- Historic Sites
Colonel McCormick’s War
The newspaper baron Robert McCormick was a passionate isolationist—yet his brief service in France in 1918 shone for him all his life and gave birth to an extraordinary museum
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
Why would someone name his mansion after a minor World War I battle that decided nothing? I journeyed to the former estate of Col. Robert R. McCormick, the legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune , prepared to scoff—despite the fact that several friends had told me the layout included one of the best military history exhibits in the nation. As a lifelong World War I enthusiast, thanks to listening to my father’s tales of his doughboy days, I had explored Champagne’s rolling hills from Soissons to Château-Thierry to Rheims, I had prowled the vast valley of the Argonne and the forested reaches of St-Mihiel. But I had skipped Cantigny. The “battle” there was little more than a one-regiment skirmish, frequently omitted in general accounts of that stupendous war.
As an Easterner and an erstwhile Roosevelt-Truman Democrat, I was predisposed to believe that Col. Robert R. McCormick’s view of history was likely skewed. I had grown up hearing virulent attacks on this ferociously conservative newspaper tycoon, who had opposed the New Deal and our participation in World War II and never ceased railing against the federal “burocracy” (his spelling) and Wall Street’s “Pocketbook Gang.” In the colonel’s staunchly Midwest opinion, these degenerate Easterners persisted in nominating candidates like Dwight Eisenhower on platforms that “threaten[ed] the existence of the Republic.”
Such prejudices left me thoroughly unprepared for the Cantigny that exists on about five hundred green acres some thirty miles west of Chicago. Two of the main buildings are Colonel McCormick’s mansion, preserved more or less exactly as it was when he died in 1955, and the almost brandnew Museum of the First Division. The overall impression is bucolic. The buildings are surrounded with fine old oak trees, and close by lie ten acres of magnificent gardens. The only militaria in sight are a half-dozen tanks around the museum, which visiting youngsters use as jungle gyms.
The first thing I learned, under the benevolent tutelage of Lt. Col. John F. Votaw, the retired West Pointer who is the museum’s executive director, is the intensely personal nature of the name Cantigny. In the ultramodern library I surrounded myself with biographies of Colonel McCormick; every one of them made it clear that his participation in the battle for this French village was a high point of the staunch old isolationist’s life.
The colonel was distantly related to Cyrus McCormick, the genius tinkerer who invented the reaper and thereby turned the Midwest into the world’s granary. A bad run in the St. Louis grain market led to virtual bankruptcy for the colonel’s father, and alcoholism and genteel poverty shadowed the boy’s childhood. McCormick’s father was rescued from social oblivion by his father-in-law, Joseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune , who used his political clout to turn his busted son-in-law into an American diplomat.
The maneuver gave young Robert Rutherford McCormick a chance to spend a good portion of his youth in the great cities of Europe. More important, it allowed him to be named editor and publisher of the Tribune in 1914. He also acquired Grandfather Medill’s Red Oaks Farm in suburban Wheaton—the future Cantigny.
As I dug into the ample source material on the Battle of Cantigny in the museum library, I not only grasped its importance in Robert R. McCormick’s life but began to revise my opinion of its significance. Cantigny was fought in the shadow of the U.S. wrangle with its allies over whether the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) should be amalgamated piecemeal into the French and British forces.
Contemporary Americans, complacent denizens of the world’s only superpower, descendants of the doughboys and GIs who. won two world wars, may find it hard to grasp the importance of this controversy to men of Colonel McCormick’s generation. It was the culmination of a psychological and cultural quarrel between Americans and Europeans that went back to the Revolution.
The thirty-seven-year-old McCormick could have wangled a safe, comfortable niche on Gen. John J. Pershing’s staff, but he had come to France to fight. In Chicago he had acquired the rank of major in the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Cavalry. In Europe he and his men were absorbed into the 1st Division, the first American outfit to reach France. McCormick had a flair for mathematics and swiftly became a first-rate artillery officer.