on 19 March 2012
This is a great book, to which it is impossible to do justice in a review of this length. It includes many little known angles, such as the acquisition of thousands of German patents, sold at knock-down prices to US chemical and other industries, Also, there is fascinating stuff on the coal shortage in the winter of 1917/18, which led to all factories east of the Mississippi being closed down for four days so that trains could continue to run. This recalls some of the problems of the blockaded Central Powers - though far less excusable. Also how the cutting off of immigration led to the vast influx of southern blacks to northern cities, and the Berlin Wall-ish attempts of many southern communities to hold on to their cheap labour.
However, by far the best part is the first section, which recounts the grim tale of the war's impact on civil liberties. Kennedy gives many examples of the horrors, both by mob violence and what passed for process of law, befalling anyone showing the slightest flicker of dissent. They are too numerous to recount, but one is an absolute must. In 1917 film producer Robert Goldstein made a movie about the American Revolution, entitled "The Spirit of '76". A safely patriotic theme, one might suppose. But no. Prosecuted under the Espionage Act, Goldstein (a German Jew, so of course targeted by two separate classes of bigot) was sentenced to ten years in prison - because his film showed the Redcoats being nasty to Americans, at a time when Britain was an ally, so was held to undermine the war effort. Good ol' Mr Wilson graciously commuted the sentence - to three years. What comment is necessary? As a Brit, I almost fell out of my chair on discovering this gem.
Socialist Eugene Debs, of course, was even less lucky than Goldstein. For making a passing reference to the draft, in a speech on a totally different matter, he also got ten years, which Wilson refused to commute even after the war.
Nor is the criticism all "in hindsight". See these contemporary remarks from various of his (formerly) fellow Progressives. Amos Pinchot observed in 1918 that the President had "put his enemies in office and his friends in jail".
George Creel (ironically given his own major role in the process) summed up the Democratic Party's defeat in the 1918 elections for Congress, telling Wilson "All the radical or liberal friends of your anti-imperialist war policy were either silenced or intimidated. The Department of Justice and the Post Office were allowed to silence or intimidate them. There was no voice left to argue for your sort of peace. When we came to this election the reactionary Republicans had a clean record of anti-Hun imperialistic patriotism. Their opponents, your friends, were often either besmirched or obscured."
Oswald Garrison Willard (an old Wilsonian) regretted that "Wilson has made the great blunder of allowing his dull and narrow Postmaster-General, his narrow Attorney-General, all the other agencies under his control to suppress adequate discussion of the peace aims. . . At the very moment of his extremest trial, our liberal forces are by his own act scattered, silenced, disorganised, some in prison. If he loses his great fight for humanity, it will be because he was deliberately silent when freedom of speech and the right of conscience were struck down in America."
Predictably, organised labour soon fell victim to the times, with "obstruction of the war effort" a useful cover for strikebreaking. When Arizona copper miners dared to strike, the County sheriff tried to use troops against them. Failing in this, he "deputized" a 2000-strong armed posse and herded 1200 strikers onto a train to New Mexico, where they were left for two days in a sun-baked siding without food or water. Seeking to return, they were kept out of the mines by armed patrols, and some even rearrested when trying to report for the Draft. Indictments of the vigilantes were quashed in Federal Court, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court.
The 1920s, in short, did not begin in 1920 but in 1917, and it was not Lodge or Harding, but Wilson himself who began them. The lynch mobs of 1917-18, and the 1920s Klansmen who succeeded them, may perhaps be excused as simple folk who "knew not what they did", but Wilson did know. An educated man steeped in American history and tradition, with his eyes wide open he destroyed the Progressive Era and betrayed everything for which he had previously stood. It recalls a line I once read in a novel, about a man "who spoke a dozen languages and used all of them to spout the same cruel nonsense" about the need to burn witches.
Indeed, it is a measure of how awful these four years were that at times the much maligned (and admittedly mediocre) Warren Harding comes over almost as a voice of reason. Because his administration was soon discredited by sordidness and corruption, it is easy to forget that in 1920 most Americans were glad to see him come. This book explains why. After 1917-21, he could pass for a breath of fresh air.
It was a cruel irony that Wilson should be destroyed by the very forces he unleashed, but not unjust. He was ground to powder, crushed like an insect under the jackboot of some goose-stepping storm trooper - but it was a jackboot of his own making. The end of his presidency was no doubt tragic, but he deserved every last thing that happened to him. Doctor Woodrow Frankenstein had been destroyed by a monster of his own creation.
As stated, I've come nowhere near doing full justice to this book. As I go over this review, I am haunted by the ghosts of all that I have left out. If you're remotely interested in the subject, it is a "must read".