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).