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Wilson and the War

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters. Volume VI. By Ray Stannard Baker. Garden City: Doufolcday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

It is the fashion, amongst the generation that has come to manhood since the World War, to cast doubt upon the wisdom of the choice which led us into it, and upon the President who made the great decision. Certainly the world of today has by no means been made safe for democracy; still less has it been insured against war; what, then, was the justification of the policy this country pursued twenty years ago? Was it not a tragedy of errors?

Such reasoning is the reasoning of men who have never known or who have forgotten what the World War was actually like. It depends upon pure abstraction. It takes no account of passions, of prejudices, and of ideals that the Great War aroused and which the next war will doubtless arouse. It takes no account of economic forces set in motion in war, reacting upon emotional states and upon opinion as well. For the future, it may have some suggestive value; as an interpretation of the past, it is completely divorced from reality. To understand those war years one must think oneself back into them; and it is a sterile interpretation and a sterile critique of them which ignores this important, this fundamental, consideration.

By the same token it is a perverted view of history that leads to a depreciation of the fame of Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson was denied the wisdom that is granted to the bright young men of today. He lived in a real world of twenty years ago. That he bore himself with dignity, that he acted from high motives, that he faithfully interpreted and translated into action the public opinion of a great nation, that he caught the aspirations of his epoch (whether these aspirations were realizable or not), seems clear as one reads the sixth volume of Ray Stannard Baker’s “Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters.” More than this ought not to be expected of a President of the United States; he does not act in a vacuum, or arrive at the decisions of statecraft without reference to the social forces around him. No matter how objective he may try to be (and the record shows that Wilson strove very hard indeed to keep free of purely emotional prepossessions and of prejudice), his policy must, in the long run, be formed with due regard to the climate of opinion in which he lives.

To plead for an understanding judgment of Woodrow Wilson based upon some comprehension of his time is not to ask, of course, that he be presented in terms of indiscriminate eulogy. Were Mr. Baker’s treatment of that sort it would serve ill enough the purpose of placing in proper perspective the role and the activity of a great President of the United States. But such a charge cannot fairly be leveled against Mr. Baker. He is under a severe temptation, to be sure; he worked and thought with Wilson, and occasionally an extravagant note creeps into what he has to say of him; but in the main the picture is a careful one. He can see that the President, “like most Americans, was caught in a welter of doubt, hesitation, contradiction”; nor is he unaware of some temperamental limitations.

In one respect Mr. Baker reveals what seems to the reviewer a particularly grave flaw in Wilson’s thinking and in his technique; this has to do with the famous House mission of 1916. It is a commentary on both Wilson and House that their conversations together did not lead to a more complete understanding. If Colonel House, as is more than intimated, was less ingenuous than he ought to have been, the President was less precise; but what is still more striking is the latter’s conviction in the spring of 1916 that the United States could sponsor an international organization for the preservation of peace, and persuade the belligerent governments to accept such an idea, without reference to specific territorial settlements. Surely a more impracticable conception than this could hardly have been conceived; Wilson himself was in due time to realize it, but it seems extraordinary that it should have taken him so long. Nor is it clear that the President, at a time when he was striving for neutrality, saw as fully as he ought to have seen the essential unneutral-ity of the proposal, an unneutrality that still stands out even after the assertion of the word “probably” in the famous Grey memorandum.

In the main, however, in the period covered by Mr. Baker’s sixth volume, the President’s statesmanship was a faithful interpretation of American public opinion. It is very easy to say nowadays that he ought, at the outset of the war, to have taken drastic measures against Great Britain, and that in that event our difficulties with Germany might never have arisen; the answer is that public opinion did not demand and probably would not have supported such measures. Once the submarine issue was defined, a complete retreat was impossible; in 1916 as in 1915 Wilson practised a magnificent restraint with regard to the whole problem. All rash and belligerent courses he avoided; with the highest sense of personal responsibility, and with the bravest independence of his closest advisers, he strove, with might and main, to avoid the breach which drew nearer and nearer. He could not, it is true, even in the midst of the irritation caused by the British black-list and interference with the mails, nerve himself to really drastic measures against Great Britain, as Mr. Baker clearly shows; but the Congressional resolution on the same subject would indicate that here again he was at one with the nation. Nor did he practise any lack of candor in the presidential campaign of 1916; with Democratic campaign orators ringing the changes on the useful slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” Wilson made it clear that he could not guarantee the future. His hesitation, his patience, his restraint in the early winter months of 1917, were not only morally admirable; they were statesmanship of a high order, calculated to weld the nation into unity for the struggle that was ahead.

There is no more dangerous, if also no more tempting, pastime than to rewrite history by hypothesis. How can we know what would have been, how trace to ultimate consequences the decisions that were never taken? We have to evaluate the figures of the past in relation to what was actual for them. Mr. Baker does this for Woodrow Wilson. One need not agree with every word of praise that he pens; but the statesman whom he describes, beset with difficulties, grappling with the gravest problems a President ever faced, guided by deep convictions, is in his pages an admirable and an appealing figure. And so he ought to be—not because in his own day and generation he was stronger than the social forces that surrounded him; but because, while moving with them, he transcended them. There are other tests than the purely practical in this world; when we judge a man we judge him, quite properly, in part by his accomplishments; but we judge him also by what he is and what he means to be.


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