Wednesday, April 1, 2009

False Saviors - Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson once enjoyed a popularity that would put Barack Obama to shame. Arriving in Europe in the wake of the WWI armistice, huge throngs turned out to greet him as "the New Messiah," "an instrument in the hands of God," "the King of Humanity," and "the great American prophet of peace." The entire town of Brest greeted him at the docks, and when he sped by train to Paris that evening, peasants kneeled beside the tracks to pray for him.

Paris hailed him with gun salutes and a huge crowd singing and dancing in the streets. President Poincare invited him to sit in the state victoria where kings once perched, while the crowd swayed and roared out, "Wil-son -- Wil-son." In London the press described his reception as, "A welcome unprecedented in history," with two million people showing up to watch him ride in state carriage with the King and Queen, while cannons boomed. In Italy, peasants hung portraits of Wilson on the walls of their homes, and crossed themselves when passing before his image.

But when Wilson's promised permanent peace failed to materialize, his popularity sank like the Titanic.

Wilson, a Ph.D. holder and former president of Princeton University, was similar to George W. Bush in his childlike faith in a monarchical God steering history to the fulfillment of Grand Designs, designs that co-existed comfortably with with what Wilson regarded as the eternal hierarchies of gender, color, and property.

At the same time as he hailed a "New Freedom," Wilson restored segregation to federal offices in Washington, let a suffrage bill languish in Congress for seven long years, invaded Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico (twice), Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Soviet Union (twice), and destroyed a promising socialist movement by plunging the country into the bloodiest war in human history (WWI) at the time. Meanwhile, with corpses stacking up like cordwood in U.S. cities due to a "Spanish flu" epidemic, Wilson chose to issue no public comment on the disease, which ultimately killed tens of millions of people around the world.

W. E. B. DuBois responded to Wilson's segregation order as follows: "Public segregation of civil servants in government employ, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the United States government. In the Treasury and Post Office Department colored clerks have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings. We are told that one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work had consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years."

Ever the humanitarian, Wilson explained to Oswald Garrison Villard that he "honestly thought segregation to be in the interest of the colored people as exempting them from friction and criticism in the departments . . . a number of colored men with whom we have consulted have agreed with us. . . . "

In Wilson's third year in office he screened D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" at the White House. The film depicted virginal white womanhood threatened by black rapists while a prostrate South was led back down the evolutionary scale to savagery by ape-like black legislators. The movie quickly became a national sensation, inciting racial violence throughout the country. W. E. B. DuBois complained that "the Negro [was] represented either as an ignorant fool, a vicious rapist, a venal or unscrupulous politician or a faithful but doddering idiot." Wilson, a well-published historian, praised the movie as "all so terribly true."

That same year the U.S. Marines invaded Haiti, restoring the Haitian treasury to the U.S.-controlled Banque Nacionale and putting U.S. naval officers in charge of collecting customs duties. Colonel L. W. T. Waller, appointed absolute ruler of the country, expressed Washington's traditional contempt for the locals: "These people are niggers in spite of the thin varnish of education and refinement . . . . They are real nigger and make no mistake - There are some very fine looking, well educated polished men here but they are real nigs beneath the surface." Engaging in diplomatic niceties with such specimens struck him as an utter disgrace: "What the people of Norfolk and Portsmouth would say if they saw me bowing and scraping to these coons - I do not know."

When Wilson's occupation proved unpopular with the occupied, the U.S. declared martial law and imposed censorship. Secretary of State Robert Lansing informed the president that such methods lacked all legal basis: "I confess that this method of negotiation, with our Marines policing the Haytien Capitol, is high handed. It does not meet my sense of a nation's sovereign rights and is more or less an exercise of force and an invasion of Haytien independence." Wilson was unmoved.

Cloaking its imperialism in concepts like "benevolent purpose" and the alleged "gratitude" the Haitian people felt for their occupiers, the Wilson Administration presided over the gunning down of thousands of men, women, and children during pacification and the restoration of virtual slavery on a highway construction program connecting Camp Haitien and Port au Prince. In 1920, the New York Times cited the "noted traveler and authority on the West Indies," Henry A. Franck in documenting U.S. atrocities in Haiti:

"....American marines, largely made up of and officered by Southerners, opened fire with machine guns from airplanes upon defenseless Haitian villages, killing men, women, and children in the open market places . . . . natives were slain for 'sport' by a hoodlum element among these same Southerners; and . . . the ancient corvee system of enforced labor was revived and ruthlessly executed, increasing through retaliation, the banditry in Haiti and Santo Domingo."

In 1916, the U.S. Marines invaded the Dominican Republic with an eye to controlling the customs house. At the time the island was in revolutionary upheaval following eleven years of U.S. imperial intervention that had reduced the country's sovereignty to a legal fiction. Threatening to bombard Santo Domingo "without restriction," unless resistance to foreign rule ceased, the U.S. imposed martial law, banned meetings, muzzled the press, and threatened to court martial anyone who protested.

In a message to Congress, Wilson suggested improbably that the U.S. was not imposing its will on anyone: "It does not lie with the American people to dictate to another people what their government shall be or what use shall be made of their resources." Secretary of State Lansing, proofing the draft, evidenced a greater sense of realism, scrawling a list of U.S.-savaged countries into the margin: "Haiti, S. Domingo, Nicaragua, Panama." Wilsonian idealism continued.

In 1917, Wilson plunged the U.S. into WWI. In spite of an official posture of "neutrality" the Wilson Administration had extended the Allies unlimited credit, cured the 1913 depression on the strength of massive European war orders, and initiated a huge anti-German "preparedness" campaign dedicated to the proposition that compromise with the Kaiser was tantamount to an endorsement of the Devil. Given this stance, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. entered the war. While complaining of losses due to German submarine attacks, Wilson overlooked the vastly greater number of deaths due to starvation and disease caused by the Allied blockade of Germany and its allies. By war's end the German Health Office calculated that the blockade had caused 763,000 deaths, not including 150,000 who died from Spanish influenza but might not have had they been spared four years of worsening malnutrition due to the Allied blockade. U.S. deaths on American and British ships due to German attacks were in the low hundreds.

Taking advantage of war powers for the president, Wilson elevated himself to virtual Divine Kingship in the war years, assuming dictatorial control of finance, the press, the farms, and commerce and transportation. Anti-war critics were arrested without warrants, detained without bail, and tried in an atmosphere of vengeful hysteria, after which they were assigned long prison terms. Meanwhile, journalism was destroyed: newspapers were censored, editors arrested, mail permits canceled. Socialist publications were run out of business.

Any suggestion of German identity became a crime. The German language was banned, German street names were changed, sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage," and German books were burned in the streets. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was forbidden to play Beethoven. Mennonite preachers were attacked and strung up by mobs.

When the hysteria finally subsided, Wilson was the key player in negotiating the Versailles peace treaty. At the time he was commander in chief of the freshest, best-equipped, and the only expanding army in the world. The U.S. had all the money left in the world and controlled a majority of the world's food supply. In short, Wilson had the whip hand. Nevertheless, he allowed the Allied powers to assign Germany sole war guilt and hand down the most punitive peace ever imposed on a great power. The words of Germany's Foreign Minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau in being treated with open contempt are well worth recalling: "In the past fifty years the imperialism of all European States has chronically poisoned the international situation . . . the disregard of the rights of peoples to determine their own destiny contributed to the illness of Europe, which saw its crisis in the World War . . . . Crimes in war may not be excusable . . . The hundreds of thousands of noncombatants who have perished since November 11 (1918) by reason of the [Allied food] blockade were killed with cold deliberation after our adversaries had conquered and victory had been assured to them. Think of that when you speak of guilt and punishment."

Wilson was not unaware of what a truly progressive presidency would have entailed. His most trusted advisor from his days as president of Princeton, George L. Record, wrote him a letter in 1919 pointing out that "you have ignored the great issue . . . the question of economic democracy, abolition of privilege, and securing to men the full fruits of their labor or service." He asked if Wilson thought that the yawning social inequalities then existing were what "our fathers had fondly hoped for?" Further observing that over the previous century frontier territories and their unbounded resources had allowed Washington to award land grants to all comers, Record noted that this had "covered up the fact that by establishing political democracy we had not rid ourselves of privilege." By the time of Wilson's presidency industrial conditions were beginning to resemble those of the Old World, with resources concentrated in few hands and the percentage of owned homes and farms declining rapidly. Millions of Americans worked long and hard for bare subsistence while the Food and Meat Trusts gouged the public without legal penalty. Meanwhile, noted Record, those who sought a political remedy were promptly punished. "Our courts send to prison for long terms poor, weak socialists, who have been driven to intemperate speech by the contemplation of monstrous injustice."

The Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations would not end war, predicted Record. "The League of Nations idea will not help . . . it does not go to the root of the problem." All modern states were in the hands of a privileged few, which controlled the railroads, lands, mines, banks, and credit. "These men thus obtain enormous and unearned capital, for which there is no use in the country where it is produced, because the poverty of the workers limits the home market. Those who control this surplus capital must seek new countries and new people to exploit, and this clash of selfish interests leads to war." In short, Wilson's much declared "permanent peace" couldn't be at hand, since all governments in the League denied justice to their own peoples.

Meanwhile, the greatest social experiment in history - Bolshevism - proceeded apace in Russia, and threatened to spread to Germany. Record warned Wilson not to denounce Communism or put its proponents in jail. The problem of industrial democracy's unequal classes had to be squarely faced, he warned. "If you fail to attempt to solve this problem, you will stand in history . . . . exactly as the leaders of the Whig and Democratic parties stood when they turned their backs on the rising question of slavery."

Record proposed an agenda: (1) public ownership of all railroads, public utilities, pipe lines and natural resources now controlled by Trusts; (2) opening of all patents to general use; (3) employment of all land now held out of use for speculation or monopolistic purposes; (4) the limitation of large fortunes by inheritance and income tax.

Wilson ignored the letter and orchestrated a red-baiting campaign that rivaled the hysteria of the anti-Kaiser crusade. In August, 1918, he had sent U.S. forces, as part of a 14-nation contingent, into Soviet Russia to overthrow the Bolshevik government. Conservatively estimated at 40,000 troops, U.S. forces supported reactionary White Guard armies and participated in widespread atrocities, including the robbery and killing of civilians. U.S. General William S. Graves, in charge of American forces in Siberia, had this to say on who was responsible for the death tolls: "There were horrible murders committed, but they were not committed by the Bolsheviks as the world believes. I am well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to every one killed by the Bolsheviks."

Wilson loathed the principle of social equality espoused by the Bolsheviks, which his secretary of state (Robert Lansing) explained, sought "to make the ignorant and incapable mass of humanity dominate the earth." The Bolsheviks, said Lansing, appealed "to the proletariat of all countries . . . to the ignorant and mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become masters." Wilson expressed concern that American blacks returning from abroad might become convinced by the Bolshevik heresy that black people had human rights, too. He also worried that corporations might have to permit lowly workers to sit on corporate boards of directors.

Many wars and a century later we are approaching human extinction due largely to continuing private control over public resources. Like Wilson before him, President Obama is utterly blind to the necessity of overturning the dictatorship of private capital over society. Unless an aroused public forges an intellectually sophisticated revolution against the tyranny of global oligarchy, the human future promises to be brief and brutal.

The Sources:

Philip Foner, "History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 5 - The AFL in the Progressive Era," (International Publishers, 1980)

Gabriel Kolko, "The Triumph of Conservatism - A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916," (Free Press, 1963)

Oswald Garrison Villard, "Fighting Years - Memoirs of a Liberal Editor," (Harcourt Brace and Co., 1939)

Arthur S. Link, "Woodrow Wilson - Revolution, War, and Peace," (Harlan Davidson Inc., 1979)

David Levering Lewis, "W. E. B. DuBois - Biography of a Race, 1869-1919," (Henry Holt, 1998)

David Levering Lewis, "W. E. B. DuBois - The Fight For Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963," (Henry Holt, 2000)

James W. Loewen, "Lies My Teacher Told Me - Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," (New Press, 1995)

Page Smith, "A People's History of the Progressive Era and WWI - America Enters the World," (McGraw Hill, 1985)

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "The Rebel Girl," (International Publishers, 1955)

Sydney Lens, "The Forging of the American Empire," (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971)

Wiesen-Cook, Blanche, "Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, 1884-1933," (Penguin, 1992)

Walter Millis, "The Road to War, 1914-1917," (Houghton Mifflin, 1935)

Charles Callin Tansill, "America Goes to War," (Little, Brown and Co., 1938)

Hans Schmidt, "The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934," (Rutgers, 1995)

Julius W. Pratt, "Challenge and Rejection - The United States and World Leadership, 1900-1921," (Macmillan, 1967)

Walter LaFeber, "The American Age - United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750," (W. W. Norton, 1989)

William S. Graves, "America's Siberian Adventure, 1918-1920," (New York, 1931)

Paul C. Vincent, "The Politics of Hunger - The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919," (Ohio University Press, 1985)

Noam Chomsky, "Propaganda and the Public Mind - Conversations With Noam Chomsky," (South End, 2001)

Michael Parenti, "Contrary Notions - The Michael Parenti Reader," (City Lights, 2007)

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