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Prologue: The Defining Moment
To Woodrow Wilson, it seemed the cheering would never end. The president had sailed to Europe three weeks after the Armistice that had halted the savage killing of the First World War. Now his task was to complete a peace treaty that would bring forth a League of Nations that he believed would prevent a great war from ever happening again.
As the steamship George Washington reached the French seacoast of Brittany just before dawn on December 13, 1918, Wilson could see lights on the horizon as a flotilla of American warships sailed out to greet him. Nine battleships came abreast of the warship and the five destroyers that had accompanied the George Washington across the Atlantic. Each fired a twenty-one-gun salute to the president of the United States as Wilson's ship sailed toward the harbor at Brest.
There was more to come. Two French cruisers and nine French destroyers came up from the south, firing their own salutes. By the time Wilson entered the harbor, shore batteries from the ten forts on both sides of the cliffs began firing salutes. The military bands on the top of the cliffs blazed forth with renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "La Marseillaise."
Once the president and his wife were onshore, the mayor of Brest offered Wilson a parchment scroll, festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons, which contained the greetings of the city council. The Americans then climbed into open automobiles that took them up the cliff and on to the railroad station where French President Raymond Poincare; was waiting to escort them to Paris.
Along the route American soldiers were standing at attention. As the train approached the French capital people swarmed the tracks waiting to welcome the American president. The next day, the largest number of Parisians ever to welcome a foreign leader packed the streets and boulevards. Under a clear autumn sky, from the church of the Madeleine to the Bois de Boulogne, they thronged the sidewalks and rooftops. Thirty-six thousand French soldiers formed lines to hold back the crowds.
Flowers floated down on Mrs. Wilson when the entourage passed under a banner stretched across the Champs-e;lyse;es that proclaimed "Honor to Wilson the Just." For the first time in living memory, a carriage passed under the Arc de Triomphe. "No one ever had such cheers," the American journalist William Bolitho wrote, "I, who heard them in the streets of Paris, can never forget them in my life. I saw [Marshall] Foch pass, [Premier] Clemenceau pass, [British Prime Minister] Lloyd George, generals, returning troops, banners, but Wilson heard from this carriage something different, inhuman -- or superhuman. Oh, the immovably shining, smiling man!"
For the rest of the month of December, similar scenes were repeated in England, including a trip north to Carlisle near the Scottish border where Wilson's mother was born and his grandfather had been a preacher before immigrating to America. Then back to Paris and on December 31 by the Italian royal train to Rome, where he was met with near hysterical demonstrations. Airplanes roared overhead as he rode with the king and queen through streets covered with golden sand from the Mediterranean, an ancient tradition of honoring heroes come to Rome. Leaving the capital to journey north to Turin and Milan, he blew kisses to the crowd.
Wilson thought he was on the verge of realizing his dream of bringing perpetual peace to a worn-out continent, a Europe whose statesmen believed that maintaining a balance of power among nations was the only way to contain conflict.
Only two months earlier, Wilson had suffered a serious setback. In November 1918, his Democratic Party lost both the House and the Senate to the Republicans. Now the opposition asked what right did he have to go to Europe as a representative of the American people. His greatest antagonist, former president Theodore Roosevelt, had declared: "Our allies and our enemies and Mr. Wilson himself should all understand that Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people at this time. His leadership has been emphatically repudiated by them...and all his utterances every which way have ceased to have any shadow of right to be accepted as expressive of the will of the American people."
It was Roosevelt who had split the Republican Party by running against President William Howard Taft in the presidential election of 1912, and by so doing may well have handed Wilson the presidency. Now Roosevelt, having repaired his relations with the Republicans, was, at sixty, their likely candidate for president in 1920. During the campaign, Wilson had written that Roosevelt appealed to people's imagination; by contrast, "I do not. He is a real, vivid person...I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles."
Of the other two men who had run in the 1912 campaign against Wilson, William Howard Taft was now happily teaching at the Yale Law School, relieved that he had not been re-elected president; by running a second time for an office he had never truly enjoyed, he had achieved his goal of preventing Roosevelt, once his closest friend, from regaining the White House.
As for the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, he was still fervently committed to an ideology Wilson both feared and despised. Debs had opposed Wilson's war. Now he was awaiting the verdict of the United States Supreme Court on his appeal to overturn a conviction for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts.
As the royal train bore him through the Italian Alps toward France, Wilson and his wife sat alone in the royal coach. He was in high spirits, for those who had opposed him were far away and he was being hailed as the savior of Europe. About nine in the evening, January 6, 1919, the train stopped at Modena for a short time. Wilson remained in his seat while newspaper correspondents strolled along the platform to stretch their legs. They could easily see him through the window as a messenger brought him a telegram.
When he first glanced at the piece of paper, Wilson was clearly surprised at what he was reading. One of the correspondents saw what he thought was a look of pity -- then, finally, a smile of triumph. A few moments later, the newspaperman learned that the telegram had informed the president that Theodore Roosevelt was dead.
TR's funeral took place in early January. He had been very sick since the day the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, in and out of hospitals, and finally home to Sagamore Hill for Christmas Eve. It was difficult for him to walk, racked as he was with what the doctors believed was inflammatory rheumatism, and doubtless complicated by parasites he may have picked up on his trip to explore the River of Doubt in the Brazilian jungles five years earlier. Dying in his sleep at four in the morning on January 6, of an embolism, Roosevelt was to be buried at Youngs' Cemetery at Oyster Bay, Long Island, a site not far from Sagamore Hill. The service's only ceremony was the Episcopal Church's Burial of the Dead.
It was snowing that morning. The airplanes that had been flying for the past two days in tribute to the former president and his son, Quentin, a pilot who had died over France during the World War, could no longer keep up their vigil. Roosevelt's wife, Edith, stayed in the house, as was then customary, and read through the funeral service, while some five hundred villagers and dignitaries attended the service at Christ Church.
William Howard Taft, when he heard of Roosevelt's death, telegrammed Mrs. Roosevelt, saying that the world had lost "the most commanding personality in our public life since Lincoln."6 By now, Taft and Roosevelt had been reconciled. Later, he wrote to TR's sister Corinne to say how glad he was "that Theodore and I came together after that long painful interval. Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory."
Arriving at Oyster Bay, Taft found that the arrangements for receiving him at the funeral services had been botched. He was at first put in a pew with the family servants. When Roosevelt's son Archie saw what had happened, he came up and said, "You're a dear personal friend and you must come up farther." He seated Taft just behind Vice President Thomas Marshall, who was there representing Woodrow Wilson, and just in front of the Senate committee headed by TR's closest political ally and Wilson's great enemy, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.
As the coffin was borne out of the church, the snow had stopped falling, although the sky was still gray and heavy. Taft and the other mourners made their way to the cemetery, which was about a mile and a half from the church, and then climbed the hill to where the open grave was waiting. The simple burial service came to an end. Others moved away from the graveside. Taft, however, remained longer than anyone, weeping.
Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate for the presidency in 1912, was waiting in early 1919 to be spirited off to prison. Debs, who saw the tradition of American liberty as the cornerstone of American socialism, seemed to welcome the prospect of going to jail for his beliefs.
America at that time was in the grip of a Red Scare that Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, had inflicted on those whom the government suspected of Bolshevik sympathies and/or being too critical of the war effort. Wilson ordered Palmer "not to let this country see Red," and in the opening months of 1918, more than two thousand radical unionists were arrested, and two hundred convictions had been secured under the new espionage law.
In defending himself in his address to the jury in September 1918, Debs invoked the memory of George Washington, Tom Paine, and John Adams, "the rebels of their day," and recalled the memory of America's abolitionists. In contesting the specific charges against him, Debs not only defended his right to free speech under the Constitution but also bitterly cited Wilson's 1912 campaign speeches supporting that right.
All was in vain. The jury found him guilty as charged.
Two days later at the sentencing, Debs rose and made a statement to the court. His words have remained as the clearest declaration of his humanist principles. After recognizing his "kinship with all living beings," he famously said, "while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and where there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The judge sentenced Debs to ten years' imprisonment.
The year 1912 constitutes a defining moment in American history. Of the four men who sought the presidency that year -- Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs -- not one of them had definitively decided to run after the congressional elections of 1910.
Wilson, who had just been elected governor of New Jersey, had long hoped that someday the White House would be his, but all his experience had been as a college professor, and later a president of Princeton. He had been a noted theorist of congressional government, never a practitioner.
Debs had run for president on the Socialist ticket twice before. His firm commitment to social and economic justice targeted him once again as the favorite of Socialist voters, but he himself was weary of campaigning, often too sick to do anything but speak. His thrilling oratory, however, made him invaluable in the struggle against the excesses of industrial capitalism.
Taft, the reluctant incumbent, might well have abandoned the field of battle in 1912 and taught happily at Yale Law School while hoping for an appointment to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt, though lusting after the power of the presidency, still expected to support Taft. TR, after all, had shown himself to be a consummate politician during his two terms in office and appreciated the potency of the party organization. If Taft could have approached his former mentor directly, confessed his anxieties about dealing with a Congress so dominated by right-wing Republicans that he was finding it impossible to fulfill the reformist policies of TR, he might then have urged Roosevelt to run for a third term. This would have prevented Roosevelt from challenging him for the presidency that Taft had so often loathed.
Had the charismatic Roosevelt received the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have won. He, far more than Taft, was in tune with the progressive spirit of the time. The Republican Party, in his hands, would likely have become a party of domestic reform and internationalist realism in foreign affairs. With his heroic virtues and condemnation of materialism, Roosevelt represents the road not taken by American conservatism.
The vote polled in 1912 by Debs, who garnered the largest share of the popular total ever won by a Socialist candidate, revealed the depth of the reformist forces sweeping the land. Never again would the Socialists show such strength. The Democrats during Wilson's first term quickly picked up many of the social remedies Debs -- and a radicalized Roosevelt -- had championed.
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson embraced change, both men recognizing that their own careers could not flourish if they were to hold back the tide of reform. Neither leader believed that repose was essential to the happiness of mankind. The issues at stake were vital if America was to transform itself into a society that would deal effectively with the problems of the new century without sacrificing the democratic values that the Founders had envisaged. With the recent influx of new immigrants, many of them were condemned to work in squalid sweatshops and live in the deteriorating conditions of the urban poor. Journalists, social workers, ministers, and middle-class Americans were outraged at the widespread corruption of political bossism in the nation's cities.
The threats to the environment by the expansion of industry and population seemed to require a national commitment to conserving the nation's natural resources to avoid further destruction of wildlife and grasslands. The issue of woman suffrage, the safeguarding of the right of black Americans to vote, and the need to end child labor and to regulate factory hours and conditions went to the very heart of the promise of American democracy.
Above all, there was the question of how to curb the excesses of big business, symbolized by the great trusts, which had accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism. For Roosevelt, calling for a "New Nationalism," the role of government was to regulate big business, which was surely here to stay. For Wilson's "New Freedom," the government's task was to restore competition in a world dominated by technology and mass markets that crushed small business. For Debs, America needed federal control of basic industries and a broad-based trade unionism. As for Taft, the White House simply needed to apply laws that were designed to restrain the excesses of industrial capitalism. Indeed, all four men struggled to balance nineteenth-century democratic values with emerging twentieth-century institutions and technologies. For Roosevelt and Wilson, this required the bold use of executive power; between them they created the modern presidency.
In its essence, 1912 introduced a conflict between progressive idealism, later incarnated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal -- and subsequently by Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton -- and conservative values, which reached their fullness with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The broken friendship between Taft and Roosevelt inflicted wounds on the Republican Party that have never been healed. For the rest of the century and even into the next, the Republican Party was riven by the struggle between reform and reaction, and between unilateralism in foreign relations and cosmopolitan internationalism.
Above all, the contest among Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, and Debs -- over reform at home and later over American involvement abroad -- recalls the great days of Jefferson and Hamilton,15 as the 1912 presidential campaign tackled the central question of America's exceptional destiny.
Copyright © 2004 by James Chace