan
A quiet, tight-lipped naval officer with one of the most forceful minds of his time, Alfred Thayer Mahan had selected himself to fill the country’s need of “a voice to speak constantly of our external interests.” Few Americans were aware that the United States had external interests and a large number believed she ought not to have them. The immediate issue was annexation of Hawaii. A naval coaling base at Pearl Harbor had been acquired in 1887, but the main impulse for annexation of the Islands came from American property interests there which were dominated by Judge Dole and the sugar trust. With the support of the United States Marines they engineered a revolt against the native Hawaiian government in January, 1893; Judge Dole became President Dole and promptly negotiated a treaty of annexation with the American Minister which President Harrison hurriedly sent to the Senate in February. Having been defeated for re-election by former President Cleveland, who was due to be inaugurated on March 4, Harrison asked for immediate action by the Senate in the hope of obtaining ratification before the new President could take office. The procedure was too raw and the Senate balked.
Opposed to expansion in any form, Cleveland was a man of integrity, as well as shape, similar to Reed’s. Once, when mistaken for Cleveland in an ill-lit room, Reed said, “Mercy! Don’t tell Grover. He is too proud of his good looks already.” Before he had been in office a week, Cleveland recalled the treaty of annexation from the Senate, much to the distress of Reed’s young friend, Roosevelt, who felt “very strongly” about “hauling down the flag,” as he called it.
The motive of the annexationists had been economic self-interest. It took Mahan to transform the issue into one of national and fateful importance. In the same March that Cleveland recalled the treaty, Mahan published an article in the Forum entitled “Hawaii and our Future Sea Power,” in which he declared that command of the seas was the chief element in the power and prosperity of nations and it was therefore “imperative to take possession, when it can righteously be done, of such maritime positions as contribute to secure command.” Hawaii “fixes the attention of the strategist”; it occupies a position of “unique importance….powerfully influencing the commercial and military control of the Pacific.” In another article published by the Atlantic Monthly in the same month, Mahan argued the imperative need, for the future of American sea power, of the proposed Isthmian Canal.
Captain Mahan’s pronouncements were somehow couched in tones of such authority, as much a product of character as of style, as to make everything he wrote appear indisputable. He was already the author of “The Influence of Sea Power on History,” given originally as lectures at the Naval War College in 1887 and published as a book in 1890. Its effect on the naval profession abroad, if not at home, was immediate and tremendous, and even at home, although it had taken three years to find a publisher, it excited the attention of various thoughtful persons concerned with national policy. Theodore Roosevelt, who as the author at twenty-four of a book on “The Naval War of 1812” had been invited to speak at the Naval War College, heard and became a disciple of Mahan. When “The Influence of Sea Power on History” was published he read it “straight through” and wrote to Mahan that he was convinced it would become “a naval classic.” Walter Hines Page of the Forum and Horace E. Scudder of the Atlantic Monthly, editors in the days when magazines were vital arenas of opinion, regularly gave Mahan space. Harvard and Yale conferred LL.D.’s. Nor were all his professional colleagues traditionalists opposed to things new. His predecessor at the Naval War College, Admiral Stephen Luce, who had selected Mahan to succeed him when Luce himself was named to command the North Atlantic Squadron, brought his squadron to Newport so that his officers could hear the lectures of this new man who, Luce predicted, would do for naval science what Jomini in the days of Napoleon had done for military science. After the first lecture, Luce stood up and proclaimed, “He is here and his name is Mahan!”
What Mahan had discovered was the controlling factor of sea power; that whoever is master of the seas is master of the situation. Like M. Jourdain who spoke prose all his life without knowing it, it was a truth that had been operative for a long time without any of its operators being consciously aware of it, and Mahan’s formulation was stunning. His first book was followed and confirmed by a second, “The Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution,” published in 1892. The original idea had come to him “from within” when, on reading Mommsen’s “History of Rome,” “it struck me how different things might have been could Hannibal have invaded Italy by sea…or could he, after arrival, have been in free communication with Carthage by water.” All at once Mahan realized that “control of the sea was an historic factor which had never been systematically appreciated and expounded.” It was “one of those perceptions that turn inward darkness into light.” For months, while on leave in 1885, before taking up his duties at the War College, he read at the Astor Place branch of the New York Public Library, following his clue through history in mounting excitement and with every faculty “alive and jumping.”
In the United States the building of navies with more than coastal defence capacity was traditionally regarded as a sacrilege against the original idea of America as a nation which could live without aggression and demonstrate a new future to the world. In Europe the nations who had exercised power upon the seas for centuries were suddenly made aware by Mahan of what they had. A commentator signed “Nauticus” remarked that sea power, like oxygen, had influenced the world through the ages, but just as the nature and power of oxygen remained unrealized until Priestly, “so might sea power but for Mahan.”
Ordered to command the flagship of the European Station in 1893 (much against his will, for he would have preferred to stay at home and continue writing), Mahan was received in England with unprecedented honors. He was invited by the Queen to a state dinner at Osborne, dined with the Prince of Wales and was the first foreigner ever to be entertained by the Royal Yacht Club, which gave a dinner in his honor with a hundred guests, all admirals and captains. In London, John Hay, who was visiting there, wrote to him that “all the people of intelligence are waiting to welcome you.” Lord Rosebery, then Prime Minister, invited him to a private dinner with just himself and John Morley at which they talked until midnight. He met Balfour and Asquith, visited Lord Salisbury at Hatfield, and dined again with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Wearing a red academic robe over his dress uniform and sword, he received a D.C.L. from Oxford and an LL.D. from Cambridge, said to be the only man ever to receive degrees from both universities in the same week.
After a temporary escape to the Continent, where, equipped with guidebook, umbrella and binoculars, he traced Hannibal’s marches, he was seized upon by his most enthusiastic disciple, Wilhelm II, who invited him to dinner aboard his yacht, the Hohenzollern, during Cowes Week. With effect that was to be epochal on world history, “The Influence of Sea Power on History” had planted in the Kaiser the idea that Germany’s future was on the sea. By his order, a copy of Mahan’s book was placed on every ship in the German Navy and the Kaiser’s personal copies in English and German were heavily underlined and bristling with marginal comments and exclamation marks. “I am just now not reading but devouring Captain Mahan’s book and am trying to learn it by heart,” he informed a friend by telegram in 1894, when Mahan was in Europe. “It is a first class book and classical in all points. It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my Captains and officers.” The Japanese were no less interested. “The Influence of Sea Power on History” was adopted as a text in Japanese military and naval colleges and all Mahan’s subsequent books were translated into Japanese.
The obvious corollary of Mahan’s thesis was the preemptory need to develop the American Navy, at that time moribund from neglect. As Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy, William C. White, said in 1887, it did not have the strength to fight nor the speed to run away, and in Mahan’s judgment it was not a match for Chile’s Navy, much less Spain’s. In 1880, when serious discussion began of an Isthmian Canal, which in the absence of adequate naval power would constitute more of a danger than an asset, he had written, “We must without delay begin to build a navy which will at least equal that of England when the Canal shall have become a fact…That this will be done I don’t for a moment hope but unless it is we may as well shut up about the Monroe Doctrine at once.”
From then on he continually badgered friends, colleagues and correspondents on this theme. His passion was for naval power, not for ships, as such, for he did not enjoy sea duty and looked nothing at all like a sailor. Well over six feet tall, wiry, thin and erect, he had a long, narrow face with narrowly placed pale-blue eyes, a long, straight, knifelike nose, a sandy moustache blending into a closely trimmed beard over an insignificant chin. All the power of the face was in the upper part, in the eyes and domed skull and the intellectual bumps over the eyebrows. Born the year after Reed, he was fifty in 1890, and though exceptionally reserved and retiring, he was capable, according to his wife, of sudden roars in “his quarter deck voice.” His brother called him Alf. He had little sense of humor, a high moral tone and shared the respectable man’s horror of Zola’s novels, which he forbade his daughters to read. So precise were his scruples that when living on naval property at the War College he would not allow his children to use the government pencils.
His friends and acquaintances were few and his social life, except on the occasion of his tour of duty abroad, virtually nonexistent. External expression of his personality was limited; his life was inner. He was like a steam kettle in which the boiling goes on within an enclosed space and the steam comes out through a single spout. Like Reed he was intensely clear-thinking and definitive in his conclusions. Apropos of a trip ashore at Aden, where he visited a colony of Jews, he wrote, “I am without anti-Semitic feeling. That Jesus Christ was a Jew covers his race for me.” In a total of sixteen words he settled to his own satisfaction a problem that had harassed mankind for nineteen centuries and had reopened in his own days full of new trouble and malignance. Samuel Ashe, his lifelong friend since they had been classmates at Annapolis, said, “He was the most intellectual man I have ever known.”
In 1890 the Navy at last began to build. On the recommendation of the Policy Board appointed by Harrison’s Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Tracy, Congress reluctantly and not without strong objections from inside and out authorized three battleships, the Oregon, Indiana and Massachusetts, and a fourth, the Iowa, two years later. They were the first fruits of Mahan’s long campaign. The policy which these ships expressed, though far from being generally accepted at once, represented a fundamental change in the direction in which Mahan was pointing: outward. They meant recognition that America must create a fleet capable of meeting successfully the best that a potential enemy could send against her. Canada was regarded as a hostage to restrain Britain, and the political balance in Europe was considered likely to prevent any potential European enemy from sending its full fleet into American waters. The object was therefore to be supreme in these waters and this meant a fleet capable of protecting the American coasts by taking offensive action against enemy bases anywhere from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. Such was to be the function of the new battleships. They were of the 10,000-ton class, with an average speed of fifteen knots, a coal capacity sufficient for a cruising radius of 5,000 miles at moderate speed, four 13-inch guns, and eight 8-inch guns. In combination of armor and firepower they represented the best in design and construction of the time. At their trials, the Indiana in 1895 followed by the Iowa in 1896 soberly impressed the British as a match for Britain’s first-line ships, of which the latest of the “Majestic” class were 15,000 tons with four 12-inch and twelve 6-inch guns.
The ships lent heart to Mahan’s disciples. Roosevelt, still on the Civil Service Commission, was not yet widely heard, but his friend and political mentor, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was the principal political voice in Washington of Mahan’s views. Son of a family whose fortune had been made in clipper ships and the China trade, author of various biographies and histories of the Colonial period, Lodge was led into political life through his deep interest in American history. His grandfather and namesake, Henry Cabot, could remember as a boy hiding under the sideboard to watch President George Washington at breakfast in his father’s home. Elected to the House in 1886, Lodge made an immediate impression by his frequent and able speeches and proved himself an adroit master of political strategy and tactics. He was shrewd, worldly, forceful and possessed of both energy and intelligence. Along with Roosevelt he was a champion of civil service reform and an inner member of the select group which gathered around the two non-participants, John Hay and Henry Adams, who watched government half wistfully, half cynically from ringside. Representing the party in opposition, Lodge and Roosevelt had no influence on Cleveland; but they believed and they preached with fervor.
“It is sea power which is essential to every splendid people,” Lodge declaimed in the Senate on March 2, 1895. He had a map of the Pacific set up with Britain’s bases marked by very visible red crosses and he used a pointer as he talked to make Mahan’s point about the vital position of Hawaii. The effect was dramatic and reinforced by the speaker being, as he wrote to his mother, “in desperate earnest.” Hawaii must be acquired and the Canal built. “We are a great people; we control this continent; we are dominant in this hemisphere; we have too great an inheritance to be trifled with or parted with. It is ours to guard and extend.” As he spoke, Senators came in from the cloakrooms, members of the other House appeared, and also messengers and journalists, until soon the chamber was filled and men were standing around the walls. Lodge could feel he had their “absolute attention…When I sat down everybody crowded around to shake my hand…which hardly ever happens in the Senate.” In an accompanying article that month in the Forum, Lodge stated flatly that once the Canal was built, “the island of Cuba will become a necessity” to the United States. He did not say how the necessity was to be made good; whether the United States was to buy the island from Spain or simply take it. He offered the opinion, however, that small states belonged to the past and that expansion was a movement that made for “civilization and the advancement of the race.”
At this juncture History lent a hand. On February 24, 1895, the Cuban people rose in insurrection against Spanish rule and on March 8 a Spanish gunboat chased and fired on an American merchant vessel, the Alliance, which it supposed to be bent on a filibustering errand. This “insult to our flag,” as it was called, evoked a burst of comments from prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which showed that Lodge had not been speaking only for himself. The American appetite for new territory was making itself felt. Senator Morgan of Alabama, Democratic chairman of the Committee, said the solution was clear: “Cuba should become an American colony.” Reed’s colleague but not his friend, Senator Frye of Maine, agreed that “we certainly ought to have the island in order to round out our possessions” and added with simple candor, “If we cannot buy it, I for one, should like an opportunity to acquire it by conquest.” Another Republican, Senator Cullom of Illinois, expressed even more plainly what was moving inside the American people. “It is time some one woke up,” he said, “and realized the necessity of annexing some property – we want all this northern hemisphere.” It was not, in 1895, necessary to disguise aggressiveness as something else. As yet the Senators were not talking in terms of support for Cubans rightly struggling to be free, because the insurrectos, who were burning American property as enthusiastically as Spanish, had not yet been presented in that light.
With President Cleveland standing robustly against expansion, the exuberant greed of certain Senators had little effect on policy. It was an act by Cleveland himself, at the end of the year, that brought into open explosion the new American mood. His emphatic assertion of the Monroe Doctrine over Venezuela, in defiance of Britain, marked the beginning of a new period in American life as vividly as if a signal flag had been run up to the top of the American flagpole. No question of gain, territorial or otherwise, was involved in Venezuela; it was simply a question of asserting an American right, as it seemed to Cleveland and especially to his exceedingly assertive Secretary of State, Richard Olney. The burst of chauvinism, jingoism and general bellicosity that it touched off startled everyone, though it came less from the common man than from the rich and powerful and vocal. The Union League Club had 1,600 members, proclaimed one of them, and “we are 1,600 to a man behind Mr. Cleveland in this matter…There is absolutely not one dissenting voice.” Congratulations from other Republicans, stung to admiration, poured in upon the White House, including one from Theodore Roosevelt. The New York Times exaggerated matters in headlines which had no relation to the reports beneath them.
PREPARATIONS FOR WAR and COUNTRY IS AROUSED, they ran, or, WANT TO FIGHT ENGLAND: Army and Navy Men Profess Great Eagerness to Go to War. Talk of Invasion of Canada. The Army bureau chief who was quoted, far from talking about invading Canada, gave a careful and sober statement of American naval and military inadequacies and stated his belief that America would “make a sorry spectacle at war with England.”
The surge of militancy evoked by the Venezuela Message shocked people who still thought of the United States in the terms of its founders, as a nation opposed to militarism, conquest, standing armies and all the other bad habits associated with the monarchies of the old world. This tradition was strongest in New England, and was stronger among the older generation – roughly those who were over 50 in 1890 – than among the new. They were closer to Jefferson, who had said, “If there is one principle more deeply rooted in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.” They took seriously the Declaration of Independence and its principle of just power deriving from the consent of the governed. They regarded the extension of American rule over foreign soil and foreign peoples as a violation of this principle and a desecration of the American purpose. The original American democracy was to them a torch, an ideal, an example of a brave new world that had set its face against the old. They wanted nothing to do with titles of rank and nobility, knee breeches, orders or any of the other insidious trappings of monarchy, and when in the Navy the title of Admiral was first proposed, an officer fumed, “Call them Admirals? Never! They will be wanting to be Dukes next.”
First-generation immigrants who had come to the United States beckoned by the American dream were as deeply devoted to the founding principles as those in whom they had been bred for generations. Some came out of the balked revolution of 1848, seeking Liberty, like Altgeld’s father and like Carl Schurz, now sixty-six, who as journalist, editor, Cabinet minister and Senator had been a power and reformer ever since Lincoln’s Administration. Some came to escape oppression or poverty and to seek opportunity, like the Scottish weaver who arrived in 1848 with his twelve-year-old son, Andrew Carnegie, or like the Dutch-Jewish cigarmaker who came from a London slum in 1863 with his thirteen-year-old son, Samuel Gompers. Some came, like E.L. Godkin, editor of the Nation and the New York Evening Post, not as refugee from oppression, but as a voluntary exile from the old world, lured by America as a living demonstration of the democratic ideal. To them, as to men whose ancestors had come in the 1630’s, America was a new principle, and they saw the new militancy as its betrayal.
Godkin, filled with “anxiety about the country,” determined to oppose the Venezuela Message even if he should jeopardize his paper with the “half-crazed public.” Son of an English family settled since the Twelfth Century in Ireland, where he had been born and brought up, he had served as correspondent for English papers during the Crimean War and the American Civil War. He became editor of the Nation when it was founded in 1865 by a group of forty stockholders who supplied $100,000 with the stated purpose of championing the labouring class, the Negro, the cause of popular education and “true democratic principles in society and government.” In 1883, while remaining at the Nation, he succeeded Carl Schurz as editor of the Evening Post and through the medium of these two organs made himself, as William James said, “a towering influence on all thought concerning public affairs.”
He was a handsome, bearded, hot-tempered Celt, delighting in combat, brooding in melancholy, vivacious, pugnacious and a muckraker before Roosevelt invented the name. So unrelenting was his pursuit of corrupt practices by Tammany politicians that on one occasion they had him arrested for criminal libel three times in one day. James Russell Lowell agreed with the opinion of an English journalist that Godkin had made the Nation “the best periodical in the world,” and James Bryce, already famous as the author of “The American Commonwealth,” declared the Evening Post to be “the best paper printed in the English language.” Closer to home, opinion was hotter. Governor Hill of New York said he did not care about “the handful of mugwumps” who read the Evening Post in New York City. “The trouble with the damned sheet is that every editor in New York State reads it.” This was what accounted for Godkin’s pervasive influence; that other makers of opinion took their opinions from him – though not, to be sure, all. “What fearful mental degeneracy results from reading it or the Nation as a steady thing,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to Captain Mahan in 1893.
In 1895 Godkin was sixty-four and feared the future. The United States, he wrote to a friend, “finds itself in possession of enormous power and is eager to use it in brutal fashion against anyone who comes along without knowing how to do so and is therefore constantly on the brink of some frightful catastrophe.” Indeed, as the United States had at this moment exactly one battleship in commission, Godkin was not unwarranted in thinking the Jingoes “absolutely crazy.” He believed the new spirit of “ferocious optimism,” as he strikingly described it, would lead to eventual disaster.
William James, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, was equally disquieted. “It is instructive to find,” he wrote apropos of Venezuela, “how near the surface in all of us the old fighting spirit lies and how slight an appeal will wake it up. Once really waked, there is no retreat.” His colleague at Harvard, Charles Eliot Norton, Professor of Fine Arts, who was regarded as the exponent and arbiter of culture in American life, protested the war spirit at a meeting in the Shepard Memorial Church in Cambridge. “The shout of brutal applause, which has gone up from every part of this nation,” he said, makes every rational lover of his country feel the “greatest apprehension” for the future.
The white-haired, slender, stoop-shouldered figure, the husky yet musical voice speaking in its Boston Brahmin accent, the charm of that “supremely urbane and gentle presence” was never so at home as when against the herd. Born in 1827, only a year after Jefferson and John Adams died, Norton represented the puritan and militantly liberal conscience of an older generation. He was the son of Andrews Norton, “Unitarian Pope” of New England and Professor of Sacred Literature at Harvard, who had married Catherine Eliot, daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, and was himself descended through a long line of ministers from John Norton, a Puritan divine who had emigrated to America in 1635.
Like Lord Salisbury, Norton believed in the dominance of an aristocratic class, which to him meant a class founded, not in landowning, but in a common background of culture, refinement, learning and manners. He saw it disappearing and protested regularly against encroaching vulgarity in his lectures. In parody of his manner a student said, “I propose this afternoon to make a few remarks on the hor-ri-ble vul-gar-ity of EVERYTHING.” Another of his students at Radcliffe, in her diary for 1895, described him looking “so mildly happy and benignant…while he gently tells us it were better for us had we never been born in this degenerate and unhappy age.” Norton became one of the first contributors to the Atlantic Monthly when it was founded by James Russell Lower in 1857, later co-editor with Lowell of the North American Review, and was one of the forty stockholders who founded the Nation.
Writing to Godkin about the Venezuela Message, Norton thought it made “a miserable end for this century” and had done much to increase the “worst spirit in our democracy….a barbaric spirit of arrogance and unreasonable self-assertion.” What disturbed him more bitterly was the “deeper consideration” that the rise of democracy was not proving, after all, “a safeguard of peace and civilization,” because it brought with it “the rise of the uncivilized whom no school education can suffice to provide with intelligence and reason.” It might have been Lord Salisbury speaking. Norton felt the bitterness of a man who discovered his beloved to be not as beautiful – nor as pure – as he had believed. “I fear that America,” he wrote to an English friend, “is beginning a long course of error and wrong and is likely to become more and more a power for disturbance and barbarism…It looks as if the world were entering on a new stage of experience in which there must be a new discipline of suffering to fit men for the new conditions.”
Yet his was not the desiccated and disappointed pessimism of Henry Adams, who drifted in and out of Washington and back and forth between Europe and America croaking his endless complaints like a wizened black crow; finding the century “rotten and bankrupt,” society sunk in vulgarity, commonness, imbecility and moral atrophy, himself on the verge of “mental extinction” and “dying of ennui”; finding America unbearable and leaving for Europe, finding Europe insufferable returning to America, finding “decline is everywhere” and everywhere “the dead water of the fin de siecle…where not a breath stirred the idle air of education or fretted the mental torpor of self-content.” The Venezuelan crisis merely confirmed him in the belief that “society today is more rotten than at any time within my personal knowledge. The whole thing is one vast structure of debt and fraud.” This was less a judgment on the current mood than a reflection of the rude shaking his nerves had suffered in the financial panic of 1893. Adams, like most people, saw society in his own image and ascribed his own impotence and paralysis to society at large. “Though rotten with decadence,” he said of himself in 1895, “I have not enough vitality left to be sensual.” The rotten old century, however, was bursting with vitality and he need only have looked at intimates of his own circle in the persons of Lodge and Roosevelt to have found the “ferocious optimism” that Godkin noted all around.
Although a decade older than Adams, Norton would allow himself occasional moments of optimism when he suspected that the loss of the values he loved might be the cost of a compensating gain in human welfare. “There are far more human beings materially well off today than ever before in the history of the world,” he wrote in 1896, and he could not resist the thought, “How interesting our times have been and still are!”
….President Charles William Eliot of Harvard, the “topmost oak” of New England, speaking in Washington on the much-debated issue of international arbitration, denounced the doctrine of jingoism as “offensive.” Associated with countries where there had always been a military class, it was, he said, “absolutely foreign to American society….yet some of my friends endeavor to pass it off as patriotic Americanism.” He then laid down firmly the principles which he believed made America different from the old nations. “The building of a navy and the presence of a large standing army mean…the abandonment of what is characteristically American….The building of a navy and particularly of battleships is English and French policy. It should never be ours.” The American policy was reliance upon strength in peace, whereas Jingoes were a creation “of the combativeness that is in man.” He specifically identified Lodge and Roosevelt as Jingoes and privately, it was learned, called them “degenerated sons of Harvard.”
Eliot spoke with unmatched authority. Descended from Eliots and Lymans who had been settled in New England since the Seventeenth Century, he belonged to a group who felt themselves the best. “Eliza,” protested Mrs. Eliot when a friend joined the Episcopal church, “do you kneel down in church and call yourself a miserable sinner? Neither I nor any of my family will ever do that!” His father, a mayor of Boston and a Congressman, was also, as treasurer of Harvard, a member of the seven-man Corporation, Harvard’s governing body, which an English observer called “government by seven cousins.” His own quarter of a century as president of Harvard had been an unremitting battle against the traditionalists to transform the college from an Eighteenth Century backwater into a modern university. During that time he had, as President Hyde of Bowdown said, been “misunderstood, maligned, misrepresented, hated,” and Eliot himself confessed that in all his public appearances during those years, “I had a vivid sense that I was addressing a hostile audience.” Being a fighter, this did not halt him. He was not naturally an ingratiating man. Over six feet tall, with “an oarsman’s back, a grave and sculptured head,” he was a “noble presence” born to command. A strawberry birthmark which covered one side of his face and pulled a corner of his lip into a seeming superciliousness had set him apart from boyhood and given him a quality of loneliness. With this to overcome and the additional handicap of being, as Professor of Chemistry, a scientist, he had nevertheless been named president of Harvard at thirty-five. His ideal of behavior, in his own words, was that of “a gentleman who is also a democrat.” He was inflexible about what he thought was right. When a star baseball player was left off the Harvard team because of low marks, Eliot was heard to remark that this was no loss because he was a player who resorted to deception. “Why,” he explained, “they boasted of his making a feint to throw a ball in one direction and then throwing it in ANOTHER!”
Against the strenuous lethargy of the diehards he succeeded in opening the curriculum to modern studies, introducing the elective system, assembling a faculty that gave Harvard its golden age, raising the Law School and Medical School to prestige and prominence and through his influence modernizing the whole American system of higher education. When in 1894 at the age of sixty he celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as president, opposition had given way to respect and admiration. He was suddenly recognized as Harvard’s greatest president and the “first private citizen of the country.” It was said that the Boston Symphony could not open without him and the sanguine birthmark appeared no longer as a blemish but as “an emblem of triumph over the handicaps of life.”
To Roosevelt, then thirty-eight, Eliot himself seemed one of the diehards who refused to understand that America’s manifest destiny lay outward. Having imbibed deeply from Mahan, Roosevelt felt urgently the need of his country to equip itself for the role of greatness which the times were shaping. The distaste for that role of many of the influential men of his time made his voice shrill with frustration. “If ever we come to nothing as a nation,” he wrote Lodge after learning that they had been called “degenerated sons of Harvard,” “it will be because the teaching of Carl Schurz, President Eliot, the Evening Post and futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type” will produce “a flabby timid type of character which eats away the great fighting features of our race.”
It was maddening to him that now, when war with Spain was in prospect, just such a flabby timid character was in the White House. Roosevelt was determined that there should be someone inside the Administration alert and capable of making ready for great events. He had set his heart on bringing together the man who understood the new destiny – himself – with the instrument upon which all depended – the Navy. McKinley’s Secretary of the Navy was an easygoing and friendly gentleman and former Governor of Massachusetts, John D. Long. Roosevelt believed that if he himself were appointed Assistant Secretary he could, through superior force of energy and ideas, take over the real command of that office.
So did everyone else. Long somewhat apprehensively said, “Roosevelt has the character, standing, ability and reputation to entitle him to be a Cabinet minister – is not this too small for him?” The only thing against him, Lodge wrote to his friend after seeing McKinley on his behalf, was “the fear that you will want to fight somebody at once.”
Nevertheless McKinley, persuaded as usual by more forceful characters, appointed Roosevelt on April 5, 1897, and he was confirmed on April 8. S.S. McClure, the exposive and perceptive editor of McClure’s Magazine, sensed whence the appointment came and where it would lead. “Mahan must be seen and talked to at once,” he wrote to his co-editor. “He is the greatest naval biographer and student of this century and his field is going to become more and more popular.” An identical twin of his time, McClure knew what his twin would do. “Roosevelt seems big from here,” he continued. “Write to him and try to get his naval stuff. Mahan and Roosevelt are just our size.” This was indeed so. McClure shared their feeling of power and muscle and largeness of opportunity. When in the last year of the century he wanted Walter Hines Page for an editor, he telegraphed him, “Should see you immediately. Have biggest thing on earth.” When Page agreed to come, McClure was jubilant and replied that they would make the strongest editorial combine in the world. “Oh my dear boy, we are the people with the years in front of us!” ●