Teddy Roosevelt Was Denied His Chance To Personally Join The Western Front

Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

It is a well-known fact that the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, but if it had been up to Teddy Roosevelt, the States would have entered the conflict much earlier.

Roosevelt made no secret of his desire to personally start fighting alongside fellow Allied nations in the European trenches at the start of the First World War in 1914. In fact, he tried to accomplish this goal by offering to raise volunteer troops to fight the Germans on the Western front. Ultimately, Roosevelt’s request was abruptly turned down by Woodrow Wilson.

Theodore Roosevelt, campaign speech 1900s
Theodore Roosevelt standing on a podium pointing into the crowd during a campaign speech, circa 1900s. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

When the First World War started in 1914, Roosevelt strongly supported the Allied cause and demanded a harsher policy against Germany from President Woodrow Wilson, especially regarding submarine warfare.

Roosevelt also could not believe that Woodrow Wilson had done nothing when Belgium’s neutrality had been violated, stating: “We [America] should have interfered, at least to the extent of the most emphatic diplomatic protest and at the very outset- and then by whatever further action was necessary.” Roosevelt believed that early action undertaken by America in the early years of the First World War could have stopped the conflict in its tracks, or at least prevented its expansion.

Although Roosevelt wanted to go to war as early as 1914, Woodrow Wilson had other ideas, advocating for American neutrality at the outset of the conflict. During the 1916 Presidential election, Roosevelt put Wilson on blast for not entering the War over the German sinking of the Lusitania which claimed the lives of 128 Americans.

Increasingly, Roosevelt saw Germany as an aggressor, meaning they should be opposed and punished for crimes committed in the First World War. He saw Wilson’s act of neutrality as a great moral issue, stating that “more and more I come to the view that in a really tremendous world struggle, with a great moral issue involved, neutrality does not serve righteousness; for to be neutral between right and wrong is to serve wrong.”

Portrait of US President Woodrow Wilson
Portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, circa 1916. (Photo Credit: Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By early 1917, it was becoming increasingly likely that the United States would soon be joining the War. In March 1917, Congress, with support from U.S. Senator and future POTUS Warren G. Harding, gave authority to raise a maximum of four divisions to send over to France, very similar to what Roosevelt had done when he raised the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (also known as Rough Riders) to fight the Spanish in Cuba in 1898.

Roosevelt’s proposed plan was to lead a volunteer company, including a cavalry brigade, after six weeks of stateside training, followed by extra, “more intensive” training in France. The congressional legislation approving four volunteer divisions did not mention Roosevelt by name, but it was apparent that it was written with him in mind.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Undated photograph.
Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

According to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, “his [Roosevelt’s] presence, there would be a help and an encouragement to the soldiers of the allied nations.” The proposed volunteer divisions were to be organized and recruited by Major Frederick Russell Burnham. On the surface, it appeared that Roosevelt, even if not mentioned by name, would finally see some action in the European theatre.

Speaking to the power Roosevelt could bring to allied troops, Lodge wrote,  “He is known in Europe as no other American… His presence there would be a help and an encouragement to the soldiers of the allied nations.”

In Edmund Morris’ 2010 biography Colonel Roosevelt, Roosevelt’s determination is highlighted as a period of fatalism. “I shall not come back,” he told fellow Republicans in New York when speaking of his hopeful return to the battlefield.

Teddy Roosevelt speaks to a crowd, 1917
Teddy Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in Mineola in support of US entry into the First World War, 1917. (Photo Credit: Photo12/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

Immediately following news of the volunteer divisions, nearly 2,000 men were writing to Roosevelt every single day, offering their services to his cause. The former President recruited past Rough Rider John Campbell Greenaway, alongside Louisiana lawmaker John M. Parker, and frontier marshal Seth Bullock to help lead his charge. It appeared that his reputation with forming the Rough Riders was ready to pay off.

Roosevelt’s plan to raise a volunteer army was short-lived. On May 18, 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Service Act, which gave him the power to conscript men ages 21 to 30 as well as the option of calling up 500,000 volunteers. In a very public, but very polite statement, Wilson announced that Roosevelt’s four special volunteer divisions would no longer be necessary.

In his justification of favoring the draft over Roosevelt’s volunteer divisions, Wilson said conscription would ensure that a “people’s army” would be more representative of the nation as a whole.

After the announcement, Wilson sent Roosevelt a telegram claiming he based his decision on “the imperative considerations of public policy and not upon personal or private choice.” Roosevelt, however, didn’t buy this and in 1917 Roosevelt published The Foes Of Our Own Household, in which he indicted Wilson, stating that he was largely disqualified to lead a country in its hour of need.

Angered by what he saw as a double-cross by Wilson, Roosevelt responded in a private letter by calling the POTUS, “an utterly selfish, utterly treacherous, utterly insincere hypocrite.”

Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send U.S. troops into battle
Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send US troops into battle against Germany in World War I in his address to Congress, April 2, 1917. (Photo Credit: The Stanley Weston Archive/ Getty Images)

Throughout the years following the war, much philosophizing has surrounded the relationship between Roosevelt and Wilson. In his 1958 Pulitzer-prize winning biography, titled Woodrow Wilson, author Arthur Walworth wrote that the former President believed Roosevelt would recruit the U.S. Army’s best officers to “make up for his own shortcomings.” Other recollections have claimed that Wilson feared Roosevelt would return to America as a war hero, allowing him to reclaim the White House during the 1920 election.

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Teddy Roosevelt was never able to forgive Woodrow Wilson for denying him the opportunity to raise his volunteer divisions. All four of Roosevelt’s sons joined the military and went to the front during the First World War. His youngest son, Quentin, who was a pilot, was shot down and killed in July 1918. When Wilson found out about the death of Roosevelt’s son, he telegrammed him offering Roosevelt his condolences. Roosevelt died six months later on January 6, 1919.

Madeline Hiltz

Maddy Hiltz is someone who loves all things history. She received her Bachelors of Arts in history and her Master’s of Arts degree in history both from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis examined menstrual education in Victorian England. She is passionate about Princess Diana, the Titanic, the Romanovs, and Egypt amongst other things.

In her spare time, Maddy loves playing volleyball, running, walking, and biking, although when she wants to be lazy she loves to read a good thriller. She loves spending quality time with her friends, family, and puppy Luna!