In yesterday's post, I talked about the encouragement Theodore Roosevelt received from his father to make himself into a man physically as well as mentally. Today, I want to look at how TR applied this philosophy to his own sons and the damage I believe this caused.
All four of TR's sons served in World War I and II, and they suffered greatly for their service. They knew, however, that their father expected them to make such sacrifices. There was nothing like a war to prove one's manhood.
While Archie served with distinction and was wounded in both WWI and WWII, TR's other three sons did not survive their wartime experiences.
Theodore III, also known as Ted, Jr., was wounded in WWI and would go on, at the astonishing age of 54, to lead the landing at Normandy. He earned the Medal of Honor posthumously after suffering a heart attack a few days later.
Kermit served in both wars as well, but he succumbed to a lifelong struggle with depression, taking his own life while stationed in Alaska in 1943.
Quentin, his youngest boy, lost his life in WWI, when his plane was shot down in July 1918.
Despite seeing his boys wounded and losing his beloved Quentin, TR never abandoned his belief that a man's duty was to serve his country. In fact, he lobbied President Wilson repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to allow him to serve in WWI, despite his advanced age.
TR wrote about his desire to fight even after his sons had suffered so greatly and sacrificed so much. In August 1918, one month after Quentin's death, TR wrote, "As you probably know, two of my other sons have been wounded, one of them badly crippled. I entirely agree with you that there has been nothing finer in our history than the way our young men have eagerly and gladly gone to France to fight for a high ideal...But at times, it seems almost more than I can bear to have my sons face dreadful danger while I sit at home in ease and comfort and safety. It is a terrible thing that death should come to the young. But it is even more terrible, of course, if the young fear to face death in a great crisis for a great cause."
TR writes as if he would rather his sons died for a cause than if they avoided fighting out of fear. This is a remarkable thing for a father to say considering he already lost one son and had seen his others wounded. He is not talking about abstract theories, but rather concrete and painful realities. Perhaps he writes this as an attempt to create some sense out of a tragic loss of a beloved son. But it also seems possible that this philosophy, which he applied throughout his life, comes directly from the advice his father gave him about a man's responsibilities to make himself physically strong in every way.
Either way, this is a remarkable exchange from a remarkable man in a remarkably sad situation.
(You can see a copy of the letter quoted above in Rebecca Onion's Slate piece here.)