World War I Centennial: Wilson Takes The White House

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 42nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 5, 1912: Wilson Takes the White House

There aren’t many times in U.S. history when a candidate for president could take 41.8 percent of the popular vote and have it called a landslide victory, but that’s exactly what happened in the bizarre four-way election of 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson swept to power with considerably less than half the vote.

The election of 1912 occurred in a time of economic, social, and political upheaval. Thanks to high birth rates, an improving standard of living, and massive immigration from Europe, the U.S. population soared from 63 million in 1890 to 76.2 million in 1900 and 95.3 million in 1912, a 51 percent jump in just over two decades (for comparison, from 1990 to 2012, the U.S. population increased 26.5 percent from 248.7 million to 314.7 million).

While the population was growing fast, voting rights were still confined to a relatively small number of Americans. On November 5, 1912, just over 14.8 million American men turned out to vote across the 48 continental United States. Because women and most immigrant non-citizens couldn’t vote in federal elections, and African-Americans were widely prevented from voting by Jim Crow laws or simple intimidation, the participating electorate represented just 15.5 percent of the total U.S. population of 95.3 million in 1912; that compares to a popular vote tally of 43.2 percent of the total population in 2008.

Although activists for women’s suffrage and black civil rights were already demanding reform, gender and race were still mostly background issues in 1912: the most prominent social divisions of the era pitted the city against the countryside, and labor against business. These tensions resulted from rapid, sweeping change and were the source of mounting popular anxiety.

From 1880 to 1910, the United States completed its transition from a mostly agrarian economy, based on farm production, to a mostly industrial economy based on manufacturing. While industry’s share of gross domestic product had been increasing throughout the 19th century, its contribution to GDP passed agriculture’s for the first time in the 1880s. Subsequently farming’s contribution to GDP slipped from around a third in 1890 to a quarter in 1909, while the proportion of the American work force engaged in agricultural work fell from 50 percent in 1870 to 32 percent in 1910, and the share of the population living in rural areas fell from 64.9 percent in 1890 to 54.4 percent in 1910.

Accompanying all these changes was the sense that America’s traditional self-image as a rustic Arcadia was fading, and the countryside was in retreat (as indeed it was in the Northeast, where the number of acres under cultivation fell from 23.5 million in 1900 to 22 million in 1910 and 21.3 million in 1920). This transition also gave rise to growing political tension between urban and rural America. In 1896, for example, William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech calling for free coinage of silver to inflate the money supply and reduce the burden on indebted farmers, even if it hurt big business: “The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day… is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain.”

At the same time there was also growing tension within the cities themselves, as factory workers confronted wealthy industrialists and the government with demands for better pay and working conditions. As the industrial economy expanded, wages often failed to keep pace with the cost of living—although the average yearly income of a factory worker increased from $426 in 1899 to $579 in 1914, this actually represented a 10 percent decline in terms of real purchasing power. Unsurprisingly, labor disputes were commonplace, and around this time they reached a boiling point: According to the New York State Department of Labor, the number of employees involved in strikes and lockouts in New York (the most populous and industrialized state) soared from 23,236 in 1908 to 206,922 in 1910 and 304,301 in 1913.

The presidential election of 1912 reflected all the conflicts at work in a society undergoing rapid transformation. Aggrieved workers were represented by Eugene Debs, a radical socialist who had helped found the “Wobblies” (the Industrial Workers of the World) and already run for president on three previous occasions, in 1900, 1904, and 1908; a fiery speaker, Debs would succeed in attracting 6 percent of the popular vote—the most ever garnered by a Socialist candidate in U.S. history. During the Great War, which few if any foresaw, Debs’ opposition to U.S. involvement would land him in prison. At his sentencing in November 1918, Debs famously declared that “while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Among the mainstream parties, the Republicans were split by former President Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to run again. Roosevelt had fallen out with fellow Republican William Howard Taft, his friend and successor, over a variety of social and economic issues. As the leader of the “progressive” Republicans, Roosevelt wanted to pursue social reforms and improve conditions for industrial workers, which put him on the side of unions; indeed, in October 1912, he declared, “It is essential that there should be organizations of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.” Meanwhile, Taft and the “conservative” Republicans sided with the captains of industry against the unions, which Taft criticized for “lawlessness in labor disputes,” and opposed any further legislation protecting organized labor. There was some common ground, however, as both conservatives and progressives tended to support tariffs to protect American industry.

The split in the Republican Party ended up handing the White House to the Democratic contender, Woodrow Wilson—a professor of political science who previously served as president of Princeton and then governor of New Jersey. In a rancorous national convention, Wilson clinched the Democratic nomination only after receiving the endorsement of William Jennings Bryan, who continued to speak for the interests of American farmers. Wilson’s platform reflected the desires of this rural base, including cotton growers in the Deep South: Like Bryan, he opposed protective tariffs which favored industry at the expense of agriculture, and in 1916 he signed the Federal Farm Loan Act. But he also co-opted the Republicans by adopting key progressive policies, including trust-busting and social reforms.

In the end, the divided Republicans together took 50.6 percent of the popular vote, with 27.4 percent going to the Progressive Teddy Roosevelt and 23.2 percent going to Taft, the actual Republican nominee. Roosevelt won considerably more states, however, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington, and most of California (which could divide its Electoral College votes, as Maine and Nebraska do today), giving him a total 88 votes in the Electoral College; Taft only managed to win Vermont and Utah, giving him a grand total of eight votes in the Electoral College (he even lost his home state of Ohio).

Thus Wilson managed to win a huge victory in the Electoral College despite getting less than half the popular vote. His 41.8 percent of the popular vote translated into victories in 40 out of 48 states, for a whopping 435 votes in the Electoral College.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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