A Time to Look Over President Wilson’s Shoulder

by William Loren Katz on January 28, 2006

As more US soldiers are buried in the shifting political sands of occupied Iraq, President Bush still claims his invasion and occupation were justified, and that US citizens are now safer. Speaking before a “Protect America” sign, he repeats his “safer” line eight times, clings to flawed rationales and failed policies, admits no deceptions nor costly errors, and fails to mention the thousand dead US and coalition troops, the many thousands wounded, and the massive death and suffering inflicted on innocent Iraqi civilians. His war, he insists, promoted democracy, peace and freedom—but his administration’s latest report on terror noted a marked increase and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has warned of greater and imminent threats. Bush has earned his own chapter in a new edition of Orwell’s 1984.

President Woodrow Wilson, who led the country into the bloodbath that was World War I, chose a different ideological trajectory. As a noted scholar Wilson wrote in 1907:

Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the law of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.

When hostilities began in Europe in August 1914 Wilson announced US neutrality, but his sympathies sprouted quickly (if privately). By the end of the month Colonel House, his leading White House advisor, heard Wilson condemn Germany for the war, and Joseph Tumulty, his secretary, heard him say “England is fighting our fight.” In 1915 the President told his cabinet, “the Allies are standing with their backs to the wall fighting wild beasts” and that December he said, “I am heart and soul for the Allies.” In 1916 in the face of a booming peace movement, Wilson’s “He kept us out of war” slogan won him re-election.

In April, 1917, as Wilson guided the US toward intervention in the side of the Allies, he foresaw terrible consequences:

Once lead this people into war and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.

Former President Teddy Roosevelt, according to his friend, New York World journalist Frank Cobb, also felt that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights would survive the war.

In his call for what he had convinced himself was a holy war, President Wilson insisted Germany was waging “warfare against mankind” and famously said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He expanded the US army to four million, more than half were inducted, and 42 Divisions, more than half of US troops, were shipped overseas. In a totally segregated army, US commanders assigned Black troops menial tasks but placed the 92nd and 93rd Combat Divisions under command of the French—who were warned not associate with them.

At home Wilson also authorized a government propaganda offensive that stirred the hatred he had predicted. High schools banned teaching German language and culture, hamburgers became “Salisbury steaks” and sauerkraut became “Liberty cabbage.”

Dissidents faced mob violence and government suppression. The Justice Department encouraged citizens to root out disloyalty and endorsed the effort of the American Protective League (APL) and its 1,600 chapters and 350,000 agents to search out subversion. The APL and others reported spies everywhere. “Never in history has this country been so thoroughly policed,” announced the U.S. Attorney General.

In June, 1917 at the urging of the President, who claimed neither censorship nor stifling dissent were intended, Congress passed an Espionage Act and the next year a more severe Sedition Act. These broad laws—similar to the Patriot Act in their misleading titles and real goals—imposed severe penalties on people who used “disloyal…or abusive words” about U.S. officials, uniforms, the flag, the Constitution or the war, or interfered with the Draft, urged disloyalty or pacifism. A California man who expressed strong opinions about the President received a five-year prison sentence, and 866 other men and women also were jailed for anti-war views.

Because he said capitalist profits drove Wilson to intervene in an “imperialist” war, Socialist party leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sent to prison. After the Armistice Wilson refused to pardon Debs but in 1920, from Atlanta Penitentiary, convict #9653 received almost a million votes. President Wilson could not forgive and refused to pardon Debs, but conservative Harding soon did.

By the conclusion of the war Wilson advocated “self-determination” for colonial and other peoples and campaigned across the country for his League of Nations. When he spoke on September 5th in St. Louis, he offered a new view of the of what drove his and other countries to war:

Why, my fellow citizens, is there any man here or any woman, let me say is there any child here, who does not know the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry? The real reason that the war that we have just finished took place was that Germany was afraid her commercial rivals were going to get the better of her, and the reason why some nations went to war against Germany was that they thought Germany would get the commercial advantage of them. The seed of the jealousy, the seed of the deep-seated hatred was hot, successful commercial and industrial rivalry This war, in its inception, was a commercial and industrial war.

President Wilson had abandoned his earlier warnings, analytical distortions, and claims of divine approval. He new misgivings sounded remarkably like his nemesis, Eugene Debs.

Broken in health, but not in spirit, Debs left jail his anti-war and humanitarian vision in tact. Denied US support for his League of Nations, his hopes for world peace, self-determination and democracy in tatters, Wilson left the White House broken in health and spirit. The war that placed 65,000,000 under arms, cost $330 billion, left 12,000,000 dead, another 20,000,000 wounded, mostly civilians, including 4,000,000 massacred by advancing armies.

US soldiers at a cost of 112,000 deaths and 230,000 wounded had carried the Allies to victory, but it was a hollow and short-lived. The victors imposed a bitter peace, marked by fascist dictators, and aggressions that culminated in World War II. In the United States anti-German and war hysteria was followed by red hysteria, an unnprecedented era of lynching and anti-Black riots, and a revived Ku Klux Klan, 4,000,000 strong that in 1924 brought forty thousand members to march along Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue as champions of “100% Americanism.”

George Bush boasts about not reading the papers or history books, and says he was right about invading Iraq. If he doesn’t look over Woodrow Wilson’s shoulder, his fellow Americans should.

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