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).