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Wilson Lives

I am way behind in my reading but finally had the opportunity to read Barry Gewen's interesting review essay from the NY Times Book Review (5 June 2005), "Forget the Founding Fathers." Gewen's focus is on "the constantly change narrative of American history" and the move toward "a globalized history of the United States." He discusses, among other books, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which I have not read. Though I don't agree with Gewen on many points, his comments on how "American idealism can go wrong" are worth repeating:

MacMillan's focus is on Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I. A visionary, an evangelist, an inspiration, an earth-shaker, a holy fool, Wilson went to Paris in 1919 with grand ambitions: to hammer out a peace settlement and confront a wretched world with virtue, to reconfigure international relations and reform mankind itself. Freedom and democracy were ''American principles,'' he proclaimed. ''And they are also the principles and policies of forward-looking men and women everywhere, of every modern nation, of every enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind and they must prevail.'' Other leaders were less sure. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, liked Wilson's sincerity and straightforwardness, but also found him obstinate and vain. France's prime minister, the acerbic and unsentimental Georges Clemenceau, said that talking to him was ''something like talking to Jesus Christ.'' (He didn't mean that as a compliment.)

As a committed American democrat, Wilson affirmed his belief in the principle of self-determination for all peoples, but in Paris his convictions collided with reality. Eastern Europe was ''an ethnic jumble,'' the Middle East a ''myriad of tribes,'' with peoples and animosities so intermingled they could never be untangled into coherent polities. In the Balkans, leaders were all for self-determination, except when it applied to others. The conflicting parties couldn't even agree on basic facts, making neutral mediation impossible. Ultimately, the unbending Wilson compromised—on Germany, China, Africa and the South Pacific. He yielded to the force majeure of Turks and Italians. In the end, he left behind him a volcano of dashed expectations and festering resentments. MacMillan's book is a detailed and painful record of his failure, and of how we continue to live with his troublesome legacy in the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Yet the idealists—nationalists and internationalists alike—do not lack for responses. Wilsonianism, they might point out, has not been discredited. It always arises from its own ashes; it has even become the guiding philosophy of the present administration. Give George W. Bush key passages from Wilson's speeches to read, and few would recognize that almost a century had passed. Nor should this surprise us. For while the skeptics can provide realism, they can't provide hope. As MacMillan says, the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the League of Nations, was ''a bet placed on the future.'' Who, looking back over the rubble, would have wanted to bet on the past?

Little has changed in our new century. Without the dreams of the idealists, all that is on offer is more of the same—more hatred, more bloodshed, more war, and eventually, now, nuclear war. Anti-Wilsonian skeptics tend to be pessimistic about the wisdom of embarking on moral crusades but, paradoxically, it is the idealists, the hopeful ones, who, in fact, should be painting in Stygian black. They are the ones who should be reminding us that for most of the world, history is not the benign story of inexorable progress Americans like to believe in. Rather, it's a record of unjustified suffering, irreparable loss, tragedy without catharsis. It's a gorgon: stare at it too long and it turns you to stone.

Take a look at the whole review essay here.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted at L&P, where comments are here and here.