John Milton Cooper, Jr.: The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt; Harvard University Press; Boston.
Lloyd Gardner: A Convenant with Power: America and World Order from Wilson to Reagan; Oxford University Press; New York.
There have been many interpretations of Woodrow Wilson done from widely divergent perspectives. Fortunately for Wilson’s reputation, his most prominent biographers–Arthur S. Link, Ray Stannard Baker, and John Morton Blum–have admired him profoundly. Our 28th President has fared better in this respect than others, such as Richard Nixon. Moreover, Nixon always had stormy relations with journalists and others claiming to represent “the conscience of America” It was this group which long idolized Wilson; perhaps in order to placate his enemies Nixon discovered Wilson as a presidential role model after his election in 1968. Wilson’s admirers before the greening of American academy came typically from the moderate left, which applauded his commitment to economic reform and to fighting “German militarism.” As a reformer and democratic Anglophile internationalist, Wilson exerted a kind of influence on FDR which liberal historians have been quick to note. They have failed to note, according to George Nash, that Herbert Hoover, and even John Foster Dulles, venerated Wilson far more than did Roosevelt. Wilson’s belief that the United States had interests in Latin America, his cultural Anglophilia, his hatred for Soviet Bolshevism, and his view of the need for government to be an honest broker between labor and man agement were all points of contact between him and 20th-centuryAmerican conservatives.
Despite Wilson’s deserved reputation as a democratic idealist, he has recently lost favor with the intellectual left. The left identifies Anglo-American democracy with both big money and imperialism. The leftist Barbara Tuchman may still defend Wilson for fighting Kaiser Bill (whom, unlike Mao Tse Tung and Stalin, she considers to have been a wicked and aggressive tyrant). Yet to most leftist historians, particularly Lloyd Gardner, Wilson was an American imperialist who enjoyed abusing Mexicans.
The books by Cooper and Gardner do not shed new light on Wilson’s career, but they tell us much about the attitudes of practicing historians toward a partially fallen, former liberal saint. Of the two works, The Warrior and the Priest a comparative study of Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, is clearly the more balanced. Cooper treats his subjects sympathetically. Though obviously familiar with psycho-history, Cooperdoes not apply it blatantly in contrasting the meditative, often hesitant intellectual Wilson to the bellicose patriot Teddy Roosevelt. The major confrontation between these leaders occurred during World War I, which Roosevelt wished to enter in 1914 but which Wilson stayed out of for almost three years. Both men were ardent Anglophiles and generally hostile to the Central Powers; yet while Roosevelt advertised his sympathies as soon as the guns of August had gone off, Wilson agonized over the prospect of going to war.
Cooper exaggerates the contrast between his subjects. Although Wilson as President was less pugnacious than Roosevelt as a private citizen, his attempt at neutrality was mostly fictitious. World War I revisionist historians, such as Harry Elmer Barnes and Charles Roger Tansill, easily exposed the one-sidedness of American neutrality. Their studies focus on the Wilson Administration after Edward M. House had replaced the more genuine neutralist William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State in June 1915. Cooper is wrong in suggesting that Bryan, unlike Wilson, wanted peace with the Germans at any price. In a now-famous note to Wilson, after the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, Bryan reminded the President and by implication his two confidants, Edward House and Robert Lansing, what true American neutrality would have consisted of.
To understand the Arnerican interpretation of neutrality, it is necessary, as George Kennan and John Lukacs have suggested, to look at the cultural factors that shaped political decisions.Wilson, House, Lansing, and Roosevelt all identified themselves strongly with British civilization. Wilson, who admired the English parliamentary system and the 19th-century Prime Minister William Gladstone, repeatedly stressed the shared Anglo-American heritage. He, House, and Lansing associated themselves eagerly with the Imperial School, which flourished at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton around the turn of the century. This historical school explained the American Revolution as an unfortunate blunder, caused by hotheads like Thomas Jefferson and Sam Adams in the colonies and by the cabinet government of Lord North in England. The dean of the Imperial School, Charles Louis Beer, was one of Wilson’s advisers who went with him to the postwar conference at Versailles. It may be hard for Americans to realize any longer the depth and prevalence of Anglophilia in early 20th century America. Despite the German, Irish, Scandinavian, and Central European immigrations in the 19th century, the political and social elites in pre-World War I America still viewed themselves culturally and ethnically as English. This self-labeling was significantly shared by important people: e.g., the Presbyterian southerner Wilson, the New York descendant of Dutchmen, Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New England opponent of the League of Nations John Cabot Lodge, who had backed England fervently during the war.
Although neither Cooper nor Gardner shows interest in the broader cultural context of America’s entry into the war or in the problematic nature of American neutrality, both dwell tendentiously on Wilson’s adventurism in Mexico. Cooper, who draws the more sympathetic picture of Wilson, sees him, however, as chastened by his Mexican fiasco and prepared for his grander (more progressive) role in the European struggle. By contrast, Gardner depicts Wilson’s feuding with the Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta as the keystone of his foreign policy. Gardner, a generally pro-Soviet historian of the Cold War, has criticized FDR for being excessively antagonistic to Stalin. In this volume he reduces Wilson’s involvement with Europe to a mere sideshow, the main American objective in 1914 being the imperialist subjugation of Latin America. As a student of William Appleman Williams and a product of the Wisconsin School of Revisionism which pioneered “Marxist” interpretations of American diplomacy, Gardner presents Wilson as subservient to business interests. Yet, Gardner does not revive Eugene Debs’s older American socialist view of Wilson’s European Crusade as an attempt to save J. P. Morgan’s loans to England. The Debsian view was at least plausible, but grossly oversimplified. Gardner, on the other hand, appeals entirely to leftist faith, proposing that Wilson sent armies into Europe to reach Latin America through the back door.
While Gardner is on shaky ground in discussing Europe, his treatment of Mexico, as a victim of Wilsonian imperialism, is even more misleading. Wilson dispatched American troops to Veracruz in April 1914 for reasons that Chris Dodd would have appreciated far more than James Burnham. He intended to topple Huerta’s right-wing autocracy and to restore the principles of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The Revolution, which Wilson applauded, outlawed the Catholic Church and expropriated latifundia, supposedly to divide the lands among the peasantry. Wilson had badgered the first revolutionary president Francisco Madero for not pushing agrarian reform hard enough. When Huerta, who allied himself with landowners, overthrew and executed Madero in February 1913, Wilson looked for an excuse to intervene. The occupation of Veracruz, which took place on the pretext of a slight to American honor, caused Huerta to resign; his opponent, who succeeded him with American support, Venustiano Carranza, promised to restore the revolutionary regime. Unfortunately Carranza’s rival, the adventurous bandit, Pancho Villa, refused to cooperate and raided border towns in New Mexico. After Villa recklessly massacred 16 American mine engineers, Pershing crossed the border, with several thousand soldiers, to pursue him. Soon the punitive expedition also faced the armies of Carranza, who unexpectedly turned against his American sponsors. The hapless American expeditionary force wandered through Northern Mexico, until a settlement was made several months later to retrieve them.
According to Gardner, Wilson’s aggressive behavior in Mexico set the tone for American foreign policy from 1914 on. Gardner is right, though not for the reasons that he gives. A combination of doctrinaire democratic idealism and operational ineptitude has wrought havoc on American foreign policy throughout this century. Wilsonianism foreshadowed some of the most disastrous tendencies in modern American statecraft: obsessive anti-imperialism (Gardner’s assertions notwithstanding), a superstitious belief in democratic formalism as a new world religion, and self-delusion about the realities of power politics. The Mexican adventure was a symbolic beginning of the recurrent American attempt to put international relations in sync with adolescent idealism. The vulgarized descendents of Wilson are still among us, selectively proclaiming their doctrine of human rights.