President Wilson’s War

President Wilson has famously been described as a pacifist who, after campaigning for his second term as the president who had “kept us out of war” (a slogan used in his campaign), then proceeded in his second term to lead the nation into one. Yet Wilson was an odd sort of pacifist, even right from the start; his main concerns seem to have been to keep the United States out of the European war, at least as long as possible, and to ensure that, when it ended, the war would lead to a “peace without victory” (a phrase he used, but did not invent), that is a non-punitive peace that would permit all the formerly combatant countries to flourish. For America, he envisioned a policy of strict neutrality, which, however, he expected would be hard to maintain in a country whose population came from all over the world and among whom could be expected viewpoints reflecting those in the different countries we all came from. As the war in Europe began, Wilson advocated for Americans to be neutral even in their personal thinking about the conflict. His expectations were not only unmet but also condemned as naïve. Roosevelt’s answer to Wilson’s appeal for neutrality of thought takes on another unpleasant attribute of the Wilsonian position: acknowledging his own family’s German background, Roosevelt was outraged at the idea that it would somehow lead him to be sympathetic to the invasion of Belgium or the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. In light of Wilson’s history of problems in dealing with related issues, his stated expectations about Americans’ unwillingness to go to war against Germany seem to reflect less his opposition to war than his lack of confidence in his ability to lead the nation through this particular one, for reasons that today seem to discredit both Wilson and those Americans who actually fit his expectations about them. In the event, the aggressiveness of German submarine warfare against neutrals as well as combatants (not to mention the Germans’ suggestion that Mexico could reclaim its lost North American territory if it joined on the right side) left the Americans with little choice. Slowly they entered the war, belatedly they made the necessary preparations, and eventually they mobilized four million men. It was the first time Americans had sent forces to Europe, one and a half million in the last six months of the war.

“No such migration had ever been made before in such a short time,” comments one historian, “and never before or since”, he adds, “in the midst of a pandemic” (A.W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic. The Influenza of 1918. [New edition, 2003.], Cambridge Univ. Press.). Fifty-three thousand American men in the American Expeditionary Forces died in action in Europe; about sixty-three thousand died of influenza. Since the earliest documentation of the pandemic in America was in the military (first on navy ships, then in the army), the military in turn became an object of fear in the United States, a situation resolved by a spread of the disease so rapid that it soon became pointless to differentiate who exactly people should be afraid of. Historians have suggested that one reason that the 1918-1919 pandemic made so little impact on Americans’ cultural memory is that, on one hand, the experience tended to become folded into the history of the war, while, on the other, contemporary record-keeping, especially in rural areas and outside the military, was poorly developed, making it hard for people who lived through the pandemic to grasp its full dimensions. Had collective memory been better, one may speculate, perhaps later generations would have been more consistently attentive to public-health preparedness, as well as to the full range of domestic consequences when we fight wars abroad.

It must be said that Wilson, once convinced that the United States needed to fight, brought to his rhetoric an extraordinary force of spiritual conviction. He referred for example to the Treaty of Versailles as the redemption of “the sacred blood that was shed”, a reference that one biographer has noted “reek[s] of holy war more than just war, let alone pacifism. And World War I became for Wilson a holy war… His deep belief in righteousness and America’s role in fostering it worldwide trumped whatever reluctance he had about war” (Hankins, 157).

Flyleaf, handwritten inscription by M.T. Garvin

Presidents, Prophets, War, Public Health

“The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, speak to your fellow countrymen and say to them: When I bring the sword against a country, the citizens of that country take one of their number and appoint him their watchman. Suppose he sees the sword advancing against the country, and he blows the horn and warns the people. If anybody hears the sound of the horn but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and dispatches him, his blood shall be on his own head. Since he heard the sound of the horn but ignored the warning, his bloodguilt shall be upon himself; had he taken the warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword advancing and does not blow the horn, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and destroys one of them …  I will demand a reckoning for his blood from the watchman” (Ezekiel 33.1-6).

According to President Wilson himself, Ezekiel’s warning to the watchmen of nations became the text that at last persuaded him that the United States should prepare to join the European allies fighting the Great War of 1914-1918. Since Wilson was the devout son of a Presbyterian minister, perhaps this is not so surprising. More surprising is that by the time Wilson was moved to act, Ezekiel’s warning was a continuing source of American public debate, making newspaper headlines beginning in 1915, not a time when most Americans, dear readers, were spending their spare time reading the Prophets. Instead, we were taking our cue from, of all people, Theodore Roosevelt, who began from this passage (not one of Ezekiel’s best, incidentally) in an article called “Peace Insurance by Preparedness against War”, which marked the beginning of what became the Preparedness Movement, led by Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood. Roosevelt, of course, had been defeated by Wilson in the 1912 presidential campaign, but only thanks to the Republican Party being split, with Roosevelt founding his own Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose” Party, which advocated  strong social safety-net measures, such as universal public health. The issue was similarly well appreciated by Roosevelt’s partner Wood, who remains even today the only surgeon to have been the Chief of Staff of the US Army, and whose organizational skills have been credited with preserving lives not only in the military but also in local populations in Santiago de Cuba, where he was the military governor controlling the occupying American forces. Roosevelt had first met Wood when the latter was serving in the White House as the President’s physician through two presidencies in the 1890s. Wood is considered to have fallen “short of greatness”. Perhaps some of his work, however, uniting as it did both an understanding of the value of preparedness and the importance of public health, deserves to be remembered by us today. And by our watchmen.

And Ezekiel, folks, is the prophet on the north sanctuary wall in the panel second from left, second figure from the end of that panel; counting from Moses’ right hand, he’s third guy to the right, next to Daniel, who is the one holding a scroll. And that makes it truly an “Old Testament”, i.e. Christian, frieze, since although all these gentlemen are in the Hebrew scriptures, Daniel is grouped with the prophets only in Christian Bibles. In Jewish Bibles, he is tucked in with the “Writings” (Kethuvim).

News flash: US President lashes out at newspaper editor!

The description of our windows in our own church literature characterizes Wilson as the “favorite” of our founder Mr Garvin, and certainly no other window in the church generated as much newspaper publicity when it was dedicated. Some in the congregation, and even an occasional visitor, however, have expressed distaste for having President Wilson honored in this way. Whatever other issues arise, certainly Wilson’s immediate proximity to Lincoln is jarring, because his presidency (1913-1921) saw the reimposition of segregation in departments of the federal government that had previously desegregated. The situation was unlikely to have been unknown to Mr Garvin, since the Unitarians of the “Middle States and Canada” issued a joint resolution condemning it (The Guardian, Boston, November 15, 1913). Moreover, Wilson’s campaign for the presidency had appealed  to the African American community for its vote on the basis of Wilson’s “Christian” commitment to a “new freedom for all people” (Barry Hankins, Woodrow Wilson. Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 124-29), and Mr Garvin, active in Democratic party politics in Lancaster, was unlikely not to have been aware of the candidate’s campaign promise. He will also have been fully aware of what sort of Christianity President Wilson espoused, namely Presbyterian, a denomination that had been split in the lead-up to the Civil War and remained so long afterward. Wilson, a southerner by birth and the son of a Presbyterian minister, experienced some of the stresses within Presbyterian Christianity first-hand, and he had become president of Princeton University partly because his immediate predecessor had embarrassed himself, Wilson, and much of the rest of the faculty when, after Wilson had invited a prominent historian  to join the faculty, the president refused to appoint him because the invitee was a Unitarian. Wilson’s own view of Christianity seems to have been that it was a personal matter, an opinion reinforced when universities controlled by churches were threatened with loss of funds; he apparently also had no intention of allowing his own Christian commitments to have much to do with his decisions about the segregation of federal agencies. He also seems not to have been able to grasp the idea that segregation was discriminatory, an issue that was argued at length in discussions Wilson had with William Monroe Trotter, the prominent  black civil rights activist, political leader, and editor of the Boston Guardian, who came to the White House with a delegation to support desegregation. As the controversy continued to rage throughout 1913-1914, however, Wilson’s interest in the issue became subordinated to his overriding concern for keeping the United States out of the impending European war, and Wilson cut off even the possibility of further discussion with Trotter after Trotter expressed the disappointment of the African American community, who had up to then seen in Wilson a “second Abraham Lincoln”. Wilson’s furious response on that occasion was, in Wilson’s own words, a response to Trotter’s “tone”, absence of “Christian spirit”, and his alleged political “blackmail” (Hankins, 131). Wilson declared himself ready to discuss the issues Trotter presented with the other members of Trotter’s delegation, because they, unlike Trotter, comported themselves more in the way that this white southern Christian gentleman then President of the United States deemed appropriate.

So: Wilson was no “second Abraham Lincoln” and even said, in response to that idea: “Leave me out!” Why was he not left out, then, of the Presidents’ Window of our church? We cannot see into Mr Garvin’s mind, of course, especially since the records he retained about church business were carefully curated to remove anything too personal. Yet we may look to the program of the church decorations to see a possible explanation. To be continued …

In this strange moment…

our UUCL community is reminded of how much more community means than just the building in which it comes together for worship. And yet. We do call our place of worship a sanctuary, and we crave sanctuary now. We need it for ourselves, we need it to hold together and repair the straining webs of all our different communities. Although our UUCL sanctuary raises up individual heroes, they all appear in groups, as leaders of communities that reach across time and space. Some of our heroes were heroes of religious faith in something approaching the way that phrase is used conventionally. Others are heroes who had no faith at all in the conventional religion of their day, and would not be revered in any church but our own sometimes rather peculiar one. As we think about the people memorialized in our windows, and why they are standing there grouped as they are, we are reminded that they and we have all been through a lot, sometimes certainly feeling alone but joined in hope and in faith that our communities will someday be repaired and healed. In the future, there will continue to be those who continue to work, as they worked, for the good of all. Some are working, even heroically, for it now.

The central windows of the sanctuary memorialize our country’s founders, and, opposite, national leaders in time of wrenching change. William Penn occupies the center panel of the east central window, and opposite him, Abraham Lincoln. The west central window, with its three panels, is generally referred to as “The Presidents’ Window”, as Lincoln is flanked by Thomas Jefferson (south panel) and Woodrow Wilson (north).

The choice of Lincoln seems obvious, since other panels, notably the one dedicated to Theodore Parker, focus on the issues of freedom and justice eventually joined in Lincoln’s presidency. Jefferson’s presence is usually said, in our church literature, to be motivated by his role in establishing freedom of religion in his home state of Virginia, and little if anything is made of the window thus juxtaposing Lincoln with a slaveholder. In general, it was part of the way the church ornamentation was planned, that people of different times and places should be represented together, to show how their different achievements contribute to progress shared along one or another specific trajectory, for example, science (in the northwest window) or philosophy (in the southwest). Yet we cannot help wondering how freedom of religion in Virginia is to be celebrated if the religion people were free to believe in supported their simultaneous belief in the superiority of white men and their inherent right to own people who were not white. No one, after all, would suggest we memorialize freedom of religion for people who consider it their sacred duty to tear out the heart of their eldest son and cast it into a burning pyre.

We sometimes think that the “Jefferson problem” has only been noticed in recent years, but then we think “noticed by whom, exactly?”.  

Sarah Hemings’s descendants will have noticed long ago, and public notice is nearly as old as the republic. A hint of this may perhaps explain a peculiarity of the Jefferson window. Like other windows in our church, the diamond panes are occasionally interrupted by small round ones, mostly plain frosted glass. Only a few have any interior lead seams, and among them, there is  one in the  Jefferson window that has so many seams it seems hardly to hold together. These are not repairs, but belong to the original design.We do not know why W.H. Ritter, the architect, designed the window that way, but one may wonder if it was not a sign of the “Jefferson problem”, especially since we know that in the neighboring Lincoln window, the crack in the Stars and Stripes can only refer to the crack in the Union, while the essay named in Emerson’s window, “Compensation”, is the source of his famous statement: there is a crack in everything God has made. Isn’t there just.

Yet the most problematic of the three panes in the Presidents’ Window is the third, the northernmost, dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. It deserves a separate small place in our thoughts, so we will return to it, God willing, tomorrow.