Rewriting Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy

An interesting article written by Mr. A Scott Berg about President Woodrow Wilson appears in the August 2013 issue of Vanity Fair (we are also given an excerpt from a soon to be released biography about the president entitled “Wilson,” a book that Mr. Berg has been working on for 13 years). In the article we are told of a “polarizing second-term president so idealistic that he threw out the rule book” in fighting a battle with Congress that “nearly killed him.” The implications, of course, are that President Wilson’s story might offer hope and inspiration to our current “polarizing” and “idealistic” second term president.

The Vanity Fair piece is, I believe, more illuminating for what it doesn’t tell us about President Wilson than for what it does – America’s only president with a PhD. Yes, we are told about President Wilson’s deep concern for the less fortunate in America and his attempt to create a more equitable society with his program called the “New Freedom.” A curious element of this program was the creation of the Federal Reserve System (the Fed), with its associated 12 regional banks. What we are not told is that the Fed is a private banking cartel and that it is not, contrary to popular belief, part of the Federal government. To quote former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, “The Federal Reserve is no more Federal than Federal Express.” It was the Federal Reserve’s lax oversight of Wall Street banks and financial institutions (completely understandable given the fact that, again, the Fed is a private bank and not part of the Federal government) that played a key role in the great financial disaster of 2008.

Author’s Note: The Fed is, in fact, America’s third central bank in her 237 year history. Interested readers may wish to investigate what happened to the first two.

In an interesting side note, to make up for its poor performance in the lead up to the worst financial crisis in 80 years, the Fed is working double time to fix matters. Since 2008, the Fed has pledged a minimum of $7.77 trillion (some reports put the figure at $16 trillion – almost the entire value of the US economy) to rescue the financial industry, loaning at least $1.2 trillion to banks and financial institutions affected by the crisis; a crisis, it is important to note, brought about by Wall Street’s own reckless behavior (enabled by poor regulatory oversight).

Mr. Berg makes us aware of the fact that President Wilson was “sensitive to the ravages of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” Made less clear was the fact that the man was a horrible reactionary racist, appointing white southerners to his administration who then introduced segregation into their previously unsegregated departments, including the postal service (a major employer at the time). Presidents Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt had appointed some African-Americans to federal office. President Wilson saw fit to do away with this. Furthermore, under President Wilson, photographs were required of all applicants for federal jobs (you can imagine why). He even signed a bill segregating DC streetcars.

Most incredible of all, Mr. Berg tells us how “Wilson’s powerful rhetoric convinced” the American people to enter World War I (odd behavior for a man who campaigned for reelection in 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”). The reality, unfortunately, is somewhat different. While America immediately needed 1 million soldiers for the war effort, Wilson’s “powerful rhetoric” only convinced 73,000 men to volunteer in the first six weeks after war was declared. Congress had to resort to conscription.

But apparently even the draft wasn’t enough to help America’s war effort. What many people don’t know (and are almost never taught in school) is that President Wilson’s soaring war rhetoric was also aided by a massive and well orchestrated propaganda campaign (i.e. a domestic psy-op) in the form of the Committee on Public Information (more commonly known as the “Creel Committee”). The sole purpose of the committee was to get the American people enthusiastically behind what was for the most part an unpopular imperial European war.

It worked like a charm.

One novel element of the committee was the use of “Four-Minute Men.” This was a group of thousands of volunteers who would give brief (ideally 4 minute) pro-war / anti-German speeches at meetings and movie theaters around the country. The program was also aided by the use of posters produced by the Committee’s Division of Pictorial Publicity. Over 1,400 different works were produced, many depicting the Germans as monsters, and were seen by millions of Americans on billboards nationwide.

Leaving nothing to chance, President Wilson also signed into law the Espionage Act. Contrary to its title, the main focus of the law wasn’t to ferret out foreign spies. It was to suppress all domestic protest against the war. Anyone who spoke out or wrote against the war was liable to a 20 year prison sentence. About 900 people were sentenced to prison under the Espionage Act, the most famous being Eugene Debs, a powerful labor organizer and one time US presidential candidate for the Socialist party. While clearly limiting free speech and curtailing 1st Amendment rights, the constitutionality of the Espionage Act was supported by the Supreme Court.

Mr. Berg goes on to inform us of President Wilson’s lofty ideals and determination, and his belief that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” We are also told of President Wilson’s dedication to giving the people of the world “free choice” and of his concern for “the children … the next generation.” What’s missing from Mr. Berg’s narrative is how this concern for freedom and democracy manifested itself in President Wilson sending US Marines into Haiti in 1914. For some reason, this concern for democracy also involved the Marines taking control of the Haitian National Bank and removing $500,000 of its reserves and sending it to New York “for safe-keeping.” A year later President Wilson ordered a full scale invasion, the goal of which was to protect US assets and prevent an alleged strengthening of German influence in the region. As well as to protect “democracy,” I’m sure.

In fact, during President Wilson’s time in office, the United States would intervene in Latin America more often than at any other time in her history. In addition to the invasion of Haiti, the US would send troops to Mexico in 1914, the Dominican Republic in 1916, again to Mexico in 1916 (all in all the US would send troops to Mexico 9 more times before Wilson left office), Cuba in 1917, and finally Panama in 1918. Wilson would also maintain US armed forces in Nicaragua, using them to influence Nicaragua’s president and ensure the passage of a treaty that was favorable to the United States. For good measure he also invaded Russia, supporting the “White” or anti-Bolshevik side in Russia’s civil war. It is difficult to believe that these were the actions of a man moved by the lofty ideals of democracy and free choice, or by someone concerned with “the children … the next generation.”

Which leads us to the current idealist occupying the White House. What will the history books say about Obama’s presidency in 100 years time? Will they tell us how he extended almost every one of President Bush II’s failed domestic and foreign policies? How he bailed out Wall Street at the expense of the Middle Class? How he has continuously refused to crack down on the reckless and speculative behavior of some of the largest financial institutions on the planet? How his healthcare plan is little more than a $400 billion a year gift to big PhRMA? How his administration has run roughshod over the civil liberties of American citizens? How his administration oversaw the violent crackdown of the Occupy Wall Street movement – a movement whose stated purpose was to use nonviolence – with a multi-city Department of Homeland Security (DHS) coordinated massively violent para-military attack? How he is a war criminal (like President Bush II) due to his use of drones (i.e. a global terror campaign) to murder hundreds of innocent civilians? How he is a war criminal (like almost every other US president) due to his support and use of force to overthrow a foreign government (in this case Syria’s), resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians? How if we lived in a just and correct society President Obama (along with President Bush II and probably every other living president) would be on trial for war crimes?

Or will we be told some heartwarming fairy tale?

In his book “1984” George Orwell wrote, “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’” As long as the world has writers like Mr. Berg, we can rest assured that this statement will always be true.

Tom McNamara is an Assistant Professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, and a former Visiting Lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.

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Tom McNamara is an Assistant Professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, and a former Visiting Lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.