By James McGrath Morris
Sitting in the shadow of the New York Plaza Hotel, the nearly nude bronze sculpture of Pomona by Karl Bitter atop a six-level water fountain is a graceful work that at night, bathed in golden light, is a serene and peaceful oasis on the southern end of the Grand Army Place at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. To many New Yorker who think they know the man, the fact that Joseph Pulitzer made the bequest for this fountain that speaks of peace is strikingly ironic. Wasn’t he after all the worse purveyor of Yellow Journalism who used his perch of power to help rush America to war with Spain in 1898?
Typically accounts of the 1898 place equal blame on Pulitzer and his rival William Randolph Hearst Pulitzer and Hearst are often credited (or blamed) for drawing the nation into the Spanish-American War with sensationalist stories or outright lying . . .. Pulitzer, though lacking Hearst’s resources, kept the story on his front page.
There was an atmosphere of desperation under the gold dome on top of the Pulitzer Building on Park Row, as the publisher remained secluded grieving over Lucille’s death. The staff, from the editors at the top to the reporters on the beat, consisted of men and women whose loyalty ran so deep they had chosen to cast their lot with Pulitzer rather than Hearst. They were willing to do anything for their absent general, and not out of loyalty alone. Everyone knew that Pulitzer was pouring his own money into the paper to make up for the losses induced by Hearst.
The newspaper that had once set the news agenda for the city, and sometimes for the nation, was engaged in a futile game of catch-up. “It has been beaten on its own dunghill by the Journal, which has bigger type, bigger pictures, bigger war scares, and a bigger bluff,” Town Topics gleefully reported. “If Mr. Pulitzer had his eyesight he would not be content to play second fiddle to the Journal and allow Mr. Hearst to set the tone.”
By the time Pulitzer returned to New York, the battle was lost. From the command post of his house, Pulitzer tried to fix what ailed the World. He reorganized the staff, trying to put in charge editors with the courage to cease imitating Hearst. Confident that he had found a man would keep the staff in check, Pulitzer turned to the question of the day: should the United States go to war? There was no doubt that the Journal was champing at the bit for war. The Sun said war could not come soon enough. Almost every major metropolitan newspaper favored either war or the threat of one if Spain did not comply with American demands.
Congress rushed to the president’s side, and the saber rattling put the little-noticed dispute on the front pages. War on Every Lip was the Chicago Tribune’s headline. War Clouds proclaimed the Atlanta Constitution. The editorial pages clamored for a fight. “Any American citizen who hesitates to uphold the President of the United States is either an alien or a traitor,” said the Sun.
Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City’s Police Commissioner, was thrilled by the prospect of war. He was convinced that the entire nation, not just Manhattan, lacked virility. “There is an unhappy tendency among certain of our cultivated people to lose the great manly virtues, the power to strive and fight and conquer, not only in a time of peace, but on the field of battle,” he told one audience. He thought the time had come for the United States to flex its military muscle outside its borders, and he saw an opportunity in a crisis brewing in Venezuela.
Roosevelt, who had never seen a battlefield, wanted war. Pulitzer, who had, wanted nothing of it.
Pulitzer refused to let the World join in the clamor for war. He thought Cleveland had gone too far. Put the headline A Grave Blunder on the lead editorial, Pulitzer told one of his writers over the telephone from his rented house in Lakewood, New Jersey. Weighing each word carefully, he composed a four-paragraph assault on the president’s logic. Great Britain’s actions in Venezuela posed no danger to the United States, he said. “It is a grave blunder to put this government in its attitude of threatening war unless we mean it and are prepared for it and can hopefully appeal to the sympathizers of the civilized world in making it.”
Pulitzer expanded his efforts to douse the war fever. Over his signature, his staff sent telegrams to leading statesmen, clergymen, politicians, editors, leaders of Parliament, and the royal family in Great Britain, urging them to publicly express their opposition to war. Within days, the World published replies from the prince of Wales, William Gladstone, the bishop of London, the archbishop of Westminster, and dozens of other leaders. Each telegram professed England’s peaceful intentions and strove to lower the transatlantic rhetoric. “They earnestly trust and cannot but believe the present crisis will be arranged in a manner satisfactory to both countries,” read the message from the British throne. “No feelings here but peaceful and brotherly,” wired the bishop of Liverpool. “God Speed you in your patriotic endeavor,” added the bishop of Chester. The World’s issue for Christmas Day 1895 reproduced the telegrams from the prince of Wales and one from the duke of York under the headline Peace and Good Will. Soon, said another of Pulitzer’s editorials, the holly and mistletoe would be gone, as would the voices of children singing carols. “But we shall retain our hopes. The white doves, unseen, will be fluttering somewhere.”
In England, the telegrams sent by the prince and the duke generated considerable support and were on the front page of most newspapers, reported an excited Ballard Smith. The reaction in the United States was quite different. Roosevelt, who had already written a letter of congratulation to Cleveland for his belligerent threats, told Lodge that Americans were weakening in their resolve for war. “Personally, I rather hope the fight will come soon. The clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war.” He was furious at Pulitzer and Edwin Godkin at the New York Post, who had joined in urging restraint. “As for the editors of the Evening Post and World,” Roosevelt said, “it would give me great pleasure to have them put in prison the minute hostilities began.”
Roosevelt didn’t get his chance. Tempers cooled. The dispute between England and Venezuela moved to the back pages as the two nations agreed to arbitration, prompted in great part by Pulitzer’s actions.
Sadly, Pulitzer’s role as a peacemaker in 1895 has been forgotten. Rather the role of his troops as war makers in 1898 lives on. The fountain at 59th and Fifth sits in vigil, a reminder of this lesser known side of the man.