Fifty-year-old Hiram Johnson, California’s 23rd governor from January 3, 1911 until March 15, 1917, is sworn in as a U.S. Senator. It’s a job he keeps until his death more than 28 years later. An advocate of woman’s suffrage and the initiative process, Johnson founds the national Progressive Party in 1912 and is its first vice-presidential candidate. Teddy Roosevelt tops the ticket. Warren Harding beats Johnson in the 1920 presidential GOP primary. As a senator, Johnson’s first vote is to declare war on Germany. He’s a senator for only a few months when he successfully removes the press censorship provision from the 1917 Espionage Act, aimed at curtailing military insubordination and activities that aid America’s enemies during wartime. In their biography, Hiram Johnson: Political Revivalist, Michael Weatherson and Hal Bochin describe Johnson on the Senate floor attacking censorship:
“Delivered without notes, except for a few quotations he wished to read, Johnson spoke for 30 minutes to a crowded chamber, arguing that in times of stress, the preservation of free speech was more important than ever. According to Johnson, the language of the bill demonstrated that it could ‘prevent any man, no matter who he is, from expressing legitimate criticism concerning the present government, the present administration or the administration in respect to the war. We should not follow anybody into autocracy,’ he warned.”
Johnson is a staunch isolationist, although he objects to being called one. An opponent of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations treaty, Johnson and Idaho Senator William Borah follow the Democratic president across the country, denouncing the league after Wilson finishes speaking in its support. In a 1919 Senate speech, Johnson says:
“This league means that American boys shall police the world; that all the tottering nations of the earth shall be upheld by our blood and our bone; that Europe, Asia, and Africa can draw upon us in their every dispute and quarrel; that our Nation will be at the mercy of European an Japanese diplomats who never had and never will have any sympathy with our aspirations or ideals; that we with our glorious past shall guarantee the territorial integrity of every country on earth and the bondage of every suffering people in anguish begging for freedom; that we destroy our Monroe Doctrine and submit controversies on the American Hemisphere to determination by foreign powers.”
Johnson also helps block America’s participation in the World Court, opposes President Franklin Roosevelt’s reciprocal trade agreements and a peacetime draft. He also speaks against Roosevelt’s campaigning for a third term. His health begins declining in the 1940s until he becomes too weak to walk two blocks to his office. In 1943, a stroke paralyzes him for several weeks. He dies on August 6, 1945 – his passing overshadowed by the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.