Comment Of The Day: “Today’s Chaos, Ethics And Alternate History Note: Teddy’s Fateful Decision”

This unique Comment of the Day, by Steve-O-in NJ,  has come closer to cheering me up than anything else today. Taking of from my post about the historical chaos set off by Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to split the Republican Party in 1912, Steve-O draws on his impressive knowledge of history to give us what Paul Harvey called, “The rest of the story. Well, what would have been the rest of the story.

Here is Steve-O’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Today’s Chaos, Ethics And Alternate History Note: Teddy’s Fateful Decision”:

I’m late to the table, but I love playing “what if?” So, here’s my take on the alternative future where Teddy Roosevelt did not run in 1912. He was a year back from Europe and disgusted that Taft was approaching the task of governing completely different than he had. To Roosevelt, a president was a trustee of the people’s power, to use it for them as best he saw fit. Taft saw the president as more a chief magistrate, who should be careful not to exceed his enumerated powers – when not hitting the links. Roosevelt swore he’d topple Taft, if not as the Republican nominee, then as the nominee of his own party. However, a few of his friends who could talk to him frankly told him, “Ted, there are times you act like you’re about six years old, but this is the six-year-oldiest. You can run, but all it will do is split the Republican vote and hand the White House to that dead-eyed, ivory-tower, political neophyte from Princeton. Is that what you want? This country isn’t yours to use for your own vendetta or destroy when you don’t get your way.”

Angry, but seeing the point, Teddy dropped out of public life and retired to Sagamore House in Oyster Bay to write and figure out what was next for him at 54. Although he took no part in the 1912 election, his neutrality was enough to guarantee Taft a second term and send Woodrow Wilson back into academia. Vice President James Sherman died shortly before the election. As a gesture to his former friend, who he still respected, Taft replaced him with political sage and longtime Republican public servant Elihu Root. Roosevelt’s account of his many meetings with the rulers of Europe during his time there, “The Gilded Path,” was published in 2013, and his proposal for a stronger international community and a possible international court, “A Firmer Foundation,: was published the next year…a month before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand touched off a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and the Kaiser foolishly delivered “the German Blank Check.”

Wisely, Taft and Root avoided getting involved as the war spread to Belgium and France, then the UK and Russia kept their treaty obligations while Italy broke theirs. They looked with disgust on the destruction of Belgium, horror on the “race to the sea,” and half-relief, half disbelief as the “Taxicab Army” stopped the Germans just shy of Paris. Meantime they struggled to keep order in the Western Hemisphere, with much diplomacy and demonstration, but only intervening as a last resort, which meant only in Mexico, to back General Huerta, who finally pacified the country after years of revolution and attempted to lead it into democracy, a step at a time. Haiti and the Dominican Republic were left to their own devices, since they were not considered essential.

The war in Europe continued into 1916. The Battle of Verdun became an endless abbatoir of French, German, British, and other lives. The British Grand Fleet, although suffering greater losses, achieved a strategic victory as they turned back the German High Seas Fleet in the Battle of Jutland, making the Germans realize submarine warfare was their only hope to break the tight British blockade. The Easter Rising came…and failed, but the British committed a PR blunder of the first water by executing the leaders, turning Irish public opinion against them. The Austrians and Italians repeatedly threw back one another’s advances by the Isonzo. Russia started to fall apart, but had not yet revolted.

Determined not to leave this mess to his successor, who might decide the US needed to get involved, Taft sent an urgent message to his estranged friend asking for a meeting. They met at Grey Towers, the home of Roosevelt’s political ally and rising GOP politician (who had been dismissed by Taft) Gifford Pinchot, who made the house available for the purpose. Taft offered Roosevelt an appointment as “special envoy to Europe” for the purpose of trying to end the war, since he had successfully mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese war in Portsmouth, NH. Surprisingly, Roosevelt accepted, hoping he might succeed where the Pope had failed, since he knew many of the sovereigns involved. After many messages, it was arranged for delegates to meet at the then-new Peace Palace in The Hague toward the end of July.

Roosevelt had a tall order ahead of him. The French wanted Alsace and Lorraine back. The Belgians wanted their nation back plus reparations. The Italians wanted Fiume and disputed territory. Still with boundless energy, Roosevelt went back and forth between the various breakout sessions, exploiting his name and personal relationships. Finally a treaty was hammered out that gave the parties, if not all they wanted, enough to make everyone all right with the results. Germany would withdraw from Belgium, return disputed territories to France, and pay an indemnity to the Belgians for the destruction. Austria-Hungary and Italy would draw a new border, much the same as before. The Russians would be given certain territorial concessions in what had been Poland. On August 18, 1916, the treaty was signed, and the guns finally fell quiet. World War One ended more than two years before it did in our world, with a lot less impact on that generation. The flags of three empires that would have otherwise come down still flew, for Germany had not revolted, Austria-Hungary had not collapsed, and Russia was spared the stress that finally pushed it over the edge.

Elihu Root campaigned to succeed Taft, and, in light of this victory, was guaranteed success that fall. A certain Austrian artist never achieved much, for he did not have as much discontent to play on. The lives of malcontents V.I. Ulyanov and Iosef Dzugashvili ended with the slam of a czarist prison door. Nicolas II, Karl I, Wilhelm II, and Victor Emmanuel III reigned on. There was no Prohibition. The battleship was king at sea a while longer. Teddy Roosevelt, awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize and multiple other awards including a golden statue of St. Francis of Assisi which adorned his study desk at Sagamore House, might well have thought he had made a perfect world, or close to it, by the time an embolism ended his life on January 6, 1919. How wrong he was. This just gave Europe a few more decades to chafe under the yoke of monarchy, before it was decided enough was enough…but that’s a story for another day.


15 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Today’s Chaos, Ethics And Alternate History Note: Teddy’s Fateful Decision”

  1. As much as I appreciate the effort at “what if”, you do Wilson an injustice. At the time of the 1912 election, Wilson wasn’t a political neophyte. He was the, far from inconsequential, sitting governor of New Jersey. An office he presumably would have returned to had he lost the “what if election of 1912.”

    • But look at the dates, Jeff. Wilson took office as Gov. in 1911, and was running for President by August of 1912. He had all of 19 months of political executive experience. It’s not nothing, but it’s mighty thin compared to Teddy or Taft.

  2. Nice scenario — it does the job by making you think about what happened and why.

    I am not sure either the French or Germans would have been willing to accept defeat in that war, because of all the blood and treasure expended by that point. What you suggest does sound like a defeat for the Germans — it sounds like they would be returning Alsace and Lorraine to France.

    That might work, but I would think the French would have to offer something in return. We believe that the war was the fault of the evil Germans, but I am pretty sure they didn’t feel the same way. The Germans were not losing in 1916, so what could induce them to give up their hard won gains?

    Similarly in the East, Germany (although not Austria Hungary) was pretty much winning. Why would they give up parts of Germany to Russia (remember that in 1914 there was no Poland — the Poles were divided between Germany and Russia).

    There perhaps is the answer to the first question — what was in it for Germany? If the treaty ceded parts of western Russia to Germany in exchange for their concessions in Western Europe, I can perhaps see Germany settling for that. Russia — they were the Great Power that was going down the tubes. What they got out of it would be to avoid total defeat. After all, the Germans might think they could always come back at France later to finish what they had started.

    I think those adjustments might be enough to result in a peace treaty. How long would it last? Doubtless, not as long as they would have hoped for — as well, I suspect the Kaiser’s government and the Tsar would be in serious hot water before the ink was dry.

    It’d be a coup for Teddy, that’s for sure.

    • I think the bulk of the debate is around how long the war would last. Maybe it would end as soon as it is in Steve-O’s version, or maybe it drug on far longer. The one thing that would be certain if the US stayed out is that it would not have ended as a German rout. Lacking the decisive impact the US brought, it would have drug on until the sides finally gave up. That might be fast, or it might have gone on far longer. Either way, the prelude to WWII certainly wouldn’t have happened, and even the Russian revolution is much less likely to have happened.

    • By the middle of 1916 the Verdun campaign had been ongoing for months, and it was starting to tell on the German army. Just as the Ypres campaign had depleted the British regular army and become the graveyard of the Old Contemptibles, the Verdun campaign was starting to drain not only German manpower, but, more importantly, their front-line leadership. Experienced and competent platoon, company, and battalion commanders perished day after day. The talent pool for the Western Front was fast drying up and would be drained dry at the end of the year. Even the most talented brigade, division, or corps commander is diminished if there are not competent front-line leaders to carry out his orders.
      The Germans were not in a position to pull commanders from the Eastern front to simply throw them into the meat grinder of that campaign.

      I’m sure it had started to dawn on the German high command that this was not only not going to be a repeat of 1871 (it had already lasted more than twice as long), but that the dream of taking Paris had probably ended at the Marne. The High Seas Fleet had been turned back, Scheer, Hipper, and the other naval commanders knew they were not going to break the British blockade, especially not now, since the Royal Navy’s vulnerabilities had been exposed and were being corrected. There would be no more blowing up British battlecruisers with a lucky hit on a turret that ignited a magazine. Submarine warfare was sure to turn world opinion against them. Russia still had much deeper wells of manpower to tap than Germany ever could.

      In the south the Austrians just couldn’t make any headway against the Italians (they wouldn’t until the Germans stepped in the next year, and even then couldn’t knock Italy out of the war). In the Middle East, although the Turks had decisively repulsed the Anglo-Anzac landings at Gallipoli, they were having no such luck against the British and Arabs in the Levant. They had yet to suffer the crushing blows that 1917 would bring, but it had probably hit them as well that the British Empire wasn’t going anywhere and that things were just going to get worse from here.

      I don’t know if it could have happened, but I think if TR had forcefully pointed out to the powers that they could either come to a settlement there, or come back in however long it took with a lot more death and damage, they might have decided to come to a settlement rather than fight on.

      • Those are excellent points and lend credence to the idea that the Germans would entertain the idea of an armistice. And, as we know, TR was perhaps the definition of unbounded energy, which is one of the things it would have taken.

        Where I differ is the idea that this would lead to Germany giving up all the gains they had achieved in both the Great War and the Franco-Prussian war. Yes, objectively, one would think that they had to realize they weren’t going to march into Paris, but they had made substantial territorial gains in 1914. My feeling is that if the French wanted the Germans to give up those gains, they would have to make concessions elsewhere.

        And, of course, all this presumes that TR could persuade the Germans that continued fighting was likely to be futile. If anyone could, I agree it would likely be him. We can see it — but a century ago, could they have been persuaded? Could the French have been persuaded to accept anything less than total restoration of their 1914 borders?

        • Teddy Roosevelt could have pulled a Dr. Who and told both sides they were just going to end up in the same place a few years down the line, only with a lot more of their soldiers dead, a lot more of their wealth expended, and no guarantee their position would be any better. There would also be the matter of the balance of power becoming upset and who knew what would follow? The Russians might have been willing to make concessions, since they were probably anxious to end the war and prevent a collapse at home. The French and Germans would have quibbled, but finally agreed on something. I think the Germans would have grasped that they had to withdraw from Belgium. Conquest of another nation just could not be tolerated.

          Von Knobelsdorf, Crown Prince Wilhelm’s chief of staff, who had pushed the Verdun offensive, was sacked, as were several other officers who had pushed for Germany to get involved in the war. Joseph Joffre was sent to govern French Indochina, with the understanding that he would retire upon the conclusion of his term. Marshal Foch did not rise as high, but was recognized as a potential rising C-in-C, and later would assume that post, taking a young major who had briefly been a POW named Charles de Gaulle as his aide and protege. Lord Kitchener never made his fateful voyage to Russia, and after the war forced the twice-disgraced John French into retirement, telling him it was either that, on account of his previous valorous service in the Sudan and South Africa, or a court-martial for insubordination and the exposure of his numerous affairs.

          The British, fearful of a popular uprising in Ireland after the brutal suppression of the Easter Rising and General John Maxwell’s unwise execution of several of the leaders, decided to bring in forces who had no ties other than those of service to either Ireland or England to keep the peace. Before long, Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Galway all boasted “India towns,” reeking of curry… and ringing with the forbidding tramp of booted sepoys on cobblestone. For the moment, Michael Collins and his compatriots dropped out of sight, but this would not be the last they were heard from.

          One man saw his hopes end with the early armistice: Josef Pilsudski, the Polish nationalist whose Polish Legions had fought alongside the Austrians against the Russians, who he loathed. However, Karl I decided to change the nature of Austria-Hungary into a federal rather than a national state, to hopefully quell the rising ethnic tensions and forestall the crumbling of the Hapsburg throne a little longer. A great council was held in Vienna, eventually resulting in a constitution. Pilsudski became governor of the ethnically Polish territory, but it was not enough. So he bided his time, and waited for the right moment…but that’s another story.

  3. Still you have the matter of American lives being lost on the Lusitania thanks to unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany’s U-Boats. Also there was the matter of the Zimmerman Telegram which promised German military aid in invading the Southwest by Mexico. It’s unlikely that Taft could have avoided a declaration of war by diplomacy.

    • The Lusitania was carrying war material in violation of the agreement covering cruise ships. It was an excuse. The Zimmerman telegram was just a telegram. The public sentimant was split on the war—this wasn’t like WW II.

      • Sure, but the Germans did go to unrestricted submarine warfare, and they did that expecting it to lead to war with the United States. I think they made the bet that they could strangle England faster than we could recruit, train, and ship an army across the Atlantic. Didn’t work out too well for them, I’d say.

        • My point is that it wasn’t action, just words. You don’t send a whole country to war because of a proposal (and a wacky one) no matter how ominous it sounds. What has always annoyed me about the Zimmerman telegram is that plotting and espionage is always going one at some level. You pu;; one episode out without that context, and it sounds a lot more dire than it was. Thoes who were looking for an excuse to get the US into the war found the ZT convenient.

          If you win the Presidency with the motto, “He kept us out of the war,” I’d say you have an ethical obligation to try to keep us out of the war. A sub attack on anon-American ship and a leaked proposal is pretty thin provocation.

          • Good points. The British held onto the Zimmerman telegram for a good while — they thought it would push us into the war but needed the right moment. You would likely know better than I, but it seems to me that much of this would only work (from the British point of view) if they regarded Wilson as fundamentally pro-Allies, at least by 1917, and looking for reasons to do what he wanted. That is as opposed to someone who was fundamentally neutral and could be swayed either way. I’m also guessing that this would also account for the German high command’s expectation in early 1917 that they were likely going to provoke the U.S. into the war.

            I don’t know the degree of Anglo-phobia/philia of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft — that would be a key factor in judging whether the U.S. had a realistic chance of staying out of WWI (not whether they should have intervened, which is a separate issue). It doesn’t take as much prodding to push you in the direction you want to go in the first place.

          • I remember writing a paper in high school that was based on that slogan. I don’t recall exactly how I treated it, but I do recollect my teacher not really understanding the point I was trying to make.

            But yes, that campaign slogan — and also Chamberlain’s infamous words — came back to haunt those men.

      • And proof that the ship was carrying war matériel did not emerge for years after the war, though there were accusations at the time.

        Also there were German saboteurs in the country long before the 1917 entry, including some bent on engaging in biological attacks on U.S. soil and which successfully detonated the Black Tom explosion which damaged the Statue of Liberty.

        The terrific book, “Dark Invasion: 1915, Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America” goes into some detail about the counter-espionage team put together to try to stop the cell.

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