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Harding’s Return to Normalcy – and Isolationism – after World War I
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Key political circular from the first-year Republican President written to influence off-year elections in New Mexico and other places. Harding justifies, and praises, the rapid postwar dismantling of America’s military by Congress, while backhandedly criticizing the inattention of his predecessor – Woodrow Wilson – to the peacetime transition. “Vast expenditure without proper consideration for results, is the inevitable fruit of war.”

WARREN G. HARDING. Typed Letter Signed as President, to Senator Joseph Medill McCormick, Washington, D. C., August 29, 1921. With autograph emendations in two different secretarial hands. 8 pp.

Inventory #21124       Price: $2,600

Partial Transcript

            “Thank you for your letter of congratulation on the accomplishment of the administration down to date. You have been good enough to speak kindly of the work which the Executive Departments have accomplished, as well as of that which has been done by the Congress. For myself, I feel disposed to emphasize what seem to me the remarkable achievements of the extraordinary session of the Congress.

            In view of the fact that during the war practically no consideration was given to preparation for the new conditions which would come with the return of peace, and that in the two years after the Armistice there was hardly any more administrative attention to these problems, I cannot but account it a monumental accomplishment which has marked the work of the extraordinary session down to the time of its recessI am happy to assure you that the administrative departments are now in full sympathy with the program of rigorous and unremitting economy through which, I believe, we will be able during the next year to cover back into the Treasury so large a sum that the aggregate of taxation may be reduced to $3,500,000,000 a year … a well-nigh universal protest against a possible repetition of gigantic conflict gives rise to the common hope that the conference in November may lighten the burdens of both armament and taxation, not only for this but for other lands The habit of vast expenditure without proper consideration for results, is the inevitable fruit of war Surveying the national situation as a whole, it is plain that we are working our way out of a welter of waste and prodigal spending at a most impressive rate. We have made much progress toward retrenchment and greatly increased efficiency ...

Historical Background

Harding defeated Democrat Jacob Cox for the presidency in a surprising landslide in 1920. He promised a “return to normalcy” and argued against the U.S. joining the League of Nations (Democratic predecessor Woodrow Wilson’s vision). Here, Harding criticizes the wasteful spending that occurred during the nation’s massive military mobilization for World War I. Billions had been spent for planes, ships and shells that were never put into action, partly because of America’s late entry into the conflict. Harding, committed to a renewed isolationism, and bolstered by the actions of a Republican Congress, proclaims this “extravagance” over.

Harding also boasts that this “program of rigorous and unremitting economy” will allow taxes to be cut by $3.5 billion, and contrasts this healthy frugality with the disorder and economic chaos of postwar Europe.

The President also mentions “the conference in November,” a reference to the Washington Naval Conference. At this conference, U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, working with diplomats from Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, agreed to halt further naval development. Harding reiterates his hope that the proceedings “may lighten the burdens of both armament and taxation; not only for this but for other lands.

On September 7, 1921, The New York Times published this letter, with an analysis of its role in several off-year election campaigns. “The President, as titular and actual leader of his party, sounds the keynote on which he hopes Republicans will go before their constituents in support of the record of the Republican Party … The letter was in response to one from Senator McCormick, written just after Congress had taken its 30-day recess, in which the Senator congratulated the Administration ‘upon the success which attended the development of your foreign policy.’”

McCormick wanted Harding to make a statement that could be used to help Holm Bursum win a special election to fill the vacated seat of New Mexico Senator Albert Fall, who became Secretary of the Interior. Ironically, Fall, the corrupt figure at the center of the Teapot Dome Scandal, tarnished the image and legacy of President Harding, who is now seen as one of our worst presidents. Bursum won the special election and served as U.S. Senator, 1921-1925, and Republicans maintained control of Congress and the presidency for another eleven years.

A generation later, after 1945, even some of Harding’s fellow Republicans would look back harshly on the isolationism embodied in this letter, and pursued throughout the Harding and Coolidge administrations.

Joseph Medill McCormick (1877-1925), a newsman and entrepreneur from Illinois, owned the Chicago Daily Tribune for a time, and was vice chairman of the Progressive Republican caucus in 1912 and 1914. McCormick was elected to the House of Representatives, serving from 1917-1919, and then to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1919-1925. He was an unsuccessful candidate for renomination by his party in 1924, and committed suicide a few months later.

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was a newspaper publisher and Republican politician from Ohio, and the 29th U.S. president. He served in the state senate, as lieutenant governor, and as U.S. Senator (1915-21), before becoming president in 1921, having promised a “return to normalcy.” Harding’s defeat of Cox in the 1920 election was the largest popular vote landslide in American history (60.4% to 34.2%). He was immensely popular while president, and appointed several talented men – including Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon, and Charles Evans Hughes – to his Cabinet. He created the Bureau of Veterans Affairs, initiated far-reaching immigration reform, made peace with Germany and Austria without entering the League of Nations, and reduced taxes. However, he is consistently ranked one of the worst presidents because of scandals involving his Interior Secretary (Albert Fall), his cronies from Ohio, and his own extramarital affair.


“President Praises Republican Record Made in Congress,” The New York Times, September 7, 1921.

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