Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long
[Washington, D.C.] February 16, 1898
In view of the accident of the MAINE, I venture respectfully, but most urgently, to advise that the monitors, instead of being laid up, be put in commission forthwith. If we had gone to war with Spain a year ago we should have had seven armored ships against three; and there would be no chance of any serious loss to the American Navy. Month by month the Spanish Navy has been put into a better condition to meet us. A week ago it would have been seven seagoing armored ships against seven. Today it would be six against seven. When the NUMANCIA is ready, as she soon will be, it will be six against eight. By adding the three monitors and the Ram KATAHDIN we can make it ten to eight. We have lost in peace one of our battleships, a loss which I do not believe we would have encountered in war.
I would not intrude on you with any suggestion or advice did I not feel, sir, the greatest regard and respect for you personally, no less than a desire to safeguard the honor of the Navy. It may be impossible to ever settle definitely whether or not the Maine was destroyed through some treachery upon the part of the Spaniards. The coincidence of her destruction with her being anchored off Havana by an accident such as has never before happened, is unpleasant enough to seriously increase the many existing difficulties between ourselves and Spain. It is of course not my province to in any way touch on the foreign policy of this country; but the Navy Department represents the arm of the government which will have to carry out any policy upon which the administration may finally determine, and as events of which we have not the slightest control may, at any moment, force the administration’s hand, it seems to me, sir, that it would be well to take all possible precautions. If ever some such incident as the de Lome affair, or this destruction of the Maine, war should suddenly arise, the Navy Department would have to bear the full brunt of the displeasure of Congress and the country if it were not ready. It would in all probability take two or three weeks to get ready vessels laid up in reserve, and these two or three weeks would represent the golden time for striking a paralyzing blow at the outset of the war.
I would also suggest that the Merritt Wrecking, or else some other as good, be directed at once to make preparations to get the Maine up.
I note Captain Sigsbee and Consul General Lee advise against a warship going to Havana at present. It seems to me they would not thus advise unless they felt that there was at least some grave suspicion as to the cause of the disaster. In any event I hope that no battleship will be again sent there. In point of force it is either too great or too small. The moral effect is gained as much by the presence of any cruiser flying the American flag, a cruiser such as the MARBLEHEAD, for instance. If there is need for a battleship at all there will be need for every battleship we possess; and the loss of a cruiser is small compared to the loss of a battleship.
I venture again to point out how these events emphasize the need that we should have an ample Navy. Secretary Tracy, in his address at Boston the other day, was able to show that he had no responsibility for our present inadequate Navy; that he had given advice which, if followed by Congress, would have [insured us] at the present moment, a Navy which would have forbid any danger of trouble with either Spain or Japan. The question of economy is very important; but it is wholly secondary when compared with the question of national honor and national defense. An unsuccessful war would cost many times over more than the cost of the most extravagant appropriations that could be imagined. Congress may, or may not, adopt your recommendations, if you recommend, in view of what has happened, the increase of the Navy to the size which we should have, but at any rate the skirts of the Department will then be cleared; and it is certain that until the Department takes the lead, Congress will not only refuse to grant ships, but will hold itself justified in its refusal. For a year and a half now we have been explaining to Spain that we might and very probably would, in certain contingencies interfere in Cuba. We have therefore been giving her ample notice, of which she has taken advantage to get ready all the fleet she could, until the margin of difference between our force and hers has become so small that by the sinking of the Maine it had been turned in her favor so far as the units represented by the seagoing armorclads on the Atlantic are concerned. It is of course true that the Navy be increased, as it should be increased, and as the interests of the nation demand; but this blame will be baseless, and we can well afford to stand it, whereas it may be held against us for all time to come, not merely by the men of today, but by those who read history in the future, if we fail to point out what the naval needs of the nations are, and how they should be met.