Skip to main content

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long


[Washington, D.C.] January 14, 1898.

Sir: 1

In one way it is of course proper that the military and naval branches of the Government should have no say as regards our foreign policy. The function of the military army is merely to carry out the policy determined upon by the civil authorities.

Nevertheless, sir, it will be absolutely impossible to get the best results out of any military policy unless the military authorities are given time well in advance to prepare for such policy. At present the trouble with Spain seems a little less acute, but I feel sir, that I ought to bring to your attention the very serious consequences to the Government as a whole, and especially to the Navy Department, (upon which would be visited the national indignation for any check, no matter how little the Department was really responsible for the check) if we should drift into a war with Spain and suddenly find ourselves obliged to begin it without preparation, instead of having at least a month’s warning, during which we could actively prepare to strike. Some preparation can and should be undertaken now, on the mere chance of having to strike. In addition to this, when the blow has been determined upon we should defer delivering it until we have had at least three weeks or a month in which to make ready. The saving in life, money, and reputation by such a course will be very great.

Certain things should be done at once if there is any reasonable chance of trouble with Spain during the next six months. For instance the disposition of the fleet on foreign stations should be radically altered, and altered without delay. For the past six or eight months we have been sending small cruisers and gunboats off to various ports of the world with a total disregard of the fact that in the event of war this would be the worst possible policy to have pursued.  These smaller cruisers in the event of war would be of use only on one or two points. If scattered about the high seas they would be worse than merely useless; for they would inevitably run the risk of being snapped up by the powerful ships of the enemy which they cannot fight, and from which they are too slow to run; and every such loss would be an item of humiliation for the Department and for the nation. If we have war with Spain there will be immediate need for every gunboat and cruiser that we can possibly get together to blockade Cuba, threaten or take the less protected ports, and ferret out the scores of small Spanish cruisers and gunboats which form practically the entire Spanish naval force around the Island. Probably a certain number of our smaller cruisers could be used with advantage in the Asiatic Squadron for similar work around the Philippines. In these two places the unarmored cruisers would be very valuable. Everywhere else they would simply add an element of risk and weakness to our situation.

We have now in home waters on the Atlantic Coast, the MARBLEHEAD, MONTGOMERY and DETROIT, three thoroughly efficient ships for the work we would need around Cuba. We also have the VESUVIUS, which could be used for the same purpose, although its field of usefulness would be limited. We also have ready the NASHVILLE, ANNAPOLIS, NEWPORT and VICKSBURG, and the PRINCETON is almost ready. These four vessels are of the so-called gunboat class, and if used instantly on the outbreak of war, together with others of their kind, they would practically root out the small Spanish vessels in the Cuban waters. If there was a delay of two or three weeks some of these small Spanish vessels might inflict serious depredations in the way of attacks on our merchant marine or on our transports, especially if the Army was sent to Cuba. The PRINCETON should be pushed to immediate completion. The NASHVILLE should not be allowed to leave our shores, the NEWPORT should be recalled to Key West; and the VICKSBURG sent there.

On the South Atlantic Station we have the CINCINNATI, a very efficient fighting cruiser of small coal capacity, and two gunboats the WILMINGTON and CASTINE. If we have a war now these ships should all be recalled. It will take them thirty days to get home, and they will reach here without any coal. In other words for the first five or six most important weeks of the war these vessels will be absolutely useless, and might as well not be in existence. In my opinion they should to-morrow be ordered to Pernambuco.2 When they get there a week or two hence, we can then tell whether to bring them back to Key West or not. They should be at Key West and filled with coal and in readiness for action before the outbreak of hostilities. The presence of the CINCINNATI might make the difference of being able to reduce Matanzas at the same time we blockade Havana. The presence of the two gunboats might make the difference of destroying a Spanish flotilla, or of driving out the Spanish garrison from one end of the Island.

More urgent still is it to take action with regard to the vessels in Europe. These include the SAN FRANCISCO, a good cruiser, of not very great coal capacity, and with slow-fire six-inch guns; the HELENA, a small gunboat, and the BANCROFT, a still smaller gunboat. The HELENA and BANCROFT should be brought back from Europe to-day if there is the slightest chance of war with Spain. Against any fair sized cruiser they could make no fight, and they are too slow to escape. The best that could happen in the event of war, would be that they would be shut up in a European port, if they stay where they now are. They would run great risk of capture, which, aside from the loss, would mean humiliation. If brought back however, they would aid materially in the reduction of Cuba for the reasons given above. I should also bring the SAN FRANCISCO immediately back the minute a chance of war came. The SAN FRANCISCO is a respectable fighting ship. She could aid not merely in the blockade of Cuba, but in the attack on some of the less protected towns; but, like the PHILADELPHIA she is not fit to oppose a first-class modern cruiser, thoroughly well armed. Her coal capacity, although respectable, is not very great, and she is probably not swift enough to insure her escape if pursued. For these reasons I do not think that she should form a part of the flying squadron, the sending out of which into Spanish home waters I regard as one of the most essential elements in the plan of campaign yesterday submitted to you.3 Accordingly she should be brought home.

On the Asiatic station Commodore Dewey will have the OLYMPIA, BOSTON, CONCORD and PETREL. This will probably be enough to warrant his making a demonstration against the Philippines, because he could overmaster the Spanish squadron round those islands. At the same time the margin of force in his favor is uncomfortably close, and I should advise in the event of trouble with Spain that the BALTIMORE, BENNINGTON, MARIETTA, and possibly the WHEELING, be sent to him in advance. If we have trouble with any power but Spain I should not advise Hawaii being left unprotected, but with Spain I do not think we need consider this point.4

One of the most important points in our scheme of operations should be the flying squadron. This should especially be the case if we are not able to bombard Havana. To my mind the chief objection to bombarding Havana is to be found in the lack of ammunition, of which we are so painfully short. I believe we could reduce Havana, but it might be at the cost of some serious loss, and, above all, at the cost of exhausting our supply of ammunition. If we bombard Havana we must make it a success at any cost for the sake of the effect upon the people. If we do not bombard it, then we must do something else, for effect on the people, and upon the Navy itself. This something else can partly take the shape of the capture of Matanzas and other towns and the rooting out of the Spanish cruisers around Cuba; but we especially want to keep the Spanish cruisers at home to prevent depredations on our own coast. In fighting efficiency the Spanish fleet is about double what it was so late as last April. They now have seven battleships, which, in average strength, are about equal to the MAINE and TEXAS.  We could beat these seven battleships if we could get at them, but they could cause us trouble if we allowed them to choose the time and place of attack. If, however, we send a flying squadron, composed of powerful ships of speed and great coal capacity, to the Spanish coasts we can give the Spaniards all they want to do at home, and will gain the inestimable moral advantage of the aggressive. The ships to be sent in this squadron should be the NEW YORK and BROOKLYN, the MINNEAPOLIS and COLUMBIA, and two of the auxiliary steamers like the ST. PAUL and NEW YORK of the American line, which steamers could be fitted in about t[en] days. The squadron should start the hour that hostilities began; it should go straight to the Great Canary,5 accompanied by colliers. At the Great Canary they should coal to their limit and leave coal there, if possible under some small guard. They should then go straight up, say through Gibraltar by night and destroy the shipping in Barcelona, returning immediately to the Great Canary. If the Spaniards had occupied the Grand Canary in force, they could then go home. If not, they could replenish with coal, and strike Cadiz; then go off the coast and strike one of the northern seaports on the Bay of Biscay. Probably after this they would have to return home. Such an enterprise would, in all human probability, demoralise the Spaniards, and would certainly keep their fleet in Spanish waters, for they would be “kept guessing” all the time. Only the vessels I have named above would be fit to take part in the enterprise. The COLUMBIA and MINNEAPOLIS are now laid up. It would take them three weeks to get ready. They are only valuable for just such an operation, and the operation would itself be of most value at the very outset of the war. They should therefore be got ready at once and kept in readiness so long as there is the least danger of war with Spain. Their captains should be assigned them, not because it is any man’s turn to be assigned, but with a view to the fact that we will need for this flying squadron the very best men in the Navy. I should strongly advise, in the event of war, your substituting one or two men who now have no ships in the place of one or two of those who have ships; but in any event when the COLUMBIA and MINNEAPOLIS are commissioned they should be sent to sea under a couple of the very best men whom you now have ashore.

Our most urgent need is ammunition. If there is any prospect of war, steps should be taken in advance to get this ammunition. We should have to accept a less high grade of powder than we now demand, and should have to get the companies to work night and day.

We also need more men. The battleships left on the Pacific could perhaps be depleted of most of their men, who should be sent east; and we could fill their places, temporarily at least, by the naval militia6 on the California coast. At the same time we should draw on the best of the naval militia on the Atlantic coast, and on any force that we can get from the Revenue Marine and Coast Survey;7 and this in addition to the extra men who should be immediately provided for by Congress. Our best ships are now under-manned. In the event of war I wish to reiterate what I have said in two or three former reports, that we should increase the number of officers on the battleships.

The work should be pushed with the utmost energy on the PURITAN and BROOKLYN. If war came to-morrow we should have no ships ready to put in this flying squadron except the NEW YORK.

Well in advance we should get every vessel we may possibly need, and especially an ample supply of colliers. It is extraordinary how many of these vessels would be needed under the conditions of actual sea service in time of war with a modern fleet,8 and lack of coal will reduce the Navy to immediate impotence. As soon as war broke out we could of course no longer get coal in foreign ports.9

Some of the steps above advised should be taken at once if there is so much as a reasonable chance of war with Spain. The others it is not necessary to take now, but they should be taken well in advance of any declaration of war. In short, when the war comes it should come finally on our initiative, and after we had had time to prepare. If we drift into it, if we do not prepare in advance, and suddenly have to go into hostilities without taking the necessary steps beforehand, we may have to encounter one or two bitter humiliations, and we shall certainly be forced to spend the first three or our most important weeks not in striking, but in making those preparations to strike which we should have made long before.10

Very respectfully

 Theodore Roosevelt.

Assistant Secretary.

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, PTR, roll 315. Addressed below close: “The Honorable,/The Secretary of the Navy.”

Footnote 1: John D. Long was Secretary of the Navy in President William McKinley’s administration.

Footnote 2: Pernambuco is a Brazilian state.

Footnote 3: It is not known what specific plan that Roosevelt submitted to Long, but it was probably an amalgamation of the various war plans available in the Navy Department from the Naval War College, Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Ramsay and Sicard defense boards. Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich was working with Roosevelt on editing the latter.

Footnote 4: Here Roosevelt is focusing on Spain and is less concerned with Japan as a threat, as was the case in his previous letters.

Footnote 5: The “Great [Island] of the Dogs” is a Spanish possession and one of the Canary Islands.

Footnote 6: The Naval Militia was a reserve military organization under the administrative auspices of individual state governments.

Footnote 7: The Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey were under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Treasury.

Footnote 8: In a letter to Captain Alfred T. Mahan dated 24 March 1898 Roosevelt wrote:

Again I thank you for suggestions that are very valuable. I need not tell you however---what I learned from your books long before I had any practical experience---that it is out of the question at the last moment to improvise efficient war vessels, small or great. All we can do is to get makeshifts capable of approximately decent services. Revenue cutters, lighthouse tenders, yachts and tugboats we are now getting. We are putting on them what guns we can scrape together and they will carry, and we will supply them with a view regular officers and a few man-of-warmen from the fleet, with a big lot of raw recruits, because we cannot denude the battleships of officers and men....”

Footnote 9: If another country declares itself neutral during a war between two other countries then any materiel or aid related to the furtherance of war would be against international law.

Footnote 10: It was not just Roosevelt’s impetuosity that impelled him to write these words, but his ongoing association with various officers of the Naval War College, Office of Naval Intelligence, and other bureaus that stressed war preparations.