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Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and peace Paper

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After reading Arthur S. Links “Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and peace” and N. Gordon Levin, Jr’s “Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America’s Response to War and Revolution” I felt that historians have begun to forget, or at least try, the problems this president had during his time of office.  But one must remember that Thomas Woodrow Wilson is the only chief executive who has given scholarly attention to the presidency before undertaking the duties of that office and his close attention to developments in American politics gave rise to his idealism of spreading democratic capitalism to every corner of the world.  In Levin’s book he paid closer attention to the period of 1917 to 1919 when Wilson led Congress, his administration and the entire American people in one of the speediest and most successful mobilizations for war in history.  The author discusses how Wilson’s ideology, like Link, in persuaded the public, still badly divided over the wisdom of participation.  Wilson established the Committee on Public Information to undertake a nationwide program to convince Americans that they were fighting for justice, peace, democracy and their own security in the world.  But in Link’s book the focus was more on events after WWI and in my opinion gave a better understanding of Wilson’s idealism than Levin.  Wilson set an example of leadership, both of public opinion and of Congress that challenges every incumbent of the White House.  His reconstruction of the American political economy still survives in all its important features and that was Wilson’s conviction that the state and federal governments should work actively to protect the weak and disadvantaged remains the main theme of Democratic politics.

With Link’s book the author had the opportunity to reappraise of his earlier judgments.  He invites the reader to decide whether “Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace” represents a more mature understanding of Wilson the diplomatist than what most historians have written in the past, including Link.  One cannot forget what has been written in the past on this president, but certainly one should take the past accounts and blend it with more recent accounts and be able to come up with a clearer picture of Wilson.  The book frequently corrects earlier judgments that historians and Link had and has very tight arguments supporting his writings.  Most of the book has been thoroughly recast and almost invariably the changes have made for greater coherence and incisiveness.  Still, in the process of seeking to distill a lifetime’s study of Wilson into a brief volume, Link has sometimes avoided his critics rather than meeting them head on.

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Overall this book is far more positive than most written on Wilson including other books Link has written on Wilson’s performance as a foreign policy maker.  The respective first chapters are particularly revealing.  In 1957, Wilson is shown coming to the White House scarcely prepared to come to grips with the challenges of foreign affairs.  In 1979, Link writes that he “came to the presidency with better training for conduct of foreign affairs than any Chief Executive since John Quincy Adams”.  Earlier there is a substantial section on those assumptions and convictions which impaired Wilson’s conduct of foreign relations; now that section is an almost parenthetical interjection in a catalogue of Wilson’s skills and virtues.  Where originally Wilson’s “extreme individualism” in conducting foreign affairs is attributable in part to his “urge to dominate” and “egotism”, now these forces are discounted.  Readers will differ in their reactions to these changes.  I found that while finding the present assessment somewhat too much the case for the defense, admires the long and meticulous study of Wilson that has led Link to quality some of his earlier generalizations.

The critique of Wilsonian diplomacy in recent times of colonialism was termed by Levin as “atavistic imperialism”.  Link does acknowledge in his opening chapter the contribution of Levin and of Carl Parrini in delineating Wilson’s contribution to economic expansionism as a hallmark of modern American diplomacy.  But that brief comment is curiously missing from the rest of Link’s analysis.  Link’s book, whose title suggests that Wilson’s attitude toward “revolution” will be explored, there is little to indicate that Wilson’s support of revolutionary change was less than unbounded, especially when such change seemed to threaten either American standards of constitutionalism or American economic hegemony.  And in a discussion of the “liberal peace program” little is said of the economic underpinnings of such a program.  All this is by no means to suggest that an economic interpretation of Wilsonianism does justice to Wilson’s leadership, merely that Link who generally labors so hard to show Wilson’s complexity does less well when lining the ideological makeup of Wilson and the nation he led.  I did like the direct responses by Link to the controversial interpretation of Wilsonian diplomacy by Edward Parsons and the critique of Wilson’s notion of “collective security” by Roland Stromberg and others.

In Levin’s book he argues that Wilson’s foreign policy was marked by a major effort to avoid the dangers to America from both the European nationalism of the Right and Lennin’s revolutionary radicalism of the Left.  American nationalism isn’t without implications abroad.  Levin’s work masks the relativity of American history as an ideology into a universal; it is easy to assume that it can be instantly relevant to all societies.  The kind of absolutist evaluation of European experience, which we have seen at work in the American response to nineteenth-century revolutions, can be reflected in an aggressive outlook on the world plane.  I suppose Wilson, with his fond hope that Europe could be immediately democratized and Americanized after the First World War, will always stand as the classic symbol of this view.  Levin writes of the historic coincidence of Wilson and Lenin.  For if Wilson dreamt of the American projection in terms of Europe and the peace treaty, the messianism he represented gradually became, as the Bolshevik Revolution expanded, one of the main American responses to it.

In its most modern form this messianism, Levin discusses, not only projects the nationalist absolutism but some of the very historic illusions that I have been discussing.  Nothing proves more vividly the way in which nationalism fails to solve the analytic problem than its capacity to nourish the distortions of our history, which arises from a forgetfulness of its origin.  The author often implies that Americans are the traditionally true revolutionaries of the world.  Giving the reader the idea that revolution is precisely what America has been given to export.  There is a sense in which American bourgeois culture has been permanently revolutionary.  We are capable of destroying landscapes and reconstructing them, of tearing down buildings and creating new ones, on a scale vaster than any to be found in the world.  And in fact this very drive has nourished the immensity of our industrial achievement.  But while in an odd sense it is revolutionary, the author discusses, that this orientation flows itself from the emancipations that the initial migration engendered, from the escape from the traditional European order.  It is when the middle class is unrestrained by even a memory of feudalism, when it Puritan intensities are given utterly free reign; that we get the American initiative.

Levin and Link both discuss how Woodrow Wilson believed that American foreign policy should aim to spread democratic capitalism around the globe.  As well as his belief that democratic capitalists countries would go into eschew war, uplift their populations accept American leadership and open their markets to American trade and investment.  With the outcome being a peaceful capitalist world order regulated by morality and international law, where American firms could sell their surpluses and make productive investments.  But the main threats to this vision are reactionary imperialism on the right and communist revolution on the left.  “Woodrow Wilson and World Politics” shows how Wilson’s worldview played out in Germany, Russia and the Far East in the aftermath of World War I.  It is based on solid archival work and is alive to the nuances and ambiguities of real world foreign policy.  The book is mainly a treatment of Wilsonian ideology and its application in specific cases.  It is not a detailed reconstruction of Woodrow Wilson’s entire foreign policy.

Levin discusses Wilson’s wide ranging program to create a liberal democratic world order under American leadership.  As the author demonstrates, many other factors, apart from the difference in the worldviews of Wilson were responsible for the transformation.  The humanization of U.S. capitalism in the course of the reforms of “the progressive era” supplemented the growing economic and military potential of the United States with factors of mild power, thereby lending new attractiveness to the American model and enhancing the belief in its moral and functional superiority over competitors in the Old World and in the universality of its underlying principals.  Wilsonism vs. Malkov traces an organic link between the reforms of the new freedom and Wilson’s foreign policy project, which for the first time ever linked U. S. security directly to the establishment of a new world order under the United States.  Wilson maintained that it would be an order that would rely on consensus rather than a balance of forces.  Just as domestic reformism, the new world order was to become a constructive alternative to the discredited and reactionary old order and revolutionary transformations in the spirit of left-radical utopias, on the other.  Although Wilson’s global project largely remained on paper, Levin discusses, the very idea of a linkage of U.S. interests with the democratic transformation of the world formed the basis of the liberal internationalist paradigm as the most important component of the entire foreign policy tradition of the United States.

As America’s next step toward a democratic empire the author discusses the period of the world economic crisis, the New Deal, World War II and the first postwar years.  The author points out that during these truly epoch making decades the country went through several qualitative states and the chaos and the decay of the Great Depression, a dramatic experiment to restructure American capitalism in a radical way, the mobilization of the nation’s forces in a coalition war against fascism, a drastic thrust to new worldwide might and the establishment of the foundations of the postwar world.  Levin presents an interesting re-interpretation of Wilson’s foreign relations.  Without much thought about the consequences of his actions, Levin argues, Wilson early on adopted policies clearly favorable to the Allies in World War II.  Once on this course, the president grew ever more committed to it as he came to equate American prestige and the la of humanity with confronting Germany’s submarine campaign in the Atlantic.  Levin criticizes this posture, asserting it was bound to undermine Wilson’s own goals of staying out of the war, mediating a peace without victory, and building a new international order based on the League of Nations.

Link asserts that Wilson’s goals would have been better served by a policy that combined strict neutrality with measures of preparedness.  This approach might have gained the respect of the belligerents and contributed to a deadlock in conflict with two developments conducive to the aim of ending the war with American mediation.  But the author gave a thoughtful and detailed analysis of the concept of neutrality in the neutrality in the international system, a technical but vital topic missing from most books on Wilson’s wartime diplomacy.  For all of the positive qualities of Levin’s book, however some aspects of his interpretations are problematic.  The author downplays Wilson’s fears of German power by emphasizing that any concerns the president had on this score were far outweighed by his desire to avoid American entry into the war.  In my view, this argument tends to obscure Wilson’s conviction that a German victory would threaten American national security, a conviction that shaped not only his neutrality policy but also his approach to peace terms.  Levin also devotes too little attention to Wilson’s preparedness policy.  Even though one of his claims is that Wilson should have embarked upon a defense build up soon after the war started rather than waiting.  Readers are thus left with little sense of how Wilson related his military policy to his diplomacy.

In both books the authors agreed that the United States was ill prepared for war, a condition for which Wilson carried a heavy share of responsibility, but once in war he displayed outstanding qualities of leadership.  Woodrow Wilson was qualified in the highest degree for a career in public affairs by his personal and mental qualities and especially by his sense of responsibility to the public welfare.  To those who worked with him and under him, he displayed a magnetic personality.  He was genial, humorous and considerate and had broad cultural interests.  From his subordinates he had admiration and affection, but in dealing with men whom he did not like or trust he could not capitalize upon his personal assets.

The depth of idealistic fervor gave force to his political leadership, which was further strengthened by his outstanding oratorical capacity, but the intensity of that fervor crippled his ability for effective compromise.  He was impatient of partisan opposition, and there was much of the intolerant Calvinist in his refusal to deviate from the path that he believed himself appointed by providence to tread.  His illusion that the nobility of ideals would suffice to obliterate the stubborn facts of political life took his international policy down the road to bankruptcy.  Though a great leader, he laced the political intuition and deftness that strengthened his contribution to the peace conference and brought his country into the League of Nations.

Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and peace

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