"Never Before Were More Lies
"We Do Not Covet Peace At
The Cost Of Honor",
"A Hopelessly False Position"
excerpted from the book
The Politics of War
the story of two wars which altered
forever the political life of the American republic
by Walter Karp
Franklin Square Press, 1979, paper
"Never Before Were More Lies Told."
"Americans must be taught, said ... Henry Stimson, secretary
of war under Taft, to think more of their duties toward the government
and less of what they can "get." A drilled and disciplined
electorate, submissive toward its rulers, expecting nothing of
its government, was the civic condition the Republican Party needed
and sought. Nothing in the domestic politics of the United States
could possibly bring it about. Only the cataclysm of a major foreign
war could undo the deep damage of the preceding ten years. Out
of power the Republican oligarchy had few, if any, scruples.(Imperial
Germany was not decadent Spain, the right to travel was not a
battle cry on a par with "Cuba Libre," the trenches
of France were not ninety miles from our shores)It is a measure
of how desperate the Republican oligarchy had grown under the
impact of defeat that once Wilson opened up the prospect of war
Republican leaders were prepared, in the face of overwhelming
public sentiment, to muster all their political power to bring
The Republican oligarchs' resolve to push
for war was strengthened by support they had not enjoyed in 1898-the
major Wall Street capitalists, the futile peace faction in the
days of "Cuba Libre." Contemporary Americans believed
that Wall Street interests wanted war because only an Allied victory
would redeem their holdings in Allied securities. However, since
they avidly supported Wilson's war course several months before
they invested in British government securities, the true explanation
lies elsewhere. In fact their motives were far deeper, far stronger,
and far more comprehensive than mere concern for repayment of
loans. What they wanted, in essence, was what the Republican oligarchy
wanted: the restoration of their former place in the councils
of government, the restoration of their lost prestige, and the
recovery of their lost political security. In the days of McKinley
they had been open partners in rule; within a dozen years they
had become mere privileged clients of government, dependent on
unreliable politicians and hated by the public at large. As Bourne
shrewdly observed in his wartime writings, the financial and industrial
magnates had not been hurt financially by the reform era. What
they had lost was their place, their legitimacy, and their "glory."
They wanted war, said Bourne, because they saw in war the opportunity
to become the great captains of an industrial war machine and
partners, once in the governance of the country.
As long as Americans remained almost universally opposed to war
... even the most vigorous support of Wilson's diplomacy could
not bring about war, for public opinion severely hampered that
diplomacy. From the President on down the question every crypto-interventionist
faced was how to weaken and nullify that opposition. If straightforward
war agitation was impossible, if even straightforward jingoism
was ruled out, some other kind of propaganda was needed. The crypto-interventionists
found their answer in the relatively safe issue of national defense
to which they gave the enticing name of "preparedness ...
... The preparedness movement had nothing
to do with the nation's defenses. It was crypto-war agitation
intended, as Roosevelt frankly put it to a British correspondent,
"to get my fellow countrymen into the proper mental attitude"
for war without j actually calling for it openly. The American
people, Roosevelt explained, were too timid and pacifistic to
tolerate frank talk of intervention. The goal of the movement
was put even more graphically by Robert Bacon, a former assistant
secretary of state and a Republican leader of the preparedness
agitation. "In America," Bacon explained to a Frenchman,
"there are 50,000 people who understand the necessity of
the United States entering the war immediately on your side. But
there are 100,000,000 Americans who have not even thought of it.
Our task is to see that the figures are reversed."
Reactionary in its leaders, reactionary
in its ultimate goals, the preparedness movement was almost explicitly
an organized anti-reform movement, a counterrevolt of the powerful
and the privileged "to undo," as California's reform
governor Hiram Johnson put it, "the progressive achievements
of the past decade." At the movement's peak in 1916, when
it had behind it the power, prestige, and eloquence of President
Wilson himself, preparedness advocates scarcely bothered to conceal
their ultimate political goals. What America needed, they said,
was not merely military preparedness but "moral preparedness."
This was to be achieved through universal military training, through
"patriotic education," through military drill in the
public schools. They called for a new militarized polity-a "Prussianized"
... Though universal military training
(a virtual code word for war since peacetime conscription had
not the slightest chance of being enacted by Congress) Americans
would be taught a new "religion of vital patriotism-that
is, of consecration to the State." Through proper education
and military training, a population of selfish cowards-which was
how preparedness agitators commonly described their fellow countrymen-would
learn "not to sit supinely under insult, injury and violation
of right and law," meaning the right to travel on belligerent
merchantmen; learn not to sing disgraceful songs such as the all-too-popular
"I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier"; learn that
opposition to war meant "national loss of self-respect";
learn through the "discipline of the camp" and the schoolhouse
drill period "what it means to be an American"; learn,
last but not least, that "we have a part to play in the redemption
of humanity and the future organization of the world." Openly
appealing to every reactionary element in the country, to every
businessman frightened of industrial unrest, to every machine
politician hoping to revamp his machine, to every infatuated upper
class anglophile, the preparedness propaganda held forth the promise
of a new nation, conceived in "preparedness" (meaning
war), whose citizenry, radically transformed, would ask for nothing
from their government save the chance to serve its international
The first theme of the agitation was a frenzied propaganda of
bogies and alarms. Germany, according to the "prepareders,"
was bent on world domination. Germany, at war's end, would turn
next on America. Dire peril lay ahead. "Wake up, America!"
cried the agitators. The Hun was on the march; America lay supine.
Our navy was worthless, our army a nullity, our coastal defenses
mere toys. The public air suddenly rang with talk of "landing
parties" and "surprise attacks." Amphibious landings
across three thousand miles of ocean suddenly became a commonplace
military feat, which men wholly ignorant of military matters described
with factitious precision. James Beck, for example, a former assistant
U.S. attorney general and a leading Republican interventionist,
solemnly assured Philadelphians that it would take Germany exactly
sixteen days to land precisely 387,000 men on our shores. No absurdity
was too great for the crypto-interventionists to propose. In the
summer of 1915 Americans learned for the first time that they
were virtually doomed by 1921 to become "another Belgium,"
as if nothing were more plausible than a comparison between a
tiny country abutting Germany and a nation of 100 million a broad
ocean away. No absurdity of the preparedness agitation, however,
was too great for the American press to swallow. Big city newspapers
took up the preparedness line with obliging fervor. In vain did
reputable military men point out the fatuity of the alarmist talk
and the military ignorance of the alarmists. When a genuine military
expert stands in the way of political propaganda, the party press
can make itself L remarkably deaf to eminent generals.
While the press made Hunnish designs and
American weakness the daily fare of millions of readers, a platoon
of eager scribblers turned the propaganda into book-length treatises:
Are We Americans Cowards or Fools?; America and the German Peril;
The Game of Empires: A Warning to the United States (preface by
Roosevelt); Are We Ready? (preface by General Wood); The Conquest
of America: USA, AD 1921. In America Fallen: A Sequel to the European
War, the author, an editor of Scientific American, described how
a German armada would capture Philadelphia and Washington and
force a hapless United States to pay a $20 billion indemnity to
retrieve them. Like so many other preparedness effusions, it was
bought up and distributed free by the Navy League. In Defenseless
America, Hudson Maxim, brother of the Maxim gun's inventor, provided
an enterprising New York film company with subject matter for
a sensational movie, The Battle Cry of Peace. Opening in New York
City on September 9, 1915, the movie showed in alluring detail
a sinister, Hunnish-looking enemy laying waste to New York. True
to the crypto-interventionist pretense that they were trying only
to preserve peace, the movie was advertised in the press as "A
Call to Arms-Against War." Day after day, week after week,
for months the deluge of alarmist propaganda poured over the country
from New York City. "Not a mail pouch is opened in a second-class
post office," said a Texas member of Congress, "that
does not carry hundreds of letters, circulars, magazines and newspapers
urging us to hurry up our preparations before the bogie man gets
By midsummer the crypto-interventionists,
taking advantage of the feminist movement, began recruiting their
own wives and daughters for the preparedness cause. On July 10,
for example, the Navy League created a "woman's section"
of "prominent women" who were to organize "patriotic
national defense pageants" ...
Yet for all the noise and the shouting, for all the shows, pageants,
and "prominent women," the preparedness movement made
few converts to preparedness. Confined chiefly to lower Manhattan
and upper Fifth Avenue, the handiwork of stand-pat Republicans
and corporate "patriots for profit (as the movement's Wall
Street adherents were widely known), the movement utterly lacked
popular support. That Germany had either the will or the means
to invade America at the close of a supremely exhausting war was,
as an Ohio legislator put it, "the most preposterous proposition
that was ever exploited." Most Americans agreed. The preparedness
agitators, however, scarcely expected to convince Americans that
Germany was soon to invade us. Their propaganda had quite other
aims in mind. Under the pretense of discussing national defense,
they were trying, first, to label Germany as America's endemic
enemy, and the Allies, by implication, as America's first line
of defense. Far more important, the crypto-interventionists were
trying to change the question before the nation. Men who tried
to discuss the issues of war and peace were to be compelled in
the preparedness frenzy to discuss questions of national defense
instead. Men who criticized Wilson's diplomacy-Bryan most conspicuously
themselves forced to defend unpreparedness and suffer ready defamation
To bring America into the war, truth had to be defamed, honest
critics silenced, and free speech suppressed. The crypto-interventionists
were equal to the task. "Preparedness" had as many heads
as the Hydra. In the summer of the Lusitania crisis, the preparedness
agitators added a second theme to their original cry for military
defense against Teutonic invasion. They discovered "Americanism"
and portentously warned the country that America was not a nation
at all but merely a weak, disunited hodge-podge of unreliable
The reformers in the country were almost universally opposed to
a military buildup. They saw in preparedness not so much a movement
for war (which still seemed remote to most reformers) as a movement
led by their inveterate political enemies to defeat reform. "War
preparations and emphasis upon militarism," as Frederick
Howe put it, "is national suicide to all the things I am
Wilson's press outlet, the New York World, encouraged the preparedness
agitators with inspired stories from the White House: The President
favored a navy second to none; the President was personally drawing
up military defense plans; the President intended to make national
defense the main theme of his December message to Congress. At
the Governors' Conference in August, Secretary of the Navy Josephus
Daniels interrupted the usual discussion of state-level affairs
by calling for a greatly enlarged navy. At the end of the conference,
a half dozen governors, taking the obvious cue from the White
House, rose up to urge their fellow governors to return home and
organize "a propaganda for preparedness." In the crypto-interventionist
agitation to get Americans into "the proper mental attitude"
for war, the hand of the President was everywhere; only his powerful
voice had yet to be heard."
Like his fellow proponents of war, Wilson,
too, was determined to defame the foreign-born in order to silence
all who dared speak for the overwhelming majority of Americans.
On Sunday, August 15, the World spread across its front page the
first of its five-installment report on Germany's "elaborate
scheme to control and influence the press of the United States."
Editors who took their war news and opinions directly from England
professed horror at Germany's nefarious designs. On August 16,
the World, determined to portray the subventions as a limitless
plot, branded them a "Conspiracy Against the United States."
Other New York newspapers took up the cry. The Sun called the
subventions "sowing the seeds of treason." The Herald
divined in them "a plot to ruin America." The Evening
Sun likened Germany's propaganda efforts to "political assassination,"
the assassination by just criticism of President Wilson. The Evening
World called it a "conspiracy on a colossal scale .
For outspoken native Americans there was no safety either. In
a vicious organized whispering campaign launched in August, Georgia's
Senator Smith was accused of being on the German government payroll.
The senator had dared to assert in public that the British blockade
violated international law. When Bryan criticized 'Wilson's views
on preparedness, the entire party press savagely assailed the
former secretary of state for being "un-American." Stunned
by the charge, Bryan asked in a press statement, "When did
it become unpatriotic for a citizen to differ from a President?"
The answer to that was simple, too. Ever since the powerful and
the privileged had united behind Wilson to drag an unwilling people
into an unnecessary war.
Determined to break the "bonds" of American antiwar
sentiment, Wilson decided in early October that it was politically
safe to take public charge of the crypto-war agitation. On October
6, the President, in an address before the Civilian Advisory Board
of the Navy, came out strongly for a military buildup; overwhelming
public sentiment (which was nonexistent) had persuaded him: "I
think the whole Nation is convinced that we ought to be prepared,
not for war, but for defense, and very adequately prepared."
America needed a mighty military establishment, said Wilson, to
"command the respect of the world" and safeguard America's
... Nor did the President neglect the
new repressive theme of / "Americanism." Five days after
his preparedness speech 'Wilson, in an address to the Daughters
of the American Revolution, called upon "loyal" Americans
to assail all "disloyal" critics of his foreign policy.
"Hazing," Wilson slyly pointed out, was an old college
custom and an excellent one for adults to practice. And who was
to be "hazed" by the "loyal" at Wilson's behest?
"Everybody," said the President, "who is not to
the very core of his heart an American." In detecting the
disloyal "heart," Wilson advised the D.A.R., there was
one acid test to apply: "Is it America first or is it not?"
A President who put both the interests of a belligerent and his
own ambitions ahead of the good of America, was calling for vigilante
action against anyone who dared say so-in the name of "America
On November 4, the President, in a major
address, made a still more urgent appeal for preparedness and
... "Unfortunately, warned the President,
"voices have been raised in America" which disagreed,
voices "which spoke alien sympathies." He called upon
"the Nation" to "rebuke" all such people and
drown out their voices "in the deep unison of a common, unhesitating
national feeling." Having once again invited the war faction
to browbeat his critics, Wilson concluded, "Let us lift our
eyes to the great tracts of life yet to be conquered in the interests
of a righteous peace."
'Ugly and repressive though the atmosphere
was growing, "great tracts of life" in America remained
stubbornly unconquered by Wilson and the war party. The President's
speech aroused a storm of opposition around the country. In mass
meetings and angry editorials, reformers of every kind thundered
their opposition to preparedness. Farm organizations, almost unanimously,
registered their adamant opposition to a military buildup.
... The public outcry drove home a painful
truth to Wilson. Despite the "hazing" and "rebukes,"
despite the risk, as Senator La Follette said, of being denounced
"as a fool, a coward or a traitor," liberty in America
still menaced the President's ambitions. Too many Americans were
still unafraid to speak in behalf of the great majority of the
American people. Wilson felt forced to take sterner measures.
What those measures should be Wilson outlined on December 7, 1915,
in his annual message to Congress, one of the most astonishing
speeches ever delivered by an American President. Its sole theme,
as the World had rightly reported, was preparedness, which now
embraced, according to the President, not merely "military
efficiency and security" but "industrial and vocational
education" as well. Once again Wilson took pains to assure
progressives that he had in mind "no thought of any immediate
or particular danger arising out of our relations with other nations.
We are at peace with all the nations of the world." The real
danger to America was not military but political, not external
"The gravest threats against our
national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders.
There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born
under other flags... who have poured the poison of disloyalty
into the very arteries of our national life." Yet the government,
said the President, stood by helpless to deal with those threatening
the nation's security from within. He wanted Congress to pass
legislation to enable him to "close down over them at once."
On December 7, 1915, one hundred fifteen years after the infamous
Sedition Act had helped destroy the Federalist Party forever,
Woodrow Wilson was suggesting n vain) that Congress make criticism
of his foreign policy a criminal act."
"We Do Not Covet Peace At The Cost
Not everyone was deceived, for common sense is not so easily confounded.
On January 5, 1916, Wesley Jones of Washington took the floor
of the Senate to point out that the President's actions were not
responsible for peace and to suggest, albeit delicately, that
his intentions might be other than pacific. "The President,"
said Senator Jones, "has been highly commended for keeping
us out of the war in Europe. I want to give him all the praise
he deserves, but it has not been a question of keeping us out
of this struggle. The people have not wanted to get into it. The
question has been not to lead us into it, and I beseech the President
now to be careful, to proceed slowly, to make no harsh or arbitrary
demands, to keep in view the rights of 99,999,000 people at home
rather than of the 1,000 reckless, inconsiderate and unpatriotic
citizens who insist on going abroad in belligerent ships and that
he do not lead us into a position that means trouble or humiliation."
The American traveler on a belligerent ship, said Senator Jones,
"is entitled to no consideration whatever, and for this country
to become embroiled in this trouble on his account would be a
colossal crime against humanity"
Unfortunately for the peace of the country,
Senator Jones was a member of a congressional minority, an ill-sorted
collection of insurgent Republicans, progressive reformers, and
rural Democrats, for the most part, who genuinely believed that
American intervention in the European war was suicidally insane
... Wilson was understandably "disturbed"
that he still had strong vocal critics in Congress, for his war
course depended on the American people's enjoying virtually no
voice whatever in the councils of government.
...Behind the silence lay an elementary
fact of congressional politics. The prowar legislators simply
could not say in the free political space of a congressional chamber
what they said with impunity outside it. The crypto-war propaganda
consisted chiefly of lies and f distortions. Wilson's supporters
triumphed over his critics chiefly L by slandering their character,
impugning their patriotism, and drowning them out "in the
deep unison of a common, unhesitating" contempt for the "national
feeling." The free and formal atmosphere of parliamentary
debate, however, placed the crypto-interventionist majority at
a severe disadvantage. Outside Congress they could defend the
British blockade, for example, by praising the idealism of the
Allies. To do so inside Congress was grossly unneutral not discreet,"
as one Ohio Republican admonished a pro-British colleague. Outside
Congress, the interventionists could shout "America first"
at a critic of 'Wilson's partiality to Britain. Inside Congress
that lying retort invited the all-too-obvious rejoinder that those
who shouted "America first" really meant "England
first." Outside Congress, the prowar faction could call 'Wilson's
defense of safe travel a sacred obligation of "national honor"
and defame skeptics as "peace-at-any-price men." On
the floor of a legislative chamber, however, it was not so easy
to answer a legislator who asked-as blind Senator Thomas Gore
of Oklahoma asked in early January-why a "single citizen
should be allowed to run the risk of drenching this Nation in
blood merely in order that he may travel upon a belligerent rather
than a neutral vessel." And of course it was forbidden to
impugn the motives of a fellow legislator. Wilson's policy in
"the European matter" simply did not bear up under calm
scrutiny in a free political atmosphere. The President's legislative
understrappers prudently preferred not to discuss it at all.
What was true of Wilson's foreign policy
was equally true of the crypto-war agitation in general. Outside
Congress it was easy enough to sound the alarm about German invasions
of New York. Inside Congress, however, antipreparedness legislators
readily mocked such preposterous bogies and had no trouble deriding
the dubious "patriotism of the Dupont Powder Company"
and all the other profiteers for preparedness. Outside Congress
it was, easy enough to impugn the patriotism of "hyphenated
Americans." However, when Augustus Gardner did so on the
floor of the House in early January his fellow Republicans soundly
rebuked him for using "intemperate and reckless" language
and for trying to "fan the flame of racial hatred."
The political atmosphere inside Congress and outside it were as
distinctive as two different countries. Whatever prowar legislators
did outside the legislative chambers, in Congress assembled they
dared do no more than give the President as free a hand as possible
until he succeeded in making war seem "inevitable" to
the American people. Until then they preferred keeping Congress
out of European affairs entirely.
... the House of Representatives ... had demonstrated - in fact,
for the first time - that not even overwhelming public sentiment
could compel a majority of House members to hamper him in any
way regardless of how dubious the position he took, regardless
of how questionable his motives had become, regardless of how
modest, how sensible, and how reasonable a popular gesture of
dissent might be.
... on February 25  [the Senate] took an unusual step to
silence its small but redoubtable antiwar minority. Faced with
a travel warning introduced that day by Senator Gore, the Senate
voted to go into continuous legislative session, a parliamentary
device by which each succeeding day was deemed to be February
25, thereby preventing antiwar senators from introducing the travel
question into the business of the "day," which was to
last until March 2. "Every effort was made to prevent discussion"
of armed merchantmen, said a Republican senator shortly after
the gag was removed. Determined to protect a vulnerable President
from public opinion and those elected officials who still gave
it voice, the war party in Congress had thrown up a cordon of
silence around Wilson while the party press prated noisily about
"Germans" in Congress, "conspiracy" against
the President, and "America First."
"Divided counsels in Congress" were not to be borne;
unanimity of opinion was essential. But how does a parliamentary
body demonstrate unanimity by a vote that could not possibly be
unanimous? There was only one way to do so: by voting its opinion
that it had no right to an opinion-the unanimity of silence. This
was well understood by everyone in Congress. What Wilson wanted,
said an angry Senator La Follette, was "nothing less than
a complete denial of any intent or purpose to express an opinion
or offer advice." The President, said La Follette, wanted
Congress to "unconditionally surrender all right to voice
the popular will," to grant him "unprecedented"
and unconstitutional "one-man power" over foreign policy
while Congress "was to keep silent in all that pertains to
On the face of it, the Senate should have
risen up in fury against Wilson's arrogant presumption. A strong
voice in foreign affairs had been the Senate's jealously guarded
prerogative since the founding of the Republic. In the past, when
it chose to assert its power, the Senate had not scrupled to entrench
upon even the rightful diplomatic prerogatives of a President.
It would soon do so again-at the expense of Woodrow Wilson. On
the face of it, Senator Lodge should have led the revolt against
Wilson's unprecedented claims, for no senator was more zealous
than Lodge in asserting the Senate's prerogatives in foreign affairs.
He had done so in the past and he would do so again-at the expense
of Woodrow Wilson. For the present, however, the war party in
Congress could ill afford constitutional scruples. Extraordinary
as Wilson's claims were, they perfectly suited the war party's
extraordinary needs. To bring America into the war the popular
will had) to go unvoiced in Congress; congressional criticism
of Wilson's policies had to be branded as improper "interference"
with a President. To bring a people who opposed war into war,
Wilson had to be given exactly what he asked for-complete and
unhampered control over foreign affairs. Such being the need of
the hour, the war party in Congress, led by Lodge himself, agreed
at once to declare that Congress had no right to a voice in the
The parliamentary procedure for doing
so was to vote not on the merits of a travel resolution-McLemore's
in the House, Gore's in the Senate-but on a motion to table it,
a vote, that is, which registered the required opinion that Congress
considered itself without right to an opinion. The motion to table
had the additional merit of permitting no prior debate. On March
2, the Senate, in an extraordinary act of voluntary self-abasement,
agreed to turn itself temporarily into an impotent self-gagged
If opponents of war were angry, the crypto-interventionists were
elated. According to the New York Times, the vote demonstrated
that there were only fourteen "Germans" in the Senate,
a "sorry lot," and that "there is still an America,
instinct with national patriotism, hot to resent and prevent the
sacrifice of the least tittle of American rights, calm and majestically
strong in upholding the President who is striving in stormy times
to maintain peace but with no diminution of national right, no
stain upon national honor."
For months, prowar spokesmen had been insisting that "loyalty"
to the president was the paramount duty of a patriot, that criticizing
Wilson in the European matter was "un-American" and
"pro-German," that a President who was patently borrowing
trouble was striving nobly to keep America out of trouble, that
subservience to Britain proved devotion to "America first."
Until Congress voted, those propositions had been put forth by
agitators, the party press, and individual politicians. Now, for
the first time, by formal vote, the Congress of the United States
had lent its immense authority to the crypto-war propaganda.
... When Congress rallied around Wilson,
he was weaker and more vulnerable than he had been since the outbreak
of the European war. Far from bowing to the President's power,
Congress had restored his power and increased it greatly, while
refurbishing his tarnished reputation and saving him, in point
of fact, from certain defeat in the forthcoming election. At a
moment of dire peril for Wilson and his war course, Congress,
dominated by the war party, had rescued both.
"A Hopelessly False Position"
On March 24, a German submarine commander, prowling in the English
Channel, spied through his periscope a somewhat ambiguous-looking
enemy steamer. Possibly a small passenger ship, it lacked, as
he noted in his log, the usual passenger ship markings. Painted
black, with a bridge resembling that of a warship, it was sailing
outside the routes prescribed by the British Admiralty for passenger
vessels. The German commander, probably eager for a score, decided
it was an enemy mine layer and sent a torpedo into its hull. Although
damaged the ship was towed safely to port. Unfortunately it was
not a mine layer. It was the unarmed French Channel steamer Sussex,
bound for Dieppe with 325 passengers including 25 Americans, four
of whom were injured in the attack. As a sensational outrage the
Sussex affray was scarcely in the Lusitanian's class. It became
clear soon enough that a mistake had been made. To Americans who
thought as did the senator from Washington that it was a "colossal
crime against humanity" for America to go to war for the
sake of a few heedless travelers, the attack was a further argument
for warning Americans that they sailed at their own risk on belligerent
ships in the war zone. Had 'Wilson wished to avoid a major crisis
he could have demanded-and he certainly would have gotten-a German
disavowal of the sinking and a legal indemnity for the four injured
Wilson had no wish to avoid a major crisis.
He was intent upon precipitating one.
To sound out his cabinet members, Wilson read them his draft note
to Germany on the pretense that it was merely a possibility he
was putting forward for discussion. Cabinet members were cautioned
to tell nobody about it. Speaking on April 13 at a Jefferson Day
dinner, Wilson proclaimed to a throng of Democratic Party notables
that "the interests of America are coincident with the interests
of mankind." By now even the dimmest party fugleman could
grasp that the President was referring to the sacred rights of
neutral travelers and German submarine warfare. What the President
wanted to know was, did the Democrats assembled at the dinner
have the "courage" to go to war to defend "the
interests of humanity"? The audience cheered and shouted
"Yes!" On April 18 Wilson finally sent his ultimatum
Before a joint session of Congress ... Wilson explained to the
country that he had taken the drastic step of an ultimatum with
great reluctance. After assailing the "wanton" nature
of submarine warfare and giving the gist of his note to Germany,
the President insisted, as usual, that he had had no choice. "By
the force of circumstances," said Wilson, America had become
"the responsible spokesman for the rights of humanity"
(except when Norway asked America to champion the right of neutrals
not to be sunk by British mines in the North Sea). There could
be no shirking our duty to humanity; dangerous though its discharge
might be. As always under 'Wilson, neutral America lay haplessly
ensnared in a net of inescapable obligations that perpetually
imperiled our peace and neutrality."
In the bastions of "America First,"
'Wilson's grim call to international duty received a predictably
warm welcome. The Senate strongly approved the ultimatum. The
metropolitan press favored it overwhelmingly.
Americans were growing reluctant to voice "disloyal"
and "un-American" opinions in a moment of crisis. Sullen
submission to an odious fate, so marked in the American people
after the United States entered the war, was already beginning
to infect the country. The war party was winning the civil war
In 1916 the American people were once again called upon to elect
a President. The crypto-interventionists, a bipartisan faction,
were once again compelled to resume their expected partisan roles.
It was an awkward situation both for Wilson and for the leaders
of the Republican Party, the ostensible opposition. The Republicans
could scarcely campaign on a platform of "standing by"
a Democratic President: It would have made the election an open
farce. Opposition of some kind was required and there was no doubt
what kind would make a Republican victory certain. Republican
leaders had only to nominate a candidate who stood convincingly
for peace. Let him campaign with full party backing on a policy
of genuine neutrality; let him contrast that policy with Wilson's
partiality to Britain; let him point out to the electorate that
such partiality endangered our neutrality and invited embroilment
in the European war. The Republican candidate who offered that
opposition would have won the presidency in a landslide. The Democratic
Party was weak in the country. Wilson himself was widely disliked
or distrusted despite his bipartisan support.
For Republican leaders, however, running an antiwar candidate
on a platform of genuine neutrality presented a fatal difficulty.
They would win the election but lose the war. To endorse antiwar
sentiment in America, to assert that Wilson's foreign policy rather
than German villainy endangered the peace, would destroy all chance
of dragging America into an "inevitable" conflict. Once
pry loose the lid on American public opinion and there was no
calculating the force of the eruption. So far from winning the
presidency at so steep a price certain Republican leaders, Lodge
and Root in particular, urged Republicans to go before the country
as an all but open war party.
Between their fear of losing the war and their fear of sundering
the party, the Republican oligarchy adopted a two-step compromise
strategy. At the national convention in Chicago the oligarchy,
for the sake of party unity, nominated a man free of any interventionist
taint and put through a moderate platform which actually called
for "honest neutrality." They then turned around during
the ensuing campaign and virtually forced their chosen candidate
to take an unpopular, bellicose line.
The oligarchy's chosen nominee-he had
no serious rivals-was Charles Evans Hughes, Supreme Court justice
since 1910 and the perfect "available man" for national
convention purposes. Remembered as mildly progressive, Hughes,
as a member of the Court, had taken no part in the bitter intraparty
struggles of 1912 nor had he uttered a single public word about
the European matter. Respected and above all untainted, Hughes
enjoyed enormous initial advantages over the President, whom Americans
by a considerable margin were strongly inclined to be rid of.
Among the Republican nominee's assets was Roosevelt's well-known
dislike of him. The former President, returning to the Republican
fold after killing off his dying Progressive Party, was so desperately
truculent that anyone he publicly disapproved of enjoyed a virtual
certificate of pacific intentions. Nor was Hughes an interventionist
in 1916. In a private interview with Oswald Villard, the New York
publisher, he sharply attacked Wilson for, in his own words, "maneuvering
the country into a position where war may be a necessity."
Had Hughes said that plainly and clearly
in public, 'Wilson's chances for reelection would have been nil.
Unfortunately for Hughes, the Republican oligarchy did not want
their candidate telling the electorate home truths that imperiled
the war. They wanted Wilson attacked as a pacifist, not as a warhawk
disguised, and their demands could not be disregarded. If Hughes
defied the oligarchy the party organization would knife his candidacy
and the results would be fatal: No nonincumbent candidate for
the presidency ever won the office over his own party's opposition.
Wilson placed his own hopes for reelection on grounds other than
peace. His only chance for victory lay in winning the support
of millions of independent progressive Republicans who were now
virtually partyless. They wanted peace and they wanted further
reforms, which in themselves seemed to betoken peace. The President,
who had declared the "bad dream" of reform at an end
in 1914 and who had opposed every reform measure since then, decided
he had no choice but to become a progressive reformer once again.
In the winter of 1915 'Wilson had opposed as "class legislation"
federally backed credits for farmers. In 1916 he switched and
supported it-it became law on July 17. Previously he had opposed
on states' rights grounds federal child-labor legislation. He
now switched and supported it-it became law on September 1. Under
intense pressure from reformers Wilson supported the first genuinely
graduated income tax in American history to finance the costs
of preparedness. He pushed through legislation that mandated the
eight-hour workday on the nation's railroads-it became law on
September 3. He claimed in his first formal campaign speech that
he was now the champion of "social justice," which is
to say, of everything he had opposed six months before.
Wilson's 1916 reforms were an impressive,
if expedient, performance. Yet despite the reforms, despite Hughes's
compromised campaign, despite the vote-repelling rant of Roosevelt,
a clear majority of the voters were still inclined as of late
September to get rid of Woodrow Wilson. The President's reversion
to reform had helped him greatly, but the paramount issue in the
country was peace.
To kill Hughes with Roosevelt became the Democrats' closing campaign
theme. Roosevelt, quite obviously, was a warmonger; Roosevelt
spoke for a bellicose Republican leadership. Who then was the
Republican candidate? The answer, said the Democrats, was obvious:
He was a man in "complete accord with Roosevelt," a
warmonger thinly disguised. For Hughes it was a painful accusation
and a bitterly ironic one, for Roosevelt detested him, wanted
him to lose, and thought his very nomination proof that America
was "yellow." To the Democrats' accusation, however,
Hughes had no adequate reply. Struggle and squirm though he tried,
he dared not repudiate Roosevelt. Approving Roosevelt's violent
speeches was one of the Republican oligarchy's ground rules, and
Hughes feared to breach them. Unless party leaders got out every
regular Republican vote on election day, he no longer had a chance
to win. Indeed, the more he had curried their favor at the cost
of votes the more urgently he needed their favor. With his once
formidable lead melting away, the hapless Hughes was reduced in
the final days of the campaign to crying up the virtues of the
protective tariff, the only safe issue Republican leaders allowed
him. As Wilson himself rightly observed, Hughes was "in a
hopelessly false position."
While Hughes spread the Republican gospel
of 1884, the Democrats hammered away at the Hughes-is-Roosevelt
theme to the end.
Until the California votes were tabulated the day after the election,
the outcome remained in doubt. By the slender margin of 3,773
votes, Wilson carried the normally Republican state and with it
the election. Contemporaries cited Hughes's preference for California's
stand-pat Republicans over the dominant progressive Republicans
for his loss of the state and the presidency. If so, it was the
perfect epitome of his entire campaign. Running strongly in the
Middle West and West, where Democrats usually fared poorly, Wilson
had actually eked out his victory by capturing the antiwar reform
wing of the national Republican Party, whom Republican leaders
had spurned throughout the campaign. Wilson's reelection has often
been regarded as a great personal triumph, but it was nothing
of the kind. Had the Republican oligarchy allowed its candidate
to campaign as he wished, Wilson would have gone down to a decisive,
humiliating defeat. His reelection was the gift of a Republican
oligarchy that preferred to see a Democrat lead the country into
war rather than risk having no war at all.
The Politics of War