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Posts Tagged ‘William Howard Taft’

 The Surprising Evidence hat Woodrow Wilson Was Suffering from a Brain Malfunction Before the Stroke that Crippled Him

Richard Striner

HNN   June 15, 2014

This is part three of a three-part series distilling the thesis of Richard Striner’s new book, Woodrow Wilson and World War One: A Burden Too Great to Bear, published by Rowman & Littlefield in April 2014. (Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.) Mr. Striner is a professor of history at Washington College. His other books include Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery and Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.   – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155787#sthash.W5bIvaw3.dpuf

 

Almost everyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson agrees he was a tragic figure. But the admirers and detractors of Wilson have differed sharply down the years as to whether Wilson’s tragedy was essentially his own fault. One critical fact about the tragedy was obviously not his fault: the stroke that he suffered on October 2, 1919. And due to the underlying condition of arteriosclerosis (diagnosed as early as 1906), distinguished medical observers have theorized that Wilson suffered from a progressive cerebro-vascular deterioration resulting in episodic dementia as early as 1917.

As one studies the historical record in detail — a record set forth in magnificent abundance by the editorial team led by the late Arthur S. Link that produced the 69-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson — there is much to support the belief that he was hampered by his medical condition.

Wilson’s judgment seemed grossly impaired by the war years. He was extraordinarily petulant and irrational by 1918, and contemporaneous observers who were in a position to know commented often on his strange and quirky ways.

In 1919, Wilson’s pre-existing medical and mental conditions arguably led to a breakdown months before his paralytic stroke, which occurred on October 2. The nature of this breakdown could be seen as early as February, in a series of words and actions that prefigured his behavior of November and December, at which point he was clearly out of his mind.

When Wilson sailed to Europe aboard the USS George Washington, he had — typically — no substantive strategy for preventing the kind of vindictive peace that he had warned against in his 1917 “Peace Without Victory” speech. One of the advisers recruited for the U.S. peace delegation, Yale historian Charles Seymour, recalled that Wilson turned to him during the voyage and asked, “What means, Mr. Seymour, can be utilized to bring pressure upon these people in the interest of justice?” It was very late indeed for Wilson to be thinking in these terms, especially after the many missed opportunities in 1917 and 1918 to build the political pre-conditions for “peace without victory.”

John Maynard Keynes, at that time serving as an adviser to David Lloyd George, argued in his best-selling book The Economic Consequences of the Peace that Wilson could have come to Europe with a formidable basis for pressuring the allies. Keynes wrote that “Europe was in complete dependence on the food supplies of the United States; and financially she was even more absolutely at their mercy. Europe not only already owed the United States more than she could pay; but only a large measure of further assistance could save her from starvation and bankruptcy.” Referring to Wilson, Keynes wrote that “never had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world.”

If Wilson had explored the possibility of offering a debt moratorium to the allies, the reparations that the British and the French would inflict upon the Germans might have been far less severe. But Wilson never seriously considered that option in 1918 or 1919, as the historical record demonstrates.

The negotiations over reparations and territorial settlements were grueling, but Wilson consoled himself with the fact that the League of Nations won general approval at the Paris Peace Conference in January, though the task of hammering out the details of its overall plan and structure was difficult. Wilson returned briefly to the United States in late February to sign legislation that the lame-duck Congress had passed in its final session. Here was an opportunity to test and adjust the domestic politics regarding both the League and the overall treaty.

Wilson’s behavior in February and early March shows clearly that a mental breakdown was beginning. Some of his behavior, to be sure, was quintessentially Wilsonian: his proclamations, for instance, that pure idealism had won the war and that power politics had nothing to do with the outcome were symptomatic of the escapism that was intermittently a factor in his thinking. In Boston, he delivered the following incantation: “In the name of the people of the United States I have uttered as the objects of this great war ideals, and nothing but ideals, and the war has been won by that inspiration.” He had engaged in this sort of hyperbole many times and it had rendered him largely incapable of strategic thinking since the war began. But some other episodes during this visit showed a new and shocking deterioration.

At the suggestion of Col. House, he sponsored a dinner at the White House to explain the preliminary terms of the League covenant to select members of Congress. The results of this meeting showed clearly that the League was in trouble on Capitol Hill. Several worried Democrats suggested that Republican feedback should supply the basis for revisions that Wilson could bring with him when he returned to Paris. But Wilson refused to consider this.

Two days later, Henry Cabot Lodge made a powerful and persuasive speech on the floor of the Senate denouncing the preliminary structure of the League. Wilson’s response was appallingly simple: he threw a public temper tantrum. In remarks at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, he proclaimed that all who opposed the preliminary plans for the League were imbeciles. Listen to him: “Of all the blind and little provincial people, they are the littlest and most contemptible . . . . They have not even got good working imitations of minds. They remind me of a man with a head that is not a head but is just a knot providentially put there to keep him from raveling out . . . . They are going to have the most conspicuously contemptible names in history. The gibbets that they are going to be erected on by future historians will scrape the heavens, they will be so high.”

Just before Wilson returned to Paris, Lodge circulated in the Senate a document in which the signatories declared that they would under no circumstances vote for the League in its existing form. Lodge obtained more than enough signatures to show Wilson he was beaten unless he made revisions to the League.

Wilson did so when he returned to Paris, and these new deliberations were as grueling as the earlier ones had been. But Wilson refused to have any contact with Lodge and his supporters, which meant that all of his work was a waste of time, for Lodge was engaging in a simple game of payback, an exercise for the fun of it to make Wilson humble himself and give Republicans a “piece of the action.” Surely at some level Wilson sensed what was going on, but his vanity, his stubbornness, and his indignation were becoming more severe.

Wilson’s signature in 1913

 

 

His health began to give way in recurrent bouts of illness. But something drastic seemed to happen to him on April 28 — something that did not come to light until many years later, when historian Arthur S. Link was editing the Wilson documents from 1919. Let Link and his editorial colleagues tell the story: “It became obvious to us while going through the documents from late April to about mid-May 1919 that Wilson was undergoing some kind of a crisis in his health . . . . Whatever happened to Wilson seems to have occurred when he was signing letters in the morning of April 28” when his handwriting changed and became almost bizarre.

Wilson’s signature in spring 1919

 

The editors continue: “Wilson’s handwriting continued to deteriorate even further. It grew increasingly awkward, was more and more heavily inked, and became almost grotesque.” Link summoned some medical specialists who told him that in their own opinion there was simply no doubt about it: Wilson had suffered a stroke on the morning of April 28.

And then he threw away yet another opportunity to strike a blow for “peace without victory.” When the terms of the Versailles treaty were made public there was widespread outrage regarding their severity. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, was stricken, and he called the British delegation together on June 1. Their decision was unanimous: the terms of the treaty should be softened.

But when Wilson was approached, he declared that the severe terms were perfectly appropriate. According to one account, he proclaimed that “if the Germans won’t sign the treaty as we have written it, then we must renew the war.”

When he returned to the United States, his mental decline proceeded rapidly. He seemed to be more and more convinced that a religious drama was being enacted, a drama that he could understand more than others. When he presented the treaty to the Senate on July 10, he declared that “the stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision.” A Democrat, Senator Henry Fountain Ashurst, reacted to the speech as follows: “Wilson’s speech was as if the head of a great Corporation, after committing his company to enormous undertakings, when called upon to render a statement as to the meanings and extent of the obligations he had incurred, should arise before the Board of Directors and tonefully read Longfellow’s Psalm of Life.” Republican responses to the speech were even less charitable.

In August Wilson came to his senses and began to engage in discussions with congressional opponents, including some Republicans known as “mild reservationists” who supported the treaty but insisted on some clarifications to the League covenant, especially in regard to the issue of military force. But on August 11, his mood changed abruptly, and he made his fateful decision to appeal to the American people on a speaking tour that would take him to the West Coast and back.

Before he left, however, he made a significant (if private) concession: he gave his preliminary assent to some secret text for a possible “reservation” to the League covenant that was drafted by Democratic Senator Gilbert Hitchcock.

The speaking tour broke his health permanently, and after falling ill in Pueblo, Colorado, he returned to Washington, where the paralytic stroke occurred on October 2. After a medical team diagnosed the stroke, Wilson’s wife made the very bad decision to conceal the diagnosis from the public. Wilson could and should have been relieved of his presidential duties. As an invalid who had suffered a severe brain injury, he became more irrational and petulant than ever before.

The preliminary showdown in Congress over the Versailles treaty and its League covenant happened in November. Lodge had drafted a series of reservations, the most important of which concerned Article 10, which pertained to collective security and the use of military force under League auspices. Lodge’s text was negative and grudging: it declared that the United States would never participate in collective security actions as recommended by the League unless Congress approved through its constitutional prerogative to declare war. As Arthur Link noted years ago, the Lodge reservation was essentially the same as the Hitchcock reservation that Wilson had secretly approved, though the tone of Lodge’s reservation was of course nasty and negative. But both of them said essentially the same thing: the United States could never be drawn into war against the opposition of the people’s elected representatives.

Wilson, however, was convinced that the Lodge reservation “cuts the very heart out of the treaty.” A caucus of Democratic senators had voted to obey the president’s wishes, so bipartisan discussions with Republican “mild reservationists” were called off. The treaty went down to defeat on November 19.

The reaction was one of bipartisan shock, especially with Republicans such as former President William Howard Taft, who supported the League and who declared that the Lodge reservation “does not modify the original article nearly so much as a good many people have supposed it did.”

So bipartisan discussions resumed in January 1920. Success was approaching as more and more Democrats rebelled against Wilson’s delusional position. Wilson ranted that he would never tolerate “disloyalty,” and he did his best to use party discipline to force recalcitrant Democrats into line. When the treaty was considered again on March 19, twenty-two Democrats broke with Wilson and voted for the treaty with the Lodge reservations attached. But that was seven votes shy of the necessary two-thirds majority. The treaty of Versailles was rejected once and for all on that spring day in 1920. And the blame must be placed where it belongs: at the bedside of Woodrow Wilson.

In the opinion of John Milton Cooper, Jr., one of Wilson’s greatest admirers among academic historians, “in the first three months of 1920” Wilson seemed to be in the grip of “mental instability, if not insanity . . . . He should not have remained in office.”

As this series has attempted to argue — and as my book Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear seeks to demonstrate at length — the catastrophe of Wilson’s wartime leadership started long before his madness. For a long time, qualified medical observers have theorized that Wilson suffered from a cerebro-vascular condition that warped his judgment for several years before the stroke. To the extent that these theories are justified, Wilson was not to blame for the blunders and follies that characterized his behavior during World War I. On the other hand, if his mistakes — especially his earlier mistakes when his mind was more lucid, the mistakes that resulted from aversion to strategic thinking — sprang from character flaws that can afflict any one of us, the judgment of history must be severe.

But one thing seems certain to me after studying the record in detail: Woodrow Wilson was not the right leader for the United States during World War I.

 Richard Striner (Washington College) is a historian focused on political and presidential history.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin Tackles the “Irrepressible Conflict” of 1912

by Sheldon M. Stern

HNN  January 22, 2014

Image via Wiki Commons.

There are few things that fascinate historical writers and readers more than moments at which events take a very clear and decisive turn in one direction versus another — for example — the stories of how Franklin Roosevelt chose Harry Truman (1944) and John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson (1960) as vice-presidential running mates. If FDR and JFK had lived to complete their terms these choices would be little more than historical footnotes. But, of course, they didn’t. As a result, the dramatic appeal of these turning-point episodes is never-ending; and, as revealed in Robert Caro’s 2012 reexamination of the selection of LBJ, new evidence and insights continue to reshape assumptions that have often held sway for decades. (1)

However, no decisive moment in the history of the American presidency is more dramatic, indeed, almost redolent of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, than the collapse of the personal friendship and political partnership of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft between 1909 and 1912. This saga, which had profound implications for the decade of World War I and beyond, has been the focus of several major studies since 2002. Kathleen Dalton devoted nearly two hundred pages of her TR biography to his post-White House years; Patricia O’Toole’s examination of Roosevelt’s last decade covered more than four hundred pages; and Edmund Morris, in the final volume of his TR trilogy, devoted nearly six hundred pages to the same ten years. (2)

Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose intuitive grasp of the interstices between politics and personality has produced vivid insights into the public and private lives of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedy family, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, has now added her perspective to the Roosevelt-Taft story. (3) The tale unfolds against the backdrop of an intensifying state and national progressive reform movement, supported by an exceptionally talented group of journalists assembled at McClure’s Magazine. Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and William Allen White were committed to exposing the corrupt, covert power amassed by corporate special interests and their political allies in the decades since the end of Reconstruction. Goodwin skillfully balances two concurrent stories: the personal and political intimacy that developed between Roosevelt and Taft (TR’s most reliable associate and trouble shooter) and the unprecedented and mutually advantageous relationship which Roosevelt shrewdly cultivated with this influential corps of journalists.

Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is at her best in setting the stage — that is, in giving the reader a vivid sense of the social, economic, and family contexts that produced Roosevelt and Taft; they were both the sons of wealthy, public-spirited families which valued principled and honest public service, particularly in the wake of the industrial revolution which had created a vast and growing gap between the very rich and the working poor. The early TR story is, of course, very well-known, but Goodwin also gives equal attention to the far less familiar story of big Bill Taft, whose personality and temperament were virtually antithetical to that of his friend Roosevelt. Their personal and political relationship was, in many ways, an attraction of opposites.

TR was a man of action, who loved the spotlight and the chance to publicly take on those who differed with him on politics, science, history, literature or anything else — a political animal to the core. He was devoted to his wife Edith and their six children, (4) but rarely allowed her objections to get in the way of his preferred course of action. Edith, whose early life is discussed in revealing detail, was an intensely private person; she did not want her husband to leave his family for nearly a year of hunting in Africa in 1909, opposed his decision to run for president again in 1912, and resisted his determination to lead a mapping expedition into the Brazilian wilderness (which nearly cost him his life) in 1913-1914. Nonetheless, he made and carried out these decisions, often leaving Edith lonely and depressed.

Taft, known for his genial personal warmth, preferred to work in the background; he was an excellent administrator with a judicial temperament who always tried to objectively weigh both sides of an argument. He carried out every presidential assignment with skill and even-handedness, became the most valued man in TR’s Cabinet, and virtually served as acting president during Roosevelt’s extended tour of the western states in 1905. Nellie Taft, unlike Edith Roosevelt, adored politics and had been committed to becoming a president’s wife ever since she first visited the White House as a young girl during the Hayes administration. Nellie’s character and ambition, deftly rendered by Goodwin, was clearly a central factor in Taft’s private and public life.

Bill Taft was acutely dependent on his wife’s love, support, and advice, often deferring to her on critical decisions. She, as well as his politically influential brothers, Horace and Charles, wanted him to be president; he wanted to be Chief Justice of the United States. His mother, Louise Torrey Taft, sympathized with her son’s reluctance to seek the highest political prize in the land: “A place on the Supreme Bench, where my boy would administer justice, is my ambition for him. His is a judicial mind, you know, and he loves the law.” She explicitly cautioned her son: “Roosevelt is a good fighter and enjoys it, but the malice of the politicians would make you miserable.” (5) The result: he listened to his wife and brothers, turned down three offers from TR to be appointed to the High Court, and ran for president instead — with ultimately calamitous results for his personal and family happiness.

Goodwin skillfully highlights the stark contrast between the intimacy and trust once enjoyed by TR and Taft and the depths of personal and public bitterness that followed — so much so that it’s almost like reading two entirely separate books. The first part, carrying the story to early 1909, allows her to demonstrate the best of her insight and interpretive originality. In the second part, the details of which are so much more familiar, the task is considerably more difficult since most of the primary sources on the 1912 rift have already been extensively mined by countless journalists and historians. It is impossible, of course, to try to isolate a single cause for such a complex human and political drama. Perhaps, as Goodwin suggests, the conflict was all but inevitable in light of Taft’s self-doubt about his ability to serve as an executive leader and TR’s yearning to hold on to power — at least through his influence on (and over) the man he had selected to succeed him.

Early in 1912, as he was about to announce his candidacy, TR told an old college friend: “What do I owe to Taft? It was through me and my friends that he became President.” (6) In fact, Roosevelt had repeatedly (and successfully) delegated the most difficult political and diplomatic assignments to Taft. One newspaper commented humorously that it was too bad that Mr. Taft could not be cut in two. In 1906, Secretary of War Taft toured the country as the administration’s spokesman in the mid-term Congressional elections. Roosevelt was “overjoyed” by the results (small losses in the House and four seats gained in the Senate) and told his devoted ally, “I cannot sufficiently congratulate you upon the great part you have played in the contest.” (7)

The first signs of the impending debacle had appeared just after Taft won the 1908 Republican presidential nomination. The nominee announced publicly that he was planning to bring the final draft of his acceptance speech to TR’s Oyster Bay home for discussion and possible revision. The press blasted this “humiliating pilgrimage,” comparing Taft to “a schoolboy about to submit his composition to the teacher before he read it in school.” Some journalists even joked that T.A.F.T. meant “take advice from Theodore.” The nominee understood the need to demonstrate his independence but responded, rather guilelessly, that he also had “the highest regard for the president’s judgment and a keen appreciation of his wonderful ability for forceful expression.” (8)

Roosevelt’s officious response to Taft’s request for comments on the speech illustrates precisely what the candidate was up against: (9)

Both of the first two paragraphs should certainly be omitted. The rest of the speech is I think admirable, with two or three corrections. On pages thirty-seven and thirty-eight reference to bank deposits is weak and most of it should be omitted. It is apologetic and hesitating and would give advantage to opponents. The last two thirds of page forty-six should be omitted and supplanted by something else, or at least entirely changed. In present shape, there are phrases that would not please the negro and would displease the white. I do not like the stray pages about injunction and am doubtful about the page concerning the identity of interest of employer and employees. … The first two paragraphs should for different reasons certainly come out.

The president also included a personal admonition:

I think that the number of times my name is used should be cut down. You are now the leader, and there must be nothing that looks like self-depreciation or undue submission of yourself. My name should be used only enough thoroly [likely an example of TR’s quixotic campaign to reform spelling] to convince people of the identity and continuity of our policies.

Talk about mixed messages! TR does not merely make suggestions for changes in the speech, but essentially orders them in a peremptory tone much like that of the traditional nineteenth century rod-and-ruler school teacher. At the same time, he urges Taft to publicly affirm his independence! Perhaps Roosevelt really wanted Taft to merely make the public appearance of greater independence while remaining privately in thrall to his mentor’s personality and policies. The president, in any case, seemed genuinely incapable of understanding the bind in which he was placing his likely successor. Taft was understandably very ambivalent — first announcing after his election that he would keep Roosevelt’s cabinet intact and then clumsily angering his former chief by making major changes to demonstrate that he was really in charge. He was damned in the eyes of TR and the progressives if he replaced key administration reformers and damned by the press and much of the GOP Old Guard if he didn’t. It was hardly an auspicious way to kick off a new administration.

By early 1912, once it became clear that TR would challenge him for the nomination, a despondent Taft looked back at two years of increasingly bitter conflict with his former chief and told his aide Archie Butt: “I could not ask his advice on all questions. I could not subordinate my administration to him and retain my self-respect, but it is hard, very hard, Archie, to see a devoted friendship going to pieces like a rope of sand.” (10)

Goodwin seems personally sympathetic to Taft, but politically sympathetic to the activism championed by Roosevelt — hailed as “the trustbuster” by progressive reformers. Taft, with considerable justification, pointed to the fact that his Justice Department had brought ninety antitrust suits in four years as compared to only forty-four by Roosevelt in nearly eight years. TR, however, had insisted publicly on a “moral” definition of “good” vs. “bad” trusts; but Taft was committed to dispassionately carrying out the law — a textbook definition of the difference between a politician and a judge.

The key factor that drove this personal and political disaster was almost certainly Theodore Roosevelt’s failure to face the fact that he desperately wanted to return to the White House — a conclusion about which Goodwin seems somewhat ambivalent. TR, of course, frequently spoke and wrote about his contentment with private life at Sagamore Hill with his wife and children — but, as Patricia O’Toole insists, he never grasped, “that most of the challenges to adjusting to life without power lay in his own character.” A man of action rather than reflection, he understood his own motives “no better than fish understand water,” regularly deceiving himself about his own ambition. (11)

Colonel Roosevelt had insisted that he would not lift a finger to win the nomination unless it became an irresistible public duty to accept a spontaneous and unsolicited call from the American people. That “call” came in February 1912, when a group of eight progressive Republican governors published a round-robin letter declaring that TR was the clear choice of the great majority of Republican voters. But, as Goodwin makes clear, Roosevelt had arranged in advance “to answer their demand with an announcement of his candidacy. … the Colonel was orchestrating every detail of how and when to respond publicly to the round-robin letter he himself had initiated.” Even Alice Roosevelt, thrilled by her father’s decision to throw his hat into the ring, admitted that the letter had been “somewhat ‘cooked.’” (12) The “Saturnalia” (as Goodwin aptly calls it) that followed was, by any definition, an irrepressible conflict.

* * * * *

1 Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Knopf, 2012, pp. 109-156.

2 Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, Knopf, 2002; Patricia O’Toole, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, Simon &m Schuster, 2005; Edmund Morris , Colonel Roosevelt, Random House, 2010.

3 Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of American Journalism, Simon and Schuster, 2013.

4 Alice, the oldest, was the child of TR’s first wife, who died of Bright’s disease at age twenty-two in 1884.

5 Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, p. 521.

6 Ibid., 682.

7 Ibid., pp. 501, 510.

8 American President — a Reference Resource: http://millercenter.org/president/taft/essays/biography/print; Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, p. 549.

9 Elting E. Morison, editor, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt: The Big Stick, 1907-1909, Volume VI, Harvard University Press, 1952, pp. 1139-40.

10 Lawrence F. Abbott, ed., Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Volume 2, Doubleday, Doran, 1930, p. 803.

11 O’Toole, When Trumpets Call, pp. 123, 128.

12 Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, pp. 673, 677; Joseph L. Gardner, Departing Glory: Theodore Roosevelt as Ex-President, Scribner’s, 1973, p. 214.

Sheldon M. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000.

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