Walter McDougall Responds: Woodrow Wilson as Seen through the Lenses of Bourne, Clausewitz, and Lodge

My congratulations to Richard Reinsch for selecting this outstanding panel and thanks to the commentators for their fair and insightful reviews. All of them have addressed the topic for the standpoint of their particular expertise – church history in Richard Gamble’s case, grand strategy in Karl Walling’s case, and constitutional theory in Paul Carrese’s case – and all of them have considerably enriched my counter-factual thesis on what might have happened if the United States had stayed out of the Great War.  Did each of them know the identities of the others?  I wonder because of Gamble’s prescient remark about imagining the reactions to my argument “ranging from an emphatic no, to a qualified no, to a ‘yes, but’ to an enthusiastic “yes, and.”  Of course, only three responses were posted, so one of those reactions was missing. Happily for me, the one left out was the “emphatic no” and Gamble’s own response was the “enthusiastic ‘yes, and.’” I was gratified, but not surprised, for I have learned so much from his own scholarship over 15 years, have frequently cited his books The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (2003) and In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (2012), and eagerly anticipate his new biography of Julia Ward Howe.

Gamble’s opening allusion to Howe, author of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as the “priestess of righteous war and holy peace,” pithily places Woodrow Wilson, whom I describe as the high priest of holy war according to a newly heretical strain of American Civil Religion, in the context of Progressivism and the Social Gospel, both of which had been cresting for 25 years prior to American entry into the Great War.  In fact, Wilson invented nothing: even his League of Nations idea had become commonplace in Anglo-American liberal circles.  But he came to personify (hence “Wilsonianism”) the Progressive temptation, which is to hallow the otherwise secular state, declare its purposes righteous, and arrogate to it all power.  Hence Gamble’s discussion of Randolph Bourne, the most perceptive contemporary critic of “state idealism,” is the perfect vehicle for exposing the theological hubris of the Progressive Saint Woodrow.  In reply I am moved to quote another contemporary critic, British philosopher and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in Orthodoxy (1908) that in the modern world “vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.”

I have seen Karl Walling perform on several occasions and been blown away by his energy, wit, relentless logic, and breadth of knowledge ranging from ancient Greece to the present day and from philosophy to military strategy. No wonder he is the recipient of numerous teaching awards. I appreciate his taking my Wilson essay, which might have been dismissed as a jeu d’esprit, with utter seriousness and for subjecting its problématique to the meticulous “critical analysis” recommended by 19th century Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz (in my opinion, one of the greatest intellectuals of the late modern era).  My own avenues toward understanding the causes and effects of the 1917 U.S. entry into the Great War are Wilson’s personality and philosophy as well as the plausible alternative histories that might have played out had the United States clung to neutrality or entered the war under different circumstances. Walling stipulates my critical assessment of Wilson’s abortive crusade as a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for the Second World War and Cold War.  But he subjects my list of the other American options to more rigorous analysis.

For instance, he asks whether a German victory resulting from U.S. neutrality would likely have been as benign as I suggest, citing as evidence the annexationist Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Germany imposed on Russia in March 1918, and he questions whether liberalism would likely have triumphed in Germany if the Kaiser’s regime had prevailed. Likewise, he asks whether a limited U.S. naval war in defense of neutral rights would, if conducted alone, have been effective, or whether, if conducted in tandem with the Royal Navy, it would have placed the nation on a “slippery slope” toward full belligerence. He also questions my hypothesis to the effect that the belligerents would have been more likely to reach a compromise peace in the event of a U.S. naval war. Walling’s own judgment is that a “war for the balance of power” would have been preferable inasmuch as the realists (most prominently Theodore Roosevelt) who favored that option pursued goals far more prudent and feasible than Wilson’s utopianism.  He also reasons that the victory of the allied powers might have been more complete and more conciliatory insofar as a balanced peace might have given the Germans a stake in a new international order sustained, in good part, by American political and economic support. That, he contends, is not merely hindsight, but another plausible alternative history. I agree that it is. But I also must wonder whether the U.S. Congress and public could ever have been persuaded to wage a war for the balance of power.  Perhaps, because of our nation’s tragic flaws, the only way to engage the American people was by preaching a moral crusade. As Richard Gamble has observed, “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.”

Paul Carrese I do not know except by reputation and his excellent book Democracy in Moderation: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Sustainable Liberalism (2016).  Perhaps he is correct that my essay is “as much as concerned with the present and future” as with the past. If so, that was not my intent, which was simply to save history from the distortions and outright falsehoods so often inflicted on history by pundits of all political persuasions.  Carrese admires, as do I, what he rightly calls the Washingtonian grand strategy, but is frustrated by the fact that my either-or argument between “stay-at-home” unilateralism and messianic quagmires abroad may be “all too effective.” He need not worry about that. My various writings have never had any effect on the foreign policy community.  But insofar as my historical judgments are concerned I concede his point. Yes, my characterization of U.S. diplomacy in the 19th century versus that in the Progressive era is somewhat overdrawn for the reasons that the article was brief, narrowly focused, and somewhat polemical.  Throughout my career as a generalist trained by world historian William H. McNeill I have written at length about the manifold ways that technological innovations such as those Carrese cites have transformed the principles and practice of international relations over the past five hundred years. I even described President Dwight Eisenhower’s grand strategies in admirable terms similar to those employed by Carrese in my  1985 book, . . . the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age.

In any event, I agree wholeheartedly with Carrese’s judgment that Woodrow Wilson’s most dangerous trait was his “anti-constitutionalist repudiation of institutions.”  Countering my counter-factual scenario with his own – what if a moderate constitutionalist and balance-of-power internationalist such as Henry Cabot Lodge had been president in 1917 – he asks if McDougall would still suggest that deep American intervention in the European war must have yielded the same disastrous results? The tone of my essay might have suggested the answer is yes, but the answer is no, and I back that up assertion by posing yet another, even more plausible, counter-factual. What if Charles Evans Hughes had been the President who shepherded the United States through the Great War and peacemaking? The former Governor of New York and Supreme Court Justice and future Secretary of State was the Republican candidate in 1916 and only lost the election by the narrowest of margins. Of course we cannot know, but I suspect that Hughes, another constitutional internationalist, would have helped to craft a postwar settlement far less traumatic than the Treaty of Versailles. Still, the question remains as to whether Lodge, Hughes, Roosevelt, or anyone else could have persuaded Americans to hurl themselves into a world war on any basis other than quixotic crusade

Finally, I stand by my terminology including the word heresy, because my new book explains the rhetoric and occasionally the substance of U.S. foreign policies since 1776 through our shape-shifting civil religion. I call it American diplomatic history in the metaphysical mode.  But the story I tell “is not a sharp fall from Founding sobriety to heresy.” The story is a long declension or deformation that has spawned, in dialectical fashion, new orthodoxies and their accompanying heresies after the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War II, and end of the Cold War.  Even now, a new 21st century orthodoxy may be in its early gestation.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on November 06, 2017 at 13:22:45 pm

Walter's original piece was wonderful; his response cogent, especially for suggesting something tragic in the American character. For realists, WWI made sense to balance power; a concert of great powers might first have deterred and later included Germany to maintain the peace after the war. But Americans do have a self-rigtheous streak which sometimes makes realism unrealistic. We have to go to war to defeat evil or we don't want to go at all. No clear solution to that problem.

read full comment
Image of Karl Walling
Karl Walling

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.