Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 9, No. 3; Fall 2003

Presidential Hubris and War

The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, by Thomas Fleming. Basic Books, 2003. xi + 543 pgs.

Thomas Fleming’s outstanding book poses a fundamental problem. Fleming shows that Woodrow Wilson led America into an unnecessary war. Wilson had not the remotest idea of what he wished to accomplish by involvement in World War I, but his ill-considered policies added massive American casualties to the horrendous totals racked up by the European powers. As if this were not enough, Wilson proved totally incompetent at the Paris Peace Conference.

Of Wilson’s manifest incompetence, there can be no doubt: Fleming has documented to the hilt a picture of the American president that makes the reader gasp in astonishment. But, if Fleming is right, a question at once arises: How could such a bizarre character as Wilson have managed to assume control of American foreign policy? In ability, Wilson ranked no more than what his great rival Theodore Roosevelt called him: "a Byzantine logothete [i.e., accountant or tax official]." How then did Wilson rise to supreme power and maintain a tenacious hold on it?

The answer lies largely in Wilson’s skill as an orator. At crucial times, he was able to convince people that he was an idealist who wished to reform sordid politics through moral principles. When examined, his words proved to be frothy and meaningless verbiage; but he again and again succeeded in fooling large numbers of people.

Fleming analyzes in considerable detail Wilson’s most famous oration: his speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, calling for a declaration of war against Germany. As Wilson presented matters, the need for war admitted of no doubt. Germany’s practice of unrestricted submarine warfare violated America’s rights as a neutral power. Despite repeated protests, Germany refused to stop a policy that had killed many Americans.

But in taking up the German challenge, Wilson averred, the United States did not seek any sordid ends. Wilson did not aim at territorial conquest, nor was his quarrel with the German people. He wished rather to defeat autocratic power and promote democracy and self-determination.

I have deliberately presented the substance of Wilson’s remarks in nondescript language. Now, let us hear how Wilson himself put the matter: "It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to hang in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we will fight for the things we have always carried in our hearts—for democracy . . . for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world at last free. . . . America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other" (p. 20).

Wilson’s rhetoric today sounds a little stilted and old-fashioned, but it accomplished its goal: a wildly cheering Congress granted in a few days Wilson’s wish for a declaration of war. In doing so, they made a disastrous mistake, as Senator Robert LaFollette pointed out in his brilliant but futile challenge to Wilson’s flights of fancy.

Britain, from the onset of war in 1914, had imposed a tight blockade on Germany; by preventing food from being imported into the country, the British brought starvation and malnutrition to large masses of the German people. As Senator LaFollette pointed out, a food blockade violated international law and struck at America’s rights as a neutral power. Even the British sometimes recognized the essential issue: "LaFollette cited an admission by Lord Salisbury, one of England’s most prominent statesmen, that food for the civilian population was never contraband—a principle that the English were callously ignoring in their blockade of Germany" (p. 35).

German submarine warfare was a desperate response to the British blockade—a blockade so effective that it threatened to force the Germans out of the war. But Wilson declined except in perfunctory terms to challenge the British. In complete contrast, he held Germany to the strictest accountability.

But perhaps Wilson’s distinctly unneutral "neutrality" was justifiable. Was not Germany bent on world domination? If so, was not a victory of Britain and her allies in America’s interest? Fleming sees little reason to view the European war as more than a struggle among competing powers. Contrary to Wilson and his Svengali-like adviser, Edward Mandell House, the war was not a struggle by the "democratic" countries, led by the British Empire, to stave off autocratic Germany’s bid for world control.

In this connection, Fleming effectively demolishes the myth, propagated by American Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, Sr., that Kaiser Wilhelm II chaired a council in July 1914 that determined on war. "Historians examining the evidence in the next decade concluded that Morgenthau was lying" (p. 374).[1]

Latter-day defenders of Wilson will no doubt respond, "Even if revisionist historians have shown that Germany did not deliberately embark on war, the conduct of the war showed that Germany menaced world civilization. What about the Belgian atrocities?"

Fleming maintains that the British began a worldwide propaganda campaign designed to show the Germans to be inhuman monsters. Lord Bryce, a historian and political scientist of great distinction, issued a report that contained riveting claims of gruesome atrocities, but these could not be documented. "The Germans were unprepared for the British propaganda onslaught of 1914. As a newcomer to international power politics—Germany was barely 40 years old in 1914—the country had paid little attention to this time-honored British custom of slandering their enemies" (p. 59).

Our author is by no means an uncritical apologist for the German Kaiser and his military machine. Germany pursued a harsh policy of reprisals against Belgian and French civilian resisters; but the lurid accounts of rapes and baby-killings put forward by the British had no foundation. Nothing in Germany’s conduct matched the British hunger blockade—or, for that matter, Belgian treatment of their Congolese subjects—in horrendousness.[2]

Wilson, then, carried away by his own rhetorical effusions, succeeded in involving the United States in war. To what end? As his Republican critics such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge noted, Wilson had done next to nothing to prepare a military force capable of intervention in Europe. Fleming goes so far as to claim that Wilson believed the war could be won without the dispatch of an American expeditionary army to Europe. Here I think our author’s intriguing speculation needs more evidence; but of the fact of American unpreparedness, there can be no question.

The American forces, when they finally arrived in Europe, had to "learn by doing," and the untrained Americans sustained massive casualties as soon as they engaged in battle. Although the American commander, John J. Pershing, preserved for the most part the Americans’ status as an independent military force, he fell in entirely with the fighting methods of the European armies. These involved frontal assaults on heavily fortified positions; efforts, usually unsuccessful, to gain a few hundred feet of ground cost thousands and thousands of lives.

True enough, the Americans and their European allies finally achieved "victory," but at what cost? "The Americans had been in combat two hundred days. . . . In that time, 50,300 doughboys were killed. Another 198,059 Americans were wounded in action. Another 62,668 died of disease. . . . In 1930, the Veterans Bureau estimated that war-related diseases, wounds and other kinds of trauma inflicted on the Western Front had raised the total cost to 460,000 deaths" (p. 307).

Americans who remained at home also suffered from the war, especially if they had the effrontery to criticize Wilson’s policies. Wilson in his April 1917 speech declared that "the world must be made safe for democracy," but evidently America was to be withdrawn from the sphere of freedom for the duration of the war. Protesters often faced long prison terms and were in some cases lynched. Discontent with the war among American blacks led to race riots. "Throughout the uproar [in East St. Louis] Woodrow Wilson said nothing. When prominent African Americans journeyed to Washington to complain in person, he refused to see them" (p. 110).

Once more our question recurs: to what end did all these Americans sacrifice their lives, health, and liberty? According to Wilson, a treaty of peace would establish a new world order. Self-determination and democracy would prevail, and the League of Nations would put an end to war. Was not this beautiful ideal worth hundreds of thousands of deaths and a few lynchings?

Once again, Wilson followed his characteristic pattern of announcing goals in flowery language that bore no relation to reality. The peace treaty imposed harsh terms on Germany, despite the fact that Germany agreed to an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.[3] "Along with the confession of guilt for the war were reparations that would be decided later—-which meant Germany’s economy would be at the mercy of the victors for as long as they pleased. Added to this were the loss of crucial coalfields to the Poles and French; the separation of the Rhineland, the Saar, and Upper Silesia from the Reich; the loss of the port city of Danzig" (p. 378).

So much for self-determination. The peace settlement actually represented a massive victory for empire building. In a discussion between British and Italian diplomats about League of Nations mandates, "one of them read aloud the lines that an ‘A’ mandate required ‘the consent and wishes of the people concerned.’ Nicholson [sic] was struck by how heartily everyone laughed. [Italian] Premier Orlando’s eyes were filled ‘with tears of mirth’" (p. 364).

As readers will by now expect, Wilson responded to the collapse of what he had promised with rhetorical moonshine. In response to protesting remarks by Frank Walsh, a onetime supporter, Wilson explained the betrayal of self-determination in this way: "You have touched on the great metaphysical tragedy of today" (p. 371). What pretentious nonsense!

Wilson insisted that the peace treaty incorporate his pet project, the League of Nations. All else might be given up, if he was granted his League; and he was willing to see the entire Treaty of Versailles scuttled by the Senate rather than allow any "reservations" to modify his pet project. But exactly how the League was supposed to guarantee peace he never bothered to explain.

In essence, Wilson’s solution to all problems was simple—the world must always have Woodrow Wilson to lead it. Thus, although felled by a crippling stroke that for a considerable time left him unable to function, he wanted the Democrats to renominate him for president in 1920. Colonel House in his novel Philip Dru, Administrator, portrayed a "military and political genius" who led a nation "into an era of almost superhuman contentment by persuading the people to make him their supreme autocrat" (p. 9). Wilson no doubt thought of himself in such vainglorious terms, but he was no more than a glib purveyor of words without substance. As Fleming ably shows, he brought disaster to his country and the world.

Fleming demonstrates an impressive command of the vast literature on World War I. I noted a few mistakes. The Chief Justice in 1917 was Edward Douglass White, not Andrew White (p. 18). William Gladstone’s middle name was "Ewart," not "Evarts" (p. 21). The author wrongly promotes Hugo Munsterberg to the nobility (p. 62). The IWW was the "Industrial Workers of the World," not "International Workers" (Fleming gets this right on p. 344, but not elsewhere). Kaiser Wilhelm II was Wilhelm I’s grandson, not his son. Harold Nicolson’s last name is misspelled (p. 364).[4]  



[1]Fleming should ideally have included some discussion of the treatment of the war council by Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914 (Oxford University Press, 1952). Sidney Fay was the main historian critical of Morgenthau’s account.

[2]Fleming is fully familiar with recent work on German military conduct in Belgium. He cites the important book of John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, Yale University Press, 2001 (p. 494, n. 19).

[3]The extent to which exceptions to the Fourteen Points were contemplated in the armistice is much disputed, but it is unquestionable that Germany did not surrender unconditionally.

[4]By the way, "the red-bearded Paul Mantoux" (p. 333), who translated into English Raymond Poincaré’s speech at the opening of the Paris Peace Conference, later offered Ludwig von Mises a chair at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.

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