The United States recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress seeking a declaration of war against Germany. That seems appropriate to a nation where the president inherited a half dozen conflicts and the Democrats are clamoring for war with Russia, but let’s take a moment to review World War 1’s goals and consequences.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was narrowly re-elected using the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.” This was a lie. Wilson had massively violated neutrality by providing armaments and funding to the Allied powers that had been fighting Germany since 1914. In his war speech to Congress, Wilson hailed the U.S. government as “one of the champions of the rights of mankind” and proclaimed that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
American soldiers helped turn the tide on the Western Front in late 1918, but the cost was much higher than Americans anticipated. More than 100,000 American soldiers died in the third bloodiest war in U.S. history, which another half million Americans perished from the Spanish flu epidemic spread by the war.
In his speech to Congress, Wilson declared, “We have no quarrel with the German people” and feel “sympathy and friendship” towards them. Americans of German descent was the largest ethnic group in the country at the time, so he had to be careful in what he said, but his administration speedily commenced demonizing the “Huns.” One Army recruiting poster portrayed German troops as an ape ravaging a half-naked damsel beneath an appeal to “Destroy this mad brute.”
Wilson treated the congressional declaration of war against Germany as authority to suspend the US Constitution. Harvard professor Irving Babbitt commented in 1924: “Wilson, in the pursuit of his scheme for world service, was led to make light of the constitutional checks on his authority and to reach out almost automatically for unlimited power.” Wilson even urged Congress to set up detention camps to quarantine “alien enemies.”
Wilson unleashed ruthless censorship of any criticism. Anyone who spoke publicly against military conscription was subject to arrest and incarceration on federal espionage or sedition charges. Possessing a pamphlet entitled Long Live the Constitution of the United States earned six months in jail for a Pennsylvania malcontent. Censorship was buttressed by fanatic propaganda campaigns led by the Committee on Public Information, a federal agency whose shameless motto was “faith in democracy… faith in fact.”
The war enabled the American equivalent of the Taliban to triumph on the home front. Prohibition advocates “indignantly insisted that… any kind of opposition to prohibition was sinister and subversively pro-German,” (William Ross, World War 1 and the American Constitution). Even before the 18th Amendment banning alcohol consumption was ratified, Wilson banned beer sales as a wartime measure.
To punish lawbreakers, the federal government added poisons to industrial alcohol that was often converted into a type of moonshine; ten thousand people were killed as a result. Professor Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, noted that “an official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place.”
History records that Prohibition was a public health disaster; the rate of alcoholism tripled during the 1920s.
The war also provided the pretext for unprecedented federal domination of the economy. Washington DC insisted that “food will win the war” and farmers vastly increased their plantings. Price supports and government credits for foreign buyers overstimulated crop and land prices. When the credits ended in 1920, prices and land values plunged, spurring massive bankruptcies across rural America. This spurred perennial political discontent that helped lead to a federal takeover of agriculture by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s.
World War 1 was ended by the Treaty of Versailles, which redrew European borders without much thought to nations and imposed ruinous reparations on Germany. Henry White, one of Wilson’s top aides at the peace talks, lamented: “We had such high hopes of this adventure; we believed God called us and now we are doing hell’s dirtiest work.”
Wilson intensely disliked Vladimir Lenin because “he felt the Bolshevik leader had stolen his ideas for world peace.” Wilson had proclaimed 14 points to guide peace talks; instead, there were 14 separate small wars in Europe after peace had been proclaimed. Millions of Irish Americans were outraged when Britain brutally repressed Ireland during and after the war. The League of Nations was worded so that it might have obliged the U.S. to send troops to help Britain crush the burgeoning Irish independence movement.
The chaos and economic depression sowed by the war and the Treaty of Versailles helped open the door to some of the worst dictators in modern times, including Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Vladimir Lenin–whom Wilson intensely disliked because “he felt the Bolshevik leader had stolen his ideas for world peace,” (Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War 1, 2003).
Despite winning the war, Wilson’s Democratic Party was crushed at the polls in both 1918 and 1920. H.L. Mencken wrote on the eve of the 1920 election that Americans were sickened of Wilsonian “idealism that is oblique, confusing, dishonest, and ferocious.”
Apparently, today’s policymakers have learned nothing from this century-old debacle. Wilson continues to be invoked by politicians who believe America can achieve great things by warring abroad. Both Republican and Democratic leaders echo Wilson’s desire to “make the world safe for democracy,” but never seem to have considered that their version of democracy may not be safe for the world.
Everytime this subject comes up, I consider expressing my thoughts on the subject and therefore, I entitled this blog post “We should have destroyed this brute.” Woodrow Wilson and his fellow intellectual travelers should be shouted down by saner voices and certainly not elected to public office. That includes every Congress person currently who wants to march American troops into Syria or go to war against Russia.
STOP! Wake up! We’ve been here before and it didn’t work out so well.