Republican victory would somehow provide aid and comfort to embattled Kaiser William II
Roiling the Mid-Term Waters: Recalling Woodrow Wilson’s Disastrous 1918 Gaffe
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Barack Obama’s controversial comments to the Latino community on Univision radio urging them towards a policy of “we’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us” certainly ranked among the less savvy political remarks in the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections.
But they were hardly without precedent.
In 1918’s mid-term elections, President Woodrow Wilson similarly stirred a hornets’ nest when he unleashed his own considerable wrath upon congressional Republicans.
And with similar disastrous consequences.
With America waging war on Imperial Germany and her Central Power allies, November 1918 witnessed the nation’s first war-time election of the new century. Republicans had largely supported the war effort. Their patriotism could not be faulted. In fact, some Republicans, such as ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, qualified as (pardon the Germanic expression) “uber patriots,” having repeatedly urged American military readiness well in advance of the nation’s April 1917 declaration of war upon Berlin. In 1918 the GOP loudly called for Germany’s unconditional surrender and derided any negotiated peace with Berlin.
With victory within reach in late 1918, however, on Thursday, October 24, 1918, Woodrow Wilson issued an open letter to his “fellow countryman” urging that Democrats retain their majorities in the House and Senate and suggesting that a Republican victory would somehow provide aid and comfort to embattled Kaiser William II.
Wilson wrote in part:
This is no time for divided counsel or for divided leadership. Unity of command is as necessary now in civil action as it is upon the field of battle. . . .
The return of a Republican majority to either house of the Congress would, moreover, be interpreted on the other side of the water as a repudiation of my leadership.
Spokesmen of the Republican party are urging you to elect a Republican Congress in order to back up and support the President. But, even if they should in this impose upon some credulous voters on this side of the water, they would impose on no one on the other side. It is well understood there as well as here that Republican leaders desire not so much to support the President as to control him.
The peoples of the allied countries with whom we are associated against Germany are quite familiar with tile significance of elections. They would find it very difficult to believe that the voters of the United States had chosen to support their President by electing to the Congress, a majority controlled by those who are not in fact in sympathy with the attitude and action of the Administration.
Wilson’s words incensed Republicans. They protested that Wilson had impugned their patriotism, and many Americans agreed with them. “President Wilson has questioned the motives and fidelity of your representatives in Congress,” said Republican National Chairman Will Hays. “He has thereby impugned their loyalty and denied their patriotism. His challenge is to you who elected those representatives. You owe it to them, to the honor of our great party and in your own self-respect to meet that challenge squarely, not only as Republicans, but as Americans. . . .
“Mr. Wilson wants only rubber stamps, his rubber stamps in Congress. He says so. No one knows it better than Democratic congressmen.”
Democrats, sensing that their leader had overplayed his hand, and already sensitive to jibes that the war was being fought “to make the world safe for Democrats” rushed to his defense. Addressing Democrats at New Haven, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels only added fuel to the fire, smearing Wilson’s opponents as “American Junkers . . . [whose] supreme aim is to seize the arteries of commerce for their own enrichment, to wipe out tax laws that touch swollen incomes, and replace them by a tax that burden the toiler, and to repeal or to emasculate the great measures of social justice which are the glory at the Wilson Administration.”
“In all the world, outside of Germany, there is but one place where the President is denounced and his course condemned,” Treasury Secretary (and Wilson’s son-in-law) William Gibbs McAdoo charged, “That place is America, and the persons denouncing and condemning are chiefly those whose leadership has been repudiated by the American people. Their intemperate language and unqualified abuse furnish conclusive proof that no mistake has been made in not inviting them to assist in formulating the policies of our country.
“The result of this election should convince the world that President Wilson possesses the confidence of his own people in the same degree that he does of all others.”
“If Republican leaders persist in their present course,” warned former Texas United States Senator and House Minority Leader Joseph W. Bailey, “they will not only insure a Democratic majority in the next Congress but they will also insure the President’s third election to the Presidency.”
Despite cultivating a populist image, Bailey had resigned from the Senate in 1911 when his ties to Standard Oil were exposed. Beyond that, Bailey had physically assaulted fellow United States Senator Albert J. Beveridge in October 1902. That Wilson’s defense largely fell to overheated orators such as Josephus Daniels, disreputable characters like Bailey, and to his own son-in-law McAdoo, indicates how artless his effort had been.
Yet, Democrats still retained one powerfully effective weapon in their arsenal, releasing the text of a letter Food Administrator Herbert Hoover had sent to pro-Wilson New York Republican Frederic Rapp Coudert. “I am for President Wilson’s leadership not only in the conduct of the war, but also in the negotiations of peace, and afterward in the direction of America’s burden in the rehabilitation of the world. There is no greater monument to any man’s genius than the conduct of negotiations by the President.”
In reality, however, Hoover too found Wilson’s gambit not only “a shock . . . but a mystery.”
“I believed,” Hoover would record in his The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, “that this appeal was a mistake and a wholly unwarranted reflection on many good men”
Other high administration officials shared his unease. Wilson’s secretary (i.e. chief of staff) Joseph Patrick Tumulty would later record in his own autobiography: “The President’s appeal to the country of October 24, 1918, asking for the election of a Democratic Congress, brought down upon him a storm of criticism and ridicule. Many leading Democrats who had strongly urged an appeal by the President as a necessary and proper thing in the usual war situation which confronted him, as the criticism directed toward it grew more bitter, turned away from it and criticized what they said was the ineptitude and lack of tact of the President in issuing it.”
Attorney General Thomas V. Gregory dictated a private memorandum that read:
The letter was not merely the worst political mistake that he could make, but it was utterly un-Wilsonian. For more than a year there has been in Washington thousands of loyal Republicans, working under Wilson’s leadership for the country, at $1.00 a year, and sacrificing their private interests and forgetting their political affiliations. There were scores of Republicans in the Senate and House who had voted consistently for Wilson’s policies and held up his hands during the struggle, at a time when many of his own party were hamstringing him. . . . None of us knew anything of the letter until it appeared. I myself read it with horror in the morning paper. It seems probable to mc that Wilson decided to write the letter in a moment of extreme weariness, for these were harrowing days, at the end of a long session when his nerves were taut and his intellectual sentinels were not on the lookout for danger. Otherwise I cannot conceive of his writing the letter, which, as I have said, is so thoroughly un-Wilsonian.
Some papers, such as the New York Timessupported Wilson’s move, but most found it off-putting and inappropriate. The Hartford Courant dismissed it as “political buncombe.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer observed that “Wilson long ago declared that ‘politics are adjourned,’ He has demolished his own declaration. We have no hesitation in saying that he is plunging into desperate partisan polities and is capitalizing the war as an asset of the Democratic party.”
From Omaha, Mrs. Margaret A. Henry wrote to Wilson. A Republican, she had purchased all the Liberty Bonds her husband’s credit would bear. A hospital operator, she tendered all her equipment to the government for the duration. Her son had enlisted and was serving in France. Her over-draft-age surgeon husband had similarly volunteered and now commanded a base hospital on the Western Front.
Now Margaret Henry challenged Wilson:
Can you be surprised then that I am dumb with astonishment at your letter which would have me believe that it is disgraceful and disloyal to vote for a Republican?
If my husband and son are good enough patriots to fight the battles of their country and risk their lives for us who stay at home, would they if one were a candidate for Congress be less patriotic and less to be trusted because they are Republicans?
If I lived in a State where I could vote, would I be manifesting a disloyalty that would embarrass you if I voted for my husband as a Republican, believing he could serve his country as well at Washington as in France?
Not surprisingly, Theodore Roosevelt quickly found Wilson’s comments “the veriest nonsense that even partisanship can conceive . . .”
Addressing five thousand frenzied fellow party members at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening October 28, TR charged: “If Mr. Wilson had really meant to disregard politics he would at once have constructed a coalition, nonpartisan cabinet, calling the best men of the nation to the highest and most important offices under him without regard to politics. He did nothing of the kind.”
“In the positions most vital to the conduct of the war, and in the positions now most important in connection with negotiating peace, he retained or appointed men without the slightest fitness for the performance of the tasks, whose only recommendation was a supple eagerness to serve Mr. Wilson personally and to serve Mr. Wilson’s party in so far as such service benefited Mr. Wilson.”
The incident energized Republicans. “Up to this time they had no great fighting material for their campaign,” recalled Herbert Hoover, “but this gave them a powerful issue, both in its implications and its cry of partisanship in the midst of the nation’s greatest crisis. It is idle talk to speculate about what might otherwise have been the outcome of the election.”
Attorney General Thomas V. Gregory concurred. “The letter seemed to stigmatize everyone who was not a member of the Democratic party,” Gregory wrote, “and it immediately raised an electoral issue and gave an opportunity to the Republicans which up to then had been lacking. Previously they had no fight in them. Now they had good reason to complain of a document which had injected a partisan issue at a moment when they might claim they had forgotten everything in order to win the war. Without this issue the Democrats would have carried the elections easily on the basis of Wilson’s prestige and the fact that the war had been won.”
Wilson had already lost much of his legislative ground, the solid majorities that had implemented the first income tax under the Sixteen Amendment, created the Federal Trade Commission, and passed the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Seventeenth Amendment for direct election of United States senators. Concurrent with his eyelash 1916 re-election, voters elected 214 Democrats and 215 Republicans, but Democrats combined with the Progressive Party’s three remaining representatives to forge a rare House coalition regime and retain Democrat Champ Clark of Missouri as Speaker. On November 5, 1918, however, in the wake of Wilson’s controversial remarks, Republicans, largely as a result of Midwestern victories, gained twenty-five seats and finally assumed House control.
On October 27, 1918, the Washington Post forecast that Democrats “Are to Hold Senate.”
Their November 3 analysis promised Democrats would “Hold Senate by Four.”
But the Upper House, nonetheless, witnessed a similar Democratic debacle. Republicans gained seven seats to provide them with a two-seat majority and to install Wilson’s nemesis Massachusetts’ Henry Cabot Lodge as Senate Leader.
“He demanded a vote of confidence,” Teddy Roosevelt gloated regarding Wilson’s humiliation, “The people voted a want of confidence.”
There thus proved to be no coveted third term for Woodrow Wilson. The next election signaled the end of the Wilson era—and three terms of Republican rule.