Remarkable chapter from the memoirs of FQC Gardner, an associate of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker
Secretary Baker was about as different from General March as any man could be. He was a small (slightly more than five feet tall), quiet spoken, rather frail looking, unaffected man, of simple tastes, who worked about fourteen hours a day and whose chief relaxation was reading Greek and Latin classics (in the original).
Like everyone with or under him, I came to have the greatest respect, admiration and affection for him.
Frederick Palmer‘s book “Newton D. Baker” (Mr. Baker was never willing to write his own autobiography) affords an excellent insight into the magnitude of the problems that confronted him in directing the greatest mobilization of the Nation in its history.
I shall not concern myself here with Mr. Baker’s accomplishments beyond stating that I believe, from my recollections of him, that he was directly and personally responsible for:
(a) Overruling the opinion of Judge Advocate General Crowder, construing Section 5 of the National Defense Act as eliminating the supervisory functions of the General Staff, and as leaving it only advisory.
(b) The enactment of the Draft Act, and for the policy of using local civilian Draft Boards.
(c) The creation of the Council of National Defense and of the War Industries Board.
(e) Securing President Wilson’s backing for unity of command of all Allied forces.
(g) Spending more than a billion dollars before the passage of the Emergency Appropriation Bill.
(h) Personally conducting with the British the negotiations leading to the allotment of British shipping and to the settlement of claims involving this shipping.
Mr. Baker had the keenest mind of any man I have ever known. He also was the ablest extemporaneous speaker that I have ever heard speak.
As Secretary of the General Staff I had no official dealings directly with Mr. Baker. However, he knew that perhaps 75% of the letters for his signature passed through my hands, and that many of them were rewritten by me before I submitted them to the Chief of Staff.
He would occasionally, generally in the afternoon after he had finished his daily session of dictation, stroll through General March‘s office into mine, and, generally while sitting on the edge of my desk, smoking his pipe, would talk with me, generally about something he had read, in Greek or Latin, the night before preparatory to going to sleep.
I recall particularly one such occasion which might be of some interest to you, as affording some insight into Mr. Baker‘s personality.
He remarked that the next day he was leaving for West Point to deliver the Graduation Address, and he asked me if I would like to accompany him as his Aide. (I think that this was his way of giving me an opportunity to get away a while from my desk). I replied, of course, that I should be very glad to go.
We took the night train, arriving in New York about 6:30 a.m., and took a taxi to Grand Central Station, where we were to take a NYC train of day coaches only, to Garrison, where we would take the ferry to West Point.
Mr. Baker had a small suitcase, and suggested that we get in the smoker, (which was the car immediately in rear of the baggage car). Mr. Frederick P. Keppel, an Assistant Secretary of War, had joined us at the station, en route to some point beyond Garrison. I turned one of the seats over so that the two seats faced one another, and the three of us sat down. Mr. Baker had a book under his arm, and he said, “I picked up a copy of Morris Schaff‘s ‘Spirit of West Point‘. I have had no time to give any thought to my speech today, and I want to glance through this book while we are en route in order to get something of a background on West Point.”
The smoker filled up rapidly. Just before the train started, a man, evidently an educated man of affairs, entered the car, and seeing the one vacant seat by Mr. Baker, asked if he might seat himself. Mr. Baker urged him to do so. When the train was under way, all four of us began to glance through the headlines of the morning paper. In a few minutes this led to comment by one of the group on some item of the news. This, in turn, led to some discussion between Mr. Baker and the gentleman. They differed in their point of view, and the discussion became quite interesting as each stated his views so logically and succinctly that we were all oblivious of the time. At last Mr. Baker looked at his watch, and, saying “I didn’t realize that we will be in Garrison in about ten minutes. Please excuse me for a moment,” he picked up his suitcase and disappeared into the baggage car. In a few minutes he returned, having changed his street clothes for a more formal morning coat, striped trousers and a high hat. As he returned to his seat, his seat mate stared at him with some consternation, and said, “Aren’t you Mr. Baker, the Secretary of War?” Upon Mr. Baker’s reply in the affirmative, he said, “Well, Sir, I must apologize to you. I assure you that I did not recognize you before and I am afraid that I must have said some things that I would not have said had I known you were who you are.” Mr. Baker smiled, and, as we pulled into Garrison, said, “You certainly do not owe me any apology. While we have not seen alike in some matters, I have enjoyed our conversation very much and have found it very stimulating. I must congratulate you upon your skill and your candor in explaining your points of view.”
We were met at the ferry landing by an official car and escort, and were whisked up the hill to the Battle Monument, where the Graduation Exercises were to take place, and within not more than five minutes of our arrival there Mr. Baker was introduced by the Superintendent and made the most eloquent and the most fitting Graduation address that I had ever heard made there.
Immediately on the conclusion of the Exercises we were whisked down the hill in time to catch a NYNH&H train for Pennsylvania station in New York. When we arrived there we were met by the Station master (who apparently had been advised by the Station Agent at West Point that Mr. Baker was on board) who told Mr. Baker that the station included a private waiting room for VIP’s and he urged Mr. Baker to make use of it for as long as he might be waiting for his train to Washington. Mr. Baker thanked him, but stated that he would not have the time to avail himself of the invitation.
We checked our bags, and Mr. Baker turned to me with a smile and said, “Well Colonel, what do you say to our going out and doing the town?” While I couldn’t clearly visualize just what might be Mr. Baker’s conception of “doing the town,” I hastened to reply that I thought it would be great fun. So we walked up to Macy’s, where Mr. Baker spent an hour or so browsing through the Book Department and discussing, at some length, some of the new books with the peroxide blond sales girl, in which discussion he succeeded in getting a full explanation as to her views as to the various characters and of the plot, to which he listened with close attention and with much interest. After he had bought one or two books we then walked up to Gimbel’s book store, where the same procedure was repeated.
By that time it was getting dark, so we walked back to Penn Station and went in the Restaurant to have dinner. After finishing dinner (a simple meal) we had a couple of hours to wait before we could get aboard the train for Washington, and we spent the time sitting at the table, smoking and discussing the events of the day. I recall a part of the conversation. At one point I said, “Mr. Secretary, I know that you had practically no opportunity to prepare your address today. But the address you delivered was the most eloquent and most fitting one I have ever heard at West Point. Will you please tell me how it was possible for you to deliver such an address extemporaneously?” He smiled and replied, “I am glad you liked it. To answer your question I would say that, for some years, I was City Attorney in Cleveland while Tom Johnson was Mayor. At that time he was actively engaged in his campaign for a 3-cent street car fare. Almost every day there were delegations of one kind or another who upon Mr. Johnson to protest against something he had done. Mr. Johnson adopted the plan of sending all these delegations to my office for me to handle. As the result I found myself making speeches almost every day to these delegations. I attribute any facility that I may have acquired in speaking extemporaneously to this experience.”
At another point in the conversation I referred to some tribute that Mr. Baker had, in his speech, paid to West Point. I felt very proud that he had paid such a tribute to the Military Academy, and I asked him if he would tell me what, in his experience as Secretary of War, had prompted him to do so. His reply, in substance, was as follows:
“As you, of course, know, it has frequently devolved upon me to select a man to head up some new and vitally important activity. In such cases it has been my policy to call upon two or three of the outstanding experts in the particular field involved to recommend to me several of the men whom they considered to be the best qualified to take over the task in question. I would then select one of these men to come and see me. I would explain to him the nature of the work involved and ask him if he would be willing to undertake it. In a great many cases the reaction was the same. The man would thank me for having considered him, and would state that before making a decision he would like to consult his associates in business. A few days later, upon his return to my office, he would say, in effect ‘After careful consideration I have decided that I must decline to accept the position. I have had no experience along this particular line, and I am not sure that I would make a success of this job. A failure would undoubtedly detract greatly from my professional reputation and prestige, that has taken me years to build up in the work in which I have specialized.’
I would then call upon each of the other men who had been recommended to me, with a similar reaction from each. Finally, in desperation, I would call upon the Army to select an officer considered best qualified for the position. When he came to see me, in almost every case he would say, in effect, ‘As you doubtless know, Mr. Secretary, I have had no experience in this particular field, and I have but little knowledge as to the nature of the problems involved. I believe, however, that, given a reasonable time to study the matter, I should be able to analyze the situation and, with the advice of such experienced associates that may be found to be required, to set up an organization which, with such modifications as actual experience may indicate as being advisable, will function effectively. If, after full consideration, you still wish me to take the position, I shall do so.’ In practically every instance the officer concerned has handled the job, no matter how complicated or extensive it might be, with outstanding efficiency and success.
In looking back over the past, I have been struck by the fact that, with very few exceptions, these men were all graduates of West Point.
The fact that West Point is able to turn out men whose reaction, when confronted with a new and difficult problem, is not “Whom can I find to tell me how to do this” but rather “Given time enough to study the problem I shall be able to analyze it and resolve it into its basic factors”, and who possess the leadership, loyalty, integrity and executive ability to organize and direct effectively and successfully the organization involved, makes West Point an invaluable and indispensable asset to the country, in peace or in war. It was this thought that I had in mind in my address this morning.”
This tribute to West Point, by Mr. Baker, can, in my opinion, always be a source of pride to any graduate. I do not know of any man in our history who, by actual experience, intelligence and insight, has been better qualified to make such an appraisal.
One of Mr. Baker’s outstanding characteristics was his intensive love of justice. All Court Martial records with sentences of death or (for officers) of dishonorable discharge) required the approval of the President, and were sent by the Judge Advocate General to the office of the Chief of Staff for transmission to the Secretary of War for his recommendation to the President. I reviewed these cases before presenting them to the Chief of Staff, and in a few cases I submitted a Memorandum recommending the disapproval of the recommendations of the Judge Advocate General.
Mr. Baker personally studied each of these proceedings (some of which were two or three feet high), this work being done at night after every one else in his office had left, and frequently not being finished until two or three o’clock in the morning.
I once asked him why he felt it necessary to do this and why he would not delegate most of this work to some eminent lawyer or judge in whom he had entire confidence. His reply was, in effect, “In reviewing these cases I am not so much concerned with the individual concerned as I am in his sons and daughters. I desire, if possible, consistent with justice, to spare these from the humiliation of being ashamed of the record of their father in the War, and I cannot decide what is just, in a particular case without personally studying the record.” I doubt very much if the Secretary of War in any other war followed such a laborious and painstaking procedure.
The following quotations, from several people who, in my judgement were especially qualified to do so, express, in words more fitting than any I could use, my own opinion of Mr. Baker.
Walter Lippman wrote of him: “Mr. Baker, it always seemed to me, had the exceptional strength of an almost selfless man. I do not know of any public man in our time who rose to such heights of power with so little personal ambition, or who gave up power so easily and with so little personal regret. He had many enemies, but he, himself, was almost without enmity. He was one of the kindest, most considerate, and most magnanimous human beings of our time. He had no vanity, no resentments, and no sense, I think, that he had been called to a high place in a great moment in history, and that he had a chance to carve out for himself a memorable career and a resounding reputation.
Everywhere it is now known that he was a great Secretary of War, undoubtedly the greatest this country has ever had in time of war.
We shall not often see a man of his quality, and those who had the pleasure of working for him will think of him as one of the most unworldly men who ever in any time played so great a part in the world.”
“his great gift was his sense of understanding, magnanimity and his passionate love of justice and liberty…
In all relationships of life, whether personal, professional or political, he was a man of incorruptible integrity.”
General March wrote (The Nation at War) :
Secretary Baker was a little man physically, but that was the only small thing about him. He united a remarkably alert mind with a mastery of the apt word and a sense of fairness and justice I have never seen surpassed in any one…
As the Army grew he too grew in stature as Secretary of War. When we entered the War he knew little about the business of war. But neither did any one else in America. As his responsibilities increased, he developed with them. He visibly, almost from day to day, became a bigger man, with a complete and comprehensive grasp of the whole military purpose.
It is my considered opinion that Newton D. Baker is the greatest Secretary of War this nation has ever produced. And in saying this I do not exclude the forceful Stanton or the brilliant Root; no Secretary ever solved his difficulties with more success. Secretaries of War who have followed him have found his state papers models of clearness, justice and freedom from error.”