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Posts Tagged ‘World War One’

The First World War and the US State Dept.

Imperial and Global Forum   September 22, 2015
Cross-posted from the Office of the Historian (US Dept. of State)

Dept. of State*To mark the centenary of the First World War, the Office of the Historian and U.S. Embassy France have carried out a study into the role of the U.S. diplomatic corps stationed in France during 1914–1918. In contrast to the well known record of U.S. actions after it entered the war in April 1917, the stories of U.S. diplomats, consuls, and their family members—particularly during the early months of the crisis (August-December 1914)—were long forgotten, overshadowed by subsequent events of the tumultuous twentieth century. By researching U.S. Government and Government of France records, memoirs, personal papers, and newspaper archives, this study presents a fascinating account of how actions spearheaded by U.S. diplomats—and American citizens—significantly strengthened Franco-American relations in unique, unparalleled ways.

The Office of the Historian has released this electronic preview editionof Views From the Embassy: The Role of the U.S. Diplomatic Community in France, 1914 (PDF, 818 KB). Over the upcoming months, this preview edition will be superseded by a more complete version. The material complements U.S. Embassy France’s WWI Centennial page. Readers may view full copies of several documents referenced in “Views From the Embassy” through links on the Embassy’s WWI Interactive Timeline.

The material in “Views From the Embassy” differs substantially from documentation printed in the Foreign Relations of the United Statesvolumes covering World War I, which focus upon high policy decisions and matters of international law rather than on-the-ground operations. Readers may access Foreign Relations of the United Statesvolumes, such as the 1914 War Supplement volume, through the Office of the Historian website. [to continue reading and download the PDF, click here.]

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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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The Cartoon that Made People Scare to Go War in 1914

 Charles F. Howlett

HNN   May 1i, 2014

Historians, journalists, and leading political figures are now commemorating the one hundredth anniversary marking the beginning of World War 1. At the time of this tragic event it was called the Great War and would be referred to in history textbooks as such for a mere twenty-one years after its conclusion. Sadly, the world experienced another global conflict starting in 1939 and the Great War became World War 1.

At the time armed conflict began in August 1914, it was considered the Great War because it was total and its impact felt worldwide. Primarily, in the low countries of Western Europe and France fierce battles were waged marked by trench warfare so graphically depicted by German soldier Eric Remarque’s powerful work All Quiet on the Western Front and visually displayed in the 1939 movie of the same name starring American actor Lew Ayers; Ayers, by the way, though classified as a conscientious objector, served as my dad’s Army combat medic in the Philippines in 1944-45. Battles were also fought on the high seas, principally in the North Atlantic where the submarine came to symbolize a new twist to conventional warfare, abandoning all forms of civility with respect to terms of engagement. There were also large cannons capable of launching shells twenty-plus miles, mechanized tanks, battleships, which the Germans proudly referred to as dreadnoughts, and worst of all, mustard gas. Indeed, over the course of four years, Europe, America, and parts of the decaying Ottoman Empire were thrust into the worst war civilization had ever encountered. It was a game changer and by the time it was over, November 11, 1918, at least 8.5 million combatants were killed and many more wounded, untold numbers of civilians died, whole empires were destroyed, and societies were devastated by modern technological warfare. Physical, moral, and psychological shock reverberated throughout the European continent and elsewhere.

No one could have predicted how catastrophic it would be. But at the start of hostilities when Germany officially invaded Belgium on August 4, 1917, bringing Great Britain into the war on the side of France and Russia, a cartoonist by the name of John Tinney McCutcheon burst upon the scene in an effort to capture the realities of the time. He would not disappoint as his vivid imagination and poignant realism gave instant credibility to the popularity of wartime cartoons as a serious form of journalism. Indeed, other cartoonists such as J.N. Ding (Jay Norwood Darling), James Harrison “Hal” Donahey, and Edwin Marcus would follow suit as they, too, used their artistic talents to depict the costs of war.

But it was McCutcheon who got the ball rolling. He was certainly an interesting and dynamic person who loved the thrill of adventure; he went where the story was, regardless of the dangers involved. He was born on an Indiana farm in 1870, but destined to travel worldwide. At the age of sixteen he entered Purdue University, switching majors from mechanical engineering to industrial arts because he hated math. He chose wisely as his skills as a graphic artist would eventually garner him a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his cartoon, “A Wise Economist Asks a Question.” He worked for the Chicago Tribune for forty years, entertaining thousands of readers each day as his cartoons appeared on the front page just above the fold. But none would have as much long lasting impact as the one that was published on August 7, 1914.

It was while he was working for the Chicago Tribune covering the political turmoil in Mexico, where he also met Pancho Villa and drew a cartoon of this Mexican revolutionary sitting at a table with a pistol laying on top, that war officially broke out in Europe. McCutcheon, the adventurer, promptly left Mexico for Chicago to obtain correspondent credentials. While awaiting a ship bound for England to cover the hostilities—he was one of only four American newspapermen to be on-the-scene reporters at the war’s beginning and would make two others trips, one riding in a French warplane that was shot at by the Germans—he sketched five noted war cartoons capturing his feelings about the European conflict. One stood out. He succinctly titled it “The Colors.”

The cartoon quickly captured the attention of a wide readership not only among Tribune subscribers but also among readers throughout the country. His cartoon was widely distributed and supporters of peace relied upon it to call attention to the dangers of war. Peace activists were moved by the depictions of McCutcheon’s cartoon. It provided anti-preparedness advocates with a simple, yet powerful, message that the burden of war is shouldered by all. “The Colors” also inspired a later effort by the newly-established Woman’s Peace Party to display its own “War Against War” exhibit, replete with peace/antiwar cartoons, attracting thousands of visitors in May 1916 in cities across the United States. In 1919, moreover, when George J. Hecht published his The War in Cartoons: A History of the War in 100 cartoons by 27 of the most prominent American Cartoonists, he promptly took notice of McCutcheon’s “The Colors.” It remains one of the most famous antiwar cartoons of all time.

When it first appeared no one, not even McCutcheon, could have guessed how influential it would become. But at the top of the first page in The Chicago Tribune on August 7, readers were instantaneously focused on a simple, yet compelling, cartoon with four panels. As readers gazed at each panel they were suddenly drawn to the words below each one: “Gold and green are the fields in peace”; “Red are the fields in war”; “Black are the fields when the cannons cease”; “And white forevermore.”

Each line takes on even greater significance when attached to the picture above. Readers are first drawn to a harvest of peaceful abundance as a farmer tills his soil while bundling his wheat. Then reality sets in as the field is littered with dead soldiers and smoke billowing upward from exploding cannon shells. In the aftermath of the battle are the mourners, grieving at the loss of so many innocent lives. Finally, one is led to white gravestones marking the place where the soldiers died. All the while three of four trees remain intact—nothing goes unscathed from war’s wrath—as witness to the tragic events that just took place, yet symbols of survival and future hope. Civilization must press on. His words, coupled with such powerful images, highlight the somber significance of war’s real impact on life.

And so, we have “The Colors.”

One hundred years later as we reflect on McCutcheon’s words and images in “The Colors,” we should be reminded, as the eminent peace historian Lawrence Wittner points out, that in the past century wars led to the deaths of over a hundred million people, and today, we live in a world armed with some 17,000 nuclear weapons. Many additional lives continue to be lost in the present century due to ongoing internal fighting and external war. Sadly, “the colors” haven’t changed.

This is the black and white version readers saw in the Chicago Tribune:


 Charles F. Howlett is a Professor in the Education Division’s Graduate Programs at Molloy College. He has authored, co-authored, and co-edited books numerous book in American history and education, including the forthcoming Antiwar Dissent and Peace Activism in World War I America with Scott Bennett. He will be presenting a talk, “Images of Peace Activism in World War 1,” at the First World War Conference in October at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.

 

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