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McAdoo and Baker

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

Crowded Years. The Reminiscences of W. G. McAdoo. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00. Newton D. Baker: America at War, By Frederick Palmer. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 2 vols, $7.50,

As time goes on, the historian of American politics will surely turn to the era of Woodrow Wilson as one of the most interesting in the whole story of our national development. Where, indeed, are wider elements of drama to be found? A President of the United States, who, whatever else is to be said, is one of the half-dozen Chief Executives who have left a deep impress upon the history of the United States, and whose last years have a peculiar and even tragic pathos; an epoch crowded with all sorts of reforms and idealisms, sharply contrasted with the shoddy years which immediately followed, or the reign of smug complacency which came next; and, to crown the whole, developments in the field of international politics which inaugurated a new phase in our national life, and culminated in the mightiest enterprise in our history, the World War, and the effort to construct a new world order on the basis of the victory that then was won.

For the study of this fascinating period much material is already at hand. The best of all sources, the correspondence and personal papers of the President himself, remain to a large degree unpublished; nor is Mr. Ray Stannard Baker’s use of those which have already seen the light by any means satisfactory. But the Papers of Colonel House give the point of view of Mr. Wilson’s most intimate friend and confidential adviser; and of the cabinet officers who had a part in the events of the time, no less than six, Bryan, Houston, Redfield, Lane, Lansing, and McAdoo, have published memoirs which cast some light upon the course of Wilsonian policy, and reveal, incidentally and often very effectively, the personalities and points of view of those to whom the Chief Executive delegated, in greater or less degree, the carrying out of his policies.

The latest of these cabinet recollections is “Crowded Years,” by William Gibbs McAdoo. In the years of his active political life Mr. McAdoo aroused decidedly strong emotions, either of affection or of dislike, in those who came in contact with him. One turns with interest, therefore, to this revelation of personality, as a chance to see the man at close range, and form a more scientific and accurate judgment with regard to him. And “Crowded Years” most certainly offers an excellent opportunity to do this. The former Secretary of the Treasury is obviously a man of few inhibitions. He tells his story with a jaunty candor which is sometimes a little astonishing, and from which nothing is omitted, not even his love-affair with and proposal to the present Mrs. McAdoo. The tone is one of a self-confidence that seems never to have been ruffled, except perhaps at the time of his first interview with James Pierpont Morgan.

This buoyant feeling of rectitude is, on the whole, rather engaging. Not to be troubled by too many doubts, cosmic or otherwise, is surely a source of strength in the world of affairs. And from beginning to end Mr. McAdoo appears to have been in this fortunate situation most of the time. His failure to carry through a plan for the electrification of the street railways of Knoxville early in his career appears to have ruffled him for a time, but he takes pains to point out that it was a great mistake for him ever to have felt that way about it, and that, in reality, people regarded him then as a smart young man whose vision, for the moment, exceeded his grasp. If there were any errors in his administration of the Treasury, the former Secretary does not appear to have noticed them. From the vantage-point of memory and of private life he looks upon his work and pronounces it good.

There are times, no doubt, when this complacency is a little shocking, but for the most part one likes Mr. McAdoo and respects him. For, after all, he is no vainglorious boaster, but a man who has brought imagination, administrative capacity, and a really earnest desire for the public weal to the execution of great tasks. It was no commonplace person who, while still an obscure figure in the life of a great metropolis, set out to build the Hudson River tunnels, and won the confidence of leaders of finance by his own proud faith; who enlisted early in the pre-convention movement for the nomination of Woodrow Wilson as the Democratic candidate for President; who stuck tenaciously to the Wilson cause and, if his testimony is taken at full value, prevented the withdrawal of the Wilson candidacy in the darkest hours of the Baltimore convention; who, as Secretary of the Treasury, played so vital a part in the passage of the Federal Reserve Act and the floating of the Liberty Loans. One likes particularly the McAdoo who did not permit himself to be intimidated in the drafting of the great banking statute of 1913 by the opposition of many leaders in the world of finance—leaders, it may be observed, who promptly turned around and accepted that statute after it had been enacted; and one likes even more the quality of imagination and daring which led him to disregard timid counsels in the floating of the first Liberty Loan, and to go confidently to the people for a sum which, in those days, might well have staggered the imagination. Whatever one may think of his assumption in 1917 of the responsibility for the administration of the railroads, here, most certainly, was a man wholly ready to take and discharge even the heaviest responsibilities. And the desire for the improvement of human affairs which Mr. McAdoo constantly expresses is also an engaging quality.

Mr. McAdoo leaves no doubt that he is a Democrat. Republicans he obviously dislikes, individually and en masse. He tells with perhaps too great relish of an interview with Mr. Hoover, in which he reduced the then Food Administrator to an uneasy silence; he comments by no means kindly on Mr. Harding; he really believes that the Democratic party has a wholly different philosophy from its rival; and his chapter on Woodrow Wilson is not so much analysis as eulogy. This honest partisanship is no doubt the limitation of Mr. McAdoo’s vigorous and straightforward, but by no means philosophic, mind.

The former Secretary of the Treasury has spoken for himself. Mr. Newton D. Baker, Mr. Wilson’s Secretary of War, is fortunate in not being obliged to do this, but in having in Frederick Palmer an analyst who treats his career in the War Department with extraordinary art and at the same time with extraordinary sympathy. Mr. Palmer has painted his picture with great skill; and without adopting the tone of eulogy, and, indeed, with a quite remarkably cool and dispassionate tone, he has made clear the fine character of Mr. Baker’s service as Secretary of War. The little man with the scholar’s face who took the oath of office in the War Department on March 9, 1916, had had, after all, a very limited administrative experience, and was hardly known outside the circle of his Cleveland admirers. He was from the beginning subject to a criticism which, for virulence and reckless disregard of facts, exceeded that which was poured out on any other cabinet adviser, except perhaps Jo-sephus Daniels. But from the moment when he assumed control he demonstrated his remarkable qualities. Though known as a pacifist, he soon won the confidence of his army advisers. In his own orders and cablegrams, from the beginning, there is a tone of definiteness which proceeded not alone from a firm and well-disciplined will, but from an intelligence which penetrated with extraordinary promptitude to the heart of a problem, and formulated its conclusions as persuasively as it did clearly.

He knew what he wanted when he sent Pershing into Mexico after the bandit Villa—just how far he wanted to go and where he wanted to stop; he knew what he wanted when, hardly a month in office, he dictated a great memorandum to the President in which are contained the germs of the Council of National Defense, of incalculable importance in the events which were to come; he knew what he wanted when, in the first hectic days of the war, he spent money for necessary supplies without authorization of Congress; when he demanded from the outset funds on a colossal scale, no less than three billion dollars in a single appropriation bill; when in defiance of politics he appointed John J. Pershing to command the American army in France; when he planned, at a time when American public opinion had hardly been aroused to the magnitude of the struggle, for an army of a million men, and for universal conscription; when, with a clear-eyed view of the problem in its entirety, he instructed Pershing before his departure for France that “the idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved.” It would be, of course, a mistake to translate into purely personal terms the mighty national effort that was made in 1917 and 1918; but one can not read Colonel Palmer’s volumes without a profound sense of respect for the man who stood at the levers of control and directed the whole vast and growing machine.

From the beginning to the end of the war Baker ignored politics. In every other war in which the United States has been engaged politics has played an important, and always a crippling, part; but in the World War no such thing proved to be true. The tongue of venom and of partisan scandal has, of course, attempted to demonstrate that the retention of Leonard Wood in this country, and the refusal to permit ex-President Roosevelt to raise a division to go to France, were due to partisan motives; but no one who reads Colonel Palmer’s work will longer believe so. In acting as he did, Baker acted on the explicit advice of General Pershing, and on no other basis. Wood’s indiscretions were, it is true, numerous; in his trip abroad in 1918 he spoke most disrespectfully of the President, and depreciated the whole military effort of the United States. But it was not these things, but the American commander’s deep distrust of him which was responsible for his retention in this country. This fact is now established beyond peradventure or debate.

There is another side of Baker, perhaps the most attractive side, to which I have not yet alluded. In his attitude toward politics and public opinion Newton D. Baker shows himself something more than a great administrator—he shows himself a great man. The serenity with which he bore the bitter and often unwarranted attacks upon him in Congress is admirable in itself; no less admirable is the consideration which he, on his side, always showed for Congressional opinion, and the cool and thorough manner in which he answered all inquiries when subjected to the ordeal of a Senatorial investigation. “The committee has been much impressed,” said his bitter critic, Senator Chamberlain of Oregon. A still more striking episode comes later. In the twelfth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared an article on Baker which said nothing of his achievements, and set him down as a pacifist, and as one often condemned as “lacking in energy, foresight and ability.” Here is his reply to a friend who expressed indignation at this mutilation of the record. “I am not so concerned as I should be, I fear, about the verdict of history. For the same reason it seems to me unworthy to worry about myself, when so many thousands participated in the World War unselfishly and heroically who will find no place at all in the records which we make up and call history.”

It is given to many men to do fine things, to accomplish great tasks. But it is not given to so many, in the midst of all these things, to retain some sense of detachment, to handle large affairs and yet to see themselves in scale in the majestic processes of time and human events. This coolness, this modesty, this cosmic wisdom, are more precious, and more rare than rubies. When Newton D. Baker says, as he said the other day to a friend who wished to see him President, “It seems to me to make little difference whether I carry the banner, or go forward as a private in the ranks,” one believes him. Newton D. Baker is big enough for that.


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