Woodrow Wilson always fancied himself as a progressive at heart. Prior to his election in 1912, he had been the head of Princeton and Governor of New Jersey. He considered himself an expert in domestic affairs and a novice at foreign affairs. He often noted it would be a shame if he had to strictly deal with foreign affairs. During Wilson’s eight years, a number of financial and social reforms were passed, including four amendments to the constitution, but it was foreign affairs which dominated his presidency, and thus, his legacy. When one begins to look at what lessons once can draw from Wilson’s eight years in office, it is a cautionary tale of avoidance at all costs.
Lesson One – Get Re-elected
Wilson was originally elected on his pledge for “A New Freedom”. This domestic agenda included financial, currency, income taxes, and trust reform as well as tariff reform. Unfortunately for Wilson, what took up most of his time was the Mexican Revolution. Events south of the border required Wilson to act before it spread onto American soil. Up to this point in time, the United States had operated under the auspices of the Monroe Doctrine that this our hemisphere. Teddy Roosevelt had added his Roosevelt Corollary and his successor, William Howard Taft, just threw money at the problem in what became known as Dollar Diplomacy. As 1913 drew on, Wilson followed a policy of what he called “Watchful Waiting”. He knew with all the players in Mexico (Carranza, Huerta, Obregon, Villa, and Zapata), there was no one to trust.
As events in Mexico began to play themselves out, events in Europe quickly boiled over and a regional conflict in the Balkans blew up like a powder keg and most of Europe was involved in less than a month. Wilson knew the United States could not get involved. He declared the US Neutral. Over the next two and half years, the economic interests of the US collided with the military interests of German U-boats in the North Atlantic. US ships began to be sunk, followed by a pledge, followed by another ship, and followed by a pledge, etc.
When Wilson campaigned for President in 1916, he campaigned and was re-elected on the fact he kept us out of the Great War. However, before he could be sworn in for his second term, Germany ratcheted up war fervor when the Zimmerman Telegram was published. The Telegram warned Mexico that the Germans would unleash unrestricted submarine warfare on the Atlantic . The note also pleaded with the new Mexican government to join Germany in a war against the Americans and in return they would get the Mexican cession back. To most Americans, they were outraged. However, Mexico was having a hard time fighting its own revolution let alone a war overseas. In April of 1917, war fever had spread across the US and the Congress would declare war on Germany.
Regardless of what any first term Presidents wants to do, their first priority is to get re-elected. Wilson proved that. However, once re-elected, all bets and promises are off.
Lesson Two – World Organizations are Bad…Maybe
Americans don’t want anyone telling them what to do. When the Great War was over in 1918, Woodrow Wilson left to go to Paris as part of the Peace Conference. His 14 Points had captured the imagination of the populace and turned him into a rock star President. However, soon after the peace process began, rather than follow his 14 Points, Britain and France wanted revenge for the war. The resulting treaty was brutal towards Germany and helped set up World War II with its reparations and mandates, but it was never passed. The US was never going to give up its autonomy on foreign affairs to some European group. Led by Senator Lodge, the US Senate never approved the treaty and would sign a separate treaty later. The unwillingness of the US to sign the treaty would make the League powerless to stop Hitler some 17 years later.
While Wilson’s 14 Points could have averted another war, we will never know. What we do know is the Versailles Peace Treaty “screwed the pooch”. Whether it was Britain’s and France’s incessant need for revenge or the Lodge reservations need for autonomy, we were no longer living in a world where the Monroe Doctrine would apply. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, America would go in an isolationist frenzy. No matter what we might think, America could no longer stick its head in the sand and ignore what is taking place in the world. The long-term consequences of doing so are too dangerous. After World War II, Wilson’s 14 Points would become a reality in a new United Nations.
Lesson Three – Don’t Tell the People What They Can and Can Not Do
Wilson often fancied himself an expert when it came to his domestic agenda. Only two Presidents passed more legislation in US History, FDR and LBJ. From anti-trust regulation to child labor laws to women’s right to vote to prohibition, Wilson was at the forefront of an idealist time in America. His 14 Points were part of the idealism, but Prohibition was one of America’s biggest mistakes. The amendment that made the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol illegal would be repealed in the early 1930s. However in the years in between, organized crime gained control of the industry and a crime wave unlike any America has ever seen took place.
To legislate morality, or anything for that matter, is to try to control the masses. By stipulating that the citizenry can do this or can not do that is promote tyranny on our shores. Americans have never liked being told what to do and what not to do as far back as the 1760s and the events leading up to the Revolution. Maybe the health care plan will work itself out next year, maybe it won’t. Who knows what will happen. But if you want a clue, look at the reaction of the public during prohibition. It could be that reform and regulation of the Industry might have been the more historically accurate choice rather legislating that every American have health care. We will have to wait and see how it plays out. Otherwise, lesson number one will be for naught.
Other Presidential Lessons for Obama Series
John F. Kennedy
George H.W. Bush
A lot of the problems in the world for the last 90 years can be traced back to one document – The Treaty of Versailles. Written in 1919 and never approved by the US, the document set in motion a series of problems that have plagued the world ever since. Many problems could have been avoided had Woodrow Wilson had his way at the conference, but no, Clemenceau and David Lloyd George got their revenge on Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire and the world has been paying for the document ever since.
What problems has the document caused? What hasn’t it caused should be the question.
1. World War II – the treaty itself blamed Germany for the war, took away German lands, heaped reparations on Germany which helped sink the world into a depression 10 years after the war, created new countries in Europe without regards to ethnicity, religion, or resources, and gave Hitler the foundation on which he built his Nazi Party and the Holocaust. As a result of Versailles, World War I would have its sequel in 20 years. The League of Nations, envisioned by Wilson to stop wars, was powerless without the US who refused to approve the treaty at the behest of Henry Cabot Lodge and his Lodge Reservations.
2. Asia – A young Ho Chi Minh walked up to Woodrow Wilson at the conference and handed him a document which read:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Yes, my friends, it is the Declaration of Independence. Ho Chi Minh believed in the Declaration and wanted Wilson’s mantra of self-determination to be applied to his people. He wanted to free his people from the yolk of Imperialist France and guide a new path to democracy. Unfortunately, Wilson only believed self-determination applied to European peoples. It was a gigantic oversight. One in which we can sit back and say that three wars (WWII and 2 conflicts in Vietnam) could have been avoided in the Big 4 of Versailles had not been thinking of only themselves.
3. Africa – This continent is messed up even today. A lot of it has to do with the Berlin Conference where a map was taken out and the nations of Europe divided up the continent. Well, during Versailles, nothing much changed as resources had more value than people. The Imperials, almost bankrupt from four years of war, hung on to their African possessions only to begin to give them up in the 50s and 60s.
4. The Balkans – The powder keg that started the war would erupt in the 1980s when strong man Tito passed away. As a ruler, he had kept the Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Macedonians, and Montenegrens from killing each other. after his death, they got right back to their old ways. Now, thankfully, each has their own nation, but the thousands that died in the 80s and 90s may not have died had the Versailles treaty done its thing.
5. The Middle East – No place is more messed up because of the Versailles treaty than the Middle East. A map was made of British and French mandates without regards to ethnic groups, religion, or resources. You have Sunni, Shias, and Kurds living in one country. You have Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Aimak, and a dozen others all living in Afghanistan. Then there is the India which would later be partitioned after World War II into India, Pakistan, and a few others nations. It is just a down right mess.
The Versailles Peace Treaty is the perfect example of how not to secure a just a lasting peace. Had the Big 4 used and applied Wilson’s 14 points to the entire world, we may not have a lot of the problems we have had since, and problems we have now.