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Secretary of War
Newton Diehl Baker was born to Newton Diehl and Mary Ann Dukehart Baker in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on December 3, 1871. He attended the local schools until his second year of high school, at which time he entered Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He subsequently studied at Johns Hopkins University (1889-1892), and it was there that he first met future President Woodrow Wilson, who was then a visiting lecturer from Princeton University. He went on to study law at Washington & Lee University, from which he received his law degree in 1894. After a brief time as secretary to Postmaster General William L. Wilson, he returned to Martinsville and established a law practice, which he maintained until moving to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1899. In 1902, he married Elizabeth Wells Leopold, with whom he had three children (Elizabeth, Newton Diehl, and Margaret).
Baker first entered the political realm in 1902, when he was appointed assistant law director under Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson. He was appointed City Solicitor in 1903. A leader of the Cuyahoga County Democratic organization, he became chairman of the Cuyahoga County Central Committee in 1910, and held that position until 1936. In 1912 he helped write the Ohio constitutional amendment giving municipalities the right to govern themselves. As Mayor of Cleveland from 1912 to 1916, he was influential in selecting the commission to write Cleveland's first home rule charter, and then campaigning for its passage in 1913; he also oversaw construction of a new municipal light plant (1914). Declining to run for a third term, he retired from politics long enough to found the law firm of Baker, Hostetler & Sidlo.
Despite being a pacifist by nature, Baker came out of political retirement almost as soon as he had entered it to accept President Woodrow Wilson's offer to become his new Secretary of War. His first task in his new job was to authorize and oversee the construction of a punitive expedition to Mexico. In agreement with Wilson, he also supervised America's 'limited preparedness' for war as head of the new Council for National Defense in August 1916. After the United States entered the First World War, Baker was responsible for drafting, organizing, and outfitting an army of 2 million men as quickly as possible. In this capacity, it was he who created the draft lottery system, and he was also responsible for John J. Pershing being appointed as Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Force (1917). At Baker's insistence, President Wilson made the American forces an independent fighting partner of the Allies against the Central Powers, rather than letting American troops be used to replenish British and French forces as those nations had wanted. In the spring of 1918, Baker visited the trenches in Europe so he could witness the soldiers' living conditions for himself. After the war ended, Baker was responsible for demobilizing the troops and negotiating the cancelation of war contracts.
Baker gets ready to try on an American infantryman's pack at a rest camp in England
After Wilson left office in 1921, Baker once again retired from politics in favor of his law practice, although he was an active advocate for Wilson's League of Nations. He returned to public service again in 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge appointed him to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed him to the Law Enforcement Commission. Baker was also active on many institutional, charitable, educational, and corporate boards and committees. He received the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce Medal for public service in 1927, and the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal in 1928. His book, Why We Went to War, was published in 1936.
Newton Diehl Baker died of heart disease at his Cleveland home on December 25, 1937, and is buried in that city's Lake View Cemetery.
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This page was last updated on June 11, 2017.