"The People Are Through with Party Government",

"A Man of High Ideals but No Principles"

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

Part II

"The People Are Through with Party Government"

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 movement.

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 consciousness.

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 working coalition.

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 nomination.

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 greatness.

[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 statesmanship" abroad.

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 war.

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

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