- Historic Sites
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
How any man of liberal views can support it passes my comprehension. One of the notable things of the East is that every liberal paper has turned against Wilson and his League. The peace made at Paris is a travesty on his fourteen points. It is a mockery of every idealistic utterance. The diplomats of the various nations have played the same old game of grab and gouge, and the accessions of territory of the principal participants stagger belief.
The Germans, for whom it is impossible to have much sympathy, are put in economic bondage for generations; and the efforts of the Peace Conference seem not so much directed to disarmament and the like, as to dividing up for all time Germany’s industries and trade and earning power. The League of Nations is the product of this cupidity and intrigue, the instrument for their maintenance and preservation.
August 7, 1919. We have begun our public hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee upon the Treaty. … I want you to read the testimony of the Secretary of State. In cold type it might not present the picture as it was presented to us yesterday, the picture of indifference, vacillation, hesitation, and downright ignorance. When I finished with [Secretary of State Robert] Lansing, I walked over to the office saddened and humiliated, because my country was in the hands of such men, and at the mercy of their dullness, stupidity, and worse. …
August 23, 1919. The event of the week with us, of course, was the visit to the President and its subsequent developments. It was upon my suggestion that the Foreign Relations Committee asked the President for such knowledge as he was able to give us concerning the league and the treaty.… The result was quite as I expected. In a foxy and cunning fashion, worthy of a White House politician seeking a petty advantage, the President read a speech to us, which, as his supporters here exultingly said, gave him the first publicity and enabled him to put it over us.…
After the presidential examination, we had luncheon with him at the White House. I observed him very carefully during all of the time. I rather think he was interested in me too. He is alert, fairly quick thinking, but with a mind which does not and can not grasp detail. He is an uncanny thing to look at. When he turned, as he did as I began my few questions, he was quite tense, and his whole expression, although not so intended, was quite wicked.
His face in repose is hard, and cold, and cruel. When he smiles, he smiles like certain animals, curling his upper lip and wrinkling his nose. His is not the infectious laugh of the red-blooded individual. His ponderous lower jaw gives a very strange appearance to his ordinary talking, and his brow, which is like the receding brow of a vicious horse, has in connection with the lower part of his face a singular sort of fascination.
As one watches his profile, it is not of the intellectual man you think, but of some mysterious ill-defined monster. And yet he was very courteous and very pleasant, and I think extremely forbearing during the day. I am perfectly frank to say to you that I would have seen the Foreign Relations Committee in Halifax before I would have sat there for three hours or more permitting a lot of asses to question me.
For Hiram Johnson, as for so many progressives, the twenties brought an end to carefully nourished dreams. The waning of progressivism as a political force, the advent of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, the regained prestige and enhanced power of large corporations, the rise of giant cities with strange immigrant populations, and the even stranger values and mores that were being disseminated throughout the country—all confirmed Johnson in the senatorial pattern he had established during the war years. Now his letters home are full of comments showing the erosion of many of his old certainties: “This docile people … no longer thinks, nor even laughs” (1920); “The more I see of human beings, the more I care for dogs” (1924); “This generation is sowing the seeds of ultimate dissolution” (1930). His attempt in 1920 to win the presidential nomination failed when the Republican convention deadlocked and chose Warren Harding as a malleable man whom the reactionaries could safely elect; in 1924 Johnson tried for the nomination again, only to be badly beaten by the forces supporting President Calvin Coolidge. Both defeats left him, in his own words, “a rather disillusioned and hurt old man.”
Yet Johnson never gave way to complete despair. He managed some positive legislative accomplishments, such as helping to obtain approval of the Boulder Dam project; but in the main his role was opposition, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. “The only kick there is in public life to me now,” he wrote his son in 1920, “is in doing just as I damn please and as I think is right.” For Johnson, as the independent progressive movement declined, a sense of personal integrity and devotion to the values he had fought for in California were all that were left.