(Editor's note: On Sunday, April 5, The New York Times reported Captain Brett E. Cozier has tested positive for COVID-19.)

The ironies abound. As Samuel Clemens is said to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The cashiering of Captain Brett E. Cozier of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt evokes the sometimes-controversial career of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt in several ways.

Crozier was relieved of his command when he wrote a letter about the coronavirus on board the giant aircraft carrier and sent it to a couple of dozen people rather than to his immediate superiors. The letter was leaked to the press. His superiors rightly argued that he violated long-established U.S. military protocols in including so many recipients, most of them not in the chain of command, and one or more of whom leaked the letter to the press.

In his letter, dated Monday, March 30, 2020, Crozier pleaded for permission to unload the crew of the U.S.S. Roosevelt in Guam, including dozens of sailors who had become infected with the coronavirus Covid-19. He wrote, “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.” It was the publication of the letter in the San Francisco Chronicle, not the response of the letter’s immediate recipients, that led the U.S. Navy to authorize the removal of most of the crew from the carrier. A skeleton crew will remain on board to make sure the nuclear reactor is properly monitored and maintained. Just how and when the U.S.S. Roosevelt will find its way back to Norfolk has not yet been determined.

Captain Crozier’s gamble worked. He accomplished his goal at what proved to be the ruin of his Navy career.

When he walked down the gangplank for the final time Friday, April 3, in Guam, Crozier was wildly cheered by many of the 5,000 sailors on the U.S.S. Roosevelt. But that which is popular with the enlisted men and women is not necessarily good for military protocol and discipline, as Roosevelt learned in San Antonio in the spring of 1898 when he told his troops they could drink all they wished at his expense at a local saloon. That evening at an officer’s dinner, his superior officer Colonel Leonard Wood made it clear that “an officer who would go out with a large batch of men and drink with them was quite unfit to hold a commission,” as historian Hermann Hagedorn paraphrased Wood’s after-dinner remarks years later. Soon TR appeared at Wood’s tent: “I wish to tell you sir, that I took the squadron, without thinking about this question of officers drinking with their men, and I gave them all a schooner of beer. I wish to say, sir, that I agree with what you said. I consider myself the damnedest ass within ten miles of this camp. Good night.” Roosevelt was an amateur soldier and a volunteer getting used to his first command. His error of judgment, therefore, was easier to forgive than the insubordination of a career naval officer.

According to acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly, Captain Crozier did not inform him that he was going to write and send the letter. Crozier’s supporters say he had tried repeatedly to get his superiors to give orders that would limit the outbreak of the pandemic on the carrier, where sleeping quarters, hallways, and other facilities force the kind of close contact that causes the rapid spread of the highly contagious disease. Crozier’s defenders argue that he did what he had to do to protect his crew in a time of unprecedented urgency and that, in retrospect, his actions will be shown to have been not just appropriate but necessary. Acting Secretary Modly said Crozier’s action “undermines our efforts and the chain of command’s efforts to address this problem and creates a panic.”

Captain Crozier was fired within three days of his letter becoming public, without an investigation, hearings, a court martial, or any other form of due process. 

Theodore Roosevelt did much the same thing in the last days of the Spanish-American War in Cuba, and similarly earned the wrath of the United States Army. The historical “rhyming” is so clear that TR’s great grandson Tweed Roosevelt felt compelled to point out the parallels in a New York Times op-ed piece on April 3. Tweed said that Crozier “joins a growing list of heroic men and women who have risked their careers over the last few weeks to speak out about life-threatening failures to treat the victims of this terrible pandemic.” And he said, “I suppose it is too much to hope that the Navy, if only for its own benefit, will see its way to reverse this unfortunate decision.”

As everyone knows, Roosevelt was America’s greatest advocate for armed intervention in Cuba in 1898, and though he couched his advocacy in the need to protect the human rights of the Cuban people and oust the Spanish colonial authority from the western hemisphere once and for all, he was also sporting for war. He believed the country needed a war now and then to keep us from becoming over-civilized and physically and mentally flabby. He said, “all great nations are warring nations,” and “all great men have a little of the wolf in them.” When President McKinley finally called for a declaration of war, Roosevelt resigned from his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, got permission to assemble “a harum scarum group of rough riders,” and threw himself into training with his volunteer cavalry unit at San Antonio. Roosevelt jumped over a number of difficult hurtles to get himself into the war, from the pleas of his physically ailing wife Edith, who had just endured a dangerous abdominal surgery, to the requests by Secretary Long and President McKinley (three times) that he remain in his post at the Naval Department, where he could do more to help the war effort than by going off on some romantic quest for heroism in the Caribbean. TR’s closest friend and political adviser, Henry Cabot Lodge, warned him that rushing off to Cuba would probably end his political career. Secretary Long may have opposed TR’s plan, but he understood his assistant better than did Lodge. In his excellent diary, Long wrote, “He has lost his head to this unutterable folly of deserting the post where he is of the most service and running off to ride a horse and, probably, brush mosquitos from his neck on the Florida sands. And yet how absurd all this will sound, if by some turn of fortune, he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark.”

Years later Roosevelt said he would have left his wife Edith’s deathbed to get himself into the war.

On July 1, 1898, Roosevelt led the charge up Kettle Hill in the San Juan Heights near Santiago, Cuba. He called it his “crowded hour.” He boasted that his volunteer regiment had suffered greater casualties than any other regiment in the war. Roosevelt was one of the few on horseback on that great day in his life, while his men went “down like ninepins,” he reported in his book The Rough Riders. Journalists who covered the assault said it was nearly a miracle that Roosevelt was not killed by Spanish troops at the crest of Kettle Hill who rained down bullets from smokeless Mauser rifles.

The Making of a Legend: Actually, TR was one of the few on horseback that day.

Roosevelt’s heroics in Cuba propelled him into the governorship of New York. Two years later he was elected Vice President of the United States and, after President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Roosevelt became the youngest President of the United States. “It is a dreadful thing to come into the Presidency this way,” he wrote to Lodge, “but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it.”

When the war in Cuba was essentially over, the now-idle U.S. troops on the ground began to succumb to heat prostration, dehydration, malaria, and yellow fever. Since their work was done, they wanted either to be returned to the United States or sent on to Puerto Rico to continue the fighting. The War Department in Washington, D.C., preoccupied with more compelling concerns, left the troops in place and paid no particular attention to requests by General William Shafter, and others, to relieve their suffering. 

Roosevelt was rightly appalled that the government of the United States would condemn hundreds, perhaps thousands, to death from disease when they might easily be relocated elsewhere. Roosevelt convinced his journalist friend Richard Harding Davis to write what historian Clay Risen calls a “scathing article for the [New York] Herald,” describing “the conditions of the camps and the hospitals, pinning the blame less on [General] Shafter than on the military’s overall incompetence.” Davis did not cite Roosevelt or any other military officer in the dispatch. Still, nothing happened, and TR watched men die for no good reason, thanks to the ineptitude or indifference of Secretary of War Russell Alger.

It was at this point that Colonel Roosevelt wrote what he called a “round robin” letter criticizing the military’s handling of the campaign: logistics, supplies, food, sanitation, and medical attention. Because of the military’s failure to send sufficient medical staff and supplies, thousands of American men were in danger of dying, he explained. “If we are kept here,” Roosevelt wrote, “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.” Roosevelt called it a “round robin” letter because he wanted other officers to sign it. Many did, but Roosevelt did not attempt to hide his leadership or authorship. “As a volunteer officer, I am willing to be the scapegoat.” He vetted the letter among newspaper correspondents in the camp before releasing it. Meanwhile General Shafter actually encouraged Roosevelt to voice his concerns—on the record—to the press corps. Shafter shared TR’s view that the War Department was not listening, but he did not want to jeopardize his career by speaking out. 

The man who typed Roosevelt’s letter, Henry Bardshar, warned TR that it was too severe an indictment of the military’s handling of the invasion. “If you send it to the War Department,” he said, “they will have you shot at sunrise.” Roosevelt revised the letter—slightly—to soften the level of righteousness. When the final version of the letter was finished, Roosevelt insisted that General Shafter hold it in his hands so that he could not later deny that he had anything to do with it.

Meanwhile, in even more candid letters to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt wrote, “If the army is not brought away from here with all possible expedition, and if an epidemic does really break out, the President and the Secretary of War will have incurred a debt as heavy as Walpole incurred when he wasted the lives of Admiral Hozier’s 3,000 men in these same West Indian waters against this same Spanish foe. Perhaps you think I write too bitterly. I can only say, old man, that what I have seen during the last five weeks has been enough to make one bitter.”

As biographer H.W. Brands has said, “Administration officials in Washington didn’t appreciate the pressure. The War Department already distrusted Roosevelt….” Secretary of War Alger made clear his displeasure in his reply to Roosevelt. “I suggest that, unless you want to spoil the efforts and glory of your victory, you make ho invidious comparisons. The Rough Riders are no better than other volunteers. They had an advantage in their arms, for which they ought to be very grateful.”

Roosevelt’s impulsive and insubordinate letter probably cost the Medal of Honor. He wanted it badly. To Lodge he wrote, “I do wish you would get that medal of honor for me anyhow, as I should awfully like to have it, and I think I earned it.” TR was disappointed and hurt when the Army refused to grant it to him. Still, he felt that in going to war in Cuba he had brought honor to his family and lived according to his core principle that an able-bodied patriot should not shun any just war that occurred during his lifetime. 


Roosevelt had this uniform specially made by Brooks Brothers.

Roosevelt was posthumously awarded his Medal of Honor by President William Clinton in 2001. That was when President Clinton also gave William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition his long-delayed captaincy, and the Shoshone-Hidatsa Indian woman Sacagawea was made an honorary sergeant.

Theodore Roosevelt knew that nature abhors a vacuum. He spent his lifetime rushing into the arena with disregard, sometimes reckless disregard, for the consequences. In early 1898 he took advantage of Secretary John Long’s gentlemanly neurasthenia to take control of the Naval Department in the runup to the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. In fact, it was on one of Long’s spa days that young Roosevelt sent the famous telegram to Admiral Dewey to bottle up the Spanish fleet in the Bay of Manila in the event of war. After he left the presidency in 1909, Roosevelt meddled in the administrations of his successors William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, whom he treated with savage contempt in the run-up to America’s entry into World War I. When his successor Taft failed to honor TR’s administrative progressive agenda, Roosevelt challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination. When that failed, Roosevelt bolted to form the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party. He received the largest third-party vote (29 percent) in American history. The result, however, was to dis-elect Taft and make it possible for Wilson to win the presidency. His daughter Alice was right when she said her father wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

However reckless Roosevelt’s letter of July 1898 might have been, it exhibited his characteristic concern for the well-being of the men under his command. Earlier in the Cuban campaign, when his famished men were suffering from a lack of edible food, Roosevelt ventured away from camp to a commissary, where he declared that he needed eleven hundred pounds of beans. The commissary sergeant explained that the beans were reserved for officers only, at which point TR said, “You don’t know what appetites my officers have.” The sergeant handed over the half-ton of beans but warned Roosevelt that he would probably have to pay for the beans from his salary. He was never held to account.


Captain Brett Crozier, U.S. Navy.

Brett Crozier may take considerable comfort in having followed the lead of the man for whom the U.S.S. Roosevelt is named. He is undoubtedly aware that a stubborn adherence to “higher laws” can be damaging to one’s military career. His star is rising beyond the strict hierarchies of the U.S. Navy. Who knows? He may find that doing the right thing when the lives of hundreds—or thousands—are in jeopardy brings greater rewards than the U.S. military can dispense. One thing is certain: the 5,000 men and women of the U.S.S. Roosevelt will never forget his leadership.

For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour.