was a gloomy one at the White House. Just after Christmas it had been
noted that President Woodrow Wilson was ill, and pneumonia had been
diagnosed. Since then he had been getting steadily worse.
Part OneThat evening, he
struggled to say a few words, but could barely be understood and lapsed
into unconsciousness. He died in the small hours of Tuesday, January 2nd.
President Thomas R Marshall and the Democratic National Chairman, Vance
C McCormick, arranged a hasty meeting. With less than a week to go before
the Electoral College cast its votes, the Democratic ticket had to be
named in a hurry. No doubt, of course, who the presidential candidate must
be. At such short notice, it was far to late to look for anyone other than
Marshall, even if some rather wished they could. But he needed a
McCormick floated the name of William Gibbs McAdoo, son-in-law to the
late President. Marshall did not object aloud, but was not keen.
Remembering how the Wilson cabinet had snubbed him and ignored his
opinions (to the point where he had given up attending after a few months)
he had little fondness for it, and was in no hurry to favour any of its
members. To gain some thinking time, he insisted on a courtesy offer being
made to William Jennings Bryan, the party's elder statesman, even if
somewhat shopworn of late. "I don't suppose for a minute he'll accept.
After all, he was offered it in 1912, but he turned it down.When you've
run for President three times, Vice President is a bit too much of a come
down. But let's do it anyway".
Against his better judgement, Mc Cormick had acquiesced.
Bryan studied the message thoughtfully. Vice President was, indeed, a
rather anticlimactic note on which to end his career - and it was ending.
That was why they hadn't turned to him in 1912; the world was passing him
by. And yet - -. He had rejected the position in 1912, and that had now
proved a terrible mistake. Had he swallowed his pride and accepted, then
he, not Marshall, would now - -. Had the Sin of Pride cost him his last
chance for the office he had sought so long? He reached his decision.
The telegram came back within an hour. "Delighted to serve my party and
country in any way you wish. Accepted with thanks". McCormick groaned as
he read it, but Marshall was philosophic. "Well, I guess we're stuck with
him. And [with a chuckle] if I could do the job, I'm sure he can".
telegrams went out to advise the Democratic Electors. Despite some raised
eyebrows, they made no trouble; on January 8, Marshall and Bryan received
all of Wilson's 277 votes. The New York Times expressed a general feeling
in its editorial. "If it was felt, for whatever reason, that Mr Bryan must
be offered some post, the Vice Presidency is probably the one where he can
do least harm".
By the time the Electors met, Marshall had already made his first
gaffe. At Wilson's funeral, he spoke in glowing terms of the late
President's work for peace, and declared "I pledge myself that so long as
I am your President, never will any American be sent to war, unless an
invader's evil foot already stands upon our shore. Should that happen,
they will need their legs - and arms - for swimming". Wild rumours soon
took flight as to who had drafted those words, with Bryan as the principal
suspect, but the truth was more prosaic. Marshall had inadvertantly taken
the wrong paper from his briefcase, and rather than perform an undignified
rummage, chose to ad lib from a talk he'd given at another funeral, a
couple of years before. Unfortunately, it was that of a sailor killed in
Mexico, in the course of Mr Wilson's intervention there. When Edith Galt
Wilson learned of this, she was incensed. Taking his words as a slight on
her late husband, she never spoke to Marshall again.
Others were scarcely happier. In a quiet whisper to Colonel House,
Secretary of State Robert Lansing observed "That hick has just given away
our whole position on our maritime rights, before the President's even
House nodded. "I think I know how people must have felt when Andrew
Johnson took over from Lincoln. ("Yep", interjected Lansing, "another
alcoholic"1). And look at the way he's cut and run from Mexico,
without even talking to the Cabinet".
"No prizes for guessing who persuaded him" responded House. "For Pete's
sake, Bryan supported the Vera Cruz expedition in '14, but you'd never
guess it listening to him now. Still, small mercies. At least Roosevelt's
not here. That speech could have given him a heart attack". Ex-Presidents
Taft and Roosevelt had both been invited, of course. Taft had come, but TR
developed an illness which was widely assumed to be diplomatic.
"You should have heard what Ambassador Page told me when he was over
here last Summer" added Lansing. "You know, Marshall said he took care
never to read any of the papers the Allies or Germans put out, in case
they caused him to form an opinion and stop being neutral. Talk about a
“Indeed" responded House. "It is a tragedy".
House left Washington the next day. He had never held any official
position, and had no personal ties with the new President. Lansing also
departed, though not from choice. The pro forma resignation which he had
submitted, with the other Cabinet officers, on a change of President, had
been accepted, and Bryan was back at State for the next two months.
Marshall quickly explained that there was nothing personal in this. As
Vice-President Elect, Bryan was entitled to be first in line of
succession, for which purpose he needed to be Secretary of State until
March 4. Lansing wondered if that was all there was to it. So did many
others; but Marshall's explanation was good enough for the Senate, who
confirmed Bryan to what one newspaper described as "the sound of 192
shoulders all being shrugged at once" .
Count Johannes von Bernstorff felt his stomach knotting up as he
stepped out of the Embassy into the cab waiting to take him to the State
Department. He had warned his government again and again what a
declaration of Unrestricted Sumarine War might do, but declare it they
had, and now it fell to him to deliver the message. And at this of all
moments, when the accession of a new President offered the chance of a
fresh start in German-American relations. The Ambassador felt like
 Lansing was being rather mean. Marshall had indeed had a serious
drinking problem for almost twenty years, following the death of his
fiancée in 1878. However, following his 1896 marriage, his wife Lois had
persuaded him to take a drying out course, since which time he had been a
total abstainer. Ironically or appropriately, depending on one's vewpoint,
his signature would appear on the 18th Amendment in 1917.
"Mr President" Bryan asked "How many men were executed in Indiana
during your term as Governor there?"
"None, thank God". There was one man sentenced to hang, but he won his
appeal so I never had to reprieve him."
Part One"Would you say nobody
ever deserves to be hanged?"
"No. I expect all too many do. But I don't think the State should be in
the business of killing people".
"Exactly!" Bryan pressed home the point. "Yet at least the men who get
hanged are usually murderers or something almost as bad. The boys you'd
have to send to die in Europe mostly haven't committed any crime.
Not yet anyway".
"And the people who have died on all those ships the Germans sank.
American citizens about their lawful business. Women and children too. Do
I not owe them anything?"
"Of course, Sir. But you don't owe them mass murder. Aren't they a bit
like those guys who insist on going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? They
have a perfect legal right to do it, at least if they are over 21 and not
certified insane" He smiled faintly "Not yet anyway. But have they the
right to insist that another man endanger his own life to defend their
right to go over the Falls in a barrel? I don't really see it".
"And American seamen? Aren't they entitled to get on with their jobs?
If the Germans do what they say they are going to do, then our ships will
be getting sunk too, not just Allied ones". Must I allow that?"
"You can prevent it. Just order the Port Authorities not to clear
US-registered ships for destinations in the barred zone. If the Allies
want to buy from us, let them send their own ships. Ours can find work in
the Pacific or trading with South America. There's plenty of business on
those routes, now that the British are bringing every spare ship to
the North Atlantic". "But what about our maritime rights? The freedom of
the seas? President Wilson said - -". "Mr Wilson was a good man," said Bryan firmly "I admired him very much;
but I sometimes feel he was just a shade too legalistic. After all, if
there's a race riot on or something, any city Mayor can order citizens to
stay in their homes. That's an interference with their freedom, but it's
necessary in an emergency situation. That's what's going on in Europe just
now - a riot; probably the biggest riot ever. And the freedom to land your
country in a war by insisting on your right to wade into the thick of it
is just pushing your rights a teeny little step too far."1
"Mr Secretary, this is a break of diplomatic relations we are
considering. I have no intention of declaring war".
"It will come to that, Mr President. Breaking relations doesn't solve
anything. The Germans have gone too far to back down now, so if we break
relations and they carry on, what do we do next? You will have to take
another step, and what will that have to be?" "Arm our merchantmen? - -"
Marshall's voice quavered slightly, as if he himself saw the weakness of
the idea. "And then what? The u-boats will torpedo without warning, so our ships
can't just fire in self-defense. They will have to attack a submarine on
sight. For all practical purposes, a war will have begun. How long before we
have to make it official?
"There'll be an uproar. Roosevelt, Lodge, lots of them. They'll say I'm
betraying the country. Selling out to Germany".
"Mr President, they aren't worth listening to." Bryan's voice turned
suddenly harsh. "They think the Sacred Book lies. They think vengeance is
the exclusive property of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and Mr Henry Cabot
Lodge. I suppose we must give Roosevelt his due. If he gets his war at
least he'll fight in it. But you can bet your life Lodge won't. He'll sit
snug at home while other Americans die for his policies. And that's the
way most of
them will behave. They crawl along the ground".
"Still, I'd go easy with that line about Niagara Falls. They'll say
you're just jealous 'cause there aren't any waterfalls in Nebraska".
Bryan dutifully chuckled at the President's joke, but even to him the
humour sounded a bit forced.
President Marshall sat silent in the deserted Oval office. In a way, he
was relieved that Bryan had gone. A good man and a good Christian, there
could be no doubt about that. But was he being a bit too narrow on this?
Certainly, Lodge and Roosevelt were loudmouths, but even loudmouths can
occasionally be right. He thought of his father, back in the 1860s,
threatened with excommunication from their local Presbyterian Church for
refusing to join the Republicans. What had he said? "I am willing to take
my chances on Hell, but never on the Republican Party". Yet that hadn't
stopped him being a firm Union man during the Civil War, even if it had
meant supporting the policy of a Republican Administration. Some things
were bigger than party. In the end, he must act for the nation as a whole,
and Mr Bryan represented only part of it - maybe not even the largest
part. He hoped it would never come to a split. Their common faith made
Bryan a kindred spirit2. But his new responsibilities were
wider than that, and if worst came to worst, at some point there might
have to be a parting of the ways.
But must it be yet? To keep American ships out of the barred zone would
indeed involve a swallwing of pride; but the Bible was pretty clear on
what pride was. And it wasn't as though the Allies were all that saintly.
Some of their blockade measures went far beyond traditional international
law, and he suspected that these blacklists of theirs weren't as purely
war related as they claimed. Were they indeed out to monopolise world
markets after the war? No, America owed them nothing; this was purely a
question of what it
He flinched slightly at the sudden pain in his chest. These had been
getting worse lately. Maybe Lois was right and he should see a doctor. But
what could the doctor do?
Probably only tell him to rest, and that was impossible. He had just
too much on his plate.
OK, he finally decided. He would give Mr Bryan's approach one more go.
But there would have to be something more than words. And it would
probably have to be the last time.
Ambassador Bernstorff was pensive as he left the State Department
It had been a huge relief as he listened to Secretary Bryan's words,
and suddenly realised that, having come there resigned to the return of
his passports, he was not to be going home after all - at least not yet.
The other business - the seizure of German ships currently trapped in US
ports - would have to be protested, of course, but could be lived with.
Fortunately, he had already given orders for them to be rendered unfit for
service, so they would be no immediate use to the Americans, whatever the
future might hold. So far, so good.
But, he uneasily knew, it was only time he had gained. For all his
efforts to educate them, his masters in Berlin just did not appreciate the
peril. They were taking risks that made him shudder. That message to
Mexico, for instance. God grant it never leaked out. The consequences
hardly bore thinking about.
Mr Bryan was a strong voice for peace, but he was not in final charge.
President Marshall was, and that man was unpredictable - pulled every
which way, and far out of his depth There could be no certainty as to
which way he would ultimately jump.
Yes, Bernstorff thought sombrely, this was only a reprieve. And the
future still looked dark.
From his office window, Bryan watched the German Ambassador depart. Yet
his thoughts were less about Bernstorff than about Marshall.
He was deeply afraid for the President. While accustomed to the normal
rough and tumble of politics, he had never before come under this much
pressure. Bryan recalled the ferocious 1896 campaign , when he had so
often been lambasted as an "incendiary", "enemy of civilisation" and
worse. A terrible experience, but in a way it had been good for him. As a
result, he was inoculated against such attacks in a way that Marshall was
not. How much more could the President take?
As Colonel Roosevelt might have put it, the time was coming to stand at
Armageddon and do battle for the Lord. And he suspected that this might be
a battle for Tom Marshall's soul.
[to be continued]
 For Bryan's views on the submarine question, see the following NYT
articles. The Niagara Falls analogy is my own, but not out of line with
things he went on record with.
 Marshall and Bryan were both Presbyterians, though not of the most
austere kind. In He Almost Changed The World, David J Bennett relates a
story of how during WW1, Marshall was approached by a Presbyterian Army
Chaplain, concerned that he might be unfrocked if he granted Extreme
Unction on the battlefield to mortally wounded non-Presbyterian soldiers.
The Vice-President responded "Well, in that case I guess we both leave the