Tension in the Middle East and populist presidents: what the world was like 100 years ago

Violent uprisings in the Middle East and a populist US president vowing to put “America First”. Historian David Charlwood looks back 100 years to the global situation of 1920 and finds remarkable parallels with the present…

American president Warren G Harding and his wife, First Lady Florence Harding.

On the morning of Friday, 16 January 1920, representatives of governments from Asia to the Americas sat beneath the ornate chandeliers of the clock room in the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. The chairman of the gathering told them: “January 16 1920 will go down in history as the date of the birth of a new world.” He would be proved profoundly wrong. Instead, the inaugural meeting of the first world peace organisation – the League of Nations – ushered in a year of violent conflict and political populism.

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More than 2,000 miles east, in Baghdad, Gertrude Bell penned a letter to her stepmother. The trailblazing British diplomat was already concerned for the future. “You say that when you open the papers the world seems tempestuous – one does not need to open the papers to realise that here.”

Iraq (then Mesopotamia) had been largely freed from Ottoman-Turkish rule by the British in 1917, but as the liberators stepped up plans to exploit the region’s oil, they were increasingly viewed as occupiers. Resentment at the British military and political presence was building. Leaders of Sunni and Shia groups, who had traditionally been at loggerheads, began weekly meetings. “The underlying thought”, Bell reported in another letter, this time to her father, “is out with the infidel.”

Explorer and diplomat Gertrude Bell
Explorer and diplomat Gertrude Bell. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

It was also an election year in the United States. Woodrow Wilson, the occupant of the White House at the start of 1920, was a Democrat internationalist who in his inaugural address of 1917 had stated that the First World War had “made us citizens of the world” and that “there can be no turning back.” But Wilson was dying. He was making painfully slow progress recovering from a crippling stroke and would be too ill to run again. There was no guarantee his successor would share his vision, that the US had a defining role to play in the affairs of other nations and in the maintenance of world peace.

Unrest in the Middle East

The peace was shattered in the summer, when four British officials and several soldiers were murdered in a town 40 miles west of Mosul. By the start of July, an entire British garrison was under siege in Rumaitha, north of the Euphrates River, and roughly equidistant between Basra and Baghdad. And the revolt was spreading. British casualties soon reached hundreds. There were not enough soldiers in Mesopotamia and reinforcements were rushed from British-controlled India.

Only weeks before, the Cabinet had discussed how it might be possible to withdraw soldiers from Mesopotamia, but as Bell ruefully observed: “Once the tribes get out on the warpath it takes all the King’s horses and all the King’s men to bring them to order.”

In the US, summer was party conference season, and the moment when the Republicans and Democrats nailed down their candidates who would tilt for the White House that autumn. With Wilson too unwell to run a third time, the Democrats selected Ohio Governor James Cox. He was an uninspired choice; even one pro-Democrat paper described him as a “man of mediocre ability and unimpeachable party regularity”.

Governor James M Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in Ohio, 1920
Democratic candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States, Governor James M Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in Ohio, 1920. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Cox’s Republican opponent Warren G Harding had only announced he would run to shore up his Senate seat, but instead Harding found himself the surprising unity candidate, who reconciled warring party factions. In politics, Harding – a burly, wealthy businessman – had an easy manner and a laid-back approach that earned him friends. In private, he conducted multiple love affairs and paid hush-money to one young woman who gave birth to his child.

The moral issue of the election was prohibition, which had been introduced at the start of the year. Cox began the campaign stating he was against the new law that banned alcohol but changed his tune on the campaign trail. The hard-nosed, newspaper-owning Harding seemed not to care, declaring: “I am not a prohibitionist… I am unable to see it as a great moral question.” Elsewhere, the great political issue of the election was membership of the League of Nations – and by extension, the question of the Un­­­ited States’ role in the world. Cox supported US membership, but Harding opposed it, instead campaigning under a perhaps familiar-sounding slogan: “America First”.

Harding made excellent use of new media to convey his message to the electorate – showing films in cinemas and distributing gramophone recordings of speeches – while barely leaving his own home state. Turning his back on Wilson’s focus on internationalism, he criticised the notion that anyone could be a “citizen of the world”, declaring “tranquillity at home is better than peace abroad”.

A barrel of alcohol is poured away during the prohibition era
The moral issue of the 1920 US election was prohibition, the federal ban on the production, transport and sale of alcohol. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

A year of bloodshed

The uprising in the Middle East was only one of the episodes of bloodshed that punctuated a year in which the long-standing political dispute over the independence of Ireland turned violent, wars broke out in Eastern Europe (in Poland, Ukraine and Crimea to name a few), and the British government faced an insurgency on the border of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The bodies of British officers killed in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence
The bodies of British officers killed in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence are taken back to England for burial, November 1920. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But it was Mesopotamia that distressed Winston Churchill in particular. The then Secretary of State for War penned a private letter to British prime minister David Lloyd George (although after reflecting, he left the note unsent) in which he wrote: “There is something very sinister to my mind in this Mesopotamian entanglement … [that] after all the struggles of the war… we should be compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts.”

It took more than three months of airstrikes and overwhelming force to end the uprising. The tactics used by Britain were brutal: first, the Royal Air Force would bomb and strafe a village, putting the inhabitants to flight, after which all the village livestock would be driven out and the soldiers would torch everything that was left. It was hardly a military strategy designed to win hearts and minds. The scale of the troop deployment was unsustainable, however, and in an effort to placate the population, the British moved swiftly to create an Arab-led government. The first Council of State – the precursor to an elected National Assembly – met on 2 November.

British RAF armoured cars and bomber planes on duty in Iraq during the Mesopotamia conflict
British RAF armoured cars and bomber planes on duty in Iraq during the Mesopotamia conflict. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

That same day, voters went to the polls in the US. The electorate, sick of Wilsonian idealism and utterly unimpressed with the Democrat candidate Cox, swung decisively behind Harding. His “America First” message struck a chord with voters and he won with a record 60 per cent of the popular vote, more than seven million votes ahead of his rival. Harding, who had spent most of the election day playing golf, told reporters the result was “a renewed expression of confident Americanism”.

David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill
Future British prime ministers David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, in 1915. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As 1920 drew to a close, the hope that the year would begin an era of peace lay long dead. Churchill saw in the new year with Lloyd George and a select gathering at a mansion in Kent. The group sat listening to gramophone recordings of Harding’s campaign speeches, with the two men taking turns shouting insults at the president-elect down the horn of the gramophone. When the boisterousness ended, the prime minister lamented the election result, reportedly saying that he was “sorry for the world and in particular for America”.

Instead of forging a new future in 1920, the post-war world descended into violence and tribal, polarising politics. The peace the League of Nations had been designed to safeguard never arrived. America had returned to isolationism under a populist president and the British were desperately seeking to stabilise Mesopotamia, so they could bring the troops home.

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David Charlwood is author of 1920: A Year of Global Turmoil (Pen & Sword, 2019).