The United States Enters First World War

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 6, 2017

April 6, 2017
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When, at 2:10 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the British luxury ocean liner RMS Lusitania just a lunch, dinner, and breakfast away from its New York to Liverpool destination, it opened a hole the size of a small house below the ship’s waterline. Water rushed in; explosions followed. Within 18 minutes, 1,198 people, including 128 American men, women and children, died. The English language press was outraged. The sinking, they said, was piracy and murder. “What a Pity,” the New York Herald bannered the next day, “Theodore Roosevelt is Not President!” Roosevelt thought so too. This letter tells a part of that story: how, when after two years of German outrages on the High Seas, the U.S. finally declared war and Roosevelt, who had come to public prominence commanding a dashing regiment in the Spanish-American War, was spitefully kept out of this one.

Blind in one eye; wracked by malarial fevers; arthritic, overweight, and still carrying a bullet in his breast from an assassination attempt five years before, Theodore Roosevelt was dying to serve in World War I. He was, he reminded all who could hear, an ex-Commander in Chief of the United States Army, and ready to once again lead “his” First United States Volunteer Cavalry – the “Rough Riders” –  into the fray. But President Wilson, whom Roosevelt detested, refused the appointment – for a reason that Roosevelt excoriates him here. Wilson, he felt, simply was unwilling to share the spotlight with him. “Me first, country second” was, Roosevelt believed, the president’s mantra.

"If Mr. Wilson had been able to rise above the cheapest kind of party politics, I would be over [in Europe] myself." - Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1911
Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1911. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-36665.

Instead of allowing “Colonel Roosevelt” (as T.R. had chosen to be known post-presidentially) to raise a volunteer force under his command, to serve with General Pershing in Europe, Wilson decided that he would simply not use any volunteer divisions, period – lest T.R. command one. The 58 year-old Roosevelt, according to the 61 year-old Wilson, was too old to render effective service and, coming no doubt closer to the truth, had “as well” shown an “intolerance of discipline.” Roosevelt was crushed. Being side-lined in the cause of righteousness affronted his very core – and yet, he had fine sons who could go in his place, and he knew, too, of others…

My four sons are going…. Do you ever see young Jack Coolidge [a Harvard graduate], who has apparently been sent away from the Plattsburgh camp on the ground of not being physically fit?  It is perfect nonsense to turn away a young fellow of his type.  He is exactly the kind of man I would have taken with me, if I had been allowed to raise the division.

The recipient of this letter, the promising young Harvard archaeologist Oric Bates, was apparently on his way over to serve in Egypt; he died, however, while training as an officer, in 1918.

Also dead in the Great War was Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin. The boy had opted for the most adventurous military service, the new Army Air Corps, and flew his first patrol on July 1, 1918, and his last,  two weeks later. Shot down in a classic dogfight by an enemy ace with 24 kills to his credit, Quentin was buried by the Germans, with honors, near where his plane went down in Chamery, France. He was 20 years old.

Though Roosevelt’s other boys survived, all distinguished for their bravery, Quentin’s death broke his heart. He died six months later.


The loss of Quentin Roosevelt was accompanied by that of 11 million other soldiers; 116,561 of them, Americans – who, having entered the war “late,” only fought for 18 months, yet died at the same pitiless rate. From July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918, an entire generation of young men, their heads full of high ideals, were sent to their slaughter. In stupid battles led by stupid generals, they fell in the 25,000 miles of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland; on beaches in Turkey, valleys in Palestine, into the freezing water of Denmark’s North Sea. They died in Russia from Belarus to Siberia; in Africa, and China, too. World War I saw the ruin of generations, the destruction of empires, and in its brutality and horror, forever changed the nature of armed combat. It wasn’t, really, a war for Theodore Roosevelt after all.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. 1858 – 1919. The 24th President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed, 1 page, quarto, on the letterhead of the Metropolitan magazine, New York City, June 11, 1917. To Oric Bates at Harvard.

Of Related Interest:

Theodore Roosevelt Mourns the Death of His Son in Battle. Typed Letter Signed, with four lines in Autograph, 1 page, quarto, Oyster Bay, Long Island [New York], July 27, 1918. To Major Rock H. Channing, Jr. With transmittal envelope.