"The People Are Through with
"A Man of High Ideals but
excerpted from the book
The Politics of War
the story of two wars which altered
forever the political life of the American republic
by Walter Karp
Franklin Square Press, 1979, paper
"The People Are Through with Party
What the Republican oligarchy envisioned was an all-encompassing
system of mutual aid. A handful of finance capitalists, pre ably
led by the prudent J. P. Morgan, were to take command of the national
economy with the help of the party oligarchy. They would gain
control of the nation's railroads, consolidate its industries
into giant trusts, and monopolize control of capital under the
aegis of the Republican Party. The financiers, in turn, would
use their immense wealth and influence to protect and enhance
the oligarchy's power. Working in close personal consultation,
the partners expected to divide between them the two chief spoils
of the public world. The Republican oligarchy would rule the people;
Morgan and his colleagues would manage the economy-with one eye
to the needs and interests of the Republican leadership.
The new political order-it was sometimes called "the system
( of '96"-had some of the aspects of a bloodless coup. In
the years after the Spanish-American 'War the national Republican
Party became the most centralized, the most rigidly disciplined
ruling party the American Republic has ever known. In the Senate,
where the oligarchy convened, Republican senators took their orders
from Aldrich, the "boss of the Senate," and a trio of
his appointed lieutenants; they were known collectively as "the
four." In the House of Representatives, Speaker Joe Cannon
of Illinois could marshal virtually the entire voting strength
of the party minions for every arbitrary ruling and every obstructionist
tactic he deemed essential for the good of the party.
... Under their hegemony, America was
fast becoming what Senator Lodge fatuously described as an "aristocratic
republic." Firmly in control of the state party organizations,
of most of the metropolitan press, of most of the political money
in the country, with a jingo foreign policy to divert the electorate,
the Republican oligarchy appeared to have nothing to fear, least
of all from their token rivals, the Democrats, whose Congressional
leaders were in all but open complicity with their Republican
counterparts. By 1900 the national Republican machine had achieved
the enviable position of serving the narrowest of interests-itself
and its big business allies-while enjoying the support of a majority
of those who bothered to vote. After the 1896 election fewer and
fewer Americans bothered, which only made the oligarchy's task
that much easier.
Yet the system had a flaw and that flaw
was radical. Instead of serving as the indestructible foundation
of party power, the new economy of finance capitalism was in fact
a foundation of quicksand. The aging hierarchs of the Republican
Party still talked of the "manufacturing interest" and
the "propertied classes." Such nineteenth-century terms,
however, ill-suited the new economy they had helped to create,
an economic system in which a few could control everything without
proportionately owning much; in which bankers, not manufacturers,
held the fate of industrial enterprise in their hands. The new
finance capitalism was as fluid as water. A powerful financier
might control a great economic asset one day only to discover
on the next that a rival magnate had raided the stock market and
wrested away his control. The new finance capitalists were utterly
lawless. They bribed, they swindled, they defrauded; they ignored
statute law, defied common law, betrayed / fiduciary trusts. Worse,
they were headlong, frenetic pursuers of monopoly, for competitive
firms were useless to men incapable of running them and who would
gain no further accession of economic power even if they could.
The finance capitalists could not manage the economy; they could
only prey upon it.
... In the failure of the new finance
capitalists to serve the interests of their political allies,
in the shocking spectacle of their lawless power lay the mainspring
for a second national reform movement which was to provide the
immediate background to America's entry into the First World War-the
revolt of the American middle classes against political and economic
oligarchy, a revolt known at the time and ever since as the progressive
For almost three years after the Spanish-American
War middleclass Americans-the "respectable classes,"
as the phrase then went - had watched with no outward signs of
dismay the swift and unimpeded transformation of the American
economy into huge industrial and railroad combinations controlled
by a handful of New York bankers and financial manipulators. In
March 1901, however, when a large number of once-independent steel
firms disappeared into the bowels of a new billion-dollar corporation
put together by J. P. Morgan, complacency turned to alarm and
the alarm proved epidemic. From the sudden appearance of the U.S.
Steel Corporation the complacent could draw no comfort whatever.
Men who saw in free enterprise the national bulwark against socialism
could find no solace in the virtual demise of free enterprise
in the country's single most important industry. Men who had long
admired America's "captains of industry" could find
nothing to admire and much to fear in an industry captured by
Wall Street financiers. Men who prided themselves on their conservative
principles saw the Constitution itself falling prey to the new
masters of capital. If the "community" did not restrain
men who created corporations such as U.S. Steel, warned the president
of Yale, "the alternative is an emperor in Washington within
twenty-five years." Even the most ardent supporters of the
established order looked upon U.S. Steel as a menace to order:
The electorate, they feared, would rise up in revolt. "If
a grasping and unrelenting monopoly is the outcome," the
Philadelphia Evening Telegraph said of the formation of U.S. Steel,
"there will be given an enormous impulse to the growing antagonism
to the concentration of capital, which may lead to one of the
greatest social and political upheavals that has been witnessed
in modern history."
Within eight months of the formation of
U.S. Steel the complacent suffered yet another shock On November
12, 1901, two rival groups of railway-banking magnates, James
J. Hill and J. P. Morgan on one side, Edward Harriman and the
Kuhn, Loeb banking house on the other, having grown tired of fighting
each other, announced the creation of a vast holding company that
gave the rivals joint control of most of the railways of the West.
With the formation of the Northern Securities Company every fear
that U.S. Steel had aroused was confirmed and magnified. Did a
handful of monopolists run the economy? Two New York banking firms
had just bestowed upon themselves financial control of the arteries
of commerce. Was a "grasping and unrelenting monopoly"
the goal of Wall Street interests? They seemed to have no other
goal. Was America governed by an elective government or by a plutocracy
of private men? A handful of monopolists clearly had more to say
about the economic life of the country than the national government
itself. A wave of fury swept through the Middle West. Antitrust
agitation revived across the country. Demands for the extirpation
of monopoly were once more heard in America. The crust of complacency
was broken. Deaf ears were ready to listen, blind eyes to see.
In 1902 the magazine publisher S. S. McClure
made a surprising discovery: The middling sort of Americans who
bought his magazine actually wanted, indeed were avid, to read
about the evils of monopoly, the lawless conduct of the very rich,
and the deep corruption of politicians. Ida Tarbell's serialized
account of the sordid history of the Standard Oil Company delighted
McClure's readers. Lincoln Steffens's serialized report on the
"Shame of the Cities" proved equally compelling. Other
magazines followed McClure's lead and other writers followed Tarbell
and Steffens. The heyday" of the "muckraker" had
begun, a brief epoch that was both cause and effect of the central
political fact of the progressive era-the rise of the American
middle class, for decades a mere bourgeoisie, to civic and political
That very awakening was what the best
of the muckrakers labored to bring about. As an Atlantic Monthly
writer was to complain in 1907, the muckrakers "expose in
countless pages the sordid and depressing rottenness of our politics;
the hopeless apathy of our good citizens; the remorseless corruption
of our great financiers and businessmen who were bribing our legislatures,
swindling the public with fraudulent stock schemes, adulterating
our food, speculating with trust funds, combining in great monopolies
to oppress and destroy small competitors." Again and again,
Steffens, for one, hammered away at his main theme: Corruption
in America was not the old dreary tale of grafting, small-time
politicians-those perennial bêtes noires of middle-class
America. The corruption, Steffens showed in city after city and
state after state, invariably involved an alliance between machine
politicians on one side and respectable businessmen on the other,
between the political dispensers of corrupt privilege and businessmen
avid for corrupt privilege. The solid pillars of the community
were as lawless and corrupt in their own way as the politicians
who served their interests. Their alliance, Steffens argued in
a 1906 work called The Struggle for Self-Government, was the real
reason why "oligarchy is the typical form of the actual government
of our states." This was "the System," held together
by corrupt privilege, that Americans had to rise up and destroy,
that the "good citizens" had to oppose if the American
people, in Steffens's words, ever hoped "to make government
represent the common interest of a community of human beings,
instead of the special interests of one, the business class."
What the muckrakers were trying to do
was erase in a torrent of sharp words nothing less than the most
cherished political conception of the American middle class, its
very picture of political reality itself, a picture in which politics
and government were portrayed as inherently evil and commerce
and industry as inherently good. To a remarkable extent they succeeded.
After four years of exposé journalism few Americans doubted
the existence of "the System," or, as the alternative
phrase had it, the "invisible government" of Wall Street
operators and political wirepullers.
Never before had the party managers faced so massive an incursion
of independent citizens into the political arena. Never before,
in consequence, was their monopoly of political life-their ability
to control nominations, to guard the avenues to renown, to control
elected officials, to dictate the very issues to be discussed
in the public arena-so severely challenged on so broad a front.
From the point of view of the established party leaders the growing
resolve of middle-class Americans to take an active part in public
affairs posed a problem without precedent and without any visible
solution: How were they to flush out of political life scores
of thousands of influential citizens in a republic constituted
precisely to enable the citizenry to participate in public life?
In the eyes of Republican leaders the problem was not how to remedy
the evils of the new finance capitalism. The problem was how to
manage the discontent it aroused, particularly in the once-docile
middle class. Two methods appeared possible. One was to curb the
more irritating excesses of big business in hopes of placating
the "good citizens" and restoring them to their former
state of political torpor. The other method was to ignore reform
sentiment entirely and wait until it waned out of sheer discouragement.
By 1906 Roosevelt feared that the movement for reform was getting
out of hand. He sincerely wished to see the American people governed
by a liberal oligarchy; he did not want them governing themselves.
In April 1906 Roosevelt assailed the exposé journalists
collectively as john Bunyan's "raker of muck" in an
effort to stem the tide of reform agitation. The effort proved
futile; the term "muckraker" becoming, if anything,
an honorific. By then the reform movement had reached the ominous
stage when every concession it won-even a verbal concession-only
sharpened its appetite for more.
... In 1906 ... Senator Albert Beveridge
of Indiana, ambitious, brilliant, and regular, decided to cast
his lot with the reformers. "You have no idea," he explained
to a friend in November 1906, "how profound, intense and
permanent the feeling among the American people is that this great
reform movement shall go on."
... The movement was nowhere more intense
nor more intensely republican than in the Republican states of
the Middle West. There, farmers did not need the U.S. Steel Corporation
to arouse them from complacency; they had never been particularly
complacent. They did not need Steffens to tell them about the
System: They had been misruled by Republican-cum-railway machines
for years. The movement of midwestern businessmen and the smalltown
middle class into the ranks of reform did not create reform sentiment
in the Middle West. What it did was give it a political strength
it had not enjoyed since the days, long past, when farmers had
comprised the great majority of the region's population. In the
states of the Middle West and West, reform was not merely a diffuse
demand for the "salvation of society." It was an open
political rebellion, a rebellion that exploded in one state after
another like a string of bursting firecrackers.
In 1900 the indomitable Robert La Follette,
after years of wearying effort, finally overthrew the old Wisconsin
Republican machine and won election as governor. During three
successive terms he proceeded to enact the most comprehensive
program of reform ever seen in American state history.
Regarding party machines as the enemy of economic reform and the
friend of corrupt privilege, the midwestern and western reformers
made it their first order of business to improve the machinery
of popular government through the statewide direct primary, home
rule for cities, the initiative and referendum, and the recall
of officeholders by petition.
Having vainly played self-confidence as their trump card, Republican
leaders, for the first time in their history, lost their self-confidence
entirely. In the winter of 1909-10 the party leaders, with Taft
in their camp, decided on a desperate stratagem: an all-out national
purge of every insurgent in the party, a war of political extermination.
In January 1910, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee
announced that it would support "regulars" against insurgents
in every Republican primary. President Taft cut off the reformers'
patronage. At the White House plans were drawn up to put pressure
on the Republican press, to establish "grassroots" clubs
of party regulars, to organize illegal party conventions wherever
the regulars lost control of the legal party machinery.
Fourteen states were to be the scene of
the purge: Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas,
Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, California, Washington, New
Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and New York-a list that suggests how
widespread the Republican insurgency had grown. To finance the
purge, Senator Aldrich drew upon his eastern financial connections
to raise a huge war chest. All the power of the national party
oligarchy, all the power and prestige of the presidency, all the
skills of the state organization were to be deployed against a
few score congressional candidates marked off for extinction by
Republican leaders. In the Middle West in particular a campaign
of wholesale abuse was unleashed against "the factious rats"
and "socialist demagogues" who had dared speak for the
electorate in defiance of the Republican oligarchy. Incapable
of any constructive action, the desperate Republican leaders now
demonstrated to the entire country how truly bankrupt they were,
and this time there was no foreign adventure to disguise it. Here
was the leadership of a once resourceful party incapable of any
response to a national movement for reform save a campaign to
destroy its Republican spokesmen."
In the spring primaries, Republican voters
showed how clearly they grasped the situation. At their hands,
Taft and the party oligarchs suffered a complete and humiliating
rout. Wherever regulars were pitted against insurgents, in almost
every case the insurgents won. "The people," as a contemporary
historian observed, "were through with Party government."
As Roosevelt rightly observed in 1910, the Republican oligarchy
had become "a leadership which has no following." Its
sole supporters, he told Lodge, were "the bulk of the big
businessmen, the big professional politicians, the big lawyers
who carry on their work in connection with leaders of high finance
and the political machine, their representatives among the great
papers and so forth." Ninety percent of the Republican rank
and file, Roosevelt estimated, gave their erstwhile party leaders
no support at all. If the insurgents won them over-the last thing
Roosevelt then wanted-"they get control of the organization."
Senator La Follette, the acknowledged
leader of the Republican insurgency; saw the opportunity quite
as clearly as Roosevelt did. By now, after years of agitation
and muckraking, the diffuse sentiment for the "salvation
of society" had been translated into a more or less coherent
national program of republican reform. Politically, progressives
called for more democratic national government through the direct
elections of senators, direct election of delegates to national
conventions, presidential preference primaries, and legislation
to bar corporate influence in politics. Economically, they wanted
strict federal regulation of railroads and railroad rates, to
ensure that those who controlled the roads could no longer use
them to create industrial monopolies. They wanted laws to protect
the smaller entrepreneurs. They wanted the New York "money
trust" eliminated through public control of banking and credit.
They wanted corrupt privileges of all sorts-tax privileges, tariff
privileges-eliminated. On these two basic goals, securing what
they deemed to be both political and economic democracy, most
progressives were in agreement, the moderates among them being
those who hoped that moderate means would suffice to achieve them.
On the central issue of the age, however,
the issue of industrial consolidation, the progressive movement
was far from united. Following Roosevelt, eastern progressives
on the whole regarded industrial concentration as inevitable and
looked to strict government regulation of big business as the
only feasible way to destroy private economic power. Following
La Follette, western progressives on the whole regarded big business
as an artificial menace to self-government, not merely aided but
made possible by a whole system of special privilege. "Monopoly,"
as Frederick Howe put it in 1910, "is created by law. It
is born of law-made privilege." La Follette and his followers
wanted monopoly destroyed, not regulated, and industrial combinations,
as far as possible, broken up.
Though the progressives were not a party, their leaders by 1911
had become something very like a nationwide committee of correspondence.
Steffens himself was the personal friend of such diverse progressive
leaders as Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver, Louis Brandeis of Boston-"the
people lawyer," Howe of Toledo, Spreckels and William Kent
of California, William U'Ren of Oregon, and George Record of New
Jersey. La Follette and Brandeis were personal friends. A cross-hatching
of friendships, exchanges of letters, and mutual aid in numerous
political battles had knit the progressive leaders into a genuine
In 1911, moreover, the common cause they
shared had reduced itself to one overriding cause-the defeat of
the Republican oligarchy.
... What had been utterly impossible a
mere three years before had now become considerably more than
possible, although it had never been accomplished since the emergence
of organized political parties in America: the overthrow by genuine
party rebels the ruling magnates of a national party."
At first La Follette was the insurgents'
candidate for the Republican nomination. As the first Republican
to raise the banner of rebellion in the states and the first one
to dare raise it in the Senate, La Follette, more than any other
single man, had been responsible for translating the national
demand for reform into a national political movement.
Under the leadership of Senator La Follette, the last great republican
of consequence in American history, the Republican Party seemed
about to become, if not in 1912 then certainly by 1916, the party
it had almost but not quite been in the days of Abraham Lincoln."
At that point Colonel Roosevelt, who had
grown increasingly radical in his public pronouncements, discreetly
inserted himself into the political arena. By half-hints and pregnant
nondenials, he let it be known to his followers that he just might
be available to head the insurgency now that it looked like succeeding.
His many supporters in La Follette's camp began working in t to
balk the senator's bid for delegate support. By December, they
began deserting their candidate in droves. By February 1912, Roosevelt
had captured the entire Republican insurgent movement; La Follette's
candidacy was dead. What had proved its undoing, essentially,
was precisely what had made it possible-the almost universal belief
among reformers that the toppling of the Republican oligarchy
was the one great task of the hour. Some progressives followed
Roosevelt out of conviction. Others followed him in spite of conviction.
It was simply impossible to deny that the popular ex-President
was far more likely than La Follette to capture the Republican
The November elections surprised nobody. Running as the candidate
of a hastily organized Progressive Party, Roosevelt decisively
outpolled Taft. Running as a reform candidate, the Democrats'
Woodrow Wilson easily won the election. The Republican oligarchy
had narrowly survived, but the national Republican machine was
gone from American politics. Henceforth the party's leaders would
be not the spokesmen of a disciplined national party, but merely
its dominant faction, desperately clinging to power within it
and meanly hopeful that the Democrats would prove still more unfit
to govern than they. Lodge's "aristocratic republic"
had lasted, in all, about fifteen years.
As for the reform movement in general,
it emerged from the 1912 election with the political force of
a national mandate. The voters had given the two avowed progressive
candidates 70 percent of the total popular vote. They gave Eugene
V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, about 900,000 votes. The candidate
of the Republican Party, victor in eleven of the previous thirteen
presidential elections, gained the electoral votes of just two
states. Americans were elated with sanguine hopes. The privileged
interests, the "money trust," and the "invisible
government" seemed about to receive their deathblow. Government
of, by, and for the people was now to be restored to the American
Republic. For all practical purposes, however, popular hopes were
now in the hands of a President-elect whose conversion to reform
was exactly twenty-five months old.
"A Man of High Ideals but No Principles"
War in Europe still lay in the unforeseeable
future when President Wilson, in his Inaugural Address, called
upon Americans to join him in "the high enterprise of the
new day: to lift everything that concerns our life as a Nation
to the light that shines from the hearthfire of every man's conscience
and vision of the right." Foreign affairs had not seemed
so remote in years nor domestic affairs so promising. In fact,
except for the American people themselves, all the political elements
that would bring America into a European war were already occupying
the political arena.'
There was, first, the battered Republican
oligarchy, paralyzed as long as domestic issues remained paramount
and hungry for any chance opportunity to return safely to power.
There was, for another, the major New York bankers, adrift in
the wreckage of the national Republican machine, suffering from
obloquy so severe that politicians feared to be seen in their
company and determined to regain the security they had lost in
the progressive upheaval. There was, in addition, the conservative
leadership of the Democracy, a party still held together by the
do-nothing principle and now compelled by an articulate national
reform movement to do something that might pass for comprehensive
reforms. Most decisively there was the singular figure of the
new President himself, a man driven by vaunting ambition and haunted
by a "nightmare," as he himself put it, that the American
people, whose aspirations he did not share, would turn against
him in their wrath and blight his own aspirations for personal
[Thomas Woodrow Wilson] had a driving imperious will that readily
imposed itself on others, a will made steely by Wilson's conviction
that those who blocked his path stood in the way of the light.
He had, moreover, a mind that was ceaselessly active and astonishingly
quick. In his years as President, White House visitors would come
away amazed at Wilson's ability to sum up their own arguments
more swiftly and cogently than they could themselves. He had,
in addition, a still more remarkable facility with words. Striking
phrases, elegant paragraphs, and sonorous perorations seemed to
flow effortlessly from Wilson's lips. Indeed, when he thought
of himself as a great man he chiefly saw himself as a great orator
swaying the masses with the magic power of noble utterance. It
would take many years before Wilson's contemporaries realized,
in Senator La Follette's bitterly accurate judgment, that "with
him, the rhetoric of a thing is the thing itself .... 'Words,
phrases, felicity of expression and a blind egotism has been his
stock in trade."
... An advocate of the principles of True
Democracy, Wilson believed firmly in states' rights, laissez-faire,
and minimal government (as well as White Supremacy, racial segregation,
and the disenfranchisement of poor Southerners).
Since the 1880s, the task of persuasion had been growing increasingly
difficult in America. In consequence, Princeton's professor of
political science had wholeheartedly welcomed the launching of
the Republican "large policy" during the SpanishAmerican
War. In his History of the American People, published in 1902,
Wilson described the new policy as the single most heartening
event in modern American history. By means of an active foreign
policy the American people would gain what Wilson called a "unified
will." It would divert them, in other words, from their new
habit of "begging," in Wilson's words, for governmental
help against the privileged, a "turning away from all the
principles which have distinguished America," that Professor
Wilson thoroughly deplored. An active foreign policy, in Wilson's
view, would thereby protect American democracy itself from the
ignorant masses, meaning all those Americans who did not share
Professor Wilson's belief that democracy and the Democratic Party
were one and the same thing.
... Wilson had still another reason for
endorsing the Republican large policy. Quite simply, it would
give future American presidents something large and glorious to
do. According to Wilson the most important advantage of the Republican
"plunge into international politics and into the administration
of distant dependencies" was the "greatly increased
power and opportunity for constructive statesmanship given the
President" by that plunge. This was to be perhaps the most
revealing statement Wilson ever made, for it invoked a standard
of political judgment that foreshadowed his entire future career.
It was not a standard he shared with his countrymen. Americans
are not in the habit of judging a national policy by its personal
advantage to their president. Nor are they in the habit of considering
themselves and their country as mere instruments in a president's
quest for glory. It is the last thing that would enter the mind
of most Americans, whatever their political views. Yet that judgment,
so antithetical to the entire republican tradition in America,
came readily to Woodrow Wilson, who was to become the first American
president to look upon the United States of America as a stepping-stone
to personal greatness.
Seven days after his inauguration the new President began a course
of meddling in Mexican politics that would lead the United States
to the brink of war by April 1914. To "deal chiefly with
foreign affairs" was for 'Wilson the real enterprise of the
new day, the only promising escape from the political dangers
that confronted him from the moment he gained the presidency.
The danger, quite simply, was that Wilson
had no intention of fulfilling the expectations of the national
reform movement or even of redeeming the reform pledges he had
made as a candidate. Wilson was expected to lead the fight for
drastic legislative intervention in the economy, intervention
designed, as Wilson had promised, to extirpate the trusts, break
Wall Street's control of capital, and liberate free enterprise
from the tightening thrall of monopoly. Neither Wilson nor the
Democrats in control of Congress shared these expectations. The
new President had never been a reformer; he had merely been an
office seeker in an age of reform. Privately Wilson regarded big
business as beneficial and the national reform movement itself
as a dangerous spasm of "ill-humors." Unfortunately
for Wilson, the reform movement was too strong to be openly repudiated.
Something had to be done to appease the reformers. The danger
was that they were unlikely to remain appeased.
Wilson planned to push through Congress
a minimal program of unavoidable legislation touching on banking
and big business. This, hopefully, would keep the progressives
at bay until Wilson felt it politically safe to declare-as he
would actually do in November 1914-that all remediable grievances
had been remedied and the business of reform was at an end. Wilson's
chief concern was that the enacted legislation look like progressive
reform; that his banking legislation look as though designed to
demolish the money trust; that his antitrust laws look like the
comprehensive attack on monopoly that he and the Democrats had
promised the voters in 1912.
Wilson had no illusions about his strategy.
At best it was a makeshift that could not, by itself, succeed.
The reform movement was too powerful, its leaders too well armed
with programs, principles, and shibboleths to be contented for
long by mere shows of reform. The conservative press of both parties
would duly praise Wilson's Federal Reserve Act as a milestone
of reform legislation, but reform leaders in Congress would assail
it for what it was - a "big bankers' bill," in Senator
La Follette's words, that actually legalized the money trust it
was supposed to dismember. The conservative press would praise
Wilson's antitrust measures as the culmination of thirty years
of antitrust agitation, but again reform leaders would not be
deceived. "Almost a joke," La Follette would call them.
"Not enough teeth to masticate successfully milk toast,"
Senator Cummins was to remark."
As long as domestic affairs remained predominant,
Wilson was on a collision course with the entire reform movement.
He knew it, foresaw it, and dreaded it. The American people were
going to turn against him, he confided to his friend and adviser
Colonel E. M. House of Texas. His administration, he feared, would
end in ignominious failure just as his administration of Princeton
had done. That fear, he confessed to House, "hung over him
sometimes like a nightmare." Unless he could divert the reform
movement and distract the American people the nightmare would
become a reality. Wilson was no Grover Cleveland: he had no wish
to commit political suicide for the creed of True Democracy. The
solution to his problem Wilson had arrived at long before he ever
faced it, when he praised the domestic political advantages of
the Republican "plunge into international politics."
If he could make another such plunge and "impel" the
nation to "great national triumphs" abroad, he could
not only avert failure but reap glory as well. As soon as he took
office, therefore, Wilson began trying to persuade the American
people that the true spirit of reform was to be expressed not
at home, but in a new altruistic foreign policy, a policy, in
Wilson's words, of "service to mankind."''
Conditions in Mexico provided Wilson with
his first pretext for "service." It was in his Mexican
policy that Wilson revealed those singular qualities of character-the
self-ennobling ambition, the contempt for the opinions of others,
the bottomless self-deceit - that were to help him drag America
into the trenches of France. Wilson's Mexican policy, too, revealed
the extraordinary lengths Wilson was determined to go to inflict
foreign complications on unwilling countrymen.
'The Mexican situation briefly was this:
In 1910 Mexican rebels led by Francisco Madero had overthrown
the thirty-five-year-old dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. The Madero
government, however, proved feeble and inept. Two weeks before
Wilson's inaugural, General Victoriano Huerta, head of the Federalist
Army, turned treacherously against Madero. In a swift palace golpe
he deposed the fading hero of the 1910 revolution and began setting
himself up as Mexico's new strong man. A few days later, probably
with Huerta's complicity, certainly in his interest, Madero was
murdered. Huerta's usurpation was not one of the more edifying
political spectacles in Latin America but it was scarcely unique.
Of their new President's perilous intentions the American people
knew nothing. Wilson dared not profess them for, unlike their
altruistic President, the American people cared far more about
themselves than they did about Mexicans. Cautiously, Wilson tried
to wean them from their unfortunate conviction that the foreign
policy of the United States ought to serve the interests of the
country. That conviction had severely shackled the Republican
"large policy." As long as American foreign policy was
determined by practical national interests, it was impossible
to justify a policy large enough to overwhelm domestic affairs,
to pacify the electorate, or to free President Wilson for "constructive
The President reassured the nation that he was not going to intervene
in Mexico to protect either the interests of American investors
or the fifty thousand Americans who lived there. Indeed, he said,
Americans stayed in Mexico at their own risk. The United States
government intended "to pay the most scrupulous regard to
the sovereignty and independence of Mexico-that we take as a matter
of course to which we are bound by every obligation of right and
honor." A stronger promise of nonintervention could scarcely
have been made, but there was a catch to it. According to Wilson,
the United States had a duty to serve "the best aspirations"
of the Mexican people and to do so, moreover, "without first
thinking how we shall serve ourselves." America, according
to Wilson, was to become the first nation in history to put the
interests of other countries ahead of its own. Mankind (minus
the American people) would henceforth be the object of our government's
active concern and ministration.
The public response to Wilson's address
was far from encouraging to the President. His suave assertion
of America's duty to help Mexicans sent no thrill of exaltation
through the electorate. In truth, the perverse turn that events
had taken during the SpanishAmerican 'War had inoculated most
Americans against foreign adventures in the name of humanity.
Having learned something about the domestic uses of war, Americans
were a chastened people in 1913. What they greeted with an audible
sigh of relief was Wilson's apparent promise to keep America out
of Mexican affairs. The response might have daunted a lesser man,
but therein lay 'Wilson's peculiar strengths as a political leader.
Once convinced of the nobility of his own intentions-and the conviction
always came easily-Wilson could act without scruple, defy men's
reproaches, and ignore what to others was plain common sense.
The most fanatical idealist does not cling to the principles of
a lifetime more tenaciously than Wilson could pursue a noble aim
he had just invented to suit his ambitions.
In late October 1913, Wilson, whom historians
describe as a President who hated war, decided he would have to
use military force against the Mexican usurper. "A real crisis
has arisen," Colonel House wrote in his diary on October
30, after speaking with the President. The "crisis"
was Huerta's success in consolidating his power. The British government,
for one thing, had extended him diplomatic recognition. The Mexican
establishment was beginning to rally to his side. Huerta's enemies,
the heirs of the Madero revolution, had raised the banner of revolt
under Venustiano Carranza, "first chief" of the newly
formed "Constitutionalist" movement, but they were still
woefully weak. America's President, however, was "alert and
unafraid," noted House. He "has in mind to declare war
against Mexico." What choice, after all, did Wilson have?
To a woman correspondent, the president confided his pious fears
of the "terrible" events that were about to ensue. "No
man can tell what will happen while we deal with a desperate brute
like that traitor, Huerta. God save us from the worst!" Having
decided to depose a foreign ruler Wilson now persuaded himself
that the "brute's" refusal to go was forcing him to
On April 21, a nation that had acclaimed Wilson's nonintervention
in Mexico discovered that a thousand U.S. marines were trying
to capture a Mexican seaport, were being fired on by Mexican troops,
and were firing back; 126 Mexicans and 19 marines were to die
in the skirmishing. In the fourteenth month of the "new day,"
the United States of America had gone well beyond the brink of
war and Wilson, the self-appointed servant of the Mexican people,
had become overnight the man most hated by the Mexican people.
In all these twists and turns ... Wilson adhered to one consistent
principle. For him the "best aspirations" of foreigners
would invariably be those that required American intervention,
for it was by his wish to intervene that he judged their "best
aspirations." Such was the stuff of "Wilsonian idealism,"
as historians have come to call it. What the best aspirations
of the Mexican people actually were and how they might best be
served were at bottom of no interest to Woodrow Wilson.
In the spring and summer of 1914, while leading progressives grew
increasingly distressed over 'Wilson's failures as a reformer,
the President devoted himself more intensely than ever to preaching
the glories of an active, altruistic foreign policy. On May 11,
at a ceremony in Brooklyn to commemorate the nineteen marines
who died in Vera Cruz, Wilson noted that "a war of service
is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die." On June
4, at Arlington Cemetery, he proclaimed it America's "duty"
and "privilege" to "stand shoulder to shoulder
to lift the burdens of mankind in the future and show the paths
of freedom to all the world." On June 5, at the U.S. Naval
Academy, he informed the assembled officers that "the idea
of America is to serve humanity... is that not something to be
proud of, that you know how to use force like men of conscience
and like gentlemen, serving your fellow men and not trying to
overcome them?" On Flag Day, June 15, he proclaimed that
the American flag, his recent pretext for military aggression,
"is henceforth to stand for self-possession, for dignity,
for the assertion of the right of one nation to serve the other
nations of the world." On July 4, in yet another foreign
policy pronouncement, Wilson demonstrated his truly astonishing
indifference to the real concerns of his fellow countrymen-to
the debt-ridden farmer, the child laboring kind, and the sweated
factory worker, whose relief by remedial legislation he was now
openly opposing. To an audience at Philadelphia's Independence
Hall, he declared that America was now rich enough and free enough
to look abroad for great tasks to perform. The American people,
he said, were too prosperous to care only about their "material
interests." Our duty is to serve the world without regard
for ourselves. "What other great people has devoted itself
to this exalted ideal?"
On July 31, in less self-exalted circles,
La Follette and Brandeis met to discuss Wilson's all-but-declared
retreat from reform. "it just breaks one's heart," Brandeis
told La Follette; "to see him throw away chances for good
things and swallow bad things with good labels, while the old
Republican and the old Democratic devils chuckle." The next
day, Europe erupted in war, a war the American people took for
granted had nothing to do with them. They could scarcely suspect,
it was too monstrous to suppose, that their President would view
it as the opportunity of a lifetime, "the greatest, perhaps,
that has ever come to any man," as Colonel House remarked
[is vainglorious friend in the White House."
"The Noblest Part That Has Ever Come
to a Son of Man"
The central political fact about America's en into the European
war was that the American people wanted, above all else, to stay
out of it. Aversion to joining in the carnage, the determination
to remain neutral, was not the opinion of a mere majority, nor
even of a large majority. It was virtually unanimous. Even after
the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, opposition to entering
the war, a bellicose Roosevelt ruefully estimated, remained the
sentiment of 98 percent of the people. "The great bulk of
Americans," an Englishman informed his countrymen in the
fifteenth month of the war, "simply do not believe that the
present conflict, whatever its upshot, touches their national
security or endangers their power to hold fast to their own ideals
of politics and society and ethics." To join the fighting,
he noted, for "any cause less urgent than the existence or
safety of the commonwealth seems to many millions of Americans
a counsel of suicidal insanity."
To most Americans the carnage in Europe was simply the corruption
of the Old World nations bursting into ghastly fruition, the inevitable
outcome of their ancient rivalries and their contemptible appetites
for territory and pelf. They could see no special virtue in either
side of the conflict. Even after two years of reading little save
pro-Allied propaganda in their newspapers (disseminated to the
countryside by the New York press and to the New York press by
the scribes of Fleet Street) the majority of Americans scarcely
progressed beyond the view that Germany was probably more detestable
than Britain. In their general grasp of the war's meaning and
origins the great majority of Americans were quite correct, although
doubtless they had lit upon the truth more by tradition and general
principles than by any rational sifting of the evidence.
Only a few of their more thoughtful "betters"
disagreed with the common verdict and concluded instead that the
war's meaning and origin were fully explained by the official
propaganda of the British government. That Germany alone had started
the war, that the Entente was fighting for "democracy"
against "autocracy" that Allied victory would put an
end to "militarism" and secure "permanent peace"
in the world were the views of a handful of anglophile extremists,
chiefly literary gentlemen, college presidents, fashionable parsons,
and upper-class inhabitants of the cities and towns of the eastern
seaboard. Society matrons who fawned over Britain's hereditary
aristocracy would be among the most ardent supporters of Britain's
alleged fight for "democracy."
There was only one place in America where
the extreme anglophile views of a minute fraction of the American
people enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority-in the
upper reaches of the Wilson administration.
"I Cannot Understand His Attitude"
It was not until September 1915 that the President confided to
Colonel House that he had long wished to see America take part
in the European war. Wilson's willingness was readily understandable.
What the American people regarded as "suicidal insanity"
made perfect sense to their President in the light of the "noblest
part." 'What did not make sense was neutrality.
Given the depth and strength of antiwar sentiment, given the depth
and strength of the venerable tradition of avoiding European entanglements,
given that a frail "right to travel"-for which no American
had the slightest wish to die-was to be 'Wilson's chief instrument
of war provocation, the wonder is not that Wilson got his war,
but that he even dared to seek it. It was to be the lasting misfortune
of the American Republic that Woodrow Wilson had the courage to
match his vainglory.
As long as Americans were not warned off belligerent merchantmen,
as long as they continued to book passage on British liners laden
with munitions of war, a far better occasion was certain to arise
soon enough. As Ambassador Page remarked to a friend on May 2,
"If a British liner full of American passengers be blown
up, what will Uncle Sam do? That's what's going to happen."
"What's going to happen" happened with stunning effect
on the afternoon of May 7. At 2:10 P.M. in the war zone, a German
submarine, without warning, fired a torpedo into the Lusitania,
a Cunard liner carrying 1,257 passengers (including 159 Americans),
702 crew members, and 4,200 cases of rifle ammunition. In the
remarkably brief span of eighteen minutes the mighty vessel sank.
Among the 1,195 lives lost, 124 were American. It was the first-and
it was to be the only-serious loss of American lives at the hands
of the submarine. The pro-Allied American press, which grew indignant
over trifles, understandably boiled over in fury. The Lusitania
sinking was undoubtedly German war ruthlessness at its absolute
worst. Theodore Roosevelt, who was already leading a corporal's
guard of crypto-interventionists, denounced the sinking as "piracy
on a vaster scale of murder than old-time pirates ever practiced."
The entire country was thrown into a state of shock. The European
war, which hitherto had seemed so remote, had suddenly reached
out without warning and seized America by the throat.
... Within a few days of the sinking,
as the initial shock began to wear off, public sentiment in the
country began taking a turn that would soon give even Wilson pause
on his road to war. Instead of being indignant over the sinking
of the Lusitania, Americans began voicing sharp disapproval of
the Americans who had chosen to travel on it.
Among the vast majority of Americans the perilous implications
of Wilson's diplomacy were slowly sinking in. The prospect of
serious trouble, perhaps even war, over the dubious right of a
few heedless Americans to travel on belligerent ships was beginning
to alarm the people at large. Previously they had taken peace
for granted. They could take it for granted no longer. Peace sentiment-antiwar
sentiment-was becoming active and vocal.* As early as June 4,
two powerful Virginia Democrats, Senator Thomas Martin, the boss
of the state, and Representative Hal Flood, chairman of the House
Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Bryan warning him that the
administration was pushing the Lusitania affair far beyond what
the electorate would tolerate. That was only a harbinger. By early
July active antiwar sentiment, almost entirely spontaneous, would
become a force to be reckoned with."
The Politics of War