1920: The Year of the Six Presidents

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Under the lingering ghostly influence of HL Mencken, help the story of the 1920 presidential campaign is usually told for laughs.

Here was one of those rare years where a no-incumbent race attracted outstanding talent from both political parties, like 1880 or (I’d argue) our own 2008. Then, through the strange workings of the American political system, these talents were one by one eliminated from contention, until finally both parties settled on their most mediocre possible choice: Warren Harding for the Republicans, James Middleton Cox for the Democrats. Harding, the more mediocre of the two, naturally won the face-off in the greatest landslide ever seen to that point in American history.

Harding then proceeded to preside over an administration wracked by scandal, but the Roaring Twenties were on, boh-bop-dee-doh, and so who cared? It was all a gaudy gorgeous spectacle. Harding died in office to be replaced by his more intelligent and respectable vice president, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge opted not to run for re-election in 1928, and the page then turns to the drama and disaster of the Depression and the war.

As I said: so the story is usually told, and that’s the way David Pietrusza tells it again in 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents.

Pietrusza is a very gifted writer with a marvelous eye for anecdote. Even a reader familiar with American electoral history will learn things from this lively history, and a reader unfamiliar with the politics of the period will enjoy an engaging introduction to an unusually complicated political cycle.

But … and you heard that but coming … I came away from this book as I so often do from books on this period feeling frustrated and dissatisfied.

That election of 1920 was one of those hinges of fate on which the lives and destinies of tens of millions of people turned. Americans made very bad choices in those years, terrible choices, choices that would soon precipitate a global depression and then another and even more horrible war.

The First World War ended in financial and economic crisis on all sides, for the winners as well as for the losers.

Germany owed a huge reparations debt to France and Belgium. France, like most of the other allies, had borrowed heavily from Britain. Britain in turn had borrowed heavily in the United States. (American investors were prepared to buy British war bonds, but nobody else’s. The British government, desperate to keep financially weakened allies like Italy fighting, was thus compelled to assume responsibility for almost all the debts incurred by the entire alliance.)

Aside from these debts incurred to pay the costs of war, almost all the nations of Europe faced huge bills for rebuilding and reconstruction.

The logical solution to the problem was for the United States to use its power as the ultimate creditor to persuade the allies to forgive each other’s debts and to lighten Germany’s reparations bill. Then the US needed to open its market to free trade so that Germany could earn the money it needed to repair the damage it had done to Belgium and France.

But Woodrow Wilson cared little about economics and less about finance. He concentrated all his idealism on his doomed and futile League of Nations, while passively disregarding the much more important and urgent issue of financial settlement.

And when Americans voted Republican in 1920, they voted for a party that was still protectionist. Harding and the huge new GOP majority in Congress raised tariffs, severely restricting European exports.

Having cut off Europe’s livelihood, the new administration then insisted that Europe must scrupulously pay its debts. In practice that meant squeezing England – while leaving it to the English to extract what they could from France, Italy, Serbia, Rumania, and Greece. The French tried to pay their debts to England with the money they collected from Germany.

It was a rickety enough stack of cards, made no more stable (or attractive) by the repeated pressures from the US on the allies to reduce Germany’s reparations obligatins: the ultimate creditor telling his sub-creditors to go easy on the ultimate debtor, while demanding that his own bill be paid in full.

The whole system of course ultimately collapsed. The Depression struck, the industrial world plunged into a decade-long financial and economic crisis that ended in the catastrophe of the Second World War.

Obviously this accumulation of disaster cannot all be blamed on the vote in 1920. No American politician, of any party, urged anything like the measures that were needed for a more enduring peace.

Still one cannot help wondering: What if Americans had chosen a president in 1920 of greater intelligence and imagination than Harding – somebody who could have led the GOP Congress rather than followed? If Theodore Roosevelt had not died in 1919, aged only 61, might not things have been different? Roosevelt was a free trader by instinct, and had he lived, he would have been the certain Republican nominee in 1920. Had the party gone with the “safe” choice that year, the capable but boring Frank Lowden, governor of Illinois, they at least would have had somebody better able to understand the problems of postwar Europe. As it was … we got what happened.

Somebody quipped that history is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. I strenuously disagree. History is a tragedy to those who remember, a comedy only to those who forget.

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