Dickinson College, Spring 2024

Author: benlyman

The G.I. and the Ballot, 1944

Keeping warm and staying alive were Election Day priorites for the G.I.

“The soldier vote may be the deciding factor in many States,” reported George Gallup two days before the November 7, 1944 presidential election, drawing on his latest public opinion poll. The Associated Press reported that in at least 11 states, worth a combined 206 electoral votes, officials “expressed the opinion” that the soldier vote “could be decisive.” Another AP report showed that the estimated soldier votes for 16 hotly contested states could tip the plurality in each towards either candidate, incumbent Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt or his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey.

It had been eighty years since the ballot of U.S. service members was so influential in determining the president. Not since the Civil War did the U.S. soldier have such importance in presidential politics. However, this did not exactly translate to election fever among the G.I.’s fighting the Second World War. In the German Hürtgen Forest, site of some of the fiercest fighting in the fall of 1944, election-day inquires “brought mostly disinterested replies from bearded soldiers trudging thru the mire or standing in the roadside and beating their hands together to keep warm.” Compared with the harsh realities of the life at the front for these 1st U.S. Army soldiers, the fact that it was finally election day mattered little for those who may have voted already by absentee ballot or those who didn’t vote at all, for a variety of reasons including “too much red tape connected with filling out forms.”

A similar tone resonated amongst the 3rd Army on the front in France, where Robert Crombie of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the election seemed “pretty remote from the mud and rain and chilly skies.” Although this reporter found some soldiers that did vote, many others didn’t. One lieutenant stated that he “didn’t vote because he felt he didn’t know enough of the situation from this distance” while a corporal who did vote admitted he “wasn’t very interested in the outcome because he didn’t feel it had anything to do with the outcome of the war.” Milton Bracker of the New York Times reported much the same amongst the 5th Army in Italy where curiosity did not extend beyond who was the victor and consequences of the election were “rarely subjects of soldier conversation.” Despite having been worked up by the subject of enfranchisement, few front line soldiers showed much interest in the face of the dangers of war.

The same cannot be said of all soldiers, especially those in the rear. Edward Doles of the Chicago Defender reported the intense enthusiasm of the soldiers in an African American artillery unit where “huge voting placards hanging near the mess tent,” were the place “where all men crowded looking for his state’s requirements” for voting. In London, much farther away from the fighting, the Chicago Tribune reported that “election crowds of American officers and servicemen swarmed London’s west end,” where “shouts of ‘Dewey’ and ‘Roosevelt’ alternated while election slogans echoed through blacked out streets.” In safe London the fervor over the election mimicked the election day enthusiasm of the home front and saw none of the disparity of the front lines.

In times of great conflict the importance of the soldier vote cannot be discounted. However, when faced with the brutal conditions of modern warfare, it should come as no surprise that for the G.I. election politics took a rear seat to the everyday hazards of combat. It is remarkable that any front line soldiers voted at all when each day they faced the life and death situations of war.

Marcus Alonzo Hanna and the Country’s Most Expensive Campaign

Marcus Alonzo Hanna - Campaign Manager

“Until the highly energized campaigns of 2004 and 2008, the level of excitement attending the campaign of 1896 would have been something hard to fathom,” writes William T. Horner in 2010. “The year 1896 was a time when political campaigns were a form of high entertainment.” None knew this better than Republican candidate William McKinley’s longtime associate and campaign manager Marcus Alonzo Hanna. On Election Day 1896, there were none more attuned to the excitement and anticipation of the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history to that point and it showed.

“That next Tuesday will bring to us an overwhelming victory for protection, sound money, and good government there is not the slightest doubt,” Hanna wrote to his candidate  just days before the election. Hanna, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee and the chief organizer of the Republican party’s platform and campaign, appealed to the highest ideals of American voters. “No campaign since the war of the rebellion has presented such great responsibilities to those entitled to the elective franchise…It is not merely a privilege, but a duty. And while it is the duty of every good citizen to express his will at the polls on all occasions, that duty has never been more serious or important than now.”

On the day of the election, November 3rd, 1896, Mr. Hanna voted early in Cleveland after traveling from the National Headquarters in Chicago and then visited McKinley at his home in Canton, according to the Washington Post. Although he initially planned to await the results in Canton, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that “the citizens of Cleveland prevailed upon him to change” and he awaited the returns at the Union League Club. This election for which Hanna campaigned so vigorously was one of the most exciting and hard fought of the century. It pitted the Republican McKinley, a Civil War veteran, against the youthful William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan, barely eligible in terms of age to be president, campaigned extensively on a economic policy backing the free coinage of silver. He received his nomination largely because of a stirring speech during the Democratic National Convention in which he condemned the Republican gold standard and declared, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan’s Democratic Party did not have the campaign might of his opponents and thus he resolved to “ignore the precedent that candidates did not aggressively campaign and to take his cause directly to the voters.” McKinley, on the other hand, backed the gold standard and conducted a “front porch” campaign from his home in Canton and left the heavy lifting up to Hanna and his Republicans. Hanna, a longtime Ohio businessman, “convinced the giants of corporate America that McKinley was their man,” and as a result developed a financing system that brought in millions to be spent on an extensive literature and pamphlet campaign, the first of its kind.

As Hanna waited for the returns on election day, he surely must have been excited as the returns from state after state told the story that one paper would call “a complete landslide” that “swept everything before it in its movement across the country.” With a hefty electoral majority by the end of the 3rd, Hanna was able to report to the McKinley, “you are elected to the highest office of the land by a people who have always loved  and trusted you.” Although money did not buy the election it certainly helped Hanna in his extensive campaign to educate the American voters on the Republican economic platform.

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