The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt Affair

Captain Brett Crozier was the  commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt which had been docked in Guam following a Wuhan virus outbreak among the crew of more than 4,000. With about a hundred members of his crew infected, he decided to take the extraordinary step of sending a letter to the Navy pleading  for resources and to have the afflicted sailors quarantined from the rest. In the four-page letter sent via a “non-secure, unclassified” email that included at least “20 to 30” recipients in addition to the captain’s immediate chain of command, including some crew members.

Crozier wrote that only a small contingent of infected sailors had been off-boarded, with most of the crew remaining  on board the carrier, where following official guidelines for 14-day quarantines and social distancing was physically impossible. He wrote

“Due to a warship’s inherent limitations of space, we are not doing this. The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating…Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. … This is a necessary risk…We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors….Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”

Of course, the letter leaked to the press, and the situation became a news story and a subject of unwelcome controversy for the Navy. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly initially told CNN in response to questions about the appeal,

“I know that our command organization has been aware of this for about 24 hours and we have been working actually the last seven days to move those sailors off the ship and get them into accommodations in Guam. The problem is that Guam doesn’t have enough beds right now and we’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create tent-type facilities.”

Although the letter had the desired result, with members of the crew gradually being removed from the carrier, the Captain had broken the cardinal military rule never to go outside the chain of command. Crozier had multiple conversations with the chief of staff to Modly before his letter was publicized in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Navy had told Crozier to  “call us any time day or night,” and gave him  Modly’s personal cell phone number to update the situation and raise further concerns.

Then the e-mail leaked. Crozier was dismissed as captain by the acting Navy Secretary for what Modly called “extremely poor judgment,” going outside the chain of command, and  disseminating the memo over an unsecured system. President Trump backed his appointee’s unpopular decision.

“I thought it was terrible what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered, and he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter. He could call and ask and suggest,” Trump told reporters.

As the captain left his carrier for the last time, the remaining crew cheered and applauded him.

Nice, predictable, but irrelevant.

  • The Secretary of the Navy and the President are correct. A serious breach of policy and protocol like the email cannot go unpunished without undermining the service, even if in this unusual case it was necessary, which is far from proven.
  • Captain Crozier made the call he felt was necessary, presumably knowing what the consequences might be, indeed were likely to be. That led to a courageous and ethical act on his part, and one with a surprising precedent, as you will see.
  • The fact that his defiance of the chain of command may have been in the best interests of his crew should not insulate him from Navy discipline. Officers believing that defying the chain of command will not have serious consequences would not be in the best interest of the Navy or the Armed Services.
  • As with civil disobedience, the adverse consequences are a necessary component of the courageous act.

Interestingly, Crozier’s letter was reminiscent of a similar episode in the rise of the iconic leader his carrier was named for, Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1898, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was leading his volunteer army  of “Rough Riders” in Cuba. The Rough Riders, Roosevelt’s invention, were part of the Army’s Fifth Corps garrisoned near Santiago de Cuba. More than 4,000 of the Fifth Corps’ 4,270 soldiers were sick with malaria and yellow fever, and near death. The eight divisional commanders, including Roosevelt, were convinced that if the men remained in Cuba, the entire Fifth Corps would perish.

The divisional commanders met with Major General William R. Shafter, Fifth Corps Commander, and requested that Fifth Corps immediately redeploy to the United States.  President McKinley needed to maintain a military presence in Cuba until the United States’ peace treaty negotiations with Spain were complete, and following the meeting, the divisional commanders were convinced that their request would not get the speedy response required if the sick soldiers were to get timely medical attention.

Roosevelt either volunteered to compose a letter to Shafter, pleading the case in writing, or was talked into the job as the only volunteer among the commanders  with no military career to lose. He was also, of course, an accomplished author.

The letter, known as the Round-Robin letter and signed by all of TR’s fellow officers, read,

MAJOR-GENERAL SHAFTER.   

SIR: 

In a meeting of the general and medical officers called by you at the Palace this morning we were all, as you know, unanimous in our views of what should be done with the army. To keep us here, in the opinion of every officer commanding a division or a brigade, will simply involve the destruction of thousands. There is no possible reason for not shipping practically the entire command North at once. Yellow-fever cases are very few in the cavalry division, where I command one of the two brigades, and not one true case of yellow fever has occurred in this division, except among the men sent to the hospital at Siboney, where they have, I believe, contracted it. But in this division there have been 1,500 cases of malarial fever. Hardly a man has yet died from it, but the whole command is so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep, when a real yellow-fever epidemic instead of a fake epidemic, like the present one, strikes us, as it is bound to do if we stay here at the height of the sickness season, August and the beginning of September. Quarantine against malarial fever is much like quarantining against the toothache.   All of us are certain that as soon as the authorities at Washington fully appreciate the condition of the army, we shall be sent home. If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die. This is not only terrible from the stand-point of the individual lives lost, but it means ruin from the stand-point of military efficiency of the flower of the American army, for the great bulk of the regulars are here with you. The sick list, large though it is, exceeding four thousand, affords but a faint index of the debilitation of the army. Not twenty per cent. are fit for active work.   Six weeks on the North Maine coast, for instance, or elsewhere where the yellow-fever germ cannot possibly propagate, would make us all as fit as fighting-cocks, as able as we are eager to take a leading part in the great campaign against Havana in the fall, even if we are not allowed to try Porto Rico.   We can be moved North, if moved at once, with absolute safety to the country, although, of course, it would have been infinitely better if we had been moved North or to Porto Rico two weeks ago. If there were any object in keeping us here, we would face yellow fever with as much indifference as we faced bullets. But there is no object.   The four immune regiments ordered here are sufficient to garrison the city and surrounding towns, and there is absolutely nothing for us to do here, and there has not been since the city surrendered. It is impossible to move into the interior. Every shifting of camp doubles the sick-rate in our present weakened condition, and, anyhow, the interior is rather worse than the coast, as I have found by actual reconnoissance. Our present camps are as healthy as any camps at this end of the island can be.   I write only because I cannot see our men, who have fought so bravely and who have endured extreme hardship and danger so uncomplainingly, go to destruction without striving so far as lies in me to avert a doom as fearful as it is unnecessary and undeserved.

Yours respectfully,

THEODORE ROOSEVELT, Colonel Commanding Second Cavalry Brigade.

Roosevelt delivered the letter to Shafter, and also  handed a copy of it to the Associated Press correspondent who was covering the Cuban campaign. Naturally, the reporter quickly cabled the letter to AP headquarters and it published nationwide the same day.

There was a news media-led furor accusing the McKinley Administration of not caring about the troops. President McKinley, furious but cornered, summoned his Secretary of War, Russell A. Alger, and ordered him to do what he could to make the problem go away. Alger ordered the Navy to send transport ships to retrieve the Fifth Corps from Cuba, and ordered the Army to prepare Camp Wikoff on Long Island to receive and care for the sick soldiers once they arrived back in the United States.

Far from being fired, Teddy returned from Cuba a hero, was elected Governor of New York, became McKinley’s Vice-President when Garrett Hobart, the original VP, died suddenly, and by 1901 was President of the United States.

[For some weird reason I had the wrong date, 1905, in the original.Thanks to David Elias for the correction.]

It may be small consolation, but there is no question that his former ship’s namesake would shouted “Bully!” at news of  Captain Crozier’s handling of the ship’s  health crisis.

24 thoughts on “The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt Affair

  1. Capt. Crozier sacrificed his career — which almost certainly would have included Admiral’s stars — for the sake of his crew. The Navy’s reaction was also appropriate. Crozier stepped outside the chain of command and he deserves censure. But sometimes that’s necessary. So my reaction is “Bravo Zulu, sailor.” (Google is your friend.)

  2. Harry Truman fired the far more distinguished and popular Douglas MacArthur for going outside the chain of command in his criticism of the administration.

    Crozier’s irresponsible handling of the emergency alerted foreign governments hostile to the United States, terrorists and pirates that he had a ship full of sick sailors.

    His dismissal is appropriate.

  3. ex enlisted sailor…fast attack and boomer(google it)…currently working at a DoN shipyard as a civilian employee. Figure to list my bias.
    The assertion by the chain of command that it was a surprise to his immediate superior, who was on the same ship is the part that I am most skeptical of. If true, he should be put up on charges. If the Navy is lying, then his letter is in the same league as the original from TR. Either way his action has consequences. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has an interview where he supports civilian control of the military, which was good to see in these troubled times. His point about it being peacetime I cannot agree with, these times are wartime, that is part of being a sailor, we do the same job all the time, if the sailors of the TR have forgotten that, I am truly disappointed.

  4. Excellent analysis.

    Crozier’s dilemma was real, but his breach was also real. It’s true that we are not at war, but had we been at war, that email could potentially have been disastrous. He could have compromised his ship’s position and its condition, opening it to attack by an enemy. If he cannot follow procedure in peace time, how can he be trusted to make good decisions in the fog of a rapidly-changing war-time environment?

    I talked with our son – a major in the Army – and he said the Navy’s action was absolutely right. He said he would have been similarly punished for that same action. It’s my understanding that the officer kept his rank (and therefore his pay) and was not discharged. He was simply removed from his command.

    It goes without saying, but here is yet another soldier punished for an email breach, when a former Secretary of State was nearly elected President for similar poor judgement.

  5. Thanks for this. Generally where I was headed in my own analysis, but all I can find on the internet and twitter are All or Nothing conclusions from both sides of the aisle.

  6. Why is the captain a hero? I have no military experience so I have no standing. But, it appears to me the captain perceived a problem and his superiors appeared to be listening to him about his concerns. Again, I have no standing but it just appears to be grandstanding to me, which seems very un-military like.

    • I doubt he would jeopardize his career just to grandstand. I think he genuinely felt his crew’s lives were at stake and that the Navy was dragging its feet.

      You saw he just tested positive for the virus, right?

      • My guess is the entire crew probably has the disease. Meaning, in cold utilitarian terms, there’s a great statistic to study when 100% of a population has a disease, what are the stats on severe cases, deadly cases, mild cases, etc.

  7. Well, at least he won’t be court marshaled like Billy Mitchell was who told the Army and Navy some hard truths about the need to beef up the Army’s Air Corp and went outside the chain of command. Even Douglas MacArthur reluctantly voted to convict him although he knew Mitchell was right.

  8. Re: Corona Virus Thread
    ZoeB wrote on March 30th

    Guam.

    55 cases. 300 hospital beds. 12 ICUs. 165,000 inhabitants. At least 7000 US military personnel, perhaps another 5000 marines and dependents, sources differ. Unknown amount of US military medical facilities.

    And an aircraft carrier anchored offshore with 5000 sailors and positive tests recorded.

    The US armed forces will have to step up on this one, especially since the only airline servicing the area, United, ceased flights last week.

    Watch this space.

    To emphasise, dated March 30.

    Now if I, a durned furriner with military connections knew about the situation back then, and the USN brass says they hadn”t been made aware of it rather than being “thumb in bum mind in neutral”.. they are incompetent, dishonest, and betray those they command. This was sensitive information, but no way was it unknown to every single likely enemy the US would face.

    The Captain did what he had to do, as did many Sub Captains in WWII with the torpedo situation, and as was entirely proper.

    The Navy had to relieve him of command as the result, as he knew they would, and also as was entirely proper.

    Sometimes blood sacrifices – or career sacrifices – have to be made. Better than losing your life, and that too may be necessary sometimes.

    The *Acting* NavSec – the real one having resigned as a matter of principle regarding the pardoning of war criminals – states that he has lost confidence in the now beached Captain.

    I think it fair to say that the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt may have lost any confidence they may formerly have had in the *Acting* NavSec, not for removing their ex Captain from command, that was necessary, but for heing ultimately responsible for the Charlie Foxtrot that forced his action.

    • I’ve seen a lot of social media posts try to make political hay out of the fact that an ‘acting’ SECNAV relieved the Roosevelt’s captain. It appears to take two primary forms, although both are really just taking shots at the president.

      1) The ‘acting’ SECNAV had to do the dirty work of firing the captain because the ‘real’ SECNAV had previously departed in disgust over a dispute with the commander in chief. In social media land, this turns into “ideologically pure-as-driven-snow SECNAV forced out by evil president no longer in position to protect righteous ship’s captain……. ” And usually, this turns into inane gushing about how all military leaders really ought to be like Captain Crozier, which is also the point where I stop reading.

      2) The president has driven out all ‘real’ leadership from the military departments and drained the talent pool dry. The only person left to fill the role of ‘acting’ SECNAV was this schlub, just fallen off the turnip truck, who “obviously couldn’t make a right or just decision if his life depended on it….”. In addition to the reasons listed above why this SECNAV’s decision was correct, I assure you the talent bench in DoD is far, far deeper than anyone who makes this argument could possibly comprehend.

      In fairness to zoebrain, I’m not ascribing either insinuation to your blog post above. Your words just happened to be the catalyst for me to try to explain why highlighting ‘acting’ is unfair and annoying.

      • Given the speech the acting (emphasis removed to avoid controversy) NavSec recently gave castigating the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt, a speech greeted with less than wholesale enthusiasm by everyone that heard it…

        One can be forgiven for thinking that he got his position for reasons other than competence.

        In the vernacular, he didn’t just step on his dick, he did the full Riverdance.

        A few of the steps;

        Implying the President was a rube conned by the Chinese Premier…(True, but undiplomatic)

        Praising the Governor for being so Courageous in going against her constituents’ wishes..

        Then after criticising the crew for loving their “stupid” commander, relieved for loyalty to his crew, reminding them that officers must be loyal to those they command, even at their own expense.

        As a inspirational speech from a commander, it was obviously political.shennanigans. As a political speech, tone deaf and undiplomatic in the extreme. Too truthful.

        “The only person left to fill the role of ‘acting’ SECNAV was this schlub, just fallen off the turnip truck, who “obviously couldn’t make a right or just decision if his life depended on it….”.

        I’m sure there were others more competent. Just not ones who had donated so much to the election campaign. He wss the one that was chosen… though not confirmed by Senate oversight.

        • Stating at the start of the speech that the Chinese had been less than candid does tend to make the President’s Feb 27th speech appear in a less than favourable light.

          While the official line is that it is all China’s fault, stating that the President might have let himself be fooled by them dissembling is not. Especially since they’d revealed all they knew at the time to US authorities in mid January.

        • I saw news about his speech last night, and the SECNAV clearly didn’t shower himself in glory. But it doesn’t change what I wrote: highlighting ‘acting’ in the way most social media accounts were doing was unfair and annoying.

          I’ll totally grant you that “one can be forgiven for thinking that he got his position for reasons other than competence.” That was true before and especially after news of his speech to the Roosevelt’s crew broke. He has earned the criticism headed his way now. But that’s because of his actions, not some presumed idiocy tied to his ‘acting’ SECNAV status.

          Professional military people, both uniformed and civil servants, don’t worry if their commander (or secretary) is the one selected in the ‘normal’ way or is merely ‘acting,’ ‘deputized,’ or ‘on temporary orders’ or lots of other terms of art. The boss is the boss. Fixating on the SECNAV’s acting status was for many people just a way to get in a cheap shot before he handed them other far more legitimate means by which to criticize him.

          • ” In his final memo to the Navy, Modly said he “lost situational awareness” when he walked on the Theodore Roosevelt and spoke to the crew members “as if I was their commander, or their shipmate, rather than their secretary.”

            “The crew deserved a lot more empathy and a lot less lecturing—I lost sight of that at the time and I am deeply sorry for some of the words and for how they were spread across the media landscape like a wildfire,” Modly added. “I had hoped to transmit a message of love, and duty, and mission, and courage in the face of adversity. Those words are in there, but they are now lost, because of me, and I will regret that for the rest of my life.”

            Peter principle. I’ve seen worse sublieutenants. I think he could be moulded into a pretty good Lt Cdr. Or even NavSec. Eventually.

            So why am I cutting him slack, after excoristing him so thoroughly for his egregious screw up?

            1. He recognised he screwed up.
            2. He recognised why and how he screwed up.
            3. He volunteered to take the consequences he felt he deserved.
            4. He didn’t try to shift responsibility.

            I can work with that. There is good raw material there.

            Far better to have someone like that than a Dunning-Krueger graduate who makes fewer and less bad mistakes, but denies any possibility that he could be wrong, and steadily maintains it’s always the fault of others. Such a person would be a disaster in any senior position. Such a person all too often is, not naming names.

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