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.1 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,2 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,3 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 Sigsbee4 and Consul General Lee5 advise against a warship going to Havana at present.6 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,7 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.
Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, PTR. Addressed below close: “The Honorable,/The Secretary of the Navy.” Roosevelt did not give his location; the editors took it from other letters that he penned at this time.
Footnote 1: How Roosevelt came up with these numbers is unclear and his fears are overstated. The U.S. Navy still had seven armored ships after MAINE exploded in Havana Harbor. These were the armored cruisers New York and Brooklyn, and the battleships Iowa, Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts, and Oregon. It is possible he excluded Oregon because it was on the Pacific Coast at the time.
Roosevelt’s other concerns were equally unfounded. The superiority of the U.S. Navy over Spain’s was never seriously in question in either the United States or Spain. The commander of Spain’s fleet destined for Cuba, RAdm. Pascal Cervera y Topete, wrote to Minister of the Marine RAdm. Segismundo Bermejo on 7 March 1898, that four of Spain’s armored ships might not even be ready for service by April 1898. Cervera added that, even in the best of circumstances, Spain’s “available forces in the West Indies would be 49 per cent of those of the Americans in tonnage and 47 per cent in artillery.” See, Squadron Operations, 33-36.
Footnote 2: Roosevelt is correct i.e., that there was not another example of an accident approximating the scale of Maine’s explosion, but some of them were similar in nature. In his comprehensive book, How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed, Admiral H.G. Rickover and his team found twenty examples of coal bunker fires on U.S. Navy ships contemporaneous to the explosion of Maine. This included a fire in a coal bunker on the New York attributed to spontaneous combustion in March of 1897. There was also a history of ammunition explosions. A munition on Maine discharged on 9 February 1897, wounded two crewmen. See, Rickover, How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed, 4, 124-25.
Footnote 3: The “de Lome Affair” Roosevelt was referring to was the interception and publication of a personal correspondence written by the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Dupuyde Lôme. de Lôme’s letter was stolen in Havana and delivered to the New York Journal-American by members of New York’s Cuban advocacy movement, known as the junta. Included in the letter were de Lôme’s own doubts about the prospects of peace talks with the Cuban insurgency. He also believed that President William McKinley was:
. . . weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.
The Journal’s release of the letter on February 9, 1898 created an immediate diplomatic scandal. de Lôme’s letter indicated that Spain was disingenuous about a possible peaceful resolution to the war in Cuba and that he also believed that McKinley was unable or unwilling to deliver on any negotiations. Having been informed of its likely publication, de Lôme resigned the day before the letter’s release. He was replaced by the diplomat Don Luis Polo de Bernabé. See, Trask, War With Spain, 26-28.
Footnote 4: Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee.
Footnote 5: United States Consul-General in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee.
Footnote 6: See: Sigsbee to Long, 15 February 1898.
Footnote 7: Benjamin F. Tracy was Secretary of the Navy from 1889 to 1893. For the speech referenced here, see Speech of Hon. Benjamin F. Tracy, before the Middlesex Club of Boston, Mass. Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th, 1898, Accessed 13 May 2014, https://archive.org/details/speechofhonbenja00trac.