As World War I is remembered in this year of its hundredth anniversary, one rivalry continues to resonate across America.  It isn’t between the Allies and the Central Powers, or between two houses of European royalty, but between two countrymen: President Woodrow Wilson and H.L. Mencken, the Bad Boy of Baltimore.

Despite a couple of new biographies, Mencken’s stature has decreased somewhat in the past two decades.  Perhaps it was because The Diary of H.L. Mencken, revealed in 1989, included in intensified form the racial, religious, and sectional barbs he threw at almost everyone, something verboten in our politically correct age.  Or perhaps the topics he loved to write about—Prohibition, Southern backwardness, Puritan prudery, censorship—no longer resonate in an age of national homogeneity and degeneracy displayed on daytime TV.  Or maybe university English departments and cultural publications cannot tolerate someone who was the antithesis of multiculturism and diversity.

Yet through our cultural katzenjammer, Mencken continues to influence young journalists, especially conservatives and libertarians, who grapple with pulling away from his powerful polemical style to develop one of their own.

Christians are taken aback by his virulent agnosticism.  Although he never had the gift of faith, he at least should have realized and even defended the Christian core of the civilization that produced the culture he thrived in, albeit with two major bouts of censorship, and whose civilizational demise has produced far more of the stupidity and crassness he denounced.  For all that, Mencken continues to provide insights into his time, especially its politics.  Almost all his pre-1923 books are available for free on the web; and includes every issue of The American Mercury, the country’s finest magazine during Mencken’s 1924-34 editorship.

Best of all, Mencken remains arguably the funniest writer in the English language, with a chuckle on every page, and often a belly laugh.  No one better needled the political go-getter, the professorial fraud, the literary poseur, and the fulminating moralist.

Whatever his sins, real or perceived, Mencken helped black writers, wrote often against lynching, and continually made fun of the Ku Klux Klan.  By contrast, few today know that Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal civil service.  W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Wilson “was by birth . . . unfitted for largesse of view or depth of feeling about racial injustice.”

Wilson’s idealistic foreign policy of American intervention to impose global democracy and local self-determination lay fallow during the 1920’s and 30’s but was brought back for World War II.  Except for a period in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Wilsonianism has infused popular culture, from the hagiographic 1944 film Wilson to the 2012 Academy Award winner for best picture, Argo.  Leonardo DiCaprio is planning to produce and star in Wilson, based on the 2013 biography of the same name by A. Scott Berg.

Wilsonianism has influenced every president since FDR.  Its histrionic and hysterical essence was on display in President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seemed winnable, and he intoned with Wilsonian certitude,

Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom.  And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it.  By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well—a fire in the minds of men.  It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

No matter what the cost in blood and treasure to Americans, our neocons and their allies have pushed their twisted Wilsonian vision to “make the world safe for democracy” (except when it doesn’t suit their purposes, as in Egypt or the recent Kiev putsch).

Wilson’s policy prolonged a war that probably would have been settled sooner with a peace with better consequences.  Instead, the American buttinsky shattered the old order in Europe, replacing the czar with Lenin and the kaiser with the führer.

In our day, the neocons’ neo-Wilsonianism, far from bringing democracy and freedom, shattered Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, millions of broken families, millions of Christians dead or in exile, and Al Qaeda stronger than ever.

So Wilson and Mencken still stare each other down, much as busts of Hamilton and Jefferson perpetually face off in the Entrance Hall at Monticello.

A lifelong Jefferson-Cleveland minimal-government Democrat, Mencken supported the Princeton president for governor of New Jersey in 1910, then for president in 1912.  He quickly grew disillusioned.  Of German extraction and inclinations, Mencken sided with the Fatherland in World War I, urging America either to remain neutral or to join with the kaiser.  As he wrote in My Life as Author and Editor (memoirs published in 1993),

The Germans among us, in those first soul-wracking days [1914-15], needed a friend who stood above the tumult.  They faced a mob aroused to intolerable fury, their every effort to defend themselves was denounced as treason and worse.  Ah, that a genuinely first-rate man had been in the White House, with a first-rate man’s sense of justice and a first-rate man’s courage.

The coming of war brought an end to Mencken’s political commentaries, temporarily severing his long relationship with the Baltimore Sun papers.  Mencken fruitfully used the time to write The American Language, published in 1919.  Although the language has changed greatly over the past century, the book remains enjoyable for wit unusual in the middle of pedantry; even the footnotes include jokes.

“After the anti-German hysteria of March and April 1917, there was little overt threat to himself or his family,” writes Fred Hobson in Mencken: A Life.  “Mencken learned to live with opened mail and occasional questioning of federal agents.”  That’s something all of us have had to live with in the wake of the neocon-pumped hysteria following September 11, 2001, as the traitorously misnamed USA PATRIOT Act and other laws have allowed virtually unlimited NSA snooping on our e-mails, web browsing, and phone calls.

Mencken registered for the draft on September 12, 1919, his 38th birthday, “and for a time he believed he would be called up.  As a bachelor, he felt particularly vulnerable.”  But the war ended two months later.

In letters of the day, he wrote of home-front deprivations: “There is constant snow, great cold, and hence much suffering.  Coal is short, food is high, and every day seems wheatless, meatless, beerless, porkless or sugarless.”

The nation was struck by influenza in 1918-19, but not the “ombibulous” Mencken.  He would not have been surprised to have learned that 21st-century medicine confirmed the pandemic was caused by Wilson’s War.  According to a 2010 article by Carol R. Byerly in Public Health Reports, a publication of the National Institutes of Health,

The American military experience in World War I and the influenza pandemic were closely intertwined.  The war fostered influenza in the crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe.  The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic.

With his journalist’s eye, Mencken described in letters the scene in Baltimore in late 1918:

All these parts are ravaged. . . . An undertaker’s wagon gallops by my house every few minutes. . . . It amounts to a pestilence. . . . Five and a half columns of death notices in the Sun this morning.  Last night, at Union Station, I saw about 50 coffins in the train shed.

The flu killed from 50 to 100 million people worldwide, far more than the estimated 16 million killed during the war.  It claimed 675,000 Americans, six times the 116,516 of the war.  If the war had ended in 1917, as might have happened without American entry, the plague might not have struck.

With the war over and his typewriter reclaimed from philological work, Mencken was quick to go on the attack more viciously than before.  In an article ostensibly about Teddy Roosevelt’s death in 1919, he commented,

One thinks of Dr. Woodrow Wilson’s biography of George Washington as of one of the strangest of all the world’s books.  Washington: the first, and perhaps also the last American gentleman.  Wilson: the self-bamboozled Presbyterian, the right-thinker, the great moral statesman, the perfect model of the Christian cad.  It is as if the Rev. Dr. Billy Sunday should do a biography of Charles Darwin—almost as if Dr. Wilson himself should dedicate his senility to a life of the Chevalier Bayard, or the Cid, or Christ. . . . But such phenomena, of course, are not actually rare in the republic; here everything happens that is forbidden by the probabilities and the decencies.

The fraudulence of Wilson is now admitted by all, save a few survivors of the old corps of official press agents, most of them devoid of both honesty and intelligence.  No unbiased man, in the presence of the revelations of Bullitt, Keynes, and a hundred other witnesses, and of the Russian and Shantung performances, and of innumerable salient domestic phenomena, can now believe that the Doctor dulcifluus was ever actually in favor of any of the Brummagem ideals he once wept for, to the edification of a moral universe.

Mencken was one of the first to tie the rise of Bolshevism to U.S. intervention in the Great War.  On April 3, 1917, as America was clearly heading toward her April 6 declaration of war, the Wilhelmstrasse sent Lenin to the Finland Station to spark the Bolshevik putsch and take Russia out of the war.  That allowed German troops to be sent to the unquiet Western Front to face the coming Yanks.

Then as now, as Mencken had warned, Wilsonianism brought nothing but complications for America, compromises of the diplomatic shibboleth of democracy, and misery for foreigners.

Reflecting in 1931 on Wilson’s War and its aftermath, Mencken wrote in the Sun,

Our real interests at the time were on the side of the Germans, whose general attitude of mind is far more American than that of any other people. . . . There would be no Bolshevism in Russia and no Fascism in Italy.  Our debtors would all be able to pay us. . . . But we succumbed to a college professor who read Matthew Arnold.

Curiously, this sentiment was similar to that of Winston Churchill, who told the New York Enquirer in 1936,

America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World War.  If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the Spring of 1917.  Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany.

But it was in the essay “The Archangel Woodrow,” first appearing in the Smart Set in January 1921 as Wilson was preparing to leave office, that Mencken really dug in for a laparotomy:

Wilson was a typical Puritan—of the better sort, perhaps, for he at least toyed with the ambition to appear as a gentleman, but nevertheless a true Puritan.  Magnanimity was simply beyond him.  Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail.  I daresay that, as a purely logical matter, he saw clearly that the old fellow ought to be turned loose; certainly he must have known that Washington would not have hesitated, or Lincoln.  But Calvinism triumphed as his intellectual faculties decayed.

Eugene Debs, the perennial candidate for president from the Socialist Party of America, had been thrown in the clink by Wilson for opposing the war.  President Harding commuted his sentence in 1921.

Mencken blasted The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People, a “Woodrovian” book Mencken said was actually written by Wilson confidante Dr. William Bayard Hale, as “once a favorite text of New Republic Liberals, deserving Democrats, and the tender-minded in general.”

One could say the same thing about New Republic comments on President Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.  Even the book titles sound eerily similar.

Away from the campaign hustings in place and time, reading Wilson’s “speeches in cold blood offers a curious experience,” Mencken wrote.

It is difficult to believe that even idiots ever succumbed to such transparent contradictions, to such gaudy processions of mere counter-words, to so vast and obvious a nonsensicality . . . stuff quite as bad as the worst bosh of Warren Gamaliel Harding.  When Wilson got upon his legs in those days he seems to have gone into a sort of trance, with all the peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a pedagogue gone mashugga.  He heard words giving three cheers; he saw them race across a blackboard like Marxians pursued by the Polizei; he felt them rush up and kiss him.  The result was the grand series of moral, political, sociological and theological maxims which now lodges imperishably in the cultural heritage of the American people. . . . The important thing is not that a popular orator should have uttered such vaporous and preposterous phrases, but that they should have been gravely received, for weary years, by a whole race of men, some of them intelligent.  Here is a matter that deserves the sober inquiry of competent psychologists.  The boobs took fire first, but after a while even college presidents—who certainly ought to be cynical men, if ladies of joy are cynical women—were sending up sparks, and for a long while anyone who laughed was in danger of the calaboose.

The man who defined curmudgeon would not be surprised at what became of Wilson’s America.  Even his native Baltimore, for him always a refuge of gemütlichkeit, has become a morass of crime and decay, its economy and landscape choked by the bureaus of the alphabet-soup agencies he so despised, spreading like kudzu northeast from D.C.