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World War I Continues to Haunt America

Photo by Robyn Mack | CC BY 2.0

This year is the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s pulling America into World War I. Many people celebrate this centenary of America’s emergence as a world power. But at a time when the Trump administration is bombing or rattling sabers at half a dozen nations and many Democrats are clamoring to bloody Russia, it is worth reviewing how World War I turned out so much worse than the experts and politicians promised.

Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916 on the basis of a campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But Wilson had massively violated neutrality by providing armaments and money to the Allied powers that had been fighting Germany since 1914. At the same time, he had no quarrel with the British blockade that was slowly starving the German people. In his April 1917 speech to Congress seeking a declaration of war against Germany, he hailed the U.S. government as “one of the champions of the rights of mankind” and proclaimed that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

American soldiers helped turn the tide on the Western Front in late 1918. But the cost was far higher than Americans anticipated. More than 100,000 American soldiers died in the third-bloodiest war in U.S. history. Another half- million Americans perished from the Spanish Flu epidemic spurred and spread by the war. But the political damage lasted far longer.

In his speech to Congress, Wilson declared, “We have no quarrel with the German people” and feel “sympathy and friendship” towards them. But his administration speedily commenced demonizing the “Huns.” One Army recruiting poster portrayed German troops as an ape ravaging a half-naked damsel beneath an appeal to “Destroy this Mad Brute.” Wilson’s evocations of fighting for universal freedom were quickly followed by bans on sauerkraut, beer, and teaching German in public schools. Tolerance quickly became unpatriotic.

The Wilson administration sold the war as an easy win — failing to realize how close France and Russia were to either collapsing or surrendering. When fewer than 100,000 Americans volunteered for the military, Congress responded by authorizing conscripting 10 million men. Wilson proclaimed that “it is in no sense a conscription of the unwilling. It is, rather, selection from a Nation which has volunteered in mass.” But people had voted against the war. Regardless, Wilson touted the draft as a new type of freedom: “It is nothing less than the day upon which the manhood of the country shall step forward in one solid rank in defense of the ideals to which this Nation is consecrated.” It was as if Wilson was presaging George Orwell’s motto in 1984 — “Freedom is Slavery.”

Wilson acted as if the congressional declaration of war against Germany was also a declaration of war against the Constitution. Harvard professor Irving Babbitt commented in 1924, “Wilson, in the pursuit of his scheme for world service, was led to make light of the constitutional checks on his authority and to reach out almost automatically for unlimited power.” Wilson even urged Congress to set up detention camps to quarantine “alien enemies.”

Wilson unleashed ruthless censorship. Anyone who spoke publicly against military conscription was likely to get slammed with federal espionage or sedition charges. Possessing a pamphlet entitled “Long Live the Constitution of the United States” earned six months in jail for a Pennsylvania malcontent. Censorship was buttressed by fanatic propaganda campaigns led by the Committee for Public Information, a federal agency whose shameless motto was “faith in democracy … faith in fact.” The government cared so much about the American people that it could not burden them with details of government follies and fiascoes.

The government also assumed it was entitled to practically brainwash any and all conscripts. As Thomas Fleming noted in his masterpiece The Illusion of Victory: America in World War One, soldiers were subject to many hours of exhortations “to resist sexual temptation…. Spokesmen for the Committee on Training Camp Activities urged soldiers to stop thinking about sex: ‘A man who is thinking below the belt is not efficient.’” The Wilson administration strove for the creation of “‘moral and intellectual armor’ that would sustain the soldiers when they went overseas and were beyond the U.S. government’s ‘comforting and restraining and helpful hand.’” The failure of the purity campaign was best reflected in the lyrics of a 1919 hit song: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

To broaden support for the war, Wilson partnered with the Prohibition movement. Prohibition advocates “indignantly insisted that … any kind of opposition to prohibition was sinister and subversively pro-German,” noted William Ross, author of World War 1 and the American Constitution. Even before the 18th Amendment (which banned alcohol manufacture, sale, and transportation) was ratified, Wilson banned beer sales as a wartime measure. Prohibition itself was a public-health disaster; the rate of alcoholism tripled during the 1920s. To punish lawbreakers, the federal government added poisons to industrial alcohol that was often converted into drinkable hooch; 10,000 people were killed as a result. Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, noted that “an official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place.” It took more than half a century for the quality of American beer to recover from Prohibition. And the effects of the booster shot that organized crime received in those years lasted even longer. Even worse, the war on alcohol paved the way for the war on drugs; many former Prohibition agents signed up to crusade against marijuana after the ban on booze ended.

Attacking speech, ruining farms

World War I exposed the cravenness and authoritarianism of progressive intellectuals. As journalist Randolph Bourne wrote, “‘Loyalty,’ or rather war orthodoxy, becomes the sole test for all professions, techniques, occupations. Particularly is this true in the sphere of the intellectual life.” Bourne lamented,

It has been a bitter experience to see the unanimity with which the American intellectuals have thrown their support to the use of war-technique in the crisis in which America found herself. Socialists, college professors, publicists, new-republicans, practitioners of literature, have vied with each other in confirming with their intellectual faith the collapse of neutrality and the riveting of the war-mind on a hundred million more of the world’s people…. Herd-instinct became herd-intellect.

Writers who failed to join the stampede found themselves banished or, in some cases, persecuted. One of the Post Office’s primary targets for suppression was magazines guilty of “high-browism.” The collapse of honest, thoughtful criticism was invaluable to Wilson’s effort to spur mass mindless obedience. Unfortunately, with the same pattern of servility repeated in subsequent wars, few intellectuals seem to recall how World War I set the model for cravenness.

As Bourne noted, “War is the health of the state.” The war provided the pretext for unprecedented federal domination of the economy — and endless debacles. In early 1918, the government “shut down all the factories in the country east of the Mississippi River for a week” to save fuel, as Fleming noted. Even Wilson’s Democratic congressional allies were aghast at the mismanagement and inefficiency. Wilson was outraged at criticism, declaring that it showed “such an ignorance of the actual conditions as to make it impossible to attach any importance” to the charge. But presidential indignation failed to straighten out the snafus from central control of production processes.

Perhaps the most dramatic economic impact fell on American farmers. Washington promised that “food will win the war” and farmers vastly increased their plantings. Price supports and government credits for foreign buyers sent crop prices and land prices skyrocketing. However, when the credits ended in 1920, prices and land values plunged, spurring massive bankruptcies across rural America. They in turn spurred perennial political discontent that helped lead to a federal takeover of agriculture by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. When the New Deal imposed price controls across the economy in 1933, World War I was the model that administrators touted.

Making the world safe

Before the war began, Wilson declared in April 2015, “No nation is fit to sit in judgement upon any other nation.” In his war speech to Congress in 1917, he portrayed the Kaiser as a dictator (though Germany was actually far more democratic than most parts of the British Empire). By 1919, Wilson had totally reversed his moral compass, declaring, “In the last analysis, my fellow countrymen, as we in America would be the first to claim, a people are responsible for the acts of their government.” Unfortunately, that became the lodestar for subsequent U.S. warring — including the massive civilian bombings of Germany and Japan in World War II, in North Korea in 1952, in Vietnam, and in Iraq in this century.

World War I was ended by the Treaty of Versailles, which redrew European borders willy-nilly and imposed ruinous reparations on Germany. Wilson had proclaimed 14 points to guide peace talks; instead, there were 14 separate small wars in Europe towards the end of his term — after peace had been proclaimed. The League of Nations charter was written so smarmily that the United States could have been obliged to assist Britain and France in suppressing revolts in the new colonies they garnered from the war.

The chaos and economic depression sowed by the war and the Treaty of Versailles helped open the door to some of the worst dictators in modern times, including Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Russia’s N. Lenin — whom Wilson intensely disliked because “he felt the Bolshevik leader had stolen his ideas for world peace,” as historian Fleming noted.

Despite winning the war, Wilson’s Democratic Party was crushed at the polls in both 1918 and 1920. H.L. Mencken wrote on the eve of the 1920 election that Americans were sickened of Wilsonian “idealism that is oblique, confusing, dishonest, and ferocious.” Unfortunately, the recoil against bogus idealism was temporary. Starting in 2002, George W. Bush practically recycled Wilson en masse to whip up fervor for invading Iraq.

Have today’s policymakers learned anything from the debacle a century ago? Wilson continues to be invoked by politicians who believe America can achieve great things by warring abroad. The bellicosity of both Republican and Democratic leaders is a reminder that Wilson also failed to make democracy safe for the world.