Saturday, May 2, 2009

The quest to secure the Medal of Honor for Theodore Roosevelt ended after 103 years when President William J. Clinton presented the nation's highest military award to Theodore Roosevelt posthumously. Tweed Roosevelt received the Medal on behalf of the Roosevelt family, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday, January 16, 2001.

TR was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery on July 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, in the battle to capture San Juan Heights, near Santiago, Cuba, when he led the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) and other troops in two dramatic charges against entrenched Spanish positions. Tweed Roosevelt, a great grandson of TR, was chosen to receive the Medal for the family because of his leadership in the efforts to bring about the award.

Back in 1898 Roosevelt, first Lieutenant Colonel, then Colonel of the Rough Riders, as the colorful regiment of cowboys, Indians, and Ivy League athletes was known, was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor by the chain of command in Cuba, Brigadier General Leonard Wood, who had won the Medal of Honor fighting the Apaches, Major General Samuel S. Sumner, an eyewitness to the San Juan Heights battle, Major General "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, and Major General William R. Shafter, the commanding general in Cuba who had himself won the Medal of Honor in the Civil War.

It was, to say the least, highly unusual for an award recommended by the entire chain of command to be rejected; and this was an award for action in combat that had been witnessed by many and widely reported in the press. But the recommendation was indeed rejected by the War Department. Why? The probable reason is that TR had sent a telegram and a letter to Secretary of War Russell A. Alger strongly urging that American troops, ravaged by tropical diseases, be immediately returned to the United States now that the fighting was over. (TR himself contracted malaria, which remained with him the rest of his life). General Shafter leaked these messages to the press, thereby embarrassing and infuriating Secretary of War Alger as well as President William McKinley.

Alger was subsequently forced to resign from the cabinet after an investigating commission exposed his incompetence at the War Department. TR, of course, became President in 1901, and that ended the matter of his Medal of Honor, or so it seemed. Then, in the "Fiscal Year 1996 National Defense Authorization Act," passed by Congress on February 10, 1996, Congress repealed the statute of limitations on military decorations. The legislation was passed primarily because of the failure of the United States to award the Medal of Honor to worthy African Americans during World War II and the Korean War, but the 1996 Congressional measure potentially opened the door for the consideration of any case from the past involving military decorations.

It was then that Congressman Paul McHale, Democrat from the 15th District in Pennsylvania, a former officer in the Marines, took up the cause of TR's Medal of Honor and began what might well be called the "second battle of San Juan Heights"! Congressman McHale, who retired from Congress in 1999, was present, along with other Congressional champions of TR's cause, at the presentation of the Medal of Honor in the White House on January 16, 2001.

The Fight to Win the Medal of Honor for the Colonel
Congressman Paul McHale introduced a bill to give the Medal of Honor to TR in 1996, and then introduced a second bill on July 25, 1997, HR 2263, entitled "A bill to authorize and request the President to award the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to Theodore Roosevelt for his gallant and heroic actions in the attack on San Juan Heights, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War." HR 2263 had over 160 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, forming an impressive and bipartisan coalition. Congressman Rick Lazio, Republican from Brightwaters, Long Island, New York, filed the formal application and supporting evidence with the U.S. Army for the posthumous award. Congressman Steve Buyer, Republican from Indiana, Chairman of the House Military Personnel Subcommittee, greatly helped to rally support for the bill in the House of Representatives.

The bill to grant TR the Medal of Honor was endorsed by the Board of Trustees of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and subsequently was backed by the Navy League of the United States, of which TR was a founder, and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute as well as by a broad spectrum of Americans, ranging from members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organization which TR joined in 1917, to the students in Richard Siegelman's third-grade class at the Vernon School in East Norwich, Long Island, near TR's Sagamore Hill home, who sent out countless letters and messages in support of the Rough Rider's cause.

Hearings were held on September 28, 1998 by the House Military Personnel Subcommittee; and testimony was given by Dr. John A. Gable, Executive Director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA); Tweed Roosevelt, a great grandson of TR who is a member of the TRA Executive Committee; Nathan Miller, a biographer of TR; Congressman Paul McHale, a member of the House subcommittee; and Congressman Rick Lazio. Jim Wiltraut, Congressman McHale's able assistant, energetic Ken Trepeta from Congressman Lazio's office, and knowledgeable Mike Higgins of the Military Personnel Subcommittee's staff were of great help in advancing TR's case in the House and elsewhere.

Opposition to the Colonel's Cause
The opposition to awarding the Medal of Honor to TR came particularly from elements within the U.S. Army. The Army has opposed in general the repeal of the statute of limitations on military decorations and the award of what might be called historical medals. Moreover, some in the Army thought that Roosevelt simply did not deserve the Medal of Honor. While no public statement was made on the case, it is widely believed that some historians in the Army think that TR was no more outstanding than many other brave officers in the battle of July 1, 1898 in Cuba, who did not receive the Medal of Honor either. In any event, while Congressman McHale's bill was making its way through the House in 1998, TR's cause received a major setback when the Senior Army Decorations Board recommended that the Medal of Honor again be denied to TR. TR's supporters, of course, took issue with this ruling.

On Thursday, October 8, 1998, the House of Representatives passed HR 2263 unanimously by a voice vote. The bill was then introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Bob Smith, Republican of New Hampshire, with strong support from Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat from North Dakota. (Senator Conrad's state of North Dakota regards TR as an adopted favorite son because of his days as a rancher in the Dakota Badlands). Time was now short, because Congress was about to adjourn for the year. Tweed Roosevelt had helped greatly in getting the bill through the House, and he and Senator Conrad were the leaders for the cause in the Senate and later in dealings with the White House. In one day alone Tweed Roosevelt personally visited 14 senators in their offices. The bill passed the U.S. Senate unanimously by voice vote without dissent on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 21, 1998, in the closing hours of the Congressional session. There was much celebrating by TR's supporters at that time, but as it turned out the war was far from over.

The Fight For the Medal Goes On
On October 22, 1998, the day after the bill cleared the Senate, Bill Bleyer reported in Newsday: "In a compromise to placate legislators who did not want to offend the Army, a letter signed by five Senators and Congressmen involved in the issue will accompany the bill to the White House." The letter requested the President to "seek the advice of the secretary of the Army" on the matter, and to ask the Army to "prepare a full and formal record of Theodore Roosevelt's valor." The bill was signed by President Clinton in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on the afternoon of Thursday, November 12, 1998. Among those present were Tweed Roosevelt, Congressman Peter King, the New York Republican whose district includes Sagamore Hill, and Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota. The President then honored the request from those in Congress who did not want to bypass the Army, and the matter was referred back to the Army for review.

The Army set up a special Medal of Honor panel to review the evidence and then make a recommendation, and supporters of TR hoped that the issue might be resolved by the end of 1999. Much new evidence and comment was received by the Army panel.

Lawrence H. Budner, President of the TRA, sent in copies of two original letters in the noted Budner Theodore Roosevelt Collection. The letters were written in 1898 by a Rough Rider to his parents in Texas, describing TR's heroic leadership in the Cuban campaign. Two recent attacks on Roosevelt's war record were often cited by opponents of the posthumous award: a book, Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan (1997) by Harold and Peggy Samuels; and an article by Mitchell Yockelson, " 'I Am Entitled to the Medal of Honor and I Want It,' Theodore Roosevelt and His Quest for the Medal of Honor," Prologue, Spring 1998, Vol. 30, no. 1. Dr. Gable of the TRA, in a letter to the Army panel, said that Yockelson and Mr. & Mrs. Samuels cited unreliable sources in making their case while ignoring eyewitness testimony favorable to TR. "Both publications are clearly biased against Roosevelt, deficient in scholarship, and full of holes," wrote Dr. Gable.

Others in favor of TR's case noted that over 20 other American soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor - then the nation's only major combat decoration - for bravery in the heavy fighting near Santiago on July 1, 1898, and asked if TR's record that day was any less noteworthy. Who else led two charges that day? Who else was exposed to enemy fire on horseback in that battle?

On March 31, 1999, a group of 14 historians and experts, joined by former Senator Claiborne deB. Pell (whose father, Herbert C. Pell, was an ardent Bull Mooser), sent a letter to the President, Secretary of the Army, and Secretary of Defense urging that TR be awarded the Medal of Honor. The letter was sent in time to meet the Army's May 31, 1999 deadline for the receipt of evidence and comment. The letter read:

"We the undersigned urge the President to grant Theodore Roosevelt an award he has deserved for more than a century: the Medal of Honor for his heroism as leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt displayed extraordinary valor at the Battle of San Juan. The image of Roosevelt leading his Rough Riders first up Kettle Hill and then on the famous charge up the San Juan Heights on 1 July, 1898 is etched forever in the American mind. Roosevelt was denied the Medal for political reasons in 1898. Time now to right a century-old wrong."

The letter was signed by, in addition to former Senator Pell, Stephen E. Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley, John A. Gable, Nathan Miller, Edmund and Sylvia Morris, William N. Tilchin, Edward J. Renehan, Jr., Geoffrey C. Ward, David Grubin, Colonel Herbert M. Hart, John B. Hattendorf, Colonel Paul L. Miles, Jr., and Edward M. Strauss, III.

The letter was the idea of Edward J. Renehan, Jr. of North Kingston, Rhode Island, biographer of John Burroughs and author of The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War. It was thought at the time by many that the Army would look foolish if it turned down Roosevelt in the face of such a distinguished group of petitioners. Earlier, on October 4, 1997, one of the signers of the Renehan appeal, Edmund Morris, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, had written to Congressman Lazio:

"I hereby endorse without reservation your effort to win the former Colonel Roosevelt a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, in recognition of his extraordinary bravery at the Battle of San Juan Heights on July 1, 1898. He led a charge against almost insuperable tactical odds (foot soldiers storming a high redoubt) and not only succeeded in dislodging the enemy, but inspired a whole generation of American youth with his example."

A long wait followed the May 31, 1999 deadline for submission of material to the Army panel. No public statement was ever made by the Army panel about its findings or conclusions, but the panel did recommend the Medal for TR in the end. Some say it was by a close vote. In any case, the recommendation then slowly made its way through the military hierarchy, including the offices of the Secretary of the Army and Secretary of Defense.

A positive recommendation finally reached the White House, it was reported, in the summer of 2000. During the summer of 2000, Congressman Rick Lazio twice attacked President Clinton for not acting immediately and awarding the Medal of Honor to TR. At that time, Congressman Lazio was a candidate in New York State for the Senate against Mrs. Clinton, and most observers thought that it was unlikely, in view of the circumstances, that the Medal would be awarded until after the election.

Just before Christmas, Tweed Roosevelt and Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota decided to make a final effort to secure the Medal before the close of the Clinton administration. To have waited to the next administration would have been to lose ground, because although the enabling legislation would have remained on the books, the award of the Medal would have had to be approved by a new Secretary of the Army and new Secretary of Defense. Tweed Roosevelt wrote a letter to the President, which was hand-delivered to the President by Senator Conrad at a bill-signing ceremony in the White House. President Clinton opened the letter, read it, and said that he would indeed award the Medal before he left office.

The Ceremony in the Roosevelt Room at the White House
On January 16, 2001, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, TR's Medal of Honor was given to the Roosevelt family, and at the same time the descendants of Andrew Jackson Smith, a slave who escaped and fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, also received the Medal of Honor for the bravery deeds of their ancestor.

The Associated Press (AP) reported: "A former President best known for his charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War and a former slave whose courage during the Civil War was ignored by the Army got posthumous Medals of Honor from President Clinton."

Andrew Jackson Smith, who was about 19 when he ran away from slavery and joined the Union Army, served with the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an African American regiment. The 55th was a sister regiment to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, celebrated in the 1989 movie "Glory." Smith was honored for his bravery in the Battle of Honey Hill, in South Carolina, on November 30, 1864. Corporal Andy Smith caught the 55th's regimental colors when the color-sergeant was killed, and carried them for the rest of the battle, constantly exposed to enemy fire. Andy Smith, who lived to the age of 89, was first nominated for the Medal of Honor in 1916, but rejected at that time, though some 80 soldiers had been given the Medal of Honor for saving colors during the Civil War. "Sometimes it takes this country a while, but we nearly always get it right in the end, President Clinton said to the Smith family at the presentation on January 16. "I am proud that we finally got the facts and that for you and your brave forebearer, we are finally making things right."

Attending the Medal presentation was Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith's daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, 93. Her father was 60 when she was born, and she is one of the last surviving children of any Civil War veteran. Corporal Smith's Medal of Honor was accepted for the Smith family by Andrew Bowman, a grandson of the Civil War hero.

Among the members of the Roosevelt family present on January 16 was Nancy Roosevelt Jackson, granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt. When she was a little girl, her grandmother, former First Lady Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, told her that her grandfather had always wanted the Medal of Honor and that not receiving it was one of the great disappointments of his life. For whatever reasons, Edith Roosevelt wanted it known and remembered by at least one of her descendants that TR regretted to his dying day that he had not been awarded the Medal of Honor.

TR was honored on January 16, President Clinton said, to "correct a significant historical error." Caruth Smith Washington and Nancy Roosevelt Jackson, a daughter and a granddaughter, thus lived to see old debts paid to their families. Looked at from this perspective, the Spanish-American War and even the Civil War do not seem so remote or so entirely dead and gone. "May we continue to live up to the ideals for which both Andrew Jackson Smith and Theodore Roosevelt risked their lives," said President Clinton at the Medal presentation.

In presenting TR's Medal of Honor, President Clinton declared: "TR was a larger-than-life figure who gave our nation a larger-than-life vision of our place in the world. Part of that vision was formed on San Juan Hill." The presentation was made in front of the mantel in the Roosevelt Room. Over the mantel hangs an equestrian portrait of TR as a Rough Rider by the Polish painter Tade Styka; and on the mantel in a special case is Theodore Roosevelt's Nobel Peace Prize Medal, which was presented to the White House by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1982. In accepting the Medal of Honor on behalf of the Roosevelt family, Tweed Roosevelt said that the family intends to give the Medal to the White House.

"We think it will serve as a wonderful icon for future Presidents, when they take foreign dignitaries or other people into the Roosevelt Room for private luncheons, to be able to turn and point to the mantelpiece and say, 'This is what we as a country stand for: the Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize.' Peace and Honor," Tweed Roosevelt said.

Among those attending the ceremony were Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, General Henry Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congressman Steve Buyer, Congressman Peter King, former Congressman Rick Lazio, former Congressman Paul McHale, and Dr. John A. Gable, Executive Director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, as well as members of the Smith and Roosevelt families. From the Roosevelt family there were representatives of the descendants of TR's five children who had children: Joanna Sturm and her daughter Alice Roosevelt Sturm; Mr. & Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, IV and their son Theodore Roosevelt, V; Susan Roosevelt Weld; Mr. & Mrs. Kermit Roosevelt; Mark Ames; Tweed Roosevelt and his friend Leslie Dangel; former Ambassador Selwa Roosevelt; and Nancy Roosevelt Jackson and her daughter Melinda Jackson. Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest of TR's children, who was killed in World War I, had no children. Joanna Sturm is the granddaughter of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Theodore Roosevelt, IV is the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Susan Roosevelt Weld is a granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Mark Ames is a grandson of Ethel Roosevelt Derby. Kermit Roosevelt is a grandson of TR's son Kermit Roosevelt. Tweed Roosevelt is a grandson of Archibald B. Roosevelt. Selwa Roosevelt is the widow of Archibald B. Roosevelt, Jr. Nancy Roosevelt Jackson is the daughter of Archibald B. Roosevelt. Tweed Roosevelt, Mark Ames, Susan Roosevelt Weld, and Theodore Roosevelt, IV are Trustees of the TRA. Selwa Roosevelt is a former TRA Trustee, and Nancy Roosevelt Jackson is the widow of a TRA Trustee, William E. Jackson.

The Roosevelt Room of the White House is located near the Oval Office in the West Wing, the office wing added when TR was President, and is named for TR and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The room is decorated with items related to the two Roosevelt Chief Executives, and recently a bust of Eleanor Roosevelt has been added. Under the Carter administration, the TRA gave set number one of the Memorial Edition of the Works of Theodore Roosevelt for display in the Roosevelt Room. The Nobel Peace Prize Medal was given by the TRA to the White House during the Reagan administration.

Though TR's Medal of Honor will eventually be given to the White House, before that it will be taken on a national tour in response to public demand and interest. People in Oyster Bay, NY, Tampa, Florida, New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere have asked to see the Medal. In addition, there will be a further ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington sometime in the spring in connection with the award of the Medal of Honor to Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt is the first President of the United States to receive the Medal of Honor, just as he was the first President and first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was, however, not the first Roosevelt to receive the Medal of Honor. George Washington Roosevelt (1844-1907), a distant cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in the Civil War. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in the Normandy invasion during World War II on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He died of a heart attack on July 12, 1944 on active duty. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who served in both world wars, received every combat medal given by the United States as well as several foreign decorations. The only other father and son to receive the Medal of Honor were General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, awarded the Medal during World War II, and his father, General Arthur MacArthur, who won the Medal in the Civil War.

After the ceremony on January 16, Corporal Andy Jackson's grandson, Andrew Bowman, who received the Medal of Honor on behalf of the Smith family, told the press: "Only in America can the sons of a slave and the daughters of a slave receive the same honor at the time that a President's sons and daughters receive theirs. We stood on that same stage and received that same Medal. It's just amazing!"

There are many amazing things about Theodore Roosevelt's Medal of Honor.