By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
America and the World
Progressives and the Foreign Policy of the 1920s
I. The Sins of the Colonel
- Warren Cohen,
"The United States of America, caught in a traditional distrust and dislike of 'foreign entanglements,' abandons the solemn covenants made in her name, restricts her immigration, increases her tariffs, and refuses to consider her war loans as part of an international responsibility." -- Jane Addams, 19242
"An armed world is a fighting world." - William Borah, 19213
The League of Nations fight strengthened the progressive nationalists in the Senate and helped them to articulate a comprehensive view of foreign policy that emphasized self-determination, national integrity, and anti-imperialism. They would bring this philosophy to bear on all the foreign policy issues of the decade. In concert with a powerful women's movement now fully dedicated to the twin causes of disarmament and outlawing war, Senate progressives would work to establish an international peace that relied almost exclusively on the power of enlightened public opinion. But the issue of immigration restriction would test the limits of progressive thought of the period, just as the growing power of the American dollar would undermine all progressives' many attempts to preserve the republic by avoiding entangling alliances.
"It won't be long now before our new president will take hold," Harold Ickes wrote Senator Hiram Johnson in late February of 1921, two weeks before the inauguration of Warren Harding, and it "seems to me that you and he are so diametrically opposed in your social and political views that it will be impossible for you to travel the same path very long." Nonetheless, Ickes warned his friend not to be too vocal in his opposition at first, lest he be accused of ruining the new president's honeymoon period out of sheer sour grapes. "It seems to me that the inevitable opposition to Harding within his own party will make greater headway in the long run by giving him plenty of rope to hang himself with. That he will do this seems to me to be inevitable and the day will come when the opposition to him within his own party will be so widespread and so bitter that it will not lie in anyone's mouth to accuse any leader of having deliberately created that opposition."4
A solid plan -- but, already within a week of the inauguration, all bets were off. After Warren Harding took his first Cabinet meeting, he -- on the advice of Secretary of State Hughes and Secretary of the Interior Fall -- sent a message to the Senate urging immediate ratification of the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty, which paid Colombia the sum of $25 million in exchange for recognition of Panama's independence, with the implicit message being that the United States was now sorry that the Roosevelt administration had facilitated Panama's revolt in 1903 in order to build the Panama canal.5
The last time the treaty had come up, in 1914, it had included a specific apology -- "sincere regret" -- for America's actions. This did not sit well with Theodore Roosevelt, who was livid that Wilson and Secretary of State Bryan had even negotiated such a thing. In a letter dashed off to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in his first public attack on the Wilson administration to that point, Roosevelt deemed the treaty "a crime against the United States, an attack upon the honor of the United States." His administration, he argued had been "not only open but absolutely straight…Every action we took was in accordance with the highest principles of public and private morality," and paying Colombia any amount, Roosevelt roared, would be tantamount to "the payment of blackmail." (Explaining his contribution to the Panamanian revolt more directly to a friend, Roosevelt exclaimed "I simply lifted my foot!") And so Henry Cabot Lodge and Senate Republicans blocked its ratification, and, with the Great War breaking out the following month, foreign policy attentions turned elsewhere.6
But now, with Colonel Roosevelt passed on -- and, more importantly, with vast crude oil deposits having been discovered in the still-irritated nation of Colombia between 1916 and 1919 - the situation had changed. Beginning in 1920, soon after Standard Oil of New Jersey had purchased the holdings of the Tropical Oil Company in Colombia, James W. Flanagan, the operating manager of Jersey Standard's affiliate in the region, had begun smoothing the way for passage of the treaty, namely by bringing Colombia's minister to the United States, Carlos Urrutia, to meet with Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico, as well as Henry Cabot Lodge and Warren Harding. As it happened, the government of Colombia had to approve the transfer of Tropical Oil over to Jersey Standard, and, well, $25 million from the American government could certainly help matters in that regard.7
Disregarding his advice of a fortnight earlier, Ickes now pressed the Senator from California to engage on the Colombia issue. "The Chicago Tribune has been vigorously opposing this Treaty," Ickes told Johnson, "first, on the ground that it would be an affront to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, and, second, that it would be an admission of guilt on the part of the United States." Johnson agreed, but remained less optimistic than Ickes about the prospects of a successful opposition. "Of course, there's nothing else to do except to fight the Columbian Treaty," he replied. "When you read…Roosevelt's words concerning it, it seems incredible that the first act of this new administration shall be to put this thing over." That being said, Johnson argued, "[t]he majority of the Foreign Relations Committee has about faced, and with the tremendous oil interests behind the measures and the power of the President's office, the treaty will doubtless be ratified."8
Ickes and Johnson were not the only ones irate about Harding's first action in office. "For Heaven's sake, can't we beat the Colombia Treaty?" William Borah exclaimed to the editor of the Boston Transcript. "What a smearing, smirching, humiliating thing it would be to pass that." This "very unfair and unjust Treaty," Borah told another correspondent, "will put the brand of shame upon our country and of dishonor upon the name of Roosevelt." Writing to Arthur H. Vandenberg, the editor of the Grand Rapids Herald, Borah implored the future Senator from Michigan to "give us some good editorials on this matter. Let us make the fight of our lives not only to preserve the honor of a great name, but also the honor of our own country. This Treaty is based upon charges of bad faith and dishonorable conduct, for which there is no evidence…It is utterly astounding to me that, after seventeen years of fighting this unconscionable piece of blackmail, we should now turn about, and not only confess to the infamous charges, but stultify ourselves." For his part, Senator George Norris was fine with an apology to Colombia -- he was one of the few Republican progressives to concede wrongdoing on Roosevelt's part -- but thought, since this was basically about Colombian oil, "let the oil, rather than the Treasury of the United States, pay for the smiles we are trying to get."9
"We must strike fast and strike hard," Borah concluded to Vandenberg, "for the lobbying behind this thing is simply stupendous." And so he did -- Arguing that "Theodore Roosevelt was not a common adventurer and John Hay was not a liar," Borah tried to amend the treaty on the floor with a statement declaring that "neither said payment nor anything obtained in the treaty shall be…regarded as an admission that the secession of Panama…was in any way aided…by the United States." Borah's amendment failed 49-39, and, with the votes of many Republicans who had assailed the treaty seven years earlier, the Senate passed the Treaty in April, 69-19. After passage, Hiram Johnson gave an address on the floor of the Senate designed "in a straightforward fashion to make plain the rotten attitude of our leaders." Why, asked Johnson, do "we have $25,000,000 to squander in the first act that a Republican administration does…if it was a blackmail demand for seventeen years, tell me, some of you gentlemen whose views have undergone a remarkable metamorphosis, tell me when the blackmail demand shed its awful outer garment and became a rosy-hued request." Here, Johnson was speaking to the Old Guard Republicans of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- Lodge, Albert Fall, Frank Brandegee, and Porter McCumber -- who had attacked the treaty in writing in 1917 and now, four years later, supported it.10
Johnson's speech, he told Ickes, "got under the skin of the men who denounced the Treaty as blackmail, and then put it over under blind partisanship." It also received exactly the sort of press Ickes had warned the Senator about. Johnson, James W. Owens argued in The New Republic, has "marked his escape from the prison builded of policies and political ambitions which he entered rebelliously last June, when Mr. Harding was nominated for president." Now, "even before the President has got his new eight-food bed and had made himself otherwise comfortable," Johnson had broken with the administration and reverted to form. "In the first place, fist-shaking defiance based on solid conviction; in the second place, the company of the old insurgent-progressives; and in the precious and tremendous third place, defense of the memory of Roosevelt, and the corollary of appeal to the emotions of some millions of Rooseveltians." Hiram Johnson, Owen concluded "went to it with the rush of a Niagara. Out in the open before the world as a rebel, but his Republicanism undiluted. Escape! Freedom! Opportunity!"11
Johnson was incensed about Owens' article, which he deemed a "left-handed smash, founded in falsehood," and took the opportunity to pick a scab from the 1920 election. "This holy publication can see nothing wrong in a Hoover, who begged the people of the United States to vote for Harding in order that we might go into the League of Nations." Johnson still thought his nemesis in California "an intellectual crook" and "unfit for the Cabinet" -- not that he expected TNR, "in its internationalism and its blind idolatry of a Hoover," to see it thus. "[W]e cannot expect anything more, I presume, of the New Republic than we can expect of the New York Times or the New York World, and I am really sorry for this."12
While arguing to Johnson that the TNR article "did have the grace to say that your speech was the best upon the subject, that it expressed your honest convictions; that you, personally, are fearless and that you are the only in man in sight for leadership of the great republican majority," Ickes agreed that the magazine had indulged incessantly in uncritical adulation of the Great Engineer. "I neither respect nor trust Hoover," he told Johnson. "I don't think he has any political principles. I think he is out for Hoover and will go along with anyone who will advance his personal interests." As for the Colombia treaty, Ickes thought the whole affair "a most disgraceful proceeding," and troubling for what it portended. "The Senate is docile enough to do anything the administration wants if its action on the Colombian Treaty is any indication of its temper," Ickes thought. Johnson concurred. "We have now a Senate more subservient, more servile, and more contemptibly sycophantic than the Senate has ever been during my residence here," he fumed.13
The story of the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty's passage is illuminating of American foreign policy in the Twenties, and progressives' relationship to it, in several ways. First, the fact that Harding's first initiative was a long-stalled treaty suggests the highlighted importance of foreign policy in the decade. "Far from isolation," historian William Appleman Williams wrote while working to debunk "The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920's," "the foreign relations of the United States from 1920 through 1932 were marked by express and extended involvement with -- and intervention in the affairs of -- other nations of the world." "In the 1920s," writes historian Warren Cohen, "the United States was more profoundly engaged in international matters than in any peacetime era in its history."14
Second, the fact that this first act of Harding's was related to encouraging foreign crude oil production is not an accident. In the Twenties, after the 1921-22 recession receded, the United States became both the world's leading exporter and the world's largest consumer and importer of raw materials (and the second biggest importer overall, after Great Britain.) Automobile exports rose from $303 million in 1920 to $541.4 million by 1929. The export of petroleum and petroleum products rose from $161 million to $561 million over the same period. Over that time, the export of rubber products surged by 600%. And, as these domestic automobile-related industries surged, the Harding and Coolidge administrations -- especially Senator Johnson's nemesis, Herbert Hoover -- worked increasingly frantically to ensure America enjoyed unfettered access to key raw materials like crude oil and rubber. (In fact, a month after passage of the Colombia treaty, the Harding administration successfully killed a tariff on foreign oil imports.)15
Third, the dispute over the Colombia treaty followed to form the usual concerns of William Borah and the Senate "peace progressives," who, as during the League of Nations fight, were most concerned over the decade with preserving American nationalism, retaining the export value of American ideals, and fighting anti-imperialism, in that order. (In this case, while they used the anti-imperialist Big Oil argument, their love of nationalism and preserving American honor clearly trumped any serious consideration of the imperialistic urges that may have guided Roosevelt's Big Stick diplomacy in the first place.) And, as in many of the foreign policy issues of the decade, Senator Borah, with his attempted amendment, would manage to worm his way to the center of the issue. This is true particularly after Borah succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1925.16
And, fourth, the Senate progressives would on occasion find themselves at loggerheads with other progressives, in this case James Owens of The New Republic, who embraced the new internationalism. "W]hether we care for it or not," Jane Addams wrote in 1930, "our own experiences are more and more influenced by the experiences of widely scattered people; the modern world is developing an almost mystic consciousness of the continuity and interdependence of mankind." "The hope of the world today," John Haynes Holmes argued similarly in 1927, "is not to be found in any one nation and people anywhere but in all nations and peoples everywhere.17
This new internationalist spirit among progressives -- evidenced in everything from the growth of women's international organizations to the Interchurch World Movement of 1919, which embraced "the vision of a united church uniting a divided world" -- had its in origins in the works of two writers who had not survived 1919 - Randolph Bourne and Walter Weyl. "In a world which has dreamed of internationalism," Bourne had argued in his "Transnational America" essay of 1916, "we find that we have all unawares been building up the first international nation," by allowing immigrants from all the world's shores. As such, "only America…can lead in this cosmopolitan enterprise" for the world. So, Bourne argued, "let us make something of this trans-national spirit instead of outlawing it. Already we are living this cosmopolitan America. What we need is everywhere a vivid consciousness of the new ideal. Deliberate headway must be made against the survivals of the melting-pot ideal for the promise of American life." Similarly, Walter Weyl had argued in his book The End of the War, it is time to "leave behind our old Americanism to find abroad a new and broader Americanism: an Internationalism." This spirit of internationalism, as we have previously seen, took heavy blows in the failure of the League of Nations and the Red Scare, but it was a dream that still persisted among many progressives, especially among those who had been active in the Suffrage movement.18
It was also a spirit, as we have also seen, that was anathema to the progressive nationalists in the Senate, whose foreign policy philosophy was briefly and ably summed up in an exchange of letters between Lawrence Abbott, editor of The Outlook, and William Borah. "The older I grow," Abbott wrote to Borah, "the more I become a strong Nationalist. I do not believe in the weak and visionary internationalism whose advocates think that all mankind should live in a kind of gigantic Oneida community. It seems to me that a more reasonable analogy is that every nation should perfect itself as highly as possible, and then should live with other nations in the amity with which vigorous and highly developed families live with other equally highly developed families in a neighborhood." Responding to Abbott, Borah echoed his argument back to him. "I am like you, the older I grow, the more I become a strong nationalist….This is my doctrine, Mr. Abbott:"
I am just as much in favor of this nation doing its duty as a member of the family of nations as any man can be. But I want it to perform that duty as a great powerful moral force, disentangled, but nevertheless in thorough amity and most complete harmony with other powers. I think, Mr. Abbott, what we need now in international affairs is a distinct leadership upon the part of this great nation, not an entanglement, not alliances, but a creed of international honor, morality, decency, and justice, and back of that creed a great nation like ours. I would rather have the mobilized moral forces of the world behind such a leadership than all the armies and navies which could be gathered together upon the land or sea."19Borah strongly disagreed with the notion that believing in nationalism as such made him an isolationist. "The League people like to argue," Borah told another correspondent, "that because we do not propose to be tied into political commitments and entanglements we therefore are not concerned with the affairs of the world and not disposed to serve humanity where we can. The United States has always been interested in the affairs of the world and always will be." But how to respond to those affairs was a question that these two groups, internationalists and nationalists, would have to forge an uneasy peace on, issue by issue, in order to move forward during the decade.20
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Jane Addams, "Whoso Liveth to Himself," The Survey, January 15, 1924 (Vol. LI, No. 8)
3. Borah to Clyde Hanson, October 8, 1921. WJB, Box 91: Disarmament Conference.
4. Ickes to Johnson, February 23, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
5. "Harding's Cabinet Meets First Time," New York Times, March 9, 1921.
6. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 116-117. Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2010), 358-359. John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1983), 272.
7. Gerald Nash, United States Oil Policy, 1890-1964: Business and Government in Twentieth Century America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968), 69-70.
8. Ickes to Johnson, March 11, 1921. Johnson to Ickes, March 12, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
9. Borah to Jas. Williams, Jr., March 28, 1921. WJB, Box 99: Newspapers. Borah to M.E. Morrow, March 19, 1921. Borah to A.H. Vandenberg, March 17, 1921. WJB, Box 90: Columbian Treaty. Lowitt, 144-145.
10. Borah to A.H. Vandenberg, March 17, 1921. Marian C. McKenna, Borah (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 174-175. James W. Owens, "Hiram Johnson at Large Again," The New Republic, May 25, 1921, 378. Lower, 171.
11. Johnson to Ickes, May 14, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Owens, "Hiram Johnson at Large Again," 378-379.
12. Johnson to Ickes, May 31, 1921. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Lower, 180.
13. Ickes to Johnson, June 8, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Ickes to Johnson, May 21, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Lower, 172.
14. Carter, 46. Cohen, xii.
15. Cohen, 24-27. Nash, 153.
16. Addams, 8-9. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 116-117.
17. Addams, Second Twenty Years, John Haynes Holmes, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1, 1926.
18. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 174. Bourne, "Transnational America," Atlantic Monthly, 118 (July 1916), 86-97. Dawley, 191.
19. Steel, 189. Lawrence F. Abbott to Borah, November 23, 1922. WJB, Box 112: Foreign Affairs Misc. Borah to Lawrence F. Abbot, November 25, 1922. WJB, Box 112: Foreign Affairs Misc.
20. Borah to G.H. Boynton, October 30, 1925. WJB Box 188: Newspapers.
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