"I find a hundred thousand sorrows touching my heart, and there is a ringing in my ears, like an admonition eternal, an insistent call, ‘It must not be again! It must not be again!’" said a tearful President Warren G. Harding in May 1921, as 5212 wooden caskets with the remains of American servicemen from France arrived on the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Warren Gamaliel Harding was a kind and generous man with a heart, a president who loved people, adored animals, and hated violence, bloodshed, and war. Yet he is often ridiculed as America’s worst president by the nation’s "scholars." Despite these erroneous opinions, he was a president of great achievements. He reversed a severe economic depression in short order, restored the nation’s domestic tranquility, pardoned war dissenters, and called for equality for black Americans. But perhaps his most overlooked achievements were in foreign affairs.
When Harding came into office in 1921, America’s international relations, like the economy, was in shambles. The new president, as well as most Americans, wanted to see the end of war and a return to a more traditional American foreign policy. "I think it’s an inspiration to patriotic devotion to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first, to live for and revere America first," he said during his presidential campaign. These views helped propel him to a landslide victory, becoming the first president to garner 60 percent of the popular vote.
In his 1921 inaugural address, he was more precise about his foreign policy ideas. "The recorded progress of our Republic, materially and spiritually, in itself proves the wisdom of the inherited policy of noninvolvement in Old World affairs," he said. "Confident of our ability to work out our own destiny, and jealously guarding our right to do so, we seek no part in directing the destinies of the Old World. We do not mean to be entangled. We will accept no responsibility except as our own conscience and judgment, in each instance, may determine."
World leaders were happy to see a change in the American government. The president of Mexico, Alvaro Obregon, had called Woodrow Wilson a "most terrible enemy" but hailed Harding’s inauguration as "a day of deliverance."
Very few scholars have acknowledged Harding’s achievements on the world stage in just 882 days in office. Justin Raimondo was one who did. "Although derided by modern historians, who favor more dramatic figures such as the warmonger FDR, the crusading Wilson, and the authoritarian Lincoln, Harding presided over a period of peace and prosperity," he wrote in 2016. "He repaired our relations with Latin America, where Wilson’s promiscuous interventions had alienated the natives, cut military spending, beat back the naval lobby, and energetically pursued disarmament initiatives. He rejected the meddlesome ambitions of the League of Nations, and kept the US focused on solving its problems on the home front rather than trying to export ‘democracy’ to the farthest darkest corners of the globe."
But, in CSPAN’s latest presidential ranking, Warren Harding finished thirty-fourth in "International Relations." Franklin Roosevelt finished first, Lincoln third, and Wilson thirteenth.
In addition to those achievements listed by Raimondo, Harding also formally ended World War One, withdrew US troops from the Rhineland in Germany and in the Caribbean, called the World War Foreign Debt Commission to hammer out an agreement on war debt, provided aid to millions of famine victims in Russia, and, perhaps most importantly, "beat back the naval lobby" by calling the Washington Disarmament Conference to reduce the world’s deadliest weapons. For his achievements in foreign policy, Harding was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The first big issue for Harding, during his campaign and the early days of his administration, was the League of Nations. While in the US Senate in 1919 and 1920, he had been instrumental in helping stop Wilson’s League proposal, with its provision that would commit American troops to defend member nations without the approval of Congress. In his inaugural address, President Harding spoke of his dislike of such agreements. "America can be a party to no permanent military alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority." Under Harding, the League issue was finally killed for good.
Perhaps his biggest achievement was the Washington Disarmament Conference, held in DC from November 1921 to February 1922. "I have high hopes of this Washington Conference," said Winston Churchill, who had served as First Lord of the Admiralty during part of the Great War. "It has been called together by President Harding in a spirit of the utmost sincerity and good will."
Harding also had high hopes for the meeting. He wanted to see the "peace of the world, the proximate end of the frightful waste of competing armaments, and the establishment of peace on earth, good-will toward men," he said in a speech to open the conference. The purpose of which was "a coming together from all parts of the earth to apply the better attributes of mankind to minimize the faults in our international relationships." The conference, though, was on behalf of "a war-wearied world, struggling for restoration, hungering and thirsting for better relationship; of humanity crying for relief and craving assurances of lasting peace."
The nations of the world "demand liberty and justice. There cannot be one without the other," Harding said. "Inherent rights are of God, and the tragedies of the world originate in their attempted denial." And that denial is made possible by machines of war. The peoples of the world "who pay in peace and die in war wish their statesmen to turn the expenditures for destruction into means of construction, aimed at a higher state for those who live and follow after." The conference would be "a service to mankind."
In addition to establishing limits on naval armaments, the conference also banned the use of poison gas, and saw the signing of several treaties with the objective of easing tensions in Asia. Harding had hoped this aim could be achieved by the conference. "The Pacific ought to be the seat of a generous, free, open-minded competition between the aspirations and endeavors of the oldest and newest forms of human society," he wrote to the governor of the Hawaii Territory.
President Harding was pleased with the results of the conference, noting that it "recorded a great accomplishment in putting a definite end to costly naval competition and in the prohibitions regarding certain inhumane methods of warfare," as well as agreeing to "guarantees … for future peace" in the Pacific.
Thomas Bailey, a US diplomatic history scholar, wrote that the conference "may have averted war in the Pacific for a decade," and was the only such US international meeting of the 1920s and 1930s "to achieve really significant results."
The achievements of Warren Harding in foreign affairs were a triumph. He reversed the dangerous internationalism of Woodrow Wilson and put America back on the path of a traditional, non-interventionist policy. It is a record that is deserving of a higher ranking in the pantheon of American Presidents.
Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who currently teaches American history at Collin College in North Texas. He is the author of The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding by Regnery History.