By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "Tragedy of the Peace Messiah"
Progressives and the Versailles Treaty
IV. The Peace Progressives
Flush in his sense of vindication, The Nation's editor, Oswald Garrison Villard, was particularly cruel to Wilson. "No amount of official welcoming," the magazine editorialized in July of 1919, "no array of battleships however imposing, no amount of enthusiasm however stimulated can hide in the long run the fact that Woodrow Wilson returns from Paris an utterly defeated man. That he is prepared to deny this is obvious…He will plume himself upon having compromised as much as he did."2
Deeming Wilson's failure "a fall as profound as it is pathetic and tragic," The Nation claimed to take "only pity for the weak, compromising, morally-defeated man who returned from Paris on Tuesday. Never was there such an opportunity vouchsafed to anyone in modern times to make over the world…Every trump card was Mr. Wilson's." But, it concluded, despite the many progressives who "warmly welcomed his Fourteen Points and fought for them tooth and nail" and were now "disillusioned, disheartened, [and] discouraged," Wilson "lost in Paris because he went there mentally prepared to lose, because he was neither saturated with conviction nor steeped in principle."3
This was mainly because, according to The Nation, Wilson was at heart just a base politician. "The United States has gone backward, not forward, under the leadership of Mr. Wilson, with its hopeless contradictions and never-ending insincerities," argued an editorial. "Never, so far as we are aware," the journal opined of the president a week later, "has he put his back to the wall and declared that sink or swim, survive or perish, he would not abandon a given principle if it cost him his career." (Ironically, Wilson was about to take just such a stand -- for his League of Nations -- that would cost him a good deal more than just his career.)4
Looking back on Versailles in January of 1922, Jane Addams, perhaps the most venerable and well-respected progressive critic of the war during the conflict, drew a more expansive lesson from the conference, and in so doing eloquently articulated the pacifist interpretation of Versailles.
Looking past Wilson's potential flaws of character, Addams was more charitable to the then-former president than Villard and The Nation had been in 1919. "Certainly international affairs have been profoundly modified by President Wilson's magnificent contribution," she wrote, speaking of the League of Nations and his emphasis on open covenants. And, she argued, too much may have been asked of Wilson in any event. "Did the world expect two roles from one man, when experience should have clearly indicated that ability to play the two are seldom combined in the same person? The power to make the statement, to idealize a given situation, to formulate the principle, is a gift of the highest sort, but it assumes with intellectual power a certain ability of philosophic detachment; in one sense it implies the spectator rather than the doer…To require the same man later on to carry out his dictum in a complicated, contradictory situation demands such a strain upon his temperament that it may be expecting him to do what only another man of quite another temperament could do."5
Nevertheless, regardless of the daunting task before him, Addams argued, Wilson's failure was inevitable as soon as he made the disastrous decision to buck the peace movement that had helped him win re-election and involve the United States in the Great War. "We were in despair," she wrote of herself and her fellow pacifists, when "the President himself led the preparedness parade and thus publicly seized the leadership of the movement which had started and pushed by his opponents." Nodding to Randolph Bourne's prescient argument in "War and the Intellectuals," Addams recalled her confusion at the war-fervor among progressives that seemed to accompany Wilson's change of heart in 1917. "It seemed as if certain intellectuals, editors, professors, clergymen, were energetically pushing forward the war against the hesitation and dim perception of the mass of the people.
They seemed actually to believe that 'a war free from any taint of self-seeking could secure the triumph of democracy and internationalize the world.' They extolled the President as a great moral leader because he was irrevocably leading the country into war. The long-established peace societies and their orthodox organs quickly fell into line, expounding the doctrine that the world's greatest war was to make an end to all wars. It was hard for some of us to understand upon what experience this pathetic belief in the regenerative results of the war could be founded: but the world had become filled with fine phrases and this one, which afforded comfort to many a young soldier, was taken up and endlessly repeated with an entire absence of the critical spirit.6In any case, as a result of Wilson's decision to enter the war, Addams argued, the president's ability to negotiate the peace he had long desired was fatally compromised. "The President had a seat at the Peace Table as one among other victors," she wrote, "not as the impartial adjudicator. He had to drive a bargain for his League of Nations; he could not insist upon it as the inevitable basis for negotiations between two sides, the foundation of a 'peace among equals.'" By involving himself in the machinery of war, Wilson had become tainted to the world - He was now one of the conquerors rather than a bringer of peace.
"What," Addams asked, "might have happened if President Wilson could have said in January 1919, what he had said in January 1917: 'A victor's terms imposed upon the vanquished…would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest not permanently but only as upon quicksand,'…Europe distrusted any compromise with a monster which had already devoured her young men and all but destroyed her civilization: A man who had stood firmly against participation in war could have had his way with the common people in every country."7
In arguing that the failure of the Versailles peace was irrevocably rooted in the decision to enter World War I in the first place, the progressive pacifists at least had the virtue of logical consistency. As such, they were not forced to resort to the same feats of intellectual contortion as Dewey, TNR, and other progressive supporters of the war, who attempted to pin the blame on Wilson personally, while trying to salvage what they could of the idealism and ideology he stood for. But progressives such as Addams and Villard's Nation had been publicly marginalized for their pacifism during the war, and their voices no longer carried the same weight in the general public as they had previously.
Whether they were for the war or against the war, progressives around the world wrestled with their disappointment and confusion in the wake of Versailles. The disastrous fate of that grand project embittered many of them through the ensuing decade. "What really irritates me," historian Carl Becker wrote to his colleague William Dodd in June 1920, "is that I could have been naïve enough to suppose, during the war, that Wilson could ever accomplish those ideal objects…It was futile from the beginning to suppose that a new international order could be founded on the old national order." "We are at the dead season of our fortunes," John Maynard Keynes similarly proclaimed in the fall of 1919. "Never in the lifetime of men now living has the universal element in the soul of man burnt so dimly." And so it fell to another group -- the Republican progressives in the Senate, who had never held much truck with Wilson and his foreign policy ideals anyway -- to gird itself for battle against the treaty.8
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4. The Nation, July 12, 1919. Vol. 109, No. 2819, p. 30. Wilson also explicitly contradicted this line of argument in a January 1921 interview with historian William Dodd. "I had to negotiate with my back to the wall. Men thought I had all the power. Would to God I had had such power." Knock, 270.
5. Jane Addams, "Peace and Bread," The Survey, January 28, 1922, 663.
6. Addams, "Peace and Bread II," 661. Addams also felt personally betrayed by Wilson's rude dismissal of his former pacifist allies. "As pacifists were in a certain sense outlaws during the war, our group was no longer in direct communications with the White House, which was, of course to be expected, although curiously we only slowly detached ourselves from the assumption that the President really shared our convictions. He himself at last left no room for doubt when [he told the AFL] that he had a contempt for pacifists because 'I, too, want peace, but I know how to get it and they do not.' We quite agreed with him if he meant to secure peace through a League of Nations, but we could not understand how he hoped to do it through war.'" Addams, 663.
7. Addams, "Peace and Bread," 663. Wilson had argued the converse, as had the editors of The New Republic, that continued neutrality would only mean that the United States had no stake at the "Peace Table" at all. If America tried to broker a peace "with nothing but a record of comfortable neutrality," TNR had argued in its second issue, its "voice [might]…well be disregarded." Forcey, 234.
8. Carl Becker to William Dodd, June 17, 1920. Wolfgang J. Helbich, "American Liberals in the League of Nations Controversy." The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Winter, 1967-1968), pp. 572-573. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 15-16.
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