It has long been thought by most historians that General John J. Pershing made a great mistake by agreeing to the Republican draft for President in 1920. A national hero after World War I, he was no politician, a point he repeatedly made during his term in office. A few revisionist historians have contended that Pershing was a highly effective President who saved the country much trouble and care down the road, but these historians are distinctly in the minority. The current writer is firmly in the camp of the majority of historians who view Pershing’s Presidency as an unfortunate end to a glorious career.
Once Pershing had the Republican nomination in 1920, his election was a foregone conclusion even though he did almost no campaigning. By 1920 the country was tired of the policies of the Democrats under Wilson and ready for a change. The economic downturn after The Great War only increased the unlikelihood of a Democrat victory in November, and Pershing and the GOP won in a landslide.
Pershing ran his administration much as he ran the AEF. Find the right men for the job, tell them in broad terms what to do, and then get out of their way. The economy quickly rebounded and prosperity made the new administration popular, popular enough to get away with a move that most Republicans viewed with displeasure. When the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr to extract reparations called for under the Versailles Treaty from the recalcitrant Germans in January of 1923, Pershing gave his full-throated approval. Pershing had always believed that the armistice which ended the fighting had been a mistake, and that Germany should have been occupied by the Allies to make plain to them that they had been beaten in the field, and that planning for a future war of vengeance was madness. Pershing knew that he could never get Congress to appropriate funds for American troops to join in the occupation of the Ruhr; he instead announced 25 new consulates in the Ruhr and sent a force of 2,000 Marines to protect them. Isolationists in Congress howled, but Pershing responded that he had seen too many American boys die in the Great War and he would do whatever it took to to prevent that from happening in a second Great War. With American involvement, the British also dispatched troops and spearheaded negotiations with the Germans to make the reparation payments more feasible for the Germans.
Perhaps things would have calmed down if not for the declaration of emergency in Bavaria by Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling on September 26, 1923. Pershing, over the strong objections of the German government, sent 1,000 Marines from the Ruhr to Munich to protect the American consulate. This move led to ever increasing mass protests outside of the American consulate. On November 9, 1923 a huge crowd attempted to storm the consulate. The Marines opened fire and some 243 Germans were killed and 1523 wounded. Among the dead were General Erich Ludendorff and an obscure Austrian politician and former corporal in the German army, Adolf Hitler, who led a small party calling themselves the National Socialist Workers’ Party. The Munich massacre, as it came to be called, led to political convulsions in Germany with the German army seizing control and imposing martial law throughout the country.
The reaction in this country was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Congress voted to end all funds for US troops in Germany, except for Marine detachments of 5 at Consulates and 25 Marines at the embassy in Berlin. Congress also ended all funding for the consulates that Pershing set up in the Ruhr. Pershing was completely unrepentant. Following in the footsteps of President Wilson he set out on a nationwide speaking tour, stating again and again that the US could not allow Germany to fall to extremist forces and destroy the victory won with American blood just a few years before. In his memoir, Pershing Reports, he revealed that he had no illusions about his chances of convincing the American people: “I knew that the American public was tired of war, many Americans viewing our intervention in the Great War as having been useless folly. The majority did not go so far as that, but they were tired of foreign affairs and wanted to concentrate on American problems. However, I was convinced that there were sinister forces waiting in the wings in Germany to lead that proud and accomplished nation down the path of war again. When that happened, I wanted it to be clear that I did my best, no matter the personal cost, to avoid this disaster. I had to do this, or the many soldiers who died under my command in 1918 would have lost their lives in vain.”
Pershing changed few minds, although he did reap some reluctant praise for his tenacity and obvious willingness to sacrifice his political career. The Republicans nominated General Leonard Wood for President in 1924, Pershing not being mentioned at the convention. The Democrats had a stormy convention, nominating William Gibbs McAdoo, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury and son-in-law, on the 103rd ballot. McAdoo campaigned on the slogan that the nation needed a return to normalcy and that America needed to concentrate on itself rather than on Europe. Wood campaigned as the political heir of the late Theodore Roosevelt. Robert M. LaFollette was the nominee of the Progressive Party. In a squeaker of an election, McAdoo edged out Wood, with Lafollette’s taking Wisconsin’s 13 electoral votes having proven crucial to the outcome, assuming that Wood would have taken those votes otherwise. McAdoo served as President for two terms. In 1932 the Democrats were reeling from being blamed for the Great Depression. Democrat nominee Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York was crushed by Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, who revived the Square Deal platform of Theodore Roosevelt, which proved immensely popular with the electorate. During his three terms in office, President Landon occasionally consulted with former President Pershing on military matters, although Pershing still remained a non-person at Republican conventions.
John J. Pershing had nothing otherwise to do with politics, keeping his word not to utter a word about politics after he left office. Dying in 1948, he was pleased that he did not live to see another Great War. His last recorded words were, “Thank God we have kept the peace.” Pershing’s few defenders claim that this lack of another Great War was due to his actions in Germany. Actually, his policy in Germany almost led to another Great War. Until 1935 the German army made and unmade governments with Latin American rapidity, German generals stating again and again that the Army was the guarantor of the nation and that the Army would not allow extremist forces of either the left or the right to lead the nation to destruction. This led to great instability in Germany which could easily have resulted in war on any number of occasions. Instead, Konrad Adenauer, the father of the Christian Democratic party, formed a moderate government in 1935 that apparently satisfied the German generals, or most of them. The coup attempt against Adenauer in 1938 was a farce led by a retired German flier of World War I, and easily put down. Since that time the German Army has remained in the barracks, and the era of military control of government is looked back at with embarrassment by most Germans.
Stability in Germany, and growing economic ties in Western Europe, would eventually lead to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, after the brief Russo-Polish War of 1939, to present a unified European front to Stalin. That Europe ultimately stumbled into peaceful and stable unity however, had nothing to do with the actions of President Pershing in 1923.