In the course of my normal work this week, I came across a pamphlet called A Message to Garcia. The pamphlet, contained two parts, both written by Elbert Hubbard. In the first part, he describes how an essay he had written as filler for his magazine The Philistine had, to borrow a contemporary expression, gone viral. The second half contained the essay itself, reprinted once again nearly twenty years after its initial startling success.
At the core of the story is a soldier named Andrew S. Rowan. During the build-up of the American war with Spain, President McKinley needed to communicate with a Cuban rebel leader named Calixto Garcia. (After all, the independence of Cuba from Spain was one of the reasons the United States went to war, although the sinking of the Maine in the Havana harbor would also provide a rallying cry for the war effort.) At great personal difficulty, but without complaint, Rowan took the message from the President, traveled to Cuba, sought and found General Garcia, and delivered the President’s message. In his original untitled magazine article, Hubbard lauded the “can-do” spirit of Lieutenant Rowan and compared his diligence to the laziness of the typical American worker. In nearly every team of workers, Hubbard claimed, the majority would be incapable and unwilling to carry a message to Garcia. They would hunt for excuses, look for someone else to complete the task, and do their best to shirk responsibility. Only a few exceptional workers would follow orders and would get the job done. What our country needs is more Lieutenant Rowans, more men (and women) capable of following orders, of doing what needs to be done, of getting a message to Garcia.
In his introduction to the essay (which happens to be as long as the original essay), Hubbard describes how popular his brief, throw-away scrap of writing had become. Reprints were circulated among business leaders and were copied to be passed out to the workers. The Boy Scouts of America republished “A Message to Garcia” for all of its scouts and leaders. A Russian visitor, visiting the United States to learn how to run a successful railroad, was given a copy of the essay. He had it translated into Russian and distributed to all Russian railroad workers. Some of them carried copies with them when they fought a war with Japan; copies taken from prisoners of war were translated into Japanese and then circulated among government employees in that land. As of 1916, Hubbard estimated that forty million copies of his humble essay had been printed and distributed.
Things have not changed much in a century. My children have had jobs in fast food, in health care, in engineering, and in other fields, and they have encountered the same laziness that bothered Elbert Hubbard. Most workers, it seems, prefer to do the minimum work required to take home a paycheck; any special project meets resistance, with employees going out of their way to do anything extra for the business or for the customer. One characteristic of the Salvageable family is that we get the job done, we go beyond the minimum expectations of our managers, and we take pride in our work. We do our best for our employers and their customers. We can be counted to get the message to Garcia.
Sadly, the entire story of the Message to Garcia is a string of lies. Lieutenant Rowan had no message from the President for General Garcia; he was sent by military intelligence to assess the strength and reliability of Garcia’s forces in Cuba. Essentially, he was a spy. But, as soon as he met Garcia, he admitted that he wanted to return home, and Garcia sent him on his way. Rowan was not just a spy; he was a failed spy who did not get his job done. What was worse, on his way to Cuba he had spoken with reporters, and his secret mission was described in the papers before he even met Garcia.
Likewise, Hubbard’s assessment of his “viral” essay was greatly exaggerated. Probably fewer than four million copies of his essay were printed and shared, not the forty million he claimed. The Russian official’s visit to the United States took place two years before Hubbard’s essay was written. No Russian or Japanese copies of his work were printed or distributed in those countries. In fact, most railroad workers in Russia at the time were illiterate.
In the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of getting a message to Garcia was a commonly understood metaphor. Americans knew that getting a message to Garcia meant getting the job done, overcoming obstacles, and refusing to offer excuses. In spite of the lies and deliberate misrepresentations associated with the original event, we clearly need today a lot more faithful workers, men and women who care about the job and not just the paycheck, men and women who can and who will get the message to Garcia. J.