Bryan: The Progressives: Part I

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In managing foreign affairs Bryan was less successful, for in this field he was ill-prepared. Because of his frank belief in the spoils system, he dismissed dozens of key professional diplomats, replacing them with untrained political hacks. Naturally the Foreign Service was badly injured. His policy of not serving alcoholic beverages at official functions because of his personal convictions caused much criticism at home and abroad. “W. J. Bryan not only suffers for his principles and mortifies his flesh, as he has every right to do,” the London Daily Express complained, “but he insists that others should suffer and be mortified.” The Secretary’s continuing Chautauqua lectures, at which he sometimes appeared on the same platform with vaudeville entertainers and freaks, were attacked by many as undignified for one who occupied such a high official position.

Bryan had answers to all these criticisms: the State Department had been overly snobbish and undemocratic; Wilson had agreed to his “grape juice” policy before appointing him; no one should be ashamed of speaking to the American people. He could also point to his “cooling-off treaties” with some twenty nations, which provided machinery for avoiding blow-ups over minor diplomatic imbroglios.

Unfortunately Bryan had but a dim understanding of Latin American problems and unwittingly fostered American imperialism on many occasions. His narrow-minded belief that he knew better than local leaders what was “good” for these small countries showed that he had no comprehension of cultural and nationalistic elements in other lands. Although well intended, his policies produced much bad feeling in South and Central America. Bryan did suggest lending Latin American nations money “for education, sanitation and internal development,” a policy that anticipated our modern Point Four approach to underdeveloped areas. Wilson, however, dismissed the idea because he thought it “would strike the whole country … as a novel and radical proposal.”

When the World War broke out in 1914, Bryan, like his chief, adopted a policy of strict neutrality. America, he said, should attempt to mediate between the belligerents by suggesting “a more rational basis of peace.” Bryan believed in real neutrality far more deeply than Wilson, who was not ready to face the possibility of a German victory. “We cannot have in mind the wishes of one side more than the wishes of the other side,” Bryan warned the President after the latter had prepared a stiff note of protest against German submarine warfare. And when, after the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson sent a series of threatening messages to Germany, Bryan resigned as Secretary of State. He never again held public office.

It would have been better for Bryan’s reputation if he had died in 1915; instead he lived on for another decade, as amiable and well-intentioned as ever but increasingly out of touch with the rapidly changing times. He made no effort to keep up with the abrupt intellectual developments of the twentieth century, yet he was accustomed to speak his mind on current issues and continued to do so. There had always been those who had considered his uncomplicated faith in time-tested moral principles and in popular rule rather naïve; in the cynical, scientific, and amoral twenties only a relative handful of rural oldtimers saw much virtue in his homilies on the people’s unfailing instinct to do always what was “right” and “good.” In the world of Calvin Coolidge the old Populist fires no longer burned very brightly, and Bryan’s anti-business bias seemed terribly old-fashioned. Many had considered him an anachronism even in Wilson’s day; by Harding’s he had simply ceased to count in politics. More and more he confined himself to religious questions. His ardent piety was heartwarming, but he was a smug and intolerant Fundamentalist whose ignorance of modern science and ethics did not prevent him from expounding his “views” on these subjects at length. The honest opinions of “the people,” he believed, could “settle” scientific and philosophical questions as easily as political ones.

Advancing age, as well as increasing preoccupation with revealed religion, was making Bryan less tolerant. Never one to give much thought to reasoned counterarguments, he became, in the twenties, an outspoken foe of many aspects of human freedom. He defended prohibition, refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, and participated eagerly in the notorious Scopes anti-evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee, with all its overtones of censorship and self-satisfied ignorance. The final great drama of Bryan’s life occurred when Clarence Darrow mercilessly exposed his simple prejudices on the witness stand. Bryan complacently maintained, among other things, that Eve was actually made from Adam’s rib and that Jonah had really been swallowed by the whale. The rural audience cheered, but educated men all over the world were appalled.