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The “diary” Of Hiram Johnson
The cantankerous Californian’s utterly candid opinions, aver thirty years, of the Presidents he knew, the senators with whom he served, and the (to him) alarming changes in the America he loved
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
You would have thought with the entry of our nation into the world cataclysm there would have been gravity and solemnity, that the case of our country would have been presented in such detail (because after all, history is here made and the facts preserved for posterity) that a hundred years hence the impartial searcher for truth could have had before him a full story with the complete justification and vindication of our government. The majority, however, in charge of the resolution, indolent and lazy as they are, had, in no instance, prepared what would have been done by the veriest tyro in our profession in any ordinary legal controversy. True, speeches were read but they were speeches that any of us extemporaneously might have made from superficial newspaper reading, all of which might have been heard in ordinary apostrophies to the flag.…
The one feeling that I had after it was all over was of depression. The superficiality, the hollowness, the pretense and hypocrisy were the things with which I was impressed and are the things which have distressed me. I asked Stanley Washburn [a foreign correspondent] yesterday,—he has been a part of the great world drama,—if other governments were the same sort and his answer was,—“most of them were worse.”
The President is in absolute command here. All of the Republicans and many of the Democrats violently hate him and detest him. I cannot find any who love him. But there must be something which we, as yet, can not understand, that enables him to rule with an arbitrariness no other President has ever approached, which makes him able by a mere look or a word to blight any who oppose him.
His program, whatever it may be, will be carried out by the Congress to the letter. I say to you very solemnly and the accuracy of the statement is conceded here, that if Wilson on Monday night last had conclusively declared for peace at any price instead of war, he would have in Congress substantially the same majority that he has had for his belligerent program.
April 30, 1917. Midnight Saturday night the debate upon the Conscription Bill was concluded, the vote taken, and the bill passed. This is the third great war measure—a measure fraught, I think, with tremendous possibilities. It overturns every precedent, destroys every tradition, batters down the last barrier, and transmutes the Republic from a fighting force for love of freedom and country into a military machine fighting under compulsion. Perhaps this is necessary and perhaps it is the better way. At any rate, it seems essential at this particular time when the Nation has little stomach for any other. But it requires a readjustment of the views we have had from childhood about our country, its citizens and their patriotism.…
There are certain men in the Senate … [who] view with equanimity and cheerfulness and even with great enthusiasm, any law which will send men into battle and blow to pieces humanity; but I prophesy to you that when we come to conscript property, as some of us will hope to do as the war proceeds, these same Senators will have the most tender regard for individual rights. …
May 17, 1917. I believe that as the days pass the war will become more and more unpopular and that when finally our people understand the extraordinary laws that have been passed and when these laws are put into operation, when our boys are conscripted, when men with little are taxed to maintain the burden, when business is unsettled and disturbed and in constant fear of appropriation by the Government, the reaction will be greater than any of us, even the most pessimistic, now contemplate. I am considerable of a radical today, but I prophesy to you that a year from now I will be a conservative, endeavoring to stem the tide of a people roused to frenzy by burdensome, repressive, and coercive laws.
Fate plays queer pranks with us, and this year has been fantastic not only with individuals but with whole peoples—indeed with the very world. A few years ago, how we would have scouted our entrance into a foreign war, a few months ago it would have seemed insanity to suggest a draft in the Republic or an army for invasion of Europe, the whole bloody murderous thing seems unreal, a frightful nightmare terrifying us while unconscious, but to be dispelled with waking.
January 8, 1918. After Lloyd George’s speech on Saturday and the President’s congratulatory message to him, the illogic of our position seems more marked than ever. Had 1 stood in the United States Senate when war was declared, and said we were sending our young men to Europe to give Trieste and the Trentino to Italy, together with a couple of Grecian islands; that the best blood of America was to be spent in recovering for France, Alsace and Lorraine; in wresting from Austria a national autonomy for a little group of unpronounceable—and, until this war, unheard of races, I would have been confined in an insane asylum, or lashed with scorn from the Senate. The war aims of the United States of America have now been stated by the Premier of England, and those war aims are exactly what are suggested here. We seem to have forgotten making the world safe for democracy. I am very sorry because I did love the phrase.