Woodrow Wilson’s Long Shadow

So I recently finished reading Wilson, A. Scott Berg’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson – actually, Thomas Woodrow Wilson. It was a Christmas gift, along with Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia (in the middle of reading which last I now am).

This book was only my third extensive exposure to the life and thought of a man who comes as near to American beatification by serious thinkers as any politician since Lincoln. FDR’s reputation rests more on what he actually accomplished than on his character traits. Kennedy is mostly a media creation. Wilson is, in common with Lincoln and Jefferson, revered for what are represented to be his thoughts. What those thoughts might be are commonly – and vaguely – understood to be very high-flown notions of the unity of all men, the need for collective security, and of course at the center of it all his Fourteen Points. 

The careful reader will notice that all of those hazily understood concepts have one thing in common: the Great War. Specifically, they’re all outgrowths of Wilson’s contemplation of Europe’s four-year suicide bid. Lincoln, by the time he got to the White House, had spent years engaging with slavery, abolitionism, and the political tensions those forces generated. His 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas remain among the classics of Western political discourse, and that senate campaign was far from his first debate. With one portentous exception, Jefferson’s most creative political thinking was several years in the past by the time he got there. Until August, 1914, however, Wilson had never had occasion to devote much energy at all to international affairs and certainly none to the implications of an entire culture immolating itself. He came to the office with the expressed intention of spending his efforts on purely domestic issues. 

A further point of distinction is not insignificant, I suggest. Jefferson and Lincoln both had the experience of years of head-to-head engagement with ideological foes and allies who saw themselves, and with whom Jefferson and Lincoln engaged, as peers. Their thinking benefitted from the crucible effect of, in Jefferson’s case, his exposure to an historically unique constellation of statesmen, and in Lincoln’s his experiences riding the circuit from county to county, arguing and debating with peers, juries, and the public. I could not tell from Berg’s biography that Wilson ever really engaged with the welter of thought around him. The life Berg describes is one spent lecturing (remember this was an era in which the public lecture was very popular entertainment among most levels of society). As a classroom teacher he grew accustomed to being acknowledged as a if not the fount of wisdom by his pupils. Except for one brief period in Georgia in which Wilson practiced law – if having a single probate case as one’s entire professional experience counts as “practiced” – he never really held a job outside academic circles and elective office. Combined with his ecclesiastical family background his formation as the layer-down-of-rules seems to have left an indelible mark on how his mind worked. 

And it doesn’t appear to have been just that. Even as a child Wilson was big on setting rules for others to follow. One example is given of a group of young boys, his peers, who got together for I no longer recall what, and Tommy (as he was known until his graduation from college) makes it among his first orders of business to promulgate a written constitution for the club. “Promulgate” seems to be precisely the correct verb, too; in all of Wilson there’s not a whiff of his even seeking input, let alone consensus from anyone. Contrast Lincoln circulating his first inaugural address in draft to several of his prospective cabinet members, or Jefferson working as part of a committee to draft the Declaration. If Americans had coats of arms, Ipse dixit would be on Wilson’s. 

Wilson was greatly enamored of both his wives. After his marriage to Ellen, to the extent he needed human interaction, he seems to have derived nearly all he required from her, and then within a few months after her death he was consumed with ardor for Edith. While that’s enviable in some respect, it is also not necessarily a desirable character trait in a political leader. Certainly his interactions with adults seem to break down into two overall groupings: (i) those who fawned on him as the Sage of New Jersey, and (ii) those to whom he laid down the rules. Even the two men with whom he was closest, Edward M. “Colonel” House and John Grier Hibben, a fellow junior faculty member at Princeton, do not seem to have broken the pattern, although perhaps of all men Hibben came closest. 

In short, I get the profound impression that Wilson’s life experiences did not sufficiently expose him to the friction and concussion of dealing with men he regarded or had to regard as his equals. 

Largely if not entirely without actual adult friends, it’s hard to get a sense that Wilson ever had the daily experience of emotional closeness to another person whose ideas were not die-stamped by his own or just parroted back in hopes of a good grade. In all of Berg’s book I don’t recall a single instance of a peer acknowledged by Wilson as such telling him he was talking through his hat and kindly leave off gibbering. Predictably, he does not seem to have accepted the notion that reasonable men could disagree with him in good faith and were entitled to pursue their own notions of what was necessary or proper in any particular circumstance. When he was appointed president of Princeton he was treated as walking on water and parting it for those who couldn’t. That’s always a dangerous brew to serve to anyone and especially to someone whose resistance to it seems to have been roughly similar to the resistance to alcohol on display by the Indians in Betty McDonald’s The Egg and I. When the inevitable disagreements occurred, there was never any question of collectively making the decision and everyone living with the outcome cheerfully. 

The most dramatic instance of this (apart from the fight over the Versailles treaty) involved, as does so much else in academic settings, a tempest in a teapot. Wilson believed the off-campus clubs were fostering a spirit of elitism at Princeton. He believed they were exclusionary of the less-affluent students, the less-socially-gifted ones. So he set out to undermine them by denying them a recruiting pool. Wilson’s notion was to build large, self-contained student living facilities, what we today know as quadrangles. There the underclassmen would be obliged to live with each other, their company not self-selected but chosen for them by whatever mechanism the university chose to adopt from time to time. Hardly surprisingly this idea did not meet universal approval, and some intense politicking went on. Eventually Wilson couldn’t carry the issue. Hibben, by that time senior faculty, sided with Wilson’s opponents. Wilson never addressed another personal word to him for the rest of his life, and even in the White House tackily avoided meeting the man whom he had once described in almost amatory terms. 

How Wilson treated Hibben over what was, after all, a relatively trivial issue and one which was not a decision that could never be re-visited (there was no reason the trustees couldn’t decide at some later point to go ahead and build quadrangles and implement Wilson’s vision for them in whole or in part) demonstrates what I’m going to say was a deep character flaw in Wilson. His enmity was not at all feigned; when he had occasion to allude to Hibben in later years (nearly always elliptically, it seems) he never backed off from the accusation of betrayal. 

Compare and contrast Wilson’s treatment of Hibben with the relationship that grew between Jefferson and Adams. True, it took a number of years after both men were out of office, but once rekindled their friendship produced hundreds of letters and thousands of words over the course of many years. They wrote each other about nearly everything and although they still disagreed on many things, by the time they died, on the same day and within hours of each other, each died with the other’s name on his lips. And Jefferson had run the original dirty, slanderous campaign which destroyed Adams’s political career. Not that Adams wasn’t as prickly as they come, but he’d been a farmer, a courtroom lawyer, and a diplomat for decades before he came to office. Each and all of those provided him with the experience of contradiction, frustration, and engagement with fundamentally opposed and well-defended principles.

Wilson thought House got above himself at the Paris Conference in 1919. He wasn’t entirely unjustified, either. For several weeks Wilson had to come back to the U.S. to attend to matters for which the president was indispensable. While Wilson was gone House had very consciously made deals that he must have known Wilson would never have countenanced if present. Recall that House had no official position, at all; the White House porter was more a government official than he. House was only in Paris as Wilson’s alter ego; the actual secretary of state, Robert Lansing, was side-lined, treated as a cipher, a nullity. So while House must bear the blame for having exceeded his phantom remit, it was Wilson who put him in the position of being able to do so in the first place. Had Wilson not been so adamant on denying any scope to the feller who was, you know, the lawful official to discharge that function, Lloyd George and Clemenceau would have no more listened to Edward House than they would Wilson’s barber. Whatever the who-shot-Johns of the matter, the fact remains that after their return to America Wilson never addressed another word to House. 

After Wilson left the White House, his long-time aide, Joseph P. Tumulty, was scrambling to find some hand-hold. The country had swung wildly Republican in the 1920 elections. The Congress was solid Republican and Harding’s White House was dedicated to undoing as many of Wilson’s policies as it could. Tumulty had been with Wilson since his nomination to the New Jersey governor’s mansion ten-plus years before. He’d been loyal, self-sacrificing, incredibly hard-working, discreet – in short, everything you could possibly want in a confidential secretary. And now he was out of work and out of favor in the only town he knew how to navigate. Wilson wouldn’t lift a finger to help him, and when Tumulty finally went too far, publicly attributing to Wilson statements that Wilson had pointedly refused to make at Tumulty’s request, Wilson cut him out of his life. Yes, what Tumulty did was wrong, but how much a strain on common decency is it to see to it that the people who have sacrificed their existences and fortunes to advance your own are taken care of, once you no longer have need of their services? Fairness, however, requires that I mention two other prominent personages who are known to have sinned in this regard, viz. Churchill and Wm. J. Clinton. Churchill never obliged people to commit crimes and take the fall for him, as did the latter, but once Winston was done with you, you were pretty much done with (for a better look at this disappointing aspect of him, see Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson’s book about the small number of men who clustered about Churchill during his Wilderness years . . . which of course makes his treatment of them all the more unworthy). 

There are very few words that adequately describe someone who treats people like Wilson treated them. “Vicious” is one that will fit the bill. 

A good deal of Wilson is naturally devoted to the war years and their aftermath, and a central part of that period was Wilson’s growing dedication to the notion of what we now call “collective security.” At the Paris Conference he more or less insisted that adoption of the League of Nations and its incorporation into the final treaty itself (as opposed to making it a side bargain) be the first order of business. He carried that point; the League was adopted pretty much as he’d demanded it be. From that point things didn’t really go his way very well. 

Over the decades Wilson’s taken a good drubbing as some starry-eyed naïf, a little boy in short pants who blunders into a lion’s den with the idea that if they’ll all just take turns licking on his lollipop everyone will do just fine. There is a bit of truth in that. Wilson represented – very simplified – the notion of peace without victory. The problem was, the situation on the ground, both on the former battlefields and behind doors in the chancelleries, just would not admit of that resolution. Every one of the belligerents was a parliamentary democracy, and two of them – Italy and France – were notoriously unstable democracies at that. Even Britain was still operating with its makeshift wartime coalition (how cohesive could a government be that had both Lloyd George and Lord Curzon in it, after all?). Bluntly, they had to answer to their voters, and those voters had just watched most of an entire generation of young men be slaughtered, maimed, gassed, and shell-shocked into twitching bags of nerves. Two of the Allies, France and Belgium, had endured physical destruction on a scale never before seen in human history. Wilson doesn’t seem to have accepted that those populations were just not going to be satisfied with not having won the war. 

On the other hand, and in Wilson’s defense, the objectives of Lloyd George and Clemenceau were no less unrealistic. In a fight, you haven’t won until the other guy acknowledges you’ve won; until then the fight is still on, even though you might not actually be trading punches. The way the Great War came to a close, with an armistice instead of a surrender, with the German army marching home in formation and under arms, and with the social power structures – for which read: the pervasive dominance of the military – still intact, whatever the outcome was, Germany was not in a position of being compelled to acknowledge defeat. And it didn’t. We all know how the poisonous “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory came to be seized on in later years, first by the army and then by the Nazis. On a more immediate level, though, Lloyd George and Clemenceau were trying to impose the kind of peace that you would achieve after an unconditional surrender. In a supreme irony, “peace without victory” is not just what Wilson was advocating – it was exactly what Britain and France got. Which is to say that they got neither victory nor peace. 

On a final note of irony, given the personality of the man – remember how he treated Hibben, the closest he ever had to a friend other than his wives – how would Wilson have fared if the U.S. had ratified the Versailles Treaty and joined the League? He couldn’t bear contradiction or defiance. Wilson couldn’t take it when the Princeton trustees wouldn’t let him build residential quadrangles, fer cryin’ out loud. How would he have reacted to the post-war chaos in Eastern Europe? Would he have quit communicating with his fellow heads of state? Would he have recalled the American representative to the League? Would he have taken the U.S. right back out the first time the steeped-in-gore-up-to-the-shoulders politicians of Europe heard one of his sermons and either laughed in his face or gave him the Bronx cheer? How would he have dealt with the Imperial Japanese delegates, men representing a society both incomparably more ancient than Wilson’s own and at the same time aggressively expansionist? 

I understand that in writing a one-volume biography of someone who lived a life such as Wilson’s there’s a tremendous amount that you’re simply not going to get in. So I don’t say this by way of faulting Berg (what I do fault him for are his not-terribly-subtle digs at one end of the modern partisan spectrum, such as by pointing out that Wilson played more golf while in office than any president before or since, or his reference to the second Iraq war), but one thing I looked forward to reading more about were Wilson’s ideas about government, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and the nature and proper purposes of political power. 

Because you see, there are some dissenting voices, even here in America. Not everyone agrees that Wilson was Solomon reincarnate, a veritable saint of equal parts brilliance and compassion. A few years ago I read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, his 2007 tome on the intellectual roots and modern manifestations of the ideas which gave us most famously Mussolini and Hitler. The book’s dated, however, by including a great deal of material on the intellectual antecedents and pronouncements of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who back then was “inevitably” going to be the 2008 Democrat nominee. Don’t get me wrong: Goldberg’s done his work on Clinton’s intellectual and moral background, and what he lays out is pretty sobering stuff. But unless she’s nominated and elected in 2016 those portions of the book will not age very well. 

For me the by-far most interesting part of Goldberg’s book is Chapter 3, “Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism.” You see, before Wilson was appointed president of Princeton, he was a prolific writer on political subjects; in fact, he’s got a good claim to be godfather of “political science” as a specifically academic subject. Among his most famous works is an 800-page doorstop entitled The State. As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins he produced Congressional Government. Other significant works include Constitutional Government in the United States. Wilson also wrote numerous essays, and his speeches were, in the fashion of the times, compiled into book form. Among the former Goldberg mentions “Leaders of Men,” an 1890 effort, and among the latter The New Freedom, consisting of his 1912 campaign speeches. I’d wanted to see some significant time spent by Berg on those writings, because Goldberg actually quotes from them and from Wilson’s speeches. What he quotes is, to put it mildly, unsettling. 

“No doubt a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as a fundamental principle.” Compare and contrast: Independence, Declaration of. 

The constitutional structures of what we know as checks and balances among the three branches among which coercive power is divided had “proven mischievous just to the extent to which they have succeeded in establishing themselves as realities.” 

“[L]iving political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of Life . . . it must develop. . . . [A]ll that progressives ask or demand is permission – in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.” Substitute the German völkisch for Darwinian and you’ve got the “national” part of “national socialism” in a nutshell. 

The “true leader” uses the masses “like tools,” Goldberg quotes. Further, from the same source (“Leaders of Men”): “Only a very gross substance of concrete conception can make any impression on the minds of the masses. They must get their ideas very absolutely put, and are much readier to receive a half truth which they can promptly understand than a whole truth which has too many sides to be seen all at once. The competent leader of men cares little for the internal niceties of other people’s characters; he cares much – everything – for the external uses to which they may be put.” Oh dear; that sounds distressingly like a first cousin to Hitler’s große Lüge – the “big lie.” It also stands in a straight line with “fake-but-true,” the mantra of the modern American legacy media. 

From a speech given in New York during the 1912 campaign, we have, “You know that it was Jefferson who said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible . . . . But that time is passed. America is not now and cannot in the future be a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.” Tell that to Steve Jobs. Hell, tell that to Oprah Winfrey, for that matter. 

Except for that last one I cannot recall seeing any of those quotations mentioned in Wilson. Goldberg’s endnotes suggest a wide range of further reading on the subject. Not having the time to parse through all of them myself (or maybe not; many are still available on Amazon.com), I was hoping that Berg would do the heavy lifting for me. He didn’t. Again, as the author he’s got to leave something out or he’d never finish the book. On the other hand he does spend a great deal of space on Wilson’s moralistic approach to his political thought. And of course Wilson made his name first as precisely a political theorist. The last line of Berg’s book refers to “the lengthening shadow of Woodrow Wilson” over Washington, DC. It’s exactly because I think Berg’s got that observation just right that I find his omissions in respect of Wilson’s expressions of theory to be especially unfortunate. 

Maybe it’s time for me to mich auseinandersetzen (that wonderful German reflexive verb for which I can’t think of an English equivalent; transliterated it means “to take oneself apart,” and it means to engage in a subject or person fully, by completely unpacking all the components and examining them in the closest detail) with Wilson’s actual writings. Notwithstanding our present Dear Leader’s self-description, no one has come to high office a blank slate. Each person’s road there formed how he or she thought about the world, how it works, how it ought to work, and what measures are necessary or permissible to make it conform to one’s own vision. Wilson was no different. 

My very last semester in college I took one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taken at any level. History 366 it was, “20th Century American Wars as a Personal and Social Experience.” Two observations by the professor I still remember. The first was that, until the Great War, most Americans’ only exposure to the federal government was in the form of their local post office. The second was that a huge number of the men who made the New Deal cut their teeth in the World War I mobilization effort. Jonah Goldberg makes the argument – which if perhaps a tad overdone isn’t so by much – that World War I was America’s first taste of totalitarian government. 

By “totalitarian” Goldberg means a frame of thought and action which does not view any aspect of human existence as not being appropriately the subject of political (and therefore coercive) control. The war years were years in which Americans were encouraged and recruited to spy on each other. The post office was given carte blanche to monitor and censor Americans’ communications with each other. Loyalty oaths were imposed. Industrial relations were controlled, as were entire swathes of the economy (the railroads were outright seized for the duration). You can make a valid argument that most of those measures were in fact necessary in order to take an economy from peacetime to war mobilization in a matter of months.

The point is that men such as Wilson – “Progressives,” they called themselves – viewed the mobilization effort not as a temporary disruption of an otherwise largely unguided constellation of private arrangements, but as a template for human existence. Remember Wilson’s comments from 1912, well before the war, about how America cannot any longer be a place of unrestricted (highly important word selection there, by the way) individual enterprise. A good deal of the wormwood of the 1920s for the American left was watching the policies of the Wilson years get unwound, first by Harding out of corruption, and then by Coolidge out of principle. You can’t more clearly draw the contrast between Wilson and Coolidge than Silent Cal’s speech on the Declaration’s sesquicentennial (which should be mandatory reading in every American high school, I suggest).

Compare Wilson’s statements on the need for a völkisch Darwinian interpretation of the Constitution and the “nonsense” of inalienable rights with Coolidge’s observations of the same questions, in the context of the Declaration:

“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

This has turned out to be a bit more than just a book review. I’ve spent more time on other’s treatments of Berg’s subject than is properly done as a general rule. It wasn’t done to suggest that Berg’s written a poor book, but rather to observe that I wish his publisher had let him write a longer one. Berg does a very good job showing us the gauges and needles on the dashboard and how the windows silently slide up and down and where the heater vents are, but I wish he’d popped the hood a bit wider open for us, and shone a stronger drop-light into the engine compartment. I still highly recommend the book, to be read together with Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (speaking of Margaret MacMillan), and Chapter 3 of Liberal Fascism.


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