The foul fruits of Woodrow Wil­son

Un­re­strained gov­ern­ment and hound­ing of crit­ics are the lega­cies of his ‘pro­gres­sive’ pol­i­tics

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By David A. Keene

As a col­lege un­der­grad­u­ate some decades ago, I was as­signed an es­say on the three most evil men of the 20th cen­tury. Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Ze­dong were ob­vi­ous choices, and most of my fel­low stu­dents chose from that group. I agreed on Hitler and Lenin, but felt that Stalin and Mao were just ad­di­tional man­i­fes­ta­tions of the evil Lenin em­bod­ied. My third choice was Woodrow Wil­son, which up­set my pro­fes­sor at the time, but which I stand by to­day.

The Nazis and the Soviet Em­pire are gone and while mea­ger bands of the ad­mir­ers of both sur­vive to in­habit steamy cor­ners of var­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal swamps, the evil for which Hitler and Mao were re­spon­si­ble died with the last cen­tury. Woodrow Wil­son’s legacy, how­ever, sim­ply won’t go away. Schools and think tanks are named for the man and var­i­ous polls con­tinue to rate him as a great or near-great pres­i­dent. The “pro­gres­sive” pol­i­tics of to­day’s Democrats are part of his legacy, as is the in­sta­bil­ity of much of the world in which we live.

Wil­son, the first col­lege pres­i­dent to

oc­cupy the White House, banned blacks from gov­ern­ment re­strooms, was the first pres­i­dent to openly at­tack the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion and ea­gerly support laws to pros­e­cute and im­prison those who dis­agreed with his poli­cies. His hos­til­ity to black Americans was matched only by his an­tipa­thy to­ward Ital­ian, Ger­man and Ir­ish Americans and his de­sire to rid the na­tion of those he re­ferred to dis­mis­sively as “hy­phen­ated Americans” and against who he railed in­ces­santly.

All of this is worth re­mem­ber­ing as we ob­serve the 100th an­niver­sary of Amer­ica’s en­try into what was known un­til Pearl Har­bor as the “Great War.” The last vet­er­ans of that con­flict have passed on, but any­one look­ing back on it must con­clude that it was in­deed the “Great War,” not merely be­cause of the dead and wounded it left in its wake, but be­cause the world we live in to­day was shaped by the war that raged from 1914 un­til 1918 and the “peace” that fol­lowed.

The Great War was the world’s first truly global con­flict and the first in­dus­trial war. The men re­cruited and drafted into the armies of Europe were can­non fod­der doomed to die in the trenches of Europe, the plains of Rus­sia and the moun­tains of Italy. Ri­fle­men and cav­alry were re­placed by ma­chine gun­ners, massed ar­tillery and poi­son gas. It set the stage not just for the World War II, but for much of what fol­lowed both. The war brought us Lenin and the peace pro­duced Hitler. The bor­ders agreed to in Paris in 1919 led to in­sta­bil­ity in Europe, the Balkans and the Mideast, and re­main at the heart of con­flicts that have claimed mil­lions of lives since.

Much of this was the fault not of Ger­many’s Kaiser Wil­helm or a Ser­bian assassin, but of the machi­na­tions of an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent who stum­bled around af­ter the war mak­ing de­mands that could never be ful­filled and left a legacy with which we are still living. The U.S. de­ci­sion to en­ter the war may have made mat­ters worse rather mak­ing the world safe for democ­racy. Bri­tain’s Win­ston Churchill, who was all for it at the time, looked back later and in 1936 told a New York re­porter, “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.”

Here at home, Wil­son’s war gave birth to a larger and larger role for gov­ern­ment and reg­i­men­ta­tion. With the pas­sage of the Es­pi­onage Act in 1917 and the Sedi­tion Act a year later, Wil­son had the power to ban dis­sent and shut up his crit­ics. More than a hun­dred jour­nal­ists in­clud­ing, most fa­mously, so­cial­ist leader Eu­gene Debs, were in­dicted, tried and con­victed for what they said and wrote rather than for any­thing they did. Even Mitchell Palmer, Wil­son’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, who is re­mem­bered mainly for the Palmer raids launched as part of the “Red Scare,” felt af­ter the war ended that his boss had gone too far. He went to the pres­i­dent and urged him to par­don Debs and the others lest his­tory con­demn him for his ac­tions. Mr. Wil­son tore up the par­don re­quest, declar­ing, “This man was a traitor and he will never be par­doned dur­ing my ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

He wasn’t. Wil­son’s suc­ces­sor, War­ren Hard­ing, com­muted Mr. Debs’ sen­tence along with the others so cav­a­lierly locked up by Mr. Wil­son while he oc­cu­pied the White House, but Palmer shouldn’t have wor­ried. Wil­son has never been as roundly con­demned as he de­served be­cause the his­tory of what he did has been writ­ten by his pro­gres­sive dis­ci­ples.

With the pas­sage of the Es­pi­onage Act in 1917 and the Sedi­tion Act a year later, Wil­son had the power to ban dis­sent and shut up his crit­ics.


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