The Madness of Saint Woodrow: Or, What If the United States Had Stayed out of the Great War?

On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson rose before a joint session of Congress to make the case for a declaration of war on Germany. Summoning his considerable eloquence, Wilson intoned: “the right is more precious than peace,” “make the world safe for democracy,” “a universal dominion of right by a concert of free peoples,” “America is privileged to spend her blood,” and, in a conscious echo of Martin Luther, “God helping her, she can do no other.”

But the sentence that really proclaimed a global crusade was this:

Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.

The Truman Doctrine would be moderate by comparison.

During the Senate’s cursory two-day debate, William J. Stone (D-Mo.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that to enter this war would be “the greatest national blunder in history.” George W. Norris (R-Neb.) rejected Wilson’s rhetoric as moral gloss obscuring financial interests, declaring: “We are putting the dollar sign on the American flag.”

The noted Independent from Wisconsin, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette,  rebutted the President’s arguments in a tearful address to his colleagues that lasted four hours. If, as Wilson said, Germany was waging a war against all of humanity, how come the United States was the only neutral nation to object? If, as Wilson said, this was a war to make the world safe for democracy, how come the British refused it to the peoples of Ireland, India, Egypt? If, as Wilson said, the United States meant to wage war on a militaristic government and not on the German people, how come more Germans supported their Kaiser than Americans had voted for Wilson in 1916?

Nevertheless, the Congress, which had bowed to the White House on issues of war and peace ever since 1812, did so again. To be sure, the Senate voted 82 to 6 in favor of war on April 4, and the House, two days later, approved the war resolution 373 to 50, but British Ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice cabled back to London his judgment that the Americans had gone to war “with the greatest reluctance.”[1]

Historians today conventionally speak of a “short 20th century” extending from 1914 to 1991—bracketing, in other words, the unspeakably violent and ideological era that saw two world wars and the Cold War. Historians invariably trace the origins of those horrors to the human, economic, social, and cultural destruction of the Great War, which shattered the liberal myths of progress as well as the balance of power that had prevailed for a century before 1914.

The carnage of the Great War hurled its disoriented survivors into a moral vacuum that totalitarian movements such as communism and fascism exploited. Mix in the effects of an economic cataclysm, the Great Depression that began in late 1929 and enervated the democracies even as it energized the dictatorships, and the coming of a Second World War in 1939 was just a matter of time. That crescendo of violence gave birth to a bipolar world dominated by rival empires, each with its own universal ideology and armed with nuclear weapons.

The trends of the 20th century can be made to appear inevitable and humanity subject to cruel fate. But what if we err to think it can all be traced back to 1914? What if the subsequent calamities really trace back to 1917 and the foolish American decision to join the Great War?

What If?

One of the gems of historiography in my lifetime was written in 1999 by the brilliant young Scottish historian Niall Ferguson. He edited a fat volume of essays called Virtual History, which is to say, alternative history based on plausible counterfactual events, an exercise that he insisted was “the antidote to determinism.”[2] Ferguson opened the book with a 90-page introduction examining the legitimacy of virtual history from the standpoints of 30 writers, from Augustine of Hippo to Bertrand Russell. Most of the historians he cited argued against it, if not dismissed it as a parlor game. To them history was shaped either by the hand of a providential God or by universal laws such those postulated by Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, or Arnold J. Toynbee.

Indeed, the whole notion of accident was abhorrent to believers in religion and science alike: Chance disconnects cause and effect, seeming to rob history of meaning as if it really were a tale told by an idiot. Thus did G.F.W. Hegel state, “The sole aim of philosophical inquiry is to eliminate the contingent.”

Ferguson gave a patient hearing to all the negative views before arriving at a positive argument based on chaos theory, which concerns the stochastic (seemingly random) behavior that occurs in systems otherwise governed by natural laws (for example, biology or meteorology). Thus the ubiquity of chance occurrences in history does not necessarily prove that natural laws don’t exist, but rather that they are too  numerous and complex to sort out even in hindsight. The way to reconcile causation with contingency, wrote Ferguson, is precisely to do virtual history, drawing distinctions between what happened and what might plausibly have happened based on alternative choices the actors really considered.

His own contribution was a 52-page speculation entitled, “The Kaiser’s European Union: What if Great Britain Had Stood Aside in August 1914?” It cogently argued that if Britain had not gone to war or else limited itself to a naval war of defense—options seriously considered by the cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in 1914—the result would have been a German victory, but one that the still-mighty British Empire could have lived with. A German-dominated Mitteleuropa under the Kaiser’s constitutional monarchy would not, Ferguson speculated, have differed so much from the European Union of today. And the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would not have existed at all.

Let that serve as a model for our own (much briefer) inquiry into Woodrow Wilson’s decision to lead the United States into the First World War. For President Wilson not only considered, but really made, “alternative choices” for two-and-a-half years before changing his mind and with it  the whole course of American, European, and world history in the “short 20th century.”

The Imperial Moment

Wilson was a High Progressive who, as one of the earliest participants in the then-new discipline of political science, cheered America’s rise to world power because vigorous foreign policy empowered the presidency. He was also a liberal Presbyterian whose modern theology imagined Jesus Christ a social reformer who called followers to build heaven right here on earth.

The diplomatic implications of his Progressive Social Gospel could hardly have been more profound: they gave rise to a heresy in American civil religion. For a century after 1796, Americans had deemed sacred the veritable Mosaic commandments laid down in George Washington’s Farewell Address, such as the need to cultivate religion and republican virtue, and practice unilateralism, neutrality, reciprocity, peace, and commerce with all nations, no inveterate sympathies or antipathies toward foreign countries, and husbandry of the public credit.

The Progressive Era turned those principles upside down. Secular and religious elites now imagined that government staffed by credentialed experts and endowed with centralized power could literally perfect society at home and abroad. Virtue, humility, and prudence in foreign relations gave way to power, glory, and pride.

The transition can be precisely timed. Contrast President William McKinley’s first inaugural address of 1897, in which he pledged to uphold traditional American values, with his second inaugural of 1901, in which he praised as God’s will for the United States the Spanish-American War, the annexation of colonies, and the bloody suppression of the Filipino independence movement. “Our institutions will not deteriorate by extension, and our sense of justice will not abate under tropic suns in distant seas,” predicted McKinley, none too accurately.

Wilson was thus not out of the mainstream when he lectured in 1911 that when nations take up arms to defend liberty, “there is something sacred and holy in the warfare. I will not cry ‘Peace’ so long as there is sin and injustice in the world.”[3] The following year he was elected President in spite of his candidacy’s being a fluke, his campaign a fraud, and his landslide a fable.

Democrats nominated him on their 46th ballot thanks to a deal brokered by an eccentric Texan named Edward M. House, author of a futuristic novel (Philip Dru, Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow, 1912) that extolled a Progressive dictator whose wise authoritarian rule prevented a second U.S. civil war. Wilson’s platform, called “New Freedom,” disingenuously promised to fight concentrations of power. What got him into the Oval Office was the third-party candidacy of former President Roosevelt, which allowed Wilson to defeat a deeply split Republican Party with just 42 percent of the popular vote.

In 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had lectured the Congress that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters of destroy”; should she do so, the “maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force” and “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” As President, Wilson asserted the opposite. He told a convention of businessmen in 1913 that it is “a very perilous thing to determine the foreign policy of a nation in terms of material interest” and that Americans were climbing a moral mountain toward “those great heights where there shines unobstructed the light of the justice of God.” To a British diplomat he defined his foreign policy toward the Mexican revolution this way: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” The following year,  his graduation address at the U.S.  Naval Academy proclaimed that the very “idea of America is to serve humanity.”

Thus did a scholar recently conclude: “Wilson’s optimism concerning the power of humankind to do good hailed not from his Reformed heritage but from liberal theology, the Social Gospel, progressivism, and, ultimately, the romantic spiritualization of religion.” The doctrine of total depravity, Calvin’s equivalent for original sin, was nowhere to be found in Wilson’s Presbyterianism. Indeed, his rhetoric implied that America—and by implication himself—had a messianic destiny.[4]

To be sure, when the Great War erupted, Wilson proclaimed neutrality and clung to it for 31 months. But his policies were neutral in name only given that the President, Anglophile to the core, allowed private Americans to extend “all aid short of war” to Great Britain 25 years before Franklin Roosevelt coined that phrase. By the end of Wilson’s first term, the British and French were importing 40 percent of their war materiel from the United States and borrowing heavily to finance it. World War I thus reversed trans-Atlantic capital flows and crowned Wall Street king. The Wilson administration complied with Britain’s surface blockade of Europe, all the while hotly protesting Germany’s submarine blockade of the British Isles.

Neutrality was also good politics. The vast majority of Americans wanted no part of the bloodbath in the trenches.[5] But soon after Wilson squeaked through re-election in the fall of 1916, having run as the peace candidate, he got very bad news. The British secretly let it be known that their exchequer was broke, their larder almost bare. They would be unable to carry on without the massive assistance U.S. belligerence would provide.

The British were disappointed when Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare failed to move the needle of U.S. public opinion. So in late February of 1917 British intelligence leaked to Americans the captured Zimmermann Telegram in which Germany offered Mexico a war alliance in case of American belligerence. Contrary to conventional wisdom, even that failed to outrage American opinion.[6]

Wilson’s Fateful Reversal of Course

Over those weeks of early 1917, Wilson famously agonized until, by the end of March, he made up his mind to wage war. For all the historical debate over the issue, “one incontrovertible fact remains: the United States entered World War I because Woodrow Wilson decided to take the country in.”[7] Moreover, he made that personal, unforced choice to preach a crusade for liberal internationalism under the worst possible circumstances.

By the spring, Wilson knew or should have known that prominent Senators led by Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) were hostile to his League of Nations idea. He knew the Allied powers led by Britain and France were hostile to most of the liberal principles he would espouse in his Fourteen Points. He knew that most of the points, not least national self-determination, were inapplicable  in much of Europe where ethnic groups were hopelessly mixed, much less in the colonial world, where nationalism was still in its infancy and the imperial rulers were now Wilson’s allies. He knew that the vast majority of Germans, however war-weary, remained loyal to their emperor. He knew that to maximize his leverage at the peace conference the United States must wage a total ground war, not a limited naval war. He also knew in advance that war would undermine his domestic agenda, violate civil liberties, and unleash Americans’ most bigoted instincts.

Nevertheless, Wilson chose to flip Washington’s biggest “Thou shalt not”—meddle in Europe’s broils—into “Thou must,” and to demand that all Americans fall into line.[8] Most damning of all, Wilson knew well, unlike overconfident Europeans in 1914, exactly how hellish this war had become.[9]

Here are the four options the President had in mid-1917:

1) He could have kept the United States neutral, accepting the risk of a German victory.

2) He could have justified total war, but on the realistic grounds of preserving the European balance of power and thus U.S. security.

3) He could have gone to war over neutral rights, as in 1812, and waged a naval campaign rather than shipping an army to France.

4) He could preach a crusade, a holy “war to end all war,” enthrall Americans with that fantasy, and hope to persuade or cajole Europeans to convert as well.

Ferguson and others have speculated that the first option might have been best. The Kaiser was not Hitler after all, and after their sacrifices in a total war the Germans themselves would likely have demanded democratic reforms. Moreover, a German victory in the Great War might well have meant no fascism, no World War II, no Holocaust, and no Cold War.

Henry Kissinger and others have speculated that the second option (which was Theodore Roosevelt’s preference) might have been best, with Americans helping to restore a balance of power on terms the Allies, the Germans, and the U.S. Senate could grudgingly have accepted.

Scholars such as myself have speculated that the third choice might have been best since a naval war would have been vastly cheaper in money, blood, and damage to civic values, would have given both sides a powerful new incentive to end the carnage, and would have left Europe’s Great Powers to hammer out a compromise peace.[10] As we know, Wilson chose the fourth option—presumably because he had persuaded himself that God was calling America to redeem the horrible war by turning it into a “war for righteousness.” Liberal Protestant clergy, previously divided over the war, turned zealous. Celebrity pastor Lyman Abbott thought it “more than a coincidence” that the Senate went to war on Good Friday. He called Germany heathen, America righteous, and the war the climactic chapter in God’s plan for redemption.

The dean of Yale’s divinity school asked, “May we not believe that this country, strong and brave, generous and hopeful is called of God to be in its own way a Messianic nation?” Evangelist Billy Sunday cried, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.” The cross all but disappeared behind the American flag.

A good reason for Wilson to encourage the mania was that he meant to do the unthinkable: to conscript, train, and ship a million-man army “over there.” He even praised the “singular insight” of a Social Gospeler who declared the President’s goal to be nothing less than the kingdom of God.[11]

With what results? Suffice to say the Wilson administration’s mobilization was what inspired philosopher Randolph Bourne’s phrase, “War is the health of the state.” The executive branch accumulated enormous power. The national debt exploded from 2.5 percent of GNP to more than 30 percent. The War Industries Board turned the most laissez-faire society in the world into a command economy and made the military-industrial complex a permanent feature of life.

The butcher’s bill numbered 53,000 combat deaths (in just five months), 116,000 lives overall, and twice that many wounded. The anti-German hysteria generated by George Creel’s propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, belied Wilson’s claim that America was not waging war against the German people, inflamed nativism, and brought persecution of Americans of German descent. The CPI employed every medium to propagate what Creel called the “gospel of Americanism,” including a feature film that heralded the doughboys in France as “Pershing’s Crusaders.” The Espionage Act of 1917, and its extension as the Sedition Act of 1918, mandated the worst violations of civil liberties in American history. In effect, the war no one had wanted became overnight the war it was illegal to question.

Overseas, the Great War, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and Japanese imperialism sowed unfathomable chaos from one end of Eurasia to the other. So the President of the United States can scarcely be faulted for not getting all of his policies right. But Wilson arguably got nothing right.

When on October 5, 1918, the Germans secretly contacted the President in hopes of negotiating an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points, Washington exchanged notes with Berlin for several weeks without even informing the Allies. When Wilson did consult the (furious) British and French, they understandably insisted on harsh terms that would render the enemy harmless; the insistence, too, clearly signaled their intention to impose a victor’s peace. Their cruelest condition was maintenance of the food blockade after the war so they could present the peace treaty on a “sign-it-or-starve” basis.

But the worst blunder might have been Wilson’s demand for regime change: Kaiser Wilhelm must abdicate. Hence the ones who got blamed for “stabbing the army in the back” on November 11, and then for ratifying the draconian Versailles Treaty, were those who succeeded Wilhelm, namely Germany’s fledgling democrats.

Also the legitimacy of the treaty was undermined when Wilson’s moralistic pretensions were exposed as naive, if not hypocritical. He had promised open covenants openly arrived at, but the treaty was a diktat hammered out by the British, French, and Americans and foisted on the Germans.

The infamous war-guilt clause, inserted at the beginning of the draconian sections on German reparations, was inspired by American legalism, which required that damages be awarded as if in a civil tort case. As a result, Germany’s newly democratic government, the soon to be the “Weimar Republic,” was obliged to bear all the responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914. That not only crippled German democracy, but undermined the very legitimacy of the treaty once revisionist historians began to argue that all the European Great Powers shared more or less guilt for the outbreak of the war. The other principles promised by Wilson, such as disarmament, economic opportunity, freedom of the seas, and self-determination, were either ignored or, if denied, denied to Germany alone. Wilson’s sole consolation was that all these grievances might be resolved peacefully through the League of Nations that his precious treaty would create.

Wilson should not have led the American peace delegation and thus  frittered away his prestige in daily bickering and compromise. He should not have appointed a delegation composed exclusively of Democrats (especially since Republicans had captured the Senate in the mid-term elections of 1918). He should not have promised an impossible new world order sure to disillusion public opinion, not least his own avid supporters, who predictably recoiled when the peace terms were published in May 1919. The Nation editorialized that the “one-time idol of democracy stands today discredited and condemned,” proving again that “wherever liberalism strikes hands with war it inevitably goes down.” The New Republic wrote:

The Treaty of Versailles subjects all liberalism and particularly that kind of liberalism which breathes the Christian spirit to a decisive test. If a war which was supposed to put an end to war culminates without strenuous protest by humane men and women in a treaty of peace which renders peace impossible, the liberalism which preached this meaning for the war will have committed suicide.[12]

Having been forced to make serial concessions to British, French, Italian, and Japanese nationalists, Wilson refused to accommodate American nationalists. When Senator Lodge placed 12 Reservations to the Treaty of Versailles before the Senate as conditions for its advice and consent, the President rejected them and insisted that Democratic Senators do likewise. In Wilson’s mind, the League Covenant had become the ark of the covenant—a holy thing that belonged not to him or to the Senate but to God. The League justified the war’s suffering, justified Wilson’s decision to lead America into it, and promised to lift humanity to those glorious heights where shines the light of the justice of God.

So he launched a national tour to stump for the League, collapsed, suffered a stroke, and lived out his term an invalid.

Playing to National Vanity and Piety

Wilson did not make the world safe for democracy. It might even be argued that his hapless policies toward Russia made the world safe for communism.[13] Surely the disillusionment caused by his “democratic” statecraft contributed to the cultural despair that made communism, fascism, and wars to overthrow the 1919 order real possibilities.

Historian Michael Kazin, who has just published a book on the antiwar movement that Wilson betrayed in 1917-18, asked, in a New York Times op-ed on the centenary of the conflict, how it might have ended had America stayed out. Wrote Kazin:

If the Allies, led by France and Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace like that completed at Versailles, no stab-in-the-back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and the Nazis. The next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred.

Why then, has Wilson’s Progressive civil religion—a heresy from the perspective of the classical American creed—remained the “default position” of U.S. foreign policy almost ever since? Perhaps historian Richard Gamble is correct in suggesting that “Righteous interventionism appeals to our national vanity and piety. We have to face the fact that there is something deeply and authentically American about Wilsonianism.”[14]

After the Soviet Union went poof, our elites even imagined the United States a benevolent hegemon policing a new world order through militarism and globalization.[15] Of course, that crusade also aborted and has triggered a backlash in the person of Donald Trump. But I predict that Trump will be no more willing or able than Barack Obama to break the spell Wilson cast on the nation 100 years ago.

Is it possible to distill that incantation down to its essence? Rereading an old book of essays on religion and history recently, I stumbled on the following passage:

Man is not content merely to study history. The ego will not be satisfied with this, because the ego in its unredeemed or natural state is not able to see history apart from itself. The ego is the center of creation; history, therefore, has no meaning outside its own understanding. Thinking that it is the creator, the ego drives toward the reduction of history in order to assimilate and master history. What occurs when this takes place is that the ego compels its finite mind to reduce the infinite to finiteness, in order that the mind may understand, control, and use the infinity that is history.[16]

These are the thoughts of none other than Arthur Link, the Princeton professor who devoted his whole career to the sanctification of Woodrow Wilson.

[1] Thomas Boghardt, The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I (Naval Institute Press, 2012), pp. 181-90.

[2] Niall Ferguson, editor, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (Basic Books, 1999), pp. 1-90 (quote, p. 89).

[3] “The Bible and Progress, Address by The Honorable Woodrow Wilson on the Tercentenary Celebration of the Translation of the Bible into the English Language” (Denver,  May 7, 1911), http://frontiers.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2012/20120129002bi/20120129002bi.pdf

[4] Barry Hankins, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President (Oxford University, 2016). See also Malcolm D. Magee, What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy (Baylor University, 2008).

[5] See Michael Kazin, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 (Simon and Schuster, 2017); Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Perseus Books, 2003); and Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (ISI Books, 2003) on the powerful pacifist movements during the era of U.S. neutrality.

[6] Boghardt’s The Zimmermann Telegram establishes this beyond doubt. Many editorialists scoffed at the absurdity of the German proposal, and public uproar over it quickly subsided; it was not mentioned as a casus belli even after the U.S. declaration of war.

[7] John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (Knopf, 2009), p. 4. See also Justus D. Doenecke, Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), pp. 217-49.

[8] See Walter A. McDougall, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 141-53.

[9] Michael S. Neiberg, in The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University, 2016), argues instead that American opinion at large had grown increasingly alarmed about the national security threat that a victorious Germany would mount. I disagree, but even if he is correct, that would seem to imply that the President ought to have argued for belligerence on realist grounds as Theodore Roosevelt always recommended.

[10] Otis L. Graham, Jr., “1917: What If the United States Had Stayed Neutral,” in Morton Borden, Jr. and Otis L. Graham, Jr., Speculations on American History (D. C. Heath and Company, 1977), pp. 103-17. Graham mentions as plausible the sorts of prohibitions against American trade, investment, and travel that Congress later enacted in the 1930s Neutrality Acts.

[11] Gamble, War for Righteousness, pp. 149-208 (quotes, pp. 154-59, 202-3).

[12] The Nation cited in Robert E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago, 1953), pp. 321-32. The New Republic cited in John A. Thompson, Reformers and War: American Progressive Publicists and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 234-36.

[13] First, the U.S. war effort, by ensuring Germany’s defeat, perversely eliminated the only external force capable of suppressing the Bolshevik regime in Russia. As a condition of the Armistice, the Germans had to renounce the annexationist Treaty of Brest-Litovsk they had made with the Bolshevik regime and evacuate western Russia. Second, the U.S. military interventions in the Russian Arctic, which Wilson ordered over the summer of 1918, were too small and remote to affect the course of the civil war that broke out between the “Reds” and the “Whites,”  but nevertheless fed Bolshevik propaganda. Third, Wilson (wisely) refused the Anglo-French proposals at the Paris Peace Conference to intervene massively in support of the White Russian armies. Fourth, the 5,000 troops Wilson sent to Vladivostok to secure the Trans-Siberian Railway (and defend Russian sovereignty from the grasping Japanese) served only to hold the region “in escrow” until the victorious Bolsheviks arrived to claim it.

[14] Richard Gamble, “Wilsonian Slaughter,” The American Conservative, February 23, 2009.

[15] Lloyd E. Ambrosius, in Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), described the flood of books and articles celebrating Wilsonianism after the American “victory” in the Cold War.

[16] C.D. McIntyre, editor, God, History, and Historians: Modern Christian Views of History (Oxford University, 1977), p.  375.