Courtesy Reuters

Newton D. Baker

NEWTON BAKER, though a seasoned public servant, was far from being what is called a national figure when he went to Washington as Secretary of War in March 1916; and on the Atlantic seaboard at least, the appointment definitely offended our folkways. Of course the new Secretary had to be a Democrat, but here was clearly the wrong kind of Democrat. He came from Cleveland, not a good sign in itself, where he had been the disciple and successor of Tom Johnson; he had found nothing better to tell the Washington reporters at his first interview than that he was fond of flowers; and he belonged to peace societies (so did his predecessor, Elihu Root, but that was different). Could Woodrow Wilson have done worse had he tried?

Few of us changed our minds about Baker within the first months of his service. Yet at the Armistice he stood without question in the front rank of our citizens; and in direct violation of the rule that in an ungrateful democracy service in a national emergency is to be quickly forgotten, the years remaining to him were ones of steadily growing reputation. His death on Christmas Day last drew forth unique expressions of admiration and affection from all sections, all parties, and all classes. And yet the man who had died was the same man who came to Washington in 1916, ripened by time and by great responsibilities it is true, but the same man. The change was in ourselves. My effort here is an attempt to trace the steps and to set forth the reasons for that change.

The story of his administration of the War Department has been told by Frederick Palmer in "Newton D. Baker: America at War," and told with sympathy and understanding; we cannot reach our objective by briefly repeating that story, nor can we reach it by comparing Baker's record with that of his predecessors in wartime, and for two reasons: first, the vastness of the undertaking in 1917[i] provides fruitful reading, as do the addresses which later found their way into print, including his greatest effort -- the eloquent and deeply moving plea for the recognition of the League of Nations made at the Democratic Convention of 1924. It is true, also, that no adequate collection of American state papers could fail to include a few of his departmental writings (in general, these are to be found in Palmer's book) and that there are other important writings of his -- to which reference will be made later on. The entire printed record, however, tells us but little about the man himself, for the good reason that when he spoke in public or wrote for publication the very last thing in his thoughts was Newton Baker. With his genius for friendship, he was, as Raymond Fosdick has pointed out, one of the few remaining exponents of an almost lost art, that of letter writing, and it would have been much more to our present purpose if his voluminous and many-sided correspondence had been available.

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