To the Editors:
Ronald Steel’s interesting review of Louis Auchincloss’s book on Woodrow Wilson [NYR, October 5, 2000] contains some controversial statements as well as this omission: nothing on Wilson’s racist views.
Mr. Steel says that the Democrats had “gone down to defeat three times in a row with the orotund Bryan as their candidate.” Not “in a row.” Parker was the candidate in 1904; Bryan: 1896, 1900, 1908.
He claims that there would have been “a sure win for the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft” in 1912, if Theodore Roosevelt had not entered the race. Far from certain. By 1910, Taft was quite unpopular. The Democrats did well in the November elections that year and got control of the House of Representatives. Taft’s unpopularity is one reason why Roosevelt was nearly nominated by the Republicans in 1912.
He quotes Wilson at the start of World War I urging Americans to be “neutral in thought and in deed.” I believe that the August 19, 1914, message to the Senate used these precise words: “impartial in thought as well as in action.”
Certainly the quotation “there is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight” did not come in April 1915 but on May 10, 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania.
University of Maryland
Ronald Steel replies:
With regard to Mr. Sinsheimer’s comments, he is quite right to point out that the Democrats did not nominate Bryan three times in a row, as I had stated, but took a break in 1904. That was a careless error on my part.
Whether Taft would have had a “sure win” over Wilson in 1912 had Roosevelt not bolted the party and run as an independent is a matter of judgment. To me the evidence is quite compelling, and many others agree. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929), for example, states of Wilson that “success in large measure could hardly have come to him except for the division of Republican forces through the campaign of Theodore Roosevelt as Progressive candidate…. His popular vote was 1,000,000 less than that of his two chief opponents, and in only 14 states (all in the South) did he receive a clear majority” (Charles Seymour, Vol. 23, p. 633).
The admonition to be “impartial in thought as well as in action” is indeed the correct quote. I intended “neutral in thought and in deed” as a paraphrase but failed to so indicate.
The April date for the “too proud to fight” quote came from Auchincloss’s book (p. 72) but I should have double-checked it. May 10 is the right date.
I am grateful to Mr. Sinsheimer for his careful reading of my essay.