Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan
March 14, 1898.
My dear Captain Mahan:
I entirely agree with you. A year ago, when we had seven armored ships against the Spanish fleet, I thought a flying squadron might be of use; at present we have six against eight, and I don’t think so. We are taking the OREGON around, and I hope that she will be at Cuba by the time the PELAYO may be gotten out of Toulon and sent across.1 You know my opinion pretty well. We should have struck a year and a half ago, when our superiority of forces was great, and when we could have saved Cuba before it was ruined. Every month since the situation has changed slightly to our disadvantage, and it will continue so to change. It is the case of the sibylline books again.2 We should fight this minute in my opinion, before the torpedo-boats get over here. But we won’t. We’ll let them get over here and run the risk of serious damage from them, and very possibly we won’t fight until the beginning of the rainy season, when to send an expeditionary force to Cuba means to see the men die like sheep.
I send you a copy of a letter I submitted to the Secretary3 two months ago. Will you please send it back to me? I agree with you that we should not try to do anything much with Porto Rico at present.
I think munch better of the BROOKLYN than you do, but quite as badly of the MINNEAPOLIS and COLUMBIA. I further agree with you with all my heart about local coast defense. I shall urge, and have urged, the President4 and the Secretary to pay absolutely no heed to the outcries for protection from Spanish raids. Take the worst--a bombardment of New York. It would amount to absolutely nothing, as affecting the course of a war, or damaging permanently the prosperity of the country. I should not myself divert a ship from Cuban waters for any threat against our coast, bar always that I should protect the battleship building at Newport News.5 However, I am afraid we shall have to make up our minds that a monitor will be sent to Boston, another to New York, and another to Newport News--of which last I should entirely approve.
I am going to show your letter to Captain Goodrich6 and also to the Secretary. I have Captain Goodrich at work on a plan of attack for we haven’t a plan of any kind excepting that prepared last June.7
Source Note: TCyS, DLC-MSS, PTR. Addressed: “Captain A. T. Mahan, U.S.N.,/160 West 86th St.,/New York.”
Footnote 1: The battleship Oregon was built and stationed on the U.S. Pacific Coast. In response to rising tensions with Spain it was ordered to go around South America on 12 March 1898. The Spanish battleship Pelayo was without its secondary battery and final armor configuration. Spanish RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete correctly predicted on 16 March, that Pelayo would not be ready to sail in the event of war. See: John D. Long to Capt. Alexander McCormick, 12 March 1898; and Cervera, Squadron Operations, 38-39.
Footnote 2: The Sibylline Books were revered secret Roman texts consulted in times of great crisis. Roosevelt refers to their mythical acquisition by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Surperbus. Tarquinius was offered the books by a Sibyl (a prophetic maiden generally associated with the worship of Apollo) at Cumea. The Cumean Sibyl offered to sell nine books of prophecy at an exorbitant price. When Tarquinius refused, she burned all but three and then offered the remaining ones at the same exorbitant price, which he accepted. Harry T. Peck, ed., Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1962), 1461-62.
Footnote 3: Secretary of the Navy John D. Long. It is unknown what letter Roosevelt is referring to.
Footnote 4: President William McKinley.
Footnote 5: Both the battleships Kearsarge and Kentucky were under construction at Newport News, VA.
Footnote 6: President of the Naval War College, Captain Caspar F. Goodrich.
Footnote 7: See: War Plans Against Spain, 30 June 1897.