Questions of war and peace weigh heavily on any politician who takes the job seriously. Lives are on the line. As the nation raced to World War I, one Arkansas Senator, William Kirby, tried to slow down the march to war.
William Fosgate Kirby was born in Miller County in 1867, one of four sons to a Confederate veteran and farmer from Alabama. He attended schools on both sides of the state line. He ultimately became a lawyer, gaining his law degree from Cumberland School of Law in Tennessee.
Kirby became a respected legal mind and spent two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives and one in the state senate. In 1904, he compiled an encyclopedia of the state’s laws and court decisions surrounding them, Kirby’s Digest of the Statutes of Arkansas. He served one term as attorney general before rising to the state supreme court.
Kirby ran against Sen. James P. Clarke in 1914 but lost in a very narrow race. Clarke, however, died suddenly while on an October trip to Little Rock in 1916. Gov. George Hayes called for a special election to fill the remainder of Clarke’s term on November 7. Kirby won a resounding 69.2% of the vote and headed to Washington, DC, the next day to be sworn in. President Woodrow Wilson had narrowly won re-election that same day, running on his record of reform and noting that he had kept the country out of the deadly war in Europe.
As soon as Kirby took office, he faced many issues over continuing American neutrality and German provocations. Wilson tried to keep the United States neutral since World War I began in 1914. Well into 1916, he pressed both sides to enter peace negotiations, offering to mediate the war himself. Many Americans, however, steadily resigned themselves to one day entering the war.
Former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, whom Kirby had long admired, had strongly objected to Wilson’s early policies of continued trade in the war zone, believing that they could draw the country into the war. He had resigned a year earlier over those disagreements. Kirby shared similar misgivings. Resistance to war persisted in both parties.
By early 1917, the situation worsened as Germany called for unrestricted attacks on shipping and attempted to incite Mexico to attack the U. S. In response to Germany’s call for unrestricted submarine attacks on any ships, including any American or any other neutral ship, Wilson called for breaking off diplomatic relations. It was the next step toward war, which many Americans now demanded. The Senate announced it would vote on a resolution approving Wilson’s action. Kirby, like several other senators, still held out hopes for peace. The resolution passed 78-5 in early February, with opposition coming from progressive reformer Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and Democrat James K. Vardaman of Mississippi. Kirby voted against breaking off diplomatic relations.
The slide toward war continued without stop. Two weeks after the Senate resolution, Germany sank a British passenger liner off the coast of Ireland. Twenty Americans had been aboard the vessel, and an American mother and her daughter died.
Wilson called for arming all American ships, including civilian ships. While Wilson believed this was necessary for ships to defend themselves, Kirby and others believed it an unnecessary provocation.
But principles have consequences, good or bad, and Kirby faced bitter recriminations back home. Newspaper editorials excoriated him while politicians openly criticized his stances.
On April 2, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. He understood the incredible responsibility he had. After his speech, he told an aide, “My message today was a message of death for our young men.”
The Senate voted on the war resolution on April 4. Kirby reluctantly voted in favor of it, and the measure passed 82-6 in the Senate, with 11 abstentions, and by a vote of 373-50 in the House. He continued to support Wilson’s policies throughout the war, including the votes in favor of ratifying the Treaty of Versailles officially ending the war and the accompanying vote for the United States to enter the League of Nations, a forerunner of the modern United Nations. The U. S. and the Allies stood victorious by November 1918 but at the cost of 117,000 American lives.
As the 1920 election season approached, Congressman Thaddeus Caraway of Jonesboro challenged Kirby in the 1920 Democratic Primary. Kirby’s record in support of Wilson’s policies became a focal point of the contest. Though Kirby offered a spirited defense of his early stands, the affable Caraway and his more strident defense of the lead-up to the war swayed voters. Caraway won easily with 63% of the vote.
Kirby returned to Arkansas and joined the Little Rock law firm of former Gov. Hayes. In 1926, he returned to the state supreme court. He died in 1934.