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Woodrow Wilson, Prophet and Politician

When President Wilson surrendered the role of prophet and accepted the lesser role of opportunist politician—he became as one of the others, a little less than the others.

Treaty of Versailles is signed by Prime minister Clemenceau and American President Woodrow Wilson, June 1919.
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Treaty of Versailles is signed by Prime minister Clemenceau and American President Woodrow Wilson, June 1919.

“Good thoughts (though God accept them) yet towards men are little better than good dreams, except they be put in act.”

Of Great Place by Fracis Bacon

As week after week I watched with painful interest the gradual decline at Paris of President Wilson and foresaw his impending fall, I thought increasingly of the similar discomfiture of that autocratic democrat, Alexander the First of Russia, at the Congress of Vienna and after. No comparison or assimilation of the two men can be quite fair to either. Alexander was more vain, more suspicious, more sentimental than is the President and upon his thin and grandiose imagination a schemer or fanatic might write his will. Mr. Wilson’s mind is clearer and his will firmer.

On the other hand, the Tsar’s democratic principles, acquired in his youth, were more robust than is Mr. Wilson’s liberalism, which is a slimmer accumulation of middle age. Like Mr. Wilson, Alexander represented the least spent and most influential nation at the Congress, but living in the infancy of democratic government he had no strong group sentiment to which to appeal. Moreover he was beset by shrewder opponents than was Mr. Wilson for there was no Castlereagh at Paris and no Talleyrand or Metternich. Like the President, however, the Tsar surrendered point by point, not knowing that he surrendered, and in the end proved as false to the teachings of La Harpe as Mr. Wilson to the mandate of the world’s liberals. Striving for a virtuous and pious Europe at peace, he closed his career by fastening upon his own country and upon Europe the most intolerable of reactionary regimes.

It is easy to denounce the Tsar but it is quite beyond the mark. After a century we now see that he could not have built his imposing Federation of Europe, lacking both brick and straw. It is equally futile to upbraid the President who, a generation from now, may be thought of as a straw dyke carried away by the flood, and his failure ascribed to the set of these over-powering currents rather than to his own weaknesses and obscurities. But these weaknesses force upon us nevertheless a psychological and ethical problem, for Mr. Wilson’s failure was a poignant moral failure, involving everything in the man that held our respect. I do not seek to praise or blame but to understand; to measure the failure in terms of character; to gauge the man and his method by the nature even more than by the extent of his failure.

It was not hypocrisy that caused Mr. Wilson to preach the gospel of simple honesty between nations and then write a new Brest-Litovsk. Nothing is further from his record both at home and abroad. Nor did he have any ulterior purpose or unworthy intention. The failings, to which his defeat was due, were on a different plane. He was, as we shall later see, over-confident—too sure of his ability to match his mind against the best minds of Europe. He was ill prepared and ill informed. He grew confused and lost his perception of what could, and what could not, be done. He was stubborn when he should have been open-minded, vacillating when he should have been decided. These are not intentional, nor indeed grave sins, but rather the errors of a man who has stumbled into a false position. Indeed from the first he had grossly misconceived his mission to Europe. He had thought of himself as the censor of a treaty to be presented to him, as the detached judge. That treaty he had conceived, moreover, as a necessary deduction from an agreed-on set of principles, like the conclusions of the geometer which grew logically out of simple axioms.

Mr. Wilson went to Paris like some medieval Doctor of Theology, with his theses written down on stiff parchment, ready to meet the other good doctors in fair and leisurely argument. Instead of Doctors of Divinity, it was hand-to-mouth diplomats whom he met,—men no worse than their calling—who greeted him kindly and then reverently laid his neat theses on the table under the map of Europe which was being sliced up. These diplomats, though smaller, were cleverer than the President, and they were playing their own game with their own cards. In this candle-light game Mr. Wilson had as much real chance as poor Moses Primrose with the reverend-looking man in the tent. Mr. Wilson left for Paris with the best wares ever brought to market, with economic power, military power and the prestige of disinterestedness ; he comes back with empty pockets and a gross of green spectacles.

That sounds as though he were a dupe, but the word is too strong. He himself at rare intervals saw the drift of events and perhaps foresaw his own discomfiture, and no doubt bitterly repented his initial errors, made on his sole responsibility, which were leading him to decisions he abhorred. In his over-confidence he had bound, gagged and delivered himself. He had agreed to secret covenants of peace because that was the convenient as well as the orthodox mode of diplomacy, and had given up his chief weapon—the appeal over the heads of diplomatists to the world. Perhaps he did not quite realize the nature of the environment he was thus creating nor its inevitable effect upon himself. Around that cynical table, where the treaty was patched together bit by bit, his Fourteen Points, which had aroused nations to enthusiasm, must have seemed pale and unreal, and I imagine that Mr. Wilson, sitting there alone, was a little ashamed, as Isaac Newton might have been had he written a popular ballad. Idealism was hardly “good form” in that intimate group of four.

To his apparent surprise, moreover, he discovered that his own “ points “ could be turned against their inventor. The Italians, though demanding the letter of their greedy pact with the Allies, also demanded, in set Wilsonian phrase, full Self-Determination for the people of Fiume. The imperialists learned to quote the new Scripture to their purpose. But did Mr. Wilson not foresee this? Did he believe that principles interpreted and enforced themselves? His courteous opponents understood the importance of interpretation. Let anyone lay down the principles—Mr. Wilson, the President of Liberia, or even the Kaiser—if only they might apply them.

This simple faith of Mr. Wilson in his Fourteen Points, unexplained and unelaborated, was due, I believe, to the invincible abstractness of his mind. He seems to see the world in abstractions. To him railroad cars are not railroad cars but a gray, generalized thing called Transportation; people are not men and women, corporeal, gross, very human beings, but Humanity—Humanity very much in the abstract. In his political thinking and propaganda, Mr. Wilson cuts away all the complex qualities which things possess in real life in order to fasten upon one single characteristic, and thus he creates a clear but over-simple and unreal formula.

As a consequence he is tempted to fall into inelastic categories; to see things black and white; to believe that similar things are identical and dissimilar things opposite. Mexicans seem to him to be Anglo-Saxons living in Mexico and Frenchmen, Italians and Russians Anglo-Saxons on the continent of Europe. His thinking rarely concerns itself with concrete differences; it is never a quantitative thinking; it is never inductive. And this abstractness of Mr. Wilson is part of a curiously a priori metaphysical idealism. His world stands firmly on its head, Ideas do not rest upon facts but facts on ideas. Moral and laws are not created out of the rub and wear of men and societies but are things innate, uncreated, immutable, absolute and simple; and human relations arise out of them.

“In the Beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God: and the Word was God.” The Keeper of the Word, the Utterer of the Word is the man who creates. If Mr. Wilson could proclaim the Eternal Verities—the Ten Commandments of International-Life,—lesser minds might be entrusted with the humbler work of exegesis. His Fourteen Points would, by the mere fact of their expression, work themselves into the body of international life and re-create it in their image.

I do not presume to belittle this philosophy nor to deny to it all validity. Undoubtedly the impressive, half-true generalizations of our Declaration of Independence did contribute to a change in political thought and conditions. Between the Declaration and the Fourteen Points, however, lay a deep gulf. The first was an appeal, and what it lacked in precision it gained in eloquence. The Fourteen Points, on the contrary, were conceived as the basis of an organic constitution of the world, and as such should have been exactly determined and made to conform with each other and with the specific needs of the nations. I fear, however, that Mr. Wilson never understood his “points” in detail, either their extent or their mutual limitations. Was his idea of “the freedom of the seas” consonant with his League of Nations? Should self-determination have the right of way when an alien Hinterland clamored for access to the sea?

You can not lay down fourteen general formulas without raising innumerable questions in political casuistry. Important questions which must be answered. Mr. Wilson apparently did not see that his Fourteen Points were not an explicit program but were something less and Infinitely more —a splendid but vague summary of decades of thought—not of Mr. Wilson’s thought but of the thought of the world, derived from the long perceived needs of millions of ordinary men and women. Having restated his philosophy Mr. Wilson refrained from taking the next step of working out a plan of action. He went into the jungle with a map of the world but without a compass.

Because of this abstractness, because of his emphasis upon generalization and his neglect of the concrete facts and particular instances upon which the generalization should have been based, Mr. Wilson sat down at the Peace table knowing nothing of the things he should have known. He knew nothing of Shantung, Fiume, Dalmatia, Silesia, Macedonia, and cared little about them so long as his principle of self-determination prevailed. He knew nothing of the complex economic interrelations, friendly and hostile, between various European nations, for he trusted to his not very dearly defined principle concerning “economic barriers.” He did not even want to know these “details.”

Had the president rightly conceived what minute special knowledge and what practical realistic judgment it required to write the Fourteen Points into the treaty, he would have selected his Peace colleagues from the best informed and most responsible and independent thinkers in the United States. He would also have provided himself with a group of experts with whom he himself would have been in daily communication and at whose feet he would have sat. Instead he employed a body of special students, most of them capable and all conscientious, but a body apart, without instructions, without authority, without real contact with the President, disconnected.

The expert who studied Kiaochow was not supposed to know what the President thought, though what the President thought on the morning of the day of decision was the decisive thing. Mr. Wilson’s theory was that all determinations must be his and all must be based if not upon direct inspiration then upon evidence sifted by him. But he completely failed to perceive the magnitude of such a task: No mind, however capacious, could possibly have grasped all these intricacies, and where the greatest man would have failed Mr. Wilson failed. He was ignorant by reason of his chosen method of work, his love of political abstraction, his distaste for concrete, complex, coordinated research, by reason finally of his voluntary intellectual isolation. Working alone he worked too slowly and never finished anything. No wonder he was swamped by the impossible and uncongenial task.

That task, even after weeks and months of work on it, Mr. Wilson never really understood. He saw vaguely that the treaty was turning out badly but he did not quite see what was the matter. The problem still presented itself to him in abstract moral terms; certain people were bad and the proposals put forth by bad people were bad proposals. Since his Fourteen Principles were skillfully opposed to each other until at last Mr. Wilson himself could not choose between them, he fell back in his decisions upon a transient sympathy. He liked certain people, among them Lloyd George, a ready-witted, humorous, easy-principled politician, one of those “cunning” men, of whom Bacon says, that they are “perfect in men’s humors” but “not greatly capable of the real part of business.”

Clemenceau, on the other hand, he seems to have distrusted, and as a consequence the French imperialists seemed—as indeed they were—insatiable. The Italian imperialists also wanted all they could get and knew no other way than to ask for more than they could get. To Mr. Wilson’s friendly eye the British, on the other hand, appeared moderate, and were, so it seemed, forced against their will to accept what they wanted. But, unfortunately for Mr. Wilson’s constancy, the whole Conference whirled about like a top, diplomats changed roles, and allies became opponents and opponents allies. There were times when Mr. Wilson could not determine the relative morality of his colleagues, but, like Alice judging the Walrus and the Carpenter, was forced to the lame conclusion that “they were both very disagreeable characters.” And, in truth, beneath all apparent concessions to Mr. Wilson and behind all temporary alignments in his favor there existed in Paris and had existed from the beginning, despite intense mutual bitterness among these Powers, a hostile bloc of four nations, held together by secret treaties, which though uncomfortable were binding.

The British admitted that these treaties, notably with Italy and Japan, were immoral but would it not be still more immoral to break them? The President, realizing that his dwindling program was in danger of total extinction, was willing to grant plenary absolution to any penitent Power abjuring its arrangements. But the European governments, as well as Japan, wanted no absolution; they wanted colonies, money, economic privileges. They wanted a good, hard, bristling peace, a blockade-and-bayonet peace, a sinister peace with just enough sentimental coating to get it down. We were to provide the coating. And in the end it was just such a peace that they induced Woodrow Wilson to accept.

It is claimed in the President’s defense that no man could have broken through this ring of treaty-bound nations. But as early as June, 1917, Mr. Wilson knew of these secret treaties. Why did he not them, when conditions were favorable to us, insist upon a revision of Allied terms?

I believe that this is fatal omission of the president was due in some part to his habit of ignoring disagreeable realities. It would have been unpleasant even to know about these treaties. At bottom, however, the cause of his inaction lay in his ingrained habits of thought. Mr. Wilson placed his faith then as now not in actual, practical adjustment of aims, in a deed, but in his own exalted words. In due course he would speak out boldly and at his word the strong wall of dishonest diplomacy would fall down.

Does so deep a self-confidence suggest the victorious dream-world of fantasy rather than the world of reality? Does it suggest a man enervated by the secret vice of self-worship?

Here we are treading upon the most private of preserves because most men believe that they are modest—at least in proportion to their justification for vanity—and all of us live in glass houses. We cannot, however, intelligently discuss the President’s failure at Paris without considering this quality which contributed to his fall. During long years a man may safely indulge a small vice which in his critical hour proves his undoing. It is, moreover, one of the ironies of life that achievement often brings with it false rewards that make further achievement impossible. Mr. Wilson’s past success, his high station, his long, continued greatness were not unlikely to give him a somewhat distorted sense of his relation towards his fellow-men.

For almost twenty years, at Princeton, Trenton and Washington, Mr. Wilson, though fighting, had represented Authority. He could remove men who were hostile or remove himself from their influence. He could choose his associates. But the great man who indulges in the luxury of choosing his associates can hardly escape excessive adulation, a sugary poison far more virulent to an urbane, cultivated and sensitive mind than to a loose-lipped braggart, just as secret drinking is more dangerous than swilling in public. No man in this century has read as many million words of praise as Mr. Wilson.

It is no disgrace that he is not an Abraham Lincoln, who grew in humility as he grew in power, and accepted praise and blame at their just worth, gratefully yet critically. In Paris as in Rome the President was again placed upon a diet of adulation, but there it was a weapon not an ointment, and compliments did not mean concessions. For the first time in twenty years, moreover, Mr. Wilson was forced to meet opponents on equal terms. He could not depose Mr. Clemenceau or Signor Orlando or Baron Makino. He could not force them to acquiesce. Further, he no longer had the necessities of the allies as his ally.

Day by day the expectant gratitude of Italy, France, Japan and Great Britain to America grew cooler and their thanks even took on the color of a reproach that we had been late in coming into the war and had not fared badly. Here was opposition not less real because flattering and evasive, an opposition based on the principle of the “elastic defense,” always retreating but never giving ground. In the end it was Mr. Wilson who gave ground, who retreated while thinking he advanced, who presented the case of his opponents, being flattered into believing that it was his own case, invented by himself. It is significant of the truly diplomatic policy of Mr. Wilson’s antagonists that he got the publicity and they got the treaty.

At last in these painfully delayed negotiations a day came when he would retreat no further. On Sunday, April the sixth, he publicly announced that he had cabled for the George Washington. A thrill of intense excitement ran through Paris; friends and enemies of the President asked “What will he do?” To his friends the President revealed his intentions. He had compromised too much; hereafter he would take his stand on the Fourteen Points. These friends described to me the President as marvelously calm, with set jaws and “no bend in him anywhere.” I went to bed that night hoping that at last the President would stand firm—there in the center of the world. He did not stand firm. He wavered, accepted small compromises, gave in more than before. The European correspondents smiled ironically. Doubtless they thought of Bismarck’s cruel characterization of Salisbury: “A lath painted to look like iron.”

It was not cowardice; had the President known at that late day, after innumerable concessions and self-betrayals, how to bring the vital matter of internationalism to a dear issue he would, I feel confident, have risked all and stood up against the world. He had, however, already surrendered too much; he was bound by as many slight threads as Gulliver in Lilliput. He could not now strain at a gnat or even a camel after having swallowed a whole menagerie. He might save his face by making a final stand on the question of Fiume but the Italians would prove that he himself had already countenanced much harsher violations of his own principles. All he could gain was a spectacular tactical success; the main battle was already lost.

There was a still more compelling reason, as I take it, why Mr. Wilson failed to make this heroic decision. There are three sorts of minds in the world. The first can see only one side of every question; it is the mind of the very simple man and of the fanatic. The second sees both sides but sees them alternately, never together. The third, which one may call the synthetic mind, sees both (or all) sides and sees them contemporaneously, weighs them, balances them against each other and comes, perhaps slowly, to a final, firm judgment. Mr. Wilson’s mind seems to be of the second order. Granite-like though it sometimes appears—it is wax to receive and wax to retain, eminently impressionable and unstable.

It is perhaps because he himself knows this that he seeks to escape from the rude conflict with other minds and thinks alone—which means to think with the people who agree with what he thought yesterday. Again it is this mind of his with its alternating current that explains the amazing contradictions of his career, his disconcerting changes of front, his infinite self reversals. To such a mind his seemingly friendly antagonists at the Peace Conference could present an argument of great cogency. To throw over the peace negotiations now would be to desert Europe and to push her down into anarchy. Better a small sacrifice of internationalism, better even the worst peace with order than utter disruption, decades of bloody revolution and in the end a Bolshevik world.

This argument, we may readily believe, was no part of the President’s intellectual equipment when he left Washington in December. It represented a recession from his earlier thought, a violent fluctuation. For reasons, not at all occult, Mr. Wilson was more than usually liable at Paris to such fluctuations of conviction and will. He stood alone. He had no “unmannerly” Kent at his elbow to talk bluntly to him and no group of intellectual equals with him, upon whose independent judgment boldly given he could try out new ideas. Not only had Mr. Wilson, with what he has called his single-track mind, to shunt problems constantly arriving on many tracks but he was forced to oppose his individual, impressionable mind to more effective, more stable and much less impressionable group minds.

The English mind at the Conference was a compact, articulated group mind, a mind of a hundred minds, taking up each other’s slack, a mind elastic, comprehensive, persistent and working harmoniously. It did not waver like the mind of an individual. The French mind, also a group mind, though febrile was constant and unfluctuating. The Japanese mind was concrete, concentrated and amazingly firm. Back of each of these group minds, moreover, was a national will; back of President Wilson, with his dummy colleagues and his unconsulted experts, was nothing with which he was in touch, nothing from which he knew how to draw support. He had no ballast. An individual arguing against nations, he was subject to the enormous pressure of national wills. Even the American people no longer knew what Mr. Wilson thought, and not knowing ceased to care. He might therefore swiftly change his mind or even pocket his whole philosophy, without America or himself quite knowing.

There was a final reason, I suppose, besides his self-induced impotence and his too ready adoption of principles opposed to his own, that made Mr. Wilson accept his aborted treaty with little show of reluctance. He had his League. It was, he probably permitted himself to believe, the one permanent result of the negotiations, the one curative agent. Let the treaty pass; in time it might die of prenatal defects. The League would not only live but would cure the treaty or create a new one.

It was natural for Mr. Wilson to adopt this compensatory theory which seemed to convert his defeat into a victory. His pride was involved, Though he has in fact contributed little to the detailed elaboration of the League plan (and that little has not always been good), still the impulse was largely his, and he is therefore properly associated in the public mind with the League, which is almost spoken of as Mr. Wilson’s League. We are optimistic where our own children are concerned and Mr. Wilson may well have persuaded himself that the League, though weak, faulty, and in some respects reactionary, was still sound enough to redeem the treaty. The truth, I fear, is the exact opposite. Even a poor League would have been better than none had the treaty been tolerable. But a vicious treaty, making for war and anarchy, must of necessity destroy the League to which it is in principle opposed.

How can this League, based on the doctrine of unanimity, be much better than the Peace Conference itself? How can it, for example, undo the iniquitous gift of Shantung to Japan when such recession requires Japan’s own consent? I do not wish to prejudge the new Covenant but it is surely a sign of Mr. Wilson’s far-away abstractness and of his failure to grasp near realities that he was willing to bargain the treaty for the League, instead of offering the League (and with it America’s moral and material support to Europe) for the only sort of peace that we should be willing to maintain. It is even in doubt whether the President looked very closely at his League or assured himself that it was real and not counterfeit.

Thus comes to an inglorious end the quest of Woodrow Wilson in search of a new world. There also comes to an end—for a time at least the hopes of millions of men. It is further disheartening that the defeat will be ascribed to that very political idealism which alone might have made a success possible. Those who despise all idealism in politics will exult over this new Don Quixote overthrown and bespattered, this new saint seduced, They will wish to revert to the old time diplomatist, the dollar and steel and sausage diplomatist, who has as few ideals as may be but has his broad feet flat on the ground. They will call for an end of prophets and idealists. In their churches they are willing to read Isaiah and Habakkuk but they want no latter-day prophets stalking about on week days.

This theory that it was the idealism of Mr. Wilson that undid him, is, I am convinced, quite false. The President has at rare moments the earnestness, the vision and the deep eloquence of the Hebrew prophets, and it is these qualities which, if they stood alone, would make him a truly great man, one of the greatest. But Woodrow Wilson is also a politician. No one could have become President of Princeton or Governor of New Jersey without knowing and, in some sense, loving the currents and deceptive undercurrents of what we call political life.

It was not Woodrow Wilson, the prophet and idealist, who was overturned at Paris, for whatever his defects, his abstractness, his metaphysical idealism, his overconfidence, his vanity, he might always have retrieved himself and gained at least a moral victory by a final refusal, The man who was discomfited was Woodrow Wilson the politician, the man who thought he could play the European game, who was not afraid of the dark, who at times seemed to bargain for his own hand, for his personal prestige and his political party, instead of fighting always and solely, win or lose, for his ideals. A man can not both be celestial and subterranean; he can not at once stand on the mountain top and in the cellar. When the President of the United States who had stirred mankind as it had not been stirred for decades withdrew from the inspiration of the peoples of the world and agreed to a “give-and-take peace” secretly arrived at by bargaining—when Mr. Wilson surrendered the role of prophet and accepted the lesser role of opportunist politician—he became as one of the others, a little less than the others.

This article appeared in the June 7, 1919 print edition with the headline “Prophet and Politician.”