The Right Coast

July 23, 2004
Hating Wilson and Hating Bush
By Maimon Schwarzschild

William Leuchtenberg's history of the post-First World War US, "The Perils of Prosperity 1914 - 1932" tells the tale of Woodrow Wilson's failure to carry the country with him not only on the League of Nations, but also in behalf of continuing US involvement in the post-war settlement: an involvement which might have moderated some of the idiocies which helped make Hitler and the Second World War inevitable. "Henry Cabot Lodge was not an isolationist", writes Leuchtenberg. "He was, if anything, more willing than Wilson to engage in European power politics. But he was a fierce Republican partisan with his eye on the 1920 election. Furthermore, he fancied himself a 'scholar in politics', and he resented Wilson's assumption of the same role. 'I never expected to hate anyone in politics with the hatred I feel towards Wilson', Lodge had written to Roosevelt in 1915. As the historian John Garraty concluded, 'In the last analysis, Lodge preferred a dead League to the one proposed by Wilson.'"

"The leaders of the Republican party shared Wilson's conviction that foreign policy was a partisan matter", writes Leuchtenberg, "and Wilson was bitterly hated by the two most influential Republicans, Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt. Both had shown considerable interest in the idea of a League at one time, but...they would have nothing to do with a Wilson League. Nor did they intend to permit the Democratic Party to go to the polls in 1920 claiming credit both for having waged a victorious war and for having created a League of Nations. In their...hatred of Wilson, in their concern for the fortunes of the Republican Party, they would stop at nothing, even if they completely undermined the president's position and played into the hands of the European nationalists."

In November 1918, "Roosevelt issued a statement which was duly noted in the capitals of Europe: 'Our allies and our enemies and Mr Wilson himself should all understand that Mr Wilson has no authority whatsoever to speak for the American people at this time... Mr Wilson and his Fourteen Points and his four supplementary points and his five complementary points and all his utterances every which way have ceased to have any shadow of right to be accepted as expressive of the will of the American people.'"

And "When Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy's daughter, saw Wilson enter the White House on his return from Paris, she made the sign of the evil eye and cried: 'A murrain on him, a murrain on him, a murrain on him!'"

Woodrow Wilson was a deeply flawed political character: arrogant, cold, self-righteous.  No doubt he brought many of his troubles on himself.  But as Leuchtenberg says, "Wilson's defeat is a sad chapter in American history, even if one rejects the more romanticized versions of it."  The parallels are obvious to today's enraged hatred for Bush among Democrats and their supporters in the media, in Hollywood, and elsewhere.  (It would seem obvious to me that George Bush is a much less readily hateable character than Wilson, except that so many people in fact seem to have worked up so much hatred for him.)  The danger, of course, is that this hatred -- if translated into political success this year -- may have incalculable effects for the future, just as the partisan impulse to ensure that Wodrow Wilson should fail, regardless of the cost, had grave costs for America and for the world in the era after the First World War.