Jeremy Perron's Reviews > Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920

Pivotal Decades by John J. Cooper
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Aug 23, 12

Read in March, 2011

Now my march through the ages brings me to the early decades of the twentieth century. It was an era of dynamic political leadership and technological innovation of a maturing nation trying to figure out its destiny. This was a time where old ideas were being challenged and America was going to fight in an a great international conflict known as World War I. In the aftermath of the war the United States would decide if it was going to play a leadership role in the world. And that decision would to go in the opposite direction of world leadership, preferring instead retreat and withdrawal.

The century began with the reelection of the last Civil War veteran to occupy the White House. William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, would win his re-election against William Jennings Bryan. Months into his new term, McKinley would be assassinated, and his cowboy vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, would assume the office.

One of the main themes of Copper's book is how rich America was in leadership during this time period. Each political party produced an incredible president who would help reshape the nation and the office of the presidency. The Republicans produced Theodore Roosevelt by accident. Placed in the vice presidency in an effort to get rid of him, Roosevelt would become our most dynamic president ever. No vice president who assumed the presidency had ever even been re-nominated, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 would go on to win a term in his own right due to his incredible performance in the White House. The Democrats produced Woodrow Wilson an academic who gained the office because of a scism within the Republican Party between Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson had studied the American political system his entire life and was about to make theory reality. He would bring back the tradition of presidents delivering the State of the Union address in person*. He would hold regular press conferences and his success with the Congress in producing legislation that was lasting, such as the Federal Reserve, dwarfed that of his predecessors.

"It was ironic that Roosevelt resembled Jefferson in his intellectual range and depth. There was no predecessor whose legacy and influence, particularly on states' rights and the support of limited governmental responsibilities, the new president disliked more. As a self-proclaimed Hamiltonian, Roosevelt meant to exalt the power and prestige of the federal government. As a self-anointed heir of Lincoln and Civil War Republicanism, he yearned to preserve his party's fidelity to nationalism and centralization. But the resemblance to Jefferson was more than intellectual. Roosevelt likewise quickly became a patron of science, scholarship, art, and literature. Prominent among the Roosevelts' frequent and well-publicized guests were the painters John La Farge and Frederic Remington, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the historian James Ford Rhodes, and the Western novelist Owen Wister. The president promoted scientific research thought the Smithsonian Institution, which had been founded in 1846, and boosted public art by commissioning Saint-Gaudens to redesign the nation's coins. In all, through his public pronouncements, associations, and private encouragement and criticism, Roosevelt made himself a cultural arbiter such as the United States had rarely seen before in a president." (p.36)

Even the president who served in the middle of the two giants was a great intellectual named William H. Taft. Despite being a one-term president who was incapable of using the pulpit of the presidency as his two rivals could, Taft not only continued with the trust busting started by Roosevelt but he also had surpassed him. Taft even beat John D. Rockefeller's great machine, Standard Oil. One of the reasons Presidents Roosevelt and Taft had been so successful is they did not take permenant sides when it came to management and labor. They sided with whoever they felt was in the right.

"The greed of the rich and the envy of the poor repelled him equally, and during the 1890s he had repeatedly feared incipient social revolution. Roosevelt had then stood unhesitatingly with pro-business Republicans against radicals and Bryanite Democrats, whom he had luridly likened to the zealots of the French Revolution. Yet he had never believed that the cure for ills caused by the growth of big business and industry lay in choosing sides. In 1894, Roosevelt had told his friend Henry Cabot Lodge that to control mobs he would send troops who were 'not over-scrupulous about bloodshed; but I know that banker, the merchant and the railroad king well too, and they also need education and sound chastisement.'" (p.37-8)

Cooper points out that in addition to the presidents, on the next level on the American political ladder, the men who lost the presidential elections were great men as well. William Jennings Bryan was a legend in his own day who had helped reshape the way presidential candidates campaign. Charles Evans Hughes would go on to become chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Only Al Parker, who was nominated in 1904, did not go on to become a legend. There were also incredible senators and governors during this period such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Robert La Follette. Among the African-American community men such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were continuing the debate that they had begun against each other and for the African-American community in the 1890s. And there were also women such as Jane Addams who was a pioneer in the area of social work.

Copper also discuss the average American whose life was increasingly changing because of technology. The rise of America's past time and the celebrity status of baseball greats such as Babe Ruth and the more infamous 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson, who was involved in the Black Sox scandal that tainted the 1919 World Series.

But the biggest event of these decades was World War I. America tried to stay out of the war 'over there' for the longest time but unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman note would tip America into the conflict. Led by their commander, General 'Blackjack' Pershing, American soldiers would conduct themselves valiantly. Having to go through the horror of war they helped push the tide and were ultimately responsible for victory over the Empire of the Kaiser.

"But combat was not an unrelieved horror. Because most American troops saw action in the summer and fall counteroffensives of 1918, they experienced the exhilaration of a war of movement. World War I produced its share of colorful tales of fighting and inspiring stories of heroism, such as Corporal, later, Sergeant York. Equally celebrated heroes had already emerged from the ranks of aviators. The minuscule but highly publicized air war had long provided both the movement missing on the ground and the opportunity for knight-like individual combat. Before 1917, enough Americans had joined the French air arm to form the nucleus of the Army Air Corps in France. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a former automobile racer who went to France as General Pershing's chauffeur and learned to fly there, downed twenty-six German aircraft and later became a pioneer in civilian aviation." (p.282)

Instead of the America embracing its role as a leading world power, the United States would ultimately shrink from its responsibility. Woodrow Wilson would fail at what had mattered to him most, the League of Nations. This travesty would do a great deal of damage to America's next generation. John Milton Cooper does a great job telling the story of the early twentieth century America. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

*Presidents Washington and Adams had done it, but Jefferson had ended the practice.
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