Resource Waste, Old Bob LaFollette

In 1912 and 1913 the United States was having its growing pains, and so was I. It was time to go to college. So in July of 1912 I went down to Galveston, where I got on a big steamship and went to New York. It seemed strange to go to the dining-room and be waited on by men in swallow-tailed coats. Being sixteen, and all by myself, I nearly died of loneliness. For the first time in my life, I was a real maverick—a stray, lost yearling calf.

After I had been out a day or two I went to the bow of the ship and then down into the steerage. At home I had read books in a wide range, from the causes of the Crimean War to books by dead philosophers—and dead books by living ones. I had subscribed to the Appeal To Reason, a socialist publication from Girard, Kansas, and had read every issue of it. I had met old Gene Debs. I thought then that he was a great man, and I think so now. I had seen plenty of poor people in Texas, and also in Virginia, where we spent the summers with the Maurys. Yet the plight of "poor people" I did not really know or understand. But here in the steerage of this surging, stirring boat, I met and talked to another social class, and this was reality.

There were not eighty people in the steerage itself, but the conversation was lively. About half were Americans and the other half were immigrants. In the crowd were eight or ten socialists expounding their credo. There was a Single Taxer who proved everthing by the single tax, and said Henry George was a great man; two others nominated Karl Marx as the man of the age, and three stood out for Debs.

One of my new-found friends, Lawrence, a naturalized Jew from Germany, had just been to Cuba. He said that all the talk of the United States going over to free the Cubans was a lie. His assertions met some disfavor, but he stuck to his story and said all we had done by taking the Spanish possessions was to shift from Spanish military exploitation to Wall Street money exploitation. Lawrence said the people were much worse off under American rule, for the American financiers were much more efficient exploiters.
Preceding the World War, America was following two courses: there was free discussion of economic problems, and at the same time the growth of Dollar Imperialism, big industry and high finance. The one was about to challenge the other and expose it. Then came the war. Thought and progress were blotted out, industry became militarized, labor became reactionary and crooked. War ended, but the jumble of evil forces rode on, and for a decade people did not bother to think—until the crash came.
I was invited to eat in the steerage. They said the food was terrible, and it was. We were discussing what to do about it, when I was discovered by the First Mate, who called me an agitator and ordered me to eat first class.

Those were the days when Reginald Wright Kauffman was writing his plays and books about white slavery. White slavery and the Mann Act were all the rage in conversation. People spoke of "problem plays"—meaning melodramas about white slavery. The Mann Act had been passed just two years before. Having been filled with a ton of sociological knowledge, especially on white slavery, I gravely expounded on its evils at this mature age of sixteen.

One of those in the steerage said that there was very little actual white slavery but that it would tend to encourage blackmail. He said the case of Maury Diggs and Drew Caminetti was to help blackmailing women. Another one spoke up and said that, inasmuch as prostitution was an institution of the leisure class and the product of capitalism, he saw no reason why I should object to the practice of white slavery. I did not know then what he meant by the "leisure class" and had never met a Veblen fanatic. However, I knew he was making a dirty crack and we got into a very hot argument, but he was soon apologetic and we all made friends.

Eight days we had been on the sea. Lawrence and I had become great friends. So had I with others. The sun was rising over Manhattan as our boat came in. Most people were asleep, but I had wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. Finally, on the dock, I took leave of Lawrence and my friends. They all invited me to visit them, but I told them good-bye, for I was going to visit my cousin Robert for a few days, and then to the military school. Lawrence, who had railed against militarism all the way up, kept walking along, and then put me on the elevated. Houses, windows, heads, people down in the streets, heads in windows rushed by.

It seemed that with all these millions there was not a friend in the world for me. I put up my big bellows suit case at Cousin Robert's, and the rest of the day was a sort of haze. That night I felt like weeping, but did not, because I had been told Mavericks never cried. The next morning I still felt like weeping. Somehow, I thought it was worrying my mother, and to show her I was having a swell time, I used some steamboat stationery and wrote her a long letter about my arrival in New York—in glowing terms. I mailed it at Times Square. She returned to me the letter the other day which I wrote her twenty-five years ago. She will not know how I felt until she reads this book.

But I was soon having a good time. Cousin Robert took me to the Knickerbocker Hotel Bar, where a famous painting of a naked lady hung on the wall. This was a very strange sight to me, but I pretended not to notice it, assumed an air of nonchalance, and only glanced at the picture.

Going from place to place, it seemed that all the people knew each other. New York was still young, the grouping of races was in rather disctinct areas, and the people seemed to have both pleasure and plenty of work. But if this is true, it is only a guess, for I was too young to know.

In one club congregated the Central Americans. One of them was the son of a president, and he had plenty of money to throw around. He was about twenty-five years of age; he had attended West Point and was a Colonel in his father's army. Other Latins were refugees. Since I had seen the Mexican revolution cooked up in San Antonio, it was interesting to hear them talking of revolution in South America. The president's son thought it quite natural—for other countries.
Revolutions in those days were instigated by great fruit corporations striving for monopolies. Intrigue for power went on; our businessmen furnished the money and guns. This nation had the big stick, strutting across the stage of the Americas as the "Colossus of the North." The Good Neighbor policy had not been born.
I took a train to Washington. This was twenty-five years ago, but I still remember looking out of the train window and seeing the hideous unsightliness of Baltimore. Long rows of little red brick houses were jammed together; there was no green tree or shrub in sight. The social implications I did not understand, but I said to myself, this is no place to live, where houses look like headstones in a Confederate graveyard. I hated Baltimore at sight.
America is growing. It could not stop until it became grotesquely big, like the giant in the circus.
In Washington I stayed with Uncle Jim Slayden, our congressman, and my aunt, Mrs. Ellen Maury Slayden. Aunt Ellen was a great pacifist and Uncle Slayden always took trips every year to the peace conferences. They delivered to me long lectures on peace, but as I remember it, I was not very much interested.

I do remember that I insisted on being introduced to old Victor Berger, who was the Congressman from Milwaukee, and to Senator Bob LaFollette, Sr. I talked to Mr. Berger and he was a very interesting and intelligent man, as I judge him now. However, he spoke broken English and he was astonished that a sixteen-year-old boy would visit him. Then I went to see old Bob LaFollette, who to my mind was the greatest man in the United States. I thought so then, and I think so now, except that I give George W. Norris place as the greatest living American. At the time I had not heard of Norris.
Old Bob, who had been defeated for Congress by the lumber interests, had gone to Wisconsin, had become Governor, put the lumber interests in their place, and was back in the Capital. He, Berger, and a few others, had no power, and even what little influence they had was soon to be taken from them by war.
I left Washington for Lexington and the Virginia Military Institute. Lexington produces first-class Southern gentlemen and good officers. But Aunt Ellen, the Congressman's wife, kept writing about the horror of war, and although I remember I secretly scoffed at what she said, it probably had some effect. Most of my spare time I spent reading about the national campaign; and when it was over, and Wilson elected, we went to Staunton, the new President's birthplace, and paraded around for his glory. Four months later we became real big shots. We went to Washington to march in the inaugural parade.

Troops went by all the afternoon. All manner of gold braid, different kinds of uniform, horses, artillery. Governor Sulzer of New York was at the head of the New York troops mounted on a prancing black horse. He was not in uniform, but wore a big hat. It looked almost like a Texas hat and I thought that Governor Sulzer made a pretty good-looking man. A little bit later I read that he had been impeached.

And then we got into a long march. There seemed to be no end it it. I never will forget how proud we were as we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, but strangely enough, I have no memory of the streets at all. The only command that I remember is when we passed the Presidential reviewing stand and were given "eyes right."

At the end of the year I went back to Texas. My scholastic record was average; nothing extra. Then I decided that since my life would be spent in Texas, I might as well go to the University of my home State. But even though I spent only a year at Virginia Military Institute, it took a war and five hospitals to get the drums and guns permanently out of my system.