The Most Important Election in American History and How it Relates to Veterans Day

At the outset, I’ll just tell you straight-up what the most important election was: the 1912 presidential race, which pitted incumbent William Howard Taft (R) against Woodrow Wilson (D) and spoiler third-party candidate, former Republican, former president, Theodore Roosevelt (P). The election ended with Wilson winning after the Republican vote was split among supporters of TR and Taft. Had things gone just a bit differently, Veterans Day would not exist.

Some background. Roosevelt came into office in 1901 following the assassination of McKinley. He went on to be wildly popular, easily taking the 1904 presidential election. Unfortunately, he made a promise to not run again after that (this was back when he would have been allowed to, if he wanted), and so he did not run in 1908. Instead he arranged for his friend and protege, Taft, to run.

Who's the white chief of state that's a hit with all the ladies? TAFT! Daaaamn right!

Who’s the white chief of state that’s a hit with all the ladies? TAFT! Daaaamn right!

Taft (shut your mouth! But I’m talkin’ about Taft!), was the former governor of the Philippines, former governor of Cuba, former US solicitor general, Secretary of War, circuit court judge, etc, and was therefore reasonably qualified for the job. The real problem was that he wasn’t that interested in it. What he really wanted was to be on the Supreme Court, something he accomplished later on in life. But his wife wanted him to be president, so he went for it. Under TR’s tutelage, he was elected in 1908.

The two men, however, quickly had a falling-out. Roosevelt was not pleased by the way Taft handled the government and said some frankly rather hurtful and dickish things about Taft. Taft became more and more unhappy in the job, but he ran in 1912, mostly, from what I tell, because it was expected of him. Roosevelt, however, was so angered by Taft’s performance as president, and so longed to be back in office, that he threw his hat into the ring, becoming one of the few former presidents to try and get their old job back.

Wilson was, on paper, far less qualified than his two competitors. He’d been president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey and…well, not that much else. He was intelligent and competent, and went on to be a decent enough president.

Roosevelt’s entry into the race changed things dramatically. He was unable to get the Republican party nomination, and so ran as a Progressive candidate. This meant a three-way race, and as many of us remember from 2000, what mostly happens in those isn’t that the third-party candidate wins; it’s that the third-party candidate tears away votes from the major party candidate that he or she is most similar to. In 2000, this meant that people who otherwise might have voted for Gore instead voted for Nader. In 1912, it meant that people who might have otherwise voted for Roosevelt voted for Taft, thus giving Wilson the election.

Oh, Woodrow...

Oh, Woodrow…

Now why does this matter to Veterans Day? Wilson assumed office in 1913, allow Taft to heave a sigh of relief and go back to playing golf while waiting for his chance to get onto the Supreme Court. This also meant that as storm clouds gathered over Europe, Wilson was the one in the White House. When World War I began in 1914, he kept us, more or less, neutral, and even campaigned in 1916 on a theme of “he kept us out of the war”; something which changed in 1917. The war continued on until November 11, 1918, when it finally ended (more or less. Arguably the official end wasn’t until just a few years ago when Germany finally finished paying their reparations). By that point, millions of people were dead and the Spanish Flu was beginning to make the rounds.

So here’s the thing (500+ words into the article). Had the election of 1912 gone differently, and Roosevelt had won, he would have been in office when World War I started, and that’s a very interesting thought. It’s an entirely possible outcome, too. Had Taft not ran, I’m fairly sure Roosevelt could have beaten Wilson. It might not have been a cakewalk, but I bet he could have pulled it off.

Had Roosevelt been in office in 1914, there’s a very, very strong chance he could have helped negotiate away the war. He was trusted by the Russians, the British, the French and the Germans. He’d successfully negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese war a few years before, and had a good reputation in the diplomatic community. If he had been in office, there’s an excellent chance the war could have been prevented entirely. At the very least, once the war had started, it’s likely that he could have helped out with a face-saving way out for all sides.

Let this sink in for a bit. Had Roosevelt been in office, World War I might have never happened. That’s certainly good news for the millions of people who would not have died during the war. It’s also good news for all the rest of us, from then right up until now. Consider the following things:

- No World War I means no World War II. Yes, that’s obvious from the numbering, but it’s also worth remembering that part of why Germany’s economy was in such a shambles that they were desperate enough to elect someone like Hitler was because of the war reparations. These were, I remind you, so harsh that Germany only finished paying them a few years ago.

- No World War I means that the Ottoman Empire, the “sick man of Europe”, would have likely collapsed on its own sometime during the mid 1920s. Had it gone down naturally, the various states and peoples would have been able to form their own nations, rather than have ones drawn up by England and France. This means the Middle East would be vastly different and, while likely still not a progressive, democratic paradise, would likely be at least somewhat more peaceful. It also means no modern state of Israel, since no World War II and no Holocaust.

- No World War I means there wouldn’t have been huge masses of troops for the Spanish Flu to burn its way through on a path to killing some godawful amount of people. It also means that the world’s health organizations would have been in a better state to deal with it.

- No World War I means that the Russian Empire likely would not have collapsed into revolution, or if they had, the Russian government likely would have been able to handle it better. The Czar likely would have continued to be a clueless buffoon, but he might have improved his rule. At the very least, one would like to think that his son would have gone on to be a better Czar.

Consider the magnitude of that last point. If there had been no Communist uprising in Russia, or if it had been tried and failed, what would that mean to the balance of world history? It would mean no Soviet Union, which would likely mean no Communist revolutions in places like China or Cuba. That doesn’t mean that they would have evolved into American-style capitalism and democracy, but it does mean that one of the more fundamentally unpleasant and destructive political forces in recent history would have been strangled in the crib.

If only...

If only…

None of this is meant to imply that we’d wind up with an inherently more peaceful world. Germany, and to a lesser extent, the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary, still had very strong fundamental disagreements and problems with the UK, France, Russia and, again to a lesser extent, the USA. It’s entirely possible that war still would have broken out between some of their colonies or even in Europe itself in the 1930s or thereabouts. That last part is made even more likely if the world economic collapse of the late 1920s and early 1930s were to have occurred. It’s also worth noting that Japan’s imperial ambitions were still very real, and a war between them and China or them and Russia was pretty likely.

A major war breaking out in, say, 1932, paints some interesting possibilities. More advanced aircraft, better radio communication and likely at least something resembling tanks. I could imagine that trench warfare, which was incredibly destructive, probably would not have happened. I could imagine also that the atomic bomb would not have been invented in time to deal with such a war.

There’s no guarantee that the world would have been better or worse had Theodore Roosevelt won in 1912. But I think it is at least likely that World War I would have been averted, and had that happened, things would certainly have been much, much different.

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One Response to “The Most Important Election in American History and How it Relates to Veterans Day”

  1. Susan Says:

    Great article and analysis!

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