Why did I write a book about the presidential election of 1912? Aside from being fascinated by the outsized candidates -- Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft and Eugene V. Debs -- I was trying to answer a question: What if Roosevelt had won instead of Wilson? I had spent all of my working life writing and thinking about foreign policy. In the 1912 race, foreign policy played almost no role. Yet the consequences of that election for American foreign policy were profound. Had TR won, the United States probably would have entered World War I in 1915 (after the sinking of the British liner "Lusitania" and the loss of 128 American lives) and the war almost surely would have ended sooner. Later, at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson compromised away many of his principles in his dealings with his allies Britain and France to gain their support for his beloved League of Nations; then he refused any compromise with his critics in the Senate, and the League went down to defeat, along with his commitment to give a military guarantee to France. Had TR lived, he almost surely would have received the Republican nomination in 1920 and almost surely would have been elected president. He would have supported a League of Nations with the reservations the Senate wanted, he would have given U.S. military guarantees to the allies, and the tragedies of World War II and the Cold War might have been avoided.
So, essentially, I wrote a book about a national election to answer a hypothetical question about the larger world. But my road to writing 1912: The Election That Changed the Country and puzzling out those connections was actually more circuitous and began much earlier than I had imagined. In fact, at Harvard I had studied French and Italian literature and taken only one history course. All my writing aside from term papers was fiction. Mostly, I was writing a novel and editing pieces submitted to the lit magazine, the Harvard Advocate. The poet Archibald MacLeish taught the advanced writing seminar and let me into his class. For two hours a week my fellow students and I met in MacLeish's study in the bowels of Widener Library and were allowed to believe we were serious writers. His seminar was remarkable for the number of gifted writers who were admitted -- among them were Harold Brodkey, Ted Hoagland and Jerry Goodman (later writing about economics under the pseudonym of "Adam Smith"). In those years John Updike was writing for the Harvard Lampoon; Louis Begley wrote stories for the Advocate, where Jean Valentine's poems were also appearing. Just before I arrived in Cambridge in 1949, poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall were publishing in the magazine.
How did all these literary giants relate to the politics of the day? Not much at all. The aesthetic at the time was generally hostile to politics. There was a strict if unspoken line drawn between creative writing and politics. Our literary pantheon included T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose books, many of which had gone out of print, were being reissued. None of them were politically engaged poets or novelists. The course to take for those brave enough to risk a staggering amount of reading was Harry Levin's "Proust, Joyce and Mann." We thought writing about politics was a cop-out, a seeming loss of self.
Everything changed for me when I went to Paris on a fellowship, ostensibly to study Baudelaire and Delacroix, but also because that was where young writers were supposed to go, and I thought that I had better seize that year before I was drafted into the military. I believed, after Adlai Stevenson's overwhelming defeat in the 1952 presidential election, that in Paris I could put politics out of sight altogether.
I could not have been more wrong. To go to Paris in 1954 as a student and remain indifferent to politics would have been as impossible as for a young French student to come to America in 1968, witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy or the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and remain in an ivory tower of self-involvement. In May of '54, Dien Bien Phu, the last redoubt of the French Army in Vietnam, fell, and masses of students raced down the Boulevard Saint-Michel in protest. The opposition between art and politics that had seemed inherent at Harvard was being resolved in Paris by how one behaved.
A year later I returned to France as a U.S. Army soldier, and was assigned as an interpreter with the French army in Verdun, where the longest, bloodiest battle of World War I had taken place. By 1955, the French were withdrawing from Vietnam but becoming embroiled in a brutal war in Algeria. French writers Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Francois Mauriac saw no conflict between political engagement and literature. Though I worked in an office of French engineers during the day, I lived with the American soldiers who were billeted in Verdun. There I met David Fromkin and Ronald Steel, both serving in the army and passionately committed to a life in politics, both later to write eloquently on American foreign policy. By the time I returned home in 1956, I had been infected by the virus of politics, even though I did not realize how deeply.
Though my first and only novel appeared a few years later, I was drifting away from fiction and believed I should make a life in politics, which now obsessed me. But I was married with two small children, and there was no way I could go to graduate school to study international relations. My solution was self-education, and to do this I sought the informal guidance of David Fromkin, then an international lawyer, who had studied at the University of Chicago under the famous "realist" political theorist Hans Morgenthau. David gave me reading lists in history and politics, explained economic theory and pointed me to a career editing journals on international affairs, most notably Foreign Affairs, and later to teaching international relations. He edited my writings and showed me how important it was to be clear and to avoid at all costs academic jargon and Latinate nouns.
If a person looks at his professional life long enough, he begins to see a pattern that was there long before. I think now that I had always seen politics in action through fiction, not only in great political novels like Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma and Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, but also in novels I had read as a boy. Graham Greene, in his essay "The Lost Childhood," writes: "Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained. We may modify some views we already hold, but we are most likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back."
The writer who most confirmed what was in my young mind already was Alexandre Dumas. All his novels are at bottom political novels. Six volumes describe the adventures of D'Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos -- from The Three Musketeers to The Man in the Iron Mask -- played out against the political machinations of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and Louis XIV, as well as the love affairs of Anne of Austria and Louise de la Valiere. They are stories that show that political action is determined not by historical inevitability but rather by the roads not taken, the distractions, the near misses, the destructive if alluring love affairs, all the contingencies and what-ifs of history.
So, you see, the might-have-beens are essential not only to fiction but to presidential elections, to the dominoes that rattle through international politics, and thus to the long march of world events. In 1912, Taft would never have been president had his wife not forced him to turn down an appointment to the Supreme Court, which he had always dreamed of. Roosevelt would have run for a third term in a row -- and there might have been no Taft presidency -- had TR not foolishly and thoughtlessly promised during his successful campaign for a second term not to run again. Had he made public in 1912 the details of Wilson's adulterous affair some years earlier, Wilson might have lost -- but TR refused to do so.
By the time TR put together his Bull Moose progressive party, the United States was emerging as a world power. Contrary to Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local," as early as 1912 politics in America was becoming global. TR was determined that America would play a leading role on the world's stage, and Woodrow Wilson accepted that challenge. After the U.S. retreat from world power in the 1920s, the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1932 finally fulfilled the promise of TR's and Wilson's commitment to internationalism. No president who followed FDR to the White House ever turned the clock back to an isolationist America, even when he might have preferred to. Now, with the threat of global terrorism directed at our nation, none of us can escape the consequences -- both good and ill -- of the exercise of American power on a global scale or the personal and private decisions made by public figures that will affect the shape of the world to come. *