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Opinion

You want a more 'progressive' America? Careful what you wish for.

Voters should remember what happened under Woodrow Wilson.

(Page 2 of 3)



Wilson once told a black delegation, that "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." But his racism wasn't just a product of his Southern roots; it was often of a piece with the reigning progressive obsession with eugenics, the pseudoscience that strove to perfect society through better breeding.

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Again, Wilson was merely one voice in the progressive chorus of the age. "[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many," declared the progressive social activist Jane Addams.

"New forms of association must be created," explained Walter Rauschenbusch, a leading progressive theologian of the Social Gospel movement, in 1896. "Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life." Elsewhere, Rauschenbusch put it more simply: "Individualism means tyranny."

Not surprisingly, such intellectual kindling was easy to ignite when World War I broke out. The philosopher John Dewey, New Republic founder Herbert Croly, and countless other progressive intellectuals welcomed what Mr. Dewey dubbed "the social possibilities of war." The war provided an opportunity to force Americans to, as journalist Frederick Lewis Allen put it, "lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step." Or as another progressive put it, "Laissez faire is dead. Long live social control."

With the intellectuals on their side, Wilson recruited journalist George Creel to become a propaganda minister as head of the newly formed Committee on Public Information (CPI).

Mr. Creel declared that it was his mission to inflame the American public into "one white-hot mass" under the banner of "100 percent Americanism." Fear was a vital tool, he argued, "an important element to be bred in the civilian population."

The CPI printed millions of posters, buttons, pamphlets, that did just that. A typical poster for Liberty Bonds cautioned, "I am Public Opinion. All men fear me!... [I]f you have the money to buy and do not buy, I will make this No Man's Land for you!" One of Creel's greatest ideas – an instance of "viral marketing" before its time – was the creation of an army of about 75,000 "Four Minute Men." Each was equipped and trained by the CPI to deliver a four-minute speech at town meetings, in restaurants, in theaters – anyplace they could get an audience – to spread the word that the "very future of democracy" was at stake. In 1917-18 alone, some 7,555,190 speeches were delivered in 5,200 communities. These speeches celebrated Wilson as a larger-than-life leader and the Germans as less-than-human Huns.

Meanwhile, the CPI released a string of propaganda films with such titles as "The Kaiser," "The Beast of Berlin," and "The Prussian Cur." Remember when French fries became "freedom fries" in the run-up to the Iraq war? Thanks in part to the CPI, sauerkraut become "victory cabbage."

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