Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Century Ago The U.S. Had a Highly Educated President - A Fond Look Back

Among those who still haven't gotten over the 2016 elections there is the entrenched belief that Donald Trump is the worst president ever, largely owing to his boorish character and complete lack of education. While the latter assessment is difficult to quarrel with, the idea that Trump represents a radical departure from longstanding elite policies is frankly delusional.

A century ago Woodrow Wilson was president, a former university professor and president of Princeton, as well as a well-published historian with a Ph.D. in philosophy. In short, he was the epitome of academic achievement and refined Ivy League manners. Did it make a difference in terms of policy? Not in the slightest. Wilson makes Trump look like a progressive radical. (See Legalienate "False Savior:  Woodrow Wilson" for a review.)

Sticking just to 1918, Wilson completely ignored a swiftly mutating flu virus that sprang to life in the military camps of southwestern Kansas, circumnavigated the globe three times in 18 months, and killed off tens of millions of victims. While corpses were being stacked up like cordwood in U.S. cities, the president said absolutely nothing about it.

That same year Wilson successfully urged Congress to pass the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize the Wilson administration. The law banned derogatory references to the American flag, Constitution, or U.S. government under penalty of a 20-year prison sentence. But the legislation thoughtfully guaranteed Americans the right "to publish or speak what is true, with good motives, and for justifiable ends," which sounds as though Donald Trump himself wrote the bill.

Also passed in 1918 was the Immigration Act, which allowed the government to deport any "alien" who was an "anarchist" or believed in "the violent overthrow of the American government," or advocated "assassination of public officials." Simply belonging to organizations labeled anarchist or subversive could result in deportation, and the government had no obligation to prove individual guilt, merely establish guilt by association. Wilson's attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer boasted of the achievement before the U.S. Congress: "Never in its history has this country been so thoroughly policed."

Exercising vastly more power than Lincoln did at the height of the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson elevated himself to virtual Divine Kingship, assuming dictatorial control of finance, the press, the farms, and commerce and transportation. Critics of U.S. participation of WWI were arrested without warrants, detained without bail, and tried in an atmosphere charged with vengeful hysteria. Judges berated them in court, then assigned them long prison terms.
Newspapers were censored, editors arrested, mail permits canceled (in the pre-Internet era, cancellation of mail privileges amounted to ideological assassination.) The American Socialist, the New York Call, the Masses, the International Socialist Review, and Frank O’Hare’s Social Revolution were forced out of business.   

Germans, and those who failed to hound and persecute them, were marked for extreme abuse. In the year 1918 alone, the following incidents occurred:  A banker beat up a German grocer while a policeman held the victim’s arms; a mob in Staunton, Illinois tarred and feathered two Wobblies (labor organizers) and dragged suspected German sympathizers out of bed, forcing them to kiss the flag; an Indiana State college professor was made to resign for holding “pro-German views”; a schoolteacher of German parentage was fired for belonging to the Socialist Party and instructing her pupils to remain seated while singing the Star-Spangled Banner; the Boston Symphony Orchestra was forbidden to play Beethoven, and no concert could conclude without the playing of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”; vigilantes raided the libraries of private citizens and burned their German books in the streets; Liberty Loan speakers insisted everyone buy war bonds, while screeching that the killing had to continue until not a single German was left; Mary Turner, an eight months pregnant black woman who said that if she but knew who had lynched her husband she would have warrants issued for their arrest, had her clothes burned off by a mob, which then cut her unborn baby from her womb and stomped it to death. Mary was found riddled with bullets hanging head down from a tree.

That same year Jack Reed described Wilson's glorious war "to make the world safe for democracy" (WWI):  
“We were in this trench, up to our waists in running water; in the back of the trenches, where it was slightly drier, were dugouts...the walls of these dugouts were of soft mud; they moved slowly down as the men lay down; and the only sounds were the snores of the exhausted people sleeping, and....the screams of rats. As we could look at the could see over their faces where insects were crawling, vermin crawling. From the German trench...we looked through the port-hole, to the enemy trench, the French trench, eighty yards away. It had been raining for two weeks, two solid weeks of rain had come down...Between these two trenches, in the mud, forty yards from each trench, there lay a heap of bodies, all that was left of the last French charge, and these bodies were slowly sinking in the mud, had been left out there wounded to die. Nobody dared to come out...There had been no cessation of fighting; the wounded had lain out there screaming and dying in the mud, and they were sinking in the mud, and in some cases there wasn’t anything left of those bodies but an arm or a leg sticking up out of the soft mud with the flesh rotten on it.” 

       Reed also described the grotesquely twisted "patriotism" in the U.S. supporting Washington's clarion call to join the European slaughter:

“At the time I came back, which was at the beginning of 1916, the society columns were full about people getting up war benefits, giving war plays, and the hotels and the houses of the upper West Side, upper Fifth Avenue, were full of knitting parties, knitting socks for soldiers. They were not knitting socks for soldiers because their sons were in the trenches, as they knit socks for soldiers now; they were knitting them for soldiers because it was the thing to do. They had [Italian tenor] Caruso sing there in the afternoon while they were knitting socks for soldiers, and the talk was all of frivolity about the fact there was a war going on in Europe; England and France were in it, it was fashionable to be in it, and we were not in it—why weren’t we in it? It made me sort of sick.”

      At the conclusion of the appalling slaughter, Wilson was received in Europe as though he were Jesus returned from the dead. Vast crowds 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." All of Europe was agog over his "14 Points" and plan for "Permanent Peace." When he arrived in Brest, the whole town was down at the dock to welcome him. That evening as his train sped to Paris, peasants knelt beside the tracks to pray for him.

France greeted him with gun salutes and a massive throng singing and dancing madly in the streets. President Poincare invited him to sit in the state victoria where kings once perched, while an enormous crowd swayed and roared out his name: “Wil-son—Wil-son.”
The London press described his British reception as “A welcome unprecedented in history,” with two million people turning out to see Wilson riding in state carriage with the King and Queen and the Duke of Connaught, surrounded by gleaming Household Cavalry—with cannons booming. 

In Italy, peasants hung portraits of Wilson on the wall and crossed themselves when passing before his saintly image.

The euphoria merely served to whet the appetite for a dismal anticlimax, which was captured nicely by an incident reported by American reporter Lincoln Steffens. According to Steffens, two French newspapermen entered the Hotel Crillon during the Paris Peace negotiations and asked if the American reporters could verify a news story. Steffens promptly invited them to share the details.

The Frenchmen explained that, according to their sources, President Wilson and the premiers were about to get down to business that morning when Prime Minister Clemenceau inquired whether all the talk of permanent peace was to be taken quite seriously. His esteemed colleagues readily assured him it was. Clemenceau proceeded to point out that France was especially eager to conclude a permanent peace, because it was the first to suffer in European conflicts. To make absolutely sure the assembled dignitaries meant to arrange one, he inquired twice more if they really desired such a peace. Both times President Wilson, Lloyd George, and the Italians insisted they wanted nothing more. 
The bait laid, Clemenceau abruptly asked if his colleagues had taken the costs of such a peace into account. Taken aback, the heads of state chorused: “What costs?” 

“Well,” observed Clemenceau, “if we give up all future wars—if we are to prevent war, we must give up our empires and all hope of empire. You, Mr. Lloyd George, you English will have to come out of India, for example; we French shall have to come out of North Africa; and you Americans, Mr. President, you must get out of the Philippines and Puerto Rico and leave Cuba alone and—Mexico. Oh, we can all go to these and other countries, but as tourists, traders, travelers; we cannot any more govern them or exploit or have the inside track in them. We cannot possess the keys to trade routes and spheres of influence. And, yes, we shall have to tear down our tariff walls and open the whole world to free trade and traffic... It is very expensive, peace. We French are willing, but are you willing, to pay the price, all those costs of no more war in the world?”

The president and the premiers immediately protested that they meant nothing so drastic, that such things weren’t really necessary, especially not all at once.

Hearing this response, Clemenceau sat bolt upright, crashed his fist down on the table, and thundered: “Then, then you don’t mean peace. You mean war. And the time for us French to make war is now, when we have got one of our neighbors down; we shall finish him and get ready for—the next war.”

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