"The National Conscience
"The Old America That Was
Free and Is Now Dead"
excerpted from the book
The Politics of War
the story of two wars which altered
forever the political life of the American republic
by Walter Karp
Franklin Square Press, 1979, paper
"The National Conscience Is Clear"
For twenty months Wilson had been maneuvering America toward war
without any troublesome misgivings. Insulated by a carapace of
catch phrases-"service to mankind," "democracy
against autocracy," "German militarism," "immutable
law," "the dictates of humanity" "permanent
peace," "association of nations"-the President
had disregarded everything save the noble vision of himself delivering
mankind from the scourge of war.
On January 15 when the Germans, in a last-ditch effort to avert
war, proposed moderate terms in a second reply to Wilson's note,
the President did not even bother to inform the Allies, although
they opened up prospects for a negotiated settlement. He regarded
the offer as a mere German ruse to gain the good will of Americans
and thereby forestall war with the United States. That Wilson
could not possibly allow.
On January 10, with German hopes for a negotiated peace reduced
to the merest flicker, German military leaders finally persuaded
a reluctant, rattled Kaiser Wilhelm to gamble the future of his
country on submarine warfare conducted without restriction of
any kind. German submarines were to sink on sight every merchantman
found in the war zone, neutral as well as belligerent. According
to the German Admiralty, only through an absolute blockade could
German submarines deliver the swift fatal blow to the enemy on
which the whole immense gamble depended. The German high command
no longer seriously cared about keeping America neutral. The price
had become too high, for it was Wilson's protection of the British
munitions traffic and his support of the British blockade that
made possible the Allies' deadly war of attrition.
For Wilson the war "to end war" was now clearly in view.
He had only to sit back, it seemed, and wait for German submarines
to give him no choice. With understandable optimism, the President,
on February 6, informed his bellicose cabinet that he was "passionately"
resolved to avoid any act of hostility toward Germany or to commit
even the smallest breach in punctilious neutrality. "If we
are to have war," said Wilson, "we must go in with our
hands clean." With Germany planning to sink neutral ships
on sight, Wilson decided not to make an issue of American travelers
killed on belligerent vessels. The exalted "human right"
to travel safely on belligerent merchantmen had never seemed very
important to most Americans. Since it was only Wilson's pretext
for conflict with Germany, the President preferred to make the
sinking of an American freighter, rather than the death of an
American traveler, the "overt act" that necessitated
war. Having served its purpose, the "sacred" right to
safe travel was quietly shelved by the President had been exalting
it for so long.
By now the large antiwar majority in America
was virtually impotent to block 'Wilson's war course. Eventually
some American ships, drawn by the lure of high profits, would
leave their home ports. Eventually one of them would be sunk.
The President would ask Congress for a declaration of war and
Congress would enthusiastically oblige. Short of a spontaneous
national insurrection there was nothing the American people could
do to alter that inevitable sequence of events. Nevertheless,
it was they who would have to do the fighting. It was they who
would have to be persuaded, once war was declared, that German
submarine attacks on American freighters justified a mass conscript
army, total mobilization of the national economy, and the dispatch
of an armed host to the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe. That
prospect was so alien to all American experience, so contrary
to all American tradition, that it was to remain beyond the imagining
of most Americans until the reality itself burst in upon them.
That millions of Americans, even in wartime, might resist conscription
and prevent the dispatch of an expeditionary army was a possibility
that filled Wilson with dread To protect his future war from popular
dissent the administration was already drafting an "espionage"
bill that 'Wilson was shortly to use in the severest assault on
political liberty ever launched by an American President. In short,
if Americans were going to fight the massive land war Wilson intended
to wage, it was not only imperative that he get American freighters
sunk it was equally imperative to convince Americans that the
sinkings were a causus belli sufficiently provocative to justify
reprisal on an unprecedented scale.
On February 17, a mere eleven days after
vowing "passionately" to act peacefully and punctiliously,
Wilson disclosed to a number of Senate Democrats his bold solution
to the dual problem facing him: getting American freighters in
the war zone to be sunk and persuading the electorate that the
sinkings constituted an act of war against America itself. The
President intended to arm American freighters with U.S. Navy guns,
man them with U.S. Navy gun crews, and authorize them to attack
submarines in the war zone. By putting America's private commerce
with a belligerent under official military protection, Wilson
meant to declare as emphatically as possible that such commerce,
so far from being a private affair, involved a government obligation
so binding that the sinking of an American freighter could only
be regarded as an act of war against the United States itself.
The chief purpose of Wilson's plan-"armed neutrality,"
he called it-was to persuade the American people that what they
stubbornly regarded as private was inescapably public, which is
to say, its chief purpose was domestic war propaganda.
Had the President intended only to arm freighters trading in noncontraband
with England he had strong justification for doing I so, given
Germany's submarine declaration. Wilson, however, was determined
to put navy guns on American ships carrying munitions to England.
The President had neither the obligation nor the warrant to arm
such ships. The very opposite was true. Neutral ships carrying
contraband to a belligerent sail for their own private profit
and assume their own private risks; they are legally subject to
capture and destruction. For the neutral America to protect by
force a private munitions trade with a belligerent was far worse
than a gross breach of neutrality. It constituted an act of war
in itself. Worse yet, it was a wholly gratuitous act. So far from
assuming a time-honored obligation Wilson hoped to evade a time-honored
obligation, the obligation President Washington recognized in
1793 when he publicly proclaimed that Americans shipping contraband
of war to belligerents "will not receive the protection of
the United States." Even Wilson's secretary of the navy,
Josephus Daniels, warned the President that if he armed ships
carrying war contraband and authorized them to attack submarines
he would be violating Germany's acknowledged right to seize and
To all such legal considerations the President
turned a deaf ear. International law was "sacred" to
Wilson only if it led to war with Germany.
On February 27 Wilson introduced into Congress an armed neutrality
bill, drafted by himself, authorizing him not only to arm American
freighters but "to employ such other instrumentalities and
methods.. . to protect such vessels and the citizens of the United
States in their lawful and peaceful pursuits on the high seas."
Under the proposed legislation Wilson could, if he chose, use
American battleships to protect American traffic in munitions
and start a war at sea at once. That Congress would approve the
measure swiftly and overwhelmingly Wilson had no reason to doubt.
Congress was avid for war. One cloud only loomed up on the President's
horizon: the formidable figure of Senator La Follette himself.
Like a battlescarred lion rudely awakened from his slumbers, an
aroused La Follette, grim and angry, was determined to give battle
to Wilson and stop him, if possible, in his tracks. As in the
days of the tariff fight against Aldrich, the Wisconsin senator
quickly rounded up insurgent Republican members of the dwindling
peace faction Norris, Cummins, Gronna of North Dakota, Works
of California - for a concerted assault on the armed ship bill.
With the 64th Congress scheduled to expire at noon, March 4, La
Follette's immediate objective was to block a final vote on the
measure. More important, La Follette was fighting for time-time
to expose the perils and shams of armed neutrality, time to marshal
the antiwar sentiments of the American people. Then let Wilson
call the new Congress into special session if he dared. In the
long roster of American senators, few, if any, could match La
Follette's fighting courage and tenacity. It was a man of heroic
stature who was now about to stand up with a handful of allies
to challenge the President and the legions of the war party."
On the afternoon of March 4 the President released to the press
a scathing statement virtually accusing La Follette and his colleagues
of treason to their country. "A little group of willful men,
representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great
Government of the United States helpless and contemptible."
The statement was itself an extraordinary act, for never before
had a President singled out members of the Senate for such savage
public denunciation. Wilson's purport was unmistakable: "This
President who abhors war" wanted the nation's chief antiwar
spokesmen politically destroyed.
If it was too late to avert war, it was not too late for La Follette
to expose the lies and false dealings by which a sovereign people
were now being j, pushed into the bloodiest war in history."
At 4 P.M. on April 4, Senator La Follette
took the floor of the upper chamber to deliver one of the bravest
speeches ever made in the United States Senate. The speech, a
long one, began slowly with a close discussion of armed neutrality,
the now-forgotten cause célébre of the previous
month. The President, La Follette pointed out, had been utterly
wrong about the arming of American freighters. He had now admitted
as much himself. Yet with what confidence had he held up to scorn
those who had dared say he was wrong. Two days ago the President
again came before Congress equally confident of his judgment.
Was he, asked La Follette, perhaps equally wrong again? "Let
us with the earnestness and singleness of purpose which the momentous
nature of the question involves be calm enough and brave enough
to examine further the President's address of April 2." Then,
with a cold and noble fury, La Follette proceeded to tear to shreds,
pretense by pretense, distortion by distortion, the glib propagandist's
appeal for war that the President of the United States had seen
fit to put before an ostensibly free people.
The President had emphasized, said La
Follette, Germany's broken submarine "promise." The
diplomatic record showed otherwise. "The promise, so-called,
of the German government was conditional upon England's being
brought to obedience of international law in her naval warfare."
Nobody would contend that this had been done. "Was it quite
fair to lay before the country a statement which implies that
Germany had made an unconditional promise which she had dishonestly
violated?... The public mind should be calm, not inflamed"
by its President. The President had dwelt long on Germany's violation
of international law. "Would it not be well to say also that
it was England, not Germany, who refused to obey the Declaration
of London?... Keep that in mind. Would it not have been fair to
say, and to keep in mind, that Germany offered to abide by those
principles and England refused?" The President had said that
German submarine warfare against commerce was "a war against
all nations," but "is it not a little peculiar that
if Germany's warfare is against all nations the United States
is the only nation that regards it necessary to declare war on
that account?" Does that fact not suggest in itself that
"Germany's conduct under the circumstances does not merit
from any nation which is determined to preserve its neutrality
a declaration of war?"
The President had said he was a "sincere
friend" of the German people. How, asked La Follette, did
he now propose to demonstrate his friendship? He had told us:
by "the utmost practicable cooperation" with Germany's
enemies. "Practicable cooperation with England and her allies
in starving to death the old men and women, the children, the
sick and the maimed of Germany." Let us, said La Follette,
mocking Wilson's own phrase, "throw pretense to the winds."
The President wanted the United States to wage war on the side
of the "hereditary enemies of Germany." When we did
so, their purpose would "become our purpose." Did the
President think that when the war was over Great Britain would
be unable "to bend us to her purposes and compel compliance
with her demands?"
The President, of course, professed higher
goals. The President said this was a war "for democracy,
for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice
in their own government." That, said La Follette, was indeed
an "exalted sentiment." In accordance with it, the President
looked forward to the overthrow of German autocracy. Why not the
dissolution of the British Empire? "The President has not
suggested that we make our support of Great Britain conditional
to her granting home rule to Ireland, or Egypt or India."
Russia's tsar had been overthrown two weeks ago, "but it
will hardly be contended that if Russia was still an autocratic
Government, we would not be asked to enter this alliance with
her just the same." Indeed, a President who told the people
of Germany they could have peace only by "giving up their
Government" had a very strange notion of self-government.
The President made "a profession of democracy that is linked
in action with the most brutal and domineering use of autocratic
power. Are the people of this country being so well represented
in this war movement that we need to go abroad to give other people
control of their governments?... It ill becomes us to offer as
an excuse for our entry into the war the unsupported claim that
this war was forced upon the German people by their government
'without their previous knowledge or approval.' Who has registered
the knowledge or approval of the American people of the course
this Congress is called upon to take in declaring war upon Germany?...
The espionage bills, the conscription bills and other forcible
military measures which we understand are being ground out of
the war machine in this country is the complete proof that those
responsible for this war fear that it has no popular support."
So much for Wilson's "profession of democracy" and his
devotion to government by the consent of the governed.
Leaving Wilson's war message where it
lay, Senator La Follette then turned to Wilson's diplomatic record
of false neutrality. It was not Germany, La Follette noted, who
first disregarded the rules of international law. It was England.
It was not Germany who refused to accede to our protests. It was
England. It was not Germany who first sank neutral ships without
warning. It was England, when she sowed the entire North Sea with
submarine mines. Yet what did the Wilson administration do in
the face of that act "unheard of before in the history of
the world"? It "agreed to the lawless act of Great Britain
.... The present administration has never uttered a word of protest
.... The only reason why we have not suffered the sacrifice of
just as many ships and just as many lives from the violation of
our rights by the war zone and submarine mines of Great Britain
as we have through the unlawful acts of Germany in making her
war zone in violation of our neutral rights is simply because
we have submitted to Great Britain's dictation." Having "acquiesced
in England's action without protest, it is proposed that we now
go to war with Germany for identically the same action on her
part." Worse yet, it was proposed that we do so by the President
in utter disregard for his own "moral responsibility for
the position in which Germany has been placed by our collusion
and cooperation with Great Britain. By suppressing the rule with
regard to neutral rights in Great Britain's case, we have been
actively aiding her in starving the civil population of Germany.
We have helped to drive Germany into a corner, her back to the
wall, to fight with what weapons she can lay hands on..."
Because of Wilson's policy of "collusion
and cooperation" with one of the belligerents, America's
neutral rights were no longer a just ground for war. "We
from early in the war threw our neutrality to the winds by permitting
England to make a mockery of it to her advantage against her chief
enemy." That had been the President's policy. He had claimed
the right as a neutral to enforce the rules of war against one
belligerent and not against its enemy. He made that claim formally
and explicitly, noted La Follette, in his May 8, 1916, Sussex
note to Germany when he insisted that Britain's violation of America's
neutral rights was no concern of its enemy. That note "misstates
the law; it asserts a principle that can not be maintained for
one moment with a decent regard for equal rights between nations
with whom we are dealing upon a basis of equality." The President
had no right to make such an assertion, for no neutral enjoys
such a right. "There can be no greater violation of our neutrality
than the requirement that one of two belligerents shall adhere
to the settled principles of law and that the other shall have
the advantage of not doing so." Because of Wilson's false
neutrality, America had lost the character of a neutral; America
could no longer claim absolute neutral rights. Because of Wilson's
violation of neutrality, our neutral rights were no longer absolute
but "relative." Yet the President who worked in "collusion"
for two years with one of the belligerents now was asking Congress
to declare war against its enemy in defense of the very neutral
rights he himself had wantonly compromised. Such were the false
and dishonest grounds of the President's proposal for hurling
America "into the bottomless pit of the European conflict."
As La Follette spoke, senators one by
one left their seats and headed for the cloakroom. It was not
a pleasant speech for most senators to hear, but La Follette was
not really speaking to his fellow senators. In a sense he was
not even speaking to the American people. More than anything else,
he was speaking for the record on which he hoped one day they
might act. "There is always lodged, and always will be, thank
the God above us, power in the people supreme. Sometimes it sleeps,
sometimes it seems the sleep of death; but, sir, the sovereign
power of the people never dies. It may be suppressed for a time,
it may be misled, be fooled, silenced. I think, Mr. President,
that it is being denied expression now. I think there will come
a day when it will have expression. The poor, sir, who are the
ones called upon to rot in the trenches, have no organized power,
have no press to voice their will on this question of war and
peace; but, oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard
.... There will come an awakening; they will have their day and
they will be heard." On that day of awakening, hopefully,
they would remember not the glib, dishonest phrases of a hypocrite
President, but the dense honest utterance of the valiant senator
When La Follette finished his speech at
6:45 P.M., with tears of grief and unspent anger streaming down
his face, one reporter in the press gallery turned to his friend
and said: "That is the greatest speech we will either of
us ever hear. It will not be answered because it is unanswerable."
A few hours later the Senate voted for war 82 to 6-Norris, Stone,
Gronna, Vardaman, and Henry Lane of Oregon joining La Follette
in a final courageous dissent. The next day the House voted with
the Senate, 373 to 50. Woodrow Wilson at last had his war.
"The Old America That Was Free and
Is Now Dead"
The triumph of Wilson and the war party struck the American Republic
a blow from which it has never recovered. If the mainspring of
a republican commonwealth-its "active principle," in
Jefferson's words-is the perpetual struggle against oligarchy
and privilege, against private monopoly and arbitrary power, then
that mainspring was snapped and deliberately snapped by the victors
in the civil war over war.
The sheer fact of war was shattering in
itself. Deaf to the trumpets and the fanfare, the great mass of
Americans entered the war apathetic, submissive, and bitter. Their
honest sentiments had been trodden to the ground, their judgment
derided, their interests ignored. Representative government had
failed them at every turn. A President, newly reelected, had betrayed
his promise to keep the peace. Congress, self-emasculated, had
neither checked nor balanced nor even seriously questioned the
pretexts and pretensions of the nation's chief executive. The
free press had shown itself to be manifestly unfree-a tool of
the powerful and a voice of the "interests." Every vaunted
progressive reform had failed as well. Wall Street bankers, supposedly
humbled by the Wilsonian reforms, had impudently clamored for
preparedness and war. The Senate, ostensibly made more democratic
through the direct election of senators, had proven as impervious
as ever to public opinion. The party machines, supposedly weakened
by the popular primary, still held elected officials in their
thrall. Never did the powerful in America seem so willful, so
wanton, or so remote from popular control as they did the day
war with Germany began. On that day Americans learned a profoundly
embittering lesson: They did not count. Their very lives hung
in the balance and still they did not count. That bitter lesson
was itself profoundly corrupting, for it transformed citizens
into cynics, filled free men with self-loathing, and drove millions
into privacy, apathy, and despair.
Deep as it was, the wound of war might
have healed in time had Wilson and the war party rested content
with their war. With that war alone, however, they were by no
means content. Well before the war, the war party had made its
aims clear. It looked forward to a new political order distinguished
by "complete internal peace" and by the people's "consecration
to the State." It wanted an electorate that looked upon "loyalty"
to the powerful as the highest political virtue and the exercise
of liberty as proof of "disloyalty." The war party wanted
a free people made servile and a free republic made safe for oligarchy
and privilege, for the few who ruled and the few who grew rich;
in a word, for itself. The goals had been announced in peacetime.
They were to be achieved under cover of war. While American troops
learned to survive in the trenches, Americans at home learned
to live with repression and its odious creatures-with the government
spy and the government burglar, with the neighborhood stool pigeon
and the official vigilante, with and the lawlessness of bigot
judges, with the midnight police raid and the dragnet arrest.
In this domestic war to make America safe
for oligarchy, Woodrow Wilson forged all the main weapons. Cherisher
of the "unified will" in peacetime, Wilson proved himself
implacable in war. Despising in peacetime all who disturbed the
"unity of our national counsel," Wilson in wartime wreaked
vengeance on them all. Exalted by his global mission, the ex-Princeton
professor, whom one party machine had groomed for high office
and whom another had been protecting for years, esteemed himself
above all men and their puling cavils. He could no longer tolerate,
he was determined to silence, every impertinent voice of criticism,
however small and however harmless. Nothing was to be said or
read in America that Wilson himself might find disagreeable. Nothing
was to be said or read in America that cast doubt on the nobility
of Wilson's goals, the sublimity of his motives, or the efficacy
of his statecraft. Wilson's self-elating catch phrases were to
be on every man's lips or those lips would be sealed by a prison
term. "He seemed determined that there should be no questioning
of his will," wrote Frederick Howe after personally pleading
with Wilson to relent. "I felt that he was eager for the
punishment of men who differed from him, that there was something
vindictive in his eyes as he spoke."
By the time Wilson reached Paris in December
1918, political liberty had been snuffed out in America. "One
by one the right of freedom of speech, the right of assembly,
the right to petition, the right to protection against unreasonable
searches and seizures, the right against arbitrary arrest, the
right to a fair trial... the principle that guilt is personal,
the principle that punishment should bear some proportion to the
offense, had been sacrificed and ignored." So an eminent
Harvard professor of law, Zechariah Chafee, reported in 1920.
The war served merely as pretext. Of that there can be little
doubt. In a searing civil conflict that threatened the very survival
of the Republic, Americans, under Lincoln, enjoyed every liberty
that could possibly be spared. In a war safely fought three thousand
miles from our shores, Americans, under Wilson, lost every liberty
they could possibly be deprived of.
Under the Espionage Act of June 1917,
it became a felony punishable by twenty years' imprisonment to
say anything that might "postpone for a single moment,"
as one federal judge put it, an American victory in the struggle
for democracy. With biased federal judges openly soliciting convictions
from the bench and federal juries brazenly packed to ensure those
convictions, Americans rotted in prison for advocating heavier
taxation rather than the issuance of war bonds, for stating that
conscription was unconstitutional, for saying that sinking armed
merchantmen had not been illegal, for criticizing the Red Cross
and the YMCA. A woman who wrote to her newspaper that "I
am for the people and the government is for the profiteers,"
was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison. The
son of the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court became
a convicted felon for sending out a chain letter that said the
Sussex Pledge had not been unconditional. Under the Espionage
Act American history itself became outlawed. When a Hollywood
filmmaker released his movie epic The Spirit of '76, federal agents
seized it and arrested the producer: his portrayal of the American
Revolution had cast British redcoats in an unfavorable light.
The film, said the court, was criminally "calculated... to
make us a little bit slack in our loyalty to Great Britain in
this great catastrophe." A story that had nourished love
of liberty and hatred of tyranny in the hearts of American schoolchildren
had become a crime to retell in Wilson's America. The filmmaker
was sentenced to ten years in prison for recalling the inconvenient
Fear and repression worked its way into
every nook and cranny of ordinary life. Free speech was at hazard
everywhere. Americans were arrested for remarks made at a boarding
house table, in a hotel lobby, on a train, in a private club,
during private conversations overheard by the government's spies.
Almost every branch of Wilson's government sprouted its own "intelligence
bureau" to snoop and threaten and arrest. By 1920 the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, a swaddling fattened on war, had files
on two million people and organizations deemed dangerously disloyal.
At the Post Office Department, Albert Burleson set up a secret
index of "illegal ideas"-such as criticizing Gompers,
the patriotic union leader-and banned from the mails any publication
guilty of expressing one. Even if an independent paper avoided
an "illegal idea," it could still be banned from the
mails for betraying an "audible undertone of disloyalty,"
as one Post Office censor put it, in otherwise nonfelonious remarks.
Under the tyranny of the Post Office, Socialist papers were suppressed
outright and country editors sent to jail. Freedom of the press
ceased to exist.
' Nor did the administration rely on its
own bureaucratic resources alone. To cast the net of repression
wider and draw the mesh finer, the Justice Department called on
the "preparedness" clubs, shock troops of the war party,
for help. Authorized by the Justice Department to question anyone
and detain them for arrest, the prepareders fell eagerly to their
task of teaching "consecration to the State" by hounding
free men into jail. Where the "preparedness" clubs were
thin on the ground, the Justice Department recruited its own vigilante
groups-the Minute Men and the American Protective League - to
enforce with the police power "the unity of our national
counsel." By August 1917 Attorney General Thomas Gregory
boasted that he had "several hundred thousand private citizens"
working for him, "most of them as members of patriotic bodies..
. keeping an eye on disloyal individuals and making reports of
disloyal utterances, and seeing that the people of the country
are not deceived."'
Truth and falsity were defined by the
courts. According to judicial decisions, public statements were
criminally false under the Espionage Act when they contradicted
the President's April 2 war message, which became, at gunpoint,
the national creed, the touchstone of loyalty, and the measure
of "sedition," a crime that Wilson and the war party
resuscitated 118 years after it had destroyed forever the old
Federalist oligarchy. This time it did not destroy oligarchy.
It helped destroy "the old America that was free and is now
dead," as one civil libertarian was to put it in 1920. Under
the Espionage Act no one was safe except espionage agents, for
under the Act not a single enemy spy was ever convicted.
The War Enemy Division of the Justice
Department had more important war enemies in mind. Every element
in the country that had ever disturbed the privileged or challenged
the powerful Wilson and the war party were determined to crush.
They were the enemy. "Both the old parties are in power,"
Lincoln Steffens wrote a friend during wartime. "They are
the real traitors these days. They are using the emergency to
get even with their enemies and fight for their cause." Radicals
were ruthlessly persecuted. The International Workers of the World
was virtually destroyed in September 1917 when Justice Department
agents arrested 166 I.W.W. leaders for heading a strike the previous
June. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party's candidate for President,
was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for attributing the World
War to economic interests in a speech before a Socialist gathering.
Under the cloak of "patriotic bodies" and armed with
the federal police power, reactionary local businessmen and machine
politicians crushed local radicals and prewar insurgents. The
wartime tyranny in Washington spawned and encouraged a thousand
"It was quite apparent," Howe
recalled in his memoirs, "that the alleged offenses for which
people were being prosecuted were not the real offenses. The prosecution
was directed against liberals, radicals, persons who had been
identified with municipal ownership fights, with labor movements,
with forums, with liberal papers that were under the ban."
The entire prewar reform movement was destroyed in the war, said
Howe, "and I could not reconcile myself to its destruction,
to its voice being stilled, its integrity assailed, its patriotism
questioned." The reformers "had stood for variety; for
individuality; for freedom. They discovered a political state
that seemed to hate these things; it wanted a servile society
.... I hated the new state that had arisen, hated its brutalities,
its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism."
Most of all, Wilson and the war party
were determined to corrupt the entire body of the American people,
to root out the old habits of freedom and to teach it new habits
of obedience. Day after day, arrest after arrest, bond rally after
bond rally, they drove home with overwhelming force the new logic
of "the new state that had arisen": Dissent is disloyalty,
disloyalty a crime; loyalty is servility, and servility is true
patriotism. The new logic was new only in America; it is the perennial
logic of every tyranny that ever was. The new state affected men
differently, but it corrupted them all one way or another. The
official repression drove millions of independent-minded Americans
deep into private life and political solitude. Isolated, they
nursed in private their bitterness and contempt - the corrupting
consolation of cynicism. Millions more could not withstand the
force of the new state that had risen. It was easier, by far,
to surrender to the powerful and embrace their new masters, to
despise with the powerful the very opinions they themselves had
once held and to hound with the powerful their fellow citizens
who still held them-the corrupting consolation of submission.
Millions more simply bowed to the ways of oppression, to official
lies and false arrests, to "slacker raids" and censored
newspapers, to saying nothing, feeling nothing, and caring nothing-the
corrupting consolation of apathy.
"The war has set back the people
for a generation," said Hiram Johnson. "They have become
slaves to the government." Yet the tolling of the bells for
armistice brought no release to a corrupted and tyrannized people.
To rule a free republic through hatred and fear, through censorship
and repression, proved a luxury that the victors in the civil
war over war refused to relinquish with the outbreak of peace.
On Thanksgiving Day 1918, two weeks after the) armistice, the
war party, as if on signal, began crying up a new danger to replace
the Hun, a new internal menace to replace the German spy, a new
object of fear and hatred, a new pretext for censorship and repression.
"Bolshevism" menaced the country, declared William Howard
Taft, although Communist Party members constituted a minuscule
.001 percent of the American population. Bolshevik propaganda
menaced America, declared a Senate committee in the middle of
winding down its investigation of the nonexistent German propaganda
menace. Purge the nation of "Reds," declared the National
Security League, opening up its campaign against "Bolshevism"
a month after completing its hunt for "pro-Germans"
and three and a half years after launching its campaign for "preparedness."
In Washington, the Wilson administration, too, joined in the new
outcry against Bolshevism and continued to wage war unchecked
against the liberties of the American people. The Post Office
censorship machine continued to tyrannize the independent press.
The Justice Department began deporting aliens suspected of belonging
to "the anarchistic and similar classes," to cite the
federal statute authorizing the mass deportations. For the first
time in American history, guilt by association became a formal
principle of law.
Everything seemed possible to the powerful
and the privileged, so cowed by fear, so broken to repression
had the American people become. Wilson even took time out from
his messianic labors in Paris to urge passage of a peacetime federal
sedition law, "unprecedented legislation," as Harvard's
Professor Chafee put it at the time, "whose enforcement will
let loose a horde of spies and informers, official and unofficial,
swarming into our private life, stirring up suspicion without
end." The war was over but Wilson did not want the American
people to regain their freedom of speech and disturb once more
"the unity of our national counsel." Although Congress
never voted on the bill, the state party machines followed the
President's lead. After the armistice almost every state in the
Union passed laws abridging free speech. The statutes were sweeping
enough in some states to satisfy a dictator's requirements. In
Connecticut it became a crime to say anything that in the words
of the statute, "intended to injuriously affect the Government"
of Connecticut or of the United States. Striking while the iron
was hot, Wilson and the war party were determined, in the immediate
aftermath of war, to set up the legal machinery of permanent repression
and to reconquer for oligarchy the venerable terrain of liberty
in America. Fourteen months after the armistice, the New York
World, awakening from its Wilsonian raptures, cried out in alarm
over the new "despotism of professional politicians."
The newspaper wondered why the prewar reform spirit and the prewar
insurgents had died away so completely. It wondered, too, why
"no other country in the world is suffering so much from
professional politics" as America. There was no cause whatever
to wonder. The professional politicians had won the only war they
cared about, the war against a free republic that Wilson had begun
in 1915 in the name of America's "mission."
Defeated in so many ways, Americans in
1919 enjoyed one grim victory of sorts. They witnessed and joined
in the personal and political destruction of Woodrow Wilson, whose
fall from the heights of glory was swifter and steeper than any
other in our history. Ten months after an ecstatic Paris turned
out to welcome the savior of the world, ten months after Europe
paid him its fulsome homage, Woodrow Wilson was an utterly broken
man, crippled in mind and spirit, thoroughly discredited and publicly
reviled, his name a stench in his countrymen's nostrils, his deeds
publicly denounced as crimes. Popular hatred, party interest,
and the unbearable knowledge of what he had done to his country
combined to encompass his ruin.
While 'Wilson was still at the peace conference, Republicans,
led by Senator Lodge, launched their attack on the President through
a concerted attack on his League. That a large majority of Republican
senators favored a League of Nations in principle, that 'Wall
Street supported Wilson almost unanimously, did not deter Republican
leaders. For ventilating popular hatred, Wilson's League made
the perfect outlet, and the party was not about to pass it up.
To attack Wilson's League was to assault Wilson himself. Of the
actual merits and defects of the League of Nations, millions of
Americans cared little. They knew only that Wilson wanted it and
that was reason enough to oppose it. As the Philadelphia Public
Ledger complained: "The mere fact that President Wilson wants
something is not an argument against it." Wilson was reaping
what he sowed. The President had robbed Americans of what they
had cherished most. Now, spitefully and vindictively, millions
of Americans wanted him deprived of what he cherished most. "Nine
out of ten letters I get in protest against this treaty"
a pro-League senator complained, "breathe a spirit of intense
hatred of Woodrow 'Wilson .... That feeling forms a very large
element in the opposition to this treaty." Licensed, as it
were, by the Republican oligarchy, pent-up hatred of Wilson poured
into the political arena. "No autocracy," shouted Republican
foes of the League and audiences booed "the autocrat's"
name to the rafters. "Impeach him! Impeach him!" a Chicago
Coliseum audience screamed after Senator William Borah of Idaho
finished assailing Wilson's League. It was no edifying spectacle,
this picture of free men deliberating grave issues with little
thought save personal vengeance. Yet here again Wilson reaped
what he sowed. He had been the chief instrument of the Republic's
degradation. Now hate-ridden millions howled for a graded revenge."
A madman and a criminal, that was what millions of Americans now
thought of their President [Wilson].
The United States was never to ratify the Treaty of Versailles
nor to enter the League of Nations. This was Wilson's final achievement.
After wreaking havoc on his country for the sake of the League
of Nations, Wilson strangled the League at its birth. It was a
noble catch phrase once more, untarnished, sublime, justifying
Contemporaries saw matters more clearly.
The President was now discredited almost everywhere. His selfish,
destructive course had disgraced him even in the eyes of admirers.
With one year left of his term, he was utterly without power.
In May Congress passed a joint resolution terminating the war
with Germany. Wilson vetoed it and Congress overrode his veto.
A few weeks later, the ailing, half-mad President watched in disappointment
as his party nominated Governor James Cox, a party hack from Ohio,
to run for his office against Senator Warren G. Harding, a party
hack from the same state.
Cox never stood a chance of winning. Just
as millions of Americans had cared nothing about the merits of
the League of Nations, so in 1920 they cared nothing about the
merits of the candidates.
The chief issue of the 1920 election was
Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's enemies poured their support into
Harding's campaign headquarters and it flowed in a torrent. Hatred
of the President dominated the campaign. In the denunciations
of Wilson the "dictator" and Wilson the "autocrat,"
Cox himself was virtually forgotten, buried, as the Springfield
Republican put it, under a "mountain of malice." With
nothing to recommend him save the fact that he was not a Democrat,
Harding won the election with 16.2 million votes to Cox's 9.1
million It was the most crushing election victory ever won by
a presidential candidate of no distinction whatever. The 1920
election was indeed the "great and solemn referendum"
Wilson had called for, and it rendered its judgment on Wilson:
guilty as charged. So ended the political career of a President
whom Americans for years had been compelled to "stand by,"
whose lies had been deemed in the courts to be truth itself, whose
honest critics had been denounced as "conspirators"
and arrested as felons. On his last morning in office this terrible
ruin of a man was asked to pardon Eugene Debs, rotting his life
away in a federal penitentiary. Unforgiving, Wilson refused. He
had pity only for himself. Today American children are taught
in our schools that Wilson was one of our greatest Presidents.
That is proof in itself that the American Republic has never recovered
from the blow he inflicted upon it.
In 1920 Americans yearned for the "good
old days" before Wilson and war, before everything had gone
so wrong. They yearned in vain. The war and the war party had
altered America permanently and since the war party had shaped
America to serve its own interests, the change was a change for
the worse. In postwar America the "despotism of professional
politicians" went unchallenged. Independent citizens ceased
to pester the party machines. The "good citizens" whose
rise to civic consciousness had spawned the progressive movement
now spurned the public arena in disgust. Wilson's hymns to "service"
had made public service seem despicable. 'Wilson's self-serving
"idealism" made devotion to the public good seem a sham
and a fool's game. "The private life became the all in all,"
a chronicler of the 1920s has written. "The most diverse
Americans of the twenties agreed in detestation of public life."
The Babbitt replaced the political insurgent and what was left
of the free public arena was a Kiwanis club lunch. In 1924 three-quarters
of the electorate thought it useless to vote."
The nation's Republican rulers governed
with impudence and impunity. A major administration scandal scarcely
cost them a vote. They not only served the interests of the trusts,
they boasted openly of doing so, for the "captains of industry"
were now restored to their former glory as if the prewar reform
movement had never existed. The Republican rulers even set about
creating multicorporate cartels to enable the monopolists to govern
themselves and the American people as well. This refurbished monopoly
economy the rulers and their publicists praised fulsomely as the
"American System," although it was a system prewar Americans
had fought for thirty years and which the very laws prohibited.
Herbert Hoover, the chief architect of the cartels, described
the new economy as "rugged individualism," which was
very like calling the sunset the dawn or describing Wilson's neutrality
as "America First," for official lies and catch phrases
dominated the country after Wilson's demise as much as they had
in his heyday. The catch phrases were crass rather than lofty.
That was the chief difference.
Magazines that once thrived on exposing
the corrupt privileges of the trusts now retailed gushing stories
of business "success," supplied recipes for attaining
"executive" status, and wrote paeans in praise of big
business, although it was even more corruptly privileged in the
1920s than it had been in the days of the muckraker. America basked
in unexampled prosperity, the publicists wrote, although half
the country was poor and the farmers desperate. In the 1920s the
poor became prosperous by fiat. America had entered an endless
economic golden age, proclaimed the magnates of Wall Street whose
ignorant pronouncements were now treated with reverence and made
front-page news. Peace had returned to America, but the braying
of bankers, not the voice of the turtle, was heard in the land.
There were other diversions, too, for the populace: Babe Ruth,
Red Grange, Al Capone, and an endless stream of songs and movies
extolling the charms of college life, although most Americans
had never graduated from high school. In postwar America the entire
country lived on fantasy and breathed propaganda.
Against the fictions and the lies, where
were the voices of dissent? There were few to be heard. What had
happened to America's deep enmity toward monopoly and private
economic power? It had virtually ceased to exist. It was just
strong enough to call forth a few euphemisms. Republicans labeled
the cartels "trade associations" and that was that.
When the indomitable La Follette ran for President in 1924 as
a third-party candidate, it was hardly more than the swansong
of a cause long lost. Outside a few of the old insurgent states
(now known collectively as the "farm bloc," a mere special
interest) the country fell silent. Apathy and cynicism were the
universal state. The official propaganda of the 1920s meant little
to most Americans, but by now they were inured to a public life
that made no sense and to public men who never spoke to their
condition. Like any defeated people, they expected their rulers
to consider them irrelevant. Even when the Great Depression struck
down the postwar economy (it was a house of cards) and toppled
the tin gods of the 1920s, Americans remained as if dumbstruck.
Foreign visitors to America in the early 1930s were astonished
by the American people's docility, for we had never been docile
before. In the 1893 depression America had looked like the Rome
of the Gracchi; forty years later people whose life savings had
been wiped out by the "American System" stood quietly
on breadlines as if they had known breadlines all their lives.
Not all of this postwar degradation was
destined to last. Some hope, in time, would return to the defeated
and a semblance of civic courage to the servile. What did not
return was the struggle for republican reform. That was the lasting
achievement of Wilson and the war party. That was the irreparable
damage they had done to the American Republic. They had destroyed
once and for all the republican cause. Never again would the citizenry
of this Republic enter the political arena determined to overthrow
oligarchy (as Lincoln bid his countrymen do), to extirpate private
power and eliminate special privilege.
Over the long years since 1917 the "despotism of professional
politicians" has suffered its own ups and downs, but it has
never been menaced-as it was menaced for so long-by free men struggling
to protect their own freedom and regain a voice in their own affairs.
From the ruins of the war, the republican cause has never revived
to rally free men. It has ceased to make a difference in our politics.
What the SpanishAmerican War deflected and weakened, the World
War obliterated. And who can measure the cost of that loss, both
to ourselves and to humanity, in whose name both wars had been
The Politics of War