When Col. Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders up Cuba's San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War of 1898, it transformed the little-known New York politician into a national hero. Just three years later, he was the 26th President of the United States. On the centennial of Roosevelt's defining moment, Edward J. Renehan's insightful The Lion's Pride examines a small but poignant slice of the Roosevelt story: how his exaltation of military valor played out in the lives of his four sons Ted, Kermit, Archie and Quentin in World War I and beyond.
Why did heroism mean so much to Roosevelt? The Roosevelts, well-to-do New York investors and civic leaders, had almost no tradition of military service, according to Renehan, and Roosevelt's father, Theodore Sr., avoided the Civil War draft by hiring an immigrant to take his place. Indeed, Renehan points out, the only war heroes among Roosevelt's close relatives were his mother's brothers from Georgia and they were Confederates. Perhaps, he suggests, Roosevelt's attitude grew out of embarrassment over his father's lack of a military record. Roosevelt not only became a war hero himself, he wanted each of his sons to be.
When World War I erupted in Europe in the summer of 1914, Roosevelt had been gone from the White House for five years. He was bored, and the war gave him a cause to champion. Roosevelt became the most outspoken advocate of U.S. intervention. President Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, was just as intent on keeping America out of the war. In speech after speech, Roosevelt condemned Wilson, a non-veteran, saying he was blinded by his naivete. Then, in 1917, after the Germans repeatedly sunk American ships, Wilson had to declare war. Roosevelt was jubilant. He even went to the White House hoping Wilson would allow him to lead a company of soldiers overseas. Wilson refused. Roosevelt's four sons, however, did get to serve.
Roosevelt was on hand when Ted and Archie set sail for France in June 1917. Writes Renehan: He made some of the party uncomfortable when he was heard to anticipate, with apparent elation, that at least one of his sons might be wounded, or possibly even killed, on the glorious field of battle. If glory was what the father wanted, surely the sons obliged. Ted, a major, was wounded. Kermit, a captain, was decorated for gallantry in the Middle East. Archie, also a captain, was so severely wounded he was declared disabled (he received France's Croix de Guerre), and 21-year-old Quentin, an aviator, was shot down over Germany. Theodore Roosevelt never got over Quentin's death. Within six months, Roosevelt, the Lion, was dead. The Lion's Pride will have strong appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about Roosevelt, a fascinating character with remarkable staying power as a subject for biographers, or World War I. And it should resonate with any parent who has seen a son or a daughter off to war.
Harry Merritt is a writer in Lexington, Kentucky.