Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the Great War

PBS has just started showing a new Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts.

According to Jonathan Tobin, Burns allows Evan Thomas to denounce Theodore Roosevelt as a war-mongering imperialist and colonialist. For Thomas TR laid down the predicates that led America into Iraq.

Tobin summarizes the argument:

Thomas’s thesis was that the Spanish-American War was the precedent that served to entice Americans to wage other seemingly small wars over the course of the next century but especially the conflict in Iraq. In his reading of Roosevelt’s behavior, TR committed the original sins not only of imperialism and military adventurism but also embodying a lust for blood and war that should be regarded as evidence of madness, not courage. Burns allows Thomas to brand TR as “a dangerous figure” whose “glorification of war can’t be a good thing in the long run.”

He continues that George Will, no leftist he, also disparages Roosevelt’s affection for warfare:

Will says the fact that TR “liked war” and thought “might makes right” gives an “unpleasant dimension” to his legacy and should cause us to view him with “dry eyes.”

Today this counts as the conventional wisdom.

But let’s look at it all in a slightly different context.

In 1912 the American people elected a president who did not like war. Woodrow Wilson was an academic intellectual. He was not inclined to intervene militarily anywhere, and mostly stood aside when the world started falling apart.

When Germany sank the Lusitania in early 1915, Wilson famously declared that he was “too proud to fight.” (Evidently, the event resembles the Spanish sinking of the U. S. S. Maine in Havana... event that incited a war in which TR fought bravely.)

The Great War began in September, 1914. It produced immeasurable carnage, millions of dead, millions more injured, a Bolshevik takeover in Russia, a post-war flu epidemic that killed millions more and a peace treaty that paved the way for Nazism.

At the time Theodore Roosevelt was writing newspaper columns. They are collected in four volumes, beginning with America and the World War.

In his columns TR offered a contemporaneous analysis of events in the theatre of war. Beginning in late 1914 he began arguing forcefully for American mobilization and believed that only American intervention could stop the horrors that were taking place. The columns provide a brilliant analysis of events. They are more impressive for having been written as events were unfolding. They are anything but the fulminations of a warmonger.

Anyway, Woodrow Wilson eventually sent an American expeditionary force to Europe in the summer of 1918. Within a few months the war was over. Interestingly, he argued that he wanted to make the world "safe for democracy."

George Kennan famously argued that World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century. Would it have happened if TR had been elected president in 1912? We do not know.

We do know that the feckless and pusillanimous Woodrow Wilson sat out one of the worst calamities in human history. We do know that a small American force could have ended the hostilities and perhaps prevented some of the unspeakable calamities that defined the twentieth century. We believe that a better and less arrogant diplomat could have negotiated a fairer outcome.

While he is denouncing about TR, Evan Thomas should defend the record of the Wilson administration during World War I.

True enough, actions have consequences. But, so does inaction.


David Foster said...

"We do know that a small American force could have ended the hostilities"

What is the argument in favor of this position? Why would a small American force in the early days of the war have been a significant factor given the very large forces engaged on both sides?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Fair point... and it depends on what you consider to be small. I was thinking that with armies of roughly equal strength, the addition of a goodly number of troops on one side or the other might have been decisive.

Kentucky Packrat said...

We do know that a small American force could have ended the hostilities and perhaps prevented some of the unspeakable calamities that defined the twentieth century.

This is entirely backwards. It is the US participation in WW1 that caused WW2 and beyond.

Without the US on the Western Front, Germany and Britain/France would have fought to a negotiated truce. Germany's economy doesn't get destroyed by reparations, and Hitler remains a failed painter. When the Soviet Union gets uppity in Europe, Germany, France, and Britain all have incentive to protect Poland, et. al.

It is only the virtually unlimited manpower and materials that the US brings to bear against an exhausted Germany that forced Versailles, and it's Versailles that caused WW2.

Dennis said...


Actually it was France and not the US that was one of the prime drivers of punitive measures in the Versailles treaty. That is why there were an number of adjustments.
Woodrow Wilson in this case tried to mitigate those punitive measures. The facts don't support the US causing WWII. I don't have a lot of use for Wilson, but he was more interested in Europe growing economically including Germany.

JKB said...

Well, given the history we did experience and the way the Europeans are acting now, perhaps it would have been better to let the European powers destroy themselves in the Great War. They all eagerly jumped into the war but found crawling out of the trenches much harder.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Perhaps Wilson was leading from behind.

Anonymous said...

Evan Thomas is a ruthless ideologue, and a destroyer. He is almost as worthy as contempt as Elizabeth Warren.

Since Thomas came to Newsweek in 1991, he has turned it into a Leftist screed and demolished the magazine's credibility and its subscriber base. Now he is also a professor of journalism at Princeton, passing on his "craft" to the next generation of propagandists. His comrade, Jon Meacham, was another key operative in the ruining of Newsweek. Both men are Charlie Rose favorites. Among all the coverage of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, Newsweek's was the most heavy-handed, sensationalized and journalistically imprudent in the mainstream press. This is due in no small part to Thomas' oversight, followed by Newsweek's in-the-bag coverage of Barack Obama's first campaign, which was more like a deification. He approved the shameless hatcheting of Sarah Palin in article after article, cover after cover. This approach to journalism brought in so many readers that Newsweek sold in 2010 for $1.00, and today only provides a weak online edition. Thomas is another example of how Leftists destroy institutions with righteous impunity.

I enjoy Ken Burns' work a great deal. He's Left-of-center, but he captures the core idea behind his subjects. We're going to look back at him as a innovative raconteur in American history, in how he used the television medium to teach us. This is in contrast to other cable history channels that sensationalize events and boil them down to the most basic, topical level. Burns' body of work is eclectic, simultaneously broad and deep. He's been PBS's most successful content provider over the last 35 years, and his "Civil War" is a true masterpiece. Of his recent work, "Prohibition" was very good.

Aside from the glowing review of Burns, it is worth pointing out that he always has usually one true Lefty quack commenting in his films. I'm not talking about Burns' "chorus of voices" (character voiceovers by notable actors, writers, cultured people), I'm talking about a subject matter expert producing commentary, much of it horribly slanted to the point of fantasy and/or delusion. Sounds like Evan Thomas fits the bill for "The Roosevelts." I'll wait for it to come out on video.

As for "We do know that a small American voce could've ended the hostilities...", this is more nonsense. One of the biggest problems we have in how we prosecute war today is our minimalist posture. We don't clearly identify the enemy, we don't declare war, we don't conduct a draft, and we don't go in to win. When the Romans showed up to kick ass, they kicked ass, often in brutal fashion. We've traditionally fought our wars with one goal: "unconditional surrender." Then we've not been brutal, but instead magnanimous and generous in occupation and rebuilding. We abandoned this after World War II, choosing instead to be policemen and put blood and treasure behind a series of ineffectual containment strategies. I'm sure this is what Evan Thomas means by "empire" and being a "war lover."