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Roosevelt, Theodore (1858-1919) to William R. Castle

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC00782.19 Author/Creator: Roosevelt, Theodore (1858-1919) Place Written: Oyster Bay, New York Type: Typed letter signed Date: 13 November 1915 Pagination: 4 p. ; 24 x 19.5 cm.

Summary of Content: Writes to the assistant dean at Harvard (later founder of a professional consular service of the United States). Roosevelt encloses an article (not included) from the November 1915 Metropolitan magazine which had been vetted by James Brown Scott, an expert on international law. Roosevelt condemns isolationism, pacifism, Wilson's neutrality policies, and American indifference to Germany's August 1914 invasion of Belgium in violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Includes interlinear editing and manuscript comments by Roosevelt. Written on Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, letterhead.

Full Transcript: November 13th, 1915
I am sending you a copy of the Metropolitan Magazine, in which I take up the question of the Hague Treaties and their obligations upon us. For your ...private information I will say that this article was submitted to Dr. James Brown Scott, probably the best authority on international law in this country, and approved by him. [Inserted in Roosevelt's hand: If the Hague Convention doesn't represent international law, then there is no such thing as international law, and it is absurd to have Professors lecture on the subject.]
Down at bottom, the case is perfectly simple. A number of nations, including our own, went into a joint and several agreement. Now either we meant something by that agreement or we did not. If the conduct of Germany toward Belgium is not a violation of that agreement, of course it is an absolute physical impossibility to violate it or to violate any other agreement. The question, therefore, is merely whether we meant something or did not mean something when we signed that Hague Convention. It has turned out that the Convention means absolutely nothing. Everything done at the two Hague Conventions, everything done at the Geneva Conventions and the like, all the things supposed to be provided for in the way of preventing barbarity in war, all have proved absolutely futile. They have proved futile because the one big neutral, the United States, and of course very naturally the smaller neutrals, have not ventured to take action of any kind to protest against the violation. If your friends of the Somerset Club and the Professor you quote are correct and this inaction is proper, then it was a peculiarly silly bit of meaningless hypocrisy to hold the conventions at all. If they are right in saying that no action was called for by us, then it was a sheer waste of money [2] and a good deal worse than a waste of money, because we encouraged people to believe that there was some alternative to international wrongdoing, some way of taking effective steps against international wrong-doers. Of course, to my mind the people who take this stand are sinning against international righteousness and against the honor of this country and are aiding the doers of evil in peculiarly contemptible fashion; but, if they are right, then it can only be on the assumption that never again must this nation go into international agreements of anykind [sic] for the betterment of international conditions and the securing of the peace of justice.
To my mind the argument is not only nonsense but such a vicious absurdity that it is very hard for me to believe that it can now be accepted by people, excepting as an excuse to cover either timid or selfish avoidance of duty. A year and a half ago I did not believe anyone would have accepted the argument. Certainly the pacifists who now use it would not have accepted it. A year and a half ago the argument of these pacifists was that the Hague Conventions removed all necessity for preparedness on the part of nations, because they gave a chance for international public opinion to express itself, by whatever means were necessary, with such force that brutal wars of aggression and brutal international wrong-doing were things of the past.
According to my view, the attitude of these worthy people, such as those you mention, affords the clearest kind of proof that this nation has not and will not have anything but its own strength to protect it from international wrong-doing and that it must therefore fully prepare. If not only timid and selfish [3] people but honest and high-minded people, unconsciously influenced by their own instinctive effort to avoid personal or national risk, can interpret the Hague Conventions as being entirely meaningless and not calling for any kind of action by the United States when most flagrantly broken, that it is perfectly clear that no conceivable international promise can be made, couched in any possible terms, which would not also be explained away as not binding by good people of similar type. Words must be taken in their ordinary sense, in the way in which they would appeal to ordinary people of common sense. It is exactly like that unspeakable base song so popular in peace-at-any-price circles, "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier." The creature who wrote this song has been explaining that by it he was endeavoring to attack German militarism and that it was meant to convert the hearts of all German women and other women living in military despotisms to make them somehow or other, by song or otherwise, in manner unspecified, forthwith procure the abandonment of militarism by the Kaiser and others. Of course, the song had not, and never could have, and never under any possible circumstances would have, and could not be imagined to have, any, even the smallest, effect on Germany or any other militarist country. Its only possible effect and the only effect that any rational man writing it or singing it could have in view was in non-military nations, to help in the creation of a sentiment for shirking duty and for the avoidance of risk, which would tend to leave these peaceful, non-militaristic countries at the mercy of any aggressor.
In just the same way President Wilson's statement about "being too proud to fight" could have had and did have but one possible result, the furnishing of an excuse to the people in this country who were ignobly afraid of [4] just war and the arousing of the heartiest contempt for us in foreign countries. Dave Goodrich has just come back from England; and he says that whenever he went to a music hall or any entertainment of the kind there, he had to brace himself for the fact that some comedian in the course of the entertainment would make some grinning allusion to "not being too proud to fight";and [sic] it always brought down the house with laughter at the American people. No ballad-singer can do the cause of decency and humanity and the cause of his country worse damage than securing popularity for such a song as "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier". No President could utter a more ignoble sentiment or one calculated to do more permanent harm to the country than the phrase about being "too proud to fight." Finally, no nominal friends of peace and righteousness, no nominal believers, or real but misguided and foolish believers, in justice and courage and decency and fair dealing, could possibly do more damage to the cause of international good faith and humanity than by championing the view, equally foolish and wicked, that when the United States signed the Hague Conventions it meant nothing and was justified in preserving neutrality "not only in deed but in thought" when with ruthless and brutal cynicism Germany violated these conventions and inflicted upon Belgium a far greater wrong than any civilized power has inflicted on any other country since the close of the Napoleonic Wars.
Faithfully yours
Theodore Roosevelt
William R. Castle, Esq.
3 Gray's Hall,
Cambridge Mass.

[Inserted in Roosevelt's hand: P.S. Wilson's note to England is both wicked and contemptible when his cowardice about the Lusitania has just resulted in the sinking of the Ancona and when he has supinely permitted the German activities which have resulted in the blowing up of our munition plants.]

See More

People: Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919
Castle, William Richards, 1849-1935
Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924

Historical Era: Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929

Subjects: PresidentEducationGlobal History and US Foreign PolicyGlobal History and US Foreign PolicyLawJournalismNeutralityWorld War ITreatyPoliticsVice President

Sub Era: World War I

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