By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Three: Chaos at Home
Progressives in the Crucible of 1919
VI. On a Pale Horse
Between 1918 and 1920, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people, by contemporary estimates, would perish from the disease. Half of those deaths were young men and women under the age of 40 - they never received the partial immunity that came with earlier influenza outbreaks - and more than half of those deaths occurred within the span of 13 weeks, between mid-September and early December 1918. In America, one out of every four would contract the disease, with the coastal cities of the United States particularly hard hit, and 675,000 - five times the actual fatality rate from the War - would die from it.1
In short, the Great Influenza had a profound and often overlooked impact on the American experience of the war and immediate post-war periods. In late 1918, it quickly scourged a generation. In 1919 and 1920, it continued to linger in the shadows. And even amid all the other crises of the time, it added another note of tragedy to an already grim year.
Influenza, it seems likely, worked to destabilize Wilson at Versailles in April 1919, and may well have created the conditions for his later stroke. His closest aide-to-camp, Colonel House, contracted it three times - The last time, in Paris, he read his own obituaries in the paper. Others were not so fortunate. Randolph Bourne, one of the keenest critics of his young generation, who had correctly surmised beforehand the mockery that war would make of progressive hopes, succumbed to the disease in December, 1918 at the age of 32.
"Those who are not in some sense of the younger generation will hardly realize what poignancy there is for us in the news of the death of Randolph Bourne," wrote Floyd Dell in TNR. "We have become in these days more than a little familiar with the tragic incidence of death…[but] Randolph Bourne belonged to us, and stood for us, in a way which he perhaps did not fully know, but which we now very keenly feel." His loss was a tragedy "to a country which is starved for thought." A year later, when reaction had set in in earnest, Florence Kelley told a friend she was "haunted by sorrow that he [Bourne] is not now interpreting the incomprehensible darkening of the mind and spirit of this whole nation." Now, adding to the "loss we have suffered in Randolph Bourne's going," Kelley lamented, "Walter Lippmann will be taken seriously as spokesperson for the new generation."2
Another casualty of the epidemic was Willard Straight, the co-founder and financial backer behind The New Republic -- He died in Paris a major in the United States Army. "There was warmth in his heart; there was light in his eyes; there was direction and stability in his underlying purposes," eulogized Herbert Croly, who would edit Straight's memoirs for publication in 1922. The TNR community would suffer another grievous blow half a year later, when editor Walter Weyl - arguably its most insightful and far-seeing voice -- died of throat cancer in August. "[H]is mind was incorruptible," remembered fellow editor Francis Hackett in 1921. "He never ceased in his struggle to see, to hear, to understand. He remained, up to the day that the shadow of death fell across his road, a human being who allied himself in love with other human beings[.]"3
For every American who perished, several more had to stare death in the face. Returning home after two months in Europe in September 1919, Franklin Roosevelt had to be disembarked in a stretcher and carried to his mother's house on Sixty-Fifth and Fifth. The papers said "it would be several days" before the Assistant Secretary of the Navy could return to Washington. He didn't get out of bed for weeks. Even those who did not contract the disease themselves were affected by it. The much-vilified Robert La Follette had to add consistent gall bladder pain to his list of burdens in 1918 and 1919. His doctors, Will and Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic, refused to operate on him so long as the epidemic continued.4
On the Great Influenza, despite eventually being stricken himself, here again the president was a no-show. Wilson made not a single public statement about the great plague. Nor, other than asking his generals about the efficacy of continuing to send men to France when transport ships had become influenza-riddled deathtraps, did he ever query anyone in his administration about their public health response efforts. To Wilson, the influenza was not an issue - until it consumed him.5
And yet, despite the ubiquity of influenza at the time, it was not responsible for arguably the most publicly significant death of 1919. For many Americans, and particularly progressives of a certain generation and disposition, the annus horribilis that year would become began in earnest only six days after the New Year.
On the evening of January 6th, Theodore Roosevelt -- a man who had once symbolized youth, strength, and virility to the nation; a man who had delivered a speech in 1912 with blood on his shirt and a bullet in his chest; a man who had survived malaria and tropical fever, the presidency and the rigors of the Amazon; the man who, in 1912, had stood at Armageddon and battled for the Lord -- that man went to sleep at the relatively youthful age of 60 and never woke up, the victim of a coronary embolism (and, many thought, heartbreak over his son Quentin's death in World War I.)
"Roosevelt was so active a person…he so occupied the centre of every stage," wrote Henry Augustin Beers in his book Four Americans, out in November of 1919, "that, when he died, it was as though a wind had fallen, a light a gone out, a military band had stopped playing. It was not so much the death of individual as a general lowering in the vitality of the nation. America was less America, because he was no longer there." Beers was not the only one who thought as much. "[T]he flag lost its bravest defender when Theodore Roosevelt passed from life to the eternal," Senator Warren Harding told an audience soon after the fact, remembering the flag draped over Roosevelt's coffin at his funeral. "A flaming spirit of American patriotism was gone. A great void had come, and there was none to fill it."6
The entire nation mourned, but those progressives who had known him, fought alongside him, and loved him were especially bereft. To the former head of his Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt represented "life at its warmest, and fullest and freest, at its utmost in vigor…life tremendous in volume, unbounded in scope, yet controlled and guided with a disciplined power that made him, as few men have ever been, the captain of his soul."7 "I was weak with fever," remembered lawyer Donald Richberg, then suffering from his own bout with influenza. "I could only press my face into the pillow and cry like a child."8
Writing on TR's death in 1930, Richberg argued that this was the moment when something finally, irrevocably broke: The ideals that "inspired my generation," he wrote, "ceased at the end of the World War when the first of its four great leaders [along with Wilson, Bryan, and La Follette] died." "Something went out of my life that has never been replaced," remembered Harold Ickes, twenty-five years later, on the moment he heard Roosevelt had fallen. 9
It was not just the loss of the man that hurt, but of the opportunities he embodied. Pinchot lamented to his brother Amos at the time: "[TR's death] may result in such control by the reactionaries as to put the policies you and I are interested in back many years." (And, indeed, on the day of Roosevelt's funeral, Ohio political handler Harry Daugherty wrote his protégé, Senator Warren Harding: "I have some ideas about this thing now which I will talk over with you.") "A great man has died and the whole world stands shocked and mourning," editorialized W.E.B. Du Bois in The Crisis. "We mourn with the rest of the world as is fitting, but there is too in our sorrow a quality peculiar and apart. We have lost a friend. That he was our friend proves the justice of our cause, for Roosevelt never championed a cause which was not in its essence right."10
Even years later, progressive Republican editor William Allen White saw in Roosevelt's death a fateful turning point for the nation "I am satisfied that, if the Colonel had lived," he wrote, "he would have been the Republican nominee and the country would have had, in workable terms, from a Republican administration, much of the social program that came a dozen years later under the second Roosevelt. It would have been adopted in normal times…It would not have disturbed economic and industrial traffic, and a great cataclysm might have been avoided."11
The second Roosevelt himself, now no longer bedridden and returning to Europe with Eleanor, was more sanguine about his uncle-in-law's passing. "I cannot help think that he himself would have had it this way, and that he had been spared a lingering illness of perhaps years.'" And a few believed TR was not the only one spared by his demise. Agreeing with William Howard Taft's observation of the ex-president that he "believe[d] in war and wishe[d] to be a Napoleon and die in the battlefield," pacifist Oswald Garrison Villard considered the Colonel's death an act "of divine mercy for the country and another piece of Woodrow Wilson's extraordinary luck." But Villard's cynicism was something of an outlier. At the very end of his life, when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. interviewed 85-year-old Walter Lippmann about his thoughts on Richard Nixon and Watergate, Lippmann replied: "Presidents in general are not lovable. They've had to do too much to get where they are. But there was one President who was lovable -- Teddy Roosevelt -- and I loved him."12
In 1919, Theodore Roosevelt passed on, and, in the words of journalist John Chamberlain in his 1932 book, Farewell to Reform, "is it too much to say that the 'moral' age in American politics died with him?" And it was only the first week of the year.13
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2. Barry, The Great Influenza, 381-387. Floyd Dell, "Randolph Bourne," The New Republic, January 4, 1919, 276. Florence Kelley to Agnes De Lima, January 1st, 1920. Kathyrn Kish Sklar and Beverly Wilson Palmer, ed. The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-1931 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 263.
3. "Willard D. Straight," The New Republic, December 7, 1918, 163-164. "In Memoriam - Willard Straight," The New Republic, December 21, 1921, 94-96.Francis Hackett, "Tired Radicals," The New Republic, September 21st, 1921, 107-108. Yet another early death that shocked the progressive and radical communities was that of John Reed, who died of typhus in Moscow in November, 1920. College friend Robert Hallowell eulogized him in The New Republic: "Rebel, poet, lover of men and hater of masters, follower after unsanctified gods, believer in his own instincts, John Reed lived true to himself. And so he died. He came nearer being honest than any man I have ever known." Robert Hallowell, "John Reed," The New Republic, November 17th, 1920 (Vol. 24, No. 311), 298-299.
4. Barry, The Great Influenza, 304. "F.D. Roosevelt Spanish Grip Victim," New York Times, September 20, 1918. La Follette, 991.
5. Barry, The Great Influenza, 307-308.
6. Henry Augustin Beers, "Four Americans," excerpted (as ad copy) in The New Republic, November 12, 1919, 330. Frances Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren Harding and his Times (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 316.
7. Char Miller, Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Washington: Island Press, 2001), 247.
8. Donald Richberg, My Hero: The Autobiography of Donald Richberg (New York: Putnam, 1954), 99. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 36.
9. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 196. Arguably a whole generation of leadership would disappear in the period Richberg referenced. Wilson (as well as Samuel Gompers) would die in 1924, Bryan and La Follette in 1925. By the end of 1926, Eugene Debs, another comparable contender for such a left-leaning pantheon, would join them across the veil.
10. Char Miller, Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Washington: Island Press, 2001), 247. Russell, 313. "Theodore Roosevelt," The Crisis, February, 1919. Vol. 17-No. 4, 163.
11. Pietrusza, 68.
12. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 357. Michael L. Cooper, Theodore Roosevelt: A Twentieth Century Life (New York: Viking, 2009). Knock, 230. Steel, 597. For his part, Wilson, upon hearing the news of TR's death via telegram in Paris, smiled a smile of "transcendent triumph," an "outburst of acrid detestation" that stunned English prime minister David Lloyd George. Pietrusza, 69.
13. Chamberlain, 262. While his book aroused much discussion, Chamberlain's Farewell to Reform is a work of history rather than a memoir: At the time of TR's death, Chamberlain was only 15 years old.
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