The passage of time permits historians to be truthful in their assessments of presidents. Abe Lincoln, a Republican Party icon since 1865, was exposed in the 21st century as America’s first tyrant by Thomas DiLorenzo. Woodrow Wilson, a Democratic icon since the early 20th century, has now been knocked off his pedestal by Jim Powell in Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II (Crown Forum, 2005).
Declaring Wilson to be "the worst president in American history," Powell makes a strong case that the rise of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were unintended consequences of Wilson’s arrogance.
Powell argues that the war, which began in 1914, was stalemated by 1917 and would have ended in a compromise peace. Wilson’s entry into the war won the war for Britain and France and allowed the disastrously vindictive Versailles Treaty to be imposed on Germany. The British economist, John Maynard Keynes, knew the treaty was unrealistic, as did Count von Brockdorff-Rantzau, the leader of the German Peace Delegation.
The Germans were aghast at "the victorious violence of our enemies." The Count told French President Georges Clemenceau that "the exactions of this treaty are more than the German people can bear." The treaty required massive losses of German territory: Part of East Prussia ("amputated from the body of the State, condemned to a lingering death, and robbed of its northern portion, including Memel") and most of West Prussia, Danzig, Pomerania, Upper Silesia, the Saar, the overseas German colonies, plus occupation of Rhenish territory for 15 years.
On top of the dissolution of the German state was added confiscation of all German assets abroad, the German merchant fleet, and reparation payments that would condemn the German people "to perpetual slave labor."
Powell shows how this insane treaty brought Hitler to power and how Wilson’s bribe to the Russian government to continue in the war produced the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin, and the Cold War. One hundred million deaths resulted from Wilson’s decision to turn the stalemated European conflict into World War I.
Like the current president, George W. Bush, Wilson became a warmonger once he gained power. In his first inaugural address, Wilson declared that the US government "has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people." Government was afflicted with "many deep secret things" and was "too often debauched and made an instrument of evil."
In his August 1914 address to Congress, Wilson warned against taking sides in the war. "The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name . . . impartial in thought, as well as action." By the following March, Wilson was disregarding his declared neutrality. Wilson "went along with Britain’s naval blockade — a blatant disregard for international law." Wilson invited war by insisting "Americans had the right to travel anywhere including a war zone."
By June 9, 1915, it was clear to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan that Wilson was heading America to war. "Under increasing pressure to march to war with Wilson, Bryan resigned as secretary of state."
If only Colin Powell had done the same. Bryan’s resignation could not stop Wilson from entering an ongoing war, but Colin Powell could have thrown a monkey wrench into Bush’s naked aggression against Iraq by refusing to deliver that packet of lies to the UN. Colin Powell would have saved his own reputation and that of his country along with thousands of lives. Instead, he allowed the White House morons to commit a fantastic strategic blunder, the consequences of which will allow future historians to much excoriate the hapless George W. Bush.
Jim Powell presents the disastrous 20th century as the unintended consequences of Wilson’s blunders. In contrast, Claes Ryn sees Wilson as America’s first Jacobin neoconservative. Powell could be speaking of Bush when he asks what gave Wilson the idea "that he could impose his will on millions of people who lived thousands of miles away?"
Historian Margaret MacMillan’s observation that Wilson’s "ability, self-deception perhaps, to frame his decisions so that they became not merely necessary, but morally right" applies equally to George W. Bush — as does Alexander and Juliette George’s observation that "to justify his aggressive treatment of opponents, [Wilson] needed to regard himself as the best interpreter of the people’s true aspirations."
America’s claim to virtuous hegemony is contradicted by the disasters inflicted on the world by America’s arrogant and blundering leaders.
Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, former contributing editor for National Review, and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.