August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
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
During the presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson, the new Progressive party’s candidates for President and Vice President, stood—as Roosevelt delighted in putting it—at Armageddon and battled for the Lord. Their defeat destined Roosevelt to years of frustrating political exile and impotence. For Johnson, now free to turn his attention back to the progressive politics of California, Armageddon was to last a bit longer.
Born in California in 1866, the son of an influential politician, Johnson broke with the conservatism of his father in the early years of the new century and joined the Lincoln-Roosevelt Republican League in its assault upon the corrupt and self-serving hold which the Southern Pacific Railroad had upon state and local politics.
Elected governor in 1910 and again in 1914, the independent and irascible Johnson led one of the most successful statewide reform movements in the nation. His administration introduced the initiative, referendum, and recall; it curbed the political and economic excesses of the Southern Pacific by sponsoring a regulatory commission with significant powers; it undertook important conservation measures and distributed free school textbooks; it established commissions to regulate corporate abuses, government expenditures, and the wages, hours, and working conditions of women and children; it greatly strengthened the civil service, gave pensions to the aged, reformed criminal court procedures, and extended reform into many other areas of the state’s social, political, and economic fabric.
By 1914 Johnson’s reformism had reached its limits. He had taken the state almost as far as he dared in combating the forces and problems spawned by a new urban, industrial order. Johnson and that wing of progressivism he represented were always deeply ambivalent about change. They appreciated the fruits and the possibilities of an industrial society and were adept at modifying many of its worst abuses. Yet they feared profoundly the alterations that “progress” and industrialism were making in the individualistic values and life style they held dear.
In 1916 Johnson was elected to the United States Senate as a Republican. Apparently sensing that in leaving the scene of his progressive triumphs he was abandoning a part of his life that he would never be able to recapture, Johnson delayed taking his Senate seat until March, 1917, when President Wilson called the special session of Congress that was to declare war on Germany. Johnson voted for war reluctantly and watched with increasing disquiet the centralization of authority in Washington and the curtailment of civil liberties. Almost every act of the government caused him to look back nostalgically to a past from which America was departing too rapidly.
The war cast Johnson into a position on the periphery of power that was to characterize his long tenure in the Senate. Although he remained in the center of events, it was largely to oppose or alter the plans of others and rarely to implement ideas of his own or to lead America forward into the complexities of the twentieth century. As the country continued to change, Johnson looked on in relative helplessness, not understanding how to control the new forces that seemed to engulf his nation. He remained a progressive, but his Armageddon lay permanently behind him.
During his nearly three decades of service in the Senate, from March, 1917, to his death in August, 1945, Johnson recorded his experiences, his reactions, and his anguish in a series of long letters to his children; because of their absolute candor and characteristic earthmess, these letters were often referred to by the family as “the diary.” Some time after the Senator’s death, his son, Hiram W. Johnson, Jr., presented the “diary” to the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, with the stipulation that it not be opened to public scrutiny for a decade. When AMERICAN HERITAGE learned that this moratorium was about to expire, we asked Professor Levine, a member of the university‘s history department, to select and annotate the most significant of these historic documents. They appear here for the first time in a national publication, with the permission of the library and the kind cooperation of its assistant director, Robert H. Becker. Our excerpts—occasionally reparagraphed for easier reading—begin at the old America’s point of no return: April 6, 1917, the day on which President Wilson signed the joint congressional resolution declaring war.
April 6, 1917. I intended to write to you yesterday my impression of what has perhaps been the most important and momentous session of the United States Senate since the Civil War but I was so depressed and disillusioned, so filled with disgust and pessimism that I was unable then to do it. I postponed the task until today in the hope that I might write you in a judicial strain rather than in the hopeless spirit which has been mine since I listened to the great of our nation decide our country’s fate on Wednesday.…
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.
January 12, 1918. … Here is an incident of how the war warps us, distorts our judgment, and destroys our sense of justice, and our ideals. Admiral [Francis] Bowles … was testifying in executive session before our Committee. He said that one of the great needs of our Navy was oil. He described the oil lands of Tampico, Mexico, and then those that he asserted were better—just south of Tampico, and he ended with the startling statement that we ought to take those oil lands. A couple of us sat up straight in an instant, and asked, “Take them—from a supposedly friendly power! Upon what ground?” And his response was, “Upon the ground of military necessity.” We replied, “That was the response of Germany when the crime of Belgium was committed.”
January 26, 1918. The difficulty with our war situation is that Wilson is living in the pages of history, utterly detached from passing events. He has taken us into the war with one thought, in my opinion, and he is continuing the war with one idea—to have history write him the greatest man of all time.
Lincoln freed a small part of our population—and that black. Wilson sees himself written by history as the savior of mankind, and as a ruler who freed all nations, and established world democracy. He has no more conception of administrative duties than a man in Kamchatka or Timbuktu; and he will not pay any attention to such duties. Nevertheless, he will permit no interference, and he resents any suggestion. I do not think it at all exaggerative to say that he regards himself exactly as Louis XIV regarded himself, and that while he doesn’t say it aloud, to himself he often repeats, “I am the state.”…
To relieve a pressing shortage of merchant ships, the government during the war set up the Emergency Fleet Corporation to put through an enormous shipbuilding program. The most spectacular part of this operation was the construction on the Delaware River of a huge shipyard at Hog Island, built at a cost of $65,000,000. The corporation turned out many ships, but by June, 1919, only forty-four per cent of its program had been finished. For much of the program, work continued on into the years of peace, and by 1923 the vast merchant fleet was offered for sale at less than ten per cent of its original cost. As the next entry shows, the whole project aroused Johnson’s deepest suspicions.
February 9, 1918. I have gradually uncovered what has been designated here as the “Hog Island fraud.” The great financiers of the nation with the Government’s money have indulged in a saturnalia of extravagance in the attempt to build a shipyard at Hog Island, near Philadelphia, that would shame J. Ruf us Wallingford.∗ And the most of these great financiers have been prating of their patriotism ever since the war commenced. Wherever they could, they have gouged the Government, and, under the guise of having the requisite organizations and ability, have put everybody connected with them upon the Government’s payroll at tremendous salaries. Because of the great names that are involved, the news agencies will not carry the story.…
∗ J. Rufus Wallingford was a popular fictional character of that era known as Get Rich Quick Wallingford, who was forever embarking on ludicrous, fantastic schemes to make a fortune.— Ed.
As I was quietly developing from witnesses the other day that Frank A. Vanderlip, Otto Kahn, J. Ogden Armour, and others, were the directors in the Hog Island fraud, [Republican senator William M.] Calder of New York leaned over to me and said, “My God! If I should ask such questions, I would be shot at sunrise.” He said he could not live politically for fifteen minutes if he dared to do what I was then doing. I told him I was independently poor.
February 16, 1918. So many things are happening in the world, and they are so very close to us, that we have really no conception of the tremendous events transpiring, and the changes daily occurring. We never are going to be quite the same Nation again. I doubt if the Republic as we have known it in the past—the Republic of our fathers—will ever return.
The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power from Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government in the second Russian revolution left Johnson with mixed feelings. The widespread disorder and civil war that followed in the wake of the October Revolution convinced him that nothing now stood in the way of Japanese expansion and aroused all of his deeply internalized fears of the “yellow” race. Still, he was unwilling to abandon the hope that he and most Americans felt when the czar was first overthrown in March, 1917, that the spread of freedom and democracy in Russia was imminent.
March 9, 1918. The Russia that we have known no longer exists, and anything like an organized government there is gone. … Japan will probably enter Siberia. Japan already has practically taken over China. Japan now has Korea, the provinces of China held by Germany, and the islands in the Pacific formerly constituting German colonies. The great yellow race is therefore given imperial dominion over the Pacific, and practically all of the lands of the Orient; and, between this yellow race and us, of California, there is no France and no England. The vision that I have of the future is one wherein we must really fight for the very existence of our kind of civilization, and for our race.
July 20, 1918. We regard the Russians as traitors [for having signed a separate peace with Germany in 1918] because they did not continue being killed for something they did not understand. We look upon them with disdain and scorn because after losing eight millions of their people they did not lose eight millions more for Constantinople and the Dardanelles. Their cry for bread, and for land, is as little understood by the majority of our people as our original cry for decency of government in California was understood by the old line politicians. … we are deaf to the cries of an oppressed and an outraged people, and wholly scornful of the yearnings of this people for that which they have never had—just a little of freedom.
Don’t think I am a bolsheviki because of the fashion in which I am writing. When I speak of Russia, I am speaking of the mass of humanity there, not of the few wretches, who, because of fortuitous circumstances, rise to the top for the moment and have a little brief authority. Trotskys and Lenines will come and go, and probably ought to go as rapidly as possible, but any man who believes in freedom and democracy, and who would destroy this faintly budding bloom in Russia is recreant to his beliefs and his ideals.
December 26, 1918. A league of nations abstractly appeals to me. It is an alluring prospect to contemplate that the great nations of the world will unite to prevent future wars; and then the argument that all this slaughter must not be in vain, and that from it the lesson of prevention of future conflicts must be learned, is quite persuasive. But the difficulty is to find a scheme feasible and practicable. Like all the President’s utterances, what he says concerning it is nebulous and couched wholly in general language. His only declaration abroad has been that such a league must be founded upon moral suasion, and, of course, a league of this sort would be the most empty of promises.
January 11, 1919. I attended Roosevelt’s funeral with the Senatorial delegation. I really was much affected. I doubt if anybody in the delegation had anything like the feeling that I had. I saw the most prominent places at the funeral filled by Elihu Root, who stole the Presidency from Roosevelt in 1912, by [William Howard] Taft, for whom the nomination was stolen, [Charles Evans] Hughes, who was nominated in 1916 by the pro-German element, and whom Roosevelt detested as he detested probably no other man.
It made me sick to go to that funeral with [Republican senator from Pennsylvania Philander Chase] Knox and [Republican senator from Connecticut Frank B.] Brandegee, and the others, who, deep in their hearts, hated Roosevelt as mediocrity and cowardice always hate real ability and fearless courage. And it seemed to me that there was a different atmosphere at the very funeral itself with the “old boy” mute and silent forever in the flag-draped casket. I thought, and perhaps some of my associates thought too, that littleness, meanness, petty-selfishness, and cowardice could rear their heads again all around him and about him without encountering the swift and savage blows he always dealt them. Really lad, I think a lot of damn scrubs have been breathing easier and holding their heads higher since Roosevelt’s death.
February 16, 1919. The trouble with our body is that every member is a candidate for President, and measures his acts therefore, by the effect upon his chances. It is this that curtails our usefulness, and makes some of us cynical. Moreover, ours is a body possessing no great ability.
There are many average men, and some of long experience and high education, but unfortunately those of great experience in most instances are old hacks, who have learned nothing but Senatorial detail, and the highly educated are too often so narrow that they have little vision. When you add that they all play a single handed game, either for their constituents or for the publicity they may obtain, and that the dominating personal characteristic with all is egotism and vanity, you may understand something of our ineffectiveness and the partial contempt in which we are held.
I often wonder as I look over the body and listen to the insincere utterances and observe the orators watching out of the corners of their eyes the press gallery, whether the Senate of which I used to read in history and that I followed in my early manhood, was like the present. Of course, old timers say no; but I am growing more and more suspicious of history, as I observe it in the process of making.
The development in the United States Senate of opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and to acceptance of the League of Nations is clearly shown in the letters Senator Johnson wrote during and after the late spring of 1919. He was developing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, basing it largely on opposition to the League, and was becoming known as one of the most determined senatorial opponents of Wilson’s plan for a peace settlement.
May 31, 1919. Monday I will be somewhat bitter in denouncing the League of Nations; but I firmly believe it to be the most iniquitous thing presented at least during my lifetime, and so believing I shall not hesitate to declare myself.…
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.
December 7, 1920. I have just returned from an hour’s conversation with President-elect Harding.… He said that I represented a great progressive force in the country, and that, contrary to the general view that might have been entertained of him in the past, he desired to be considered progressive, and he hoped to be part of progressive accomplishment in legislation. … My fault lay, politically, he thought, in my indifference to party regularity, and with that party regularity in the next few years on my part there was nothing could prevent me becoming President.…
He had been thinking that in January he might undertake some action—and this was the action in his mind: He could then bring to this country … authoritative representatives of Great Britain and France, who would meet with him, or with those men of his suggestion, and, eliminating everything objectionable in the League of Nations, might use the shell of the League as something upon which to found an “International Association” which would meet with everybody’s hopes; and then he suddenly asked, “Don’t you approve of this plan?” and I responded I did not. He hurriedly explained then that it was wholly tentative and had reached no definite formation yet.…
He is seeking in every possible way to unite every hostile element. By flattery on the one side, and by offer of position on the other, he hopes to unite in sweet concord the cacophonous of the Republican Party. The principle of anything he is uncapable of understanding. He wants to move smoothly along the path of least resistance. … I will go with him, if it is possible to do so. If a break is to come I hope it comes early. I don’t want to glide along here for a year or two by fooling our people, and so I am praying that if he is going wrong, is unfaithful to the promises that he made, that he will make this very clear even before his inauguration.
May 1, 1921. The situation is developing here as long ago I prophesied. I could follow the easy path and doubtless be a part of the Administration party, if I’d play the game as they desire. Indeed, this has been conveyed to me. If I’d be “good,” I could be a frequent visitor and diner at the White House and sit in the inner councils. Perhaps the Lord made me a natural rebel, perhaps I’m just an obstinate ass; but I just have to go my own way.… All this is preliminary to telling you that I’ve marked my course, I’m going to follow it no matter what happens, and that I’m mighty lonely. … The next few months, possibly years if I stay here, are going to be difficult and hard, lonely and bitter, depressing and damnable, and with little or no happiness.
June 12, 1921. Last year, when I was a candidate for the Presidency, I used to be startled occasionally at my presumption. I’d dream of the past of the Nation, of the great grown greater in the mist of history, and I’d feel a real humility that I dared to try for the place they had occupied; and then suddenly I’d recall the other candidates, and a decent self-respect enabled me to recover my equanimity. …
July 2, 1921. Day before yesterday [former President] Taft’s name was sent to the Senate as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. What a bustle there was! Every sycophant in the Senate rushed about to obtain immediate consideration and unanimous confirmation. … In my opinion, he is, first, without the qualifications for a United States Supreme Court Judge, and secondly, he is crooked, both intellectually and otherwise, and thirdly, I think he was a traitor to his country in the League of Nations fight. [Taft had been willing to accept the League, “with reservations,” which made him anathema to Johnson.] … Taft deciding the grave problems which will come to us in the next few years is the most sinister thing that has come to us thus far in the administration. I confess that I went home Thursday night as low in spirits as I have ever been here. It has taken every bit of courage I possess to drive my thoughts from the contemplation of another sort of life.
As this next letter indicates, Johnson saw threats to America emanating not only from internationalism, bureaucracy, and the increased centralization of power but also from the millions of new immigrants with their strange manners and alien tongues.
September 10, 1921. We returned on Tuesday night from Atlantic City.… On Labor Day it was estimated there were 350,000 people in Atlantic City. If this estimate was correct, I am perfectly certain 249,000 of them were of the chosen people. Everywhere, and in everything, the Israelite predominated.
Of course, in places like the Ritz and the Ambassador, they were the sort that we know, the rich, assertive, self-sufficient. Farther down, they were the short, swarthy men, the squatty, dumpy women, and the innumerable daughters, at an early age bursting into overblown maturity. But, oh, how many of theml Where they came from nobody apparently knew. Many of them even talked in foreign tongues, and really, there were places where one felt a stranger almost in a strange land.
I have never had so thorough a demonstration of the conquest of this country by God’s chosen people as I had at Atlantic City. I can’t understand why there should be a Zionist movement, or one for peopling Jerusalem. Time, just as certain as it passes, will make this country theirs. In talking of this subject with different people I find that practically the same situation exists in every eastern resort. There is food for reflection in it.
October 21, 1921. On Friday night when we were dining with Harding, I had a very intimate talk with the President, and I want to preserve in this letter to you one of his statements. … During the time he had been in power he had been advised by Intelligence officers and officers in the Navy that war with Japan was imminent, and they had asserted to him that we probably would have had war with Japan ere this, but for the calling of the Disarmament Conference. I expressed my utter surprise at this statement, but he reiterated it. …
October 29, 1921. Harding loves the limelight as few men have loved it. He has actually made those who come in contact with him believe that he is modest and unassuming. He certainly is unostentatious, but he is more greedy for applause, more avid for crowds than any man I have ever known. This arises, possibly, from the fact that during all of his political life he never aroused one particle of enthusiasm. He was never able to draw well, and never able to impress his hearers. He now finds himself by virtue of the office the great drawing card everywhere, whose every word is cheered to the echo, and he is finally surfeiting himself in what all the rest of his life he had been denied.
December 16, 1922. I dined at the White House on Thursday night, and spent the evening in the usual recreation which obtains with us. There were present: Secretary of War [John W.] Weeks, Attorney General [Harry M.] Daugherty, Senator [Harry S.] New [Republican from Indiana], Edward McLean of the Washington Post , A. D. Lasker [head of the Shipping Board], the President and myself. It was quite the inner circle of the Administration. I looked at them curiously during the dinner and wondered whether all governments were similarly constituted. The men I sat with are at present governing the richest and most powerful nation on earth. Among them there is neither vision nor statesmanship.
I have sometimes an overwhelming sense of my own insignificance and limitations; but as I sat with these men, really the most powerful in the world today, I think, without being unduly egotistical or vain, I was justified in a sense of intellectual superiority.
June 9, 1924. There is a most singular political situation, particularly in the Republican Party. Big business is in the saddle as it has not been before during my life. The great exploiting interests are united with an enthusiasm and determination I have never seen exceeded. They are perfectly satisfied with the present administration, and Coolidge’s success in the primaries has made them truculent and arrogant. …
If the Democrats had a real man, they would win. Without a real man, and they will not nominate one, in my opinion, I think Coolidge will be able to buy the election. The amount of money behind him will be greater than in all previous campaigns during our lives. In addition to this, money has learned how to disseminate propaganda cunningly and scientifically. The press is more venal than ever before in the history of the Republic.
July 2, 1926. The fact of the matter is Coolidge would not know an economic policy, if he met it on the street. He has one great virtue. Apparently he knows his limitations, and therefore, he will not talk at all. If he talked at all, the poverty of his intellect would at once be obvious, so he sits tight, and follows implicitly what is told him, and trusts to the press of the land.
November 13, 1926. I enjoyed the high privilege and inestimable boon of eating a meal at the White House and smoking one of the President’s cigars. … I wish it were possible for you to sit sometime for an hour with the President, and size him up from the physical standpoint, and draw your conclusions of his character from his physiognomy, and then confirm your view, if that were possible, from his conversation.
I really believe there never was a man in high position so politically minded. I do not think there is any principle or policy of government that for one instant will sway him when he believes his personal political fortunes may be influenced. I can not conceive of any conjuncture in our affairs, any crisis in which he would passionately espouse a particular course because of his belief in it, or because it was right.
He weighs, I think, his every word and every action by the effect they may have upon his personal political future; and he will say a certain thing or perform a particular act as he decides the effect may aid him. This isn’t a nice estimate to have of the President of the United States, but I firmly believe it to be a just estimate.
March 17, 1928. Some of our political wiseacres here claim that Hoover has been stopped in his mad career to the Presidency. I do not believe it. Every rogue, every unconvicted thief, every scoundrel, politically, gravitate naturally to his banner. … Wherever there is a delegate to be bought, we find that delegate for Hoover. Wherever there is a crook to be placated by a promise of future preferment, or office, there is a Hoover shouter. Wherever there is a big business enterprise, that seeks to despoil the people and rob the government, there you find a “business man” for Hoover. The sum total of all this is the control of the Republican Party.
November 23, 1929. You have doubtless observed the gyrations of the national administration here in respect to the recent financial disaster. The President is the prince of bunk artists, and what he is doing now is to take political advantage of the situation. He calls here those who have much and have lost little. They make speeches from the White House steps about business is sound, there is no cause for worry, and that prosperity is with us, and the newspapers in their filthy lying way, tell those who have lost their all, that it is quite for the best, and they will soon recover it, and that everything is fine.
December 6, 1931. I have talked to a number of people since I have been here about the financial situation. … Nobody understands a damn thing and to me that is the tragedy. Every man in the Congress wants to help and there are more bizarre bills to be introduced than would patch all the scarred financial institutions in the world; but the fact remains nobody really knows what to do.
At first warmly embracing Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, Johnson was to turn on them with an incredible fury. Many of the reasons for this transition are revealed in his letters.
The experiments that Johnson was willing to support as short-term measures to expedite reform and recovery became anathema when he saw them transformed into what he felt were ends in themselves in an administration that had neither direction nor plan. Roosevelt’s charisma, which at first he found a refreshing contrast to the dreary presidential triumvirate of the twenties, became repugnant when he came to see it used as an instrument not of reform but of personal power and political aggrandizement.
Throughout this transition, Johnson insisted that he was remaining true to the creed he had always followed, and these protestations must be taken seriously. He had no difficulty accepting those reforms, such as conservation and government regulation of business, which were part of his progressive heritage. Those which thrust the government more directly into the lives of farmers and workers and the middle classes, which called for deficit financing on a more or less permanent basis, which led to the growth of federal bureaucracy, frightened and ultimately alienated him. The same personal qualities—compulsive independence, nostalgia for a more heroic past, ambivalence toward change—which had marked him in the first period, continued to characterize him in the second and led to a kind of negativism which some scholars have seen manifest even at the height of his reformist years.
Throughout his senatorial career Hiram Johnson remained a man in opposition, a man increasingly alienated from the forces that were transforming his country and the world but with no plan or alternative of his own to offer. He himself probably summed up the source of his greatest strengths and his most grievous shortcomings when he wrote in 1937, “In all my political life, I have pursued one course, and at my present age I could not if I would, and I would not if I could, alter that course.”
January 23, 1933. Something must be done. I tried to impress this on our President-elect the other day, and told him I thought the course would have to be one of trial and error. I think we’ll have to experiment with some hundreds of millions of dollars, or perhaps billions, and if necessary waste it, in even endeavoring to find a solution for relief.…
On Thursday last upon the invitation of the President-elect I called upon him at 3:45 at the Mayflower Hotel.… He wished me to become a part of his official family, not only because he felt our views concerning policies were similar, but because of the personal characteristics he knew I possessed. He offered me the Secretary of the Interiorship, and said that it was an office peculiarly within the knowledge of a western man and of very great importance and ought to be administered by one from the west.
He was very gracious in his offer. I tried to be quite as gracious in responding, and thanked him for the expression of his confidence and the compliment that he paid me, but added that I did not desire the position and could not accept it. He then said that it was his intention to place within that department some of the most important activities of government and make it of much greater consequence than even it was today. He urged me not to reject the offer finally because of his very great desire to have me a part of his administration.
I replied in kind again and told him that I did not desire the position and wished to preserve the singular attitude that I had always preserved. I might add, parenthetically, that I would not give a tinker’s most profane word to be in any man’s cabinet, and I would give even less than that tinker’s word to be secretary of the Interior. We talked with some rapidity on both sides on other matters.
My interview with him on the whole was very satisfactory. I liked him, and I liked his manner. He is genial, kindly, and sympathetic. … I do not believe he has with clarity thought out a fixed, definite program for national relief, but I can not blame him for this, because no one else has. … He presents, however, as fair a hope for us as during my political career has been presented by any man.
January 29, 1933. Lord only knows what is going to happen to us in the next six months or a year. There are some very ominous signs in the middle west where the farmers are setting at defiance legal processes and by the strong arm preventing execution and foreclosures, and the like. I have often repeated to you that if these farmers with their love for law and order ever united with the disorderly and anti-government spirit of the cities, we can look for almost anything. I do not expect of course real revolution in this country, but such things history teaches us come over night, and it may be some little spark that kindles the conflagration. My mail is simply overwhelming with stories of want, and distress, and dissatisfaction, and oftentimes rebellion.
March 12, 1933. After I wrote you last Sunday, I received a request to come to the White House, and I sat there in consultation with the President and a number of his Democratic advisers while he was discussing generally the pending conditions. … The remarkable thing about him to me was his readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile. On Wednesday night again I was sent for and sat in conference with the Democratic representatives of the President and himself, and his Secretary of the Treasury and Attorney General until about one in the morning. He outlined, although it was not then in such shape as one could read it himself, what his bill was contemplating. [Senator Johnson apparently refers to the Emergency Banking Act, passed March 9, which empowered the President to reorganize insolvent banks and reopen sound ones.] Nobody present knew very much about it, and next day when we passed it, we knew just about as much as we did the night before, but what struck one like me sitting there in rather detached fashion, was that the man had decision, was ready to act, and was shoving a lot of people of more or less ability, generally less, who had not been accustomed to rapid motion, into an alert activity.
April 1, 1933. Roosevelt keeps up his astonishing efforts. He has an energy I little suspected, and a capacity for work I have never seen excelled. As I wrote you before, I can not believe that any one human being can thoroughly digest all that he is undertaking, but the very undertaking is the delightful thing to witness. It would be quite impossible for me to describe to you the change in the atmosphere here, or in the sort of government which now obtains for the moment. We’re nearer our philosophy of government than we have ever been in my lifetime in this nation.
February 14, 1934. I lunched with the President a month or so ago. We were entirely alone. … He endeavored to explain his financial policy, but either I was peculiarly dense or he was utterly unable to make clear what he was seeking to do. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think he is entirely certain of himself in this direction. … he has an extraordinary cunning. With his delightful smile, he looks you in the eye and proceeds rather deliberately about half way with what he has in his head, and awaits then an expression from you as to whether he shall proceed further. … he is one of the best that I have met in high office. If he can keep his head, and I imagine no man in history has ever been able to do so under such circumstances as surround him, he will do a great job.…
He is sitting on the top of the world, and I fear becoming conscious of it, just as Wilson did when he went abroad, and all peoples in all the world looked to him, and he forgot his own. Thus far, this sort of thing has not occurred with Roosevelt, but it is his future difficulty.
May 5, 1935. We are embarking upon a financial outlay which staggers even one as improvident and imprudent as I am.… Here within a brief period will be $10,000,000,000, which some day, somehow must be paid. In the language of the newspapers of today, it leaves me jittery.
Supporting Roosevelt for re-election in 1936, Johnson was nevertheless beginning to have reservations about him. The development of these, and the Senator’s eventual return to his confirmed role as opposition man, become clear in succeeding letters.
November 10, 1936. And now will come the test of the President. He loves the dramatic. His mentality is so restless it has to have something new daily. He has delusions of grandeur which make him dissatisfied with dealing with domestic problems alone, and which will constantly urge a wider field. Like Wilson he’ll see himself the arbiter of the world. With his power and the vote he has received, the views of men like myself will receive scant attention. … I’m going to be very lonely and very poorly equipped for the job. I don’t look forward … to the part I shall play.
February 6, 1937. I fear that the next few years, with an unbalanced budget, with the expenditure of funds running wild, with a neutrality bill giving the President the war-making power, in reality, and with a Supreme Court subservient to him, we’ll be very close to a Dictatorship. The Congress, of course, is worse than subservient, and no one man can prevent what is happening, but at least, an official as old as I am, with little in the future for him, can stand on his feet and make clear the situation. I am under no illusions about the puny power one man in opposition wields, but it is better to die fighting a fight like this.
February 14, 1937. The plan of the President, which he thought he had cunningly hidden, is perfectly plain now. He seeks the reversal of the decisions of the Supreme Court by the short-cut of naming new Judges. If he can do it once, he can do it again, and when the country veers around his successor can do it. It is the breaking-down of the system we have become familiar with in this country. Down that road lies Dictatorship.
August 1, 1937. Yesterday we passed the hours and wages bill. [Johnson apparently refers to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set minimum wages and maximum hours, and outlawed child labor. It received final congressional approval in 1938.] It was a victory for the Administration. I voted against it, because I made up my mind I never again would give unlimited powers to an undisclosed board. I would be very glad to make a minimum wage, and prescribe hours, but to leave it to a board in Washington would be one more way of turning over the economic life of the country to the President for him to exercise at his own sweet will. I decline to do this.
February 12, 1938. The Farm Bill [the Agricultural Adjustment Act] has been before us the last few days. I have taken a deep interest in this measure and I believe it is the beginning of a set scheme to regiment everything. Farmers of course, as long as they receive their checks, will hurrah for the bill, and accept the provisions which rigidly make them farm so many acres in such and such a way. They have bartered for a few paltry dollars their independence.
March 5, 1938. I really think the President is drifting without the slightest idea of what to do or how to do it. He keeps up a bold front but he is feeling around with his bizarre ideas in the hope that he may discover something.
June 4, 1938. Last night … we disposed of the spending bill, and it was passed by a vote of sixty to ten. I was one of the ten in opposition. … I don’t believe a corporal’s guard in our body would have been for the bill, but for the fact they were frightened by the iteration and reiteration that one-third of our people were “ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed,” and that these people needed government assistance. I do not doubt that a vast number of people, possibly from ten to fifteen millions, most unemployed, require assistance, and I would give this to them, because no government can permit its people to starve; but the only way we could protest mixing up an equal amount of money for Ickes and Roosevelt to play with, to “prime the pump,” as they termed it, but to prime the polls, in reality, was by voting against the bill … I think the country is on the downward path. Unless something intervenes to save us, we’re bound for a totalitarian or Fascist government, inflation, or repudiation.
By the close of the 1930’s Johnson’s anti-New Deal sentiments had definitely hardened. He felt for Roosevelt, muck the same distrust and antagonism he had earlier felt for Wilson, and once again believed that it would be a tragic mistake for America to enter the ivar in Europe. The isolationist bloc in Congress, with which Senator Johnson was firmly allied, protested that America had been pushed into the first World War by the international bankers and munitions makers, and feared that the same thing was going to happen again. Johnson shared this Reeling, and as these letters show, felt also a tinge of anti-Semitism that made him profoundly suspicious of attempts to line America up in opposition to Hitler.
February 11, 1939. The lines are divided, unfortunately, as you may have perceived, with all the Jews on one side, wildly enthusiastic for the President, and willing to fight to the Last American, both Germany and Italy; and those of us—a very considerable number—who are thinking in terms of our own country, and that alone. … Naturally, like any normally constituted human being, I hate the persecutions to which the Jews have been put, and I will go any fair lengths, save the ruin of my own country, to aid them; but I will not go to the length of fighting for citizens of other nations, who have been badly and shamefully treated, nor that these citizens of other nations may vindicate their rights or punish their wrongdoers. This is the basis of the struggle here, and I don’t know but what somebody ought to say it openly, but everybody is afraid—I confess I shrink from it—of offending the Jews.
February 17, 1940. The other day I was quite surprised to receive a telephonic message from Mr. [Joseph P.] Kennedy [United States ambassador to England] that he would like to see me. … He told me that we have not a friend in Europe among the ruling classes, and illustrates what he means by saying (this is his own illustration) that if Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain, met for the purpose of determining their course, and with an agenda of things to be done at the calling of the meeting to order, all of them would be on their feet, and all of them yelling—what can we do to screw the United States. All of them, he says, have a deep-rooted hatred for us, and will do anything that can be concealed to carry that hatred into active operation. …
The man he said who was without scruple and who would resort to anything was Winston Churchill, and as illustrating this point, he said it was a 50/50 shot (these are his words) that the ship upon which he [Kennedy] was sailing, if it went to Gibraltar, would immediately thereafter find itself in some mysterious way blown up, and the blame for that mishap, England, through Churchill, would ascribe to Hitler. He dilated upon this, and upon the theory that an accident to our people, by which some Americans were killed, would probably take us into the war, and he thought it an even break that this might occur. There was very much more along the same line that he spoke of, and that was a surprise to me.
May 25, 1940. The fear of the British that they will suffer an overwhelming defeat has made them panicky here, and their sympathizers are ready to do anything, and don’t think their sympathizers are insignificant either. They literally crowd the halls of Congress, and there are damned few Americans left. I think it would be an awful thing for Hitler to succeed in breaking up the British Empire. My sympathies, of course, are wholly with Britain and France, and I pray for their success; but this is a very different thing from taking us into the war, whither we are now drifting, and where we are bound to go.
July 4, 1940. I have made no statement about the recent Republican Convention, although I think I know exactly what I am going to do. Predicated upon a candidacy for a third term for Roosevelt I will have to be for his opponent. I think the tradition established by Washington, Jefferson, and others of our most highly worshipped Presidents is a perfectly sound one, and it must be preserved in order to preserve our Republic. …
I did not care much for the [Wendell] Willkie nomination. His friends predict he is a marvelous fighter, and in some respects, a very great man. I am suspicious of his friends, but not too suspicious to accept him in place of the greater damage of a totalitarian government or a dictator. …
Well, this does not mean that I want to see back in power the old masters whom we drove out of California, and [whom] Roosevelt drove out of here in the early part of his career. I don’t think thoughtful men trust Roosevelt now, and I mean men just like myself, who were in sympathy originally with what he was trying to do, but who have reached the conclusion, first, that he did not know how to do it, and secondly, that he would take whatever means he could, however disgraceful and dishonorable to gain his ends. His ends even when good were marred by this sort of procedure, and when his ends sought were bad, as frequently they were, he endeavored to attain them by downright bribery, and the most corrupt practices politically.
November 9, 1940. It is going to be hell here the next six months or a year. If we can escape the concentration camps we’ll be fairly lucky. I know Roosevelt well enough to realize just how he is feeling. His is no humble spirit. He is feeling on top of the world, and he is parceling out a number of people he wants to get even with.
January 19, 1941. Damn this ceremony tomorrow. There have been one or two cartoons where old Mr. Common People is saying he hopes it rains, and snows, and storms, but the great bulk of the people play “God Save the King” and sing it, and think they are performing a patriotic service. This probably may be the last ceremony of the inauguration of a President that we’ll ever have. It is quite within the bounds of possibility; but one old man, sitting here this Sunday afternoon, can’t help but have his thoughts on the glories of our past, and the uncertainty of our future.
March 16, 1941. I don’t believe that Roosevelt knows any more … than we do. He has jockeyed himself into a position where he thinks he may give orders to the world, and this is all he wants. Like the dog gone back to his vomit, this country has become English again, and the Atlantic Seaboard and the southern States are the most disgusting part of America.
June 24, 1941. Our State Department and our President after some years of the foulest sort of abuse, which, in my opinion, was justified, regarding Joseph Stalin and the government of Russia, are now preparing to embrace Stalin and fight by his side. I think this is a horrid condition of affairs, and gives the lie to all our pretense regarding saving civilization, the high ideals that have actuated us in the war, and our solemn objurations that we’re fighting for the rights of humanity.
Russia has been the admitted awful example of a ruthless tyranny against which we have ever inveighed. I hasten to add that I consider Hitler no better, and so far as I am concerned, I would leave these two scoundrels Hitler and Stalin to fight it out. But it is perfectly obvious to me that Winston Churchill is directing our foreign policy, and that we’ll be sending aid to Russia at the earliest possible moment. … The whole bloody thing drives me distracted. And what we are to gain by a victory for Russia I shudder to think of, just as I shudder to think what will be the result if Hitler is successful.
As Johnson feared, the United States entered the war at last, and the weary Senator’s mind began casting ahead to the postwar era, when he foresaw a new attempt to set up a world organization along the line of the League of Nations. His position now was just what it had been at the end of the first World War—firm isolationism, based on the belief that America must cease to be involved in Europe’s quarrels—and lie wanted to make the 1919 fight all over again … but he felt old, and tired, and lonely. He died in 1945, not long after the United Nations charier was formally approved.
September 5, 1943. The big thing about here now is the meeting of the Republicans to be held at Mackinac Island, Michigan, this week, and the declaration that will be made by the Republican Party of the post-war duty of this country when peace shall be declared.
It carries me back more than twenty years, when the League of Nations was endeavored to be put over in this country; and I recall very vividly how at first blush all the reformers, who had been most blood-thirsty in the war, had their eyes firmly set upon a super-government for the world that would maintain peace forever and ever; and how a few of us undertook, apparently against great odds, and in defiance of what was supposed to be the expressed sentiment of our people, to make them understand the utter futility and weaknesses of this League, which, apparently, was designed solely to exercise our own country’s sovereignty in behalf of all the world.
Now, all of the press, and certain of the politicians, would go even further than the League sought to go. It took tremendous effort to make the people understand what the scheme meant, but I am very proud that I was a little part of that effort then made, and our own country refused to enter upon the new, unchartered road.
I believe the same result would be obtained now if the assault were made in the same manner, but alas, as I think of those who were then associated with me, I recall Knox and Lodge, Brandegee, [Republican senator from Idaho William E.] Borah, [Democratic senator from Missouri] Jim Reed, and the little band of patriots, who met in my office, and then at my house, and fought the good fight, and won it. But nearly all of them have passed away, and it makes me feel very sad to be the only one left, and to find myself neither physically nor mentally fitted for the new task.
November 3, 1944. I presume by the time this note reaches you we’ll know the result of the election. I have very little doubt in my mind concerning it. I think the forces of evil have united in this campaign, as I never have seen them before, and that they will be sufficient to carry a 4th term, something our ancestors never thought of.