How the Breakdown of One Relationship Changed the Course of World History
Just 3,800 votes in California – one vote per precinct – separated the winner and the loser of the closest and most important Presidential election of the 20th century. The outcome can be traced right back to the breakdown of a single relationship between two great men on one fateful day in August, 1916. It can be reasonably argued that the consequences of the 1916 election played a large role in Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany.
In 1916, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, one of America’s most educated Presidents, was up for re-election after a fruitful first term. Among his many accomplishments, Wilson had reformed the United States' chaotic banking system, creating the Federal Reserve System. He had removed international taxes and tariffs that had crippled our economy, and spear-headed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and badly-needed child labor reform legislation.
The Republicans of 1916 drafted an intellectual equal to Wilson in the person of Charles Evans Hughes. The son of a Baptist minister, Hughes was a child prodigy and brilliant lawyer. By his early 40s he had established a solid reputation as an honest reformer through cleaning up rampant corruption in the utilities and insurance industries of his day.
In 1907, at age 45, Hughes was elected Governor of New York, defeating the father of “yellow journalism,” the venerable William Randolph Hearst. Three years later, President Taft appointed Hughes to the U.S. Supreme Court. In stark contrast to Wilson’s overt presidential ambitions, Hughes had not sought out ANY of these positions – Governor, Supreme Court Justice, or President
With great reluctance, Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court to become the Republican standard-bearer in the 1916 Presidential election.
Meanwhile, World War I raged in Europe. President Wilson pledged neutrality, with the goal of keeping the United States uninvolved as long as possible. In fact, the theme of the 1916 Democratic convention was “He kept us out of war.” Hughes, on the other hand, advocated a more proactive stance with an earlier entry into the war.
History records that Wilson narrowly defeated Hughes by 23 Electoral College votes in the national Presidential election. With its 13 Electoral College votes, California turned out to be the pivotal state.
Early in the campaign, Hughes had what was considered an insurmountable lead over Wilson in the state of California. However, one fateful day in August, 1916, Charles Evans Hughes chose not to meet with Hiriam Johnson, the Republican Governor, while both of them were staying at the very same hotel.
Why did Hughes snub Johnson? Perhaps it was hot. Perhaps Hughes was tired. Perhaps Hughes was irritated by Johnson’s more liberal version of Republicanism. Perhaps it was an attack of Satan himself. For whatever reason, Hughes chose not to meet with Johnson that day, and Johnson took great offense. The slight was widely reported by newspapers in California. And as a consequence of this solitary event, Johnson refused to help Hughes in California, and Hughes lost substantial voter support in the state.
Most historians believe that if Hughes had not slighted Johnson, Hughes would have carried California as originally predicted. California’s 13 Electoral College votes would have made Charles Evans Hughes the 29th President of the United States (13 more for Hughes, 13 less for Wilson, results in a victory of +3 for Hughes.)
One event, one relationship breakdown, one vote per precinct in California, monumentally changed the course of history – for the ENTIRE World.
In his second term, as part of the conclusion of World War I, Wilson championed his pet idea, the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations. Unfortunately, because the United States was such a late entrant to World War I, Wilson was in very weak negotiating position. In addition, the key Allied leaders felt no personal warmth towards Wilson. He was viewed as arrogant and inflexible, personality changes undoubtedly caused, in part, by “mini-strokes” he periodically suffered, starting at least as early as 1912.
In spite of his lack of influence with the victorious allied countries, Wilson was utterly determined to win international support for his beloved League of Nations. Unable to influence world leaders towards the value of the League on its own merits, Wilson decided to make a deal with the devil.
Against his better judgment and his own principles, Wilson agreed to support the French position for massive reparations on the German people - a crushing tax to punish the Germans for the destruction of World War I. In return for Wilson’s support for these unworkable reparations, France and the other key Allied leaders agreed to include the League of Nation as an integral part of the Treaty of Versailles.
Historians unanimously agree that this massive tax on the German people ruined the German economy of the 1920s. The human suffering this caused was the single greatest factor that fueled Adolph Hitler’s meteoric rise to power in Germany.
Sadly, perhaps in part due to diminished judgment from the mini-strokes, Wilson refused to include a single Republican senator in the process of negotiating the Versailles treaty. As a consequence, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to approve both the Treaty as well as Wilson’s League of Nations.
This enraged Wilson. He decided to conduct a national tour designed to garner public support for the League of Nations. During that arduous trip, Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in September, 1919.
For 17 months he lay paralyzed, near death, unable to see even his own cabinet members, much less the Vice President. In one of the most closely guarded secrets of modern times, virtually all of the United States government had no idea how gravely ill their President was. The nation simply drifted under the stewardship of Wilson’s wife, Edith, who many historians consider to be American’s first female President. Edith Wilson’s only formal training was in music.
In December, 1920, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work on the League of Nations. He was too ill to personally accept the award. Less than five years later, he died, a recluse, embittered by the knowledge that his greatest dream, the League of Nations, remained unapproved by the United States Senate.
Had Charles Evan Hughes won the 1916 Presidential Election, how might have history been different?
As one of the few honest Cabinet members of the corrupt Harding administration that succeeded Wilson, Secretary of State Hughes worked to reduce the onerous reparations required of Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. This effort turned out to be “too little, too late,” but it does show that Hughes would have been unlikely to support the French in punishing the German people so ruinously in the first place.
Plus, with Charles Evans Hughes as President, the United States would have become involved in World War I much sooner. Doing so would have greatly increased the United States’ stature at the conclusion of the war, because the United States would have been viewed as more of an equal partner in the struggle. And as his subsequent service would show, in contrast to Wilson, Hughes clearly had all his mental faculties and was quite winsome. In fact, about two years after the Treaty of Versailles, Hughes negotiated a worldwide naval disarmament treaty that made the United States the dominant naval power in the world for over a decade.
Later, Hughes served with distinction as a World Court Judge. In 1930, President Hoover reappointed Hughes to the Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice. Legal historians consider Hughes to be one of the nation’s finest Chief Justices. Hughes served during pivotal years of the Supreme Court’s history, when the high court moved from being merely a defender of property rights, to defending the civil liberties Americans enjoy today.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Hughes cast the deciding votes in favor of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, an agenda actively resisted by four of the Supreme Court’s nine justices. Had Hughes not supported FDR, today the Supreme Court would have 15 members. Expecting another Supreme Court defeat, Roosevelt had planned to add six more progressive justices to deal with an obstinate Supreme Court that had blocked most of his key depression-fighting job creation programs.
A more reasonable Treaty of Versailles, negotiated by a more powerful and flexible President, would have likely prevented much postwar suffering in Germany, suffering which ultimately swept Hitler to power. (A lesson heeded by the Marshall Plan after World War II.)
These facts of history are a powerful example of the so-called “butterfly effect.” The breakdown of a relationship, which occurred in one fateful evening in August, 1916, arguably set in motion a chain of events that, in the end, brought Adolph Hitler to power.
Food for thought for all of us, as we consider relationship-making (or relationship-breaking) events that occur almost daily in each of our lives.