Publisher's Note — September 30, 2008, 5:13 pm

The Presidency in Wartime: George W. Bush discovers Woodrow Wilson

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Excerpted from Chapter 10 of You Can’t Be President: The outrageous barriers to democracy in America, published by Melville House. John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

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To understand what war—hot or cold—does to American democracy, examine the last three years of the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, from 1917 to 1920. Wilson’s reputation today remains essentially positive, even glorious. This professor-turned-politician is remembered for the most part as a visionary who was martyred in the cause of world democracy and peace. A self-styled idealist who called World War I “a war to end all wars,” Wilson claimed that America was fighting to make the world “safe for democracy,” not for any crass political motives. For these reasons, millions of high school students have been taught more about Wilson’s Fourteen Points and his failed crusade for American entry into the League of Nations than about George Washington’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s prescient, regrettably unheeded farewell addresses, which argued for restraint in foreign policy and against the dangers of a large, permanent military establishment.

But the Woodrow Wilson of dramatic oration and lofty principles was also an intolerant demagogue whose repressive policies and personal ambition sullied his stated aspiration to save the world from war and corruption. Long before there was McCarthyism, there was Wilsonianism, with its own “red scare” tactics and assaults on civil liberties that may have made Joe McCarthy envious. Although he had always insisted he was trying to avoid war, as early as his December 7,1915, State of the Union Address to Congress, Wilson was hinting at the war-fevered crackdown to come:

The gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue…. A little while ago such a thing would have seemed incredible. Because it was incredible we made no preparation for it. We would have been almost ashamed to prepare for it, as if we were suspicious of ourselves, our own comrades and neighbors! But the ugly and incredible thing has actually come about and we are without adequate federal laws to deal with it. I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment and feel that in doing so I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.

What was incredible, and ugly, was the ferocity of Wilson’s antidemocratic impulse. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in his book Secrecy, Wilson’s “plea… astonishes still, as much for its passion as for what it proposes… No president had ever spoken like that before; none has since.”

Wilson disingenuously campaigned for reelection in 1916 as a peace candidate; his slogan, “He kept us out of war,” was a critical tactic in his very narrow victory over the Republican Charles Evans Hughes. But getting into World War I was uppermost in Wilson’s mind. As historian Walter Karp wrote in The Politics of War, “As he [Wilson] once confided to his wife, he himself ached for the opportunity ‘to impel [the people] to great political achievements,’ achievements that, in Wilson’s view, the ignoble masses were incapable even of desiring without strong leaders and strong governments to drive them.”

He resorted to moral blackmail and brute force when faced with domestic political opposition, whether to his war plans or to his vision for postwar peace

Wilson got his way, and from his speech before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, calling for a declaration of war against Germany, until October 2, 1919, the day he suffered a massive stroke while campaigning frantically for Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, the great proponent of democracy engaged in the most anti-democratic domestic crusade in American history. Wilson’s self-righteousness encouraged coercion, rather than persuasion, and he resorted to moral blackmail and brute force when faced with domestic political opposition, whether to his war plans or to his vision for postwar peace. For example, if the treaty and the League of Nations were not approved, there would result “in the vengeful Providence of God, another struggle in which, not a few hundred thousand fine men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.” As the historian Anders Stephanson wrote, Wilson’s messianic obsession with making the League into what Wilson called a “wholesale moral clearinghouse” meant that opponents of his vision were heretics.


Wilson, the would-be messiah, also targeted political rivals, most prominently Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, who had done remarkably well in his run for president against Wilson and four other candidates in 1912.The 900,000 votes won by Debs that year amounted to 6 percent of the popular vote, the highest percentage ever for a socialist in an era when socialist and other left-wing mayors were being elected in cities such as Milwaukee and Schenectady. Debs’s subsequent opposition to Wilson’s push for war placed him in political jeopardy, and it was only a matter of time before the weight of the law came down on him. After making an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918, Debs was arrested and convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act. He served more than two years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary until President Warren Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

Less well known today is the prosecution of Robert Goldstein, a film producer who at one time had been connected with D. W. Griffith. In 1917, Goldstein released a movie innocuously titled The Spirit of ’76, though the response of the war-fevered government was anything but innocuous. As described by Zechariah Chafee Jr. the great legal scholar of the period, Goldstein’s silent film was little more than a patriotic montage that celebrated the American Revolution. Goldstein made the movie before the war, and so he couldn’t have anticipated that Wilson’s violent attachment to his new British war ally would result in a jail sentence. Writing when the Espionage Act was still in force and the stroke-incapacitated Wilson still occupying the White House, Chafee himself was risking his career and possible prosecution when he published Freedom of Speech in 1920. This may account for the terseness of the following passage:

[The Spirit of’76] contained such scenes as Patrick Henry’s Speech, the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Valley Forge. After a year and a half of work the picture was finished, just before the outbreak of our war with Germany. The film was displayed in Los Angeles to the usual audience, which was not shown to contain either soldiers or sailors. The government thereupon indicted Goldstein for presenting a play designed and intended to arouse antagonism, hatred, and enmity between the American people, particularly the armed forces, and the people of Great Britain, particularly their armed forces, when Great Britain was “an ally” of the United States, because one scene, the Wyoming [Valley, Pennsylvania] Massacre, portrayed British soldiers bayoneting women and children and carrying away girls. The film was seized, the business was thrown from prosperity into bankruptcy with a loss of over $100,000, and Goldstein was convicted of attempting to cause insubordination, etc., in the armed forces and sentenced to ten years in the federal penitentiary at Steilacoom, Washington.

Political satire could very well land you in jail during the Wilson Administration

Chafee allowed himself a small joke when he remarked on the “unfortunate” case name of United States v. The Spirit of 76, but this was not a time for irony or joking, since political satire could very well land you in jail during the Wilson Administration. The point of Wilson’s spear in his crusade against sedition was his Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, who often acted to halt subversion before it even occurred. Using the Espionage Act and the Alien Act of 1918 (which targeted foreign-born anarchists and revolutionaries for deportation), Palmer’s notorious campaign targeted thousands of suspected communists and anarchists, who were supposedly slipping into the United States from Europe and Russia intending to foment revolution. The Palmer Raids, conducted by employees of the U.S. Department of Justice, began in earnest on November 7, 1919, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and culminated in January 1920 with the arrest of more than 3,000 members of the Communist and Communist Labor parties. From the start, the government also grabbed innocent bystanders who happened not to speak English. In his history of American crackdowns on civil liberties, First-Amendment advocate Christopher Finan described one raid, on November 7, which targeted the Russian People’s House in New York City’s Union Square. Government agents arrested about 200 people, mostly students: “Approximately 75 percent of those arrested were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many were quickly released.” Outside New York, “others were not so lucky. Nearly 100 men were locked up in Hartford, Connecticut for almost five months” on suspicion of being communists. In all, the raids netted over 4,000 alleged communists, of whom 800 were deported, including the prominent radical Emma Goldman.

In the atmosphere of Wilsonian hysteria, not only were left-wing militants with foreign names arrested and deported; so, too, were legally elected representatives to Congress and state legislatures denied their seats. Victor L. Berger, a socialist elected to the Fifth District of Wisconsin in 1918, was excluded from Congress at the beginning of its new session in April 1919. Running a second time in a December 1919 Wisconsin special election against a fusion Democrat-Republican candidate, Berger won again. By now convicted under the Espionage Act for vocally opposing the war, Berger presented his credentials to the House once more, in January 1920, and was once again excluded, by a vote of 330-6. Three days before Berger was refused his seat, five socialists elected to the New York State Assembly were denied theirs as well, by a resounding 140-6 vote.

Although Wilson has been celebrated as a tragic visionary, it’s not hard to find, even among his admirers, voices critical of his heavy-handed promotion of American entry into the League of Nations and his self-destructive refusal to accept Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s “reservations,” which doomed the League. Godfrey Hodgson, a sympathetic biographer of Wilson’s close friend and adviser, Col. Edward House, says, implausibly, that Wilson “hated war,” but he is clear on what he views as Wilson’s failings as a politician, in contrast with the wily tactician House: “Faced with opposition, Wilson’s instinct was that anyone wicked enough to disagree with him must endorse his noble vision or face his messianic wrath.” However, the portrait favored by admirers of the twenty-eighth president as an idealistic amateur among cynical professionals—particularly Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Lodge—understates Wilson’s ability to marshal popular support and his genuine tactical skills in day-to-day politics. Wilson may have been headstrong and “vainglorious,” in Walter Karp’s description, but he was no fool about building a political career and getting elected.

Perhaps no president has entered the White House with a less altruistic vision of foreign affairs or of war-making than George W. Bush

It is an enormous irony that Wilson came to prominence during the high-water mark of the Progressive Era, since this Virginia-born, Georgia-reared conservative was an out-and-out racist of the most conventional sort. The southerner Wilson presided over the segregation of the civil service and once said to a group of black protesters that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” Moreover, Wilson’s stated adherence to the cause of Progressivism was at best opportunistic and at worst specious. Yet his anti-progressive, anti-populist instincts did not prevent him from succeeding in politics. As Karp wrote,

As long as domestic affairs remained predominant, Wilson was on a collision course with the entire reform movement…. The solution to his problem Wilson had arrived at long before he ever faced it, when he praised the domestic political advantages of the Republican “plunge into international politics [by way of the Spanish-American war].” If he could make another such plunge and “impel” the nation to “great national triumphs” abroad, he could not only avert failure but reap glory as well. As soon as he took office, therefore, Wilson began trying to persuade the American people that the true spirit of reform was to be expressed not at home, but in a new altruistic foreign policy, a policy, in Wilson’s words, of “service to mankind.”

Even the great internationalist Wilson displayed scant interest in world-shaping foreign policy or war-making until he gained high national office. “Before his presidency,” wrote Anders Stephanson, “Wilson had showed no signs of reforming zeal in foreign affairs… A single memorandum, some scattered remarks, revealing nothing so much as a strong desire to be safely in the middle, an inkling that the experience of war had opened up possibilities for better national government at home: rather a meager sum total for a well-known scholar of political systems.”


Besides James Polk, architect of the expansionist war against Mexico in 1846, perhaps no president has entered the White House with a less altruistic vision of foreign affairs or of war-making than George W. Bush. Having already avoided military service in Vietnam by using his father’s influence to enter the Texas Air National Guard, Bush had no political interest in 2000 in promoting an ambitious foreign policy. To make matters worse, this candidly provincial son of a worldly father found himself frequently embarrassed by his lack of basic knowledge about foreign countries, famously failing in a 1999 television interview to name the leaders of India and Pakistan, countries that were just then facing off in a potential nuclear confrontation over Kashmir. Bush initially made a point of presenting himself as cautious and unlearned in foreign affairs, apart from his relations with Mexico as governor of Texas. In an April 2000 interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, the then presidential candidate said, “I’m a fast learner, and listen, [but] I am not going to play like I’ve been a person who’s spent hours involved with foreign policy. I am who I am.” In his October 3,2000, campaign debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush portrayed himself as an anti-Wilsonian:

I don’t think we can be all things to all people in the world. I think we’ve got to be very careful when we commit our troops. The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful about using our troops as national builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place.

But, like Wilson, Bush quickly learned the uses of war for political gain. According to his fired campaign ghostwriter, Mickey Herskowitz, Bush was already thinking about the potential political benefits of war before he was elected. In an interview with the journalist Russ Baker published in October 2004, Herskowitz said:

It [Iraq] was on his mind. He said to me: “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.” And he said, “My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.” He said, “If I have a chance to invade … if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

Whatever his learning curve, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush largely reinvented himself as the direct heir to Woodrow Wilson, minus some of the rhetoric about international cooperation. Like Wilson, Bush leaned heavily on the concept of “self-determination” to justify his “liberation” of the oppressed Iraqi people. Like Wilson, he seemed to be ignorant of the contradiction in his “vision.” As Joseph Schumpeter observed: “To try to force the people to embrace something that is believed to be good and glorious but which they do not actually want—even though they may be expected to like it when they experience its results—is the very hall mark of anti-democratic belief.” So complete has been the transformation of Bush from the parochial parody of a Texas “good ol’ boy” to “nation builder” and crusader for democracy that by 2007, historians like Godfrey Hodgson could assert that the current Bush Administration “is unmistakably Wilsonian,” that is, “the idea that it is the destiny of the United States to use its great power to spread American ideas of democracy and the American version of capitalism to the world.” Bush himself invoked Wilson in a November 2003 speech in London eight months after the invasion of Iraq. With Queen Elizabeth II and all of British officialdom in attendance, the new slayer of dragons and dictators made pointed reference to his newfound Wilsonian heritage when he declared,

The last President to stay at Buckingham Palace was an idealist, without question. At a dinner hosted by King George V, in 1918, Woodrow Wilson made a pledge; with typical American understatement, he vowed that right and justice would become the predominant and controlling force in the world…. At Wilson’s high point of idealism, however, Europe was one short generation from Munich and Auschwitz and the Blitz. Looking back, we see the reasons why. The League of Nations, lacking both credibility and will, collapsed at the first challenge of the dictators. Free nations failed to recognize, much less confront, the aggressive evil in plain sight. And so dictators went about their business.

Following Wilson, Bush has used his rhetoric of freedom to launch an aggressive assault on freedom in the United States—including the most important amendments in the Bill of Rights—in order to dampen dissent against the Iraq War as much as to fight terrorism.

Bush may not be systematically arresting opposition leftists and deporting them, or silencing filmmakers, but police in New York during the Republican Convention of 2004 did make mass arrests of antiwar demonstrators on largely fraudulent, and utterly unconstitutional, grounds. Instead of the Espionage Act and mass deportation under the Alien Act, we have the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), Homeland Security Act, secret prisons, and “rendition” of terrorist suspects to “third party” countries where they are interrogated without lawyers present and tortured. The “Bush Doctrine” justifies preemptive war–and it also evidently justifies preemption of the Constitution.

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