By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "Tragedy of
the Peace Messiah"
Progressives and the Versailles Treaty
III. A Failure of Idealism?
In a December 1919 review of Harold Stearn's Liberalism in America, Lippmann expanded his critique of the failure at Versailles. Arguing that a satisfactory peace could have emerged from the war effort, Lippmann rested the blame for the treaty on a "defect of the liberal mind" exemplified by "its apathy about administration [and] its boredom at the problem of organization." In short, he concluded, "Mr. Wilson attempted to achieve a diplomatic miracle without a diplomatic service."2
Meanwhile, "the conservatives had a better grip on their case" than did Wilson's band of peacemakers at Paris. "They had worked harder. They had planned more thoroughly. They had manipulated better. They were infinitely more resourceful. They dealt with situations from the inside and not eternally by hearsay inspiration and guess from the outside. They knew how to negotiate. They knew how to go past the fragile reason of men to their passions. They made liberalism in the person of its official representatives seem incredibly naïve. They knew how to do everything but make peace in Europe."3
Stressing the critical importance of the Anglo-American bond across the Atlantic (an emphasis that would define his foreign policy writings for the remainder of his long career), Lippmann argued that "a working partnership with [British] sea power was the indispensable basis of a liberal peace. We should have played with Britain, instead of letting Mr. George bob back and forth between M. Clemenceau and the President." But, "in rejecting a working partnership with Britain, Mr. Wilson had cut himself off from the nation in which liberalism is mature and powerful. The only forces left were the revolutionists and to them he dared not appeal." In sum, to Lippmann, the failure at Versailles was borne of hubris and misplaced idealism. Wilson's mistake, and that of progressives in general, was in believing that they would carry the day simply because they were in the right.4
The New Republic, the flagship progressive journal for whom Lippmann wrote, shared his condemnation of the results at Versailles. In a May 17, 1919 cover editorial entitled "Is it Peace?" the magazine - formerly a strong advocate of entry into the war and Wilson's peace proposals - answered its own question. "Looked at from the purely American point of view, on a cold calculation of probabilities, we do not see how the treaty is anything but the prelude to quarrels in a deeply divided and a hideously embittered Europe." Just in case anyone had missed the journal's remarkable renunciation of Wilsonism, the next issue declared emphatically across its front, "This Is Not Peace." "America promised to underwrite a stable peace," the lead editorial by Herbert Croly argued. "Mr. Wilson has failed. The peace cannot last."5
Writing in TNR in October of 1919, philosopher John Dewey -- who had memorably cast the war as a progressive opportunity in its early days (earning the derision of critics such as Randolph Bourne) -- gave his own assessment of what happened at Versailles, and attempted to explain why his position on the war remained the correct one. The implications of Wilson's failure, he wrote, "come home to everyone who favored the participation of the United States in the war on what are termed idealistic grounds. It comes with especial force to those who, strongly opposed to war in general, broke with the pacifists because they saw in this war a means of realizing pacific ideals -- the practical reduction of armaments, the abolition of secret and oligarchic diplomacy, and of special alliances, the substitution of inquiry and discussion for intrigue and threats, the founding through the destruction of the most powerful autocracy of a democratically ordered international government, and the consequent beginning of the end of war."6
Dewey did not try to sidestep the magnitude of Wilson's failure. "The defeat of idealistic aims has been, without exaggeration, enormous." But, Dewey argued, what failed at Versailles was not idealism but sentimentalism. "The defeat…is the defeat which will always come to idealism that is not backed up by intelligence and by force - or, better, by an intelligent use of force… The ideals of the United States have been defeated in the settlement because we took into the war our sentimentalism, our attachment to moral sentiments as efficacious powers, our pious optimism as to the inevitable victory of the 'right', our childish belief that physical energy can do the work that only intelligence can do, our evangelical hypocrisy that morals and 'ideals' have a self-propelling and self-executing capacity."7
This failing of idealism aside, for Dewey as with Lippmann and many other progressives, Woodrow Wilson's mistake was mainly one of hubris. The president, Dewey argued, "seems to have thought that, contrary to all experience of representative government, he could 'represent' the unrepresented interests of the common people whose main concern is with peace, not war." But, while "it is easy to blame…Mr. Wilson's personal desire to play the part of Atlas supporting alone the universe of free ideals," Dewey thought the president ultimately "a scape-goat convenient to save our vanity." Rather, Dewey believed, it was the hubris of the American people as a whole that was to blame. It was not idealism per se, "but our idealism discredited, an idealism of vague sentiments and good intentions, isolated from judgment as to the effective use of the force in our hands…We are so generous, so disinterested, that we do not bargain or impose conditions. In short we are so childishly immature, so careless of our professed ideals, that we prefer a reputation for doing the grand seigneur act to the realization of our national aims. This is the acme of our sentimentalism. Can we blame the European statesmen if to put it with blank vulgarity they play us for suckers?"
As the title of his essay, "The Discrediting of Idealism," makes plain, Dewey, like Weyl, realized that his distinction would be lost on many, and that the failure of Versailles would be left on the doorstep of idealism. "It may be that the words Idealism and Ideals will have to go," he concluded, "that they are hopelessly discredited. It may be that they will become synonyms for romanticism, for blind sentimentalism, for faith in mere good intentions, or that they will come to be regarded as decorative verbal screens behind which to conduct sinister plans." Nevertheless, he counseled his fellow progressives to learn from the disastrous mistake of Versailles. "Our idealism will never prosper until it rests upon the organization and resolute use of the greater forces of modern life: industry, commerce, finance, scientific inquiry and discussion and the actualities of human companionship."8
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2. Walter Lippmann, "Liberalism in America," The New Republic, Dec. 31, 1919. Vol. XXI, No. 265, p. 150. Interestingly, the Lippmann review argues that "the word, liberalism, was introduced into the jargon of American politics by that group who were Progressives in 1912 and Wilson Democrats from 1916 to 1918. They wished to distinguish their own general aspirations in politics from those of the chronic partisans and the social revolutionists …American liberalism is a phase of the transition away from the old party system. But it is an early phase and there is no agreement as to its ends or methods. Intellectually it is still more transitional. If it has any virtue at all it is that many who call themselves liberals are aware that the temper of tolerant inquiry must be maintained."
4. Ibid. See also Cary, 169. Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1980), 170. However just Lippmann's accusation might have been," Lippmann biographer Ronald Steel writes, "it was mixed with a good deal of self-justification. He found it easier to blame Wilson than to accept his own complicity in believing that an imperialist war could be transformed into a democratic crusade…In blaming the 'liberals' when it all went sour, and even praising the conservatives, he tried to exonerate himself." Steel, 165-166.
5. "The Week," The New Republic, May 17, 1919. Vol. XIX, No. 237, 1 "The Week," The New Republic, May 24, 1919. Vol. XIX, No. 238, 1. Croly had earlier argued that "under the stimulus of the war & its consequences there will be a chance to focus the thought & will of the country on high and fruitful purposes such as occurs only once in many hundred years." Knock, 129.
6. The New Republic, Oct. 8, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 257, 285-287.
7. Ibid. Perhaps feeling a bit defensive toward his many progressive critics, Dewey took a swipe at pacifism along the way. While conceding that "the consistent pacifist has much to urge now in his own justification [and] is entitled to his flourish of private triumphings," Dewey went on to write: "It may seem like a petty attempt to get back at the pacifist to say that the present defeat of the war ideals of the United States is due to the fact that America's use of 'force to the uttermost, force without stint,' still suffered from the taint of complacent and emotional pacifism. But it may fairly be argued that the real cause of the defeat is the failure to use force adequately and intelligently."
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