Washington. -- Rumors of widespread homosexuality at U.S. Navy bases . . .
Witch hunts for gays in the military . . .
Entrapment of homosexuals . . .
Dishonorable discharges and long prison terms . . .
These topics seem ripped from today's headlines but in reality they reflect the military attitude toward homosexuals in the past. Although gay leaders may attack the Pentagon's solution to the question of homosexuals in the military -- not to question recruits LTC about their sexual preferences and to discharge gays only if they come out of the closet -- it seems almost benign when measured against past practices.
In fact, a campaign to stamp out homosexuality in the Navy during World War I almost cost Franklin D. Roosevelt his political career.
In 1918, when Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, the Navy discovered that the training center at Newport, Rhode Island, was plagued with widespread homosexuality, bootlegging and drug usage. Roosevelt authorized the establishment of a special vice squad to clean up the unsavory situation which was designated "Section A -- Office of the Assistant Secretary."
Roosevelt soon learned that in gathering evidence, some of the vice-squad members had engaged in homosexual relations themselves and enticed suspects into joining them. Professing shock, he immediately ordered the unit disbanded. The sordid mess reached the ears of John R. Rathom, publisher of the Providence Journal, who was critical of the Navy's alleged lack of readiness at the outbreak of the war. In a series articles, Rathom held Roosevelt personally responsible for the outrageous conduct of the vice squad.
Realizing that these charges were political dynamite, Roosevelt launched a vigorous counteroffensive. He denounced them as "dishonorable" and "morally dishonest," and claiming that he had had nothing to do with the vice squad, contended that its official designation as part of his office was merely an administrative convenience. Roosevelt also tried to persuade other editors not to reprint the Journal articles as "a patriotic duty" because they were detrimental to recruitment.
In the meantime, the Senate Naval Affairs Committee launched an investigation of the affair. While the inquiry was under way, Roosevelt's political career took a new turn as the Democrats nominated him for the vice-presidency in 1920, on a ticket headed by Governor James M. Cox of Ohio. The Newport vice scandal came up in the campaign when Rathom charged Roosevelt had tampered with Navy Department files and had lied about it.
Cox and Roosevelt were handily defeated by the Republican candidates, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, but Roosevelt looked forward to running for either senator or governor of New York in 1922. But the unresolved Newport investigation was ticking away like time bomb. It had been placed in the hands of a subcommittee of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and with the membership composed of two Republicans and one Democrat, he had no illusions of its outcome.
Roosevelt had been promised an opportunity to testify in his own behalf, but in mid-July 1921, he learned that the subcommittee was about to release its final report without hearing him. Hastening to Washington, he found, as he wrote his wife, Eleanor, "all the cards stacked, only worse than I thought."
The Republican members brushed off his demand for an opportunity to present his defense, saying they had already read his testimony before an earlier inquiry. As a sop, on July 18, they gave him a few hours to examine the 6,000 pages of testimony and agreed to wait until 8 p.m. to receive a statement from him.
Perspiring in the sultry heat of a Washington summer, Roosevelt worked feverishly against the clock, preparing a handwritten statement that covered 27 legal-size pages. He was convinced the Republicans intended to smear him and his political future was at stake. His worst fears were confirmed when newsmen told him that afternoon that the subcommittee had already distributed its report to the press for release the following day without even waiting for his defense.
With rising fury, Roosevelt read the report which charged that the vice squad had been under the Assistant Secretary's "direct supervision" when its members had engaged in sodomy to gather evidence against homosexuals and described this as "a most deplorable, disgraceful and unnatural proceeding." The sole Democrat on the subcommittee absolved Roosevelt of any wrongdoing, underscoring the partisan nature of the charges.
Although Roosevelt recognized it was useless, he presented his statement of denial to the subcommittee that evening. He flatly denied responsibility for the vice squad's activities and emphasized that as soon as he had learned about it, he had ordered an immediate halt.
"Insinuations that I must have known, that I supervised the operations, that I was morally responsible, that I committed all sorts of high crimes and misdemeanors, are nowhere supported by the evidence, directly or indirectly," he declared.
Opening the newspapers on July 20, 1921, Roosevelt was disheartened to find that the subcommittee's charges had been given prominent play -- the details were unprintable according to most papers -- but to his relief he found his rebuttal was also well featured. The group's political bias was clearly evident, and the furor quickly faded.
The resentment rankled, however, and in the files of the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, there is a handwritten note to the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Henry W. Keyes of New Hampshire, that reveals the intensity of Roosevelt's anger.
"I have had the privilege of knowing many thousands of Harvard graduates," he wrote. "Of the whole number I did not personally know of one whom I believed to be personally and willfully dishonest. I regret that because of your recent despicable action I can no longer say that. My only hope is that you will live long enough to appreciate that you have violated decency and truth and that you will pray your Maker for forgiveness."
Written on the envelope are the words "Not sent. What was the use? FDR."
Nathan Miller is the author of "F.D.R.: An Intimate History." His latest book is "Theodore Roosevelt: A Life."