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. Continue Reading