Posts Tagged ‘Woodrow Wilson’

Reflecting on the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, One Hundred Years Later

Brandon Byrd

African American Intellectual History Society

January 13, 2015


U.S. Marines Patrol Haiti, 1915

This year marks the anniversary of two cataclysmic events in Haitian history: the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915 and the earthquake of 2010. While the latter deserves (and is receiving) ample attention, I plan on devoting my posts this year to the centennial of the occupation. This post introduces what I hope will be a compelling series for readers interested in the links among U.S. imperialism, Haiti, and black intellectual history.

In 1915, United States Marines invaded Haiti. U.S. policymakers justified the invasion by pointing to the death of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam at the hands of a mob. But this violence was more a convenience than a concern. U.S. officials had spent the previous decades attempting to obtain Haitian territory for use as a coaling station and sanctioning the seizure of Haitian finances by U.S. banks. Now, with the outbreak of World War I portending a German encroachment in the Caribbean, President Woodrow Wilson and his subordinates identified the unrest in Port-au-Prince as the perfect excuse to realize longstanding military and economic aspirations. It allowed them to act on their racism, too. In the estimation of Wilson’s Secretary of State, Haitians had proven their “inherent tendency to revert to savagery.”[1] It never occurred to him that a government committed to Jim Crow had no business acting as an agent of civilization.

An occupation motivated by these prejudices had an unsurprising effect: it crippled Haiti. Occupation administrators revived old labor laws and conscripted Haitians for public works projects. At the same time, they formed the Gendermarie, a law enforcement body that gave Marines full control over Haitian soldiers. The restructuring of the Haitian political system allowed for both excesses. Occupation authorities arrested dissidents, censored the press, enforced racial segregation, installed a puppet president, seized the state treasury, and crafted a new constitution that eliminated an historic ban on foreign landownership in Haiti. These developments convinced Haitians that the Americans had come to re-enslave a people whose ancestors had dared to emancipate themselves.

The attempt to re-forge the bonds of slavery broken during the Haitian Revolution met considerable resistance, though. Peasants mobilized throughout the countryside to repel the Marines. Moreover, Haitian journalists published anti-occupation articles, politicians resigned their posts, musicians penned songs of liberation, professionals established nationalist organizations, workers unionized, and students went on strike. African Americans joined this resistance. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson implored his peers to take special interest in restoring the sovereignty of Haiti, “the one best chance that the Negro has . . . to prove that he is capable of the highest self-government.”[2] Many did. Black men and women collaborated with Haitian nationalist groups and formed their own anti-occupation organizations. They reported on conditions in occupied Haiti, inspired white liberals to oppose the occupation, and refused to vote for any politician who did not do likewise. Black activists realized a truth voiced by the NAACP: “it was unquestionably the race prejudice which prevails in the United States that made possible the brutalities practiced . . . upon citizens of the Negro Republic of Haiti.”[3] It was their hope that the restoration of Haitian independence in 1934 would hasten the death of white supremacy in America.

Although the occupation has been remembered (if at all) as a minor episode in U.S. imperialism, it had a profound impact on Americans. As historian Mary A. Renda shows, the polemics of Marines who occupied Haiti entrenched a paternalistic concept of empire and a fantastic idea of “voodoo” in the American consciousness.[4] The occupation also transformed black political culture. Black elites had traditionally embraced Western theories of civilization and asserted their equality by stressing their “Americanness.” But as Haiti groaned under the weight of imperialism, black intellectuals now prioritized race over nation. Alongside Haitian intellectuals, they defended black folk culture and critiqued capitalism as well as imperialism. Their decision to challenge the global structures of racial inequality rather than operate from within them provided the foundations of modern black political protest.

The impact of the occupation was, however, most pronounced in Haiti. Besides killing upwards of 11,500 Haitians, U.S. Marines destabilized Haitian economic and political geographies by ensuring that all roads literally led to Port-au-Prince. Occupation officials also militarized Haiti to an unprecedented extent through the creation of the Gendermarie (later changed to the Garde d’Haiti). Finally, the occupation eroded local governance and solidified the influence of the United States and other outside nations upon Haiti. Indeed, the present proliferation of United Nations troops and foreign non-governmental organizations conjures images of the U.S. occupation to many Haitian activists. The comparisons are not baseless.

Historian Laurent Dubois notes that “a different Haiti is—always, and still—possible.”[5] But only if we grapple with its history and the outsized role that the United States has exerted upon it. The centennial of the occupation offers the ideal opportunity to do so. The invasion of Haiti by U.S. Marines transformed U.S. culture and foreign policy. It changed black thought. It devastated Haiti. Any thought of a “different” Haiti must, then, proceed from the acknowledgment that contemporary Haiti is not ahistorical. Instead, it is a product of imperialist intervention. It is the result of Pan-African solidarity. It is the consequence of past decisions made by outsiders who also envisioned a “different” Haiti, for better or worse. I hope, then, that this series becomes just one part of a larger conversation about the material and intellectual effects of an occupation that is more present than past.

Next month: The “Black Republic:” The Meaning of Haitian Independence before the Occupation

[1] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 213-215.

[2] James Weldon Johnson, “The Truth About Haiti: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation,” Crisis 20, no. 5 (September 1920) 223-224.

[3] Eleventh Annual Report of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the Year 1920 (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Office, 1921), 7.

[4] Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[5] Dubois, 370.

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Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’: An Aggressive Reshaping of the Past

Henry Kissinger

The Washington Free Beacon October 11, 2014

Henry Kissinger projects the public image of a judicious elder statesman whose sweeping knowledge of history lets him rise above the petty concerns of today, in order to see what is truly in the national interest. Yet as Kissinger once said of Ronald Reagan, his knowledge of history is “tailored to support his firmly held preconceptions.” Instead of expanding his field of vision, Kissinger’s interpretation of the past becomes a set of blinders that prevent him from understanding either his country’s values or its interests. Most importantly, he cannot comprehend how fidelity to those values may advance the national interest.

So far, Kissinger’s aggressive reshaping of the past has escaped public notice. On the contrary, World Order has elicited a flood of fawning praise. The New York Times said, “It is a book that every member of Congress should be locked in a room with — and forced to read before taking the oath of office.” The Christian Science Monitor declared it “a treat to gallivant through history at the side of a thinker of Kissinger’s caliber.” In a review for the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton praised Kissinger for “his singular combination of breadth and acuity along with his knack for connecting headlines to trend lines.” The Wall Street Journal and U.K. Telegraph offered similar evaluations.

Kissinger observes that “Great statesmen, however different as personalities, almost invariably had an instinctive feeling for the history of their societies.” Correspondingly, the lengthiest component of World Order is a hundred-page survey of American diplomatic history from 1776 to the present. In those pages, Kissinger persistently caricatures American leaders as naïve amateurs, incapable of thinking strategically. Yet an extensive literature, compiled by scholars over the course of decades, paints a very different picture. Kissinger’s footnotes give no indication that he has read any of this work.

If one accepts Kissinger’s narrative at face value, then his advice seems penetrating. “America’s moral aspirations,” Kissinger says, “need to be combined with an approach that takes into account the strategic element of policy.” This is a cliché masquerading as a profound insight. Regrettably, World Order offers no meaningful advice on how to achieve this difficult balance. It relies instead on the premise that simply recognizing the need for balance represents a dramatic improvement over the black-and-white moralism that dominates U.S. foreign policy.

America’s Original Sin

John Quincy Adams

“America’s favorable geography and vast resources facilitated a perception that foreign policy was an optional activity,” Kissinger writes. This was never the case. When the colonies were British possessions, the colonists understood that their security was bound up with British success in foreign affairs. When the colonists declared independence, they understood that the fate of their rebellion would rest heavily on decisions made in foreign capitals, especially Paris, whose alliance with the colonists was indispensable.

In passing, Kissinger mentions that “the Founders were sophisticated men who understood the European balance of power and manipulated it to the new country’s advantage.” It is easy to forget that for almost fifty years, the new republic was led by its Founders. They remained at the helm through a series of wars against the Barbary pirates, a quasi-war with France begun in 1798, and a real one with Britain in 1812. Only in 1825 did the last veteran of the Revolutionary War depart from the White House—as a young lieutenant, James Monroe had crossed the Delaware with General Washington before being severely wounded.

Monroe turned the presidency over to his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. The younger Adams was the fourth consecutive president with prior service as the nation’s chief diplomat. With Europe at peace, the primary concern of American foreign policy became the country’s expansion toward the Pacific Ocean, a project that led to a war with Mexico as well as periodic tensions with the British, the Spanish, and even the Russians, who made vast claims in the Pacific Northwest. During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy recognized the vital importance of relations with Europe. Not long after the war, the United States would enter its brief age of overseas expansion.

One of Kissinger’s principal means of demonstrating his predecessors’ naïve idealism is to approach their public statements as unadulterated expressions of their deepest beliefs. With evident disdain, Kissinger writes, “the American experience supported the assumption that peace was the natural condition of humanity, prevented only by other countries’ unreasonableness or ill will.” The proof-text for this assertion is John Quincy Adams’ famous Independence Day oration of 1821, in which Adams explained, America “has invariably, often fruitlessly, held forth to [others] the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity … She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations.” This was a bold assertion, given that Adams was in the midst of bullying Spain on the issue of Florida, which it soon relinquished.

Kissinger spends less than six pages on the remainder of the 19th century, apparently presuming that Americans of that era did not spend much time thinking about strategy or diplomacy. Then, in 1898, the country went to war with Spain and acquired an empire. “With no trace of self-consciousness,” Kissinger writes, “[President William McKinley] presented the war…as a uniquely unselfish mission.” Running for re-election in 1900, McKinley’s campaign posters shouted, “The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory, but for humanity’s sake.” The book does not mention that McKinley was then fighting a controversial war to subdue the Philippines, which cost as many lives as the war in Iraq and provoked widespread denunciations of American brutality. Yet McKinley’s words—from a campaign ad, no less—are simply taken at face value.

Worshipping Roosevelt and Damning Wilson

Theodore Roosevelt

For Kissinger, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt represents a brief and glorious exception to an otherwise unbroken history of moralistic naïveté. Roosevelt “pursued a foreign policy concept that, unprecedentedly for America, based itself largely on geopolitical considerations.” He “was impatient with many of the pieties that dominated American thinking on foreign policy.” With more than a hint of projection, Kissinger claims, “In Roosevelt’s view, foreign policy was the art of adapting American policy to balance global power discretely and resolutely, tilting events in the direction of the national interest.”

The Roosevelt of Kissinger’s imagination is nothing like the actual man who occupied the White House. Rather than assuming his country’s values to be a burden that compromised its security, TR placed the concept of “righteousness” at the very heart of his approach to world politics. Whereas Kissinger commends those who elevate raison d’etat above personal morality, Roosevelt subscribed to the belief that there is one law for the conduct of both nations and men. At the same time, TR recognized that no authority is capable of enforcing such a law. In world politics, force remains the final arbiter. For Kissinger, this implies that ethics function as a restraint on those who pursue the national interest. Yet according to the late scholar of international relations, Robert E. Osgood, Roosevelt believed that the absence of an enforcer “magnified each nation’s obligation to conduct itself honorably and see that others did likewise.” This vision demanded that America have a proverbial “big stick” and be willing to use it.

Osgood’s assessment of Roosevelt is not atypical. What makes it especially interesting is that Osgood was an avowed Realist whose perspective was much closer to that of Kissinger than it was to Roosevelt. In 1969, Osgood took leave from Johns Hopkins to serve under Kissinger on the National Security Council staff. Yet Osgood had no trouble recognizing the difference between Roosevelt’s worldview and his own.

For Kissinger, the antithesis of his imaginary Roosevelt is an equally ahistoric Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s vision, Kissinger says, “has been, with minor variations, the American program for world order ever since” his presidency. “The tragedy of Wilsonianism,” Kissinger explains, “is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century’s decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.” Considering Theodore Roosevelt’s idealism, it seems that Wilson’s tenure represented a period of continuity rather than a break with tradition. Furthermore, although Wilson’s idealism was intense, it was not unmoored from an appreciation of power. To demonstrate Wilson’s naïveté, Kissinger takes his most florid rhetoric at face value, a tactic employed earlier at the expense of William McKinley and John Quincy Adams.

The pivotal moment of Wilson’s presidency was the United States’ declaration of war on Germany. “Imbued by America’s historic sense of moral mission,” Kissinger says, “Wilson proclaimed that America had intervened not to restore the European balance of power but to ‘make the world safe for democracy’.” In addition to misquoting Wilson, Kissinger distorts his motivations. In his request to Congress for a declaration of war, Wilson actually said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” John Milton Cooper, the author of multiple books on Wilson, notes that Wilson employed the passive tense to indicate that the United States would not assume the burden of vindicating the cause of liberty across the globe. Rather, the United States was compelled to defend its own freedom, which was under attack from German submarines, which were sending American ships and their crewmen to the bottom of the Atlantic. (Kissinger makes only one reference to German outrages in his discussion.)

If Wilson were the crusader that Kissinger portrays, why did he wait almost three years to enter the war against Germany alongside the Allies? The answer is that Wilson was profoundly apprehensive about the war and it consequences. Even after the Germans announced they would sink unarmed American ships without warning, Wilson waited two more months, until a pair of American ships and their crewmen lay on the ocean floor as a result of such attacks.

According to Kissinger, Wilson’s simple faith in the universality of democratic ideals led him to fight, from the first moments of the war, for regime change in Germany. In his request for a declaration of war, Wilson observed, “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” This was more of an observation than a practical program. Eight months later, Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, yet explicitly told Congress, “we do not wish in any way to impair or to rearrange the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is no affair of ours what they do with their own life, either industrially or politically.” Clearly, in this alleged war for liberty, strategic compromises were allowed, something one would never know from reading World Order.

Taking Ideology Out of the Cold War

John F. Kennedy

Along with the pomp and circumstance of presidential inaugurations, there is plenty of inspirational rhetoric. Refusing once again to acknowledge the complex relationship between rhetoric and reality, Kissinger begins his discussion of the Cold War with an achingly literal interpretation of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he called on his countrymen to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Less well known is Kennedy’s admonition to pursue “not a balance of power, but a new world of law,” in which a “grand and global alliance” would face down “the common enemies of mankind.”

Kissinger explains, “What in other countries would have been treated as a rhetorical flourish has, in American discourse, been presented as a specific blueprint for global action.” Yet this painfully naïve JFK is—like Kissinger’s cartoon versions of Roosevelt or Wilson—nowhere to be found in the literature on his presidency.

In a seminal analysis of Kennedy’s strategic thinking published more than thirty years ago, John Gaddis elucidated the principles of JFK’s grand strategy, which drew on a careful assessment of Soviet and American power. Gaddis concludes that Kennedy may have been willing to pay an excessive price and bear too many burdens in his efforts to forestall Soviet aggression, but there is no question that JFK embraced precisely the geopolitical mindset that Kissinger recommends. At the same time, Kennedy comprehended, in a way Kissinger never does, that America’s democratic values are a geopolitical asset. In Latin America, Kennedy fought Communism with a mixture of force, economic assistance, and a determination to support elected governments. His “Alliance for Progress” elicited widespread applause in a hemisphere inclined to denunciations of Yanquí imperialism. This initiative slowly fell apart after Kennedy’s assassination, but he remains a revered figure in many corners of Latin America.

Kissinger’s fundamental criticism of the American approach to the Cold War is that “the United States assumed leadership of the global effort to contain Soviet expansionism—but as a primarily moral, not geopolitical endeavor.” While admiring the “complex strategic considerations” that informed the Communist decision to invade South Korea, Kissinger laments that the American response to this hostile action amounted to nothing more than “fighting for a principle, defeating aggression, and a method of implementing it, via the United Nations.”

It requires an active imagination to suppose that President Truman fought a war to vindicate the United Nations. He valued the fig leaf of a Security Council resolution (made possible by the absence of the Soviet ambassador), but the purpose of war was to inflict a military and psychological defeat on the Soviets and their allies, as well as to secure Korean freedom. Yet Kissinger does not pause, even for a moment, to consider that the United States could (or should) have conducted its campaign against Communism as both a moral and a geopolitical endeavor.

An admission of that kind would raise the difficult question of how the United States should integrate both moral and strategic imperatives in its pursuit of national security. On this subject, World Order has very little to contribute. It acknowledges that legitimacy and power are the prerequisites of order, but prefers to set up and tear down an army of strawmen rather than engaging with the real complexity of American diplomatic history.

Forgetting Reagan

Ronald Reagan

In 1976, while running against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan “savaged” Henry Kissinger for his role as the architect of Nixon and Ford’s immoral foreign policy. That is how Kissinger recalled things twenty years ago in Diplomacy, his 900-page treatise on world politics in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Kissinger employed a long chapter in his book to return the favor. Yet in World Order, there is barely any criticism to leaven its praise of Reagan. Perhaps this change reflects a gentlemanly concern for speaking well of the dead. More likely, Kissinger recognizes that Reagan’s worldview has won the heart of the Republican Party. Thus, to preserve his influence, Kissinger must create the impression he and Reagan were not so different.

In Diplomacy, Kissinger portrays Reagan as a fool and an ideologue. “Reagan knew next to no history, and the little he did know he tailored to support his firmly held preconceptions. He treated biblical references to Armageddon as operational predictions. Many of the historical anecdotes he was so fond of recounting had no basis in fact.” In World Order, one learns that Reagan “had read more deeply in American political philosophy than his domestic critics credited” him with. Thus, he was able to “combine American’s seemingly discordant strengths: its idealism, its resilience, its creativity, and its economic vitality.” Just as impressively, “Reagan blended the two elements—power and legitimacy” whose combination Kissinger describes as the foundation of world order.

Long gone is the Reagan who was bored by “the details of foreign policy” and whose “approach to the ideological conflict [with Communism] was a simplified version of Wilsonianism” while his strategy for ending the Cold War “was equally rooted in American utopianism.” Whereas Nixon had a deep understanding of the balance of power, “Reagan did not in his own heart believe in structural or geopolitical causes of tension.”

In contrast, World Order says that Reagan “generated psychological momentum with pronouncements at the outer edge of Wilsonian moralism.” Alone among American statesmen, Reagan receives credit for the strategic value of his idealistic public statements, instead of having them held up as evidence of his ignorance and parochialism.

Kissinger observes that while Nixon did not draw inspiration from Wilsonian visions, his “actual policies were quite parallel and not rarely identical” to Reagan’s. This statement lacks credibility. Reagan wanted to defeat the Soviet Union. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to stabilize the Soviet-American rivalry. They pursued détente, whereas Reagan, according to Diplomacy, “meant to reach his goal by means of relentless confrontation.”

Kissinger’s revised recollections of the Reagan years amount to a tacit admission that a president can break all of the rules prescribed by the Doctor of Diplomacy, yet achieve a more enduring legacy as a statesman than Kissinger himself.

The Rest of the World

Henry Kissinger

Three-fourths of World Order is not about the United States of America. The book also includes long sections on the history of Europe, Islam, and Asia. The sections on Islam and Asia are expendable, although for different reasons.

The discussion of Islamic history reads like a college textbook. When it comes to the modern Middle East, World Order has the feel of a news clipping service, although the clippings favor the author’s side of the debate. In case you didn’t already know, Kissinger is pro-Israel and pro-Saudi, highly suspicious of Iran, and dismissive of the Arab Spring. The book portrays Syria as a quagmire best avoided, although it carefully avoids criticism of Obama’s plan for airstrikes in 2013. Kissinger told CNN at the time that the United States ought to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, although he opposed “intervention in the civil war.”

The book’s discussion of China amounts to an apologia for the regime in Beijing. To that end, Kissinger is more than willing to bend reality. When he refers to what took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he calls it a “crisis”—not a massacre or an uprising. Naturally, there are no references to political prisoners, torture, or compulsory abortion and sterilization. There is a single reference to corruption, in the context of Kissinger’s confident assertion that President Xi Jinping is now challenging it and other vices “in a manner that combines vision with courage.”

Whereas Kissinger’s lack of candor is not surprising with regard to human rights, one might expect an advocate of realpolitik to provide a more realistic assessment of how China interacts with foreign powers. Yet the book only speaks of “national rivalries” in the South China Sea, not of Beijing’s ongoing efforts to intimidate its smaller neighbors. It also portrays China as a full partner in the effort to denuclearize North Korea. What concerns Kissinger is not the ruthlessness of Beijing, but the potential for the United States and China to be “reinforced in their suspicions by the military maneuvers and defense programs of the other.”

Rather than an aggressive power with little concern for the common good, Kissinger’s China is an “indispensable pillar of world order” just like the United States. If only it were so.

In its chapters on Europe, World Order recounts the history that has fascinated Kissinger since his days as a doctoral candidate at Harvard. It is the story of “the Westphalian order,” established and protected by men who understood that stability rests on a “balance of power—which, by definition, involves ideological neutrality”—i.e. a thorough indifference to the internal arrangements of other states.

“For more than two hundred years,” Kissinger says, “these balances kept Europe from tearing itself to pieces as it had during the Thirty Years War.” To support this hypothesis, Kissinger must explain away the many great wars of that era as aberrations that reflect poorly on particular aggressors—like Louis XIV, the Jacobins, and Napoleon—rather than failures of the system as a whole. He must even exonerate the Westphalian system from responsibility for the war that crippled Europe in 1914. But this he does, emerging with complete faith that balances of power and ideological neutrality remain the recipe for order in the 21st century.

Wishing Away Unipolarity


Together, Kissinger’s idiosyncratic interpretations of European and American history have the unfortunate effect of blinding him to the significance of the two most salient features of international politics today. The first is unipolarity. The second is the unity of the democratic world, led by the United States.

Fifteen years ago, Dartmouth Professor William Wohlforth wrote that the United States “enjoys a much larger margin of superiority over the next powerful state or, indeed, all other great powers combined, than any leading state in the last two centuries.” China may soon have an economy of comparable size, but it has little prospect of competing militarily in the near- or mid-term future. Six of the next ten largest economies belong to American allies. Only one belongs to an adversary—Vladimir Putin’s Russia—whose antipathy toward the United States has not yielded a trusting relationship with China, let alone an alliance. (Incidentally, Putin is not mentioned in World Order, a significant oversight for a book that aspires to a global field of vision.)

The reason that the United States is able to maintain a globe-spanning network of alliances is precisely because it has never had a foreign policy based on ideological neutrality. Its network of alliances continues to endure and expand, even in the absence of a Soviet threat, because of shared democratic values. Of course, the United States has partnerships with non-democratic states as well. It has never discarded geopolitical concerns, pace Kissinger. Yet the United States and its principal allies in Europe and Asia continue to see their national interests as compatible because their values play such a prominent role in defining those interests. Similarly, America’s national interest entails a concern for spreading democratic values, because countries that make successful transitions to democracy tend to act in a much more pacific and cooperative manner.

These are the basic truths about world order that elude Kissinger because he reflexively exaggerates and condemns the idealism of American foreign policy. In World Order, Kissinger frequently observes that a stable order must be legitimate, in addition to reflecting the realities of power. If he were less vehement in his denunciations of American idealism, he might recognize that it is precisely such ideals that provide legitimacy to the order that rests today on America’s unmatched power.

Rather than functioning as a constraint on its pursuit of the national interest, America’s democratic values have ensured a remarkable tolerance for its power. Criticism of American foreign policy may be pervasive, but inaction speaks louder than words. Rather than challenging American power, most nations rely on it to counter actual threats. At the moment, with the Middle East in turmoil, Ukraine being carved up, and Ebola spreading rapidly, the current world order may not seem so orderly. Yet no world order persists on its own. Those who have power and legitimacy must fight to preserve it.

Agradezco al amigo Luis Ponce por ponerme en contacto con esta nota.

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Long Echoes of War and Speech

Woodrow Wilson, World War I and American Idealism

The New York Times    August 13, 2014
President Woodrow Wilson announced to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, that a new age had begun. Credit Associated Press

President Woodrow Wilson announced to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, that a new age had begun. Credit Associated Press

Woodrow Wilson is almost never quoted by name when modern presidents speak, but he remains audible all the same, particularly in the echoes that still reverberate a hundred years after the Great War.

In late May, President Obama spoke at West Point, where he defined America’s place in the world much as Wilson might have — propping up the international order, defending human rights, and walking eternally down the path of virtue. George W. Bush, so different in so many ways, also radiated Wilsonian idealism, even as he claimed to be an un-Wilsonian realist. His second Inaugural Address, drawn straight from the Wilson playbook, declared “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That remains a work in progress.

Wilson did not speak this way when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. At first, he barely mentioned the diplomatic catastrophe unleashed by the assassinations at Sarajevo. On July 27, the day before Austria declared war on Serbia, he gave a press conference, and said meekly, “The United States has never attempted to interfere in European affairs.” Wilson’s silence coincided with a personal crisis of his own. His wife Ellen lay dying that summer, and when one of his daughters asked him about the growing chance of war, he said simply, “I can think of nothing — nothing, when my dear one is suffering.” She expired on Aug. 6, as the war began.

But his silence also reflected astonishment that war was breaking out, against all expectations, in an era that had at least as many clichés about globalization as our own. And it stemmed from an old presidential tradition, soon to be shattered, of avoiding grandiose statements about human betterment. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, specifically urged Americans to steer clear of foreign conflicts. The Monroe Doctrine proposed noninterference by Americans in Europe, as well as the opposite. Theodore Roosevelt advocated for silence as well — his famous adage to speak softly and carry a big stick — even if he did not always achieve it.

Wilson showed no signs of breaking from this tradition, at first. After Sarajevo, he gave a Fourth of July address that never even mentioned the killings a week earlier. Americans seemed to approve. In 1916, “He Kept Us Out of War” was a popular slogan that helped Wilson to eke out victory over his Republican rival, Charles Evans Hughes.

But Wilson’s silence would eventually give way to a different voice, the one that we remember him for. In the spring of 1917, after three horrific years, the world had changed greatly, and so had he. As he brought the United States to the precipice of war, he began to speak in a way that has defined the American presidency ever since. It was not merely that the United States would enter a European theater for the first time, in huge numbers. Wilson also asked that Americans fight to make the world “safe for democracy.” In a sense, he asked the United States to become the world’s judge as well as its sheriff, with an evangelical optimism that has brought both inspiration and exasperation to the 96 percent of the world that is not American.

Earlier presidents had expressed some of these aspirations: Thomas Jefferson proclaimed America the “world’s best hope” in his first inaugural, and Lincoln had often expressed himself likewise, in a language of aspiration. But these remarks expressed only a forlorn wish. They never formed a policy aim, and they fell far short of calling for intervention in Europe, where violations of human rights were as easy to find as the next hillside.

By 1917, Wilson was ready to take that step. He was hardly a natural interventionist. But the war was increasingly affecting American noncombatants, and insulting human rights on an epic scale, with mounting civilian casualties, chemical weapons, and the targeting of neutral vessels.

Accordingly, in the spring of 1917, Wilson began to deliver a stream of public statements that broke his earlier silence, and defined war not so much as a military exercise as an attempt to set the world right. Suddenly, a new language of human rights was being delivered by a president, from something like a pulpit, backed for the first time with the full might of American power.

On Feb. 26, he asked Congress to declare “armed neutrality,” a precursor to war, to defend the world’s “fundamental human rights.” His second inaugural, on March 5, promised to fight for “the principles of a liberated mankind.” In his war message of April 2, Wilson announced that a new age had begun, in which Americans would make the world safe, not only for democracy, but a broad catalog of rights that included freedom of the seas, the independence of small nations, and the right of all nations to unite, to “make the world itself at last free.”

That was a tall order. But since then, we have never stopped marching toward a goal that remains a bit otherworldly. Wilson was an effective messenger in 1917, drawing on his Presbyterianism, his grasp of American history, and his childhood memory of growing up in a region that had recently been occupied by an invading army (inconveniently, that of the United States). In this sense, Wilson’s language of self-determination might be understood as a final legacy of the Civil War.

The language of 1917 proved durable. Without doubt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s messages during World War II were improved by his articulation of the core freedoms Americans were fighting for. The better speeches of the Cold War — John F. Kennedy’s in particular — conveyed a vivid sense of what American values meant to the world. Yet a tone of high moral dudgeon could also weaken a presidential speech, when it proved ineffective, or untethered to economic reality, or borderline delusional — Lyndon Johnson’s insistence that democracy was coming soon to Vietnam, or George W. Bush’s similar predictions for Iraq.

It has become fashionable to criticize Wilson for naïveté as well as self-righteousness. Evangelical statements require some suspension of disbelief, but ultimately, as he learned the hard way, soaring aspirations have a way of crashing back to earth. American forces did join the battle in 1917, and they tipped the balance, giving thrust to Wilson’s promises. But democracy, that catch-all term, proved difficult when he returned home from his European peacemaking efforts in 1919 and tried to enlist a skeptical Congress behind his vision of an improved world order.

At the same time, the words linger, expressive of something elusive that presidents still seek to articulate. As it turned out, a prophecy he made in his Fourth of July speech in 1914 was self-fulfilling: “The most patriotic man, ladies and gentlemen, is sometimes the man who goes in the direction that he thinks right even when he sees half the world against him.” A century later, that is often what American foreign policy feels like, as we reel from one undemocratic place to another, hoping to limit the carnage. To aspire to the best in Wilson’s oratory, while guarding against the worst, feels like a reliable course for a nation still finding its way in a world that has yet to be made safe for anything.

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University. He recently edited “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”

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 The Surprising Evidence hat Woodrow Wilson Was Suffering from a Brain Malfunction Before the Stroke that Crippled Him

Richard Striner

HNN   June 15, 2014

This is part three of a three-part series distilling the thesis of Richard Striner’s new book, Woodrow Wilson and World War One: A Burden Too Great to Bear, published by Rowman & Littlefield in April 2014. (Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.) Mr. Striner is a professor of history at Washington College. His other books include Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery and Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.   – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155787#sthash.W5bIvaw3.dpuf


Almost everyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson agrees he was a tragic figure. But the admirers and detractors of Wilson have differed sharply down the years as to whether Wilson’s tragedy was essentially his own fault. One critical fact about the tragedy was obviously not his fault: the stroke that he suffered on October 2, 1919. And due to the underlying condition of arteriosclerosis (diagnosed as early as 1906), distinguished medical observers have theorized that Wilson suffered from a progressive cerebro-vascular deterioration resulting in episodic dementia as early as 1917.

As one studies the historical record in detail — a record set forth in magnificent abundance by the editorial team led by the late Arthur S. Link that produced the 69-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson — there is much to support the belief that he was hampered by his medical condition.

Wilson’s judgment seemed grossly impaired by the war years. He was extraordinarily petulant and irrational by 1918, and contemporaneous observers who were in a position to know commented often on his strange and quirky ways.

In 1919, Wilson’s pre-existing medical and mental conditions arguably led to a breakdown months before his paralytic stroke, which occurred on October 2. The nature of this breakdown could be seen as early as February, in a series of words and actions that prefigured his behavior of November and December, at which point he was clearly out of his mind.

When Wilson sailed to Europe aboard the USS George Washington, he had — typically — no substantive strategy for preventing the kind of vindictive peace that he had warned against in his 1917 “Peace Without Victory” speech. One of the advisers recruited for the U.S. peace delegation, Yale historian Charles Seymour, recalled that Wilson turned to him during the voyage and asked, “What means, Mr. Seymour, can be utilized to bring pressure upon these people in the interest of justice?” It was very late indeed for Wilson to be thinking in these terms, especially after the many missed opportunities in 1917 and 1918 to build the political pre-conditions for “peace without victory.”

John Maynard Keynes, at that time serving as an adviser to David Lloyd George, argued in his best-selling book The Economic Consequences of the Peace that Wilson could have come to Europe with a formidable basis for pressuring the allies. Keynes wrote that “Europe was in complete dependence on the food supplies of the United States; and financially she was even more absolutely at their mercy. Europe not only already owed the United States more than she could pay; but only a large measure of further assistance could save her from starvation and bankruptcy.” Referring to Wilson, Keynes wrote that “never had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world.”

If Wilson had explored the possibility of offering a debt moratorium to the allies, the reparations that the British and the French would inflict upon the Germans might have been far less severe. But Wilson never seriously considered that option in 1918 or 1919, as the historical record demonstrates.

The negotiations over reparations and territorial settlements were grueling, but Wilson consoled himself with the fact that the League of Nations won general approval at the Paris Peace Conference in January, though the task of hammering out the details of its overall plan and structure was difficult. Wilson returned briefly to the United States in late February to sign legislation that the lame-duck Congress had passed in its final session. Here was an opportunity to test and adjust the domestic politics regarding both the League and the overall treaty.

Wilson’s behavior in February and early March shows clearly that a mental breakdown was beginning. Some of his behavior, to be sure, was quintessentially Wilsonian: his proclamations, for instance, that pure idealism had won the war and that power politics had nothing to do with the outcome were symptomatic of the escapism that was intermittently a factor in his thinking. In Boston, he delivered the following incantation: “In the name of the people of the United States I have uttered as the objects of this great war ideals, and nothing but ideals, and the war has been won by that inspiration.” He had engaged in this sort of hyperbole many times and it had rendered him largely incapable of strategic thinking since the war began. But some other episodes during this visit showed a new and shocking deterioration.

At the suggestion of Col. House, he sponsored a dinner at the White House to explain the preliminary terms of the League covenant to select members of Congress. The results of this meeting showed clearly that the League was in trouble on Capitol Hill. Several worried Democrats suggested that Republican feedback should supply the basis for revisions that Wilson could bring with him when he returned to Paris. But Wilson refused to consider this.

Two days later, Henry Cabot Lodge made a powerful and persuasive speech on the floor of the Senate denouncing the preliminary structure of the League. Wilson’s response was appallingly simple: he threw a public temper tantrum. In remarks at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, he proclaimed that all who opposed the preliminary plans for the League were imbeciles. Listen to him: “Of all the blind and little provincial people, they are the littlest and most contemptible . . . . They have not even got good working imitations of minds. They remind me of a man with a head that is not a head but is just a knot providentially put there to keep him from raveling out . . . . They are going to have the most conspicuously contemptible names in history. The gibbets that they are going to be erected on by future historians will scrape the heavens, they will be so high.”

Just before Wilson returned to Paris, Lodge circulated in the Senate a document in which the signatories declared that they would under no circumstances vote for the League in its existing form. Lodge obtained more than enough signatures to show Wilson he was beaten unless he made revisions to the League.

Wilson did so when he returned to Paris, and these new deliberations were as grueling as the earlier ones had been. But Wilson refused to have any contact with Lodge and his supporters, which meant that all of his work was a waste of time, for Lodge was engaging in a simple game of payback, an exercise for the fun of it to make Wilson humble himself and give Republicans a “piece of the action.” Surely at some level Wilson sensed what was going on, but his vanity, his stubbornness, and his indignation were becoming more severe.

Wilson’s signature in 1913



His health began to give way in recurrent bouts of illness. But something drastic seemed to happen to him on April 28 — something that did not come to light until many years later, when historian Arthur S. Link was editing the Wilson documents from 1919. Let Link and his editorial colleagues tell the story: “It became obvious to us while going through the documents from late April to about mid-May 1919 that Wilson was undergoing some kind of a crisis in his health . . . . Whatever happened to Wilson seems to have occurred when he was signing letters in the morning of April 28” when his handwriting changed and became almost bizarre.

Wilson’s signature in spring 1919


The editors continue: “Wilson’s handwriting continued to deteriorate even further. It grew increasingly awkward, was more and more heavily inked, and became almost grotesque.” Link summoned some medical specialists who told him that in their own opinion there was simply no doubt about it: Wilson had suffered a stroke on the morning of April 28.

And then he threw away yet another opportunity to strike a blow for “peace without victory.” When the terms of the Versailles treaty were made public there was widespread outrage regarding their severity. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, was stricken, and he called the British delegation together on June 1. Their decision was unanimous: the terms of the treaty should be softened.

But when Wilson was approached, he declared that the severe terms were perfectly appropriate. According to one account, he proclaimed that “if the Germans won’t sign the treaty as we have written it, then we must renew the war.”

When he returned to the United States, his mental decline proceeded rapidly. He seemed to be more and more convinced that a religious drama was being enacted, a drama that he could understand more than others. When he presented the treaty to the Senate on July 10, he declared that “the stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision.” A Democrat, Senator Henry Fountain Ashurst, reacted to the speech as follows: “Wilson’s speech was as if the head of a great Corporation, after committing his company to enormous undertakings, when called upon to render a statement as to the meanings and extent of the obligations he had incurred, should arise before the Board of Directors and tonefully read Longfellow’s Psalm of Life.” Republican responses to the speech were even less charitable.

In August Wilson came to his senses and began to engage in discussions with congressional opponents, including some Republicans known as “mild reservationists” who supported the treaty but insisted on some clarifications to the League covenant, especially in regard to the issue of military force. But on August 11, his mood changed abruptly, and he made his fateful decision to appeal to the American people on a speaking tour that would take him to the West Coast and back.

Before he left, however, he made a significant (if private) concession: he gave his preliminary assent to some secret text for a possible “reservation” to the League covenant that was drafted by Democratic Senator Gilbert Hitchcock.

The speaking tour broke his health permanently, and after falling ill in Pueblo, Colorado, he returned to Washington, where the paralytic stroke occurred on October 2. After a medical team diagnosed the stroke, Wilson’s wife made the very bad decision to conceal the diagnosis from the public. Wilson could and should have been relieved of his presidential duties. As an invalid who had suffered a severe brain injury, he became more irrational and petulant than ever before.

The preliminary showdown in Congress over the Versailles treaty and its League covenant happened in November. Lodge had drafted a series of reservations, the most important of which concerned Article 10, which pertained to collective security and the use of military force under League auspices. Lodge’s text was negative and grudging: it declared that the United States would never participate in collective security actions as recommended by the League unless Congress approved through its constitutional prerogative to declare war. As Arthur Link noted years ago, the Lodge reservation was essentially the same as the Hitchcock reservation that Wilson had secretly approved, though the tone of Lodge’s reservation was of course nasty and negative. But both of them said essentially the same thing: the United States could never be drawn into war against the opposition of the people’s elected representatives.

Wilson, however, was convinced that the Lodge reservation “cuts the very heart out of the treaty.” A caucus of Democratic senators had voted to obey the president’s wishes, so bipartisan discussions with Republican “mild reservationists” were called off. The treaty went down to defeat on November 19.

The reaction was one of bipartisan shock, especially with Republicans such as former President William Howard Taft, who supported the League and who declared that the Lodge reservation “does not modify the original article nearly so much as a good many people have supposed it did.”

So bipartisan discussions resumed in January 1920. Success was approaching as more and more Democrats rebelled against Wilson’s delusional position. Wilson ranted that he would never tolerate “disloyalty,” and he did his best to use party discipline to force recalcitrant Democrats into line. When the treaty was considered again on March 19, twenty-two Democrats broke with Wilson and voted for the treaty with the Lodge reservations attached. But that was seven votes shy of the necessary two-thirds majority. The treaty of Versailles was rejected once and for all on that spring day in 1920. And the blame must be placed where it belongs: at the bedside of Woodrow Wilson.

In the opinion of John Milton Cooper, Jr., one of Wilson’s greatest admirers among academic historians, “in the first three months of 1920” Wilson seemed to be in the grip of “mental instability, if not insanity . . . . He should not have remained in office.”

As this series has attempted to argue — and as my book Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear seeks to demonstrate at length — the catastrophe of Wilson’s wartime leadership started long before his madness. For a long time, qualified medical observers have theorized that Wilson suffered from a cerebro-vascular condition that warped his judgment for several years before the stroke. To the extent that these theories are justified, Wilson was not to blame for the blunders and follies that characterized his behavior during World War I. On the other hand, if his mistakes — especially his earlier mistakes when his mind was more lucid, the mistakes that resulted from aversion to strategic thinking — sprang from character flaws that can afflict any one of us, the judgment of history must be severe.

But one thing seems certain to me after studying the record in detail: Woodrow Wilson was not the right leader for the United States during World War I.

 Richard Striner (Washington College) is a historian focused on political and presidential history.

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Woodrow Wilson’s Four Mistakes in the Early Years of World War I 

HNN  June 1, 2014

This is part one of a three-part series distilling the thesis of Richard Striner’s new book, Woodrow Wilson and World War One: A Burden Too Great to Bear, published by Rowman & Littlefield in April 2014.  Mr. Striner is a professor of history at Washington College. His other books include Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery and Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power 


Wilson addressing the U.S. Congress, April 8, 1913

Wilson addressing the U.S. Congress, April 8, 1913

The case can be made that Woodrow Wilson made some profound mistakes when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. He made four particularly bad mistakes, and he admitted to one of them later: he refused to listen to people like Theodore Roosevelt who argued at the time that the United States should build up its military power to be ready for future contingencies.

The second mistake was understandable and pardonable in its early phases: he envisioned himself as a peace-maker who could end the war through mediation. He offered his services to the belligerents during the first month of the war. This was of course a noble gesture, but the casualties in the first few months of the war —— hundreds of thousands dead by the end of 1914 —— would make the prospect for peace in the years that followed an empty hope. As the fortunes of war veered back and forth, the leaders of the side that was losing would naturally be receptive to the idea of a cease-fire through which they could contain their losses. But the leaders of the side that was winning would of course be motivated to press their advantage, redeeming all the sacrifice and death through total victory. More than one observer in the war years regarded the leaders of the allied and central powers as akin to so many Macbeths, “in blood stept in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Even the most gifted of political strategists would probably have found it impossible during these years to bring the leaders of both sides to the peace table.

But Wilson clung stubbornly to the illusion that he could end the war through a single magnificent gesture. And that illusion was abetted by the man who during most of the war years served as Wilson’s closest confidante —— and, appallingly, who served at times his sole adviser on issues of war and foreign policy —— Col. Edward M. House. House was a flatterer who reveled in the thrill of making history behind the scenes. At times he was capable of giving shrewd advice, but he also worsened some of Wilson’s worst delusions. On September 18, 1914, he told Wilson that “the world expects you to play the big part in this tragedy, and so indeed you will, for God has given you the power to see things as they are.”

155786-WWilsonJacketThe third mistake that Wilson made in the first year of the war was his failure to engage in bipartisan consultations on issues of war and peace. Wilson’s own party was profoundly anti-interventionist during these years. As a consequence, contingency planning for the possible use of force would have been enhanced by quiet behind-the-scenes consultations with Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. But instead of cultivating such men, Wilson antagonized them.

All through 1915 —— the year of the Lusitania sinking when the Germans commenced their submarine campaign against allied shipping —— Wilson was motivated first and last by his hope of acting as a mediator. In a speech in Indianapolis, Wilson asked the following rhetorical question: “Do you not think it likely that the world will some time turn to America and say: ‘You were right, and we were wrong. You kept your heads when we lost ours; you tried to keep the scale from tipping, but we threw the whole weight of arms in one side of the scale. Now, in your self-possession, in your coolness, in your strength, may we not turn to you for counsel and assistance?’”

But even as Wilson strove to maintain impeccable neutrality, he was complicit in American policies that “tipped the scale” of the wartime power balance. For American firms began selling weapons and munitions, and only one of the two sides could purchase the arms. The German high seas fleet was bottled up in the North Sea, unable to escort German freighters across the Atlantic. But the British Royal Navy was supreme in the Atlantic sea lanes —— except for the fact that the Germans were able to send their submarines hunting for British freighters. To reduce the risk of interruptions to the wartime shipping, the British started to ship arms and weapons in the holds of passenger liners like the Lusitania. And the Germans knew it. American civilians were travelling on these liners.

Wilson had a number of options for confronting this oceanic peril. One was the option of banning the sale of arms and munitions to nations at war —— the sort of thing that the isolationist Neutrality Act of 1935 was crafted to achieve a generation later. A bill introduced by Rep. Richard Bartholdt proposed to ban the sale of arms and munitions, but Wilson opposed it. Another option was proposed by Wilson’s first secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan: warning Americans not to travel on British passenger vessels or advising them that they did so at their own risk. Wilson opposed this policy as well. And this, it could be argued, was his fourth major mistake.

He was committed to upholding every single neutral right that the United States and its citizens possessed. If international law permitted the sale of arms, then Americans had to make vigorous use of that right. If international law permitted American civilians to travel the seas unmolested, that right must be exercised as well to the fullest extent possible. Wilson’s attitude was so rigid that Bryan resigned as secretary of state. Wilson replaced him with Robert Lansing, a state department official whom Wilson promoted. But Wilson had no respect for Lansing, and he continued to use House as his paramount adviser.

Why was Wilson’s attitude in these matters so legalistic? Because —— far-fetched though the proposition might appear —— he had convinced himself that to have any hope of ending the war through mediation, the United States had to prove itself impeccably neutral, and the only way to prove this was to insist upon every single jot and tittle of neutral rights under international law. He wrote to Walter Hines Page, the American ambassador to Great Britain, as follows: “If we are to remain neutral and to afford Europe the legitimate assistance possible in such circumstances, the course we have been pursuing is the absolutely necessary course.” And the course he had been pursuing, he explained, was to do “everything that it is possible to do to define and defend neutral rights.”

And so instead of pulling the United States out of harm’s way —— instead of preventing American policy from being held hostage by heedless citizens who chose to put themselves in peril —— Wilson warned the Germans he would hold them to “strict accountability.” But how did he mean to enforce this threat? Realizing by summer 1915 that his previous opposition to preparedness had stripped him of leverage, he instructed his secretary of the navy and his secretary of war to draft preparedness legislation.

This was a wise thing to do under the circumstances, and Wilson —— in one of his better moments —— admitted in a speaking tour that he made on behalf of his preparedness program in January 1916 that his previous opposition to preparedness had been a mistake. But the task of pushing this legislation through Congress proved arduous because of opposition from Wilson’s own party. The politics of election year 1916, when Democratic speakers touted the claim that their party and its leader had “kept us out of war” made the task even harder. By the time the legislation went into effect in the autumn of 1916, only half a year of peace remained for the United States. Wilson’s delay in preparedness planning would rob him of critical leverage with the allies on the issue of war aims in 1917 and 1918. The lead time necessary for mobilization was considerable. And he would not be able to deliver the troops when the British and French needed them.

In the meantime, Wilson continued to promote himself as a mediator. In the winter of 1915-1916, he and House had pursued a strategy of demanding that both sides declare themselves ready for peace talks at the risk that America would help the enemies of whichever side refused first. House enthused in a message to Wilson that “a great opportunity is yours, my friend, the greatest perhaps that has ever come to any man.”

This initiative led to an early but meaningless agreement with the British foreign minister —— meaningless because events overtook it right away and the process led nowhere. Various details of these negotiations were botched to an extent that prompted Wilson scholar Arthur S. Link to describe the results as demonstrating “the immaturity and inherent confusion of the President’s policies.”

Repeatedly in 1916 he spoke about the providential role that he and the American people were destined to play in world history. “What Europe is beginning to realize,” he claimed in one speech, “is that we are saving ourselves for something greater that is to come. We are saving ourselves in order that we may unite in that final league of nations . . . which must, in the providence of God, come into the world.”

Wilson’s intense Christian piety —— he was the son of a Presbyterian minister —— was not unusual in his own time or (for that matter) in our own. But Wilson’s piety was perhaps quite unusual in its millennial expectations. More and more, as America was drawn into the maelstrom of war, Wilson expressed his belief that the providence of God was about to usher in the great peace foretold in Isaiah, and with divine providence guiding events in this way, there was little need for presidential strategy. God would make it all happen in the end.

And so it was that Wilson proceeded to ignore —— or throw away —— a long series of opportunities when strategic thinking and contingency planning might have given him a real opportunity to shape the flow of events, and especially so when it came to the war aims of the allies. It was beautiful ideals expressed in beautiful words that would turn the tide of war, Wilson thought.

He was pre-positioning the American people for a colossal and catastrophic let-down.

Richard Striner is a writer and historian whose books and articles have covered political and presidential history, literature, economics, film, architecture, and historic preservation.

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Herbert Hoover´s Crusade Against Collectivism

HNN ❘ December 23, 2013

Note by the book’s editor: This introduction is adapted from The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, edited and with an introduction by George H. Nash, excerpt below (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).

On a cool October morning in 1964, Herbert Hoover died in New York City at the age of ninety. He had lived a phenomenally productive life, including more than half a century in one form or another of public service. It was a record that in sheer scope and duration may be without parallel in American history.

His life had begun in humble circumstances in 1874 in a little Iowa farming community as the son of the village blacksmith. Orphaned before he was ten, he managed to enter Stanford University when it opened its doors in 1891. Four years later he graduated with a degree in geology and a determination to become a mining engineer.


Image via Wiki Commons.

From then on, Hoover’s rise in the world was meteoric. By 1914, at the age of forty, he was an internationally acclaimed and extraordinarily successful mining engineer who had traveled around the world five times and had business interests on every continent except Antarctica.

During World War I, Hoover, residing in London, rose to prominence as the founder and director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, an institution that provided desperately needed food supplies to more than nine million Belgian and French citizens trapped between the German army of occupation and the British naval blockade. His emergency relief mission in 1914 quickly evolved into a gigantic humanitarian enterprise without precedent in world history. By 1917 he was an international hero, the embodiment of a new force in global politics: American benevolence.

When America declared war on Germany in 1917, Hoover returned home and became head of the United States Food Administration, a specially created wartime agency of the federal government. At the conflict’s victorious close in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched him to Europe to organize food distribution to a continent careening toward disaster. There, for ten grueling months, he directed American- led efforts to combat famine and disease, establish stable postwar economies, and in the process check the advance of Bolshevik revolution from the East.

A little later, between 1921 and 1923, Hoover’s American Relief Administration administered a massive emergency relief operation in the interior of Soviet Russia, where a catastrophic famine — Europe’s worst since the Middle Ages — had broken out. At its peak of operations, his organization fed upward of ten million Russian citizens a day.

All in all, between 1914 and 1923 the American-born engineer-turned-humanitarian directed, financed, or assisted a multitude of international relief endeavors without parallel in the history of mankind. It was later said of him that he was responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history.

During the Roaring Twenties Hoover ascended still higher on the ladder of public esteem. As secretary of commerce under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he became one of the three or four most influential men in the U.S. government. In 1928, the “master of emergencies” (as admirers called him) was elected president of the United States in a landslide — without ever having held an elective public office.

Then came the crash of 1929 and the most severe economic trauma this nation has ever experienced. During his tormented presidency, Hoover strained without stint to return his country to prosperity while safeguarding its political moorings. His labors — even now misunderstood — seemed unavailing, and in the election of 1932 his fellow citizens’ verdict was harsh.

Before his single term as chief executive, Hoover’s career trajectory had curved unbrokenly upward. Now it headed pitifully down. “Democracy is not a polite employer,” he later wrote of his defeat at the polls. On March 4, 1933, he left office a virtual pariah, maligned and hated like no other American in his lifetime.

And then, astonishingly, like a phoenix, he slowly rose from the ashes of his political immolation. Now came the final phase of Hoover’s career: his remarkable ex-presidency. For the next thirty-one and one-half years, in fair political weather and foul, the former chief executive became, in his self-image, a crusader — a tireless and very visible castigator of the dominant political trends of his day. He behaved as a committed ideological warrior more persistently and more fervently than any other former president in our history.

Why? Most of all, it was because Hoover perceived in the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt not a moderate and pragmatic response to economic distress but something more sinister: a revolutionary transformation in America’s political economy and constitutional order. Having espied the unpalatable future, Hoover could not bring himself to acquiesce.

It is this eventful period in Hoover’s career — and, more specifically, his life as a political pugilist from 1933 to 1955 — that is the main subject of the volume before you. The Crusade Years is a previously unknown memoir that Hoover composed and revised during the 1940s and 1950s — and then, surprisingly, set aside. Placed in storage by his heirs aft er his death, the manuscript (in its various versions) lay sequestered — its existence unsuspected by scholars — until 2009, when it was discovered among the files of another hitherto inaccessible Hoover manuscript being readied for posthumous publication.

This other tome, known informally as the Magnum Opus, addressed American foreign policy in the 1930s and 1940s. Part memoir, part diplomatic history, part polemic, it was a scathing indictment of what Hoover termed Franklin Roosevelt’s “lost statesmanship” during World War II. Hoover ultimately titled the book Freedom Betrayed. It was published in 2011 by the Hoover Institution Press.

The Crusade Years — a companion volume of sorts to the Magnum Opus — covers much the same time period on the American home front. More fully a memoir than Freedom Betrayed, it recounts Hoover’s family life aft er March 4, 1933, his myriad philanthropic interests, and, most of all, his unrelenting “crusade against collectivism” in American life. Rescued from obscurity, this nearly forgotten manuscript is published here — and its contents made available to scholars — for the first time.
– See more at: http://hnn.us/article/154275#sthash.PEOcGduq.dpuf

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