My Weekly Reader 18 October 2022 Part One.

            Woodrow Wilson harbored vast ambitions for himself and for the United States.[1]  In one view,[2] Wilson wanted to modernize America’s national government on the model of advanced European states.  He also wanted to assert the primacy of American values in an ever-growing international realm.  The two ambitions intersected within the global context of social and economic change, political division, and international conflict.[3] 

            The Wilson administration (1913-1921) inherited the fruits of a global “generation of materialism.”  The “Second” Industrial Revolution; rapid population growth leading to massive urbanization and international migration; the emergence of the modern corporation; the division of Socialism into reformist, revolutionary, and anarchist factions; the emergence of the problem-solving State; the assertion of power by advanced states over disordered parts of the world; and the beginning of a reaction against pure Reason in intellectual life provided the larger context.[4]  People struggled to understand and impose order on this new society. 

            In domestic affairs, Wilson sought his changing goals in a complex environment.  For one thing, he had been elected by a clear minority of Americans thanks to the Electoral College.[5]  For another, his own vision often proved unworkable, and he had to default to that of his defeated Republican opponents while covering his tracks with high-flown prose.  Finally, the radical Left exerted an unprecedented appeal.  In the elections of 1912 and 1916, the reformist Socialist candidate pulled 6 million votes; and all through the 1910s, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, “Wobblies”) loudly urged “revolutionary industrial unionism.”

            In foreign affairs, Wilson began by sending troops to occupy Haiti, pledging to “teach the Mexicans to elect good men,” and then invading the country when his lessons didn’t take.  The outbreak of the First World War in Summer 1914 led him to declare American neutrality in what looked to be a short war.  By 1916 the troops were still fighting.  Meanwhile, America became entangled in the war.  Britain’s blockade and Germany’s submarines imperiled neutral shipping rights.  American goods flowed from farm and factory to the British and French, as did American loans.  Irish-Americans, German-Americans, and Jewish-Americans[6] sympathized with Britain’s opponents, while “Old Stock” Anglo-Saxons often sympathized with Britain. 

Other forces worked mightily against any foreign entanglements: America’s long tradition of isolationism, horror at the immense loss of life to no apparent purpose, and fear of the expanded power of government seized by the belligerents.  These included propaganda and censorship, controls on movement (passports, emigration restriction), and economic controls.

In November 1916, Wilson won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” 

[1] Many writers have tried to puzzle out this unusual, unstable, unlikeable, but important, man. Compare Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (1954) and Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917-1921 (1985).  

[2] Adam Hochschild, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis (2022).  There’s an appallingly bad review by Thomas Meaney, “Extreme Measures,” NYTBR, 9 October 2022. 

[3] So maybe not so different from our own time.  But see Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), p. 1.

[4] Carleton J.H. Hayes, A Generation of Materialism, 1871-1900 (1941) is a grumpy, antique book by a grumpy antique historian.  Not less valuable for that as a well-written and accessible history of the main developments. 

[5] Wilson won 41.8 percent of the vote; the two rival Republican candidates split 50.6 percent, and the Socialist Eugene Debs won 6 percent. 

[6] Most of the latter were refugees or the children of refugees from Tsarist anti-Semitism.


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