All this and much more we learn from historian Lee A. Craig’s exhaustively researched and highly readable biography of a complicated and interesting man. Born in coastal North Carolina during the Civil War to a mother from a slave-owning family and a father who was a shipbuilder and Union supporter, Daniels made his fortune in the newspaper business, owning three by the time he was 21. Newspapers then were even more political than now, as they could not survive without the patronage of government printing contracts. Daniels demonstrated that his coverage and editorials could make or break candidates. Through that influence he became the most powerful politician in the South.
His power enabled him to deliver the divided Democratic convention of 1912 to his friend Woodrow Wilson. Daniels was rewarded with the most coveted Cabinet post, secretary of the Navy, serving for the eight years of Wilson’s tenure. At first a fervent pacifist, as war approached Daniels became a strong and effective advocate for a big and fully funded Navy. Despite a reluctant admiralty, he admitted women into the Navy and Marine Corps during the war, with more than 11,000 serving.
After the armistice, when Wilson took his Fourteen Points to Paris to negotiate the peace treaties, Daniels joined him and urged that he take a less doctrinaire attitude toward German guilt and reparations, warning that Wilson was dictating a peace to end all peace. Despite their closeness, Wilson ignored that counsel.
Craig’s narrative of the intrigues and issues of the Paris peace process is outstanding, ordering the many complex and often arcane political and personal conflicts into a clear picture for the reader. His judgment of Wilson is quite harsh: “As it turned out the administration’s peace plan could not have been a bigger failure. Wilson deserves a good bit of the blame. . . . Wilson’s inability to compromise when convinced of his own righteousness . . . cost him what he saw as his greatest victory.” The Senate rejected the treaty. After Daniels left office, he publicly denounced the treaty that ultimately went into effect as imposing a “Carthaginian Peace” on Germany.
Daniels did, however, persuade Wilson to support a true two-ocean Navy for the postwar period that made it the equal of any navy in the world. He also persuaded Wilson to back a pivot toward the Pacific that, by the time Daniels left office in 1921, resulted in 10 dreadnoughts being stationed there.
After the Republicans swept the 1920 election, Daniels returned to Raleigh to resume running his newspapers and exercising his still-formidable political power. Despite his progressivism, he, like Wilson, was deeply opposed to racial equality. Daniels indeed had been instrumental in bringing about the disenfranchisement of blacks throughout the old South. In the interwar period, he was a powerful supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, though according to Craig never a member.
Craig has made a major contribution to the understanding of the period by illuminating how Daniels and the white supremacy movement led by the old slave-owning and agriculture-based interests used prohibition laws, first in North Carolina in 1908 and later with ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, to break the political power of Republicans and blacks in the South. It was the Republicans and their Wall Street financiers who were building the new urban economy of textile, furniture, paper and other manufacturing that drew blacks from the land to the cities. Republicans also owned the distilleries, hotels and saloons. By putting these out of business, the Democrats could greatly reduce the Republicans’ presence and political influence.
Very few prohibition supporters in the South were teetotalers like Daniels. (Illegal stills had always been plentiful in the South, so prohibition there did not have the bite that it had in the North.) Thus did Jim Crow go hand in hand with prohibition. As Craig sums up, Daniels “led North Carolina’s white supremacist movement and, more than any other individual, was responsible for the disenfranchisement of the state’s African American citizens.”
Between the wars, Daniels remained a political kingmaker. Resisting efforts to draft him to run for president, he was instrumental in delivering the South to his protege FDR in 1932. As a reward, Roosevelt sent him to Mexico as ambassador, where he served until 1941. Returning to Raleigh and to writing his memoirs, he died on Jan. 15, 1948.
While the early chapters will be of interest mostly to students of North Carolina politics, the bulk of the book should be fascinating to the general reader. In Craig’s hands, the story of a very complex man living in the tumult of war and depression becomes a clear and intriguing page-turner.
was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission.