World War I did not produce a military hero who became President, but it did launch at least one aspirant, Gen. John J. Pershing, supreme commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing challenged a second soldier-candidate from an earlier war, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. However, the “Pershing for President” boom soon collapsed.
Attention focused on Pershing as a presidential possibility soon after the close of World War I. When he returned to the United States from Europe, welcoming crowds were enthusiastic. His reception in New York was like that of a returning hero as thousands lined Fifth Avenue to catch a glimpse of the most heroic figure of the war. Cautious by temperament, Pershing consulted friends, especially Charles Gates Dawes, about what course his future should take.
Dawes and another friend of both Dawes and Pershing, Mark Woods of Lincoln, began working to establish a “Pershing for President” boom in Nebraska. Like most professional soldiers, Pershing lacked a permanent residence, but he had lived in Lincoln from 1891 to 1895, and his family continued to live there. His backers faced a daunting task: building a statewide organization before the April 1920 presidential primary. Rival candidates Leonard Wood and Senator Hiram Johnson were far ahead.
The strategy for capturing the sixteen Nebraska votes at the Republican convention was to present Pershing as a favorite son candidate and rely on voter loyalty to a fellow Nebraskan. A long campaign ended when Nebraska voters went to the polls to vote in the primaries on April 20, 1920. The final tally found Johnson the victor with 63,262 votes; Wood, 42,385; and Pershing, 27,669. Nebraska’s favorite son carried only Lancaster County by the slim plurality of 35 percent and was second choice in another ten counties near Lancaster.
The draft Pershing longed for did not come. His name never appeared before the Republican convention, which nominated Warren G. Harding for President. Pershing did derive some satisfaction from the defeat of his rival general, Leonard Wood. A number of factors were responsible for Pershing’s poor showing. Cautious and reserved by nature, he did little personal campaigning and was often indecisive at crucial moments. His localized campaign lacked the organization and financing necessary to upset rival candidates, who had entered the contest earlier and with more resources.
Pershing served as U.S. Army chief of staff from July 1921 to September 1924, when he retired from military service. He spent his remaining years serving on commissions and traveling. He died in July 1948.