Thursday, January 17, 2013 – Versailles
HOLLYWOOD FOR $1200: Which American president was the subject of the 1944 film, nominated for ten Oscars, that garnered these hyperbolic blurbs?
“The most important event in fifty years of motion picture entertainment”
“…one of the most important movies, not of the year, but of the era in which we all now find ourselves living”
“The movie to prevent World War III”
“…the film that actually made a vital contribution towards making the world a better one in which to live”
Surely we all remember Wilson, Darryl F. Zanuck’s dream project starring Alexander Knox as the president who kept us out of and then led us into World War I.
No? Well, you can watch the entire thing in fourteen YouTube segments complete with Spanish subtitles. Or save yourself two and a half hours and just read this reflection on the most influential president most Americans not named Glenn Beck or holding a PhD couldn’t care less about.
In an aggregate of eighteen “greatest U.S. president” rankings on Wikipedia, Wilson averages out to #6 all time (and has been no lower than #11, in two Wall Street Journal-commissioned surveys from 2000 and 2005), behind only Lincoln, F.D. Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson, and his nemesis T. Roosevelt. No historian with any integrity could abide Zanuck’s whitewashing of Wilson’s story, as they have to grapple with his opposition to civil rights reform (and infamous endorsement of Birth of a Nation), his belated and grudging support for women’s voting rights, and his suppression of dissent in wartime.
But even ideological opponents acknowledge the catalytic role of Wilson in developing the modern presidency. His first term saw the passage of landmark legislation that led to further anti-trust protections, the federal income tax, and the Federal Reserve System. All of which has made Wilson a favorite target for conservative intellectuals and commentators bored with lambasting the New Deal, Great Society, and Obamacare.
It is in foreign policy, however, that Wilson’s most significant and controversial legacy is to be found. Much of that legacy was made during a few months spent near Paris in the former royal palace of Versailles, where Wilson was the undoubted star of the global peace conference meant to resolve World War I.
The setting and the man made for an intriguing juxtaposition: Versailles is a monument to the ego of the French king Louis XIV, emblematic of the Old World decadence that Wilson—who as a scholar had so celebrated the British parliamentary system that emerged as an alternative to French absolutism—sought to replace with New World ideals. Yet few other places on Earth could have sufficed to match the self-importance of a man convinced he was called to redeem the deaths of 9 million men by redesigning the very nature of international relations.
And if Wilson’s ego wasn’t already swollen when he left for Europe, his reception by the French people probably sealed the deal. Here’s Margaret MacMillan’s description of Wilson’s December 1918 arrival at the port of Brest, from her splendid Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World:
For the first time in days, the sun was shining. The streets were lined with laurel wreaths and flags. On the walls, posters paid tribute to Wilson, those from right-wingers for saving them from Germany and those from the left for the new world he promised. Huge numbers of people, many resplendent in their traditional Breton costumes, covered every inch of pavement, every roof, every tree. Even the lampposts were taken. The air filled with the skirl of Breton bagpipes and repeated shouts of “Vive l’Amérique! Vive Wilson!” The French foreign minister, Stéphen Pichon, welcomed him, saying, “We are so thankful that you have come over to give us the right kind of peace.” (p. 15)
Don’t make too much of such words from the French foreign minister. His boss, premier Georges Clemenceau, not only had quite a different definition of the “right kind of peace” but once asked, “Who is Pichon?” When reminded that Pichon was his foreign minister, Clemenceau replied, “So he is. I had forgotten it.” (p. 29)
So what was Wilson’s peace and why might it have been viewed (by himself most of all) as the right one?
Well, first, it had some semblance of coherence. It’s not just that the European Allies had to struggle to overcome the temptation to inflict the “wrong” kind of peace on the Germans; they’d had little time or energy to plan for peace and were caught off guard when the war suddenly ended. Wrote Winston Churchill a decade later, “What had we to do with peace while we did not know whether we should not be destroyed? Who could think of reconstruction while the whole world was being hammered to pieces…?”
Woodrow Wilson, that’s who. Mere months after the US declared war on Germany, the president’s chief adviser, Col. Edward House, had convened a group known by the vaguely dystopian name of “The Inquiry.” Led by their secretary, Walter Lippmann, the young co-founder of The New Republic, 150 political scientists, historians, geographers, and other experts prepared over 3000 background reports and other papers that helped shaped Wilson’s plans for the peace, most famously summarized in his January 1918 speech known as “The Fourteen Points.”
It may be the most important address ever given by an American president not nicknamed Abe, and even more influential than Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural or Gettysburg Address on a global scale, since it was widely known by people on both sides of the Great War. Wilson’s explanation for America’s participation in WWI still resonates in the foreign policies of almost all American presidents, Republican and Democrat, from FDR on:
We entered this war because violations of right had occurred which touched us to the quick and made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secure once for all against their recurrence. What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us. The program of the world’s peace, therefore, is our program…
This passage is like a US foreign policy Rorschach test. If you were nodding along, maybe have a goose bump or two, at least part of you believes, with Wilson, that American ideals are as universal as they are transformative, that American power can serve a selfless cause that aspires to nothing less than perpetual peace and human flourishing. If you’re frowning, or about to toss your iPad aside in disgust, you suspect that American power is little different than any other in its ends and corrupting potential and/or that this kind of rhetoric is at once arrogant, naive, and prone to getting American soldiers killed in distant parts of the world. You might also wonder how Wilson could proclaim “that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us” while he was perpetuating injustice for millions of his own constituents. The impressive Queen Marie of Romania did, once asking Wilson at Versailles how he could insist that her government protect the rights of Hungarians and other ethnic minorities while he defended Jim Crow laws.
Cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, Wilson’s stated “program of the world’s peace” seems, by most evidence, to have matched his personal convictions. The program he had in mind included transparency in diplomacy (“Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at”), free seas and free trade, disarmament, fair settlement of territorial questions, national self-determination for all (ostensibly, including the peoples of the Global South), and an international organization that would help states settle conflicts like the July Crisis as peaceably as possible. (Though peace was not an absolute good: war might be necessary to preserve justice, so member-states of this organization could be called upon to provide the military means to enforce “collective security.”)
Remarked the acid-tongued Clemenceau on reading the speech, “God gave us the Ten Commandments, and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.”
And this gets us to one of the most hotly debated components of Wilson’s personality and worldview: his religious faith and seemingly messianic persona. The son of a pastor and a lifelong Presbyterian, Wilson disdained both evangelicalism (famously telling a YMCA audience that he preferred not to think of Christianity “as a means of saving individual souls”) and Social Gospel liberalism. What did his Christianity mean for his politics? Complex is the public figure who can produce evaluations as divergent as Robert Zieger’s:
Wilson’s fervent and specific religious commitment separated him from his countrymen. Although his beliefs in American exceptionalism and in the beneficence of Providence were commonplace, he brought to political life a degree of religious passion and a determination to apply his understanding of Christian beliefs that was rare among practicing politicians. Of all U.S. presidents [note that Zieger is writing one year before George W. Bush took office], only Jimmy Carter has exhibited a similarly intense and specific notion of Christian identity as applied to public life. (America’s Great War, p. 230)
and that of renowned Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper, Jr.:
Wilson practiced a severe separation not only between church and state but also between religion and society. Unlike his greatest rival, Theodore Roosevelt, he never compared politics with preaching. Unlike the other great leader of his Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan [the evangelical Presbyterian who served as Wilson’s first secretary of state], he never supported the great moral reform crusade of their time—prohibition. (Woodrow Wilson, p. 4)
Cooper does, however, acknowledge the substantial influence of Calvinism on Woodrow Wilson—both in inspiring his work and tempering his idealism:
Wilson was bold, extremely sure of himself, and often stubborn, and he did think of himself as an instrument of God’s will. But according to his beliefs, every person was an instrument of God’s will, and even his own defeats and disappointments were manifestations of the purposes of the Almighty. Such an outlook left no room for messianic delusions. It did leave room for idealism, but that did not distinguish him from the other leading politicians of his time. (5)
Against those who would caricature Wilson as “a secular messiah or a naïve, woolly-headed idealist,” Cooper concludes that “Wilson came off as one of the most careful, hardheaded, and sophisticated idealists of his time,” by comparison to TR and WJ Bryan. Even the Fourteen Points were “soberly stated”; we should not confuse Wilson with later, less able (in Cooper’s judgment) “Wilsonians” who took the US into needless conflicts and incriminating alliances that begged charges of hypocrisy and hubris.
Still, the admiring Cooper has to admit Wilson’s fundamental failure at Versailles. Despite being the first among equals in leading what, for five months, served as “a virtual world government” (MacMillan, 57), Wilson found himself forced to compromise on point after point of his peace program. Even the French people ceased to cheer as their papers and politicians quickly found reasons to criticize him, leading the president to grumble that his hosts were “stupid,” “petty,” “insane,” “unreliable,” “tricky,” and “the hardest I ever tried to do business with” (MacMillan, 144-45).
And even on the last of the Fourteen Points—the international organization that came to be called the League of Nations—Wilson famously was unable to convince his own nation’s Senate to accept membership in it, and surely hastened his own death by undertaking a stunning but physically crushing transcontinental train journey to promote the Versailles treaty directly to the American people. (Leading in the process to a constitutional crisis when his second wife served, in effect, as a kind of regent during Wilson’s prolonged incapacity.)
As did all presidents until his assistant secretary of the navy reached the office, Wilson kept up his fellow Virginian George Washington’s tradition of serving only two terms, and was succeeded by three Republicans who were not so isolationist as later Wilsonians made them out to be but who certainly had none of Wilson’s audacity or vision in the realm of international affairs. Wilson died in 1924, not long into his term as president of the American Historical Association, and was buried at Washington’s National Cathedral.
Tomorrow: I manage to parlay a very little knowledge about French contemporary art into a couple of fun “What if?” scenarios.