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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

In 1897, William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States and Leon Czolgosz was an anarchist who believed the American government was organized in ways that allowed the wealthy to exploit the poor. 

In 1898, the Spanish-American war began not long after the USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in Cuba’s Havana harbor, leading the United States to war with Spain. 

Also in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt, his Rough Riders, and the not-famous-enough Buffalo Soldiers went charging up San Juan Hill. The Americans won that war with Spain on both fronts, the Caribbean and the Pacific, gaining control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. 

In 1900, McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan to win a second term behind his policies on tariffs and the gold standard. Ten months later, he died after being shot by Czolgosz and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, champion of San Juan Hill.

Elbert Hubbard edited and published his own magazine, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest

The magazine attacked orthodox thought in general and militarism and church dogma in particular. Years later, this would be called counterculture. The magazine published works from such as Rudyard Kipling, Leo Tolstoy, and Stephen Crane.

His most famous essay was called A Message to Garcia

As the story goes, while the war with Spain was going on, President McKinley needed to get a crucial message to the head of the Cuban nationalist freedom fighters. The General’s name was Calixto Garcia, and he was hidden deep in the jungles of what was then a Spanish colony. A presidential advisor said “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan who will find Garcia for you, if anyone can.” In Hubbard’s article, “(Lt. Andrew) Rowan took the letter, sealed it in a waterproof oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, and after four days in a steamship on the open seas, landed in an open boat on the shore at night, disappeared into the jungle, and after three weeks on foot in a hostile country, came out on the other side of the island, and delivered McKinley’s letter to General Garcia.”

This quiet little article was reprinted millions of times in pamphlet form after first appearing in print as a filler piece without a title. Copies of it were given to their soldiers and sailors by many different countries. The phrase “Carry a message to Garcia” became commonly used to describe someone taking the initiative when given a difficult assignment.

The moral of the story

The point Hubbard wanted young men to get was that a man with deep reserves of grit and determination could be counted on to get the job done with no help and without complaining. Rowan didn’t ask how he would get there or what Garcia looked like, or how to go about finding him. The only information Rowan was given was that Garcia was a freedom fighter in the jungles of Cuba.

Hubbard said he wrote it as an inspirational essay about individual duty and diligence, no stalling, no excuses, no passing off the task to someone else. “It is not book-learning that young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, act promptly, concentrate their energies and do the thing: carry a Message to Garcia.

It became so ingrained among those in the U.S. Navy that the typical terse response by an officer to a newly-arrived ensign who asked a question would be “Message to Garcia.” This signaled the inexperienced officer to shut up and find another way to get the answer.

Click here for Elbert Hubbard’s original article A Message to Garcia.

Bonus

It was printed in the 1917 Boy Scouts Yearbook this way: “If you give a Boy Scout a ‘Message to Garcia,’ you know that message will be delivered, although the mountains, the wilderness, the desert, the torrents, the broad lagoons or the sea itself stand in his way.” A 1936 film starring Wallace Beery and Barbara Stanwyck was described as an agreeable embroidery.

If you’ve listened to the Watergate tapes, you can hear Nixon using the term while talking with Henry Kissinger and John Erlichman.

Extra credit 

Can you remember a time when one of your employees was given a Letter to Garcia and got the job done with little or no guidance but lots of grit, determination, and perseverance?

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