April 6, 1917. Five months before, Woodrow Wilson had been narrowly re-elected with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Some thought the point of the election had been to avoid entanglement in World War I. And yet, on April 2, Wilson had asked Congress to declare war on the German Empire.
William II, German Emperor during World War I, was among his contemporaries perhaps least qualified to serve as a head of state. Insecure, physically and perhaps mentally handicapped, the Emperor never understood how he appeared to other people. He strove to overcome his insecurities with swaggering public statements. An example of his rhetoric is his 1900 speech to the Imperial troops sent to the Boxer Rebellion:
Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.
Of course, this was bombast, uttered in the moment, forgotten by its speaker on the next day. But it was recorded in the press and the foreign offices of the world. Throughout the War, British propaganda had merely to reprint William’s speeches so the British might eventually refer to all Germans as merely “The Hun.”
For Wilson, the casus belli was the German submarine blockade of Great Britain, which authorized the sinking of all ships bound for the United Kingdom. Behind the scenes, the High Seas Fleet had successfully argued that unrestricted submarine warfare could end the war in five months. American businessmen were lending money and selling supplies to the Allied Powers. The United States had also acquiesced in the Allied blockade of Germany. So the Germans believed that the Americans were not truly neutral.
In response, Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917. He had always been sympathetic to the British, partly through personal Anglophilia, partly through his responsiveness to Wall Street, which had lent vast sums to the Allied Powers.
On February 24, the British government leaked the Zimmerman telegram, an intercepted diplomatic wire from the German Foreign Minister to the German minister in Mexico City. The telegram contained an offer to help Mexico recover the territories lost in the Mexican-American War if Mexico allied itself with Germany. Some doubted the telegram’s veracity then. No one does now.
The Mexicans declined the offer because they believed Germany would be unable to provide them the substantial financial assistance necessary to wage war. Besides, the United States was much stronger than Mexico, then in the midst of its great Revolution. As President Porfirio Diaz observed: “Poor Mexico. So far from God. So close to the United States.”
On April 2, 2017, Wilson called Congress into a joint session and asked for a declaration of war. He spoke for a half hour. The President recapitulated the course of German aggression from his point of view, saying:
The present German submarine warfare is a warfare against mankind… There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making; we will not choose the path of submission.
Perhaps to Wilson’s surprise, he was opposed, and the most effective opposition lay in the Senate, among those whom Wilson denounced as “this little group of willful men.” For two days (a lifetime in a legislature), six Senators used every parliamentary trick they knew to prevent the declaration from making it to the floor.
They were Republicans Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, George W. Norris of Nebraska, and Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota and Democrats Harry Lane of Oregon, James Kimble Vardaman of Mississippi, and William J. Stone of Missouri, who was chairman of Senate Foreign Relations.
They mingle the great and obscure. LaFollette and Norris stand among the great Senators: the peers of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. Vardaman was a classic Southern demagogue with a rhetoric derived from Shakespeare and the King James Version. Lane was a medical doctor, feminist, radical, and anarchist sympathizer. Gronna reflected his immigrant constituents’ distaste for the squabbles of the Old World they had left behind.
And Stone was a smooth professional politician, neither radical nor rabble-rouser, a former prosecutor, state legislator, Congressman, and Governor, one who always knew where the bodies were buried, a pragmatist who had spent his life cutting deals, a man apparently ever ready to rise above principle.
LaFollette and Norris remain famous names. The others? Like most politicians, their names are embalmed in old Congressional directories. Perhaps a scattering of relatives may remember that Great-Grandfather had once been a United States Senator.
Gronna of North Dakota, the son of Norwegian immigrants, had been elected to the state legislature in 1889, elected to Congress in 1904, and appointed to the Senate in 1911.
Harry Lane (like Truman, his given name was Harry) was a native Oregonian. His grandfather, Joseph Lane, had been Territorial Governor of Oregon and in 1860 the Vice-Presidential running mate of John Breckinridge against Abraham Lincoln. Lane’s father had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush and then invested his money wisely in several businesses. Lane went to college and medical school, completing his education in New York and Europe. He was called by some the people’s doctor, taking many cases at no charge. As his wife said, “He was better at making friends than making money.”
In 1887, the Governor of Oregon appointed him director of the state insane asylum. Much to the Governor’s distress, Lane was a fine administrator who uncovered, exposed, and prosecuted corruption and mismanagement at the asylum. He was forced to resign in 1891.
Fourteen years later, Lane was elected Mayor of Portland, Oregon. He understood both local politics and the limited powers of the Mayoralty, so much of his time was spent vetoing dishonest legislation that would’ve further enriched the elites. He appointed Portland’s first female police officer. He fervently supported women’s suffrage and championed the rights of Native Americans. Unlike many politicians, he really believed in democracy.
In 1912, he ran in Oregon’s first direct election for U.S. Senator. He polled barely 30 percent of the vote, but in a six-way race with three major candidates, he slipped through. He’d spent $75 on his campaign, not including travel expenses.
In the Senate, he became notorious for his scrutiny of public expenditures, being called “the human question mark.” His daughter was a Socialist; his son-in-law an anarchist whom he appointed his private secretary; and through them he was an intermediary between the radical left and the establishment. The son-in-law led him to intervene on behalf of IWW martyr Joe Hill.
James Kimble Vardaman was the most picturesque and least appealing of them. A non-practicing lawyer, he edited several newspapers, renowned for violent attacks on the rich and powerful, particularly the so-called planter aristocracy, and advocacy of a virulent white supremacy. Tall and handsome, he had a commanding presence and a gift for inflammatory oratory, denouncing the concentration of riches in the hands of a few that led to poverty and squalor among the many. The Great White Chief’s campaign tours often included dramatic entries into small towns, seated in a whitewashed wagon atop a pile of cotton bales drawn by 40 yoke of white oxen, wearing a white linen frockcoat, waistcoat, and hat, his hair swept back from his forehead and curling down to his shoulders.
He rose to the Senate by defeating Senator Leroy Percy, literate, intellectual, a planter aristocrat to his manicured fingertips. William Alexander Percy, the Senator’s son, later described Vardaman as “…a splendid ham actor, “ “a, kindly, vain demagogue unable to think, and given to emotions he considered noble.”
Against this mixed bag, Stone seems out of place. Intelligent, ambitious, discreet, and insightful into human nature, he graduated from the University of Missouri at 19. He became a lawyer at 20 and then a city attorney, county prosecutor, Congressman, and Governor. In 1902 he was elected a U.S. Senator. In 1913, he became Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That’s the recital one might see in a resume. But one may infer his skills from the recitation: none win the glittering prizes without them. The nickname, “Gum Shoe Bill,” suggesting one wearing overshoes to muffle his steps as he moved toward his goal, early attached to him.
Missouri had been torn apart by the Civil War: a slave state, whose government had attempted to secede, it had been a cockpit of battle. Part of the reason for Jesse James’ lengthy career in Missouri was that he had ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders, and so was seen and sheltered by unreconciled Confederates as a freedom fighter rather than a bandit.
Stone began his career in what had been a center of Confederate activity in southwestern Missouri. A superb orator in an age when people attended political meetings for entertainment, Stone played to his audiences. Thus, as a New York Times reporter wrote, he “adjured his hearers on every stump to remember the graves of their heroic dead, who had laid down their lives in a lost but not dishonored cause.” Throughout his career, his oratory simply “worked a forgetfulness of everything else.”
Behind the scenes, he allied himself with the corporate interests, particularly the MP, the Missouri Pacific Railroad. It may explain why, when he ran for Governor, he attacked neither the corporations nor the railroads, but the City of St. Louis, saying in one speech that his rivals had
…gone down to Babylon, that harlot in the politics of Missouri, that city called St. Louis. As for me, it is the plain people and the common people of Missouri I turn to… whom I know and who know me. I ask them to support me against the political might of that city where Mammon dwells and Moloch reigns.
Of course, Mammon, incarnated in the MP’s lobbyists, was underwriting his campaign. Oddly, Stone’s administration proved honest and efficient. After one term, he stepped down to practice law. He publicly said that he did not want and would not take corporation practice. This was a lie. His friends in the Legislature introduced bills for corporate reform and the corporations then retained Gum Shoe Bill to prevent their passage. His practice made him a wealthy man.
On the day after Wilson’s speech, the Senate met at noon. Senate Foreign Relations had met beforehand. Stone had long opposed Wilson’s foreign policy. He favored an alliance of neutral powers to blockade both the Allied and Central Powers and force them to the negotiating table. Wilson had dismissed Stone’s proposals, and so Stone fought the war resolution, using the procedural skills developed over a lifetime to stall it. The arguments in Committee were passionate, then bitter, and Stone lost, his friends abandoning him, and found himself the only vote against the resolution.
As Stone opposed the resolution, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska, the next ranking member of the committee, presented it to the Senate and asked for immediate consideration. The rules of procedure required that when any Senator objected, a resolution could be delayed for 24 hours. LaFollette objected, amidst the jeers of the gallery.
On the following day, full of flag-waving oratory, five Senators spoke against the resolution: LaFollette, Norris, Gronna, Stone, and Vardaman.
The Mississippian for once spoke as an adult, without platitudes, poetry, or bombast, saying in a few sentences that “plain, honest people” had no interest in this foreign war: “I do not feel like sacrificing a million men… to liberate Germany from the cruel dominion of kings, without first consulting the people who are to be sacrificed for the deliverance.”
Gronna quietly read into the record the petitions and telegrams he had received protesting the war.
Norris spoke bitterly of “putting the dollar sign on the American flag.”
Stone said, “I stand unmoved for America… I shall vote against this monstrous mistake, to prevent which… I would gladly lay down my life.”
LaFollette rose at four p.m. and spoke for three hours to packed galleries. He attacked Wilson for false neutrality. He challenged him to submit the war resolution to the vote of the people. He argued that the war was merely a commercial struggle between two great rivals, and found no moral difference between British sea mines and German torpedoes. He closed by expressing his hope that “the poor… the ones called upon to rot in the trenches,” would be heard in the end for peace.
The war resolution came to a vote around 11 p.m. Six Senators voted against it, the five opposition speakers being joined by Harry Lane. As LaFollette left the chamber, his colleagues turned away and he strode “to his office through corridors filled with snarling faces.”
Over the next two days, the House debated the resolution until 3:12 a.m. on April 6, when the Representatives voted 373 to 50 for war.
The lives of these men thereafter are quickly told. Harry Lane, the Oregonian radical, died of Bright’s disease on May 23, 1917, within two months of his vote. Vardaman and Jorgensen were defeated for re-election in 1918 and 1920, respectively, in contests where their votes against the war was the only issue.
LaFollette and Norris each survived, LaFollette running for President in 1924 as an independent Progressive, polling 17 percent of the vote against Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis. Norris served in the Senate until 1942, being re-elected to his last term as an independent against candidates of both establishment parties.
As for Stone, Death, which, as Hilaire Belloc wrote,
…even politicians fail
To bribe or swindle, bully or blackmail
came for him on April 18, 1918, a year after his vote and two years before his term’s end. As always, his timing was impeccable. He left the stage undefeated. Ten thousand mourners viewed his body as he lay in state in the capitol. His monument, raised during the New Deal, bears his statue and says of him: He never failed a friend, avoided a foe, or shunned a duty.
Well, no one is under oath when composing a friend’s epitaph. And yet, among the populists and renegades, the presence of an operator is moving. Stone had always played the game and so knew, perhaps better than the other five, what he stood to lose. Worldly, cynical, intelligent, forever conspiring, plotting, and scheming, self-interest ever to the fore; yet, in this, perhaps his supreme hour, having no doubt carefully weighed both doubt and danger (it would have been against his nature not to do so), he freely threw his career, his life, into the balance. What did Kipling write?
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
“This monstrous mistake, to prevent which I would gladly lay down my life.” Perhaps he meant it. Perhaps one may redeem a lifetime’s dishonor with a single heroic act. I hope he did.
From 1917 to 1918, 4,734,991 Americans passed through the armed forces. There were 116,526 casualties (53,402 battle deaths and 62,114 non-battle deaths). Another 204,002 were wounded.
This was the human cost of April 6, 1917, which the willful men had hoped to avoid.