by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Though Woodrow Wilson promised in his 1916 reelection campaign that the United States would remain neutral in the cataclysmic world war that engulfed Europe and which was brutally at a stalemate in the trenches trapping both sides, German attacks on American ships proved to be the turning point and, in spring 1917, Wilson reluctantly but forcefully called upon Congress to declare war on that nation and its compatriots and join the French, British and other allies in the conflict.
The creation and deployment of the American Expeditionary Force under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, bringing hundreds of thousands of fresh troops to the battlefield provided the momentum for the defeat of the Germans and the triumph of the allied states. On 11 November 1918, that date coming to be Veterans Day, a national holiday, the Germans surrendered and the horrific war came to an end.
A great conclave of the victors and the defeated assembled at the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris to hammer out the extraordinarily complex treaty ending the war and there were many elements that had lasting effects for the next twenty years, some of which led directly to the onset of the Second World War. Meantime, President Wilson did something highly unusual in that he traveled to France to negotiate directly during the conference. One of his priorities was the proposal for a League of Nations that was to prevent future large-scale wars.
In January 1918, Wilson presented his “Fourteen Points” to Congress comprising his concept for proposals for a treaty to conclude the conflict and the last of these was to form an organization that would guarantee the independence, sovereignty and territory of all countries. The League of Nations did draw much support among nations participating in the peace conference, though there were expected concerns about its viability, idealism and whether some countries would balk at allowing an international association to adjudicate their national interests and, in one article, to be compelled to come to the military aid of any member state.
So, when Wilson personally delivered the treaty to Congress on 10 July 1919, there was a growing backlash against him from Republicans and some Democrats, as the United States was, and remains, hesitant to surrender any significant aspects of its sovereignty to such bodies. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings from the end of July to mid-September and Wilson testified before that body on 19 August. On 16 September, the treaty was placed before the Senate for debate before a full chamber vote.
By that time, Wilson, knowing that he faced considerable opposition, decided, controversially, to take his case for the treaty and the League directly to the American people and embarked on a three-week train tour of the country. From 3-25 September, the president logged 8,000 miles to sell his plan, making the argument that isolationism was against American interests and would allow for more and bloodier wars, while assuring hearers that the League was in alignment with American democratic values and would prevent a repetition of the type of conflict that the world war wrought.
On Saturday, 20 September, Wilson and his entourage came to Los Angeles from San Diego, though the original time of 12:30 p.m. was replaced by an arrival three hours earlier. Fortunately, a parade was planned for 12:45, so this gave the president, the First Lady and the others in the party time to get to their hotels and rest before the day’s activities. The train rolled into the Santa Fe Depot and, though it was unannounced when it would arrive, thousands of people showed up to greet the chief executive. Wilson did not emerge for about an hour and then was promptly taken to the Hotel Alexandria, the city’s finest hostelry, where the “Imperial Suite,” renamed the “Presidential Suite” was made available to him.
After a couple of hours of rest, Wilson and his entourage headed over to the parade’s staging area and then, as the event began, wended their way through downtown. An estimated 200,000 people lined the streets to see and cheer the president and one of them snapped the photo that is the highlighted object for this post. It was taken by Marvin L. Elliott, who lived at Hope and 16th streets, and he inscribed on the reverse, “A close up view of President Wilson, taken from 12th St. near S. Hope, Sept. 20, 1919, Los Angeles Calif.”
The image was taken from the sidewalk just feet from the president, though sharp-eyed members of the security detail are seen on the car’s running board and walking alongside it. The front of the vehicle is decorated with red, white and blue bunting and a large eagle with wide-spread wings, almost like a hood ornament. The street is thronged with observers standing near a church and a two-story apartment house.
As to that parade, the disembarking of the President and First Lady included a path of strewn flowers with girls holding bouquets and lining the way, while a canopy of flags were formed by young men from local military schools and under which the couple passed. Wilson gazed out the car window and initially stated that he would remain on the train until the parade was to start some three hours later with the train taken south. The train then returned as the crowd grew larger and the chief executive and his wife were met with a reception committee just prior to heading to the hotel. This consisted of George S. Patton, a prominent lawyer and father of the general-hero of the Second World War; Mayor Meredith P. Snyder and his wife; Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, former District Attorney and future Representative John D. Fredericks and several others.
There was a bit of a scare when a man jumped on the running board of the car taking the Wilsons and he was roughly pushed off and injured while police jumped in to detail what proved to be a merely overzealous admirer. Incidentally, it was reported that local police were preparing security plans that were “the most elaborate ever worked out by the local police department.” Chief George K. Home was to ride a horse with “the celebrated Spanish saddle” frequently used in events and which, the Express opined, “President Wilson probably will not see anything just like it on his entire trip.”
That paper also cautioned that “No Rowdyism Tolerated” referring to incidents at San Francisco from “irreconcilables” who were, it appears, protesting “with noisy disturbances” that “have received the strong condemnation of all right-thinking men and women.” The message was that “such shameful manifestations” would not take place in the Angel City, where “the profound respect that is due his exalted office” would presumably be shown.
The Times not to be outdone in its expressions of the importance of and reaction to the presidential parade, opened its coverage by breathlessly proclaiming “President Wilson, Chief Executive of the greatest nation in the world, was welcomed yesterday with tremendous and inspiring enthusiasm by the people of the greatest city in the West.” As he proceeded through downtown, the paper continued, “a mighty cheer, a great surge of sound that rolled along forty-five blocks of the city’s streets, sprang from tens of thousands of throats—a genuine, heartfelt and spontaneous greeting—which Mr. Wilson and those with him passed between dense lines of waving, shouting humanity.”
It was added that the President stood the entire time, waving his hat to the crowd and smiling constantly, as whistles blew everywhere along with the siren at the Times headquarters, and continued to smile as he completed his tour and entered the Alexandria. There was a portion of the parade at Hope and 12th, very near where Elliott snapped his photo, when school children were given assigned spots to see and greet the Wilsons and it was said “vivid interest was shown by the President when he passed by” and heard the youngsters singing “America.”
Notably, the escort not only included the chief and some 450 officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, but the Liberty Club Band of veterans and a detachment of Army personnel, comprised of the Coast Artillery and the balloon corps, this latter operating in Arcadia until early in 1920. The Times added a separate article that claimed “that the Los Angeles parade was unsurpassed by any yet witnessed by the party on its trip across the country, and that in many respects it overshadowed every reception so far given to President Wilson, was the unanimous opinion of the newspaper men and members of the Presidential party.” The enthusiasm and spirit were said to be superior and the people of Los Angeles friendlier and a Secret Service man testified to the welcome being the best so far on the tour.
There was also an article about the Wilsons’ suite at the Alexandria, the food they ate and it was stated that, rather than rest before the parade’s start, “the President managed to turn out a great deal of work” reviewing a large amount of mail and telegrams “and in attending to the other business that was laid before him by his secretaries.” After the parade, there was a luncheon and the hotel’s chef proudly proclaimed that Wilson declared “the best salad I tasted since I left Washington” was consumed there.
The President finally had some down time after the meal and before an evening banquet. It was noted that there were over fifty persons in the entourage and, among the suites used was one “given it through the courtesy of D.W. Griffith,” the famous film director “who recently furnished the rooms at an expense said to have been more than $15,000.” In all, it was reported that some one in the presidential party said that “the accommodations at the Alexandria are unsurpassed in any city so far visited by the President” The press were given the library to use for their reporting and there was a large police presence, as well.
Before leaving the city on the following day, Sunday, the President and First Lady attended church, though the location was kept secret until after the party left town, which made many a pastor nervous about how to structure their services and sermons in case of the surprise guests turned up in their house of worship. Although Wilson was a Presbyterian, his wife Edith, was an Episcopalian, so it was her turn to choose and it was a great shock to congregants and the clergy that they arrived precisely at 11 a.m. at St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral for services. Parishioners were informed that they were to remain seated until the Wilsons left the building.
In the afternoon, the President attended and spoke at the League to Enforce Peace conference at the Alexandria, where his vigorous defense of his League of Nations plan and the Treaty of Versailles was reported to be so well-received that Senator Hiram Johnson, a former governor, was urged by a cable to withdraw his reservations about the passage of the treaty. With that, he prepared for his departure, which took place at 7 p.m. and took Wilson and his party to Reno and other points on the national tour.
In fact, the great strain of presiding over the war effort, the prolonged and difficult negotiations at Paris, the battle with Congress, and this whirlwind tour proved to be more than the President could handle, as he suffered from frequent headaches. On 25 September, he gave a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, but was notably worn and tired-looking. In the middle of the night after the train left, he told Mrs. Wilson he felt terrible and his physician, who advised against the tour, insisted on the cancellation of the rest of the tour.
After returning to Washington, Wilson was able to walk unaided from the train to a waiting car, but, on 2 October, he suffered a massive stroke, which Mrs. Wilson blamed on Republicans determined to block ratification of the treaty and the joining of the League of Nations, which was voted down in mid-November. Meanwhile, Edith Wilson assumed control of her husband’s convalescence, concealing from the public his condition, and, it was said, screened his correspondence and even signed some documents on her husband’s behalf without his knowledge. She insisted that she was merely a “steward,” though some stated she essentially acted as a proxy President.
Wilson did improve, but remained paralyzed on one side and he was extremely limited in his physical activity through the remainder of his presidency. It was reported that, while in San Diego prior to visiting Los Angeles in September 1919, an admirer implored him to run for a third term. The President thought a deadlocked Democratic National Convention in 1920 might provide a way for him to break precedent, but support was lacking and Ohio Governor James M. Cox secured the nomination and lost the election to Republican Senator Warren Harding, also of Ohio. Wilson did not long survive, however, and died in February 1924, with his internment at the National Cathedral marking the first time a president was buried in the nation’s capital.
This photo is a great document of the visit to Los Angeles of President Wilson as he was trying to muster public support for what was a doomed project and just five days before his health gave out, ending his tour and, with the subsequent stroke, significantly impairing and impeding his presidency.