From the desk of Matthew Oyos: Practicing War—Theodore Roosevelt and the Modern Maneuver


Matthew Oyos is a professor of history at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. He is the author of In Command: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Military (June 2018).

Missiles, nuclear weapons, and summit meetings have fastened the world’s attention on the Korean peninsula, and, in particular, on the modern hermit kingdom of North Korea. These events demand historical perspective—witness Peter Eicher’s insights on this blog about America’s first encounters with the closed society of Japan in the nineteenth century. Summits, when they take place, occur sporadically, but a well-choreographed dance regularly plays out in Korea that often threatens to heat up this hotspot.

The United States and South Korea conduct periodic military exercises to send signals about American-Korean solidarity, and North Korea denounces the maneuvers as provocative and often lobs more than rhetorical bombs to demonstrate its displeasure.  These moves and countermoves may seem predictable, but one wrong step might spark a major conflict. The stakes could not be higher when some of the sabers being rattled are nuclear ones. Joint exercises come at a particularly delicate time in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Tensions rise as one side touts its missiles and weapons development, and the other talks of “fire and fury.” Then, a new tone is set with cross-border meetings, and announcements of precedent-shattering talks. For how long, and in what direction, the delicate dance between the two Koreas will continue remains an open question.

What might any of the above have to do with Theodore Roosevelt? After all, tensions in Korea are occurring nearly a century after his death, and many events have remade the world that he knew. Yet in looking at military exercises now and then, the aphorism that history does not repeat itself, but rhymes, might be applied when comparing military exercises then and now. As one of the most active peacetime commanders in chief in American history, Theodore Roosevelt promoted military maneuvers as a key instrument in asserting the status of the United States as a new great power. He viewed military exercises through various lenses, and throughout his presidency he would use them to promote operational readiness, military modernization, diplomatic priorities, and his own political standing. Without maneuvers, his program to prepare the United States military for the challenges of the twentieth century could not succeed.

When he took office in 1901, Roosevelt inherited a military establishment that was in transition. Nineteenth century missions still influenced the structure of the army and navy, even though both services had just waged war against Spain, and American forces fought to secure United States rule in the Philippines. For much of the 1800s, the army had protected the coasts and deployed to far-flung garrisons to police the frontier. The fighting in the Philippines did not mark a sharp departure from the role of a frontier constabulary, and many soldiers adjusted to the struggle by referring to the Filipinos as “Indians.” For its part, the navy had adopted steel and steam, but its peacetime mission remained as if it were still 1850. Squadrons patrolled far off stations to protect commerce and show the American flag. Only war would bring vessels together into a true fleet. These missions sufficed when the United States enjoyed relative continental isolation in the nineteenth century, but, for Roosevelt, they no longer suited a country with increasingly wide-spread interests. He wanted military forces better able to fight other great powers.

Great power war meant fighting in larger formations, and from the outset of a conflict.  The nineteenth century had allowed time to build forces and train them, compared to the more compressed timeline for mobilization rendered by industrialization. For the army, the challenge of creating larger formations and having them practice was harder than for the navy. Military garrisons were scattered, and nearby communities depended on their presence. Gathering forces to practice as brigades, much less divisions, was difficult, and the commitment to the Philippines was an additional constraint. Roosevelt supported military reforms enacted after the Spanish-American war, and promoted maneuvers as a way for officers to employ the knowledge gained in new professional schools. He equated military preparations to a sporting contest, for well-drilled soldiers would perform better in a real contest. T.R. spoke of “decisive blows” and “long years of practice.” Also, ever concerned about people’s character, he saw maneuvers as a way for soldiers to engage in hard living, lest they become “over-civilized” now that the American frontier was gone. In September 1902, large-scale maneuvers began at Fort Riley, Kansas, when approximately 7,000 troops divided into the Browns and the Blues and waged mock battle. Maneuvers occurred again in 1904 and 1906, and the numbers increased markedly as militia units joined in the practices. At Manassas, Virginia, in 1904, 26,000 gathered, and in 1906, nearly 50,000 participated, although they were spread across seven joint exercises. In order for officers to learn how to do such operations properly, Roosevelt dispatched delegations to observe European armies. They paid special attention to how the Germans ran their maneuvers.

Political considerations never lay far below the surface. Money was not always available to support army exercises. In fact, a lack of funds prevented maneuvers in 1905.  Roosevelt did his best to rally support. He pushed for congressional appropriations in every annual message from 1901 to 1907, and during speaking tours he played on popular memories of breakdowns in the army’s performance during the war with Spain. T.R. also wanted different sections of the country to host maneuvers, in part for military reasons but also political ones. He realized that maneuvers brought press coverage, and such attention, in turn, could build regional constituencies in support of exercises. In 1904, for example, he stressed the desirability of either Texas hosting maneuvers or Texas troops having the chance to participate somewhere else. He really wanted the South to have one set of maneuvers that year. In the end, Texas troops practiced with the Pacific Division.

Compared to the army, the navy had an easier time undertaking maneuvers. This service was the nation’s first-line of defense, and had benefited from a good share of resources being diverted its way in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan had encapsulated a recipe for national greatness in which sea power played the crucial ingredient, and Roosevelt, a proponent of sea power in his own right, had worked to advance Mahanian thinking since the 1890s. As president, he held the position by which he could best develop naval power, and during his two terms served, in effect, as his own secretary of the navy. Battleships were necessary to secure command of the sea and, thus, were his priority. During his tenure, T.R. secured sixteen battleships, so that by 1909 the navy boasted an active total of twenty-five. He also added six cruisers, twenty destroyers, and twelve submarines. This force could not hope, however, to take on other front-rank powers unless it was used to operating as a unified fleet, and when Roosevelt took office in 1901 the United States had a fleet in name only.

Traditional naval deployments had served well for most of the nineteenth century.  During peacetime, squadrons had patrolled Asiatic, European, Caribbean, and other waters, and only came together during wartime. Even the term “squadron” was a misnomer. It was really an administrative term, for ships belonging to squadrons did not often patrol together, but separately in order to cover more water. Roosevelt wanted naval forces, especially battleships, concentrated in peace to prepare them better for war. In the age of industry, the United States could not afford the lag in time while far-flung squadrons consolidated, and sailors needed to practice operating in fleets, for they would face antagonists who fought that way. T.R. gave great emphasis to naval maneuvers during his presidency. Such exercises would bring ships together, and give sailors valuable experience. Maneuvers also provided a spectacle that could sell the public on more ships, and exercises would serve a diplomatic purpose, as well.

Consolidation began in 1902, but the process took five years to complete. By 1907, all battleships were stationed in an Atlantic Fleet, and the navy formed a Pacific Fleet around fast cruisers. Although the fleets were not fully formed until late in Roosevelt’s presidency, large-scale maneuvers began as early as 1902. Roosevelt, characteristically, claimed full credit for initiating exercises in the Caribbean in December 1902, boasting that the plan “was mine” to gather forces off Puerto Rico. To make sure the maneuvers received maximum attention, he placed the hero of Manila Bay, Admiral George Dewey, in charge. Roosevelt worked hard to make the maneuvers a success, and he was determined to press on even when the coal strike of 1902 led to calls that the maneuvers be cancelled. Presidential mediation of the strike removed the problem, and the maneuvers went on as scheduled. The timing was fortuitous, for German pressure on Venezuela had raised tensions, and the statement made by the American mobilization assisted efforts for a peaceful resolution.

Roosevelt’s decision to send the battle fleet on a world cruise was the most famous military maneuver that occurred during his tenure. The “Great White Fleet”—named for the white and buff color scheme of the vessels—circled the globe from December 1907 to February 1909. This demonstration served multiple purposes. It gave the navy practice at moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the ships engaged in gunnery practice and various maneuvers along the way. The cruise was also intended as a demonstration of power, with particular attention directed at Japan. Tensions had run high with that nation since 1906.  Also, the president was hoping to pressure an increasingly reluctant Congress to authorize more battleships.  Thus, Roosevelt exulted when the fleet returned in late February 1909, a few days before he departed office in early March. The cruise had gone off smoothly, and it had been a signal display of a new American ability to project power. Moreover, Congress had agreed to two more battleships.  It was, indeed, the crowning moment of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.

Military exercises were a key part of building modern, capable armed forces. Officers in both the army and navy had long wanted larger scale practice; Theodore Roosevelt made such maneuvers possible. For him, they served important operational, political, and diplomatic purposes. Those dimensions remain present in the 2010s, even though the technology, along with national and international circumstances, have changed greatly since Roosevelt’s time. Military exercises yet serve practical ends, but they remain statements of power and showcase a country’s know-how and cultural vigor. Roosevelt hardly brought about the modern military exercise himself, but he was an important catalyzing force.

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