Teddy Roosevelt and the Corps' Sea-Going Mission

By Jack Shulimson and Graham A Cosmas - Originally Published November 1981

Seagoing Marines owed their salvation at least as much to the cross-purposes of their enemies as to the efforts of their friends.

President Theodore Roosevelt's attempt in November 1908 to remove Marine guards from the warships of the U.S. Navy resulted in a noisy congressional and public controversy. This episode is often depicted as a simple melodrama in which Marines heroically and effectively rose to save their Corps from a cabal of naval officers bent on its destruction. In fact, the issues were more complex and were related to the effort to redefine Marine Corps roles and missions in the 20th century steam-and-steel Navy. In the larger context, the controversy illustrates both the complex bureaucratic infighting that shaped so much of Progressive Era reform and the growing estrangement between the lameduck Roosevelt and the Old Guard Republican congressional leadership.

In November 1908, the Marine Corps consisted of 267 officers and 9,100 enlisted men. Approximately one-third of this force was stationed afloat, mostly as guard detachments on warships. Another third was on shore duty outside the continental United States with the largest contingent in the Philippines. The remaining third served within the United States as navy yard guards and constituted a reserve from which expeditionary forces could be organized. Since the Spanish-American War, Marine Corps strength had expanded threefold. In the latest increase, in 1908, Congress had added almost 800 officers and men and had advanced the Commandant of the Corps to the rank of major general.

While operating under the Navy Department, the Marine Corps enjoyed the legal status of a separate Service. Its staff in Washington, headed by the Commandant, was closely allied with the powerful Navy Department bureaus and had a reputation for skillful and effective congressional lobbying. Despite this reputation, Headquarters Marine Corps, in the words of one Marine officer, was "not altogether a happy family." Major General Commandant George F. Elliott, known for his blunt and often hasty speech, was partially deaf and rumored to be overly fond of the bottle. His staff was riddled with intrigue as ambitious, politically-connected officers pursued their own bureaucratic aggrandizement. Field Marines often regarded the Washington staff with suspicion. LtCol John A. Lejeune denounced "the politicians stationed at Headquarters" and declared, "Fortunately the real Marine Corps is elsewhere and consists of the 10,000 officers and men who are scattered around the world."

Within the Navy, sharp divisions had emerged between the so-called progressive reformers and the largely conservative bureau chiefs. The reformers, mostly young commanders and captains, favored establishing a Navy general staff, modeled on that recently created for the Army. President Roosevelt generally sympathized with the reformers and had as his personal naval aide one of the most aggressive of them, Cdr William S. Sims, yet the reformers usually met frustration at the hands of the bureau chiefs who enjoyed strong congressional support. The reformers generally viewed the Marine Corps, or at least its Washington headquarters, which usually sided with the bureau chiefs, as an obstacle to their plans. One of the more vociferous Navy progressives, Cdr William F. Fullam, claimed that "the Marines and the bureau system are twins. Both must go before our Navy . . . can be properly prepared for war."

Since the early 1890s, Fullam had been in the forefront of a movement among naval officers to take Marine guard detachments off the Navy's fighting ships. Fullam and his cohorts especially objected to the use of Marines as ships' policemen, on the grounds that it was an anachronistic holdover from the days of the press gang and was detrimental to the training, discipline, and status of the modern bluejacket.

The Fullamites envisioned a new mission for the Marine Corps within the Navy, once the Corps was freed from its obsolete tasks and was properly organized. The reformers urged that the Marines be formed into permanent battalions and given their own transports, so that they could accompany the fleet either as an expeditionary force or to seize and fortify advance bases. While many Marine officers eagerly embraced the advance base mission, all Marines insisted that the ships' guards be retained. They claimed that service on board warships kept Marines in close day-to-day association with the Navy and provided them with many of the skills needed for expeditionary and advance base duty. By 1908, Fullam's position had gained many adherents among Navy line officers, but Headquarters Marine Corps, with its allies in Congress and the bureaus had defeated repeated efforts to remove the detachments from capital ships.

By mid-1908, naval reform was in the air. The reformers proposed to a sympathetic President Roosevelt the formation of an independent civilian-military commission to study Navy Department reorganization, specifically the breakup of the bureau system. As key instigators of the commission proposal, Fullam, in command of the Navy training station at Newport, and Cdr Sims tried to use Sims' influence with the President to have the Marines removed from ships. Fullam saw success on the Marine question as "an entering wedge" to break the power of the bureaus. "No legislation and no Congressional action are needed," he told Sims, "but it prepares the way for the new gospel-that the men and officers who go to sea and make the ship, the Navy, efficient must control."

On 16 September, Sims, in a long memorandum to the President, outlined the case against the Marines. He reviewed the 20-year history of the issue, emphasizing Fullam's arguments that the use of Marines as ships' policemen undermined the discipline and morale of the blue-jackets. Sims cited the fact that the Bureau of Navigation had twice recommended the removal of the Marines, but that "General Elliott goes to the Secretary and successfully combats the proposition." Sims urged Roosevelt to cut through this political tangle by using his executive authority to order the Marines off the ships. He stated: "The effect of removing the Marines from the ships would be electrical, because the demand is universal."

Besides Sims, Fullam used a number of other formal and informal channels to reach the President and Secretary of the Navy. On 31 August, W.D. Walker, editor of Army and Navy Life and a close associate of the naval reformers, urged Roosevelt to remove the Marine guards, employing essentially the same arguments as Fullam and Sims. More important, a close Fullam associate, Cdr William R. Shoemaker, in the Bureau of Navigation, convinced the bureau chief, RAdm John E. Pillsbury, to revive the Bureau's earlier removal recommendation. On 16 October, Pillsbury wrote to Secretary of the Navy Victor H. Metcalf that "the time has arrived when all marine detachments should be removed from . . . naval vessels." Secretary Metcalf brought up the proposal at a Cabinet meeting, and President Roosevelt approved it. On 23 October, Metcalf formally concurred in Pillsbury's recommendation and directed that it be carried out.

Up to this point, all those involved in making the decision had carefully avoided consulting or informing Gen Elliott. Elliott, however, had received hints that the Marines' shipboard position again was under attack. Earlier in October, Adm Pillsbury had issued an order reducing the size of the Marine guard on one of the battleships. Although Elliott had persuaded Metcalf to rescind this order, he realized that the struggle was far from over. On 30 October, he discussed the issue with Sims and stated that he planned to ask Roosevelt directly to "have the pressure stopped." Before Elliott could meet with the President, however, Secretary Metcalf informed the Commandant that the Marines were to come off the ships. Elliott at once counterattacked. After an unsatisfactory meeting with Adm Pillsbury, Elliott, on 7 November, made a final appeal to Metcalf. He presented the Secretary a long memorandum, prepared by his staff, which declared that:

the proposed removal of Marines from vessels of the Navy is . . . contrary to the long established and uninterrupted custom of the service, contrary to all precedents and rulings . . . contrary to the wishes of Congress, and is based upon no argument which is cogent or potent.

Metcalf rejected the Marine plea and informed the Commandant that the President already had decided on removal. Elliott then requested permission to take his case directly to Roosevelt.

On 9 November, in his meeting with the President, Elliott found Roosevelt sympathetic to the Marines but firmly committed to their removal. In the course of the conversation, Elliott emphasized that many Marine officers viewed abolition of the ships' guards as the "death knell" of the Corps. Roosevelt asked whether Elliott shared this opinion. Candidly, the Commandant replied that he did not. Roosevelt then instructed the general to draw up a statement of the Marine Corps mission once the guards were removed from the ships.

Elliott entrusted the preparation of the proposed order to three officers of his personal staff: LtCol James Mahoney, LtCol Eli K. Cole, and Maj Charles G. Long. All three were Naval Academy graduates who had been closely associated with the emerging advance base mission. Their draft order avoided mention of the ships' guards and provided that Marines were to garrison navy yards and naval stations within and beyond the continental limits of the United States. Marines were to "furnish the first line of . . . mobile defense" for overseas naval stations, and they were to help man the fortifications of such bases. The Corps was to garrison the Panama Canal Zone and furnish other such garrisons and expeditionary forces for duties beyond the seas as necessary. In an enclosure to the memorandum, the three officers recommended organization of the Marine Corps, once the ships' guards were withdrawn, into 9 permanent 1,100-man regiments. Elliott and his staff obviously were making a virtue out of necessity by trying to stake a firm claim to the advance base and expeditionary role, as well as making an expandable expeditionary organization, while conceding the loss of the ships' detachments.

On 12 November, President Roosevelt incorporated the exact wording of Elliott's memorandum in his executive order. The order did not mention ships' guards or call for their removal, although all those concerned understood that to be its intent. During the next several months, the Bureau of Navigation gradually began the removal of the ships' detachments. By early 1909 about 800 of the 2,700 ships' guards had come off.

The immediate reaction to the executive order was predictable. Naval officers generally approved. Upon hearing the news of Roosevelt's decision, Fullam exclaimed: "Hurrah for the President! God Bless him!" and compared the executive order to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Marine officers looked upon the executive order with misgivings at best, and most saw it as a first step toward the elimination of their Corps. One Marine officer stated: "The President's order . . . in effect reduces the Marine Corps to the status of watchmen." Rumors circulated in Washington that Marine officers were organizing to lobby Congress for reversal of Roosevelt's decision. Despite the unhappiness among his officers, Gen Elliott loyally supported the executive order in public, claiming that it would be "the making of the Marine Corps." On 16 November, in response to the reported Marine lobbying efforts, Elliott issued a special order forbidding such activity as "contrary to the motto of the Corps-for 'Semper Fidelis' would be but a meaningless term if it shone only on the sunny side of life or duty."

Even as Elliott publicly looked toward a new role for the Marine Corps within the Navy, MajGen Leonard Wood, a confidant of Roosevelt and a leading Army progressive, saw the removal of Marines from ships as an opportunity to incorporate the Corps into the Army. Wood and most other senior Army officers were looking for a way to expand the Army's infantry. The Marine Corps had a prominent place in Army proposals for achieving this objective. During 1907, the Army Chief of Staff, LtGen J. Franklin Bell, floated as a trial balloon a plan to transfer the Army's large coast artillery corps to the Navy (and incorporate it in the Marine Corps). This would leave room in the Army for more infantry regiments. Wood, then commanding general, Division of the Philippines, offered as a counterproposal the simple incorporation of the Marines into the Army. Wood, who had a wide circle of acquaintances within the Navy and Marine Corps, respected Marine military efficiency but had gained the impression that the Navy no longer needed the Corps. Late in 1907, he wrote in a letter intended for Roosevelt's eye that the Marine Corps:

is an able body, but its desire for enlargement is productive of unrest. A large portion of the navy are in favor of dispensing with Marines on board ship, . . . their numbers are . . . far in excess of the actual needs of the navy. We need them in the army . . .

Neither of these plans had gone beyond the talking stage when Roosevelt's executive order reopened the entire issue of the Marines' future. Wood had just returned to the United States to take over the Department of the East. he was already regarded as the leading candidate to succeed Bell as Army Chief of Staff. At Roosevelt's invitation, Wood spent several days in mid-November as a house guest at the Executive Mansion. During this visit, Wood pressed upon Roosevelt his view that the Marines should be incorporated into the Army. he argued that Elliott, through the executive order, was aiming to establish an expanded Marine infantry under the Navy Department. Wood pointed out that the President, under his executive authority, could order the Marines to duty with the Army, as had been done temporarily several times in the past. Having established such a fait accompli, Roosevelt at a later time could work out with Congress and the Service Departments the legal details of the transfer. Roosevelt was receptive to Wood's proposal. Already irritated with Marine lobbying, he told his military aide, Capt Archie Butt, that the Marines "should be absorbed into the Army, and no vestige of their organization should be allowed to remain."

While in Washington, Wood informally discussed his ideas with Gen Bell and other high-ranking Army officers. He also made an ill-fated overture to two key Marine Corps staff officers, Col Frank L. Denny and LtCol Charles L. McCawley. Both officers were well known in Washington social circles, and both had strong political connections. Denny, the son of a prominent Indiana Republican, had many Army acquaintances and nursed ambitions to become Commandant of the Marine Corps. McCawley was the son of a former Commandant and had been the military social aide to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. In a chance encounter with the two men on the street in front of the White House, Wood told them that he personally favored transfer of the Marine Corps to the Army and confided that the President was inclined to such a course of action. He asked Denny and McCawley to sound out Marine officer sentiment.

On 23 November, Denny and McCawley told the Commandant, who had just returned to Washington, about the proposed merger with the Army and the President's tentative support for the idea. Much to their surprise, Gen Elliott angrily denounced such a move. In a letter of protest to Gen Wood, Elliott claimed that neither he nor the Secretary of the Navy had been told of this proposal and declared: "I would as soon believe there was a lost chord in Heaven" as to believe the President, after redefining the Corps' mission, would contemplate separating the Marines from the Navy. Replying to Elliott, Wood reiterated his own support for Army-Marine amalgamation but denied that he spoke for the President.

In a further exchange of letters, Elliott declared that Wood, as an Army general, had no right to discuss disposition of the Marine Corps, which was a separate Service. The Commandant insisted that "the entire Army and Marine Corps, with the exception of the general officers, would be bitterly opposed to such amalgamation." Wood apologized to Roosevelt for bringing his name into the discussion and forwarded all his correspondence on the subject. On 28 November, Roosevelt, in a letter addressed "Dear Leonard," committed him- self on the amalgamation issue. He wrote, "You are quite welcome to quote me on that matter. I think the Marines should be incorporated with the Army." Wood on 2 December flatly informed Elliott that the President supported the transfer. The entire incident convinced Elliott, who up to now had publicly defended removal of the Marine guards, that he and the Marine Corps were being doublecrossed. As he later stated, "While we had been following quietly our duties, elimination and absorption were casting unknown to us their shadows at our heels."

Elliott was among the last to learn about Wood's scheme. Almost as soon as Wood had arrived in Washington, the future of the Marine Corps had become a matter of public and private speculation. Fairly accurate accounts of Wood's proposals and Roosevelt's reaction appeared in newspapers and journals. While few Marines expressed any enthusiasm about going into the Army, many thought such a course of action inevitable as a result of the removal of ships' guards. In an extreme expression of this point of view, one officer declared: "It is imperative that we immediately sever every possible connection with the Navy by transfer to some branch of the Army . . ."

The regular House Naval Affairs Committee hearings on the annual Navy Department appropriation provided the scene for the first political skirmish over both removal of the Marine detachments and the merger of the Marines with the Army. On 9 December, in his testimony, Adm Pillsbury flatly stated the Navy Department position: "I think that it will be a very great mistake to put them [the Marines] in the Army. We want them in the Navy. We do not want them on board ship." Although the Marine officers, including Gen Elliott, made no mention of the subject in their public testimony, Elliott informed the committee off the record that he now opposed removal of the ships' detachments. In perhaps the shrewdest maneuver of the hearing, LtCol George E. Richards, assistant paymaster of the Corps, responding to a prearranged question from a committee member, presented a memorandum estimating that it would cost the Navy Department an additional $425,000 to replace Marines with sailors on board ships. At the end of the session, the committee voted to hold supplementary hearings by a subcommittee on the entire Marine issue.

In the period between the conclusion of the full House committee hearings in December and the opening of the subcommittee hearings in January, the Marine Corps and its allies mobilized for the struggle. Marine staff officers prepared several detailed memoranda supporting their position. On 20 December, a group of Marine officers from several east coast navy yards met privately at Boston to discuss "the new status of the Marine Corps." While they publicly denied that their meeting had anything to do with attempts to reverse the President's executive order, few observers believed they met for any other purpose. Sims and Fullam exchanged rumors and warnings about the Marines' organizing and lobbying efforts. The Army question, meanwhile, faded into the background. Although Wood continued to discuss the subject privately, neither he nor Roosevelt took any overt action. They and the War Department were apparently unwilling to challenge directly Navy control of the Marines if the Navy wanted to retain the Corps.

When the subcommittee began its hearings on 9 January 1909, it was obvious that proMarine forces were in control. Representative Thomas H. Butler, who presided over most of the sessions, had a son in the Marine Corps and was on the record as opposing Roosevelt's executive order. The clerk of the subcommittee was a former Marine officer. Gen Elliott and his staff attended almost the entire hearing, and the subcommittee permitted them to crossexamine witnesses. Cdr Fullam described the atmosphere of the proceedings: "The Marine colonels were ever present. A stranger could not have distinguished them from members of the Committee. They rose at will to exhort, object, and cross-examine." Although one-sided, Fullam's observations were in the main correct. he and the other reformers faced a rigged jury and a hanging judge.

Before the hearings ended on 15 January, a parade of 34 witnesses testified. All of the Marines opposed withdrawal of the guard detachments from ships, while the Navy officers split evenly for and against. Both sides reiterated their traditional arguments for and against keeping Marines on warships. Using rudimentary cost-effectiveness analysis, they presented conflicting estimates of the expense involved in replacing Marines with sailors.

While the subcommittee focused on the cost issue, the question of transferring the Marine Corps to the Army was never far from the surface. Several Marine and Navy opponents of the executive order warned that removal of the guard detachments might lead to the Navy losing the Marine Corps, while supporters of the order affirmed their desire to keep the Marines in the Navy. Fullam, for example, declared: "If I were king here tomorrow, I would preserve the Marine Corps . . . as a splendidly organized mobile force, to serve with the Navy . . ." Secretary Newberry testified that if it were a choice between losing the Marines and putting them back on ship, "I would rather put them back aboard ship." The prospect of absorption of the Marines by the Army was also a stumbling block to congressional supporters of Roosevelt. Representative John W. Weeks, wrote to Fullam: "My mind now inclines to leave in the hands of the Executive the question of where the Marines shall serve, but takes a positive stand against action which will tend to amalgamate the Corps with the Army.

When the full Naval Affairs Committee reported the naval appropriation bill to the House on 16 January, it was clear that the Marine point of view had prevailed. The committee recommended insertion in the bill of a provision that:

hereafter officers and enlisted men of the Marine Corps shall serve . . . on board all battleships and armored cruisers, . . . in detachments of not less than eight per centum of the strength of the enlisted men of the Navy on said vessels.

When the appropriation bill came up for consideration before the House, administration forces, assisted by vigorous Navy Department and White House lobbying, turned the tables on the Marines. On 21 January the House passed the bill without the proposed amendment to keep Marines on board ships.

The fight now shifted to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, where the Marine Corps could depend on the support of the powerful chairman, Senator Eugene Hale of Maine. Hale, a staunch Roosevelt opponent, was at loggerheads with the President over Navy Department reorganization in general and specifically had come out against taking the Marines off ships. Without bothering to hold hearings on the question of Marine removal, Kale's committee on 10 February reported the appropriation bill to the Senate with numerous amendments, including reinsertion of the House committee's original provision overturning Roosevelt's executive order.

On the Senate floor, the administration made a major effort to defeat the amendment. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a personal friend of Roosevelt and long-time supporter of a big Navy, led the fight, liberally supplied with argument and documents by Sims and Fullam. During the Senate debate on 16 and 17 February, Lodge restated the reformers' arguments about the need to restructure the Marine Corps, but significantly disavowed any intention to put the Marines into the Army and stated that he himself would oppose any such effort. Senator Hale, on the other hand, kept hammering at the point that Congress had equal authority with the President over the Navy Department and warned that "the underlying purpose [of removal] is to take these people away from the navy and in the end turn them over to the army." When the amendment came up for final approval on the 17th, it passed by a vote of 51 to 12. This result reflected more personal and political hostility to Roosevelt than conviction about the status of the Marine Corps. Among the supporters of the amendment were most of the Democrats and a strong contingent of conservative Republicans. All of the opponents of the amendment were either Roosevelt loyalists, such as Lodge, or Republican progressives, including William E. Borah and Robert M. LaFollette.

After Senate passage of the entire bill on the 17th, the legislation went to a conference committee headed by Senator Hale and Representative George E. Foss, Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. As part of the complex bargaining over dozens of amendments, the House initially refused to accept the Senate provision on the Marines. Roosevelt, however, now was willing to surrender on the Marine issue in order to obtain favorable consideration on the other naval issues. On 18 February, he wrote to Representative Foss: "The bill as it passed the Senate will, as regards this point, do a little damage [but] it does not do very much." Roosevelt made no mention of putting the Marines in the Army and declared that he had issued his executive order "with the explicit object of retaining the marines for the purpose of an expeditionary force . . ." With this signal from the President, the House conferees gave way on the Marine issue. On 1 March, both houses passed the naval appropriation bill with the amendment requiring return of the Marine guards to the ships of the fleet.

During the remaining days of his administration, Roosevelt and Secretary Newberry attempted to find loopholes in the language of the appropriation act which would permit the President to keep the Marines off the ships. Newberry declared: "I have issued no orders about the return of Marines to the ships and will not do so."

The new President, William Howard Taft, was not about to challenge Congress and immediately took steps to reverse Roosevelt's final measures. As early as 25 January, the President-elect had taken a conciliatory tone, writing to Senator Hale:

I intend, so far as possible, to do nothing without full consultation with you managers of the Senate, and while of course it is not expected that we may always agree, it may be asserted that we shall never surprise each other.

On 5 April, Taft's Attorney General, at the Navy Department's request, declared that in his opinion the Congressional requirement that Marines make up eight percent of a ship's crew was constitutional. Very soon thereafter, Marines began marching up the gangplanks of Navy warships, and the controversy was over.

The participants reacted predictably to the outcome. For the Army, it was a case of very little ventured and nothing gained, since Wood's negotiations had been entirely confidential and informal, although quite serious in intent. Some Army officers, nevertheless, believed that "a great opportunity has been lost by the restoration of the Marines to the ships." Navy reformers such as Fullam railed against the decision, denouncing the "parlor and club colonels" of the Marine Corps and grumbling that the entire Navy was "at the mercy of the shore-staying staff and their political friends." More moderate reformers, for example the respected RAdm Stephen B. Luce, founder of the Navy War College, warned that withdrawal of the ships' guards would have led to the "obliteration" of the Marine Corps. Taking Luce's lead, the Navy's General Board in later years would refuse to support the Fullamites in their agitation for removal of the Marine guards on the grounds that such action would lead to the loss of the Corps to the Army. Marines breathed a sigh of relief over what they considered their narrow escape and would cling ever more tenaciously to what was in effect a relatively minor mission. They viewed Fullam and his henchmen with suspicion and often outright hostility and believed they were continually vulnerable to power grabs by ambitious Army and Navy officers. On the occasion of renewed agitation by Fullam in 1913, Maj Smedley D. Butler exploded in a letter to his Quaker father, Representative Thomas Butler, who had chaired the special subcommittee in 1909: "I wish somebody would beat the S.O.B. to death. Please try to help us, Father," he pleaded, "for the Lord only knows what will become of our little Corps."

Despite Butler's alone-against-the-world outlook, the Marines in 1908-1909 owed their success against Roosevelt's executive order only partially to their own political action. The Marine Corps approached the removal issue with divided councils. Gen Elliott, obviously influenced by the advance base-oriented members of his informal staff, initially tried to trade acquiescence in the removal of the detachments for a reinforced and expanded Corps designed around the advance base and expeditionary missions. There was much justice in the accusation, made by both Adm Luce and Gen Wood, that the Major General Commandant was trying to take advantage of Roosevelt's order to establish an army of his own. Probably a majority of Marine officers in the field, as well as key members of the Headquarters staff, adamantly opposed removal of the guards from the beginning. Still other Marines, typified by Denny and McCawley, simply sought to turn the situation to their own personal advantage and flirted, more or less seriously, with amalgamation into the Army. Whether Elliott was simply swayed by the conflicting currents within the Corps or acting from firm conviction is not entirely clear from the evidence. What is certain is that he swung into active opposition to removal of the Marine guards only after becoming convinced that the President had betrayed him.

President Roosevelt did a great deal to frustrate his own order by, in effect, doublecrossing both the Marine Corps and the Navy reformers through his dealings with Wood. Even these factors and the Marine lobbying would not have been enough to reverse Roosevelt's order, had it not been for the general anti-Roosevelt hostility of the conservative Republican Senate leadership and the particular enmity of Senator Hale for all manifestations of naval reform. Taft's retreat from Roosevelt's policy toward the Marines foreshadowed the new President's gradual drift into alliance with the conservative faction of the Republican party. In the end, then, the ships' detachments owed their salvation at least as much to the cross-purposes of their enemies as to the efforts of their friends. Perhaps a newspaper's amateur poet had the last word:

The guard they stood at attention,
Like they didn’t give a damn,
to hear the word of the Overlord,
The great I am.
And he tells us that we ain’t wanted,
That the jackies will go it alone.
But I thought I heard an under word
From a power behind the throne.