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Conservatives and Woodrow Wilson

posted at 1:40 pm on May 10, 2010 by

A full-fledged review of John Milton Cooper Jr.’s biography of Woodrow Wilson will have to be attempted somewhere else.  Anyone in conservative circles hoping to get a word in edgewise on the nation’s 28th President first has to contend with sentiments along the following lines:

Does anyone really think Wilson wouldn’t have been pretty sympathetic toward the Nazis? I think he would have considered Hitler’s dedication to eugenics an admirable goal.

[A]ny fair minded person of good moral standing would clearly see [Wilson] as an evil individual.

Woodrow Wilson was a slimy, racist, conspiratorial, arrogant rat bastard every day he drew breath….

I hate him. He was the biggest racist. He set this country back decades in race relations.

If you’re bound and determined to defend the most tyrannical fascistic president in history, go f**k yourself.

The above selection comes from threads at HotAir and Zombie Contentions, and also at a Baltimore Sun on-line column covering Glenn Beck at CPAC this year.  Beck has played a central role in popularizing such views, as his anti-progressive campaign frequently centers on Wilson, for whom Beck proudly declares his hatred – “with all [his] heart.”  In this cause Jonah Goldberg remains a stalwart ally, if a somewhat more restrained one – he merely calls Wilson a fascist.  Other well-known anti-Wilson conservatives include George Will and the American Conservative Union’s David Keene, the latter having revealed during his introduction of Beck’s CPAC speech that his own Wilson animus goes back decades – to a college essay describing Wilson as “one of the three most dangerous people of the 20th century,” the other two being Lenin and Hitler.

Main elements of this conservative attack on Wilson actually are familiar from the works of his leftwing critics, but that’s not the only reason I mistrust it.  Some of the anger, especially from the commenters, is probably by proxy: It’s more acceptable to declare one’s passionate hatred for long dead enemies than for living opponents (though the former often leads to the latter).  Yet even if I didn’t find the emotionalism of some of this stuff, 100 years after the facts, a little odd (though Will’s critique is odd in a different way), I would still find it difficult to reject Wilson or any other important American president so completely.  It’s the kind of stance that I would associate with revolutionaries and other pitiless radicals:  The full-throated rejection of a critical moment in American history as an excuse to reject America itself.

Not that the Wilson haters don’t have any point at all.  They simply lack any sense of balance or historical perspective. In contrast to the ideologues, Cooper can fault Wilson for his negligence on racial matters, for example, but is also able to conclude that “Wilson essentially resembled the great majority of white northerners of this time in ignoring racial problems and wishing they would go away.” Wilson didn’t impose uniquely noxious ideas on an American racial idyll.  He presided during the era of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) – separate but equal.  As the historian Samuel P. Hays explains in his standard work on Wilson’s era, the times were typified by a “general notion that Americans, as part of the Anglo-Saxon peoples of northern Europe, were racially superior.”  Belief in the “Manifest Destiny of the White Race” informed attitudes across the cultural mainstream, and affected policy across a range of issues.

It should therefore be unsurprising to Wilson critics, on all sides, that the Wilson Administration’s widely condemned segregation of the federal workplace was initiated under prior presidents, and was expanded under Wilson’s successors.  Conservatives in particular should bear in mind that the search for a greatly different early 20th Century American racial sensibility won’t often lead them to Wilson’s right.

If some conservatives have adopted a familiarly leftwing attack on Wilson, many more seem to be depending on Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, the 2008 conservative bestseller that I have written on previously, focusing on the author’s provocative claim that Wilson’s wartime government was the world’s “first fascist regime.”  As I stated in the linked piece, I find it rather obscene for Goldberg to associate Wilson, a deeply reluctant warrior who quite literally nearly killed himself campaigning for a peace organization, with modern history’s worst warmongers.

But Goldberg’s case for the historical prosecution focuses less on the war as fought than on the war at home – domestic security policies that, as Cooper acknowledges, entailed “egregious violations” of civil liberties.  Goldberg’s charge of fascism is much stronger than Cooper’s charge of mere “violations,” however, and demands stronger support.  To that end Goldberg produces an impressive, frequently quoted figure of 175,000 Americans arrested “for insufficient patriotism.”  Yet this vague definition appears to be Goldberg’s alone, and he doesn’t reveal where his number comes from.  Other sources tally around 2,000 arrested, 1,000 convicted under the federal Espionage and Sedition Acts, so Goldberg’s figure, assuming it has a firm basis, must include offenses prosecuted under other laws, perhaps at the local level or even overseas within the military.

In sorting this all out, it might be helpful to work from some numbers that unlike Goldberg’s are very hard and very precise:  48-26 and 293-1 – the votes by which the Senate and the House passed the Sedition Act in 1918.  Vote totals on the earlier Espionage Act are unavailable – because it passed by acclamation, reflecting overwhelming support two months after the Declaration of War with Germany, which had passed 82-6, and 373-50.  In other words, Wilson rode – and in some respects was overcome by – a wave of patriotism and war fever.  Cooper and other historians also note that Wilson supported the acts to compromise with those demanding more aggressive measures, and to prevent and pre-empt much harsher “extra-judicial” treatment of dissenters and German-Americans.

As with racial matters, harshly judging Wilson and his contemporaries (i.e., our forefathers) for such actions requires us to impose present-day sensitivities on the past.  It’s also worth recalling that revolution really was in the air in those years.  One great nation had fully succumbed to revolution, and others were undergoing revolutionary turmoil.  In America, the assassination of President McKinley, by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, was well within living memory.  In the period of 1917-1920, radical agitation led to wildcat and general strikes as well as acts of outright sabotage, especially in the western U.S.  Mail bombs were sent to various officials, including Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, known for the subsequent Palmer Raids and Red Scare.  On the narrow question of personal culpability, it should be noted that Wilson was the bedridden victim of a debilitating stroke and other serious illness at the time:  Cooper concludes that Wilson “knew nothing about the central role [Palmer] was playing in those events.”

One quick word on Eugenics, another feature of the age that some wish to lay at Wilson’s door: Cooper never notes much interest in the subject on Wilson’s part.  The case for hatred seems to rest on guilt by sympathetic association with certain Progressives; de-contextualized statements on race (see above) ominously linked to Hitlerism; and a bill that Wilson signed into law as governor of New Jersey, with provisions on the sterilization of the profoundly mentally ill – similar to laws in 30 other states at the time.

Against such weakly founded or heavily mitigated indictments, Wilson’s accomplishments stand among the most consequential of any American figure:  His books and essays, especially Congressional Government, were important in their own right, and are still read with profit today.  His “New Freedom” legislation established the Federal Reserve System, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission.  He was central to the negotiations that ended World War I, and, though the nation rejected his League of Nations proposal, he led the United States onto the world stage as a major power, with a unique mission – not to construct an empire, but to foster trade, development, and popular freedom and self-determination among nations.

From income taxes to Mother’s Day, from child labor restrictions to saving football (Wilson was a lifelong fan, and a defender of the new sport against attempts to ban it), we could expand our view of Wilson’s influence virtually at will – especially if, as the Wilsonhitlerists seem to prefer, we credit him with or blame him for the entirety of what Hays calls the Populist-Progressive Era.  At some point in this process, modern America would begin to look like an inheritance directly from Woodrow Wilson, passed down to us by those who followed in his footsteps – with the men who founded the country looking like distant ancestors on the family tree, necessary to our existence, but not very relevant to it.

Regardless of where that argument might lead, I wouldn’t want to be the one to make it:  I don’t see how it can ever be a conservative project to tear the nation or its history – the two ought to be inseparable – to pieces.  Isn’t that what radical constitutionalists accuse Wilson of attempting?

How, when, and where to reverse or re-conceive  elements of Wilson’s legacy, what he got wrong or what the rest of us helped make wrong, would be something very different – as would any attempt simply to assess Wilson fairly.  Those are tasks for people willing to grasp the whole story, and to proceed with care.

cross-adapted from Zombie Contentions

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In the piece on Liberal Fascism that I linked in the main post, I try to suggest that Goldberg’s error is clear from the beginning in the forced definition of fascism that he announces early on. He explicitly defines fascism in a way that suppresses what makes fascism fascistic. He doesn’t need to offer a definition of “liberal” because his definition of fascism has already been liberalized. Once he’s defined fascism down in that way, he’s able to locate it wherever it suits his purposes, which seem to turn into “doing to liberals what liberals have been doing to conservatives.” Some see that as fair play, but it still rests on distortions and over-simplifications, and inevitably leads to bad results.

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 2:25 PM

Well said. I definitely agree with you.

The book had been built up for weeks, so I took it on a business trip. After about 40 pages, my jaw literally dropped at the insufficiency of his argument. I couldn’t finish the thing.

This, coming from a guy who wanted to like the book.

jeff_from_mpls on May 11, 2010 at 6:47 PM

J.E. Dyer on May 11, 2010 at 4:29 PM

It would take us far afield to try to re-define fascism, on the way to a theory of fascism that that the fascists themselves might not recognize.

As you may know, the term itself in different ways refers to politics – power – not to a theory of the good life in some Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment, utilitarian or materialistic way. It’s certainly true that both fascists and communists sought to use the state “to secure desirable outcomes,” but they defined “desirable outcomes” along different lines, they had very different visions of ultimate goals, and they saw themselves and the world very differently.

In short, their differences were much more fundamental, in the eyes of members of both camps, than a policy disagreement over ways to achieve full employment or a more equitable distribution of economic surpluses.

The other problem is empirical: Whatever fascism may represent or have once represented in theory, the fascists amassed a track record that included the wars they fought and lost, and that also included the vast piles of corpses that they left behind. In other words, Fascism refers simultaneously to an historical phenomenon as well as to a theory. For us, Fascism stands for “enemy” in a very real and unambiguous way, in a way that the Communism doesn’t quite. After all, we took the Communists as allies, we accepted “peaceful co-existence” and mere containment with them, we negotiated with them, etc. From the Fascist powers we accepted and could accept nothing less than unconditional surrender.

The alignments and forms of competition that actually arose may have been historical happenstance, but, returning to theory, they may also suggest that dialectical materialism, even in its Stalinist version, is closer to constitutional democracy, a fellow child of the Enlightenment, in a way that fascism wasn’t (and explicitly claimed not to be).

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 9:39 PM

FYI, Jonah (whom I admire greatly) has replied at The Corner.

chaswv on May 12, 2010 at 9:50 AM

chaswv on May 12, 2010 at 9:50 AM

Noted – will reply – and greatly appreciate JG’s typically congenial and respectful response to criticism/disagreement.

CK MacLeod on May 12, 2010 at 2:20 PM

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 9:39 PM

I disagree that there is any “redefinition” of fascism in my comments. Jonah used the term carefully in the sense of taking it from its political roots in Mussolini-style statist collectivism, and that’s what I’m doing here.

It’s wrong and always has been to equate “fascism” with “Nazism.” Nazism is Nazism — Hitler-style national socialism, a hybrid concept encompassing a variety of principles from the left side of the political spectrum. Its development actually had surprisingly little philosophical reference to Mussolini’s fascism. Its name — national socialism — was oriented on distinguishing it from the international socialism being pushed by Soviet Russia and the internationalist socialists in Germany’s political mix. (Indeed, the Nazis went out of their way to equate international socialism with bomb-tossing “Reds” and “Jewish conspiracies.” It wasn’t the socialism they objected to, it was the internationalism.)

(Stalin, of note, ended up proclaiming his own version of national socialism in the ’30s with his pronouncements on “socialism in one country” as a waypoint on the path toward universal socialism. It was a pragmatic act on his part, but was considered gravely disappointing, to the point of unforgivable betrayal, by many of the most internationalist of Marxist-socialist believers.)

It is, nevertheless, simply not true that either fascism, national socialism, international socialism, or communism had “very different” visions of desired outcomes. Their visions were much more alike than different in the economic, social, and political realms. All of them riffed on the same themes of state-directed collective action, collective political control of economic resources and decisions, and the transformation of man and society into conditions of utopian equality and reordered priorities and motivation.

The fascists and German national socialists had visions characterized by a unique nationalism, in that they prized and proposed to use to the hilt the European-style vehicle of the nation-state. They built political mythologies around ethnic and racial histories and destinies in a way that the international socialists, international communists, and Soviet socialists never embraced. (Nor, later, did the Maoists.)

But in terms of seeking to impose centralized state control and collectivization of all aspects of life, as a means of transforming humans and society, they were very much like the international and Soviet socialists and communists. Every one of fascism, international or national socialism, and communism sees it as appropriate for the central government to control the use of economic resources, dictate how capital is used, and dictate the conditions and pay of labor.

All of them deal with labor unions the same way: coopting them and relieving them of all their freedom of action. All of them rewrite history and teach lies and propaganda in the schools. All of them go quite nakedly into the business of state-business cronyism; they merely justify it with slightly different arguments, and put different titles on the doors of those who organize commerce on behalf of the state.

Of the -isms in question here, the one that emphasized “equality” the least in its utopian vision was not fascism, it was Hitlerian national socialism. Musso’s fascism actually invoked equality quite a bit, but it was along the lines of the original revolutionary-leftist view of equality as a very muscular, aspirational, empowering thing. When the Italian fascists and the Soviet socialists spoke of “equality,” they weren’t speaking of the more passive, litigious, watered-down idea that has become pervasive in the soft-socialist West. They had in mind an aggressive, transformative manifestation — something more like a tidal wave breaking over mankind than like the endless series of pedestrian prohibitions and lawsuits we are accustomed to in the US (equality as administered by the DMV, if you will).

In the Italian fascist version of this vision, leadership and greatness inhered in the nation of Italy because of its grand patrimony. That sense is one of the strongest in which Hitler’s national socialism resembled Italian fascism. But Hitlerian national socialism was as distinct from Italian fascism as it was from Soviet socialism. On the other hand, the common threads in all of them, and in elements of European and American progressivism, were equally strong.

J.E. Dyer on May 13, 2010 at 5:39 PM

It is, nevertheless, simply not true that either fascism, national socialism, international socialism, or communism had “very different” visions of desired outcomes.

Maybe we’re looking at the ideologies in different time frames: The Communist utopia was the withering away of the state after the transitional stage of socialism (under Stalin mediated further by the establishment of socialism in one country) and the happy resolution of capitalism’s contradictions. As you partly acknowledge elsewhere, yet oddly ignore at this stage of the argument, the various fascist utopias typically involved various mythopoetic agglomerations of pre- and post-modern super-state visions.

Even prior to the “outcomes” – which operate on multiple motivational and practical levels well ahead of actual realization – Communists idealized material equality, and accepted the physical annihilation of dissenters and opponents as a necessary instrumentality. Fascists idealized glory and power, and sought the annihilation and displacement of enemies as virtually an end in itself (after the establishment of a Teutonic agricultural slave paradise, the vision gets a little airy).

When you compare Musso equality with what you call “soft socialist” equality, you again acknowledge the differences only to elide or re-elide them. It’s actually similar to the Goldbergian legerdemain in which A is approximated with AB so that B can later be revealed as frighteningly A-like. It’s similar to Goldberg’s approach also in that it tactically suppresses the fact that putatively anti-statist American republicanism also idealizes a version of equality (please don’t bother to rehearse the outcomes vs opportunity distinction). It still remains the same obscenity – the same rhetorical and theoretical violence – to claim that “soft socialist” progressivism must share the ill repute, and more so than other candidate ideologies, of “hard equalitarian” fascism.

Every one of fascism, international or national socialism, and communism sees it as appropriate for the central government to control the use of economic resources, dictate how capital is used, and dictate the conditions and pay of labor.

The fascists were not known for excluding any means to hand. Along with some communists (especially the ones with access to state power, dubbed “state capitalists” by their (surviving) former comrades), the fascists saw the augmentation of the state in all dimensions as the most likely effective means to their ends. In addition – it gets hazy because intellectual consistency over time and across political contexts was not a great hallmark of fascist ideology – many fascists saw a powerful state as desirable in itself: Whether it read the citizen’s mail or set production goals or wages was incidental. If you could have provided a libertarian means to Hitler for annihilating the Jews and de-populating Poland, he’d have given it careful consideration.

Hitlerism was distinct from Mussolinism, and both from Stalinism, but it’s an oversimplification and a distortion to suggest that the distinctions are quantifiable and of the same type. Stalin eventually adopted elements of fascism, and might even be said to possess a fascist personality. What it all usefully has to do with “progressivism” may or may not go beyond historical association, supported by evidence of borrowings and cross-mimesis. They all mostly put their pants on one leg at a time, and so did whoever in your imagination would have stood in for “anti-statist” during the world-historical rise of industrialized nation-states. You think a guy in founder’s garb and a heightened intellectual suspicion of majority factions would stand for long against massed divisions and flotillas carving out empires worldwide? How far does your anti-statism go? If not that far, then you’re a progressive statist, too.

CK MacLeod on May 14, 2010 at 1:32 PM

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