I recently attended a seminar on national security at the U.S. Army
War College in Carlisle, PA (about which I will write at another
time), and learned that the College was the creation of a former U.S.
secretary of war, Elihu Root.
The War College today is mostly known in the general public as the
place where America’s greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe, had attended
and began his legendary life in sports. It has served, however, as the
army’s graduate school for almost a century. Virtually every U.S.
general officer in this period has attended the College, or lectured
As for Mr. Root, his name is unknown to most Americans although
much of his work continues to influence national life today.
Born in Clinton, NY, Root was the child of a college teacher,
attended law school at New York University and began a practice of
mostly corporate law. His public life began when he was appointed
U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York by President
Chester Arthur. In 1899, Root was appointed Secretary of War by
President William McKinley, serving through 1904 under President
Theodore Roosevelt. Root reformed the War Department, enlarging
West Point, establishing the War College and the General Staff. He
modernized many U.S. military procedures and institutions.He played
a key role in how the U.S. dealt with territories it had acquired in the
Spanish-American War, including creating the procedures that
returned Cuba to the Cubans, writing the charter of government for
the Philippines, and eliminating the tariffs on goods imported from
He returned briefly to the practice of law, but President Roosevelt
appointed him secretary of state in 1905. As he had done as secretary
of war, Root immediately brought needed changes to the state
department, putting the consular service under civil service,
maintaining the Open Door policy in Asia, and advocating and
facilitating arbitration and peaceful resolutions to international disputes.
In 1909, he left the cabinet to run for the U.S senate from New York.
He quickly became a leading figure of the senate judiciary committee.
In 1912, he received the Nobel Prize for Peace. After one senate term,
he retired in 1915, returning to the law.
He opposed President Wilson’s neutrality policy as World War I broke
out in 1914, but supported the president after the U.S. joined the war
effort. In 1916, he received more than 100 votes on the first ballot for
the Republican nomination for president, but he declined to run further,
saying he was too old at 71. One year later, however, President Wilson
appointed him the head of the Root Commission to go to Russia just
after the overthrow of the tsar to arrange cooperation with the new
provisional government. Traveling extensively in revolutionary Russia,
Root was unimpressed with the new government which, only months
later, fell to a Soviet insurrection.
After World War I, Root supported the League of Nations, and served
on the commission of jurists which established the Permanent Court of
International Justice. In 1922, at the age of 77, President Warren
Harding appointed him the Washington Naval Conference (an
international conference on the limitations of armaments).
In 1918, he had been the founding chairman of the Council on Foreign
Relations. He was also the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for
Peace. He was a leading figure in the establishment of several other
organizations of international law and arbitration.
Elihu Root, by today’s standards defies easy categorization. He believed
in military preparedness, and in resisting aggression, but he created
institutions that advocated peaceful arbitration. He opposed artificial
build-ups of armaments, but supported military modernization and
organizational efficiency. He perceived the Russian provisional
government’s weakness, and fought against the interwar build-up of
military armaments, but he worked for world cooperation. For 50 years,
he was asked by the presidents of both parties to take up important tasks,
and to bring reforms to institutions, much of which survives to this day.
His most famous quote was “Men do not fail.....they give up trying.”
He is called one of the original “wise men” of Washington, a breed that
emerged at the turn of the century, but there seem fewer men or women
of this stature today. George Schultz comes to mind as one of the last of
this breed, wise in war and peace, but we have no truly recent Elihu Root.
Elihu Root belonged to the last century. He was one of the few who most
notably helped our nation grow from the previous century, our “pioneer”
century, to the century of American power and leadership in the world.
What we need today, and don’t seem to have (yet), are those. like him and
the others who were “wise” in our history, who will have the intelligence,
boldness, imagination and pragmatism that can lead us to adapt to this
new and uncertain century we find ourselves in.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.