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 29th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
August 7, 1912: Wilson vs. Roosevelt vs. Taft vs. Debs
[Note: Let's pretend this ran yesterday.]
August 7, 1912, was a busy day in one of the most complicated presidential elections in U.S. history. The election of 1912 would see not two, not three, but four presidential candidates face off in a fierce, but genteel, contest that divided the country along class and geographic lines. In fact, the first divisions occurred within the political parties.
After the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901, his vice-president Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency, bringing his characteristic vigor and enthusiasm to his first term, which he devoted to his cherished social reforms. Since he entered the White House so early in the term of office, however, in 1904 TR won reelection with a promise not to seek another full term in 1908; instead he bestowed his blessing on William Howard Taft, the secretary of war, as his successor in the Republican Party.
Roosevelt on safari in Central Africa/Getty Images
Once he was out of the White House, the restless, larger-than-life TR, true to manic form, went on a couple safaris in Africa, met the crowned heads of Europe, and spoke to crowded university audiences in England. But amid all this frenetic activity he also had time for a falling-out with Taft over the direction of the Republican Party. While TR wanted the party to continue on the “progressive” course he trail-blazed with more social reforms, Taft aligned with the “conservative” wing of the party, which was less concerned with reform and more concerned about bolstering U.S. industry with tariffs. TR was especially infuriated by Taft’s decision to break up U.S. Steel, which TR had exempted from his own presidential trust-busting.
Thus it was no surprise when TR came charging out of his brief “retirement” to campaign for his vision of the Republican Party during the congressional elections of 1910, with speeches supporting progressive candidates across the country. But the obvious lack of unity worked against the Republican Party, which suffered multiple defeats in 1910. After that, TR laid low – or as low as a blustering polymath genius could – for a while. But by 1912 he was ready to run for president again.
After failing to win the Republican nomination in June 1912, TR left the Republican Party to found his own Progressive Party. The Progressive Party held its own convention from August 5-7, 1912, when 2,000 enthusiastic delegates delivered the foregone conclusion – nominating Roosevelt for president. The rift in the Republican Party was now official.
Wilson and Taft/Getty Images
Although the election still lay three months in the future, the split in the Republican Party ended up handing the White House to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who also received the official notification that he had been nominated at his summer home Sea Girt, NJ, on August 7, 1912. (The convention, held in Baltimore in June 1912, had chosen Wilson over his rival, James Beauchamp Clark, after a stirring speech by William Jennings Bryan.)
At a time when most Americans respected academics, Wilson’s training as a political scientist and experience as president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910 gave him an air of calm, even-handed expertise, which he consolidated with his term as governor of New Jersey (1911-1913), when he adopted many of the progressive policies popular with Republican voters. And indeed, Wilson’s first term would be devoted almost entirely to domestic policies, including the formation of the Federal Reserve and the imposition of the federal income tax. But he is probably most widely remembered for bringing the U.S. into the Great War – which was something few, if anyone, even suspected was coming in 1912.
As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, there was also a socialist in the mix in 1912: Eugene V. Debs of Indiana, who was already famous as a founding member of the International Workers of the World, better known as the “wobblies” – a radical labor organization that rejected the compromise approach advocated by the American Federation of Labor. Although he was a marginal candidate compared to the other three, failing to win any states or electoral college votes, Debs did manage to win 6% of the popular vote – the most votes ever garnered by a socialist candidate in U.S. history, reflecting the volatile social and economic dynamics of the time. Debs would become a hero of pacifists with his outspoken opposition to American participation in the coming Great War, which earned him a 10-year jail sentence under the new Espionage Act of 1917.