by Jeremy Young | 4/02/2008 05:25:00 PM
Kathy Olmsted is a talented scholar and a very kind person. She's also dead wrong on Woodrow Wilson, as her dyspeptic guest post at The Edge of the American West makes clear.

In his war message to Congress, Wilson clearly explained “what our motives and our objects are.” Those motives, he said, were pure and idealistic, and the object was nothing less than the protection of the rights of all mankind. “We have no selfish ends to serve,” he said. “We desire no conquest, no dominion.” Later, in his Fourteen Points, Wilson explained that the “day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by; so is also the day of secret covenants entered into in the interest of particular governments.”

Except that it wasn’t. As Wilson knew, the governments of his wartime allies had secretly arranged to divvy up conquered lands after the war. The United States government was not a participant in these secret treaties; but its leaders knew that their allies did indeed desire “conquest and dominion” after the war. Still, the president talked of self-sacrifice and altruism, and after the war he insisted, incorrectly, that he had not learned about the secret treaties until the peace conference at Versailles. In other words, he lied.

Compared with his successors, Wilson’s deliberate decision to mislead the American public about the allies’ war aims might seem rather minor. He said the war was about self-determination and democracy, when it was mainly about American financial and cultural ties to Great Britain. He said it was about open covenants, when he knew his allies had signed secret treaties. Americans are used to this sort of presidential deception by now. ... We still live with the consequences of Wilson’s lies today.

This can only be described as a misreading of the source material. Let's look at Wilson's war message again. Here's just one representative quote:

The challenge [of German submarine warfare] is to all mankind.

Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

It's obvious here, as in other passages, that Wilson is talking about America, not our allies. Indeed, he does not presume to tell other nations what their war aims are (though he's happy to lecture them on what they should be). He is speaking only for America, and he sees a very specific reason why America should enter the war:

Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people. We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstances. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.

Of course, many Presidents (our current one, for example) could have delivered such a speech as mere rhetoric, not meaning a bit of it. They could have told Americans that they were fighting for high-minded principles, while really going to war for what Olmsted terms our "financial and cultural ties to Great Britain." But Wilson wasn't wielding his rhetoric as an excuse. He was the real deal, a President who viewed moral exigents as more important than national interest. In his Fourteen Points speech delivered immediately after the armistice, Wilson reaffirmed his stance on the reasons for the war:

We entered this war because violations of right had occurred which touched us to the quick and made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secure once for all against their recurrence. What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.

Wilson proceeded to back up these words with deeds. He marched into the Versailles conference and convinced the French and British leaders to sanction a League of Nations which would enforce regulations against secret treaties and keep belligerent nations like Germany in check. After the U.S. Congress threatened not to ratify the treaty thus signed, Wilson barnstormed the country whipping up support for the League until he literally broke under the strain, suffering a paralytic stroke that essentially ended his presidency. If there's any more a President can do to fight for a vision of global peace, I don't know what it is.

If Olmsted wants to excoriate Wilson for having lied about his knowledge of the secret treaties, that's her right. But the criticism is, as she at one point herself avers, "rather minor." The grand sweep of Wilson's foreign policy was to render such secret treaties null and void in perpetuity, and he did everything in his power to achieve this goal. It wasn't in America's vital national interest to fight against secret treaties, and it wasn't in our interest to cede so much of our national power to an international organization like the League. But Wilson, unlike our current President, believed that principles were more important than power, that doing what was right should come before doing what was right for America. The consequences of Wilson's lies are minor and largely unimportant. The consequences of Wilson's truth, on the other hand, are a vital "road not taken" which the current American government would do well to emulate.



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/02/2008 6:42 PM:

You can both be right.

You're right about Wilson laying the groundwork for a new international relations regime -- transformational leadership, as you like to call it -- but she's also right about the call to war itself. There was an immense amount of hypocrisy and power politics in the application of the 14 points, and the Versailles conference; self-determination was only for territories of losing empires, not victors, and only if the winners couldn't justify trusteeship in perpetuity. If Wilson was aware of the secret treaties at the time of our entry into war, then it didn't matter what the US public thought it was fighting for.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/02/2008 7:01 PM:

Fair point, but what major advance in human rights hasn't come along with equivocation and half-measures? One could just as easily write a blog post about what a liar Lincoln was in his Emancipation Proclamation, how he told Americans he was freeing the slaves out of a love of liberty when he was really doing it to keep Britain out of the war, how he only freed the slaves in the losing states and not in the winnings ones. It's all true, but so what? He still freed the fricking slaves.

The point here is that Wilson accomplished something that had never before been done in human history: the creation of a formalized, roughly egalitarian mechanism for settling international disputes with justice and without resort to war. One can gripe about how he got us there, as Olmsted does -- and she's certainly not the first historian to do so, nor will she be the last -- but such gripes are simple and petty. When push comes to shove, he still created the fricking League of Nations; given that, I'm willing to forgive a lot.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/02/2008 8:08 PM:

You're right, but you're missing her point: Wilson's deception produced a generation of second-guessing and cynicism about US participation in overseas military conflicts which, combined with the nativism unleashed on the domestic side of the war, made it impossible for FDR to justify active opposition to Hitler (not to mention Mussolini, Franco and Japanese expansionism).


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/02/2008 9:21 PM:

I don't agree with that point. The main thing that produced the American isolationism of the 1920's was Wilson's failure to get the League through Congress, which resulted in the feeling among Americans that we had nothing to show for the fight. There were other causes -- opposition to Creel's propaganda bureau, for which the blame can be very fairly laid on Wilson; anger at the Red Scare and the imprisonment of Debs, which created an implacable hatred for Wilson among American leftists that persists to this day; disillusionment with the way labor unions were shunted aside to make way for the war industries, then systematically dismantled by Mitchell Palmer in 1919 and 1920; the development of an eloquent isolationist movement in the American west, led by William Borah, Hiram Johnson, and Robert La Follette Sr. Some or all of these things were Wilson's fault, but all of them were more important than the secret treaties.

Indeed, I doubt Professor Olmsted can produce significant evidence indicating that the American people were even exercised over Wilson's knowledge of the secret treaties, in the 1920's, the 1940's, or any other time. I myself haven't seen any. If I had to hazard a guess as to why, I'd say it's because most of the secret treaties were nullified by Wilson personally at Versailles. Notably, Vittorio Orlando stormed out of the conference after Wilson coolly informed him that he wasn't going to get any of Austria-Hungary since he'd failed to win a single major battle during the war. And it's also worth remembering that the most infamous land grab of the conference, the one Wilson himself considered his greatest failure -- the cession of the Shantung peninsula to the Japanese -- was based upon no prior treaties at all.

The secret treaties simply didn't figure prominently in the peace settlement. I can see Olmsted's point that Wilson shouldn't have lied about them, but in the grand scheme of things I don't really see that it affected anything at either the political or the cultural level.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/03/2008 5:05 AM:

The main thing that produced the American isolationism of the 1920's was Wilson's failure to get the League through Congress, which resulted in the feeling among Americans that we had nothing to show for the fight.

I know you have to identify the hairs and split them, because it's your bailiwick, but from where I sit this looks like a tautology: Isolationism was caused by isolationist feelings; disappointment with Wilson was caused by disappointment with Wilson.

You've described a whole host of bad behaviors which are pretty much consistent with the secret treaty withholding: whether it was the latter, specifically, or the behavior generally, doesn't matter all that much to me. What does is the idea that deception, propaganda and secret deals to determine the fates of innocents can be argued away as coming from good intentions. I don't accept that argument in the present, after all.