I just finished reading Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Word War II by Jim Powell.
The author makes the claim that much of the suffering and tragedy of the 20th century can be attributed to the arrogance of President Woodrow Wilson and his decision to persuade the nation to enter World War I on the side of the British, French and Russia. Mr. Powell presents a compelling case, but makes some rather speculative assumptions about how events would have turned out differently had Wilson not made this fatal blunder.
He begins with demonstrating the character flaws, in particular the arrogance, of Woodrow Wilson in his careers leading up to becoming president. He recounted a bitter squabble Wilson picked with administrators at Princeton when he was the president of that University. The way Powell portrayed it, the whole affair seems childish. This debacle eventually led to Wilson’s dismissal by the board of trustees. A generation later, strong resentment and bitterness still existed at Princeton whenever the subject was brought up. (It is interesting to note that Wilson won the presidency because of a three-way split in the electoral college between the incumbent Taft, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt, who was running on a third-party ticket that split the Republican vote. This was exactly how Bill Clinton got elected.)
The author then demonstrates the ineptness of Wilson in foreign affairs prior to entering World War I in his attempts at nation-building in Mexico. Wilson did not learn from the mistakes made in his failure to capture Pancho Villa and install and influence a favored Mexican leader.
Wilson’s famous 14 Points doctrine contained some inconsistencies and some logical flaws. However, Germany accepted the armistice with the understanding that the peace negotiations would be based on these 14 points; but when the time came, Wilson proved he had not thought through the implementation of these points and didn’t care for the details of how they could be made workable. Britain and France were therefore given a free hand in demanding punitive and vindictive reperations from Germany which lead to the bitterness that helped Hitler come to power and begin World War II.
In addition, Wilson pressured the Provisional Government in Russia to stay in the war even though the war had already caused revolution and chronic instability within the Russian Empire that would shortly lead to the fall of the Provisional Government and the accession of Lenin and communism to power.
All of this would have been avoided, says Powell, if Wilson had simply kept America out of the war. The conflict had been stalemated for nearly three years and would have probably ended in a draw and more equitable peace terms had America not tipped the balance of power in favor of the Allies. The “unjust” reparations inflicted on Germany would have been avoided and Europe would have probably resolved the long-stalemated war on more equitable terms. Powell further argues that even in the unlikely event that the severely weakened German government had won the war, it would not have been able to hold on to many, if any, gains because of it’s shattered economy and demoralized populace. The author make a strong case that Germany was never a remotely viable threat to the security of the United States and debunks Wilson’s criteria for entering the war in the first place.
Throughout the work Jim Powell relates how hostile economic conditions between nations and inefficient, freedom-hampering socialist domestic practices led to the Great War and continued to contribute to the unstable and demoralizing conditions that led to World War II, fascism, and the 70-year-long tragedy of communist Russia.
The entire basis of this book is fascinating to consider in a “what if” sort of play, but it remains just that. Most of the conditions which led to the great tragedies of the 20th century were spawned from the ongoing all-too-human experiences of the 19th century which in turn were products of previous bad choices made in the centuries before. To attribute all the subsequent evil to one man, however misguided and arrogant, is always a bit of a stretch. Hitler, Lenin and Stalin all played pivotal roles in the suffering of humanity, but they did not do it entirely on their own. Wilson’s blunder may have aided them, but he, like them, was taking advantage of situations and conditions already handed to him from the follies of others. That said, it may be true that if someone had drowned Hitler as an infant, World War II might never have happened. If the Tzar of Russia had been a little less pig-headed, communism might not have ever taken hold. If Woodrow Wilson had been a bit more humble, (and in my view a bit more moral, but that’s another story) World War I may still be simply called “The Great War” today and it is possible the world might have learned the lessons sooner that it took us another century of spilled blood to figure out.