Rob Christensen

‘I gave my voice and vote for war’ – one leader’s conflicted role in WWI

Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels seemed matter-of-fact about the end of World War I.

“News of signing of armistice received at 2:45 a.m.,” Daniels wrote in his diary on Nov. 11,1918, almost exactly a century ago. “Boys crying extra in the streets. Holiday ordered by the President in all public offices & navy yards. Admiral (Sir Lowther) Grant of British Navy, called to express thanks for all Navy had done. At 1’clock the President addressed Congress giving details of armistice with Germany.”

Few North Carolinians were more heavily involved in World War I than Daniels, whose family owned The News & Observer for 101 years from 1894 until 1995.

Daniels (1862-1948), a Democratic power broker who had also played a key role in disenfranchising North Carolina’s African-Americans, had been an unlikely choice to lead the Navy.

“Daniels knew nothing about naval activities per se and little enough about administration on any large scale,” wrote historian H.W. Brands.

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Daniels was instrumental in Woodrow Wilson winning the White House, and he was rewarded with a Cabinet post. Daniels shared Wilson’s skepticism about U.S. engagement in World War I, and his desire to maintain American neutrality.

The Navy had been expanding under Daniels, but not fast enough for his critics in the pre-war years. As historian Jean Edward Smith writes, Daniels had become the whipping boy for Big Navy advocates including the GOP, the Navy League, Wall Street, the steel industry and the jingoist press.

Daniels, like Wilson, wanted to avoid any actions that might provoke the European antagonists, or push the U.S. into war.

It was only after the torpedoing of U.S. shipping by German U-boats that Daniels reluctantly cast his pro-war ballot when Wilson polled his Cabinet.

“I gave my voice and vote for war after a long conflict that had torn me for months,” Daniels wrote in his autobiography. “It was my Gethsemane.”

There was plenty of reason for Daniels to be a reluctant warrior. World War I’s industrial warfare led to an estimated 18 million military and civilian deaths. Many historians argue that the war also contributed to the rise of Soviet communism, of the Nazis in Germany, the carnage of World War II, the Holocaust, and a fractured Middle East with which we are still dealing.

With the outbreak of the war, Daniels oversaw a naval build-up. After observing Germany being disadvantaged by its smaller navy, Daniels was converted into a believer that America should have a large navy. The Navy swelled from 65,000 personnel to 500,000 and expanded the number of vessels from 300 to 2,000. Serving in Wilson’s war cabinet, Daniels was responsible for the Marines, navy yards and other facilities.

He was a strong advocate for a convoy system, despite British skepticism that the slower boats would make all the ships easier targets. But the system worked, ferrying 2.1 million Doughboys overseas, while losing only 768, according to Wilson biographer Scott Berg.

At the urging of his chief deputy, future president Franklin Roosevelt, Daniels backed the effort to lay 70,000 ocean mines to bottle up the German fleet – and more importantly the U-boats – in the North Sea.

Several months after the end of hostilities, Daniels and some of his naval experts boarded the USS Leviathan, a former German ocean liner seized in New York (and whose crew were interned in the Madison County town of Hot Springs) and headed for three months in Europe.

Daniels was part of the American delegation to the Paris peace talks, with Daniels focusing on whether restrictions should be placed on the future size of the world’s navies.

Daniels was treated as a victorious naval warlord. He met with King Emmanuel of Italy, lunched with King Albert of Brussels and with British King George V at Windsor Castle.

Along with Marine Gen. John Lejeune, he watched 27,000 Marines pass in review at the Kaiser’s old drilling ground in Germany.

In England, the British Parliament feted him with a dinner attended by nearly 100 MPs. After dinner, Daniels and Winston Churchill, the former First Lord of the Admiralty and his opposite part during World War I, sat down for brandy and cigars – that is, Churchill had the brandy and cigars, not the abstemious Daniels. Although civil, the two did not get along. Daniels said the United States needed a powerful two-ocean Navy, while Churchill insisted that Great Britain remain master of the seas.

Daniels left the Navy post in 1921, with the election of Republican Warren G. Harding.

When he returned to Raleigh, he built a new home, called Wakestone, on Glenwood Avenue, near Wade Avenue, a house he quipped was built with stones thrown at The N&O.

Outside his house, he installed a decommissioned World War I German battleship gun – a reminder of the war that ended 100 years ago.

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Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack