William Howard Taft once described Woodrow Wilson, his successor in the White House, as “a ruthless hypocrite” and a man “who has no convictions that he would not barter at once for votes.”
True, Taft was a Republican and Wilson a Democrat, but Taft was not a man given to harsh criticism.
Whatever his motivation, Taft’s assessment of Wilson largely mirrors the conclusions of G.J. Meyer in his thorough, fair-minded portrait of America before and during its entry into World War I. Meyer is a former journalist turned popular historian whose previous books include “A World Undone,” a full-scale World War I history. (Dan Carlin, host of the popular podcast “Hardcore History,” named “A World Undone” as one of his sources and influences for his lengthy audio account of the war.)
In The World Remade, Meyer focuses on how and why President Wilson eventually led America into war after three years of insistent public neutrality. Wilson won his second term in 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Five months later, in April 1917, Congress responded to Wilson’s call for the United States to align with Britain, France, and Russia and fight Germany by declaring war. (Late in 1917, Congress declared war on Austria-Hungary.)
Meyer synthesizes substantive detail in his portrait of Wilson’s isolated and often vainglorious obsession with stamping out war by entering a global conflict. The US had provided massive loans to the British and French governments during the time Wilson and America claimed neutrality. That money kept the war effort alive as England, in particular, maneuvered Wilson toward American involvement.
Edward House, a Texas political wheeler-dealer and diplomat known as “Colonel” despite never having served in the military, employed blatant sycophancy and coddling to influence Wilson. House wasn’t a member of the Wilson administration, but instead served the president in an informal but substantial manner.
The two men met in 1911 and House soon became an effusive backer of Wilson’s successful first presidential campaign in 1912. As Meyer writes, House and Wilson immediately “forged a bond … that could seem almost unnatural in its intensity.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of US participation in World War I. Similar to a new six-hour “American Experience” documentary, Meyer’s book devotes as much attention to social currents of the time as to the battlefront. (The two projects are unrelated.) Prohibition, civil rights, women’s suffrage and arguably the most invasive and punitive governmental limits on freedom of speech in American history all emerged as major issues – and tensions – during Wilson’s two terms.
Wilson, despite his idealism, passed and zealously enforced the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Combined, these war-era laws sent Americans to jail for years, and sometimes decades, for daring to question whether the war, and various policies supporting it, made sense.
The postmaster general censored and prohibited the circulation of progressive and socialist publications, deeming them hurtful to the war effort. Meyer also mentions, among other examples, an Iowan sent to jail for a year as punishment for applauding a speaker critical of the military draft ushered in by the Wilson administration.
The president built his political reputation, first as governor of New Jersey and early in his presidency, as a progressive reformer. (Wilson’s presidency included overhauling banking and tariff regulation, cracking down on trusts and monopolies and the start of the Fed, initiatives Meyer describes as “a period of blazing legislative achievement.”)
In many ways, Wilson was far from progressive. Born and raised in the South during the Civil War, he embraced Jim Crow segregation and was an unreconstructed racist. Those views explained, in large part, why the 400,000 African Americans who served in World War I were almost always relegated to menial, miserable labors: ditch-digging, burial duty and loading and unloading cargo.
Wilson’s wife, Edith, viewed the women demanding the right to vote as pushy, misguided and unsavory.
Again and again, Meyer details the skewed perspective Wilson’s administration maintained toward Germany and Austria-Hungary, which had gone to war against the Allies in 1914.
England helped set the mental agenda in America during the years before the US entered the war. The tightly controlled, highly biased accounts of the war in Europe coming from England fed an emerging narrative that the Germans were barbaric warmongers, a narrative made much easier to cultivate since England literally severed the cables linking Germany and the US. In addition, British propagandists often re-wrote war news sent to neutral countries, including the US.
“Soon a special department was created to serve the United States exclusively,” Meyer writes of the British propaganda campaign. (These dispatches took on exaggerated power because neutral nations weren’t given first-hand battlefield access to cover the war and because American newspapers printing the accounts, and their readers, had no idea these were little more than government-funded press releases.)
Meyer also makes clear Wilson’s untenable neutrality, especially toward Germany.
Among the most powerful examples: The US expected and demanded its citizens not be attacked even if they were aboard British merchant ships carrying weapons – ships targeted by German submarines and, under international law, fair game. Wilson’s insistence on this point, and intransigence by the British, pointed toward an inevitable all-or-nothing confrontation with Germany.
Wilson’s current and former secretaries of state believed the US stance was dangerous, ill-advised, and unreasonable. Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma proposed bills to keep the government from issuing passports to Americans who sought passage on ships controlled by belligerent countries and take other preventive measures, but they were quickly quashed.
Germany, after intense internal disagreement, backed away, at least temporarily, in hopes of avoiding American involvement in the war.
The infamous Zimmerman Telegram, intercepted and publicized, surfaced early in 1917, further pushing American toward war. Meyer describes it as “an act of horrendous stupidity” and “pointless” because its instructions to the German ambassador in Mexico to offer Mexico the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona “could never have been accomplished.” The offer was contingent upon Mexico becoming a German ally if the US entered the war.
Perhaps most tragic for Germany, when Congress followed Wilson’s lead and took America into the war as one of the Allies, Germany was close to defeating Russia on the Eastern Front while Britain teetered on the brink of financial ruin, Meyer writes.
It took the comparatively small and weak American military many months to ramp up, but when the US soldiers entered the fray, their fresh, determined and well-supplied troops proved decisive on the Western Front.
Wilson, with the US playing a pivotal role despite a mere six months on the battlefield, secured the dominant role in the postwar peace negotiations he so badly wanted. Ever messianic, the president was convinced he was the only man capable of bringing long-term peace and stability to the world.
Ever more isolated, and weakened by disastrous Congressional midterm elections in 1918, Wilson paid no heed to the need for consensus-building at home or abroad. Thus, the months-long negotiations that led to the Versailles Treaty and Wilson’s League of Nations wound up failing to win approval in Congress.
Wilson, during his unsuccessful barnstorming campaign to build enough public support for the treaty to sway Congress, suffered a debilitating stroke. He would finish his term as an invalid and, for an extended period of time, his wife was the de facto commander-in-chief.
Meyer persuasively concludes that much of what followed the war proved damaging to America and the rest of the world. At the same time, the US emerged as a superpower, a military colossus, and a nation that would largely drop any notions of isolationism in the century to follow.