In June and July of 1920, two Ohioans were nominated as the presidential candidates of America’s two leading political parties: James Cox, governor of Ohio, for the Democrats, and Warren G. Harding, senator from Ohio, by the Republicans.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe was still reshaping itself following the Great War. Long-standing empires fragmented as nationalist and communist movements gained momentum across the continent.
Ireland, a discontent part of the British Empire for centuries, had been fighting an escalating war of independence since 1919. British troops, frustrated by the revolutionaries’ irregular tactics, resorted to violent reprisals against the Irish population.
By the time Cox and Harding had been nominated, Irish and British forces were frequently committing assassinations, ambushes, and raids on each other as the two sides struggled for political and military control of the island.
The war in Ireland was not unique in the sense that Europe saw much larger, parallel conflicts in Russia, Poland, and the former Ottoman Empire.
However, Ireland was notable in that its descendants constituted a substantial segment of the American public. Although they’d become practically ubiquitous within major east coast cities like Boston and New York, the Irish diaspora spread through the entirety of the United States, Ohio included.
Many of those immigrants not only retained an interest in the conditions of their ancestral homeland, but actively and vigorously raised money for it. One of the largest fundraising organizations was The American Committee for Relief in Ireland, though its members and supporters extended well beyond just Irish-Americans.
They petitioned then-candidate Harding for donations and endorsement, and their Ohio director stressed their non-partisan nature claiming “We are not engaged in any political or sectarian endeavor” and that their funds went “without discrimination as to race, religion, or politics.”
They wanted it clear: the money they raised was for helping refugees and the war-afflicted, not the purchase of guns and munitions.
Not all groups were so purely humanitarian, however. Some, like The Friends of Irish Freedom of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, advocated for “our Government to recognize the existing Irish Republic” and “use all the means at its command to put an end to the inhuman acts perpetrated by England’s military forces upon the Irish people.”
Despite this provocative attitude, American military intervention was never a serious prospect. Although the United States’ strength and influence were on an upswing in the wake of the Great War, the British Empire remained a close ally and preeminent global power.
Much more realistic would have been the application of economic and diplomatic pressure; The United Irish Societies of Cleveland demanded that the federal government “protest against the continuation of those conditions (the sackings, burnings, and assassinations at the hands of the British military) and to recognize the now existing Irish republic,” “call upon the English government to immediately withdraw its army of hired assassins from the soil of the Irish republic,” and “recall all loans made to England for … the war against the German Imperial government.”
They further encouraged their fellow Americans to boycott English products and businesses in the United States, though it’s unclear to what extent such a boycott was implemented or effective.
Not every Irish-American shared these sympathies, however. Views on independence were tied closely with religion and geography.
Northern Ireland was (and still is) a stronghold of Protestantism on a dominantly Catholic island, and circa 1920 resisted attempts at autonomy, preferring the existing union with England. Large numbers of Northern Irish Protestants had immigrated to the United States by the time of Harding’s political rise to power, and made their own voices heard concerning what America should do regarding the “Irish Question.”
The Loyal Orange Lodge no. 162 of Cleveland (Irish unionists adopted the color orange and use it as a symbol of their political and religious affiliations) wrote to the newly inaugurated President Harding in March 1921 encouraging him to “preserve the integrity of our country (the USA) along the lines of not interfering with the political problems of a friendly nation (Great Britain).”
They went on to decry pro-revolutionary propaganda in America that “has a tendency to stir up ill-feeling and probably war between the two great English-speaking nations.”
Writing to Harding from Youngstown, The Ladies Loyal Orange Lodge demanded to know if he supported Sinn Fein (the leading pro-independence political party in Ireland during the revolution) and urging him to take action before “we find ourselves overpowered and in the possession of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.”
That sort of anti-Catholic rhetoric was not particularly unique. Ohio and the United States as a whole were still primarily Protestant, and there was genuine fear that Catholics in government would serve the Pope in Rome before the American people and Constitution.
In August, 1920, Mrs. E. W. Goodlin of Cleveland wrote to Harding: “Every body who is wise knows that this Irish movement is only the Catholics of the world making war on Protestant England.”
Another of Harding’s correspondents referred to Catholicism as “conceived by the Devil and run in the interest of Hell.”
Although reports of English atrocities gathered sympathy for the Irish people in many American circles, the Irish revolutionary movement’s image suffered as a result of anti-Catholic prejudice. In turn, the British cause found supporters in other Americans distrustful of the Roman Catholic Church.
Interestingly, the religious divide was not unbridgeable; Harding received at least one letter during the campaign from a member of The Protestant Self-Determination for Ireland League of Toledo suggesting that Protestant America was “very poorly informed as to the real conditions in Ireland” and called for Harding’s support of Irish freedom.
It’s hard to know the author’s exact motivations, but perhaps the author saw similarities between the Irish cause and United States’ own revolution. The idea of underdog rebels fighting against the British crown for their self-determination, independence, and freedom to form a republic must have resonated with plenty of Americans, and many were appalled by the abuse of Irish civilians by the British army.
Mistreatment of the Cubans by the Spanish in 1890s and of the Belgians by Germany in the Great War had been justification for the United States’ involvement in its two recent major conflicts, so why should the situation in Ireland be any different?
The latter historical example was even invoked in a letter to Harding by Arthur Griffith, Acting President of Ireland, who drew parallels between an Irish mayor’s imprisonment by the British and the internment of the mayor of German-occupied Brussels during the Great War.
Besides humanitarian concerns and religion, the Irish issue was also closely tied in with the ongoing League of Nations debate.
President Woodrow Wilson strongly advocated for United States’ participation despite the concept’s deep unpopularity among many Americans. Although the League of Nations was intended to maintain global peace in the wake of the Great War, they viewed it as a danger to their independence and autonomy.
Article X of the treaty implied that the United States would be legally and diplomatically obligated to protect other members from aggression. As a result, Americans (Republicans in particular) saw the League of Nations as a hook for getting dragged into far-flung wars they wanted nothing to do with.
One Columbus resident named J. L. Hughes asked, “…what pet hobby do the petty politicians of the other nations intend pulling across on us?” i.e. warning that other nations would try to manipulate the United States into fighting their wars for them. Hughes went on to advise that if Cox were elected he would take the Irish issue to the League of Nations, leading to an inevitably disastrous confrontation with England.
Interestingly, he prefaced that sentiment with the phrase “…regardless of the merits of the case,” suggesting that he may have sympathized with the Irish situation on a personal level, but took a pragmatic stance that Irish freedom would not be worth the cost of war with Great Britain.
The Republicans in congress ultimately blocked American admission to the League of Nations because of those concerns, and fears of the United States being dragged into foreign wars went unrealized for the next 20 years.
However, the damage was done for candidate James Cox. As President Wilson’s fellow Democrat, he had adopted the League of Nations as part of his platform, despite its unpopularity.
He also tried hard to appeal to Irish-Americans, a key faction of the Democratic Party base, by taking a stronger stance than Harding in favor of Irish independence, attacking his opponent for being anti-Irish, and suggesting that the League would help Ireland break free of England.
However, he also recognized the concept’s broader unpopularity and tried to convince non-Irish voters that he wouldn’t drag them into conflict.
In the end, the Democrats’ efforts to toe the line were ineffective, alienating some supporters of Irish independence while simultaneously attracting the disfavor of isolationist voters. Some supporters of Ireland thought of Cox as too soft on the issue, while opponents and pragmatists saw him as dangerous and likely to spark a war.
Across the campaign trail, Warren G. Harding expressed his personal sympathies with the cause of Irish independence. However, he also espoused that the issue was a British domestic one and none of America’s business.
A lawyer named John P. McGrew from Springfield, Ohio wrote to him in September 1920 with advice on the situation: “Having stated your position, it is not necessary to discuss it further … a discussion of the matter might tend to drive some of them (people invested in the situation in Ireland) away.”
Harding replied that it was “unnecessary to go into the matter about which you write, but so far … I have been following the line of your suggestion”.
His mild position on the issue was enough to not anger most constituents, but he knew that bringing it up would only serve to upset those who felt strongly one way or another. Harding (who ended up winning in a historical landslide) wanted to avoid rocking the boat, steer clear of the contentious issue’s political consequences, and generally keep America’s nose out of trouble.
By the time Harding took office in March 1921, the fighting in Ireland had only escalated since his November election. An early test for the new president came on St. Patrick’s Day, when the commanding Army and Navy officers in Boston, Massachusetts, prohibited the soldiers under their command from participating in the local St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day (a local holiday) Parade in their service uniforms.
The parade was a massive display of Irish-American pride and solidarity with the revolutionaries fighting in Ireland, and the military administration in Boston didn’t want a diplomatic incident to arise because of uniformed U.S. troops calling for Irish independence.
Harding’s administration supported his generals’ decision, but again suggested his sympathy for the Irish republican cause.
In a letter to a pro-Irish Bostonian, Harding’s secretary wrote: “The government raises no issue about the fitness of your celebration of Evacuation Day, and the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day is felt throughout our country, but the … military forces of the nation can have no part in any demonstration … influencing the foreign relations of the Republic.”
Like in the campaign, Harding was in a difficult position, and he did his best to avoid angering the parties of a conflict in which he had no interest in getting entangled. He tried to appease Irish supporters with couched words of support while tangibly doing very little, a policy that he continued to adhere to in the following months.
Harding must have felt relieved when the British Empire agreed to a ceasefire with the emergent Irish Republic in July of 1921, only four months after he was sworn in as president. The two warring states would sign a treaty in December of that year recognizing Ireland as an independent state, releasing Harding’s administration from any obligation or pressure to intervene.
Harding and Cox had been forced to politically navigate the “Irish Question” through the fact that it was a polarizing issue eliciting strong feelings from many Americans.
It was further tied in with deeply contentious topics like the League of Nations and religion, and the presence of a large Irish-American community amplified the emotion generated by reported atrocities taking place in their ancestral homeland.
The two candidates sought to woo Irish-American voters while simultaneously treading lightly because of Great Britain’s status as an ally, not to mention its position as a global superpower.
In short, it was a very fine line to walk, and a difficult situation with few easy solutions. Harding successfully got through the election and beyond with a policy of sympathetic detachment, while Cox’s slightly more aggressive tack proved ultimately unsuccessful.
Every day Ohioans took a wide range of positions on the issue based on their faith, political ideologies, and their national heritage. Like good citizens, they made sure to let their politicians know exactly how they felt.