On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver a speech about the war in Europe. The German Navy was waging “warfare against mankind” on the high seas, he told the lawmakers. German submarines had sunk unarmed passenger ships, murdered American civilians, and assaulted the sensibilities of freedom-loving people around the world. With his declaration that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson argued that the United States could no longer stand on the sidelines. Wilson’s speech abandoned the nation’s isolationist traditions and charted a new course for internationalism, envisioning the United States as the indispensable nation that could guarantee peace and prosperity abroad. While U.S. involvement in World War I didn’t last long, it marked a bold departure in the nation’s foreign policy. During the war, America’s military and civilian leadership traveled to Europe. They forged alliances, negotiated a peace, and enmeshed the United States in the complexities of continental politics. As Wilson saw it, the ultimate aim was to create a world order that the League of Nations would enforce and the United States would oversee.
In certain respects, 86 years later the United States is still grappling with Wilson’s vision. One hears echoes of Wilson’s rhetoric in contemporary debates about the United Nations’ role in the world and the pros and cons of going to war in the Middle East. But scholars and serious journalists have largely ignored World War I in recent years. Filmmakers have made documentaries about the Civil War. World War II has become the stuff of feature movies, HBO specials, and Tom Brokaw tributes. When Memorial Day arrives, CNN showcases the Vietnam War Memorial and, especially, the veterans who flock there to pay tribute to fallen comrades. Even the Korean War has a memorial on the National Mall that is larger than the World War I monument; and in contemporary news accounts about the U.S.-North Korea standoff, the Korean War forms the backdrop against which any new war is measured. What little contemporary analysis there is of World War I often interprets the war as little more than a prelude to something else. Others describe it simply as the end of the progressive era, the moment when the domestic reform movement went down to defeat.
In one of the few recent books exploring the implications of Wilson’s aspirations in the Great War, The Illusion of Victory, historian and novelist Thomas Fleming argues that the war caused some of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophes. Depicting the conflict as a terrible waste of human life and national treasure, Fleming asserts that the war was undertaken for sinister aims: The Allies wanted to expand the scope of their empires. Corporations hoped to profit from the bloodletting in Europe. Meanwhile, Wilson misled the country. He told people the war was a modest undertaking, and that a new era of “peace without victory” would soon be at hand.
The Illusion of Victory is hyperbolic and so hostile to Wilson that it borders on the cartoonish. Fleming’s Wilson was a coward, bull-headed and abusive, a mean-spirited commander-in-chief who was obsessed with keeping his grip on power. Fleming reports that Wilson’s top aides concealed facts, put their enemies in jail, and encouraged “super-patriots” to assault anti-war protesters. He seems determined to assail the Allies for acting like immoral powers and to blame them for the war’s greatest atrocities. He cites Britain’s naval blockade in the Atlantic Ocean that left millions of German civilians malnourished. He also attacks the tactics of British propaganda organs such as Wellington House, which depicted the Germans as murderous Huns during the war. Like many students of the Great War, Fleming concludes that the Allies sought a vindictive treaty that ultimately led to the outbreak of WWII.
Yet, when Wilson returned from Europe after negotiating his “peace without victory,” the U.S. Senate rejected his proposal for a League of Nations. Fleming’s reflection on Wilson’s post-war failures sounds like a taunt. “What electorate,” he writes, “would not have become disillusioned with a president like Wilson? From the time he asked Congress to declare war under the illusion that he would not have to send more than a token force to Europe to the time he agreed to peace with Germany on the basis of the Fourteen Points, his conduct of public affairs was calamitously incompetent.”
The book, unfortunately, misses the chance to reconsider the war’s causes and consequences and address the prevailing view that World War I was a debacle from start to finish. Chock full of hyperbole and ham-handed efforts to popularize a subject of serious historical inquiry, this book includes odd chapter titles (“Politics is Adjourned, Ha Ha Ha”) and bald counterfactual assertions that the majority of readers will find unconvincing. Wilson, perhaps, was a poor politician, but his idealism resonated with millions of people at home and around the world. He argued that the United States had a moral obligation to participate in global affairs. He opposed imperialism as a force for evil. He articulated the view that people from Africa to Asia had the inalienable right to democratic self-rule and a peaceful coexistence with other citizens. Such themes have defined America’s foreign policy over the course of the last century. A more sympathetic account that challenged the conventional wisdom could have shed light on World War I’s lasting impact.
But there is another reason why such a reevaluation is needed. President Bush has gone to war twice and both fights have been undertaken in large part in the name of liberation. His foreign policy addresses are peppered with evangelical phrases. He talks about freedom as a gift from God. He evinces a messianic faith in the power of America’s ideals. Whatever one’s opinion of Wilson, one thing is clear: The country is still grappling with his ideas and legacy and the foreign policy terms he articulated in that 1917 congressional address. The world is still living in the shadow of World War I.
Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Richard Gephardt, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.