Last night I mentioned that the Commission for Relief in Belgium was founded on 22 October 1914. Such humanitarian relief was all new in 1914, at least on this scale. Even more incredible were the diplomatic, logistical and other obstacles the CRB overcame. And oh yes, they were doing it in a war zone amidst chaos and mass slaughter on a scale never before seen in history. Decades later Hoover described the feeling of crossing from Holland into occupied Belgium as “entering a land of imprisonment.” If he had known how hard it would be he might not have taken the job; Hoover was convinced the war would be over by summer 1915.
Herbert Hoover was a forty-year-old mining engineer who had made his fortune and was now yearning for something more. He was in London when the war began and his first task was to facilitate the return of Americans stranded in Europe when the fighting commenced. He managed to ensure the safe passage back to America of nearly 150,000 persons. The Belgian crisis was next. Belgium was especially vulnerable. It was a small, highly urbanized nation hit hard by the German offensive. Allies such as Britain were suspicious because they believed any food stuffs sent to Belgium would ends up in the stomachs of the German occupiers.
Hoover began working even before the official founding of the CRB, placing orders in the Chicago commodities markets for 10 million bushels of wheat. Over the next four years they also imported rice, peas, cereals, milk, sugar, potatoes and other items. Relief committees were established in nearly American state and in countries around the world, including Japan, India, Australia, and Argentina. Hoover even wrangled fifteen Rhodes scholars to think out the box on how to solve the problem of Belgian starvation. In four years the CRB transported five million tons of food.
It is an incredible story and one that I am simplifying here. One can only be impressed by the task Hoover set for himself and those who worked with him. Literally millions of people owed their lives to him. Reading about it in Hoover’s memoirs however, one can understand why the public is apathetic. It wasn’t just the Depression that fueled the apathy. Hoover lived until 1964 and published his memoirs in three volumes, each one drier than the one before. There is no Undersecretary of This or Assistant to That he cannot rattle off. Hoover was like that in person as well. He had the technical capacities of an engineer but little of the common touch a true politico. It is no wonder that years later President-elect Roosevelt declined to attend the meetings Hoover was having in which he would parse the in and outs of the banking crisis ad infinitum. Hoover knew the technical details; Roosevelt knew what the people wanted and needed to hear. It is all so unfortunate because Hoover was one of the great men of the 20th century.
One group that understood was the Roosevelt Memorial Association. The RMA held its annual dinner at the Roosevelt Birthplace on 27 October 1927. This would have been Theodore’s 69th birthday. Secretary of Commerce Hoover was there that evening as one of three recipients of the Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal. Hoover had been much in the news that year because he had again worked his magic, this time in service of those ruined by the Great Mississippi Flood. The other recipients of Roosevelt medals that year were jurist John Bassett Moore and John J. Pershing. Hoover was the only honoree who could attend the function on East 20th Street. Thankfully New Yorkers got a sense of how the evening went; WRNY broadcast the event live over the radio.
(images/Library of Congress)
This past weekend marked the anniversary of the start of the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which would continue on through the end of the war in November 1918. The American Battle Monument Commission just published this video that captures the essence of what it was all about. I cannot emphasize the quality of the work the ABMC has been doing during the Centennial, though that is no surprise given the organization’s rich history and institutional memory.
Author Chip Bishop has released a book about the relationship between Quentin Roosevelt and Flora Whitney. Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War may read like fiction but the story is all the more poignant for being true. Mr. Bishop tells us more in this interview. The Strawfoot: Tell us who Quentin and Flora are. Chip Bishop: Quentin was the youngest and favored son of Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, Edith. He is remembered best today as a heroic aviator during the Great War who lost his life in combat over German-occupied France. Flora Payne Whitney was the great-great granddaughter of the industrialist, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Quentin and Flora met in New York during their mid-teens, and began a relationship that evolved into a romance. It is revealed through their many letters. In the spring of 1917, they were secretly engaged. She went on to finance and direct the development of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.
Flora was not only a Vanderbilt but a Whitney. Was her upbringing as gilded as one would imagine? It was. She was brought up in multiple homes including The Breakers, her grandmother’s “summer cottage” in Newport, RI. She traveled abroad extensively and went to the posh Foxcroft School in Virginia. But Flora survived that extravagance to live and long and productive life, mostly in New York. She married twice and had four children. How did that differ from the Roosevelt children’s experience? The Roosevelts were comfortable financially but not super wealthy. Quentin grew up understanding that those who are given much are obliged to put their energy and resources to work for the benefit of others.
Quentin had a mechanical bent and always had a love for aircraft as well. His mother even took him to La Grand Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne, the big 1909 air show in France. Did his father encourage his interest in machinery and gadgetry? Theodore was not a mechanic necessarily, but he marveled at his son’s aptitude for machinery. Remember that Theodore was the president with an impressive list of “firsts:” the first to fly in an airplane (Oct. 1910); the first to ride publicly in an automobile (Aug. 1902); and, the first to be submerged in a submarine. He appreciated the products of the industrial revolution and enjoyed their benefits. Of his first flight he remarked, “It was the finest experience I have ever had.” All four of the Roosevelt sons, and even daughter Ethel, served in the Great War. What was their WW1 experience like? Was there extra pressure on Quentin as the youngest? Ethel served early on during the Great War in Europe, as a nurse beside her surgeon husband, Dick Derby. Ted and Archie were seriously wounded in battle during the Great War. Both returned to service during World War II. Archie was injured again, and Ted was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the D-Day invasion of Europe. Quentin certainly felt the pressure of being a Roosevelt; he understood his family obligation in wartime and his duty to his country. He once remarked, “After all, it is up to us to practice what Father preaches.” Gertrude, Flora’s mother, found a sense of purpose during the Great War, didn’t she? Yes, she journeyed to Europe in the early days of the war and used her own resources to organize a hospital for injured warriors in France. Not only that, she “got her hands dirty” doing the kinds of menial jobs necessary to see that soldiers had a facility where they would receive quality care for their injuries. Tell us the circumstances of Quentin’s death. Quentin lost his life in aerial combat with German forces over occupied France on July 14, 1918, Bastille Day as it turned out. He and other members of his reconnaissance mission were attacked by enemy fighters. Quentin suffered two bullet wounds to his head while airborne. His French-made Nieuport bi-plane crashed in a farmer’s field at Chaméry where he was given a ceremonial burial by occupying German forces. He laid at Chaméry for 37 years until his remains were relocated in 1955 to the American Cemetery in Normandy where he rests aside his brother, Ted, on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Quentin is the only serviceman from World War I to be buried in the American Cemetery. What was life like for Flora after 14 July 1918? How long did she live and what civic projects was she involved in? As you can imagine, Flora was wracked by “unspeakable grief” at Quentin’s loss, but she rebounded to marry and raise a family. She devoted much of her adult life to advancing her mother’s passion for American art at the Whitney Museum. She died peacefully in her late 80s and rests not far from her family’s former Westbury estate on Long Island. Tell us about yourself. How were you drawn to the story of Quentin and Flora? In researching my first book, “The Lion and the Journalist – The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop,” I was struck by how deeply Theodore was affected by Quentin’s death. He had great plans for that boy, but was himself dead within six months of Quentin’s passing, in part from a broken heart. I just knew I had to write Quentin’s tale. I was later urged by my literary agent to add his love fort Flora to the story. It was a wise recommendation. I enjoy hearing from my readers. You can reach me at www.Facebook.com/quentinandflora and on Twitter @QuentinandFlora.
(images/The Breakers, Menuett; Quentin Roosevelt, US Armed Forces)
Here is a photograph that is fascinating on about five different levels. It is from the Fall 1925 issue of the Roosevelt House Bulletin, the public voice of the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association. The photo was taken on July 4, 1925 in the auditorium of what we now call the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. This would have been sixty full years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and, as you can see, the men are all octogenarians. A few may even be in their 90s. The General Sherman Circle, Ladies of the G.A.R. organized the event in cooperation with the WRMA. The turnout was about three hundred, though I am not certain how many were CIvil War veterans. The image is not that great because it is not the original but a photo taken on my camera.
Many of the Roosevelts were involved in veterans groups. Theodore was active in the Naval and Military Order of the Spanish American War. Son Ted was actually a founder of the American Legion. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Ted Roosevelt also came to Governors Island regularly for reunions of the First Infantry Division.
This event on the 4th of July was in support of something called Defense Day, which one of the Civil War vet attendees equated to the old Muster Day. Defense Day seems to have been something akin to the Preparedness movement in the United States after the start of the Great War but prior to American engagement in the conflict. One of Defense Day’s biggest critics was President Calvin Coolidge. Apparently it was an initiative that never got too far off the ground, which is not surprising being that most people in America and Europe were exhausted after what had transpired less than a decade before.
It is incredible to visit the Birthplace and realize you are walking in the same steps where these people once walked.
Yesterday a friend sent me something from the Wall Street Journal. It is one of those list type things in which the Journal chronicles 100 legacies of World War One. A few of the items cannot be truly credited/blamed on the First World War. Doctors were fitting wounded soldiers of the American Civil War for prosthetic devices decades prior to 1914. It is true, however, that the science of prosthesis took a great leap forward in the 1910s and 1920s. Give the whole thing a look. Among other things the list encourages us to think beyond the minutiae of the battles–important though they are– and ask ourselves why the events of 1914-1919 are important to us today in the 21st century. I cannot think of a better lesson as the Centennial gets underway.
(image/National Archives, United Kingdom)
I received confirmation late last week that the Library of Congress will be preserving The Strawfoot as part of the LOC’s Web Archiving initiative for the World War I Centennial. The Library of Congress’s goal is to collect and preserve materials born digitally during the Centennial. So much of what is online seems transitory and impermanent. I am very excited about the 100th anniversary of the Great War and think it offers all kinds of interpretive and other possibilities. That the blog will be included in the endeavor means a lot to me. Working on the website these past 3 1/2 years has been a labor of love, with equal emphasis on both words: love and labor. It was a lifestyle change. Writing the blog has its rewards; the site might not get the traffic that some others do but it does have a regular readership.
Longtime followers may have noticed a shift of emphasis in recent weeks and months. It may seem that way but to me it is all cut from the same cloth. I have never thought of myself as strictly a Civil War guy, though the events of 1861-65 have always been a source of interest and fascination for me. I have always been more interested in the causes and consequences of the war; what came just before and after is equally important. That is why I have found volunteering at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace these past ten months rewarding. The Roosevelts–both side of the extended family–offer so many intellectual opportunities.
I am still plugging away on the Theodore Roosevelt Senior and Joseph Hawley biographies, still volunteering at Governors Island over the summers, still writing the content for the TRB social media platforms. There are more connections than might be apparent. For starters, General/Senator Hawley and Theodore Roosevelt knew and admired each other. I find it fascinating that the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost a power struggle with his boss, the unreconstructed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, over the naming of a new ship in 1917. Instead of Roosevelt’s choice, the destroyer was christened in honor of Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury. These types of things fall under what we now call Memory Studies, which I suppose is broader and more encompassing than just historiography. More of these types of things are going to come out here at The Strawfoot in the coming months.
(image: Theodore Roosevelt at Washington’s Union Station during the First World War, LOC)
The guns of August began pounding 100 years ago this week as one by one the countries of Europe went to war. The United States would not enter the conflict for almost another three years. Two of the biggest advocates for Preparedness before and during the war were Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both had spent parts of their careers as Assistant Secretaries of the Navy, and Franklin was serving in that capacity when the war began. He was in a difficult spot; as a low ranking member of the Woodrow Wilson Administration he did not have the freedom to speak the way his cousin, and wife’s uncle, did. Still FDR worked indefatigably, in that way the Roosevelts had, to help modernize the U.S. Navy, much as Uncle Ted had organized the Great White Fleet and sent it around the world a few years earlier. Naval power only became more important after the opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914. Throughout the war Franklin also kept Theodore informed of the palace intrigues within the State, War, and Navy Building.
Here is an incredible image from the National Archives of FDR at the laying of the keel of “Number 39,” the ship that would become the USS Arizona. (Learn more about the image’s provenance.) This was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, March 16, 1914, exactly one full year into his assistant secretaryship. The Arizona began its sea trials in 1916. I don’t know if ironic is the word for it but, in a twist, the Arizona would be sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941.