John Reed

Roosevelt Sold Them Out

Published: The Masses, August, 1916
Transcribed:Sally Ryan for in 2000

The Editor of the New York Evening Mail was advising the German-Americans to vote for Roosevelt. Someone asked him why. He replied, “I know he is anti-German, but the Germans should support Roosevelt because he is the only exponent of German Kultur in the United States.”

When Theodore Roosevelt was President, a delegation from the State of Michigan went to Washington to plead with him the cause of the Boer Republic, then fighting for its life against the British Government. One of the delegates told me that Roosevelt answered them, cold as ice: “No, the weaker nations must yield to the stronger, even if they perish off the face of the earth.”

When Germany invaded Belgium, Colonel Roosevelt, in The Outlook, told us that was none of our business and that our policy of isolation must be maintained even at the expense of the Belgian people.

These instances showed the peculiar Prussian trend of the Colonel’s mind, and we were at a loss when he subsequently took up cudgels for that same Belgium which he had so profoundly damned, and came forward as the champion of the “weak nations.” Could it be chivalry? Could it be a sympathy with the cause of democracy? We held off and waited, skeptical as we were, and soon the Snake was discerned gliding through the Colonel’s grass. All this talk about Belgium insensibly changed into an impassioned pleading for enormous armies and navies in order that we might live up to our international obligations, and into a violent attack upon the Wilson administration for not doing what the Colonel had told it to in the first place. And the particular point he kept emphasizing was the administration’s cowardly refusal to crush the Mexican people!

After General Leonard Wood and the ambitious military caste in this country had whispered in the Colonel’s ear, and after the munitions makers and the imperialist financiers had given the Colonel a dinner, and after the predatory plutocrats he fought so nobly in the past had told him they would support him for President of the United States, “Our Teddy” came out for the protection of weak nations abroad and the suppression of weak nations at home; for the crushing of Prussian militarism and the encouragement of American militarism; for all the liberalism, including Russia’s, financed by the Anglo-French loan, and all the conservatism of the gentlemen who financed it.

We were not fooled by the Colonel’s brand of patriotism. Neither were the munitions makers and the money trust; the Colonel was working for their benefit, so they backed him. But large numbers of sincere people in this country who remembered Armageddon and “Social Justice” imagined that Roosevelt was still on the side of the people. Most of these persons had flocked to his standard in 1912 flushed with a vision of regenerated humanity, and had given up a good deal of their time, money and position to follow Democracy’s new Messiah. Four years of dictatorship by George W. Perkins and the Steel Trust, four years in which the Colonel had patiently allowed his crusaders to perish politically in droves, four years of contradiction and change until he was screaming at the top of his lungs for blood-thirstiness, obedience and efficiency, had not dimmed their faith. These people were not militarists; they were for peace, not war; they were not for universal service of any kind, nor obedience to corporations. They were for Roosevelt; they thought that, after all, he stood for Social justice. So they blindly swallowed what he advocated and shouted, “We want Teddy!”

In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt issued his Covenant with the American People, assuring them that he would never desert them, and affirming the unalterable principle of Social Justice for which he stood. This Covenant was the Progressive Party’s reason for being. Indeed, if they had not believed the Covenant with the American people would be resuscitated, I doubt if the Progressives, after those four long years of silence and neglect, would have risen to blindly follow Colonel Roosevelt again. They had had their knocks. They had made their sacrifices. They knew that as Progressives they could not come to power in 1916. But when that call came, all over the country in a million hearts the spark of almost extinct enthusiasm burst into flame, and the feeling of a holy crusade of democracy, which had stirred men and women four years ago, again swept the country.

Not the intelligent radicals—no matter how much they wanted Teddy, they knew he would betray them when it suited him—but the common, ordinary, unenlightened people, the backwoods idealists, as it were.—they trusted Teddy. Hadn’t he said he would never desert them? It was to be another Armageddon, and they would sacrifice to the cause as they had sacrificed before.

Little did they know that Theodore Roosevelt, in New York, was referring to them as “rabble,” and planning how he could shake himself free from enthusiasts, from idealists, from the dirty and stupid lower classes. Little did they know that he was saying impatiently about them “You can’t build a political party out of cranks. I have got to get rid of the ‘lunatic fringe.’ “ And by “lunatic fringe” he meant those people who believed in Social Justice and wanted to put it into effect.

The call to the Progressive Convention spoke of trying to reach a basis of understanding with the Republican Party. To this the Progressives assented;some because they wanted to get back into the Republican fold, and others because they wanted to force Roosevelt and Social Justice upon the Republicans and upon the country. And if the Republicans would not take Teddy and Progressivism why then hadn’t Teddy made a covenant with them? They would go it alone again as they had in 1912—the Party of Protest, the noble forlorn hope. And so they came to Chicago, inarticulate, full of faith,’ stirred by a vague aspiration which they would put into words later. Teddy was not Teddy to them; he was Democracy—he was justice and fairness and the cause of the poor. Also he was Preparedness; but if Teddy said Preparedness meant Justice and Liberty, then Teddy must be right. The platform of the party shows how completely these crusaders of 1913 had replaced principles with Roosevelt—there is no social justice in it.

I looked down from the platform of the Auditorium in Chicago upon that turbulent sea of almost holy emotion; upon men and women from great cities and little towns, from villages and farms, from the deserts and the mountains and the cattle ranches, wherever the wind had carried to the ears of the poor and the oppressed that a leader and a mighty warrior had risen up to champion the Square Deal. The love of Teddy filled those people. Blind and exalted, they sang “Onward Christian Soldiers!” and “We Will Follow, Follow Teddy!” There was virility, enthusiasm, youth in that assembly; there were great fighters there, men who all their lives had given battle alone against frightful odds to right the wrongs of the sixty per cent of the people of this country who own five per cent of its wealth. These were not Revolutionists; for the most part they were people of little vision and no plan—merely ordinary men who were raw from the horrible injustice and oppression they saw on every side. Without a leader to express them, they were no good. We, Socialists and Revolutionists, laughed and sneered at the Progressives; we ridiculed their worship of a Personality; we derided their hysterical singing of Revival Hymns; but when I saw the Progressive Convention, I realized that among those delegates lay the hope of this country’s peaceful evolution, and the material for heroes of the people.

On the platform was another crowd—the Progressive leaders. Now at the Republican Convention I had seen Barnes and Reed, Smoot and Penrose, and W. Murray Crane and those other sinister figures who fight to the death against the people. Well, the crowd on the platform of the Progressive Convention looked much the same to me; George Perkins of Wall Street, James Garfield, Charles Bonaparte, et al. Among this furtive, cold group of men there was no spark of enthusiasm, no sympathy for Democracy. Indeed, I passed close to them once and I heard them talking about the delegates on the floor. They called them “the cheap skates!” And yet this inner circle, whose task it was to use the Progressives as a threat to the Republicans, but not to permit them to embarrass the Colonel, were, as I knew, Theodore Roosevelt’s confidants, his lieutenants in the Convention.

The Republican Convention was sitting only a few blocks away, thoroughly controlled by Penrose, Smoot, Crane, Barnes, et al. This the Progressive delegates learned; and they learned that Theodore Roosevelt could not under any circumstances be nominated there. They clamored for Teddy. Roaring waves of sound swept the house, “We want Teddy ! Let’s nominate Teddy now!” Only with the greatest difficulty did the Gang persuade them to wait. “The call for a Convention,” they said, “had emphasized the necessity of getting together with the Republicans in order to save the country. We ought to appoint a Committee to confer with the Republican Convention as to a possible candidate that both parties might support.”

“We want Teddy. We want Teddy!”

“Wait,” counseled Perkins, Penrose, Garfield and the rest of the Gang, “it will do no harm to talk with them.”

Governor Hiram Johnson of California thundered to the delegates: “Remember Barnes, Penrose and Crane in 1912! We left the Republican Convention because the bosses were in control. They are still in control. The only word we should send to the Republican Convention is the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt!”

“It won’t do any harm to talk it over with them,” counseled the gang. “We have here a telegram from Theodore Roosevelt recommending that we discuss matters with the Republicans.” And they read it aloud.

Flaming Victor Murdock leaped to the stage. “You want Teddy !” he cried. “Well, the only way you will get him is to nominate him now!”

“I will tell you the message we ought to send to the Republican Convention,” shouted William J. McDonald. “Tell them to go to Hell!”

Well did they know—Murdock, McDonald and Johnson—that the Colonel was liable to sell them out. Well did they know that the only way to put it up squarely to Roosevelt was to nominate him immediately, before the Republicans had taken action.

“Wait !” counseled the Gang, cold, logical, polished and afraid. “It will do no harm to appoint a Committee to consult with the Republicans. If we go it alone, Theodore Roosevelt and Social Justice cannot be elected.”

And so the Committee on Conference was appointed, because the delegates trusted Perkins, Garfield, Bonaparte—and Roosevelt. What the Republicans thought about it was indicated in the composition of their Conference Committee: Reed Smoot, W. Murray Crane, Nicholas Murray Butler, Borah and Johnson.

“God help us!” cried Governor Hiram Johnson. “Tonight we sit at the feet of Reed Smoot and Murray Crane!”

And literally he did; for he was appointed as one of the Progressive Committee upon which sat George W. Perkins and Charles J. Bonaparte.

Upon the platform of the Progressive Convention the next morning word was spread quietly around that the Colonel, over the telephone, had requested that his name not be put in nomination until the Republicans had nominated their man. The Committee made its report, inconclusive from every point of view, and little by little the feeling that Roosevelt must be nominated grew as the time vent on. Only the Gang held the Convention in check by insisting that the Committee must have another session with the Republicans. And then, like a thunderbolt, came Roosevelt’s second message from Oyster Bay, recommending as a compromise candidate the name of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts! Henry Cabot Lodge, the heartless reactionary, who is as far from the people as any man could be! It threw a chill over the assembly. They could not understand. And now the nominations had begun in the Republican Convention, and the Gang in control of the Progressives could control no longer. Bainbridge Colby of New York was recognized and nominated Theodore Roosevelt; Hiram Johnson seconded the nomination; and in three minutes the rules had been suspended and Roosevelt was adopted by acclamation. “Now,” said Chairman Raymond Robins, “the responsibility rests with Colonel Roosevelt, and I have never known him to shirk any responsibility, no matter how insignificant or tremendous it might be. I believe that Colonel Roosevelt will accept.” And the convention adjourned until three o’clock.

How the Republicans nominated Hughes by an overwhelming majority is now ancient history; and how the Progressives, full of hope and enthusiasm and girding themselves for the great fight, returned to receive Roosevelt’s acceptance, I saw. The bands played, and exultingly, like children, the standards moved up and down the aisles. Prof. Albert Bushnell Hart of Harvard raved about the hall waving a huge American flag.

“No one man or two men or three men can own the Progressive Party,” shouted Chairman Robins, referring directly to George W. Perkins. “This is to be a people’s party, financed by the people. I call for subscriptions to the campaign fund from the floor.” In twenty minutes, with a burst of tremendous enthusiasm, $100,000 had been pledged by the delegates in the gallery. It was a magnificent tribute to the spirit of the “cheap skates.” And then it began to be whispered about the platform that Theodore Roosevelt’s answer had arrived; it said that if the Convention insisted upon an answer at once, he must decline—that before accepting the Progressive nomination Colonel Roosevelt must hear Justice Hughes’ statement; that he would give the Progressive National Committee his answer on June 26th; that if the Committee thought Justice Hughes’ position on Preparedness and Americanism was adequate he would decline the Progressive nomination; however, if the Committee thought Justice Hughes’ position inadequate, he would consult with them upon what was best to be done. This we, the newspapermen, and George Perkins and the Gang knew for an hour before the Convention adjourned, yet not one word was allowed to reach the delegates on the floor. Skilfully, Chairman Robins announced that in accordance with the will of the delegates, he was going to see that the Convention adjourned at five o’clock sharp—though no one had asked for this. The collection of money went merrily on, and those who gave did so because they thought Theodore Roosevelt was going to lead them in another tight. Only Governor Hiram Johnson and Victor Murdock sounded the note of bitterness and the certainty of betrayal.

“God forgive us,” cried Governor Johnson, “for not acting the first day as we ought to have acted!”

Victor Murdock was even more disillusioned. “The steam roller has run over us,” he cried. “We must never again delay making our decisions.”

And then, at four minutes to five o’clock, Chairman Robins announced perfunctorily another communication from Theodore Roosevelt, and read it; and before the Convention had time to grasp its meaning, it had been adjourned and was pouring, stunned and puzzled, out through the many doors into the street. It took several hours for the truth to get into those people’s heads that their Messiah had sold them for thirty pieces of political silver. But they did understand finally, I think.

That night I was in the Progressive Headquarters. Big bronzed men were openly weeping. Others wandered around as if they were dazed. It was an atmosphere full of shock and disaster. Yes, the intelligent radicals had known it would come, but they did not think it would come this way, so contemptuously, so utterly. They thought that the Colonel would have left them some loophole as he left himself one. They did not realize that the Colonel was not that kind of a man, that his object was to break irrevocably with the “cranks” and the “rabble"—to slap them in the face by the suggestion of Henry Cabot Lodge as a Progressive candidate. But now they were left, as one of them expressed it, “out on a limb and the limb sawed off.”

As for Colonel Roosevelt, he is back with the people among whom alone he is comfortable, “the predatory plutocrats.” At least he is no longer tied to Democracy. For that he undoubtedly breathes a sigh of relief. And as for Democracy, we can only hope that some day it will cease to put its trust in men.