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Woodrow Wilson as War Leader

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

Woodrmv Wilson: Life and Letters. Volume VII. By Ray Stannard Baker. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

In the seventh volume of his monumental work on Wood-row Wilson Ray Stannard Baker has abandoned the method which distinguished his preceding volumes. He no longer provides us with a connected narrative; instead he substitutes a kind of diary which describes, broadly speaking, day by day the activities of the War-President down to February of 1918. The result, of course, is that all interpretation of Wilson’s acts is virtually forsworn; the broader story of the first of the war years is neglected; instead of history, in the genuine sense, we have merely source material for the historian. The change of method is the more regrettable because there is probably no period in Wilson’s whole career which could better have been treated by Mr. Baker than that with which this volume deals. Mr. Baker has a deep and understandable attachment to the memory of the great man whom he served; and it has been a difficult task for him to practise the objective method of the professional historian. In dealing with the Wilsonian diplomacy of the years 1914-1917 he treads, inevitably, upon slippery ground; as the events of two decades ago recede, men are bound to debate them with an increasing detachment, bound to ask whether a shrewder diplomacy, a more truly neutral attitude, a more vigorous pressure against the Allied governments in 1914-15 might have altered the subsequent tempo of the drama, bound to interpret from varying angles of vision the refusal of the President to warn Americans off the armed ships of the Allies in the winter of 1916, bound to raise embarrassing questions as to what might have been. To this reviewer such questions seem a little futile, it is true; there is a good deal to be said for the thesis that Wilson’s diplomacy truly interpreted the temper of the nation; yet it must be admitted that the assaults of the skeptics leave one with an uneasy feeling that the record is not free from serious blunders. When it comes to the war years, however, the scene is a different one. Bitter critics of the entry of America into the World War, out with their axes to slash and hack at the Wilson record, there will be; but, viewed objectively, a more vigorous and enlightened leadership in time of war has never been vouchsafed the American people than that which was given by Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Baker would have been at his excellent best in describing the achievement in his own terms; it is a pity that for this extraordinary period he furnished us with an “archive,” as Mr. Lewis Gannett has called it, and not a history.

Not that the record of this year does not reveal flaws in the personality of its dominating figure. The evidence is overwhelming that Wilson knew of the secret treaties of which he affected ignorance in August, 1919; he discussed them in detail with Balfour in the spring of 1917; he received further explanation of them from the same source in May. The agreements with Japan and those partitioning the German colonies in Africa were not included; and a charitable judge of Wilson might seek to maintain that in denying knowledge of the treaties in 1919 he had these latter documents in mind; unfortunately, however, the sweeping character of his denial does not permit such a view of the matter.

Those romantic souls who imagine that in a modern nation free speech and freedom of the press may be maintained in their integrity in time of war will also not be wholly satisfied with the mild reproofs which Wilson from time to time administered to the Postmaster General in connection with the exercise of his powers under the Espionage Acts. If, finally, it was a little naive of the President to imagine that he would be able at the end of the war to “force the Allies to our way of thinking,” his critics are no less naive in maintaining that terms ought to have been made in advance of our entry into the war. That such terms would have been dishonored, as, on occasion, the Fourteen Points were dishonored, seems patent to this reviewer. Once the issue of the submarine warfare was made up, once the challenge was issued and accepted, the rest inevitably followed; by the winter of 1917, we had gone too far to retreat; the mood of the country was becoming fixed; Wilson led into war a nation which had reluctantly but very definitely made up its mind to fight.

And, to revert once more to the major point, he led it with magnificent skill and power. With what energy he pressed for that conscription which was essential to the winning of the struggle! With what fine disregard of petty politics of any kind he made every decision! With what understanding of the social viewpoint of labor he solved complicated industrial problems! With what courage he took and stood by such bitterly unpleasant decisions as that for the coal-less days I How well he interpreted the issues’ What renewed vigor he breathed into the common cause! It is possible to doubt the wisdom of any war; and since we cannot re-enact history all over again, the critics who tell us so glibly what might have been, what would have been so much more fortunate, can never be silenced. But the World War did come, did come to America; and in that war Woodrow Wilson was a great leader, a leader the thrill of whose personality, and the loftiness of whose aspirations literally millions felt in 1917 and 1918. No picture of those days which pretends to reality can deny that patent fact. It is a pity that it has to be dug out of frequently inconsequential diary jottings.

Does the record which Mr. Baker has put together contribute much source material that is new? Does it vitally enlarge our knowledge of the war period ? In no very searching sense, but, of course, in many details. As has been already stated, there is much material on the secret treaties; there is some additional light thrown on Mr. Lansing’s conversations with Japan and China, and the Lansing-Ishii agreement; there is further information on the President’s attitude towards the intervention in Russia; there are some intimate personal touches which help to an understanding of the President himself. But the general pattern of events is not vitally altered; viewed as a “contribution” Mr. Baker’s seventh volume is of secondary importance.

But the author has, one supposes, made a decisive cast of the die. The opportunity, in succeeding volumes, for a sympathetic, but highly documented, and reasonably detached view of one of the most important figures in American history has been narrowed, perhaps surrendered, by the choice of a new form of presentation. And what a challenge lay ahead 1 No man can be so proud or so confident as to be ready to believe that he can pronounce the last word. No man can be so certain of that future which still may do so much to exalt or limit Wilson’s fame as to speak with pontifical authority. A struggle for a great ideal, an ideal which seemed real to millions; selfishness and narrowness of viewpoint at Paris, sometimes combated, sometimes, alas, conceded to or shared; bitterness, humiliation, physical collapse; the proudest position in the history of modern times, and a defeat the most overwhelming; has any man’s life held more of glory and of tragedy? Or is it tragedy? The verdict of twenty years is not the verdict of fifty, or of a hundred; each new historical generation will turn with fascinated interest to the task of drawing a new pattern of the life of Woodrow Wilson. He will not be ignored; and, if the verdict of longer time be that of defeat, not victory, it will be of defeat with honor. What is more, one prize will be his. He strove for noble ends; this judgment none but the most jaundiced will deny him. This crown he has the indisputable right to wear.


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