Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Four:
The Triumph of Reaction

Progressives and the Election of 1920

II. The Man on Horseback

I. A Rematch Not to Be
II. The Man on Horseback
III. The Men in the Middle
IV. I'm for Hiram
V. Visions of a Third Term
VI. Ambition in the Cabinet
VII. The Democrats' Lowden
VIII. The Great Engineer
IX. The Smoke-Filled Room
X. San Francisco
XI. A Third Party?
XII. Mr. Ickes' Vote
XIII. Countdown to a Landslide
XIV. The Triumph of Reaction

If Theodore Roosevelt had chosen an heir apparent, it was probably his former commanding officer, General Leonard Wood. A career military man who headed the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War and served as governor of Cuba in the years thereafter, Wood had been passed over by Wilson (in favor of John J. Pershing) to lead the American Expeditionary Force into the Great War. Nonetheless, he was a longtime friend and confidant of the former president, and held impeccable military credentials. To Roosevelt, Wood "combined in a very high degree the qualities of entire manliness with entire uprightness and cleanliness of character. It was a pleasure to deal with a man of high ideals, who scorned everything mean and base, and who also possessed those robust and hardy qualities of mind and body for the lack of which no merely negative virtue can ever atone."1

As a result of TR's fondness for the man, "it was taken for granted," said the president's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, after his death, "that Father's family would be for General Wood. It was quite natural we should be." Or, as one of Roosevelt's former heirs apparent, William Howard Taft, put it, "it would seem as if the funeral bake meats had furnished forth the feast for the heir." Taft's former Cabinet, along with many of the esteemed conservatives in Roosevelt's orbit, such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root, also flocked to General Wood's standard. So too did Wall Street money - J.P. Morgan's son-in-law ran the Wood campaign in New York City - in the hopes, as one savvy political observer wrote, that "he would use the military arm of the government to break up strikes and destroy the unions."2

In that regard, Wood talked a good game. On his speaking tours throughout 1919 and 1920 - interrupted every so often by military trips to keep the peace in Omaha and Gary - Wood was consistently loud and vociferous in his embrace of Americanism and his denunciations of the Red menace. "Kill it as you would a rattlesnake," he said of Communism, "and smash those who follow it, speak for it, or support it." In 1919, this was relatively run-of-the-mill stuff, but Republican editor William Allen White still encouraged the general to tone it down for the sake of the progressive half of the party. "This crazy notion to hunt 'em down and shoot 'em and see Red, and all that sort of thing," White warned Wood, "is going to pass during the Spring, and leave you high and dry unless you definitely appeal to the Progressives. They are militant and they aren't going to be satisfied with the kind of speeches you are making."3

Harold Ickes, for one, agreed. "When I called upon [Wood] at his Army headquarters…to size him up for myself," Ickes would later write in his autobiography, "I found a big, well-set-up man, approachable and with a fine presence. The thing that impressed me at once was that he talked so much…He seemed to have no reticences at all. And the more he talked, the less inclined I was to commit myself to his candidacy." When Ickes brought fellow progressive Raymond Robins to meet the general, Wood had the same effect on him. ("It seemed impossible to stem his flow of language.")4

And sure enough, it did not take long for other progressive observers to turn against General Wood also. According to Oswald Villard, Wood embraced "no philosophy but the soldier's one of force and the rigid and violent upholding of authority." The New Republic scoffed "that anyone can consider for the most powerful office in the world a mind so vacant…It contains not a single guide to action; it begs completely every question it touches; it is a insult to the poorest intelligence in the land…[His] phrases are strung along like beads on string." Lippmann deemed the Wood boomlet a sect of "radical jingo with the prejudices of the junker rather than the great industrialists. It is really incapable of distinguishing between the military government of an occupied country like Cuba and the civil government of the United States…They have the mood, if not the courage of the coup d'état."5

For his part, H.L. Mencken saw in Wood "the simple-minded dragoon, viewing all human phenomena from the standpoint of the barrack-room. His remedy for all ills and evil is force. Turn out the guard , and let them have a whiff of grape!" Still, the Sage of Baltimore conceded, "one somehow warms to the old boy. He is archaic, but transparent. He indulges himself in no pishposh about ideals…He is the cavalryman incarnate, all heart and no brains. I haven't the slightest doubt that he believes his backers to be unselfish patriots, and that a glimpse of their private account book would shock him to death. He also believed in Roosevelt."6

Mencken wasn't the only one looking askance at the big money behind General Wood. Senator William Borah was not fond of Wood's man on horseback routine in any event. Deeming Wood's militarism "completely at war with everything in which I believe," Borah though it would be "sheer absurdity to nominate a military man to take care of the intricate economic and industrial problems with which we have to deal." But in millionaires' embrace of the general's candidacy, Borah saw even more sinister evils afoot. "Whatever General Wood may be individually, "Borah wrote one constituent, "he has surrendered his candidacy to a coterie of multi-millionaires who believe that you can corrupt the American electorate and dominate politics by the sheer use of money."7

Even though "it has obtained a deep, strong hold upon the political system of our country" and "thousands and thousands of good people think it must be and therefore let it go, this problem" of money in elections, Borah argued to another correspondent, "is coming to be the most sinister, subtle and universal evil with which we have to deal. All good men regardless of party and the people should be aroused to the fact that only by the utmost vigilance can the effect of money in elections be counteracted."8

This being Borah, the Senator also saw in Wood's campaign finance largesse the handiwork of pro-League forces. "As is always true after every war," Borah wrote to another constituent, "a military man seeks to dominate the situation and that is again true…
It is the most brutal and shameless exhibition of the use of money in elections that has ever taken place in any country…The men who spent their millions to propagandize this country and to pawn our independence to Europe are the same men who are spending their millions now to control the United States through its elections. It is the same fight precisely. It is simply a question of whether the people will still retain the government of this country or whether international bankers and those under their control will directly or indirectly, openly or covertly yoke it to the European powers and utilize it for their own selfish interests.9
And yet, if Wood made a critical error in the 1920 election season, it was likely that the general did not listen to the Old Guard forces that originally backed his candidacy. At first, as befitting the Roosevelt imprimatur, Wood's candidacy was being run by TR's former campaign manager, John T. King of Connecticut - a close ally of Boies Penrose and a consummate political handler. "I like John King," Teddy Roosevelt has said of him, "We have a perfect working arrangement. John supplies the efficiency, and I supply the morals." Under King's direction - which mainly entailed an inside game of brokering deals with state party officials - Wood became by November 1919 a prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination.10

But, acting on the advice of members of Roosevelt's former inner circle, like Elihu Root, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Henry Stimson - all of whom thought King's loyalties lay first and foremost with the Penroses of the Party - Wood eventually replaced King with Colonel William Cooper Proctor, heir to the Proctor & Gamble fortune and acting Chair of the national "Leonard Wood League," a 60,000 member-strong volunteer association of Wood enthusiasts. While more malleable, perhaps, Colonel Proctor unfortunately turned out to have no talent for the type of backroom politics at which King had excelled. Instead, Proctor allied with his fellow true believers, and attempted to run insurgent Wood campaigns in 47 states using the same techniques with which his family sold soap. In so doing, Proctor managed to deeply antagonize not just favorite sons like Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Frank Lowden, but also the political bosses, state and local machines, and professional party men who had considerable sway over who would be the final nominee.11

Continue to Chapter 4, Pt. 3: The Men in the Middle.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Bagby, 25. Pietrusza, 168. Russell, 325-327.
2. Pietrusza, 171. Bagby 25-27. The savvy political observer in question is Harding eminence grise Harry Daugherty.
3. Bagby, 29. Pietrusza, 174.
4. Harold Ickes, Autobiography of a Curmudgeon, 226.
5. "The Open-Minded General Wood," The New Republic, May 5th, 1920 (Vol. XX, no. 283), 302. Bagby, 29-30.
6. Mencken, 8-9.
7. Borah to Shad Hodgins, February 23, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Idaho. Borah to Montie B. Swinn, April 17, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Idaho. Another political observer who thought the times unfit for a man on horseback was Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. "We made presidents out of military men for more than thirty years after the Civil War," he wrote to a friend, "but there doesn't seem to be any sentiment for a military candidate at the present time. I think General Wood is very much of a fellow himself but I do think his military connection and his militaristic ideas are going to put an end to his candidacy." Piestruza, 172.
8. Borah to Charleston Gazette, July 17, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Politics - W. Virginia. Borah to A.A. Johnson, March 24, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Politics - W. Virginia.
9. Borah to Francis Jenkins, May 5, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Idaho.
10. Bagby, 26. Russell, 327-328.
11. Bagby, 28. Pietrusza, 172.

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