Magazine article The National Interest

The Boldness of Charles Evans Hughes

Magazine article The National Interest

The Boldness of Charles Evans Hughes

Article excerpt

WITH THE current high drama in our national life, commenced on September 11, 2001, it may seem odd to suggest an interest in the life and diplomacy of Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State from 1921 to 1925 under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. At first glance, his times seem much less daunting than ours: a period of peace, burgeoning prosperity and, flappers and Prohibition aside, what President Harding called "normalcy." But, in truth, Hughes became Secretary of State at a critical juncture. The United States had been tested by a horrific world war and had emerged divided over its proper international role. The awesome mortality rate of that war (more than 50,000 American soldiers were killed in action), and the use of poison gas as a method in it, alarmed many Americans. Just beneath the surface, too, many feared exposure to the historic vulnerabilities of the Old World, as if America's exceptional circumstance in history--having enjoyed sanctuary from attack by two surrounding oceans and two unthreat ening neighbors--was melting away before a prospective devastation so frightening as to virtually paralyze imagination and response. And with Woodrow Wilson incapacitated by a stroke and Theodore Roosevelt deceased, America was without prominent statesmen to guide it.

In other ways, too, Hughes encountered a turbulent international scene for which few precedents existed to guide him. As the major creditor nation after the Great War and a leading world power, the United States was destined to assume a major role in international affairs. The war, however, had left the nation so mired in dissension and disillusionment that most Americans rejected any overseas political or military commitments. Hughes was keenly aware of the dangerous gap between what America was required to do in its own interest and what American public opinion would tolerate.

Despite such obstacles, Hughes revealed himself to be a determined activist once in office. He frequently offended those who differed from him, as well as those who resented his blunt and overbearing manner. He broke with the conventional diplomatic etiquette of the times in which patience and decorum were central; he opted instead for boldness and results, and so managed to guide an ambivalent nation away from "rank isolationism." As we shall see, Hughes was not without his character flaws, and he made mistakes; but he met unprecedented times with unprecedented creativity and energy.

A Judge's Journey

HARLES Evans Hughes was born on April 11, 1862, the son of a Baptist minister from Wales. He was raised in upstate New York State in strict observance of the classic virtues of frugality, honesty and hard work. Graduating with honors at 19 from Brown University, he then received a law degree from Columbia while simultaneously attaining a Master of Arts from Brown. His brilliance in law was aptly demonstrated in his first public assignment, when he was chosen by the New York State legislature in 1905 to investigate corrupt gas and insurance companies. Hughes went from success to success in his public career, serving as the governor of New York State (1907-10), an associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court (1910-16) and Republican candidate for the presidency in 1916. (Despite lingering divisions in the Republican Party from Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 "Bull Moose" adventure and Hughes' own ineptness as a campaigner, he lost to the incumbent Wilson by only 23 electoral votes.)

In 1921, Warren Harding named Hughes his Secretary of State. As a condition of accepting the post, Hughes insisted on "free rein to run the State Department and to set the nation's foreign policy agenda. Harding and his successor Coolidge, who both admitted their meager knowledge of foreign matters and were primarily concerned with domestic problems, granted Hughes' request. (Both men also knew that, had Hughes not withdrawn from the 1920 presidential contest over the death of his daughter, Helen, he would most likely have been elected the 29th president. …

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