WOODROW WILSON (1913-1921)
Like Roosevelt before him, Woodrow Wilson regarded himself as
the personal representative of the people. "No one but the
President," he said, "seems to be expected to look out for the
general interests of the country." He developed a program of
progressive reform and asserted international leadership in
building a new world order. In 1917 he proclaimed American
entrance into World War I a crusade to make the world "safe for
Wilson had seen the frightfulness of war. He was born in Virginia
in 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister who during the Civil
War was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia, and during Reconstruction a professor in the charred
city of Columbia, South Carolina.
After graduation from Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and the University of
Virginia Law School, Wilson earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and entered
upon an academic career. In 1885 he married Ellen Louise Axson.
Wilson advanced rapidly as a conservative young professor of political science and became
president of Princeton in 1902.
His growing national reputation led some conservative Democrats to consider him
Presidential timber. First they persuaded him to run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In
the campaign he asserted his independence of the conservatives and of the machine that had
nominated him, endorsing a progressive platform, which he pursued as governor.
He was nominated for President at the 1912 Democratic Convention and campaigned on a
program called the New Freedom, which stressed individualism and states' rights. In the
three-way election he received only 42 percent of the popular vote but an overwhelming
Wilson maneuvered through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The first was a lower
tariff, the Underwood Act; attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The
passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the more elastic money supply
it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to
prohibit unfair business practices.
Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law prohibited child labor; another
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limited railroad workers to an eight-hour day. By virtue of this legislation and the slogan "he
kept us out of war," Wilson narrowly won re-election.
But after the election Wilson concluded that America could not remain neutral in the World
War. On April 2, 1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.
Massive American effort slowly tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Wilson went before
Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims--the Fourteen Points, the last of
which would establish "A general association of nations...affording mutual guarantees of
political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike."
After the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, Wilson went to Paris to try to
build an enduring peace. He later presented to the Senate the Versailles Treaty, containing the
Covenant of the League of Nations, and asked, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the
But the election of 1918 had shifted the balance in Congress to the Republicans. By seven
votes the Versailles Treaty failed in the Senate.
The President, against the warnings of his doctors, had made a national tour to mobilize
public sentiment for the treaty. Exhausted, he suffered a stroke and nearly died. Tenderly
nursed by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, he lived until 1924.
WARREN G. HARDING (1921-1923)
Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, "America's
present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy;
not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not
surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not
experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but
sustainment in triumphant nationality."
A Democratic leader, William Gibbs McAdoo, called Harding's
speeches "an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape
in search of an idea." Their very murkiness was effective, since
Harding's pronouncements remained unclear on the League of
Nations, in contrast to the impassioned crusade of the Democratic candidates, Governor
James M. Cox of Ohio and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Thirty-one distinguished Republicans had signed a manifesto assuring voters that a vote for
Harding was a vote for the League. But Harding interpreted his election as a mandate to stay
out of the League of Nations.
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Harding, born near Marion, Ohio, in 1865, became the publisher of a newspaper. He married
a divorcee, Mrs. Florence Kling De Wolfe. He was a trustee of the Trinity Baptist Church, a
director of almost every important business, and a leader in fraternal organizations and
He organized the Citizen's Cornet Band, available for both Republican and Democratic
rallies; "I played every instrument but the slide trombone and the E-flat cornet," he once
Harding's undeviating Republicanism and vibrant speaking voice, plus his willingness to let
the machine bosses set policies, led him far in Ohio politics. He served in the state Senate and
as Lieutenant Governor, and unsuccessfully ran for Governor. He delivered the nominating
address for President Taft at the 1912 Republican Convention. In 1914 he was elected to the
Senate, which he found "a very pleasant place."
An Ohio admirer, Harry Daugherty, began to promote Harding for the 1920 Republican
nomination because, he later explained, "He looked like a President."
Thus a group of Senators, taking control of the 1920 Republican Convention when the
principal candidates deadlocked, turned to Harding. He won the Presidential election by an
unprecedented landslide of 60 percent of the popular vote.
Republicans in Congress easily got the President's signature on their bills. They eliminated
wartime controls and slashed taxes, established a Federal budget system, restored the high
protective tariff, and imposed tight limitations upon immigration.
By 1923 the postwar depression seemed to be giving way to a new surge of prosperity, and
newspapers hailed Harding as a wise statesman carrying out his campaign promise--"Less
government in business and more business in government."
Behind the facade, not all of Harding's Administration was so impressive. Word began to
reach the President that some of his friends were using their official positions for their own
enrichment. Alarmed, he complained, "My...friends...they're the ones that keep me walking
the floors nights!"
Looking wan and depressed, Harding journeyed westward in the summer of 1923, taking
with him his upright Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. "If you knew of a great
scandal in our administration," he asked Hoover, "would you for the good of the country and
the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?" Hoover urged publishing it, but Harding
feared the political repercussions.
He did not live to find out how the public would react to the scandals of his administration. In
August of 1923, he died in San Francisco of a heart attack.
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CALVIN COOLIDGE (1923-1929)
At 2:30 on the morning of August 3, 1923, while visiting in
Vermont, Calvin Coolidge received word that he was President.
By the light of a kerosene lamp, his father, who was a notary
public, administered the oath of office as Coolidge placed his
hand on the family Bible.
Coolidge was "distinguished for character more than for heroic
achievement," wrote a Democratic admirer, Alfred E. Smith.
"His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the
Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history in a
time of extravagance and waste."
Born in Plymouth, Vermont, on July 4, 1872, Coolidge was the son of a village storekeeper.
He was graduated from Amherst College with honors, and entered law and politics in
Northampton, Massachusetts. Slowly, methodically, he went up the political ladder from
councilman in Northampton to Governor of Massachusetts, as a Republican. En route he
became thoroughly conservative.
As President, Coolidge demonstrated his determination to preserve the old moral and
economic precepts amid the material prosperity which many Americans were enjoying. He
refused to use Federal economic power to check the growing boom or to ameliorate the
depressed condition of agriculture and certain industries. His first message to Congress in
December 1923 called for isolation in foreign policy, and for tax cuts, economy, and limited
aid to farmers.
He rapidly became popular. In 1924, as the beneficiary of what was becoming known as
"Coolidge prosperity," he polled more than 54 percent of the popular vote.
In his Inaugural he asserted that the country had achieved "a state of contentment seldom
before seen," and pledged himself to maintain the status quo. In subsequent years he twice
vetoed farm relief bills, and killed a plan to produce cheap Federal electric power on the
The political genius of President Coolidge, Walter Lippmann pointed out in 1926, was his
talent for effectively doing nothing: "This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the
needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone....
And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has
become dangerously complicated and top-heavy...."
Coolidge was both the most negative and remote of Presidents, and the most accessible. He
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once explained to Bernard Baruch why he often sat silently through interviews: "Well,
Baruch, many times I say only 'yes' or 'no' to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up
for twenty minutes more."
But no President was kinder in permitting him to be photographed in Indian war bonnets or
cowboy dress, and in greeting a variety of delegations to the White House.
Both his dry Yankee wit and his frugality with words became legendary. His wife, Grace
Goodhue Coolidge, recounted that a young woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party
confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him.
Without looking at her he quietly retorted, "You lose." And in 1928, while vacationing in the
Black Hills of South Dakota, he issued the most famous of his laconic statements, "I do not
choose to run for President in 1928."
By the time the disaster of the Great Depression hit the country, Coolidge was in retirement.
Before his death in January 1933, he confided to an old friend, "I feel I no longer fit in with
HERBERT HOOVER (1929-1933)
Son of a Quaker blacksmith, Herbert Clark Hoover brought to the
Presidency an unparalleled reputation for public service as an
engineer, administrator, and humanitarian.
Born in an Iowa village in 1874, he grew up in Oregon. He enrolled
at Stanford University when it opened in 1891, graduating as a
He married his Stanford sweetheart, Lou Henry, and they went to
China, where he worked for a private corporation as China's leading
engineer. In June 1900 the Boxer Rebellion caught the Hoovers in
Tientsin. For almost a month the settlement was under heavy fire. While his wife worked in
the hospitals, Hoover directed the building of barricades, and once risked his life rescuing
One week before Hoover celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on
France, and the American Consul General asked his help in getting stranded tourists home. In
six weeks his committee helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Next Hoover
turned to a far more difficult task, to feed Belgium, which had been overrun by the German
After the United States entered the war, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food
Administration. He succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided
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rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed.
After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the
American Relief Administration, organized shipments of food for starving millions in central
Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia in 1921. When a critic inquired if
he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving.
Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"
After capably serving as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge,
Hoover became the Republican Presidential nominee in 1928. He said then: "We in America
today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land."
His election seemed to ensure prosperity. Yet within months the stock market crashed, and
the Nation spiraled downward into depression.
After the crash Hoover announced that while he would keep the Federal budget balanced, he
would cut taxes and expand public works spending.
In 1931 repercussions from Europe deepened the crisis, even though the President presented
to Congress a program asking for creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to aid
business, additional help for farmers facing mortgage foreclosures, banking reform, a loan to
states for feeding the unemployed, expansion of public works, and drastic governmental
At the same time he reiterated his view that while people must not suffer from hunger and
cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility.
His opponents in Congress, who he felt were sabotaging his program for their own political
gain, unfairly painted him as a callous and cruel President. Hoover became the scapegoat for
the depression and was badly defeated in 1932. In the 1930's he became a powerful critic of
the New Deal, warning against tendencies toward statism.
In 1947 President Truman appointed Hoover to a commission, which elected him chairman,
to reorganize the Executive Departments. He was appointed chairman of a similar
commission by President Eisenhower in 1953. Many economies resulted from both
commissions' recommendations. Over the years, Hoover wrote many articles and books, one
of which he was working on when he died at 90 in New York City on October 20, 1964.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (1933-1945)
Assuming the Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped
the American people regain faith in themselves. He brought hope as he promised prompt,
vigorous action, and asserted in his Inaugural Address, "the only thing we have to fear is fear
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Born in 1882 at Hyde Park, New York--now a national historic
site--he attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School.
On St. Patrick's Day, 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt.
Following the example of his fifth cousin, President Theodore
Roosevelt, whom he greatly admired, Franklin D. Roosevelt
entered public service through politics, but as a Democrat. He won
election to the New York Senate in 1910. President Wilson
appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he was the
Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1920.
In the summer of 1921, when he was 39, disaster hit-he was stricken with poliomyelitis.
Demonstrating indomitable courage, he fought to regain the use of his legs, particularly
through swimming. At the 1924 Democratic Convention he dramatically appeared on
crutches to nominate Alfred E. Smith as "the Happy Warrior." In 1928 Roosevelt became
Governor of New York.
He was elected President in November 1932, to the first of four terms. By March there were
13,000,000 unemployed, and almost every bank was closed. In his first "hundred days," he
proposed, and Congress enacted, a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and
agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and
reform, especially through the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By 1935 the Nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers
were turning more and more against Roosevelt's New Deal program. They feared his
experiments, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and
allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded
with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls
over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.
In 1936 he was re-elected by a top-heavy margin. Feeling he was armed with a popular
mandate, he sought legislation to enlarge the Supreme Court, which had been invalidating
key New Deal measures. Roosevelt lost the Supreme Court battle, but a revolution in
constitutional law took place. Thereafter the Government could legally regulate the economy.
Roosevelt had pledged the United States to the "good neighbor" policy, transforming the
Monroe Doctrine from a unilateral American manifesto into arrangements for mutual action
against aggressors. He also sought through neutrality legislation to keep the United States out
of the war in Europe, yet at the same time to strengthen nations threatened or attacked. When
France fell and England came under siege in 1940, he began to send Great Britain all possible
aid short of actual military involvement.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt directed
organization of the Nation's manpower and resources for global war.
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Feeling that the future peace of the world would depend upon relations between the United
States and Russia, he devoted much thought to the planning of a United Nations, in which, he
hoped, international difficulties could be settled.
As the war drew to a close, Roosevelt's health deteriorated, and on April 12, 1945, while at
Warm Springs, Georgia, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
HARRY S. TRUMAN (1945-1953)
During his few weeks as Vice President, Harry S Truman scarcely
saw President Roosevelt, and received no briefing on the
development of the atomic bomb or the unfolding difficulties with
Soviet Russia. Suddenly these and a host of other wartime problems
became Truman's to solve when, on April 12, 1945, he became
President. He told reporters, "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the
planets had fallen on me."
Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884. He grew up in
Independence, and for 12 years prospered as a Missouri farmer.
He went to France during World War I as a captain in the Field Artillery. Returning, he
married Elizabeth Virginia Wallace, and opened a haberdashery in Kansas City.
Active in the Democratic Party, Truman was elected a judge of the Jackson County Court (an
administrative position) in 1922. He became a Senator in 1934. During World War II he
headed the Senate war investigating committee, checking into waste and corruption and
saving perhaps as much as 15 billion dollars.
As President, Truman made some of the most crucial decisions in history. Soon after V-E
Day, the war against Japan had reached its final stage. An urgent plea to Japan to surrender
was rejected. Truman, after consultations with his advisers, ordered atomic bombs dropped
on cities devoted to war work. Two were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese surrender
In June 1945 Truman witnessed the signing of the charter of the United Nations, hopefully
established to preserve peace.
Thus far, he had followed his predecessor's policies, but he soon developed his own. He
presented to Congress a 21-point program, proposing the expansion of Social Security, a fullemployment
program, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and public housing and
slum clearance. The program, Truman wrote, "symbolizes for me my assumption of the office
of President in my own right." It became known as the Fair Deal.
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Dangers and crises marked the foreign scene as Truman campaigned successfully in 1948. In
foreign affairs he was already providing his most effective leadership.
In 1947 as the Soviet Union pressured Turkey and, through guerrillas, threatened to take over
Greece, he asked Congress to aid the two countries, enunciating the program that bears his
name--the Truman Doctrine. The Marshall Plan, named for his Secretary of State, stimulated
spectacular economic recovery in war-torn western Europe.
When the Russians blockaded the western sectors of Berlin in 1948, Truman created a
massive airlift to supply Berliners until the Russians backed down. Meanwhile, he was
negotiating a military alliance to protect Western nations, the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization, established in 1949.
In June 1950, when the Communist government of North Korea attacked South Korea,
Truman conferred promptly with his military advisers. There was, he wrote, "complete,
almost unspoken acceptance on the part of everyone that whatever had to be done to meet this
aggression had to be done. There was no suggestion from anyone that either the United
Nations or the United States could back away from it."
A long, discouraging struggle ensued as U.N. forces held a line above the old boundary of
South Korea. Truman kept the war a limited one, rather than risk a major conflict with China
and perhaps Russia.
Deciding not to run again, he retired to Independence; at age 88, he died December 26, 1972,
after a stubborn fight for life.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (1953-1961)
Bringing to the Presidency his prestige as commanding general
of the victorious forces in Europe during World War II, Dwight
D. Eisenhower obtained a truce in Korea and worked incessantly
during his two terms to ease the tensions of the Cold War. He
pursued the moderate policies of "Modern Republicanism,"
pointing out as he left office, "America is today the strongest,
most influential, and most productive nation in the world."
Born in Texas in 1890, brought up in Abilene, Kansas,
Eisenhower was the third of seven sons. He excelled in sports in
high school, and received an appointment to West Point.
Stationed in Texas as a second lieutenant, he met Mamie Geneva Doud, whom he married in
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In his early Army career, he excelled in staff assignments, serving under Generals John J.
Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and Walter Krueger. After Pearl Harbor, General George C.
Marshall called him to Washington for a war plans assignment. He commanded the Allied
Forces landing in North Africa in November 1942; on D-Day, 1944, he was Supreme
Commander of the troops invading France.
After the war, he became President of Columbia University, then took leave to assume
supreme command over the new NATO forces being assembled in 1951. Republican
emissaries to his headquarters near Paris persuaded him to run for President in 1952.
Negotiating from military strength, he tried to reduce the strains of the Cold War. In 1953,
the signing of a truce brought an armed peace along the border of South Korea. The death of
Stalin the same year caused shifts in relations with Russia.
New Russian leaders consented to a peace treaty neutralizing Austria. Meanwhile, both
Russia and the United States had developed hydrogen bombs. With the threat of such
destructive force hanging over the world, Eisenhower, with the leaders of the British, French,
and Russian governments, met at Geneva in July 1955.
The President proposed that the United States and Russia exchange blueprints of each other's
military establishments and "provide within our countries facilities for aerial photography to
the other country." The Russians greeted the proposal with silence, but were so cordial
throughout the meetings that tensions relaxed.
Suddenly, in September 1955, Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in Denver, Colorado. After
seven weeks he left the hospital, and in February 1956 doctors reported his recovery. In
November he was elected for his second term.
In domestic policy the President pursued a middle course, continuing most of the New Deal
and Fair Deal programs, emphasizing a balanced budget. As desegregation of schools began,
he sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to assure compliance with the orders of a Federal
court; he also ordered the complete desegregation of the Armed Forces. "There must be no
second class citizens in this country," he wrote.
Eisenhower concentrated on maintaining world peace. He watched with pleasure the
development of his "atoms for peace" program--the loan of American uranium to "have not"
nations for peaceful purposes.
Before he left office in January 1961, for his farm in Gettysburg, he urged the necessity of
maintaining an adequate military strength, but cautioned that vast, long-continued military
expenditures could breed potential dangers to our way of life. He concluded with a prayer for
peace "in the goodness of time." Both themes remained timely and urgent when he died, after
a long illness, on March 28, 1969.