Interview: Lee A. Craig on Josephus Daniels

Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times by Lee A. CraigAs a longtime leader of the Democratic Party and key member of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, Josephus Daniels was one of the most influential progressive politicians in the country, and as secretary of the navy during the First World War, he became one of the most important men in the world. Before that, Daniels revolutionized the newspaper industry in the South, forever changing the relationship between politics and the news media. Biographer Lee A. Craig follows Daniels’s rise to power in North Carolina and chronicles his influence on twentieth-century politics.

In the following interview, Craig, author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, discusses the extraordinary life of one man and the circumstances in which he lived.


Q:  Josephus Daniels (1862-1948) helped revolutionize the newspaper industry; he led the white supremacy movement in the North Carolina (1898-1900); he served as secretary of the navy during World War I (1913-1921); and he was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Mexico (1933-1942). As an expert in economic history, when did you first become interested in Daniels and how does your field lend itself to a biography of such an influential politician?

A:  I first became interested in Daniels while I was in graduate school in the 1980s. Initially, he attracted my attention through his actions as secretary of the navy. The world’s leading navies were undergoing a technological revolution during Daniels’s tenure as head of the U.S. Navy, with the recent establishment of the submarine and the modern battleship, and I was curious about how he managed that transition. In addition, as the head of the U.S. Marine Corps, which was controlled by the Navy Department, he oversaw a dramatic expansion of U.S. gunboat diplomacy. I was fascinated by this near-pacifist who was also a leading gunboat diplomatist.

As for the question about how economic history contributes to our understanding of Daniels’s life, it is important to recall that he was first and foremost a businessman and a capitalist. He would never have described himself as a politician. He was a newspaper publisher, during a period in which that industry, largely thanks to men like Daniels, underwent tremendous change. Without some background in economics, finance, and accounting, it would have been difficult to understand the most important part of his public life.

Lee A. Craig, author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times

Lee A. Craig, author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times
(photo courtesy NC State University Photography Services)

Q:  Your prologue refers to Josephus Daniels as a near-pacifist who “created one of history’s greatest war machines” [i.e. the modern U.S. Navy] and a “staunch anti-imperialist [who] oversaw . . . a gunboat empire.” How does your book explain these contradictions?

A:  The short answer is “political expediency.” Daniels did not foresee World War I. After the war began, he did not foresee U.S. entry into it. So, before the United States became entangled in the war, he saw the navy as primarily a means by which its men could be elevated to be more productive citizens once they left the service. “Every ship should be a school,” was one of his mottoes. However, once war came, and he saw how the British dominated the Germans in the war at sea, he realized the only way the United States could prevent being dominated in future conflicts was to build the world’s largest and most powerful navy.

As for his exercise of gunboat diplomacy, partly his intervention came from following orders from the president, Woodrow Wilson, who possessed a more idealistic view of the country’s foreign policy than Daniels did. (Wilson summarized his views on the matter with: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Daniels did not think that possible.) Daniels did not like it, but Wilson was a political winner, and Daniels backed him. Once war came, however, Daniels intervened in Mexico and Haiti to prevent the Germans from establishing bases or otherwise exercising influence in those countries.

Q:  Josephus Daniels took over his first newspaper, the Wilson Advance, at the age of eighteen. Can you describe how “the least academically gifted of the Daniels boys,” without a penny to his name, more than doubled the circulation of a weekly newspaper in just five years?

A:  Hard work. There was no magic fairy dust. Daniels worked from sun up to well past sun down, except on Sundays, nearly every day of his life from early boyhood until the week he died. To expand the circulation of his early papers he knocked on doors signing up subscribers and advertisers. Three of his four sons eventually went to work for the Raleigh News and Observer, and each started in the collection department.

Q:  Your book offers a behind-the-scenes look at Daniels’s role as the leader of the white supremacy movement in North Carolina early in his career. What are some of the things you discovered in regard to this that weren’t known previously?

A:  I don’t claim to have “discovered” anything, but I will say the emphasis in most of earlier literature is on race; whereas, my interpretation of Daniels’s actions emphasizes politics. Daniels used race as means to an end; rather than as an end in itself. He exploited the racism of a majority of the state’s voters to obtain political power for the Democratic Party at the expense of black voters, who at that time voted overwhelmingly Republican.

This is not to excuse his behavior, which was clearly racist. But, as I quote another writer in the prologue, “It is easy to condemn the villains of the past and hard to understand the world that made them.” In the book I strive to help the reader understand Daniels’s world and his actions.

Q:  During his tenure as secretary of the navy, Daniels became famous (or notorious) for banning the use of alcohol onboard navy vessels, associating himself with the increased consumption of coffee. The drink came to be known as “a cup of Josephus Daniels” and was allegedly shortened to “cup-a-Joe.” Most people don’t realize that Daniels also significantly impacted the navy’s organizational structure and started a major dreadnought building program. In what area did he make the biggest impact to the navy as it was known then and today?

A:  It would not be possible to overstate Daniels’s influence on the navy. He essentially created the two-ocean navy. When he left office, the navy had nearly two thousand ships, and it was the most powerful in the world. Only a generation earlier it had not even been in the top ten. The German defeat in World War I was, in Daniels’s view, largely the result of the German navy’s failure to break the British blockade of the continent. Daniels was no Anglophile. He thought in the future, the British, who had possessed the world’s most powerful navy for over a century, were as likely to be our enemy as our allies. If it came to another world-wide conflict, then he wanted to control the largest possible navy in that fight.

Q:  Can From 1933 to 1941, Daniels was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Mexico, but you say that Daniels “coveted a return to the Navy Department.” How did he view this transition so late in his career?

A:  Phlegmatically. He wanted the navy post, but it was not that important to him. He was seventy years old and enjoying running the News and Observer with his sons. He was willing to serve, and, if given a choice would have chosen the navy, but another high-ranking appointment was acceptable, and no appointment would have been as well.

Q:  In your prologue, you talk about having been “both served and hindered by [Daniels’s] voluminous written record.” Can you describe your research in these archives and how they gave you a better understanding of Josephus Daniels as a person, not just another prominent politician?

A:  I could go on at length in response to this question; however, just to give you a concise feel for the more lengthy answer, let me give one example. In public and in his postwar biography of Wilson, Daniels gave the impression that he and Wilson saw eye to eye on the administration’s main policies. However, in his diaries and other correspondence, he revealed large and important differences between them.

For example, Daniels thought Wilson’s neutrality policies were excessively pro-British (Daniels was correct); he thought the president botched the postwar peace by first being too hard on the defeated Germans (Daniels was correct), and by then refusing to compromise on the peace treaty, which was eventually defeated in the Senate (Daniels was probably correct here, as well). On a personal level, Daniels thought Wilson too often mingled his religious views with his pursuit of public policies.

Q:  Were there any aspects of Daniels’s life that were more challenging to get information about? If so, what were they?

A:  Daniels left a voluminous paper trail (nearly 400,000 pieces of correspondence), but the paper trail increased as he aged. Not surprisingly, I can find a lot more about his life in 1942 than I could in 1872. So, without question, the early years of his life were the hardest to reconstruct. I had to rely on his memoirs and other secondary sources more than I would have liked.

Q:  Daniels wrote several books, including his five-volume memoirs published between 1939 and 1947. Can you tell us about what these books reveal about Daniels and why such a prominent voice and influence in the newspaper industry decided to write books?

A:  Broadly speaking, there are two reasons: one was setting the record straight, from his viewpoint, concerning the Wilson administration’s prosecution of World War I. This resulted in his first two postwar volumes: Our Navy at War (published in 1922) and a biography of Wilson (1924). The biography of Wilson is a hagiography, which focuses on justifying Wilson’s policies. Our Navy at War focuses specifically on Daniels’s management of the Navy Department. As I note in the book, during the last two years of the Wilson administration, the combination of Republican control of Congress and Wilson’s poor health resulted in the administration achieving very little while being subjected to much criticism. These two volumes are Daniels’s answer to that criticism.

The second reason he wrote books, which led to his memoirs, all 2,000-plus pages of them, was to set the record straight for his entire life! He wanted to tell his story.

Q:  Has your view of Daniels changed during the process of researching and writing this book? If so, how?

A:  I once heard a sermon in which the minister said, in effect, when the Bible contradicts itself, seemingly offering two versions of the truth, then one should believe both versions. As a scholar, this was not a very satisfying message, but in researching Daniels’s life and times, I’ve become comfortable with the contradictions of the man. He was a progressive, a warm-hearted family man, a man who genuinely cared about the country’s less-fortunate and down-trodden, at least as he defined them. Yet at the same time, he was a white supremacist, who used the coercive powers of the state to keep blacks in a socially and economically inferior state for generations. He was a near-pacifist who tried to keep the United States out of the world’s worst war to date; yet, he was gunboat diplomatist. He was a capitalist who sought government regulation of capital.

Taken together, his life reveals what I once heard described as “the sometimes smallness of great men.” In short, just as we have to confront the fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder, I had to confront the fact that the most consistently progressive American political leader between the Civil War and the Cold War was also the father of Jim Crow.

Lee A. Craig is author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times. He is Alumni Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University and author of six books and numerous scholarly articles, essays, and reviews on U.S. and European economic history.