When World War I ended on November 11, 1918, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, leader of the United States forces, had every reason to believe that his next stop would be the White House.
From George Washington in the American Revolution to Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, that had been a traditional career path for victorious generals. The British King George V reportedly told Pershing in 1919 that, “You, of course, will be the next American president.”
And it looked pretty good for a while. When he returned to the States in September 1919, New York City declared “Pershing Day,” and the general, riding on horseback, led a parade of some 25,000 soldiers down Fifth Avenue, while New Yorkers showered them with flower petals. The New York Tribune estimated the adoring crowd at 1.6 million people.
The following week, in Washington, D.C., a crowd estimated at 400,000 cheered Pershing and his troops as they marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. Upon reaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing took a position on the reviewing stand in front of the White House, alongside the then-vice president. The next day, Pershing was invited to address a rare joint session of Congress, which resulted in “an almost continuous din of applause,” as the Washington Herald reported. Congress had already honored Pershing with a promotion to General of the Armies, a rank that had been awarded only once before, to George Washington.
The Pershing bandwagon had started rolling long before that, however. Just two weeks after the signing of the armistice with Germany, Ohio Republicans filed incorporation papers to create the Pershing Republican League and announced plans to launch similar groups in other states. The leader of the organization, former U.S. Senator Charles Dick, admitted to the New York Times, “We do not know whether General Pershing wants to be President, but we do know there is a great sentiment throughout the nation for him to become President.” Dick added that he was certain that if Pershing were nominated, the general would consider it his duty to accept.
At that point, it wasn’t even clear that Pershing was a Republican. One Iowa paper characterized him as “a sort of prize plum for whom both parties are shaking the tree.” One prominent monthly noted that while “many thousands of plain citizens” were talking up a Pershing candidacy, few had “any clue at all as to his party preferences.” It added that, “He is more usually regarded as a Democrat.” Meanwhile, Republicans could take some comfort in knowing that Pershing’s father-in-law and longtime booster, Francis E. Warren, was a former Republican senator from Wyoming.
To some admirers, Pershing’s party affiliation didn’t even matter. Guy E. Campbell, a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, proposed on the House floor that both parties make Pershing their nominee. “General Pershing has demonstrated himself to be such a commander of men that this country cannot pay too great an honor to him,” Campbell said.
Pershing himself was noncommittal and would remain that way for more than a year. “I have neither inclination nor time to talk politics,” the New York Times quoted him as saying on December 24, 1919, visit to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had gone to law school. He remained mum even as his car passed the local Pershing for President headquarters.
In a speech recorded from the battlefield in France on April 4, 1918, Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, rallies American support with a patriotic message.
Pershing’s silence seemed only to amplify the speculation. “The name of one man is occupying nowadays the most conspicuous corner in the innermost recesses of the sub-conscious minds of politicians with presidential aspirations. It is the name of John J. Pershing,” the Washington Post noted that same month.
It wasn’t until the following April that Pershing made his candidacy official—and then almost reluctantly. Addressing a meeting of the Nebraska Society in Washington, D.C., he said, “My whole life has been devoted to the service of our country, and while in no sense seeking it, I feel that no patriotic American could decline to serve in that high position if called to do so by the people.”
Even though Pershing’s announcement made headlines, it may have been both too little and too late. The Republican convention now was less than two months away, the election less than seven months.
Meanwhile, back in Nebraska, the Pershing Republicans were pushing their man’s candidacy far more aggressively than he seemed willing to do himself. In newspaper ads meant to position Pershing against the crowded field he was facing, they called him “the one candidate who is a businessman but not a rich man; a diplomat, but not an ‘internationalist’; a statesman, but not a dreamer; a fighter, but not a militarist; a leader, but not a politician.”
But in mid-April, a nationwide poll by the Literary Digest, showed Pershing running a distant ninth in a field of 14 potential Republican candidates. Perhaps even more discouraging, the top spot in the poll was held by another Army hero: Major General Leonard Wood. A medical doctor by training, Wood had made his name in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, where Teddy Roosevelt, the former Republican president, had served under him. Though Pershing’s accomplishments were more recent, and he might have seemed like the fresher candidate, he and Wood were about the same age; in fact, Wood was born a month earlier.
Part of the reason for Pershing’s poor showing in the polls, some commentators explained, was that as a firm, by-the-book general often described as “unsmiling,” he was respected but far from loved by what might have been his natural constituency: his former troops. They and their families would be making up a substantial chunk of the electorate that November.
A writer for Munsey’s Magazine, a widely read periodical of the day, tried to put it diplomatically. “He has much of the glamour that surrounds a victorious general, he unquestionably possesses high ability, and physically he is a hard-muscled veteran of fifty-eight,” the writer noted, starting on the positive side. However, he added, “If what the returning soldiers… say is true, General Pershing is not to the American Expeditionary Forces exactly what Grant was to the Union Army. The admiration is there, but not the measure of affection which the Northern soldiers gave to Grant.”
When the Republican national convention met in Chicago that June, Pershing remained at home. By many accounts, he held out hope that the convention would become deadlocked and he would be drafted as its candidate. It did become deadlocked, between General Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden. But instead of turning to Pershing, the Republicans settled on another compromise candidate, Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding (who happened to enjoy the critical financial backing of oilmen). In his authoritative two-volume biography of Pershing, historian Frank E. Vandiver writes that “hoping for a call to service, [he] heard the news in sadness and some relief.”
There was then some talk that Pershing might have a shot at the Democratic nomination when that party met later in June, but nothing ever came of it. Instead, the Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James M. Cox (with a young Franklin D. Roosevelt for vice president). They lost to Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, in November.
In his remaining years, Pershing mostly stayed out of politics. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, served on important-sounding committees, and helped design an early version of the interstate highway system.
He died in 1948, at the age of 87. Four years later, in the 1952 election, Americans would give his World War II counterpart, Dwight Eisenhower, the position that Pershing had been denied.