It’s August 1916. The second anniversary of the outbreak of the World War coincides with the beginning of the American presidential campaign. Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican nominee, spends the month of August touring the western United States. He is well-received in most states but encounters bitter intraparty infighting in California, where his attempt to avoid taking sides backfires. Former President Roosevelt, meanwhile, overcomes his disappointment at being denied the nomination and comes out strongly for Hughes. In the war, both sides suffer heavy losses on the Somme, an Italian battleship is destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and the Italian Army mounts another attack on the Isonzo. Over a year after declaring war on Austria-Hungary, Italy declares war on Germany. On the Eastern Front, the Brusilov Offensive makes gains in Galicia, and Romania enters the war on the side of the Allies. Pro-Allied Greeks in Salonika proclaim a provisional government. The Kaiser replaces his top army commander. Great Britain tightens its blockade of Germany and hangs Sir Roger Casement for treason. The United States agrees to buy the Danish West Indies (soon to be renamed the U.S. Virgin Islands) from Denmark. President Wilson, frustrated in his attempt to mediate a railroad labor dispute, asks Congress to resolve it by legislation.
Attempting to get a head start on the 1916 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes spent the month of August on a speaking tour of the Western United States. He left New York shortly after his formal acceptance of the nomination at Carnegie Hall on July 31, but not before sending a telegram to Senator George Sutherland (Rep., Utah), a Senate sponsor of the proposed woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution, declaring his support for the measure. Hughes sent the telegram on August 1 in response to a letter from Senator Sutherland asking that he clarify his position, since the Republican platform was silent on the issue. That evening he elaborated on his position in an address to women’s groups at the Hotel Astor. This places him in opposition to (or at least ahead of) President Wilson, who recently announced his support for the enactment of woman suffrage by the states but repeated his opposition to a constitutional amendment.
Hughes began his western tour in Detroit. After addressing a friendly crowd of some 10,000 working men, he attended a baseball game, where he shook hands with the players and chatted with Tigers center fielder Ty Cobb. As his train continued to the west coast, Hughes delivered several speeches a day, addressing enthusiastic crowds at Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Fargo, Helena, Spokane, Tacoma, Seattle, and numerous stops in between, some scheduled and some not. Continuing down the coast to California, he confronted the major challenge of his trip. The feud between the Old Guard and Progressive branches of the Republican Party, resolved with varying degrees of lingering hostility in most states, is still white-hot in California. As Hughes entered the state, the Republican primary campaign for the U.S. Senate was in its final days. Governor Hiram Johnson, Roosevelt’s running mate on the Progressive ticket in 1912 and the Progressive Party’s choice for the Senate this year, was also seeking the Republican nomination. He was strongly opposed by the regular Republicans, led by California’s Republican National Committeeman William H. Crocker and Republican State Chairman Francis V. Keesling, who supported Johnson’s opponent Willis Booth. Hughes’s visit, far from healing the party’s rift, made things worse. The representatives of the Old Guard insisted on taking the leading role in all the events at which Hughes appeared and the Progressives refused to attend under those circumstances. Hughes tried to assume a stance of neutrality, but his unwillingness either to exclude the Republican Party leaders from his rallies or to compel the Progressives to attend them allowed the impression to build that he favored the Old Guard establishment. The impression was heightened on August 19 when he was the guest of honor at a luncheon at the Commercial Club in San Francisco. Waiters in the city were on strike, and the union refused to make an exception for the luncheon, so it was served by strike breakers. The next day Hughes visited a hotel in Long Beach without knowing Johnson was present in the same building, leading Johnson and his followers to think he was being deliberately snubbed. Hughes left California on August 29, the day of the Republican primary. When the votes were counted, Johnson was an easy winner, leaving him in firm control of both the Republican and Progressive Parties in the state. In the general election he will face the Democratic nominee, Mayor George S. Patton of San Marino, whose son is an Army officer serving in Mexico with General Pershing.
It seems that Hughes would have been well advised to wait until after the primary to campaign in California. Governor Johnson still nominally supports Hughes, who like Johnson has both parties’ nominations. His support is at best lukewarm, however, and the rift in the state party is wider than ever, with Hughes on the wrong side of it despite his progressive credentials. Hughes’s visit to California, in short, may have done his presidential campaign more harm than good.
Former President Roosevelt’s presence at Hughes’s notification ceremony on the last day of July was also his first appearance at a Republican Party event since he left the Party four years ago, and his presence arguably attracted more attention than the speech itself. On August 31, as Hughes was on his way back from California, Roosevelt began his campaign for Hughes with a speech at City Hall Auditorium in Lewiston, Maine. Scoffing at the Democrats’ claim that President Wilson “kept us out of war,” Roosevelt said that this was true only if one believed, as Wilson apparently does, that “deeds are nothing, and words everything.” He pointed out that more Americans had died in the undeclared war in Mexico than in the declared Spanish-American War, and that although more Americans were lost in the attack on Veracruz than in the capture of Manila, Wilson abandoned Veracruz while President McKinley did not abandon Manila. The only difference between the undeclared war in Mexico and the declared war against Spain, Roosevelt argued, was that the former was “entered into pointlessly and abandoned ignobly.” After Pancho Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico, the president sent American troops into Mexico with the mission of capturing Villa “dead or alive,” but that mission too has been abandoned. Wilson, Roosevelt charged, is pursuing a Mexican policy “between feeble peace and feeble war.” Turning to the European war and Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Roosevelt said that Wilson’s policy of neutrality “in fact as well as in name, in thought as well as in action,” has been compared to that of Pontius Pilate, but that this was “unjust to Pontius Pilate, who at least gently urged moderation on the wrongdoers.”
A frequently heard theme in this campaign is criticism of “hyphenated Americans,” meaning those Americans who are inclined to place their loyalty to their country of origin ahead of loyalty to the United States. No candidate for public office wants to defend those kinds of “hyphenates,” but neither does either party want to offend the substantial voting blocs of German- and Irish-Americans. In Lewiston, Roosevelt avoided using the term “hyphenated,” but denounced “professional German-Americans who in our politics act as servants or allies of Germany,” adding that “I would condemn just as quickly English-Americans or French-Americans or Irish-Americans who acted in such manner.” “During the last two years,” he said, “we have seen an evil revival in this country of non-American and anti-American division along politico-racial lines.” He blamed President Wilson who, he said, “has lacked the courage and the vision to lead this nation in the path of high duty.” Wilson’s record, he said, has combined “grace in elocution with futility in action.” Against Wilson’s record of “words unbacked by deeds or betrayed by deeds,” Roosevelt pointed to Hughes’s “rugged and uncompromising straightforwardness of character and action in every office he has held.”
The war in Europe continues without respite. In the Allied offensive on the Somme, the British Fourth Army on August 8 attacked the village of Guillemont, on the right flank of the British sector. The Germans counterattacked on August 18 from their positions in Leuze Wood. Both attacks were turned back with heavy losses. In the early morning hours of August 3, in the harbor of Taranto in the Adriatic, a magazine explosion sank the Italian battleship Leonardo da Vinci. Austrian sabotage is suspected. The next day Italy mounted its sixth offensive of the war on the Isonzo Front. Two weeks later the Italian Army had advanced three to four miles along a fifteen-mile front and entered the town of Gorizia, but at the cost of some 50,000 casualties. On August 27, Italy declared war on Germany. On the Eastern Front, the Russian offensive commanded by General Brusilov resulted in the capture of Stanislau in Eastern Galicia on August 7. Encouraged by the Russian success, Romania joined the war on the side of the Allies, declaring war on Austria-Hungary on August 27 and invading Hungary the next day. By August 30 the Romanian Army had seized five Carpathian passes and occupied Kronstadt and Hermannstadt, two major cities in Transylvania. The German Army got a new commander on August 28 when the Kaiser appointed Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to the position of Chief of the General Staff, replacing General Erich von Falkenhayn. In Greece, King Constantine remains determined to adhere to a neutrality favoring the Central Powers, while Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos wants Greece to join the Allies. On August 30 Greek troops at Salonika loyal to Venizelos declared the formation of a provisional government and called on the Greek people to drive the Bulgarians out of Greece. On August 18 the British government moved to tighten its blockade of Germany. To solve the problem of shipments to neutral Sweden being reexported to Germany, all exports to Sweden will now be prohibited other than by special license.
Great Britain is still feeling the aftershocks of the Easter Rising in Dublin. The ringleaders were tried by court martial and executed by firing squad in Dublin shortly after the rebellion was put down. (See the April and May 1916 installments of this blog.) Sir Roger Casement, who was arrested on the eve of the uprising on the coast of Ireland after being put ashore by a German submarine with a cache of weapons and explosives, was taken to London where he was tried and convicted of treason in June. Judicial appeals and diplomatic appeals for clemency were denied, and Casement, stripped of his knighthood, was hanged on August 3 in Pentonville Prison. The brutal response to the Easter Rising has added one more source of friction to Britain’s relations with the United States.
In New York on August 4, Secretary of State Lansing and Constantin Brun, the Danish minister to the United States, signed a treaty providing for the purchase by the United States of the Danish West Indies (St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John), a group of islands lying between the Atlantic and Caribbean east of Porto Rico. The agreed price is $25,000,000. The treaty also provides for protection of Danish business interests on the islands and for the United States’ recognition of Denmark’s exclusive interests in Greenland. The islands occupy a strategically important position, and the harbor on St. Thomas is admirably suited for naval and military operations. Perhaps of more importance, the acquisition of the islands by the United States will foreclose the possibility of their control by another European power. The treaty will now be submitted to the United States Senate and the Danish Parliament for ratification. Ratification by the United States is considered certain. Ratification by Denmark, while probable, is somewhat less certain, due to possible opposition by Germany or other European nations with strategic interests in the West Indies.
After trying unsuccessfully to mediate a labor dispute between the railroads and the railway unions, President Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress on August 29, asking for legislation giving the unions essentially everything they have wanted and been willing to go on strike for: a standard eight-hour day for railroad workers with mandatory overtime pay for additional hours worked. The Adamson Act is opposed by most Republicans and some Democrats, who object to what they regard as an abject surrender to special interests and the threat of force. It is the most radical legislation affecting labor relations that has ever been proposed in the United States, and coming in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign it will inevitably be a major political issue. President Wilson and his supporters no doubt calculate that there are more votes to be gained by supporting labor’s demands than by opposing them.
August 1916 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, September and October 1916
New York Times, August 1916
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Howard Blum, Dark Invasion, 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America
Britain at War Magazine, “The Third Year of the Great War: 1916”
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Paul Jankowski, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Keith Jeffrey, 1916: A Global History
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
The following is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: