I have lately been rereading Candace Millard’s excellent River of Doubt, a narrative of Theodore Roosevelt’s ill-fated sojourn through the Amazon in 1914. As is well known, the expedition was plagued by a lack of adequate food supplies and equipment. This fact nearly caused the entire project to unravel once it was deep in the Amazon.
What strikes the reader is just how cavalier and inept Roosevelt was in handling the planning phases of the undertaking; I say this as a fervent admirer of the President in nearly everything else he did. But one must accept the faults of our heroes; we cannot turn a blind eye to their shortcomings, and gloss over obvious failings. Roosevelt’s original plan was to conduct a moderately ambitious journey, with a select group of men, through the lands and rivers of several South American countries, including Brazil. It was intended to be an expedition that would observe the geographical and natural life of the regions it passed through. And this is all well and good: for it aligned with the ex-President’s lifelong interests in natural history and geography. But the problems began with the implementation of the scheme.
Chief among these problems was a man named Father John Zahm. He was a Catholic priest and an instructor at Notre Dame University who was an interesting man in many ways: he had (supposedly) traveled widely in South America, published a book defending evolution (a big deal in those days), and was not without a certain avuncular charm. But he was also what we would today call a bullshitter. His claims of jungle exploration appear to have been greatly exaggerated; he was ignorant of the Spanish and Portuguese languages; he was in his sixties; and he had never been involved in an actual exploratory expedition. Worse still, he had an entitled and privileged attitude that became more and more manifest as the expedition progressed. As an example, he actually expected to be carried over rough terrain by native porters. But he had Roosevelt’s ear, at least at first, and the president did not see anything wrong with indulging his delusions.
Zahm should have had no place on the expedition. His only credentials were that he knew Roosevelt, and had somehow convinced him that he was knowledgeable and competent. But Zahm was not the only problem. When he was tasked with equipping the expedition, Zahm turned to someone who had no experience in tropical exploration, a sporting-goods store clerk named Anthony Fiala. Zahm just invited Fiala into the group. Fiala was forty-four years old in 1913, and a cloud hung over his head. He had commanded a polar expedition several years earlier, and it had ended in disaster; he had failed to distribute the expedition’s food and equipment supplies, with the result that half of the group’s food stores had been lost in one accident.
This was not all. Fiala’s only expedition “experience” was in a part of the world (the arctic) that had nothing to do with the Amazon. Fiala had no understanding of the type of food needed for Roosevelt’s expedition. He burdened it with all sorts of idiotic and unnecessary luxuries, instead of the high-calorie survival fare that was really needed. As one reads of the planning phase of the expedition, one is shocked that no one thought to consult someone who had actually made tropical explorations.
All of this might have been tolerable if the Roosevelt expedition had kept to its original plan of seeing known rivers and regions. But this is not how things developed. As the launch date approached, Roosevelt changed the entire character of the expedition: persuaded by others, he decided to explore an unknown Amazonian tributary known as the River of Doubt. This decision turned a reasonably challenging enterprise into a extraordinarily challenging one. No one knew anything about the River of Doubt, and the expedition would be venturing entirely into the unknown. It was not a place for amateurs, or even semi-professionals.
Roosevelt himself must accept responsibility for the shortcomings and mistakes that nearly cost him and his team their lives. It was one of his traits to see only the good in others; he often could be blind to the failings and character traits of those whom he worked with. Zahm was not an explorer, and he had no business getting within a hundred feet of the expedition; Fiala was little more than a clerk, and should have stayed in his department store. The fact that Roosevelt could not see these things is very much to his discredit. He had an unlimited supply of enthusiasm, grit, and optimism; but these things are not enough when facing an important enterprise. As commander, he had a responsibility to make sure that the right man was in the right place, and that he was not leading his men over a cliff. He was far too trusting of those who did not merit his trust, he did not supervise those he had chosen, and he was blind to the realities of what he would be facing.
All of this, it must be said, is surprising in Roosevelt. He knew how to put the right man in the right place, and understood the importance of professionalism. When he redesigned the coinage, he put Augustus St. Gaudens in charge; and when he built the Panama Canal, he made sure to put the task in the hands of America’s best corps of engineers. So he knew how to get a job done. Yet somehow all of this experience failed him when planning the Amazon expedition. What we conclude from all this is that passion is not enough; a leader must have a streak of hard calculation, of careful planning and diligent preparation, in order for an important undertaking to succeed. A commander must look into the backgrounds and track-records of those in whom he places his trust. Delegation must never become an excuse for surrendering this duty of responsibility. He cannot be swayed by sentimentality or friendship in the construction of a team; and he must independently verify all claims of proficiency and achievement. Lives depend on meticulous preparation. The priority must always be the successful accomplishment of the mission, not the indulgence of the egos of others.
Read more in my new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: