Wilson, the Bolsheviks, and an Engaged Foreign Policy

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 02/19/07

I’m beginning to think that David Kaiser is the best writer in the history blogosphere, and stuff like this only bolsters that argument:

On September 16, 1920, a bomb containing 100 pounds of dynamite and several hundred pounds of steel exploded in front of J. P. Morgan and company on Wall Street, killing 38 people and injuring about 400. A nearby leaflet demanded the release of “political prisoners”and claimed responsibility on behalf of “the Anarchist fighters.” It is quite likely that the bomb was a reaction to the detention of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts the preceding May for two murders in South Braintree, Massachusetts, the subject of one of my books.

When the bomb went off the lame-duck President, Woodrow Wilson, was gravely ill, and the presidential campaign between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox of Ohio was in progress. But suppose a President of a different type had been in office–how might he have handled the situation?

Kaiser goes on to imagine a Bush-like reaction to the anarchists’ act of terrorism: blame a completely unrelated group, the Russian Bolsheviks, and use the event as a pretext for an unwarranted invasion.  Why didn’t this happen in 1920?

The critical difference between the United States in 1920 and the United States in 2001, over and above the difference in Presidential leadership, was that we had not yet fallen in love with the idea that it was our destiny to rule the world, to succour the helpless, and to free the enslaved–especially if they occupied a critical strategic or economic region. And sadly, nearly six years after September 11, we have seen almost no fundamental re-evaluation of those views. Nearly everyone except the President, the Vice President and a few remaining acolytes realize that war in Iraq has been disastrous, but no one seems to be facing the fact (and that is what it is) that no available strategy will create a Middle East in our own image, that we are making it more hostile every day, and that we will have to live with that hostility, as the Europeans did in the early modern period, for generations to come. Instead, the Republican Party is continuing to use the debate on Iraq to try to divide America between those who heroically want to go on fighting a vague Islamist enemy all over the world with all available means, and those cowards who hate America, won’t support our troops, and want us to lose. (The same accusation is still against those who predicted, rightly, the Communist victories in China in 1949 and in Vietnam in 1975. When American hubris gets us into trouble, neoconservatives know who to blame: the people who foresaw the trouble in the first place.)

We still live in a world of sovereign states with different values. The interests of the United States will not advance if we keep proclaiming that whatever we want must be right and everyone else has a duty to help make it happen. We are confronted once again–as, really, we have always been–with the need to live amongst peoples and regimes who do not share our beliefs. This is not an insurmountable task by any means; in fact, from 1947 until 2001 we built and sustained large bureaucracies who did the job quite well when they were given a chance to do so. We can still return to that tradition, but time is running short. And I honestly do not think that we can do so until some political leadership is willing to confront our hubris, and the impossibility of achieving the goals that our government has set for us.

I admit that this is a brilliant analysis from Kaiser, and yet I’m uncomfortable with its implications.  Is it now wrong “to succour the helpless, and to free the enslaved” — just because Bush perverted those noble intentions?  It seems to me that in the understandable backlash against Bush’s imperialistic policies, people like Kaiser are losing sight of the possibility that America can play a role of world moral leadership without the threatening implications of neoconservatism.  Hence, we have foreign policy platforms like Bill Richardson’s New Realism, big on localized solutions but small on vision, while sweeping, far-reaching proposals like G. John Ikenberry’s and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Liberty Under Law go largely unnoticed by those in power.  America creeps toward isolationism, ignoring her potential to become a world moral leader in the cause of peace and justice.

In Kaiser’s hypothetical scenario above, he assumes that Woodrow Wilson was intellectually as well as physically enfeebled in 1920.  However, Wilson’s always-agile mind did not stop functioning with the advent of his stroke.  He had in his mind a paper, which he called only “The Document,” which he believed would restore him to preeminence within the Democratic Party and possibly pave his way to a third term beginning in 1924.  But Wilson was easily tired and found it extraordinarily difficult to write or to organize his thoughts, and he worked for three years on the project without success.

Finally, in 1923, Wilson produced what was to be his last published work, The Road Away from Revolution, which was published in The Atlantic.  Those who were expecting a major treatise were astonished to discover that Wilson’s Document was only a little slip of an essay, barely a thousand words in length.  It has been roundly panned by historians as among the least of Wilson’s works.

Yet viewed on its own merits, The Road Away from Revolution is an astounding text, easily the most radical of Wilson’s career.  In it, Wilson faced head-on the rising tide of Russian Bolshevism and probed deep into its causation.

There must be some real ground for the universal unrest and perturbation. It is not to be found in superficial politics or in mere economic blunders. It probably lies deep at the sources of the spiritual life of our time. It leads to revolution; and if perhaps we take the case of the Russian Revolution, the outstanding event of its kind in our age, we may find a good deal of instruction for our judgment of present critical situations and circumstances.

Wilson began his study of the Russian Revolution by acknowledging the Revolution’s underlying sociocultural logic:

What gave rise to the Russian Revolution? The answer can only be that it was a product of a whole social system. It was not in fact a sudden thing. It had been gathering head for several generations. It was due to the systematic denial to the great body of Russians of the rights and privileges which all normal men desire and must have if they are to be contented and within reach of happiness. The lives of the great mass of the Russian people contained no opportunities, but were hemmed in by barriers against which they were constantly flinging their spirits, only to fall back bruised and dispirited.  Only the powerful were suffered to secure their rights and even to gain access to the means of material success.

But Wilson went beyond simply admitting that the Revolution had legitimate causes.  In a stunning passage, the President who had authorized the brutal Palmer Raids against suspected Communists only four years earlier pronounced Bolshevism a partially justified course of action:

There are thoughtful and well-informed men all over the world who believe, with much apparently sound reason, that the abstract thing, the system, which we call capitalism, is indispensable to the industrial support and development of modern civilization. And yet everyone who has an intelligent knowledge of social forces must know that great and widespread reactions like that which is now unquestionably manifesting itself against capitalism do not occur without cause or provocation; and before we commit ourselves irreconcilably to an attitude of hostility to this movement of the time, we ought frankly to put to ourselves the question, Is the capitalistic system unimpeachable? which is another way of asking, Have capitalists generally used their power for the benefit of the countries in which their capital is employed and for the benefit of their fellow men?

Is it not, on the contrary, too true that capitalists have often seemed to regard the men whom they used as mere instruments of profit, whose physical and mental powers it was legitimate to exploit with as slight cost to themselves as possible, either of money or sympathy? Have not many fine men who were actuated by the highest principles in every other relationship of life seemed to hold that generosity and humane feeling were not among the imperative mandates of conscience in the conduct of a banking business, or in the development of an industrial or commercial enterprise?

And if these offenses against high morality and true citizenship have been frequently observable, are we to say that the blame for the present discontent and turbulence is wholly on the side of those who are in revolt against them?

Ought we not, rather, to seek a way to remove such offenses and make life itself clean for those who will share honorably and
cleanly in it?

It’s worth noting that Wilson’s first step toward restoring world harmony was a humble one: he acknowledged the faults in his own country’s ideology and its opponent’s rational basis.  Thus, he removed his argument from the kind of demonization of the Other that characterizes Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and the cockiness that defines modern neoconservatism.  Nevertheless, Wilson’s ideological humility did not keep him from delineating a leading role for the United States in future world relations:

…Democracy has not yet made the world safe against irrational revolution. That supreme task, which is nothing less that the salvation of civilization, now faces democracy, insistent, imperative. There is no escaping it, unless everything we have built up is presently to fall into ruin about us; and the United States, as the greatest of democracies must undertake it.

At this point, Wilson reverted to a concept he had defined years earlier, that of “world moral opinion”:

The road that leads away from revolution is clearly marked, for it is defined by the nature of men and of organized society. It therefore behooves us to study very carefully and very candidly the exact nature of the task and the means of its successful accomplishment.

The nature of men and of organized society dictates the maintenance, in every field of action, of the highest and purest standards of justice and of right dealing; and it is essential to efficacious thinking in this critical matter that we should not entertain a narrow or technical conception of justice. By justice the lawyer generally means the prompt, fair, and open application of partial rules; but we call ours a Christian civilization, a Christian conception of justice must be much higher. it must include sympathy and helpfulness and a willingness to forgo self-interest in order to promote the welfare, happiness, and contentment of others and of the community as a whole. This is what our age is blindly feeling after in its reaction against what it deems the too great selfishness of the capitalistic system.

The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually.

In this passage, Wilson’s narrow Protestant symbolism — always a weakness of a man whos father, father-in-law, and two grandfathers were Protestant ministers — and his vague and nebulous conceptions of “right” and “justice” reassert themselves.  These have always been the greatest weaknesses of Wilson’s internationalist argument, because they appear to run afoul of what David Kaiser calls our “world of sovereign states with different values.”  But I believe that such a narrow reading of Wilson’s rhetoric misses the broader thrust of his idea.  While it is true that all nations and cultures have widely different concepts of morality, all nations do have some basic values in common.  These are what makes them unite in international organizations in the first place — an opposition to aggression, a belief in progress, a desire to see such effected through peaceful means.  This was what Wilson sought to channel into an effective and forward-thinking international consensus.

In The Road Away from Revolution, Woodrow Wilson understood that there is a way for the United States to interact with the world that does not involve either ignoring or creating injustice, a way of exercising moral leadership by engaging with foreign policy at a global level without advocating the imposition of our ideas by force.  If the current Administration has taught us anything, it should be that we are wrong to “go it alone” in matters of world significance; but we should not on that account be afraid to “go it” at all.  As the world’s superpower, America still has a leading role to play in the future of world peace and justice, but it is not a military one; it is a role that makes us a superpower of vision and integrity, a paragon of evenhandedness and enlightenment.  A foreign policy respectful of other nations yet critically engaged with world progress would be a road well traveled indeed.


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