NEWTON D. BAKER: AMERICA AT WAR. By Frederick Palmer. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931, 2 vols., 421, 451 pp. $7.50.

ONE turns the pages of these volumes with a feeling almost akin to excitement. Here, for the first time, is the picture of what went on inside the War Department in those incredible years of 1917 and 1918. We see a country in which a desire for peace predominated suddenly aroused to a passion of militant activity, willing to root up every sacred tradition and transform every objective of private and public effort if only it could win a military victory over its enemy. We follow the steps leading up to the sweeping draft act -- itself a violent break with American tradition. We see the considerations that led to the appointment of Pershing and the battle of giants that followed when Pershing, commanding in France, and March, the Chief-of-Staff in Washington, exchanged cablegrams in words that did not always disguise what they felt. We see Theodore Roosevelt marching on Washington with his cohorts, demanding the right which he could not obtain to raise a division of troops and threatening to bring down the temple in reprisal. We see the desperate struggle between the two conceptions as to how American soldiers in France could best be employed -- whether as a separate army or as a reserve infiltrated into the forces of the Allies. Here is the text of the negotiations that led up to the appointment of Foch as generalissimo of the Allied forces, and of Baker's fortunate cable to the President that helped precipitate the event. Here, too, is the incredible story of Clemenceau's attempt to relieve Pershing of the command at the time when our Meuse-Argonne offensive had struck a snag.

Truly these were days of great action. We trained troops in terms of millions. We spent lavishly in terms of billions. We put a gigantic army into France and maintained a battle-line three thousand miles away from home. Never in its history had the country been so united or so determined. Finally, we had as civil leaders, both in the White House and in the War Department, two men who trusted each other implicitly, who shared the same ideal of public service, and whose fighting jaws proclaimed their belief that the heroic undertaking could be made to succeed.

Of the first of these leaders, Woodrow Wilson, history has already spoken much and there is much more still to be said. Of the other leader, Newton Baker, we have known surprisingly little. During the war he seemed to the country a quiet, modest little man -- colorless, many people would have said -- who in spite of his high position succeeded in maintaining a substantial degree of anonymity. He was bitterly attacked at one time and another during the war, but he had a way of going on with his business without dramatizing either his enemies or himself. When the war was over he retired to Cleveland to practice law, writing to a friend that he was not as concerned as he should be, perhaps, about the verdict of history.

It is a far different picture of Baker, however, that emerges from these pages written by Colonel Palmer. It is the portrait of a modest man, to be sure -- a man who hated the spotlight -- but it is shot through with elements of character and greatness which far too seldom attach to the leaders of democratic effort. Colonel Palmer indulges in no eulogy and is sparing in his use of adjectives. He lets the records and letters speak for themselves. Out of this material steps a man with a mind as sharp and keen as any that has been seen in public service these many years -- a man not only with an amazing grasp of facts, but with a power of analysis and a capacity for clear statement which shine through every letter and document that he wrote. Baker said of Wilson: "He had the most orderly mind I have ever known." This same estimate could be applied to Baker, for Baker's mind, as shown here, is one of those rare combinations in which swift perception is balanced by judgment, and clarity and sanity run hand in hand. It was undoubtedly this quality that so attracted Wilson to Baker, for Wilson loved above everything else a logical and incisive mind. As Baker described the President: "He knew a dry sponge on sight, and his comments on fruitless people were marked by extreme intellectual impatience but not unkindness." Consequently, between Wilson and his Secretary of War there developed an understanding and attachment which even Colonel Palmer, unable to use the text of the President's letters, could not fully picture.

At no time was the unique quality of Baker's mind displayed to better advantage than in his statement before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs early in 1918 in regard to the conduct of the war. Public opinion, stimulated by Colonel Harvey and Senator Chamberlain, was disturbed and uneasy. Baker seemed too "soft," too much of a "scholar," and the cry was to "speed up the war." "We need a Butcher and not a Baker," became a slogan quietly circulated. Colonel Harvey's Weekly launched a vitriolic attack. Baker was "a chattering ex-pacifist, seated on top of a pyramid of confusion which he has jumbled together and called a war machine." The word was passed around by the whispering gallery: "If Baker doesn't break, we'll break him." At an address in New York before the National Security League, Senator Chamberlain said: "The military establishment of America has fallen down. There is no use to be optimistic about a thing that does not exist. It has almost stopped functioning." At the close of Chamberlain's speech Theodore Roosevelt sprang to his feet leading the prolonged applause. As Palmer says: "The old lion, if he might not go to France, was not precluded from roaring at home, and his roar could penetrate every corner of the land."

It was in the face of such a storm that Baker asked to be heard by the Senate Committee. I was present on that occasion. Baker spoke for three hours. He had in front of him merely a small sheet of paper on which he had scratched a few headings. It was the most eloquent, persuasive and dramatic statement I have ever heard. Baker had facts and figures at his finger-tips. He showed an amazing knowledge of the detail of every department and bureau in the War Office. He outlined with precision what had been done to date and the plans for the future. Referring to Theodore Roosevelt's earlier comment (made in August 1917) that "we should strain every energy to get 50,000 to 100,000 men to France this year, and by next year, 1918, we should have 500,000 men to send over, or any part of 500,000 men we could ship," Baker said:

Instead of having 50,000 or 100,000 men in France in 1917, we have many more men than that in France. [He was precluded from making public the exact number by considerations of military policy.] Instead of having a half million men whom we could ship to France if we could only find any way to do it in 1918, we shall have more than one-half million men in France early in 1918; and if the transportation facilities are available, we have one and one-half million men who in 1918 can be shipped to France.

Chamberlain and his committee had nothing to say. They could not argue with Baker's facts, which spoke for themselves. "I know you must be tired," said the Senator. "The Committee has been very much impressed." The tension in the country was immediately relieved. The attacks, except from Colonel Harvey and his bitter-enders, died down. The agitation for a coalition cabinet ceased. As Palmer remarks: "Baker was not breaking nor was he to be broken." That the Secretary's prognostication as to the number of troops in France was no bit of boastful overstatement is shown by the fact that when Armistice Day came there were more than 2,000,000 American soldiers on French soil.

Perhaps the secret of the situation lay in the fact that Baker was the son of one of Jeb Stuart's old troopers. He looked like a quiet type of student, but his looks were deceptive. Beneath a scholar's mien he had a will like iron and an ability to say "No" in a soft tone which left no doubt in the hearer's mind that the question was definitely settled. He said "No" to Theodore Roosevelt and he said "No" to Leonard Wood, and now that the records are spread before us both decisions do credit to his intelligence and his firmness. Roosevelt's proposal to raise an independent division was an impossible one, condemned by everybody who knew the situation in France. But Roosevelt was a fighter and he did not easily let go of his idea. In Baker, however, he collided with a man who, although he might not look it, was made of the same kind of steel. "Since the responsibility for action and decision in this matter rests with me," Baker wrote to Roosevelt, "you will have to regard the determination I have already indicated as final."

Leonard Wood felt the same touch beneath the glove. Kept at home because Pershing did not want him in France, he hotly protested the order to Baker in a personal interview, bringing to bear that powerful and persuasive magnetism which made him the idol of thousands of friends in the United States. Baker met his directness with a directness of his own. "Frankness compels me to say, General Wood," he told him, "that without at all discussing any reasons General Pershing may have for not including you in the list, if I were in his place I would come to the same conclusion upon very definite grounds of my own."

Inside Baker's official family in the War Department there was this same quiet firmness -- a spirit of decision that was never ostentatious. But everybody knew that Baker's hand was at the helm. They were no pigmy figures, those men with whom Baker was surrounded in the War Department. The army does not turn out that type of man. There were Bliss and March, as Chiefs of Staff, both of them powerful characters -- the latter, particularly, endowed with superb drive and dynamic energy. There was Crowder who ran the draft act, and Crozier in charge of the Artillery. There was Pershing overseas who spoke from the shoulder and was accustomed to authority. And among them moved Baker, physically a little man who never was ruffled and who never raised his voice, but who intellectually was the acknowledged master of them all.

It was indeed an amazing performance. Here was a little fellow who came from Cleveland, relatively unknown outside of Ohio. In his first interview with the newspapermen he was put down as a spineless pacifist who would last but a few months. By sheer force of character, by the incisiveness and drive of his own mind, he not only gained the support of the army, but he mastered the administration of the largest collective enterprise in which this country has ever been involved. Let Pershing's testimony, published in his recent book, resolve any last remaining doubt on this score:

Secretary Baker's desire to aid in the solution of the multitude of problems which confronted me, his clear comprehension of their magnitude, his sympathy, his infinite tact and understanding, were qualities that served to lighten my burden and inspire loyalty to his direction of America's military effort. No American general in the field ever received the perfect support accorded me by Mr. Baker. His attitude throughout the war, in so far as it concerned me personally and the Army in France, is a model for the guidance of future secretaries in such an emergency.

We civilians who were intimately associated with Baker in the War Department knew, of course, that all this was true. We knew what his leadership meant, and we were confident that some day the story would be told. We saw Baker at close range and we knew the stuff he was made of. He never said anything bitter or unkind -- even about the Germans. In his mind the Germans were simply misled. He was the type of man who never wanted credit when things went right. On those occasions it was always somebody else who was responsible -- it was Pershing, it was Bliss, it was March. But if things went wrong, as they frequently did in the conduct of so gigantic an enterprise, then as Secretary of War he insisted on assuming entire responsibility. The Leonard Wood incident is a case in point. From one end of the country to the other condemnation rained down on Baker's head for keeping a gallant officer at home. A word from Baker that it was done at Pershing's request would have quieted the storm, for the country was anxious to support the commanding general in the field, and would have been inclined to forgive in him even what they might have believed a mistaken policy. But Baker's lips were sealed. He said to the writer: "Pershing has troubles enough of his own, and what's a Secretary of War for if it isn't to take the gaff?"

And he was always serene, never excited, never harassed, never losing his temper or his equanimity. In those midnight hours, when what he laughingly called his "kitchen cabinet" fore-gathered in his office to discuss the events of the day, he was at his best. With his feet on his desk and a fresh load of tobacco in his pipe he would throw off administrative cares and take on the rôle that suited him best -- a scholar interested in books and ideas, a philosopher who hated the pomp and circumstance of the task allotted him, and who had the rare capacity to sit back and contemplate himself and the world with quiet humor. In the catholicity of his tastes and interests he showed himself more like the late Arthur Balfour than any man we have had in public life in this country in a generation. Those of us who crossed the ocean with him during the war remember the extraordinary scope of his reading. He read constantly -- everything he could get his hands on -- biographies, histories, literary criticism, detective stories. Even a book on the technique of gasoline engines seemed to hold for him a peculiar charm. He was the best informed man on the whole range of human knowledge and interests whom I have ever met.

The manner in which he left office at the end of his administration was engagingly characteristic. There was no repining, no regret for glories that were gone. "In seventy days," he wrote to his law-partner, "the Baker family enact Paradise Regained." And again he wrote, as he looked forward to his return to Cleveland: "Not an apartment of state with rooms en suite (and bill en bitter!) but a modest room with bath, as befits a man whose conscience is clear enough to enable him to sleep easily in simple surroundings, and whose purse is light enough to excite the compassion even of an inn-keeper."

It is significant that in the searching investigation of Baker's administration which was initiated under the Harding régime -- an investigation which was prosecuted both here and in Europe, which took three and a half years to complete, and for which $2,700,000 was appropriated by Congress -- the following were the convictions: a man in Texas was sentenced to two and a half years for stealing a motor truck, and afterward paroled; a second got eighteen months; a third was fined $100 for stealing government property; and the fourth was found guilty of a falsehood in applying for a passport. To quote Colonel Palmer: "After all this costly investigation by the succeeding administration, which had no reason to be partial to the War administration, all other indictments were quashed." And he repeats the words of Mr. Dooley: "Be sicrety of war, if ye will; but niver be sicrety of A war."

One puts down this book with curiously mingled feelings. Here is a man who in a situation of enormous difficulty did a superlatively good job. As an example of excellent technique in public administration, I doubt if it has ever been excelled in our history. But what was the job? What was the task to which the American people called these unique talents? Briefly put, it was the task of developing guns, ammunition and man-power in such overwhelming mass quantities as to insure the slaughter of the largest possible number of Germans in the shortest possible time. It seems incredible, but it is true, that this was for two years the devouring passion of 120,000,000 people in the United States. We were all in the situation together. We thought, planned, dreamed and prayed in terms of slaughter. Nothing else was important. It was an ideal that drew us together. We hated with a common hate that was exhilarating. The writer of this review remembers attending a great meeting in New England, held under the auspices of a Christian church -- God save the mark! A speaker demanded that the Kaiser, when captured, be boiled in oil, and the entire audience stood on the chairs to scream its hysterical approval. This was the mood we were in. This was the kind of madness that had seized us. It was a holy crusade, a war to end war. If only we could put enough vigor and drive into this particular "hate," we would never have to hate again.

From the standpoint of the result we were after, we did a clean, workmanlike job. It was undoubtedly the most efficient war the United States has ever waged. We served under devoted, competent and unselfish leadership. But from any other standpoint, those two years of 1917 and 1918 represent an insane and incredible interlude -- an interlude which, the farther we get away from it, is increasingly difficult to understand and explain. Some of us used to be concerned during the war for fear we would not be able adequately to answer the questions of our children as to the part we as individuals had played in the conflict. Those questions may yet be put to us, and the embarrassment may prove as real as we anticipated, but it will be for reasons we did not dream of thirteen years ago.

There are those who claim that some measure of good came out of the war, that it was a healthy tonic which stirred the sluggish pulse of the world, that it opened a door to a new kind of future and set the feet of the race in a new direction. This is not the place to argue the matter. All we can say now with any degree of assurance is that we have not yet proved the point. The world is even more an armed camp than it was before, and the International Court and the League of Nations -- which, if developed into powerful instruments, might be held to justify the havoc and slaughter of those years of war -- are only feebly intrenched in the practice and confidence of nations. As far as the United States is concerned, we cannot claim even this extenuation, for we have joined neither the League nor the Court, preferring instead to follow old traditions and shape our policy in accordance with pre-war methods.

It is this kind of speculation that Colonel Palmer's book arouses. Why could not America have used a man like Baker for some great constructive purpose? Why did we have to turn his talents to such employment? With so few people really fit for leadership, and with such gigantic issues facing this generation, why did we hand him a war to fight instead of giving him a creative task worthy of his capacities? Looked at in the large, it was such a waste of splendid material, such a poor use for a democracy to make of unique administrative vision and high intelligence. But this statement applies, of course, to the entire country. What if that same concentrated drive and energy that we put into those two years had been harnessed to some definitely constructive purpose -- some goal of social or industrial reorganization that promised a fairer and better life? Why does war command a solidarity of devotion and sacrifice that cannot be marshaled for peace?

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • RAYMOND B. FOSDICK, Chairman of the Commission on Training Camp Activities of the War and Navy Departments, 1917--18; special representative of the War Department in France, 1918--19
  • More By Raymond B. Fosdick