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Chapter of Accidents; How Bryan Returned From The Dead by Mike Stone

Author says: what if William Jennings Bryan made an unlikely political comeback? The thread can be read on the Today in Alternate History web site. Please note that the opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).

On March 3rd 1917,

Please click the icon to Stumble Upon the Today in Alternate History web site.on this day Senator Henry Cabot Lodge looked briefly over his letter, and reread his words .

"- - - there may be no sufficiently flagrant case of the destruction of an American ship and American lives to compel war - -".

For a moment he hesitated. Was that coming on too strong? To express a positive hope that American sailors and passengers be killed was getting near the knuckle. Even Colonel Roosevelt had never gone so far.

Part ThreeOn the other hand, why not? He believed that war with Germany was necessary, and accepting war involved accepting casualties. What matter if some of them were incurred before the declaration of war rather than after? They were all dying in the same cause, and stopping German autocracy was a worthwhile one. So be it.

He signed the letter and put it in the envelope1.


The atmosphere in Washington grew hotter by the day. Particular excitement focused on the choice of a new Secretary of State, to take over when Bryan became Vice-President in March. Passions were so high that serious questions were raised as to whether any nominee could be confirmed. A strong isolationist would run into ferocious opposition from the War Hawks, while anyone acceptable to them was likely to be unacceptable to the other side. And someone in the middle could well be rejected by both. In the end, Marshall avoided this humiliation by appointing Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama, trusting that partisanship would not lead the Senators to turn on one of their own. The tactic worked, though with far more nays than were usual for such a routine vote. The appointment had been supported by Bryan, but political wiseacres were betting that the victory would be his last, and that once buried in the Vice Presidency, his influence would rapidly decline.


Lodge opened Colonel Roosevelt's letter of reply. A grim smile crossed his features as he read it "It is clear that Bryan and Marshall are yellow all over in the presence of danger, either physically or morally, and will accept any insult or injury at the hands of a fighting man. Of course, it costs them nothing if the insult or injury is to the country, because I don't believe they are capable of understanding what the words, 'pride of country' mean. - - - as for La Follette, he is an unhung traitor, and if the war should come, he ought to be hung - -". I shall say as much in my next speech and let them sue me if they dare2"

Lodge nodded to himself in agreement. As TR was fond of putting it, the Administration's attitude was akin to that of a man whose wife had been insulted in the street, considering the matter unimportant as long as the insulters didn't actually come into the house to do it. They were a total bunch of eunuchs. No, his original letter hadn't gone too far at all.


Count Bernstorff stared blankly into space, stunned by the news.

How could this have happened? He recalled the sense of foreboding with which he had first learned of this treaty with Mexico, and how vital that the Americans should not learn of it. Yet now they had learned. Somehow (Now? Betrayal? A broken code?) British Intelligence had obtained a copy - and at once given it to the anglophile US Ambassador. It would inflame opinion from coast to coast. And the foreign Minister hadn't even had the sense to deny it. Even if not everyone believed him, that might have blunted the impact to some extent. But to openly admit that it was genuine - - -.

Bernstorff wondered if it would be more dignified to ask for his passports now, rather than wait for the Americans to make the decision for him. But of course he could not without authority from Berlin. He could only sit helplessly by as events rolled inexorably on.


Monday, March 5, was bitterly cold. The formalities of inauguration duly took place, and after a few words the President headed back indoors. The brevity of his speech attracted some comment. Was he unwell? Or had he been unable to come up with anything that would not antagonise one faction or another? One thing alone was certain. He could not sit on the fence for any length of time. He had to choose a side, and there was less and less doubt in most minds as to which side it would have to be.

[to be concluded]

[1] The quoted words are from a real letter of Lodge to Roosevelt, Feb 13, 1917, quoted in Seward W Livermore Woodrow Wilson and the War Congress 1916-18 Ch 1, Note 21. I would never have dared to invent them.

[2] Taken from a letter of Roosevelt to Lodge, Feb 20, 1917, reproduced in The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol 8.

March 5th, 1917, on this day Bryan's face was grim as he read the newspaper articles1. It was mostly him they denounced, rather than Marshall, but it was the President they truly aimed at, increasingly hopeful that he would come over to their side.

He scowled at the thought of that New York Times editorial, chiding him for never mentioning liberty in his speeches. They were fine ones to talk. Should war come, they would be happy enough to draft young men into a war that was none of theirs, and imprison them should they dare to object. Some people's liberty evidently counted for more than others'. The old, old story. But he was more hurt by the attitude of those New Jersey Methodists, who had refused to express even the desire for a peaceful solution to the crisis. How could Christians do that? And some of his fellow Presbyterians were hardly better.

Part FourAnd they were playing the economic card as well. The papers were full of stuff about goods piling up on wharves and wheat piled up in railroad sidings, stranded because ships no longer dared to sail. Actually, this would soon have been happening anyway, now that the Allies had no collateral left to provide security for loans. They had tried to raise unsecured ones, but even the Wilson Administration and the Federal Reserve Board had not been that reckless. The Allies had run out of other people's money - unless they could get the financial taps reopened by bringing America into the conflict. But were the eastern papers explaining that to their readership? In a pig's eye. It was so much easier just to scream for war.

"Nothing new under the sun" he thought. It was as if he had been swept back twenty years, to those passionate days of '96, when workers who might have voted for him were warned by their employers that if he were elected, they "needn't bother coming to work tomorrow", because his victory would put the nation out of business. Scare tactics then, scare tactics now. Roosevelt had even dismissed his offer of a debate[2]. They had never relied on honesty when dealing with him.

He had always opposed such loans, with or without security. He recalled that Cabinet meeting, back in 1915, when they were rattling on about the British blockade, and the broader or narrower definition of contraband. He had told them then "Money is the worst of all contrabands because it commands all the rest". They hadn't listened, of course. The lure of easy profits had been too strong. And now they, or others like them, were trying to maintain those profits by stampeding the country into Armageddon.

Not that the Germans were any help. For all his piety, he had to bite back a swear word when he thought of them. At times, their behaviour made them seem like their own worst enemies - even giving Lodge and Roosevelt serious competition there - in their readiness to do precisely the wrong thing at crucial moments. This note to Mexico was bad enough, all but cutting the ground from under Bryan's feet. And the Laconia business couldn't have come at a worse time. Even his stomach had turned over at the news.

Yet did it really invalidate what he had always said? After all, hadn't the British themselves shown that they agreed with him - in deed if not in word. Their authorities at Halifax had taken women and children off a liner setting sail into the danger zone - but three American women, whose government imposed no such rule, had been allowed to remain aboard [3]. And had the ladies' journey really been essential? Could they not have waited a while, till the carnage was over?

He had suggested action similar to Canada's, but Marshall could not be persuaded, feeling it a limitation too far, and possibly beyond his powers without legislative authority which might not be obtainable. Bryan wondered if this was the real reason. He sensed, uneasily, that the President was staring to weaken.

It was as he had feared. Tom Marshall and himself were similar, but not the same. Those three hard fought campaigns had tempered his own steel, putting him through a Refiner's Fire that Marshall had not known. He, Bryan, had been tempered, given that extra bit of strength to stand alone, and recognise those moments when everyone really was out of step except himself. Marshall also recognised them in theory, but found it much harder in practice. Easy-going and keen to get along with folk, he was yielding to that sneaky voice that says "They can't all be wrong, can they?" Bryan could see whose voice it really was, but Marshall couldn't. Tragically, that decent but weak man was being tested beyond his strength.


The President felt sick. He had hoped that relief from the tensions would come on Inauguration Day, when Congress would go into recess. Legally, the new one would not convene until December, unless Marshall chose to summon it before. But that was now unavoidable. The war hawks had filibustered important items of legislation, preventing their enactment during the present session. One of them was the annual Army Bill. If that were not re-enacted by June 30, there would be no funds for the US Army. So Congress would be back in June at latest, to pass those measures, and to also do - who knew what?[4]

And his brilliant stroke of putting Underwood in at State was threatening to backfire. The Senator had raised hackles on all sides of the political spectrum, by his speech defending the proposed German alliance with Mexico. His point - that the agreement was only to take effect in the event of a US declaration of war on Germany, and was not a plan of attack - was technically correct, but hardly what the nation - still goggling at the notion of three of its sovereign states being offered to a foreign power - wanted to hear just now. It was universally agreed that had Underwood made the speech before his confirmation vote, he would have been rejected, Senatorial courtesy or no. But what to do? Marshall would look ridiculous were he to dismiss the man only days after appointing him.

For a crazy moment, he had even thought of suppressing the telegram altogether, at least till the Congressional Recess. But, apart from the obvious wrongness of deceiving the American people in such a way, it would never have worked. Ambassador Page was a Wilson man, who had contempt for Marshall, and owed him no political debts. He would have found a way to leak the note, and if he hadn't the British surely would. Even Bryan and Underwood had agreed that there was no alternative to publication.

And the news about the submarine war had taken, if it were possible, an even uglier turn. The liner Laconia had been sunk in the Western approaches, and two American women were among the dead. A mother and daughter, they had been close friends of the widowed Edith Galt Wilson. In a cruel twist, they had both come through the sinking - only to die of exposure in the lifeboat. Yes, he knew all Bryan's arguments, and well reasoned they were. But he didn't feel reasonable now. He just kept seeing those women freezing slowly to death. And did their lives not count because they weren't on an American ship at the time. A government who could order such things was a government of brutes, and was it not indeed a government of cowards which left the victims to their fate - whatever ship they were on?

Marshall's eyes burned. Far in the background, he yet heard the still small voice of a Vice President - newly succeeded to the White House - who had told the American people he would never call them to war till an invader's foot was actually planted on their soil. But that voice was growing fainter now, drowned out by the calls to duty on all sides, and the cries of dying women.

Bryan would be here in a short time. He had begged to see the President urgently, and after their closeness over the last two months, Marshall could not deny him. But it was surely too late. Events were acquiring a momentum of their own, and he was being swept along. Maybe they were going over Niagara Falls, but the President could see no way back. He wondered if he had made a mistake in granting this interview. Even now, might Bryan's silver voice sway him to the other course? But he did not think so. Within a few hours, Count Bernstorff would be on his way home, and from there it was only too plain where the path led. Wildly, he thought for a second of offering Bryan his resignation - "Take this cup from me!" but knew he could not do it. If he did that, he really would be the coward that Roosevelt and others were calling him, and how was it better to let Bryan steer America on a course with which he, Marshall, did not truly believe, than it would be to take that course himself?

Perhaps the summons to Bernstorff should be issued now. Then he could tell Bryan, apologetically, that the die was already cast. That too, felt shameful, but the temptation was too strong. He just could not bear any more of this. He sat up straighter, and began to raise his arm. But as he did so, the chest pains suddenly returned, fiercer than he had ever known them. He paused in his chair, waiting for them to ease, as they always had. But they did not. They grew stronger still, and Marshall suddenly realised he could not see properly. The room was growing dim around him. Frantically, he stretched out his hand, clawing for the bell which would summon his staff.

He never reached it


They found the President's body twenty minutes later, when Bryan arrived at the White House, and frantically called his doctor, who concluded that Marshall had suffered a massive coronary; his first, his last. Probably brought on by the strain of recent days. [5]

But Bryan had his own opinions on the matter, and felt the bile rising as he thought of them. The medical men could put what they liked on the certificate, but he knew the real cause of death. It was Lodge and Roosevelt, those vile Republicans, and the rest of their pack. Their cruel attacks on this good man, who had sought only to save young lives, had finally been too much for him. The warmongers' unrelenting storm of abuse had, quite literally, broken Mr Marshall's heart.

Dimly, as from somewhere far in the background, Bryan could hear a voice telling him he was wrong to be so partisan. After all, the Wilson Cabinet, Democrats to a man. had also counselled war. And the Germans too, he knew, were not exactly blameless. But he was in no mood to listen. He burned inside, with fury at those who had hounded Marshall to death; Marshall, who had never sought to harm any man, but to help all. "You did it" he thought, over and over again. "You might as well have murdered him".

Those wicked men had killed the President as surely as if they had thrust a knife through him. No, not a knife - a bayonet, one of those things they wished to train young Americans to use, so that they could murder other boys far away in Flanders or France. Whatever crocodile tears they might shed in their non-existent hearts, they would care no more for this death than for all the others who would have to die in Europe in pursuit of their goals. They must not succeed. No doubt they were able men in their way - Roosevelt certainly was - but morally they were lower than vermin.

Yet was he himself any better? After all, 20 years ago he had supported war with Spain, and more recently, as Secretary of State, had defended Mr Wilson's invasion of Mexico. "Yes", he thought, "I am a sinner too; but never more". Whatever anyone might say or do, from now on he saw his duty clear. The campaign for war had cost Mr Marshall's life, and if worst came to worst might even cost his own; but no others.

And in June, when the current Army appropriation ran out? Well, he thought, it would only be for six months, and there would likely be Americans willing to lend money to tide things over that long. But if not, too bad: The Navy and the National Guard would have to hold the ring. It wasn't as if the country were in any imminent danger of attack, and should she be the money would be voted fast enough. But short of that, and though the heavens fell, Congress would not meet before December.

Ironic, this; he had always been against a standing army, preferring militia instead, and been denounced for it as an idealistic fool. Now these gentlemen on the Hill, in their crude attempt at blackmail, were virtually imposing that policy in spite of him. The ways of the Lord were strange indeed - -.

He looked down at Marshall's Bible, still open on the desk, at the thirteenth Chapter of the Book of Job. Bryan read verse 15 "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. I will maintain mine own ways before him". Yes indeed. For what he would do or not do in the next eight months, Congress might impeach him in December. Some fanatics might even seek his life. Well, let them. He knew what he had to do. Thank Heaven the Senate had already voted to confirm Oscar Underwood as the new Secretary of State. He would make a good successor should the worst befall.

"Tom". he whispered. "Tom, I always wanted to be President; but I never wanted to get it like this. Not by a good man like you being driven to your grave. As God is my witness, I never wanted that".

Bryan felt something drip onto his hand, and noticed, for the first time, the tears which were streaming down his face. He frantically wiped them away. For pity's sake, the Chief Justice would be here in a few minutes. He couldn't receive him in this state. He had to pull himself together.

He had come at last to the office he craved, though in the way he would least have wished. He had wanted it from the people, the plain folk whose champion he had sought to be. He never thought to get it by a quirk of the electoral system, followed by a tragic, undeserved death, after the people had rejected him three times. But it was too late to worry about that. The Secretary of State (the only alternative) would be no more the people's choice than he. The time for such thoughts had been two months ago, when that telegram came. In accepting the Vice-Presidency, he had put his hand to the plough, accepting the responsibilities which went with it - Presidential succession included. If the people found him wanting, they could judge him in 1920. For now he must do his duty, however heartbreaking the manner in which it had fallen on him.

And yet, for all his bitter grief, he felt exaltation as well. He had not been so animated since those far off days of 1896, when the world was young. Yes, he had ample stomach for this fight. The war profiteers were not going to crucify mankind upon another Cross of Gold. They were already doing so in Europe, but that was beyond his power. The European boys he could not save. But the American ones he would - even against the will of some of them - so long as he had breath.

* * * * *

Chief Justice Edward D White stepped forward. He too, was trying hard to compose himself. It was, he supposed, an event that would put him in the record books: the first Chief Justice - the first anyone - to swear in two Presidents on the same day. Not to mention Bryan's own. His record for the shortest Vice-Presidency in American history (six hours, for Pete's sake!) was likely to stand for a very long time indeed. But it was a shattering blow all the same. And what did the future hold? Bryan was likely to be even more of a wild card than Marshall [ 6 ]. Still, he had a duty to perform.

"Do you, William Jennings Bryan, solemnly swear?"

"I, William Jennings Bryan, do solemnly swear - -"


[1] The sites below give examples of the OTL attacks on Bryan, which TTL would have been at least veiled attacks on Marshall as well, and denunciation of opponents of war a "traitors".-. OTL they weren't all on the same day, but I have assumed that butterfly effects might have changed the dates of at least some.






[2] See http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9F07E2DF143AE433A25756C0A9659C946696D6CF

[3] See NYT article at http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9904E6D7173AE433A25752C0A9659C946696D6CF

[4 ]See article at http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A01E3D6173AE433A25757C0A9659C946696D6CF

[5]OTL, Thomas R Marshall died of a heart attack on 1 June 1925. It apparently came quite without warning, and the Indianapolis News reported that Marshall "was sitting up in bed reading the Bible when the fatal attack took him".
I have no information about the state of his health in 1917, but heart disease can sometimes be present for many years before it kills its victim. General Robert E Lee, frex, is believed to have suffered a heart attack shortly before Gettysburg - more than seven years before he would finally die from the same cause. So it is at least conceivable that Marshall (who in 1917 was 63, the same age as Lee at the time of the latter's death) could have suffered such an attack many years before his OTL one.

[6] Chief Justice White was a Conservative, appointed in 1910 by President Taft, and would certainly have had misgivings about a Bryan Presidency.

Mike Stone, Guest Historian of Today in Alternate History, a Daily Updating Blog of Important Events In History That Never Occurred Today. Follow us on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter.

Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items explore that possibility. Possibilities such as America becoming a Marxist superpower, aliens influencing human history in the 18th century and Teddy Roosevelt winning his 3rd term as president abound in this interesting fictional blog.


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