World War I's Forgotten Hero
By Thomas Fleming
Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, was published by Basic Books on June 1.
The scene could not have been more dramatic. President Woodrow Wilson was calling for war. In a soaring peroration, he told the American people that they had no other choice. They must fight to defend the rights of small nations, to make the world safe for democracy, to establish global peace. "God helping us," he said, echoing Martin Luther's famous defense of his Protestant faith, "We can do no other!"
Congress exploded into frenzied applause, clapping, shouting, waving flags, in some cases sobbing. But one man stood silently, his arms folded across his burly chest: Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. He was one of the senate's leading liberals and the founder of the Progressive Party, which had almost captured the presidency with Theodore Roosevelt as its candidate in 1912. The next day, the Senate Foreign Relations committee introduced a resolution, declaring war on Germany. Everyone assumed the vote would be unanimous. Senator La Follette's voice punctured this assumption: "I object to the request for unanimous consideration!"
A babble of consternation swept the chamber. Those who understood Senate rules knew this meant a vote would be postponed for a full day. The rule had been created to prevent hasty votes on important topics. On the way back to his office, someone handed La Follette a rope, suggesting he should -- or might -- meet a traitor's death. The next day, around 4 p.m. Senator La Follette rose to explain why he opposed war with Germany. He opened with a brief, almost curt attack on the idea that every senator should "stand behind the president." What kind of doctrine was that, he asked? What if the president was wrong? The senator said he had received over 15,000 telegrams and letters, nine out of ten opposing the war. He cited a straw vote in the town of Monroe, Wisconsin, which reported 954 against war, 95 in favor it. He introduced a poll conducted by the Emergency Peace Committee in Massachusetts, based on 20,000 postal cards. Sixty-six percent opposed the war. In Minneapolis,!
a congressman had polled his district and found 8,000 against the war, 800 favoring it. For a half hour La Follette put in the record similar communications and asked if these messages did not indicate the American people's "deep-seated conviction" against entering the war.
La Follette then began a point by point refutation of Wilson's speech. One of the president's chief arguments had been Germany's decision to resume "unrestricted submarine warfare" against ships carrying cargoes to England. The term meant sinking ships without warning -- which Wilson and the British claimed was immoral. La Follette said the Germans had abandoned this practice, assuming the president would persuade or force England to modify her blockade of Germany, which was "starving to death the old men, the women and the children, the sick and the maimed of Germany." Wilson had failed to stop this "shameful method of warfare". Was it fair to accuse Germany of dishonorable conduct?
Wilson said Germany's warfare against commerce was "a warfare against mankind...a war against all nations." If this were the case, La Follette asked, why was America the only country in the world which objected to it? Norway, Sweden, Spain, the nations of South America -- not one had protested it or felt any compunction to go to war over it. The idea of a war to make the world safe for democracy was absurd, with England as our ally. Had the British shown the slightest interest in extending democracy to Ireland, to Egypt's millions, to India's hundreds of millions? Tens of millions of its own citizens were denied the right to vote by the clique or aristocrats and millionaires who ran the country.
Early in his speech, Wilson claimed that Germany's rulers had gone to war without the consent of the German people. Was America's decision for war any different? La Follette asked. Could the members of the Senate claim with any certainty that most Americans supported the war? Why don't we put things to the ultimate test, and have a referendum? Let the American people vote on it. Instead, the government was already talking about espionage and censorship bills to suppress popular opinion and a draft to force every man to fight no matter what he thought.
Next, La Follette assailed Wilson's claim that America had been neutral until Germany's conduct forced him to ask for a declaration of war. From the beginning of the war, we had made our neutrality "a mockery" by allowing England to take advantage of it, thanks to her sea power, while making no attempt to give Germany equal access to similar amounts of food, ammuntion and weapons the English purchased in America. He quoted President Thomas Jefferson's statement that both sides had to be treated equally in a war in order to maintain genuine neutrality. He quoted an English authority on international law who defined neutrality as an "attitude of impartiality [that] involves the duty of abstaining from assisting either belligerint, either actively or passively."
Point by point, La Follette presented a legal brief against Wilson's arguments for war. Often it was a dogged, unemotional argument. He emphasized facts, logic the principles of international law. He cited an admission by Lord Salisbury, one of England's most prominent statesmen, that food for the civilian population should never be barred by a blockade -- a principle the English were now callously ignoring.
La Follette launched a searching appraisal of the origins of the war. Germany was only partly responsible. All the belligerent powers bore some blame. But the overarching cause was England's determination to destroy Germany as a commercial rival. It was the wrong reason to send millions of men to their deaths on the Western Front. Grimly La Follette reiterated: "It was our absolute right as a neutral to ship food to the people of Germany." It was a right we had asserted since our foundation as a nation. "The failure to treat the belligerent nations alike, to reject the illegal war zones of both Germany and Great Britain, is wholly accountable for our present dilemma," La Follette said. Instead of admitting it, we were trying to "inflame the mind of our people into the frenzy of war."
La Follette stopped speaking at 6:45 p.m. Tears streamed down his cheeks. In the gallery his old friend, the conservationist Amos Pinchot, thought he looked like a despairing man who had "failed to keep his child from doing itself irreparable harm." Another conservationist friend, Gilson Gardner, turned to Pinchot and said: "That is the greatest speech we will either of us ever hear."
Unfortunately, it was not a great speech, compared to Wilson's oratorical performance. Gardner was voicing his admiration for La Follette's courage. Only five other senators supported the senator from Wisconsin. In the House of Representatives, 50 congressman, including nine from Wisconsin, voted against the war resolution.
In succeeding weeks, La Follette remained a tough opponent of the Wilson administration's program for war on the home front. When the president asked for an Espionage Act that would give him the right to censor newspapers magazines and books, and send civilians to jail for criticizing the war, La Follette fought the measure ferociously. He was able to persuade the Senate to reject direct censorship of newspapers by a presidential board but the rest of the measure was voted into law.
The Wilson administration neither forgot nor forgave La Follette's opposition. In September 1917, when he made a speech in Minneapolis, he said the Luisitania, the British liner sunk in 1915 with great loss of life, including 127 Americans, had been carrying guns and ammunition for the British army, with the prior knowledge of the American government.
An AP reporter filed a story quoting the senator on the Luisitania's sinking and also claiming he said: "We [America] had no grievance against Germany." The story produced huge headlines everywhere. In the New York Times it became: LA FOLLETTE DEFENDS LUSITANIA SINKING. Ex- president Theodore Roosevelt said the senator was the worst enemy of democracy alive. Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia University's president, compared allowing La Follette to speak freely to putting poison in the food of men on troopships to France.
The day after the speech, Secretary of State Robert Lansing released to the newspapers the text of an intercepted message that Germany's ambassador had sent to Berlin before America declared war, asking for $50,000 to influence Congress. The timing of the release was hardly accidental. Newspapers splashed it across their front pages, implying that La Follette was Germany's hired mouthpiece. The secretary of state, satisfied with the damage he had done, blandly admitted he had no hard evidence connecting any federal legislator with German propaganda.
A movement was soon underway to expel La Follette from the Senate. The Democratic governor of Wisconsin staged a mass meeting in Madison, at which Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo, President Wilson's son-in-law, called La Follette a traitor. That same day, Secretary of State Lansing denied the American government knew the Lusitania was carrying ammunition. The Senate's Privileges and Elections Subcommittee announced it would hold public hearings on the senator's possible expulsion in December. When La Follette defended himself on the floor of the Senate, Arkansas senator Joseph Robinson came down the aisle and shouted insults in his face. Robinson told La Follette to apply to the Kaiser for a seat in the Reichstag, and roared there were "only two sides to this conflict -- Germanism and Americanism; the Kaiser or the President."
The Wilson administration refused to give La Follette access to files that would prove his claim that the president knew the Lusitania carried ammunition in its hold. Friends in the government and the press assured him he was right but he needed proof to avoid impeachment. Meanwhile, La Follette was under ferocious attack from a group of writers called the Vigilantes, One of their leading members, Samuel Hopkins Adams, wrote an article in the New York Tribune, "Is Wisconsin Against America?" claiming that La Follette had undermined the loyalty of the state. An accompanying cartoon showed the senator jamming a German helmet on the head of a crouching woman, labeled "Wisconsin."
The hate campaign against La Follete mounted in ferocity. Life, in those days a humor magazine, published a "Traitor's Number" featuring La Follette receiving the iron cross from the Kaiser. Another set of cartoons showed Satan inducting La Follette into the "Traitor's Club," with Judas Iscariot, Benedict Arnold and other members eagerly welcoming him.
In his home state La Follete endured humiliations that wounded him deeply. Various clubs expelled him. The state legislature passed a joint resolution accusing him of sedition. The faculty of the University of Wisconsin voted 421-2 to condemn his "unwise and disloyal utterances." A saddened La Follette noted in his diary that "my picture was taken down from where it was hanging in all of the university buildings." His son Phil, a student at the university, had to endure face-to-face insults and sneers.
La Follete was not completely abandoned. In later years, he liked to note that a third of all the letters he received in his 19 years in the Senate came in 1917, and they ran more than 60-1 in his favor. But the Get La Follette campaign continued. A group of superpatriots, The American Defense Society, submitted an elaborate brief, drawn by prominent New York lawyers, to the senate subcommittee on privileges, arguing the legality of La Follette's expulsion. On January 8, 1918, the day the subcommittee was scheduled to meet. the New York Sun ran a story on the brief under the headline: "New Proof of La Follette's Sedition Filed."
That same day, the senator's older son and aide, Robert Jr., collapsed with an acute streptococcus infection and had to be hospitalized. La Follette asked the subcommittee to postpone the hearings and his day of reckoning -- or justification -- was delayed -- and delayed again as young Bob hovered between life and death. Eventually, Bob La Follette began to recover. But the senator used his son's poor health as a way to evade the hearings while war rage convulsed America. It was a strategic retreat that lasted until the end of the war. Not until President Wilson went to France to negotiate peace with the Germans and brought home the flawed vengeful Treaty of Versailles, which exacted huge reparations from the Germans and forced them to confess they were guilty of the war, did La Follette return to the fray.
Wilson said the senate did not dare to reject the treaty, because it would "break the heart of the world." La Follette replied that the injustice of the document "chilled the heart of the world." The Senate rejected the treaty and in the 1920 presidential election which Wilson called "a great and solemn referendum" on the treaty, the Democrats lost in a stupendous landslide, more or less repudiating Woodrow Wilson's war.
Today, more than a few historians, including this one, think La Follette was right and Wilson was wrong on most points in their confrontation. American neutrality before we declared war was a sham. By 1917, the British had converted America into a branch of their arms industry and were paying for everything with money borrowed from American banks. In the next world war, no one on either side had any criticism of submarines that sank ships without warning. The British blockade, which they continued for seven months after the armistice on November 11, 1918, killed over 600,000 German children and elderly, as La Follette warned it would. President John F. Kennedy told historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that Wilson's reasons for going to war with Germany were "narrow and legalistic" and thought he should be close to the bottom in any list rating presidential performances.
It is time we appreciated "Fighting Bob" La Follette as a forgotten hero of World War I.