The outbreak of World War I in Europe divided the Progressive Party just as it divided the nation as a whole. Former president Roosevelt and others such as Gifford Pinchot led the interventionist faction, calling for the United States to join the war. Roosevelt and others wanted the United States to intervene in the war on behalf of the Entente in order to foster Anglo-American relations and to create a collective security alliance alongside the United Kingdom and France. On the other side of the debate, the isolationist wing of the party was led by Robert La Follette Sr. of Wisconsin, who as a senator defected to the Progressives from the Republicans in 1915. La Follette was one of the original proponents of the progressive movement, but declined to join the Progressive Party in 1912 after he lost a bitter contest with Roosevelt for the party’s presidential nomination. Three years later, his switch to the Progressives was also somewhat motivated by the feud with Roosevelt. La Follette did not want Roosevelt to be seen as the sole voice of the party and that a firm voice against empire needed to be heard in the party. During the 1916 Progressive convention, the party was boisterous with arguments as the topic of the war loomed large over the presidential campaign.
Wilson as president and running for reelection advocated a continued policy of neutrality. However, Wilson also sent much aid to the United Kingdom and France as the German army advanced dangerously close to Paris and submarine warfare disrupted trade in the North Atlantic. With many of the liberal members of the Republican Party now split off into the Progressives, the conservative faction of the Republicans won out in the 1916 convention and nominated former Vice President Charles Fairbanks of Indiana as their presidential nominee. The Progressive convention, meanwhile, was divided. Roosevelt had jumped into the race for the nomination early and was the expected favorite, but early in the year his enthusiasm for running dropped. Roosevelt withdrew his name from consideration in March. The former president stated he withdrew for health reasons, and on the realization that for the party to survive he could not be seen as its sole leader. Privately, however, the president had developed a sense of wanderlust; Roosevelt’s active role in management of the party had taken up much of his time during the last four years, and starting in 1917 Roosevelt went on several expeditions abroad. After a hard-fought nomination contest that pitted the pro-war Gifford Pinchot against the isolationist Hiram Johnson, Pinchot won the presidential nomination with Roosevelt’s backing.
Pinchot had no experience in elected office, but he had served as the first chief of the National Forest Service during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. This lack of executive experience, while a burden, was balanced by the fact that he did not have a concurrent race to run for while campaigning for the presidency and could focus on the national contest full time. To balance this, the Progressives selected Washington senator Miles Poindexter as the vice presidential candidate. The electoral campaign focused heavily on America’s neutrality in World War I. The Progressive Party and Pinchot were the main advocates of entering the war during the campaign. The Republicans and Fairbanks opposed it to retain support in New England and the Midwest. Wilson toed the line, supporting continued neutrality to appease the business interests of the Democratic Party and the moralist wing which included Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.
While Roosevelt campaigned for Pinchot, 1912 Vice Presidential candidate Hiram Johnson did not due to the party’s interventionist stance, and focused on his duties as governor of California. The refusal of Johnson to endorse Pinchot cost the Progressives in California in 1916. They lost two seats in the House, and Wilson narrowly carried the state with only 42% of the vote. Overall, Wilson also won a narrow victory. The Republicans rebounded after the humiliating defeat of 1912, but they and the Progressives were still about evenly split in key states and Wilson won a second term. Fairbanks, on his part, could at least be consoled by the fact he gave the Republicans his home state of Indiana after Taft came third in the state in 1912.
Despite Wilson’s promise to keep the United States out of the war, soon after the beginning of his second term, Wilson moved the United States toward war with the Central Powers. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, along with growing knowledge about the German atrocities in Belgium and a reminder of the sinking of the Lusitania, helped bring public opinion toward supporting going to war. With a number of Progressives supporting the motion, Congress authorized a declaration of war on Germany in March of 1917. After the February Revolution that deposed the Tsar of Russia, Wilson was also able to convince the moralists to support the war now that the major powers in the Entente were all republics. One notable Progressive opponent of the war was Jeanette Rankin. Rankin was the first woman in Congress, elected to the House from Montana in 1916, and cast one of the Progressive votes against entering the war as one of her first votes as a Congresswoman.
The United States’ participation in World War I lasted just under two years, as the war was over by the end of 1918. During the remainder of Wilson’s second term, the support for the Democratic Party fell drastically. Despite the brief economic boom following the end of the war, the public fatigue regarding Wilson and the Democrats hung heavily over the party. Additionally, Wilson’s push for American participation in the League of Nations following the Paris Peace Conference proved unpopular, and Wilson failed to garner enough support within Congress to join the bloc.
Under any circumstances prior to the 1910s, the election should have been an easy run for the Republican Party. However, the growing strength of the Progressives threw a wild card into the mix. Theodore Roosevelt had bowed out of politics once the war ended in order to pursue global travels, and the party now had to move on from his influence in its founding. The 1920 Progressive Convention in Chicago showed a dramatic post-war shift from an interventionist stance to an isolationist platform. Hiram Johnson finally received his vindication with the party’s nomination for president in 1920, joined by Wisconsin senator and anti-imperialist Robert La Follette Sr. Johnson faced Illinois governor Frank Lowden as the Republican candidate and former Treasury Secretary and California senator William Gibbs McAdoo for the presidency following Wilson. The Democrats fell into disarray during their convention as Wilson tried to oppose McAdoo’s nomination to maneuver himself into nomination for a third term, but Wilson’s failing health prevented the president from having much clout.
The election focused on a return to a sense of normalcy after World War I. Johnson and La Follette built up the Progressive support largely in the Midwest and the Mountain West. They drew support from German-Americans who had opposed Pinchot’s campaign for war, but now with Johnson they supported his isolationist platform and his fierce opposition to the League of Nations. Additionally, many rural communities in these states supported the Progressive platform of farmers’ insurance. This support for social programs and labor also built up the Progressive base in the Mountain West, as tensions between mine workers and mining companies had resulted in numerous incidents of state and local police being called in to forcibly break up strikes. While Johnson and La Follette had locked a hold on much of the northwest, the wave of Republican support in the rest of the country gave the Republicans an electoral majority in 1920. However, this was the second time that the election came close to being thrown to the House since the Progressive Party entered politics. Lowden and Vice President Irvine Lenroot won the election with only 288 electoral votes, just 12 over the amount needed for a majority.