Friday, December 21, 2012

Elihu Root Secretary of War


By L. A. Coolidge

Elihu Root
In July, 1899, President McKinley faced a serious problem. The war with Spain had been fought and won. Within the short period of a year the United States had accepted the responsibility for the present control and future development of Cuba, Porto Rico and the Philippines. The regular army of the United States under emergency legislation was more than double in size what it had been a few months before. In­stead of being located at a few coast forti­fications and a few frontier posts, it was scattered in active service over half the globe. The War Department had suddenly de­veloped into the most important of all gov­ernment departments, with tasks before it far transcending any questions of mere mili­tary administration. Almost unconsciously and as a matter of administrative convenience, the War Department had become re­sponsible for the government of the islands which had formed the colonial dependencies of Spain—islands inhabited by millions of people of different races, religions, laws and traditions. It had become responsible for the proper inauguration of a new stage of national development—a task demanding great foresight great executive genius and extraordi­nary politi­cal wisdom. At that mo­ment the Secretary of War re­signed, and President McKinley found him­self confronted with the necessi­ty of choos­ing a suc­cessor.

The selec­tion was one which could not be light­ly made. The Presi­dent recognized that no ordinary man could meet all the requirements of the position. It may be doubted whether he really ex­pected to find a man who would be fully equal to the many exactions that would be made upon a new war secretary.

The best he could hope, after determining which of the functions of the department would be of greatest immediate importance, was to secure one who could be trusted to meet that pressing requirement. The most urgent question was that of the administra­tion of the new possessions, involving as it did the preservation of order and the substi­tution of an American system of government for the mediaeval systems which had pre­vailed for centuries under the rule of Spain. For this task he concluded that he needed first of all a lawyer of preeminent ability. He selected Elihu Root.


Elihu Root on horseback
Mr. Root became Secretary of War on August 1, 1899. When the announcement of his appointment was made it was received with no enthusiasm. He cut no figure in the popular eye. His career had been confined almost exclusively to the City of New York. Even there he was not closely identified with the powers in political control. Out­side of New York his name was more or less familiar as that of a lawyer who stood high at the bar but among the people his personal­ity was col­orless. Mil­lions, espec­ially in the West, had never heard of him at all. Any one of a dozen New York  law­yers might have been selected with equal reason so far as popular approbation went. But President McKinley knew the man and knew his record, and some of those who were closest to the President were in a position to tell him what he might not have known on his own account. For many years Mr. Root had been recognized in New York as a lawyer of great intellect and force. As a young man of thirty he had already made his mark as counsel for great corporations. Throughout his career he had been identified with that branch of the law which had to do with business. He was re­garded as a genius in organization and in constructive capacity. At the same time he had a place of his own in politics, although he was never identified with the dominant fac­tion and had never been elected to of­fice. At thirty-four he was a candidate for judge of the Court of Common Pleas. At thirty-eight he was ap­pointed by President Arthur a United States District Attorney for the southern district of New York, and in two years of service in that position he made a record that is even now remembered. About the same time he was chairman of the Republican County Committee. Theodore Roosevelt, then fresh­ly graduated from college, was just enter­ing on his political career. That was the only distinctly political office that Elihu Root ever filled until he became Secretary of War. He was vice-president of the Bar Association of New York, president of the New England Society, the Union League and Republican clubs of New York. He was also a delegate at large to the State Consti­tutional Convention, and as chairman of the Judiciary Committee was instrumental in shaping the course of the proceedings. As a lawyer, when President McKinley called him to Washington, Mr. Root was earning one of the great incomes among New York lawyers—how great nobody knows but him­self. It has been estimated all the way from $75,000 to $100,000 a year. He was one of the hardest-worked men at the New York bar.

Mrs. Elihu Root
Secretary Root came into the Cabinet, therefore, as a constructive lawyer of ap­proved business capacity. His special mis­sion was to aid the administration in work­ing out the problems arising from our con­trol of new territory. It was expected, of course, that he would administer the routine affairs of the War De­partment with intelli­gence and force, but the routine department work was merely an incident of the larger program which the President had in mind for him. It is a strik­ing tribute to Mr. Root's ability and breadth of intelligence that his success in the field which was set aside for him has been equaled by his suc­cess in administering the routine affairs of his department. He has affected reforms there which will be felt many years after he has left the field of action. Not only has he achieved much in his own particular prov­ince, but he has made himself felt in every branch of governmental work. Before Presi­dent McKinley died Secretary Root had become the great force of the administration.

He is no less a force under President Roosevelt, who turned to him for counsel the moment he was sworn into office. It is hard to speak of the record Secretary Root has made in Washington in terms which will not seem to be fulsome panegyric. He has labored so modestly and so unceasingly; he has subordinated his own popularity to such an extent; he has paid so little regard to popular reputation and newspaper notoriety that very few people except those who have been intimately associated with him or who from their position in public life have had occasion to know what he has done, begin to realize the extraordinary success of his administration or to comprehend the height and breadth of his accomplishment. Let one speak who has been in a position to judge and who is not of a temperament to be swept away by personal enthusiasm or meretricious reputation. A United States Senator, one of the oldest and wisest of the body to which he belongs—one who is at the head of an important committee having in charge insular affairs with which the War Department has most to do, and who has thus come closely in contact with Secretary Root during the past three years has this to say about him:

"There has been no man at the head of the War Department since the days of Ed­win M. Stanton who has been Mr. Root's equal. He has all of Stanton's firmness and force; all his patriotism, perseverance and .courage, and, in addition, he has a tact and persuasiveness which Stanton altogether lacked. With Stanton the iron hand was always in evidence. He was Secretary of War during the time of great national stress, and for years he ruled the War Department and the army with military seventy. His attitude of mind was always in opposition to the private citizen wherever the private citizen came in contact with the govern­ment. He acted quickly, impulsively; fre­quently with injustice. He was a great law­yer, but there were times when he overrode all law.



Drawing Room in Secretary Root's Washington Home
"Root is just as strong and firm a charac­ter as Stanton was. He is as unswerving and as unflinching as his predecessor. He is actuated by motives as patriotic and as pure; but he has qualities which Stanton did not possess. He is a profound and con­scientious student. He studies every ques­tion that comes before him searchingly and exhaustively, and when he reaches a conclu­sion his mind is made up to stay. He is courage personified. There is nothing which can swerve him from a position which he has taken after careful study, and he has a power of persuasion with which it is almost impossible to cope. He can state a proposi­tion with greater clearness and force than any other man I have ever known, and he can state it with so much tact that even those who come to protest go away con­vinced and admiring. Without question he was the greatest force of the McKinley ad­ministration. There were times when it seemed as though he were the whole thing, and there were times, too—notably in the summer of 1900, when the President was in Canton and Secretary Hay was ill in New Hampshire—when Secretary Root was actu­ally the government of the United States. Unaided and alone, he carried the adminis­tration through one of the most trying situa­tions with which a government ever was confronted. He is an executive, a diplomat, a lawyer, a statesman. He has met prob­lems, and solved them, more trying and more momentous than those which Chamberlain at the same time was trying to meet in Eng­land with poor success."

Quotations like this might be given by the dozen. I have never yet met a public man whose relations with the Secretary of War were at all close who did not speak of him in terms of unstinted praise; and the closer the relations the higher the com­mendation. But the Secretary himself seems to be impervious to praise or blame. Appar­ently he is as indifferent to congratulation as he is unconcerned about the attacks which are leveled at him and his policies by the opposition press. If he has a pronounced weakness, it is this, that he is callous to public opinion as to the merits of any policy upon which he has set his mind. He looks forward to ultimate results, and ignores the passing currents which perhaps he might make use of to hasten the accomplishment of what he has in view. There was a time not long ago when newspaper dispatches from Manila described conditions in the Philippines which furnished ammunition to those who were trying to discredit the ad­ministration. The dispatches came from sources which were not entitled to credence, but which received it none the less. When they were brought to the attention of the War Department, the Secretary contented himself with making a general denial. He refused to treat them as worthy of serious notice; he held them in contempt. There were newspapers friendly to the administra­tion which were eager to take up the cudgels in defense of the administration's course. But they received no help from the War Department. The correspondent in Washing­ton for one of these newspapers called on the Secretary. He was in search of materials and facts. He was looking for something more than the bare denials which emanated from the Secretary's office. He stated the case to Mr. Root and received little more than a polite stare in response.

"Why should I pay further attention to these reports?" asked the Secretary. "They are not true. I have said so; that is enough."

"But," protested the newspaper man, "they affect public opinion. You ought to have the support of the newspapers."

"What for?" was the reply. "Does that make any difference?"

Miss Edith Root
That is Root's habit of mind. It is due largely, no doubt, to his long experience as a corporation lawyer. For years he was accustomed to devote himself to the business of his clients, and so long as he met their approbation and accomplished what they em­ployed him to do he was content. It was none of the public's business, and newspaper opinion had nothing to do with the case; it must be based necessarily on information superficial as compared with that of one who had arrived at his conclusions after profound and uninterrupted inquiry. Had Secretary Root been a politician; if he had ever tried hard to get elected to office; if he had ever served in a legislative body where transitory currents of popular feeling had to be reckoned with, he would approach some questions from a different point of view. As it is, his attitude of mind is like that of Secretary Olney, whose position in the Cleveland administration resembled somewhat Root's position now. Olney was a lawyer. He said that he regarded the United States government as the most important client he had ever served. He worked for the Government exactly as he would have worked for a man or a corpora­tion by whom he had been employed. Root has much the same feeling. He has broad­ened, it is true, during the three years which have elapsed since he began to deal with great governmental affairs, and to have close relations with the legislative branch, but it is doubtful whether he will ever get the real relations between the public and the administration of the government exactly adjusted in his mind.

There is no room in a sketch like this to give in detail the work which Root has accomplished since he became Secretary of War. The bare recital would make too long a catalogue. The task has fallen to him which falls to few men in history, of creat­ing a nation—for that is what he has set out to do in Cuba, following the injunctions of Congress and carrying into effect the pledges of the United States. Every step which has been taken in the regeneration of Cuba since Mr. Root became Secretary of War has been taken under his direction; his hand has been felt at every stage. The military government there under the imme­diate control of General Wood, acting under Secretary Root's guidance, and with his sanction, has been a model for the govern­ments of the world. It has been in exist­ence for three years, and it has accom­plished results which are a continual marvel. Perfect order has been maintained among a people who for many years prior to American occupation had been torn by insurrec­tion and political discontent. Cities which had been for centuries the nests of vice, filth and disease have been cleaned, until to­day Havana and Santiago may be taken as patterns of municipal correctness. The peo­ple of the island have been put in the way of establishing a government of their own, with such relations to the United States as will insure permanent peace and intelligent development. Some of this work was ac­complished before Mr. Root came into the War Department. The most important and delicate work has been done under his super­vision. Most important of all was the work involved in securing the adoption of the Platt amendment as a condition precedent to the establishment of a government and the withdrawal of American troops. It re­quired delicacy of negotiation and firmness of purpose to bring about the acceptance of our conditions without friction and without bitterness of feeling by a people naturally suspicious and jealous of their rights. The influence of President McKinley and Sena­tor Platt is not to be disregarded, but it was Secretary Root with whom the Cuban delegates conferred when they came to Wash­ington, and it was his persuasive argument which prevailed.

Secretary Root
Secretary Root's work in the Philippines is still incomplete and must remain so for years to come. But the policy he has pur­sued there has been without a shadow of turning. He has kept steadily in view two things from the beginning: First, to pacify the islands, quell the insurrection and insure the preservation of order; second, to estab­lish civil government there and make the people of the islands fit for it. The pro­gram is as clearly marked in his mind as if the future were spread out before him on a printed page. He has never allowed him­self for an instant to be swayed by false sentiment or to be influenced by the clamor of opposition at home. He has known what he wanted to accomplish, he has selected the agents whom he regarded as best qualified to help him accomplish it; he has been building not only for his own administra­tion, but for administrations which are to come, and he is not discouraged because everything is not done in a minute. He has had on his hands a military problem and a civil problem. It may take years to justify his course, but he understands that he is laying the foundation for years of construc­tive work, and he is little affected by fluc­tuations day by day. A weaker man might have been swayed by popular criticism. He has regarded only the necessities of the case as he sees them. Be entertains no false no­tions, and he has no qualms in expressing what he thinks.

"I will not say," he said, in his speech at Youngstown, Ohio, "that the men who are encouraging the Filipino soldiers here are traitors to their country. I do not think they know what it is they do. But I will say, and I think with justice, that the men who are reviling and belittling America here and the men who are shooting from ambush there, are allies in the same cause, and both are enemies to the interest and credit of our country."

That was said two years ago. It repre­sents the frame of mind in which Secretary Root is today. And he knows how to ex­press exactly what he wants to say.

Secretary Root's Office
Of all the things that Root has done in statesmanship one stands out with especial clearness. There was a time during the summer of 1900 when the Secretary of War carried on his shoulders the responsibilities of government. It was during the perilous period when the legations were shut up in Pekin, when the civilized world was plan­ning for their rescue, and when in the stress of a great emergency there was the danger of international complications which might in the future have far-reaching and perhaps disastrous results. Secretary Hay conducted the early negotiations with masterful diplom­acy, but he was taken ill, and had to go to his country home in New Hampshire for a long rest. President McKinley was at Can­ton. Secretary Root remained in Washing­ton. He was Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and it might almost be said that he was President as well, for upon him lay the responsibility of initiative and execution. He had to carry on negotiations with the powers. The dispatches written at this time all bear his mark. He steered the United States through diplomatic entanglements that might well have tried the resources of any master of statecraft. He displayed such precision and skill that the American policy was imposed upon the European powers, and the program mapped out in Washington was carried into effect almost to the letter. It was he who determined upon the expedition of relief. While Europe was hesitating, Chaffee with his little army was ready to start. The allied forces for very shame had to go along with them. It was a time when decisions had to be reached quickly and when clearness of vision was indispensable. A single mistake might have worked incalculable harm. There was not a single mistake so far as Washington was concerned. The American troops co-operated with the troops of the powers up to the very limit of safety, but our government re­fused to continue the co-operation after what we sought to achieve had been accomplished. Not a step was taken which might ­in any way lead to the disintegration of China. It was our position at that which prevented the dismemberment of the empire and the parceling out of its terri­tory. Our attitude was as firm toward China as it was toward the powers. When Li Hung Chang was trying to prevent the dreaded expedition of relief he made several disingenuous propositions to the government at Washington. One was that the ministers might be sent under safe escort to Tien-Tsin provided the powers would engage not to march on Pekin. The United States replied:

This government will not enter into any arrangement regarding disposition or treat­ment of legations without first having free communication with Minister Conger. Responsibility for their protection rests upon the Chinese government. Power to deliver at Tien-Tsin presupposes power to protect and to open communication. This is insisted on."

Then Viceroy Li inquired whether, "If free communication were established be­tween ministers and their governments it could be arranged that the powers should not advance on Pekin pending negotiations."

To this the reply was equally incisive and time unequivocal.

The Dining Room in Secretary Root's Washington Home
"Free communication with our repre­sentatives in Pekin is demanded as a matter of absolute right and not as a favor. Since the Chinese government admits that it pos­sesses the power to give communication, it puts itself in an unfriendly attitude by deny­ing it. No negotiations seem advisable until the Chinese government shall have put the diplomatic representatives of the powers in full and free communication with their re­spective governments and removed all dan­ger to their lives and liberty. We would urge Earl Li earnestly to advise the imperial authorities of China to place themselves in friendly communication and co-operation with the relief expedition. They are assum­ing a heavy responsibility in acting other­wise."

The text of these notes is given in full be­cause it has been understood that they were penned by Secretary Root. The policy they outlined was due to his initiative. They hold a distinct place of their own in diplo­matic intercourse. They are frank, explicit, unmistakable; they fly unswervingly to the mark.

When Secretary Root came to the War Department he knew little about military administration. He was sure that something was wrong somewhere, but just what it was he could not have told. He had seen that when the war with Spain broke out, it caught our army unprepared. There was something radically at fault with the system. What it was he determined to find out, and he deter­mined also to apply the remedy. He had a vague idea that one trouble had been in the lack of consideration shown the general of the army. He devoted himself first of all to cultivating General Miles, but it did not take him long to discover that wherever the fault might lie it did not lie in a neglect to follow the general's advice. He turned his attention to a typically thorough study of the entire army system. He discovered that there was lack of unity and co-opera­tion among the several bureaus which have control of supplies and transportation, and he set out to rectify that fault. He found an officer in the department who could aid him in formulating a plan for general reor­ganization. That officer was Colonel W. H. Carter of the Adjutant-General's office. The Secretary would put his finger unerringly upon a weak spot in the system. Then he would turn to Carter, and between them they would discover a remedy. To describe what Root has planned in the way of army reorganization, and what he has accomplished through the aid of legislation, would take a volume. Briefly, he has succeeded already in putting our comparatively small army on a foundation which as time goes on will enable it to compare favorably in effec­tiveness with the army of any one of the great military powers. He has developed a plan which if it shall be adopted will make our army one to be patterned after by all the armies of the world. He has already se­cured legislation by which the old system will gradually be displaced and by which there will be intelligent co-operation all along the line. He has provided for the in­terchange of staff and line, so that officers shall be detailed for staff duty in the several departments to be returned to the line of the army after four years of service. He proposes in a bill now before Congress to create a general staff comprising a body of officers trained to their business to consider the military policy of the country and pre­pare comprehensive plans for defense. The greatest reform of all is the establishment of a war college by means of which the army will be turned into a great university for military instruction. This will in time give to the United States the finest body of edu­cated officers in the world. Besides the mili­tary academy at West Point there is already at each military post an officer's school for elementary instruction in theory and prac­tice. It is proposed that those who make the best progress in these post schools shall be detailed for further instruction at special service schools: The artillery school at Fort Monroe; the engineers' school of application at Washington; the school of submarine defense at Fort Totten, New York; the school of application for cavalry and field artillery at Fort Riley, Kansas; the army medical school at Washington.

The Art Gallery in Secretary Root's Washington Home
Those who make the best records at these schools are to be detailed for further in­struction at a general service and staff col­lege at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Crown­ing all will be a war college for the most advanced instruction at Washington Bar­racks in the national capital that will ultimately be in effect a post-graduate course for the study of the greater problems of military science and national defense. This great military university is to be the foundation for the general staff corps. The most highly-trained officers from the army will be detailed for the performance of general staff duties. At the head of the general staff corps is to be a chief with the rank, pay and allowances of lieutenant-general, to be detailed by the President on confirmation by the Senate from officers not below the grade of brigadier-general to serve for a period of four years, unless sooner relieved.

In addition to all this, Secretary Root proposes to bring the National Guard into close co-operation with the regular army. He has submitted an elaborate plan by which the national government shall have supervision over the state militia. There will be camps of instruction where officers and men of the National Guard may take part with the forces of the regular army in annual encampment and military maneuvers, so that when war comes—as it will—our volunteer army can spring full panoplied into the field. The
Secretary's plan for army reorganization is so comprehensive and so far-reaching that it is hardly possible even to hint at it here. The marvel of it is that he has been able to formulate it while engaged with the great duties of colonial administration which are sufficient in themselves to absorb the time and energies of almost any man.

In order to accomplish all these things a man must have an iron constitution as well as an iron purpose and an indomitable mind. Secretary Root works unceasingly. He labors at the department, and he carries his work home with him and stays with it well on into the night. He shirks nothing. With a mind highly trained, he grapples with a problem and solves it almost before other men could realize what was in ques­tion.

"Many a time," says an officer in the de­partment, "I have taken a memorandum to the Secretary over which I have worked for days. It will contain perhaps a thousand or fifteen hundred words. He will read it through swiftly and indorse on the back an abstract in .half a dozen lines which will contain the meat of the whole business."

He is a born executive. He picks his men for certain tasks and holds them rigidly accountable. He is alert in mind, clear in legal vision, with great courage and a fine sense of justice. In the appointments which he has made to the army he has been pains­taking and conscientious in his endeavor to get, the best men. His office is filled with records, and, strange to say, he has exam­ined them all himself. He knows something of the qualifications of every man whom he has appointed even to a second lieutenancy. Perhaps his most striking quality is the integrity of his mind. There is a rectitude in his manner of thought which gives to his mental operations the exactness of a ma­chine. He simply cannot think in any other way.

Secretary Root is not a man about whom many anecdotes are told. He is not a story­teller or a jester. He has an incisive wit, but he lacks in the quality of humor. There was a time, during the Chinese troubles and later, when the Secretary gave daily hear­ings to the newspaper men who thronged his office. He would fence with a dozen of them at a time while they were plying him with questions in an endeavor to discover exactly what was going on. Nobody ever inveigled him into saying what he did not intend to say, or into making an admission which he did not intend to make. To ques­tions which came dangerously close to for­bidden ground he would reply with an adroit witticism that would raise a laugh without giving any other satisfaction. It was re­ported at one time during the Chinese nego­tiations that Minister Conger might be relieved from duty. A young reporter asked whether the President would dismiss him and how.

"I suppose," replied the Secretary, quick­ly, "he will send him a poisoned letter."

Secretary Root and Adjutant-General Corbin
When Funston captured Aguinaldo there was little information in the first dispatches except that the Filipino chieftain had been caught. The same young reporter asked how Funston brought him in.

"He probably brought him in in his mouth," replied the Secretary.

Busy as he is, Secretary Root is punctil­iously courteous and considerate. He is al­ways the gentleman under every condition, quiet and undemonstrative and greatly re­served. He comes from a brainy family. He was born in a house on the campus of Hamilton College at Clinton, N. Y., where his father, Oren Root, was for many years professor of mathematics. That was in 1845, so that the Secretary is now fifty-seven years old. He looks at least ten years younger, and shows little physical evidence of the intense application with which he has devoted himself to the study of all sorts of problems ever since he was a boy. He is lithe in figure, and walks with a swinging step. He has never lost his attachment for his college. He has a summer home adjoin­ing the old homestead directly opposite the college campus, and no Hamilton boy ever comes to him without receiving encourage­ment and aid. He has two boys and one daughter. Neither he nor Mrs. Root cares much for the social life of Washington, although they bear their part. He plays golf and takes long rides into the country. These are about his only relaxations.

Secretary Root is an ideal Cabinet minis­ter. He would be less successful as a legislator. It is doubtful whether he would have any success at all if he were to appeal to the people as a candidate for office. Somebody has said that Root has no proper place in a republican form of government. He is so imperious, so unswerving and so indifferent to popular opinion. That is an extrava­gant statement, but it has a kernel of truth.

From Ainslee’s Magazine - May 1902.