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Wilson’s War

George C. Leef
Campaign For Liberty
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Although most conventional liberal historians, blinded by their adulation for politicians who embrace “progressive” causes, continue to regard Woodrow Wilson highly, a few others have issued highly negative opinions about our 28th president.

For example, historian Walter Karp, in his 1979 book, The Politics of War, writes,

Wilson simply could not afford to think realistically about his “association of nations.” For the burdens he was willing to inflict upon an unwilling America only a transcendent goal unsullied by the skeptical judgment of practical statecraft could possibly serve as adequate justification. In order to become a “great statesman,” Wilson had, of necessity, to forfeit every quality that makes a statesman great. Self-deception, self-elation, and self-regard were the chief ingredients of Wilson’s celebrated “idealism.”

In Wilson’s War, the nonliberal and unconventional historian Jim Powell buttresses Karp’s assessment, regarding Wilson as the worst of our presidents for having so blindly pursued a belligerent policy calculated to involve the United States in the European bloodbath of World War I. The book not only exposes the utter foolishness of Wilson’s moves — in clear opposition to the desires of most of the American population — to bring the United States into the war against Germany, but also makes it clear that the horrors of World War II would probably have been averted had it not been for Wilson’s intervention. Political meddlers have brought untold misery upon mankind, and after reading Wilson’s War it is easy to make the case that Woodrow Wilson must be listed among the greatest malefactors in history.

Powell begins by setting the historical scene. (Given the lack of knowledge about the past among most people, that’s a crucial task.) He surveys the century from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the outbreak of World War I, with the purpose of informing the reader about the enormous benefits people around the world derived from the conditions of free trade and free enterprise that largely prevailed during that period.

Living standards rose dramatically, with the strongest gains in the nations that most closely approached true laissez-faire conditions — the United States and Britain. Powell also wants to make sure that the reader understands what brought that era of relative peace and prosperity to an end, namely the rise of socialist and nationalist ideology in the latter part of the 19th century. Just reading the book’s opening chapter would be a stupendous educational boon for most people. Even if readers learned nothing else, they would do well to remember these sentences:

Maintaining a separation of the economy and the state would have prevented politicians from turning business competition into political and military conflicts. There wouldn’t have been nasty trade wars and empire building, contributing to paranoia and the arms race. If governments had let people live their lives as freely on one side of a border as the other, there wouldn’t have been much political support for war.

The “Great War” broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914. Wilson initially kept the United States neutral in the conflict, since few Americans thought there was any reason to spend their blood and money in the latest eruption of militarism across the Atlantic. He had, however, shown his interventionist predisposition by dispatching American forces to Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, and in the years 1914—1916, his insistence on meddling in Mexican affairs led to pointless, bloody conflict.

Feeling that it was his place to improve the government of Mexico, he ordered the U.S. Atlantic Fleet to the Mexican Gulf Coast in April 1914 following a minor incident. Marines were sent in to occupy Veracruz. Soldiers on both sides were killed and matters were becoming so tense that ambassadors from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile offered to mediate a settlement to the absurd dispute, a dispute that wouldn’t have occurred except for Wilson’s messianic view of himself. At the conference to resolve the dispute, he demanded “an orderly and righteous government in Mexico.” It was a taste of things to come.

Bent on intervention

Once war broke out in Europe, Wilson paid lip service to American neutrality but took positions that were designed to assist the British and French. Most significantly, he supported Britain’s naval blockade against neutral shipping of nonmilitary cargo to Germany. Britain intended to starve the Germans into surrender, but the blockade was a clear violation of international law. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan vigorously argued that the United States needed to stand up for the rights of neutrals and oppose the blockade. Wilson ignored him.

Wilson also refused to issue a warning to Americans traveling in the war zone, asserting a spurious right for citizens of neutrals to go wherever they pleased. During the conflict with Mexico, he had issued a warning to Americans in Mexico that they remained there at their own risk, but he wanted to provoke conflict with Germany and calculated that a few American casualties would give him a casus belli. Bryan again protested to Wilson, writing, “I cannot help feeling that it would be a sacrifice of the interests of all the people to allow one man acting purely for himself and his own interests to involve the entire nation in difficulty when he had ample warning of the risks which he has assumed.” As usual, Wilson didn’t bother to respond to an argument against a course he was determined to take.

In 1916, Wilson used the famous Zimmerman telegram for all it was worth in an effort to inflame public opinion against Germany. In a telegram from the German foreign minister to the Mexican government, which the British intercepted and decoded, the German government said that if the United States and Germany went to war, Germany would assist Mexico in regaining the territory it had lost to the United States in 1848.

Powell observes that the telegram was much ado about nothing, since, even if Germany and America declared war on each other, there was absolutely no way for the Germans either to attack the United States or to assist the Mexicans. Nevertheless, Wilson and his pro-war allies used the incident to whip up anti-German sentiment with ridiculous depictions of vicious “Huns” slaughtering American women and children.

By April 1917, Wilson thought he had sufficient support in the country for a declaration of war. He delivered a speech to Congress that was full of lofty rhetoric, such as the famous line about making the world “safe for democracy.” Powell comments acidly,

He didn’t explain how this was to be done by allying with the British Empire, which had colonies around the world; with France, which had colonies in Africa and Asia; and with Russia, which was ruled by a czar.

Wilson had done everything he could to bring the United States into the war. Why? So he could crush Germany and then bring about a new world order. Just as he had demanded a “righteous” government in Mexico, he envisioned a “righteous” remaking of Europe once the war was over. He was eager to sacrifice American lives so that he could play what he called “the noblest part.”

Consequences of World War I

American troops did prove to be decisive on the Western front, where Germany, France, and Britain were at the point of exhaustion after four years of incessant killing. More than 117,000 Americans were killed in the fighting, lives expended for no reason other than the grandiose dreams of their president.

While the military commanders proved to be competent, Wilson proved to be a bungler of the first magnitude in diplomacy during and after the war. One blunder was his insistence that Russia remain in the war after the overthrow of the tsarist government early in 1917. The democratic government that had replaced the monarchy probably would have survived if it had bowed out of the fighting immediately. Russia had suffered horrendous casualties and its creaking, pre-capitalist economy could not deliver either guns or butter.

Everyone was sick of the war, but Wilson wanted Russia to stay active in the battle against the undemocratic allies Germany and Austria-Hungary. He accomplished that through bribery. American officials informed the new Russian leadership that massive loans ($325 million) would be forthcoming from the United States, provided that Russia continued fighting. (Too bad that the Constitution gives the president power to lend money to foreign governments. Oh wait — it actually doesn’t. Too bad that presidents so often ignore the document they’re sworn to uphold!) So, to get the desperately needed money, the Russian government launched one last offensive. It was mauled with heavy casualties.

That military disaster sowed the seeds of the destruction of the democratic government. Powell argues convincingly that Lenin would have had virtually no chance of establishing his communist dictatorship if the democratic government hadn’t thrown away much of its support by continuing in the war. Wilson had no idea about the conditions in Russia and his blind insistence that everything possible had to be done to crush Germany and Austria militarily set the stage for the later communist takeover in Russia in 1917. But for his meddling, the world would probably have been spared the 70-year horror of Soviet communism.

Powell also demonstrates that the shorter-lived but equally destructive phenomenon of Nazism (socialism with the added toxin of nationalism) would have been avoided if Wilson had kept the United States out of the war. The likely outcome of a negotiated peace between the combatants — and by 1917, both sides were quietly moving in that direction — would have been some minor and essentially meaningless territorial adjustments, just as in previous European wars.

The decisive military defeat of Germany, however, made possible the vindictive Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Wilson evidently thought that he would be able to achieve his vision of a democratic world free from warfare. Instead, the Treaty, with its harsh terms, led to seething discontent in Germany and virtually guaranteed the rise of a demagogic leader. Adolf Hitler filled that role perfectly. Even though Woodrow Wilson was long dead, we might well conclude that World War II was actually his war.

When governments interfere in the conflicts of other nations, we should expect undesirable and even perverse consequences. Thanks to Jim Powell for driving that point home so forcefully with his account of Wilson’s intervention into World War I.

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