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May 30, 2012

What if Taft had won in 1912?

famous Head and shoulder photograph of William Taft, with a mustache, wearing a tie

President William Howard Taft

I often wonder why the so-called tea party keeps talking about “the past 100 years.” Do they see Woodrow Wilson’s election as the beginning of the downfall of America? Or are they still talking about William Howard Taft’s election, four years earlier?

Whatever the case, 1912 was one of America’s most crucial elections. Had an ex-President not given a third party a fighting chance, history could have taken a very different turn.

Woodrow Wilson was a popular president when I grew up, but he now seems to be hated in America, both left and right.  Some call him a hypocrite for claiming that “he kept us out of war” and then entering the first World War.  Others dislike Wilson’s immigration policy (which wasn’t really his) or his excessive use of executive power (which wasn’t really new).

But let’s say Wilson lost the election in 1912.  Let’s say he never got beyond Governor of New Jersey, or perhaps he even stayed in confines of his ivory towers.  How would America be different then?

Or, perhaps Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt decided to stay on the sidelines, and gave Taft his support.  Which makes one wonder, why did Theodore Roosevelt withdraw his support of his friend?

Some say that Teddy Roosevelt suddenly turned progressive.  Perhaps the big Teddy bear contracted a rare virus on a safari in Africa that affected his brain.  This is the kind of theory put forward by Fox News’ Glenn Beck.

Beck claims that Roosevelt and Wilson were both in favor of eugenics, and that their “progressive” policies somehow led to the final solution.  Beck does this in a diatribe against President Obama’s Health Care initiative, which is somehow linked to Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt.  (There are much better arguments put forward than Beck’s, and many Tea Party supporters will privately call Beck a “whack job.”)

If we take a look at what we’re taught in school, we get a different perspective.  The three way race may have sprung from Teddy Roosevelt’s egotism, or it may have been about a real dispute in policy.  According to Eye Witness History, a history website which shares primary sources with kids, William Taft was basically out of the race when Teddy Roosevelt entered.

Wilson and Roosevelt, apparently, both campaigned on how to fight the growing power of big business.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt was in favor of responsible monopoly and the “Square Deal”, while New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson favored breaking up the big companies through his “New Freedom” initiative.  (Sounds like Reagan breaking up the phone company to me.)

That’s not what I heard in school, and it sounds suspiciously like Glenn Beck’s assertion that they were both anti-big-business “progressives.”  (Never mind that in that era, capitalists were very suspicious of monopoly, as they saw it as a step closer to communist totalitarianism.  As late as the 1990s, Rupert Murdoch made a similar comparison when talking to a special British commission on media regulation.)

Having the two front runners take a similar stance sounds almost like a conspiracy theory.  It’s almost as if Woodrow and Teddy ganged up to set the agenda and keep poor William out of the race.

Was it strange that few Americans seemed to rally around the sitting president at a time when the world was in Crisis?  1911 saw bloody revolutions in China and Portugal, an Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya, and great instability in Mexico and throughout Europe.  It’s hard to imagine that the US could steer clear of any intervention, whoever the President turned out to be.

And four years later, while Wilson was being cheered for “keeping us out of war”, he hadn’t ignored the security leaks in America’s southern border.   The US was at war of a kind in Mexico, which is why the Zimmerman telegram featured so prominently in talks about World War I when I was at school.  (The Zimmerman Telegram was a secret message allegedly sent by a German agent which indirectly offered Mexico a “return” of territory “lost” to the United States during the 19th century in exchange for Mexican aid in the war in Europe.)

Yet there’s another factor in all this.  When Teddy Roosevelt turned progressive, he supposedly backed Senator La Follette.   La Follette was a real progressive, and if I understand the history books right, it sounds like he once had a real chance of becoming President, that is, before Teddy Roosevelt stepped in.

However, once Teddy Roosevelt was able to get attention of the Progressive Party, he took the nomination from La Follette, and the Progressive Party even changed its name in honor of its “high profile” candidate.  Roosevelt seemed to kill the progressive movement by joining it.  And if we are to believe the conspiracy theorists of 1912, that was his intention (backed, of course, by big business, or the neo-monopolists in the Steel Trust.)

Yet, the question still nags.  What if one of the other two (or three) candidates had won in 1912?  Would the Progressives still be around today?  What would America be like?  And would the world be the same place it is now?

Additional sources:

old High School history notes

“Says T.R. and Taft are in a conspiracy” The Day Book (Chicago, 29 March 1912): 12