How We Got Here (35)
June 23, 2014
Perhaps at some point I will fill in Woodrow Wilson’s place in America’s rise to world power. Suffice it to say here that he kept us out of the war as long as could – certainly longer than nearly anyone else likely would have done – and proposed relatively equitable peace terms. The punitive terms that were finally imposed on Germany in June, 1919, were punitive at the insistence of the French and British, who had, after all, suffered most. (The French lost an estimated 11 per cent of their population, a staggering injury.) Edgar Cayce said much later that the Christ spirit had sat at the peace table, but had not been listened to. Wilson’s League of Nations proposal was adopted by the allies, but ironically not by his own country, for reasons good, bad, and arguable.
For a while, the people of Europe regarded Wilson as a savior; disillusion came with the hard wrangling over the peace treaty. (He attended the peace conference in Paris, the first president to leave the country while in office.) To put it in short words, he was outmaneuvered, and the peace that was made was about as bad as the war it ended – and it assured that the war would be resumed as soon as another generation of boys grew old enough to be sent to the slaughter.
Still, Wilson did his best, and if his best was not good enough to spare the world the further misery of World War II, perhaps no one’s could have been. In keeping us out of war an additional two years, he saved American lives that might have died uselessly in the trenches, in the way that a generation of French and English troops, along with subjects from their respective empires, were dying. And in bringing us into the war in response to Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, he brought the American republic that much closer to the center of world power.
But in promising more than he – or anyone – could deliver, he disillusioned Europeans who were hoping for a deus ex machina, and in his lack of success in wrangling with British and French vindictiveness and greed, he disillusioned the American idealists who had believed, with him, that this could be made into a war to make the world safe for democracy, or (even more high-flying) a war to end war.
Thus arose the myth among the Europeans that America couldn’t be counted on, that it came to the war “late” – as if it was America’s business to save them from the results of their own ancestral hatreds and rivalries – and that Uncle Shylock was grasping in demanding that the Allies repay the war debts they had incurred to America while neutral America was providing them with the armaments and foodstuffs that were keeping them in the war.
Correspondingly, there arose American determination to never get caught intervening in European affairs again, regardless how effective the propaganda that would pull us into another of their quarrels. Thus, the isolationist movement of the 1930s; the refusal to sell arms to the legitimate government of Spain to help it defend itself against the Franco insurgency, even in the teeth of obvious intervention by Italian troops and German pilots; the political impossibility of making common cause with the western democracies against Hitler’s clever and audacious diplomacy. World War II was a tragedy for the west, to be sure. But in a sense, the chickens that were Woodrow Wilson’s broken dreams were coming home to roost.