YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 23, 2010

Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism vs. Obama’s

Woodrow Wilson on his feet

[This blog has been heavily augmented. Here is the first version:]

Arthur Link’s Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era (1954) ends with a chapter “From Peace Without Victory To War”.  Hollywood liberals would profit from this detailed political history, not least because it dismisses the old Left cry that Wilson’s war was for the benefit of Wall Street and the merchants of war (i.e., J.P. Morgan and munitions makers). Link’s conclusion is partly reproduced here, in order to contrast Wilson’s vision of a [Christianized] democratic world with the hazy multicultural one articulated by Obama today before the United Nations.  I will place the key phrase that distinguishes their notions of democracy in bold face. [Obama's view was that the desired democracy would be rooted in the cultural traditions of each people. This is the standard view of "rooted cosmopolitanism" not to be confused with the rootless cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment and science. Not that Wilson was anything but an organic conservative and a racist, but his ethics were ostensibly universalist.]

[Arthur Link, pp.281-82] : The German decision to gamble on all-out victory or complete ruin…alone compelled Wilson to break diplomatic relations, to adopt a policy of armed neutrality, and finally to ask for a declaration of war–because American ships were being sunk and American citizens were being killed on the high seas, and because armed neutrality seemed no longer possible. Considerations of America’s alleged economic stake in an Allied victory did not influence Wilson’s thoughts during the critical weeks from February 1 to April 2, 1917. Nor did considerations of the national interest, or of the great ideological issues at stake in the conflict.

[Link, cont.: Wilson's message to a joint session of Congress, April 2:] He reviewed the recent German warfare against commerce, which he termed “warfare against mankind.” He declared that armed neutrality was no longer feasible and that …the recent course of the Imperial German government was war against the United States. …The American people now knew the Imperial government, like all autocracies, was a natural foe of liberty. Therefore, “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” And then, with one great peroration, which has gone ringing down the years, the long ordeal of neutrality was over:

[quoting Wilson:] It is a distressing and oppressive duty, Gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, [white, C.S.] civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts,—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other. [end Wilson quote]

Wilson’s anti-imperialism cannot be understood, however, without acknowledgment of his racism. His advocacy of “self-determination” was probably grounded in a fear of merging with primitives in wars of conquest. With such a view, he reiterated the feelings and fears of earlier upper-class Americans who had opposed the Mexican war (and of course any annexation of a territory with non-white inhabitants).  But in this particular message to Congress, he was speaking from the universalist Christian (Presbyterian, Calvinist) side of his ideology, not the Southern racist side.

Second version: (For more on Wilson’s anti-materialist organicism views, see http://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. For more on the anti-materialist Counter-Reformation tendency in cultural studies see http://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.)

I began a close study of Woodrow Wilson years ago while writing my book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival). His often eccentric conduct as a young man was brought out in Henry Wilkinson Bragdon’s revealing biography of Wilson at Princeton, for instance, some homoeroticism, cross-dressing and explicit antisemitism, but most important is WW’s dim view of science. He was ever the organic conservative adapting his overtly aristocratic social views later to agree with the populist and progressive mood of middle-class do-gooders in a rapidly industrializing society. That is what makes the final judgment of WW’s character in John Morton Blum’s important book, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality (1956) so interesting, for Blum reads him as a monomaniac, closed off to the moderation that would have secured The League of Nations, in his final assessment of WW’s diplomacy:

[Blum, pp197-98:]” …His basic, lifelong faith was in the individual as a distinct moral agent, inspired by and accountable to God; in the individual as the special object of a Christian education; in this individual, so accountable and so educated, as the judicious artificer of his own political and economic life. This was the essential belief of the America of Wilson’s time, a belief derived from Calvin and Adam Smith and Emerson at least. It presumed, as Wilson did, that normative man was a kind of William Gladstone, that a normative nation consisted of a mass of separate human particles, each like him. But within the United States in the twentieth century, giving these particles a chance to compete was not enough; they needed also help and cohesion. Particularly in this century, moreover, liberal constitutionalism was not everywhere a possible or an attractive prospect. Some products of Wilson’s faith therefore, had unwholesome, unintended consequences.”

Earlier in the book, Blum had said that WW paved the way for the New Deal (that he proudly supports). Blum undoubtedly knew of the German Romantic conception of Bildung, but the organicism of German Romantic culture is invisible to him as he lists WW’s precessors. Nor will he nor any other progressive historian call out the social psychologists of the New Deal for their copying of Nazi methods of mind-management to promote social “cohesion.” Nor will he be alarmed by the Carl Schmitt critique of (liberal?) constitutionalism in favor of the executive decree. Blum, like the invisible helpers to progressive thought described elsewhere on this website, contrasted social responsibility with the atomic “particles” who would explode social bonds, refusing “compromise” and realism in foreign policy. So WW had to be taken down a peg, but just a little.

Rewriting an earlier book on Wilsonian diplomacy, Arthur S. Link, also ignored the German side of Wilson’s social thought. In Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War and Peace (1979), Link began by lauding WW’s “splendid synthesis of Anglo-American democratic theories and traditions.” Then he tackles WW’s view of a necessarily disciplined human nature:

[Link, p.5] Everything depended upon Wilson’s view of the nature and capacities of humankind. He believed that all peoples were capable of self-government because all were endowed with inherent character and capacity for growth. He was too good a student of history to be visionary in these beliefs. He repudiated and condemned utopianism and taught that people learn democracy only by long years of disciplined experience.  As early as 1885, we hear him saying:

[Link quoting  Wilson:] “Democracy is, of course, wrongly conceived when treated as merely a body of doctrine. It is a stage of development. It is not created by aspirations or by new faith; it is built up by slow habit. Its process is experience, its basis old wont, its meaning national organic oneness and effectual life. It comes, like manhood, as the fruit of youth: immature peoples cannot have it, and the maturity to which it is vouchsafed is the maturity of freedom and self-control, and no other.”

[Link, cont.] Even so, Wilson deeply believed that all peoples, whether Mexican peons or Russian peasants, whites, blacks, or Orientals, were capable in the long run of being trained or self-trained in the disciplines of democracy and of learning to govern themselves. “When properly directed,” he said in 1914, “there is no people not fitted for self-government.”

Note that Wilson conflates a “people” with the “self” who governs itself. Here is the double bind, or call it the disappearing body if you like. It is apparent that no one should impute to Wilson any linkage to the concept of the rootless cosmopolitan, the figure embodied in the “mad scientist” or to the Adam Smithian participant in market societies and their peculiar notion of “liberty” and “individualism.” What connection is there then between Wilson’s internationalism and Barack Obama’s in his address to the United Nations? I cannot find any difference, for both are indebted to the volkisch ideas of German Romanticism, updated now by collectivist progressives, with their dubious genealogy dating back to Herder and Goethe discreetly erased by such eminent historians as Link and Blum.

[this is probably not the final draft]

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2 Comments »

  1. If you want a really great read about Wilson, try the book Woodrow Wilson by Sigmund Freud and Samuel Bullitt. Bullitt was a member of Wilson’s Administration. Freud makes a good case that Wilson was all but insane. Start reading it and you won’t be able to put it down.

    Comment by Patrick Kelley — October 1, 2010 @ 3:07 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Patrick. I read it years ago, and found it fascinating. When fellow Progressives write about Wilson, they usually stress his moralism and naivete. William C. Bullitt is not generally respected, and one should check out if Wilson really had the opportunity to stop the exorbitant demands of Britain and especially France, as Bullitt complained. I just don’t know. But even the Progressives emphasize Wilson’s grandiosity and his belief that a providential God was the source of his policies.

      Comment by clarespark — October 1, 2010 @ 3:09 pm | Reply


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