I had the good fortune to participate in a workshop at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library led by the talented Claudia Ricci. What a relief to leave behind research and early twentieth century America for a few hours!
I sit in the summer house at the back of my garden while the red squirrel cuts half-ripe cones from the spruce tree high overhead. In the distance, I hear the first calls of the geese taking this year’s brood for a practice flight. The sound brings with it the smell of golden leaves lit by low sunlight.
The plants that surround me are pushing out their last flowers in a rush to make seed before a frost cuts short their leafy lives. All this beauty underlain with desperate determination – all life writ small.
I hear a rustle in the viburnums. Suddenly, she’s there, still as a statue. Only her ears move. She takes a step, then another, and then behind her are this year’s fawns.
I stay so still, so quiet, and the doe begins to move along the border, delicately snipping flowerheads one by one, thoughtfully masticating. The fawns are less discriminating, trying plant after plant.
“Deer resistant!” they seem to say. “Take that, allium, and that, you prickly holly!”
Enough, I think, and sit up straight. A startled look, a quick retreat, and I am alone again.
“Germans denounced one another with such gusto that senior Nazi officials urged the populace to be more discriminating as to what circumstances might justify a report to the police. Hitler himself acknowledged, in a remark to his minister of justice, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.” (Emphasis mine.) – In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, New York, Crown Publishers, 2011.
This remarkable study of the sinking of the Lusitania effectively captures both the nervous gaiety of this massive ship’s last voyage and the cold despair of her passengers in the waters of the Irish coast where so many met their end. In a parallel thread, author Diana Preston takes us into the cramped and musty submarine, U20, to meet her captain, Walther Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo attack.
Perhaps even more interesting to the student of the history of the Great War is Preston’s analysis of reactions on the US, England and Germany. While there was blame all around – from the US’s unacknowledged bias toward Britain, to the Royal Navy’s fudging of records – newly available German records show the Imperial Navy’s commitment to unrestricted use of submarine warfare and their unwillingness to respect the international agreement to “stop and search” commercial liners.
This volume provides a riveting read as well as adding significantly to our understanding of this pivotal event the American path toward war.
I’ve just finished John Dean’s biography of Warren Gamaliel Harding, American president from 1921 to 1923[i], and I am struck by the parallels between that period almost exactly 100 years ago with the political drama playing out today.
(For those of you who haven’t read Dean’s book, I should say here that I am not making the obvious reference to the scandals that plagued Harding’s last year in office and the decade after his death. With the rediscovery of his presidential papers[ii], thought to have been destroyed by his widow, a new image of Harding and his presidency emerges in this biography.)
Warren Harding was, by all accounts, a handsome man who looked presidential — perhaps no parallel here — and who spoke in easy if not profound platitudes. (William McAdoo described his “bloviating” thus: “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and over work.”[iii])
The intelligentsia were not impressed:
“The New Republic called Harding ‘…without strength of character, without administrative experience, without knowledge of international politics, without any of those moral or intellectual qualities which would qualify him even under ordinary conditions for statesmanlike leadership.’ ” [iv]
Harding was a businessman, having owned and run the Marion, Ohio, Star newspapers for some years, and he was exquisitely aware of the problems plaguing the American economy after the World War – hundreds of thousands of men returning all at once to the work force, threats to agriculture and other sectors from stabilizing European markets, labor unrest, and the burden of emergency war taxation. The League of Nations had been voted down in Congress, and Harding offered voters a chance to turn their focus inward. He said:
“[We must] make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it selfishness or nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to live for and revere America first.”[v]
He might have added, let’s make America great again.
“Harding … talk[ed] about his new favorite subject — Americanism, which had become something of a Republican mantra in 1920. What was Americanism? When asked, Republican senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania said, ‘Damned if I know, but you will find it a damn good issue to get votes in an election.”[vi]
His focus on Americanism brought two corollaries with it. Dean describes the first:
“Nativism, that ugly sister of nationalism, had emerged in the aftermath of the war [World War I]. Foreigners were suspect and unwanted. The fact that they were taking jobs during a time of serious unemployment aggravated the nation’s nativistic mood and produced almost universal support … for restricting immigration.” [vii]
The result was Per Centum Law, signed on May 19, 1921, which limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.
The second corollary was more complex and had consequences for every American. Harding began his term as a supporter of strong tariffs to protect the interests of American business. As he studied the problem with the help of economist William S. Culbertson, his views became more nuanced and he advocated a tariff policy with restrictions that could be adjusted to respond to changes in American and foreign markets. Dean again:
“By July 1921 the House passed a bill that increased tariffs across the board…. Harding soon found that the new law was not sufficiently flexible to prevent repercussions, and agriculture was first to suffer from the high tariffs, followed soon by other industries in later years…. While in office [Harding] remained favorable to protective tariffs. So too did his successors (Coolidge and Hover), until the American financial system collapsed in 1929, with tariffs playing their own role in the financial market’s crash.” [viii](Emphasis mine.)
After his election, it was Harding’s desire to bring a business-like management to the federal government. To give credit where it’s due, he established the Office of the Budget and Management and combined three competitive organizations into the new Veteran’s Administration. Both of these actions resulted in savings and increased efficiency.
He was soon to learn, however, that running the government had little in common with running a family business, and the hands-on approach that had worked well in Marion, OH, was less effective in the Oval Office. His determination to master his ever-increasing workload most certainly hastened his death by heart failure three years into his term.
Can we say with Karl Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”?
[i] John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding (The American President Series, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor), New York, Henry Holt & Company, 2004.
All the episodes were part of a German Imperial scheme dating back to 1889, the infamous Abteilung [Department] IIIb. Originally a counter-intelligence unit, it developed into a long-form destabilization campaign directed mainly at the United States, but including France and England. By the time it disbanded in 1918, it had become principally a secret police force and an international propaganda unit that was largely ineffective.
Within a ring of Keystone Kop-style operators, who experimented with cigar bombs for terrorist attacks, tunnel explosions between Canada and the United States to tie up traffic, and fomenting demonstrations by anti-British East Indian students at UC Berkeley, there were a few dangerous characters, who were involved in disasters such as the Black Tom Island explosion and the munitions depot explosion at Mare Island, San Francisco Bay in March 1917.
There were also rogue operators like the clearly deranged Eric Muenter, who went by the pseudonym Frank Holt to find employment teaching German at Harvard and Cornell and other prominent universities. Muenter, who had ties to Ambassador von Bernstorff, attempted to place time bombs on merchant ships, planted a bomb that blew up a closet in the United States Senate building and in 1915 attempted to assassinate Jack Morgan, whose father J. P. Morgan was helping to finance the British in the First World War. He was subdued in the attempt and committed suicide while in custody.
The conflict between Germany and the United States hardened in January 1917 with the disclosure of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. (Until this moment, the United States had been neutral and engaged in selling supplies and munitions to all comers. After roughly the middle of 1915, the Germans had not been able to buy any supplies from the Americans, because of the British Navy’s German Blockade, which prevented goods from entering German ports. This was the reason behind the American munitions depot sabotages, to prevent the British re-supplying from the same American sources.)
German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram in January 1917 to German Ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt to offer Mexico a military alliance with Germany in case the United States gave up its neutral status and entered the war as a combatant with the Allies. The alliance proposed an invasion of the United States to restore territories lost by Mexico in the 19th century. (This was another comic-opera aspect of the destabilization campaign against the United States. A section of the plan envisioned mobilizing black citizens of the southern states to rise up and join the Mexican invasion force.) The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence services, whereupon its authenticity was challenged, but in March Zimmerman announced that it was genuine.
In April the United States declared war against Germany and the Central Powers. The international machinations of the Germans, the ruinous sabotage of the munitions depots, and the submarine war against merchant shipping had become intolerable.
The same month, the Espionage Act was signed into law, and the following year, the Sedition Act. Two hundred and fifty thousand Germans and descendants of Germans were required to register at post offices across the United States. Thousands were detained and interrogated. More than six thousand were arrested and interned, along with a thousand merchant sailors, and two thousand German sailors captured in port were held as prisoners of war. The last of them were released in 1920.
The destabilization campaign against the United States lasted from 1889 to 1918, nearly thirty years, and was counter-productive in the end. It had assured that the United States would enter the war against Germany, and it harmed the stability and welfare of millions of German emigrants and German-Americans. American entry into the war ensured an Allied victory against the Central Powers, not so much because the Americans were great warriors, but because the giant industrial establishment and fuel supplies of the American economy could be brought to bear directly on the conflict, as well as thousands of fresh troops eager to make their mark on the world. The isolationist strain of American foreign policy was set aside. It weakened year by year afterward. The necessity of maintaining a standing army and a large modern navy had been made plain. The world stage was now the American stage too, and it would never leave the theater.
This is something that Vladimir Putin and the Russians might keep in their kit bag when they contemplate a thoroughgoing destabilization campaign against the United States.
One of the articles of American exceptionalism, one which has been demonstrated time and again, is the willingness when pushed to commit force to bear on external conflicts. While this tendency has been a mistake at times, it has always been a bad thing for the people who are the target population. It is never a good idea to wake the sleeping giant and make him mad.
uniquerman, aka Jim Ackerman, was born in the high plateau country of Eastern Oregon to pioneer folk. He grew up in Lake County, which still has more square miles than people. He went to New College in Sarasota Florida, and has spent a lifetime studying and writing. He has done everything from leather craft to construction. He has several books pending publication.