Reappraisals (updated)

by John Quiggin on December 26, 2011

As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[2], and his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

Now that I’ve got started, what is it with the adulation of Clay, Calhoun and Webster? Sure, they were the leading figures in the US in the decades leading up to the Civil War, but isn’t that like saying that Clemenceau, Hindenburg and Chamberlain played comparable roles between 1919 and 1939?[3]

And how about Thomas Jefferson? He was good in theoretical terms, but he was a slaveowner who (unlike Washington) could not even manage to free his slaves on his death. And except for the ban on the transatlantic slave trade, he did nothing to retard the growth of slavery and plenty, most importantly the extension of slavery to the Louisiana purchase, to expand it. He seems to bear as much responsibility for the Civil War as anyone.

I should say right off the bat that I’m not claiming anything about the way these figures are viewed by actual professional historians – I don’t know and would be interested to hear. But in general discussion, they seem always to be referred to in a kind of tone that suggests the inappropriateness of any criticism.

fn1. Like most on the left side of Oz politics, I’m an admirer of our wartime Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley, as well as the leading reformers of my own younger days, Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan. But good as they were, they all made some big mistakes, and certainly no one would think of naming political philosophies for them (except perhaps pejoratively in the case of Whitlam).

Update Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley posts a very qualified defence of Henry Clay, while Erik Loomis is much more critical of my dismissal of Daniel Webster. In objecting to my comparisons of Clay and Webster to interwar European politicians including Neville Chamberlain, Loomis makes the observation

one huge thing in favor of the Compromise of 1850 is that the Union would have had much more difficulty defeating the Confederacy in 1850 than a decade later.
But this is precisely the argument made by Chamberlain’s defenders, who suggest that Britain couldn’t have fought Germany successfully in 1938. Still, you don’t have accept the Guilty Men caricature of Chamberlain to conclude that, in the only test that really mattered, he failed disastrously.

fn2. The rightwing animus against him appears to relate to the establishment of such bodies as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve. I don’t have any real thoughts about the FTC and, while I suppose a central banks is a necessary part of a modern economy, it’s not exactly a force for progress.

fn3. Those comparisons (except perhaps with Hindenburg) are flattering to Calhoun, who was a figure of unmitigated evil, a warhawk, slaver and secessionist.

{ 152 comments }

1

Glen Tomkins 12.26.11 at 6:57 am

You seemed to have wandered off from looking for political heroes to looking for political villains. That’s fine by me, as political figures are to be pitied at best, and never admired, except in the sense that perhaps one of them can be seen to have been somewhat less fool or knave than the mean.

So if you’re looking for US presidents who really screwed up, but have reputations exceeding the excoriation they actually deserve, look no further than John Adams. For the Alien and Sedition Acts alone, he deserves to be considered the very worst US president. Harding and Dubya were merely incompetent. Adams actually intended to to outlaw political dissent. That, and xenophobia based on a conspiracy theory about the French immigrant threat.

2

john c. halasz 12.26.11 at 7:18 am

I hate to say this, but if one wants to form a judgment about major political leaders, it boils down to the quality of their practical/prudential judgments, regardless of the party or cause that they served or aimed at, within the situated context of their times. So, alas, Otto von Bismarck, reactionary rat-ass bastard though he was, amounts to a kind of “gold standard”, against which other “greats” might be judged. Hey, he did deftly accomplish the unification of Germany and invented social security, as well! But that’s why many, myself included, prefer to focus on “mass” causes and the surrounding institutional functionings that they may or may not effect.

3

John Quiggin 12.26.11 at 7:36 am

@gt I’ve thought that about Adams also, but forgot to mention him

4

J. Otto Pohl 12.26.11 at 9:04 am

Wilson is definitely overrated. The US probably could have avoided involvement in WWI and the subsequent intervention in Russia. It might have been even able to avoid its earlier incursion into Mexico ordered by Wilson. It certainly could have avoided using military force in Tulsa. Also there is no doubt that Debs was a political prisoner and not the only one.

Also supremely overrated is JFK who still has a Kim Jong Il like cult around him in certain parts of the US. I attribute this to the fact that like Kurt Cobain he died during the height of his popularity. Had he lived out his term it most likely would have been him not LBJ that would have been saddled with the Vietnam quagmire.

5

J. Otto Pohl 12.26.11 at 9:04 am

Wilson is definitely overrated. The US probably could have avoided involvement in WWI and the subsequent intervention in Russia. It might have been even able to avoid its earlier incursion into Mexico ordered by Wilson. It certainly could have avoided using military force in Tulsa. Also there is no doubt that Debs was a political prisoner and not the only one.

Also supremely overrated is JFK who still has a Kim Jong Il like cult around him in certain parts of the US. I attribute this to the fact that like Kurt Cobain he died during the height of his popularity. Had he lived out his term it most likely would have been him not LBJ that would have been saddled with the Vietnam quagmire.

6

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.26.11 at 9:48 am

From wikiquote:

My view, for what it’s worth, is that Kennedy was probably the most dangerous president we’ve had. [applause] There was a really dangerous, macho streak there, which was kind of fanatic. A lot of it is coming out now in the coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is quite revealing. It looks even worse than it looked before. And an awful lot of this willingness to drive the world to total destruction looks like a matter of protecting your macho image. Now, that kind of stuff is really dangerous. It’s much better — the best political leaders are the ones who are lazy and corrupt. It’s the ones who are after power – they are the dangerous ones. So the guys who want to watch television and sleep and so on, they are no big problem. I should say the same about corruption. Corruption is a very positive sign of government. You should always be in favor of corruption. If people are interested in enriching themselves or in sex or something like that, then they are not interested in power. And the most dangerous thing is the guys that want power. That’s what Kennedy was like, I think. Furthermore, corruption has a way of being exposed for quite simple reasons. When people are corrupt, they are usually robbing other rich people. Therefore they are going to block people and when corruption gets exposed it weakens power. And so that’s one of the ways you can defend yourself. The same is true of the evangelicals. If we had evangelicals who were really after power, we’d be in trouble. If all they want is gold Cadillacs and sex and so on, no big problem. That’s good.

Talk titled “Necessary Illusions” at MIT, May 10, 1989

If Hitler had been a crook… We’re very fortunate in the United States, we’ve never had a charismatic leader who weren’t a gangster. Every one of them was a thug, or a robber, or something. Which is fine, then they don’t cause a lot of trouble. If you get one who’s honest, like Hitler, then you’re in trouble – they just want power.

Interview by Matthew Rothschild, 1997

7

Jack Strocchi 12.26.11 at 10:34 am

Deleted From now on, one comment per day, and a limit of 100 words

8

Tom M 12.26.11 at 10:55 am

I’m not sure I understand the JFK was the one really responsible for escalating Vietnam. The Paris Accord was Ike (ascribing political actions to terms of office) and when the Viet Cong launched the series of terrorist attacks in 1959, Ike’s response was to find a way around the limitation he agreed to in order to first alter the type of presence the US had in Vietnam.
After 1954, the US was limited to the number of personnel in the country supporting the French, around 700 IIRC, and Ike doubled that by rather questionable methods and turned “mechanics” and “flight engineers” into CIA and Army advisors.
In 1960, Ike again ordered more “advisors” into the country so the idea that JFK escalated should be set against the plan already in place under Ike.

9

Tom M 12.26.11 at 10:57 am

Forgot to note my comment is drawn from the Pentagon Papers. See the very helpful Avalon website.

10

Andrej 12.26.11 at 11:13 am

I think Clay/Webster/Calhoun are rightly praised for being on the right side of a typically American debate on “internal improvements”, that is about whether the federal government can build roads and such, something politicians of higher stature like Madison got wrong.
Like our host, I also enjoy a good ranking of American presidents (from the comfort of my European home), as it reveals a lot about what is considered acceptable. A list that considers slaveholding, genocide against the natives and starting wars abroad as major minuses, would be very interesting (with some strange names on top).

11

Jack Strocchi 12.26.11 at 11:49 am

Deleted From now on, one comment per day, and a limit of 100 words

12

M 12.26.11 at 12:47 pm

“Love affair” seems a very charitable interpretation.

13

Malaclypse 12.26.11 at 12:58 pm

Also supremely overrated is JFK who still has a Kim Jong Il like cult around him in certain parts of the US.

While JFK is indeed overrated, this really takes hyperbole well past 11.

14

Matt McIrvin 12.26.11 at 1:05 pm

Keep in mind that popular, and, to some extent, professional US history in the early to mid-20th century was characterized by overt sympathy for the Confederate Lost Cause and a willingness to regard the Civil War as, at best, a tragedy with no bad guys and Reconstruction as a tyrannical regime. I think this explains a lot of the love for Clay, Calhoun and even Webster, as well as the willingness to overlook Wilson’s racism.

15

chris 12.26.11 at 2:00 pm

Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson

That may be true, but the only reason Will is mounting the campaign against Wilson in the first place is to use the word “progressive” to tar present-day progressives with all Wilson’s sins. Considering that (a) modern progressives disagree with the exact positions Will bashes Wilson for and (b) Will, as one of the few remaining conservatives with real intellectual credentials, has been around the block long enough to know darn well that comparing any pre-Southern-Strategy political coalition with any post-Southern-Strategy coalition, same name or not, is a mediocre fit at best, it’s hard to conclude that this is anything other than deliberate dishonesty.

So I don’t give him many points for accurately pointing out Wilson’s flaws, when he’s only doing it as part of a dishonest propaganda campaign against someone else.

As for the main topic, Diogenes is still looking. Hagiography has always been a mug’s game when it wasn’t a deliberate con. And settling for “not as bad as the other guy” is the normal condition of politics; it’s not productive to stomp off in disgust every time you discover a flaw in one of your allies.

16

P O'Neill 12.26.11 at 2:13 pm

#14 exactly right.

Will is aiming for that lucrative pundit slot as the thinking man’s Jonah Goldberg.

17

Mrs Tilton 12.26.11 at 2:40 pm

M @11,

“Love affair” seems a very charitable interpretation.

Indeed. If anything, too charitable. “Love affair, as imagined by a girlfriendless wanker who reads Tarl Cabot novels non-ironically” would be charitable; “using a human being owned as chattel property under a barbaric legal system to relieve one’s urges” more realistic.

18

Jeffrey Davis 12.26.11 at 2:45 pm

Will is just trying to distract from the grievous harm done to habeas corpus. Wilson’s creepiness has been done to death in recent years.

19

Antonio Conselheiro 12.26.11 at 2:56 pm

Will uses Wilson’s racism to score points, but I’m pretty sure that he shares it — he worked for Jesse Helms, after all. He understands very well how many of his actual opinions he can openly express. From time to time he lets slip his belief that turning the clock back to the 19th century would be a good thing, but he doesn’t spell everything out. He’s on record as believing that low voter participation is a good thing.

20

Bruce Baugh 12.26.11 at 2:57 pm

Criticism of Wilson as an evil SOB isn’t really new. Barbara Tuchman did it in her books on the era; more recently we have Margaret Macmillan’s outstanding Paris 1919 and the like. Certainly my American history courses in high school and college back in the ’80s made it clear how bad Wilson was for so many kinds of people in America and around the world. Chris at #14 nails what’s really going on – and it’s a thing that’s gone on in fits and starts for decades.

21

Anderson 12.26.11 at 3:16 pm

who lied America into the Great War

Beg pardon?

22

Antonio Conselheiro 12.26.11 at 4:15 pm

Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson all ran as anti-war candidates. It makes you think that there might be a pattern. As far as I can remember, GW Bush didn’t. Probably by his time the principle had been sufficiently established that any President can go to war anytime, anywhere, so he didn’t need to pretend.

23

Marc 12.26.11 at 4:50 pm

I don’t understand the impulse to treat all figures from earlier times as evil people. The entire society of antiquity was built on slave labor, for example; a majority of the people in the Roman empire were slaves and women had essentially no rights. It’s a cheap and smug form of history to dismiss everyone who lived in that society.

Jefferson was living in an era where people took the divine right of kings seriously. His writings, taken to their logical conclusion, have served as a tremendous inspiration towards universal rights. His theology would be radical even today. And he owned slaves. One can acknowledge the power of the former while seeing the evil of the latter.

As far as Wilson is concerned, the progressive era included a series of tremendously important reforms – including the constitutional amendment permitting a federal income tax. I agree with Chris – Will is engaged in the same game as Jonah Goldberg. It’s essentially trying to tar long-dead progressives and liberals as Bad People, erasing the good that they did. This is not an intellectually honest game. Plenty of early feminists were explicit and loud racists, for example; plenty of early advocates of racial equality were explicit sexists. What purpose is served if you play the game of dismissing all of them?

24

rd 12.26.11 at 4:57 pm

On Jefferson and slavery, while admitting his personal failures, its not true he did nothing to retard its growth beyond banning the transatlantic slave trade. He was the original author and moving force behind the Northwest Ordinance, which banned the importation of slaves into the Ohio territories, basically the portion of the current American midwest east of the Mississippi.

25

M. Krebs 12.26.11 at 5:11 pm

As far as I can remember, GW Bush didn’t.

He did speak strongly against “nation building.”

26

StevenAttewell 12.26.11 at 5:24 pm

Just to mark a few points on the other side of Jefferson’s ledger: his Notes on the State of Virginia were a pretty strong statement about not just slavery but black people in general, and the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions entrenched extreme anti-Federalism on the pro-slavery side and provided the intellectual foundations for secession.

27

js. 12.26.11 at 5:34 pm

I’m no giant fan of Wilson, but chris @ 14 is exactly right. Which makes it difficult to take Will’s criticisms seriously.

And I might be wrong about this, but isn’t Jefferson celebrated more as the premier theorist of the revolution than for anything he did in office?

28

Erik Loomis 12.26.11 at 6:03 pm

29

Harold 12.26.11 at 6:21 pm

“Corruption is a very positive sign of government. You should always be in favor of corruption. ” — This has worked out very well in post-WW2 Italy (not to mention Albania and Africa)!

30

Gene O'Grady 12.26.11 at 6:51 pm

I don’t know exactly what recently means, but my friends who were majoring in American Studies in the mid-60’s destroyed the cult of Wilson that I’d sort of picked up in high school, focusing in particular on his firing all the African-Americans that T Roosevelt and to a lesser extent Taft had put into the lower and middle ranks of the Federal Civil Service. It probably goes against the pop culture image of Roosevelt to think that he personally intervened to find government jobs to support the most promising young white poet and the most promising young black poet.

If you want to understand the high repute of Henry Clay, who certainly should not be linked with Calhoun, you might look into why Lincoln admired him above all other political figures. And why is Clay’s great opponent, the apostle of localism, graft, and bigotry, Andrew Jackson, not included among those whose reputation needs shredding? I’m embarrassed every time I pull out a twenty dollar bill.

I’m also increasingly convinced that the anti-Kennedy myth is far more potent and rather more harmful than the Kennedy myth ever was.

31

Bruce Wilder 12.26.11 at 7:21 pm

Wilson was both an authoritarian and an idealist, a racist and an intellectual, a conservative and a progressive. These juxtapositions constitute an odd and contradictory package for us, not least, because FDR began separating them in the New Deal and World II. I think FDR took Wilson as both a personal hero and an instructive, bad example.

Wilson’s is the single Democratic interregnum in the long stretch of overwhelming Republican dominance of national politics, which followed from Grover Cleveland getting blamed, in his second term, for the Depression that ensued after the Panic of 1893. Wilson’s anemic popular vote percentage in 1912 rivalled Lincoln’s in 1860, though, thankfully, his electoral college support was geographically broader.

The institution of the Federal Reserve, as a progressive measure, by Wilson, was a singular achievement, which turned on his being a Democrat, able to reconcile Bryan and the Populists to the version of the Federal Reserve, proposed by Carter Glass, (as opposed to the version proposed by arch-Republican and plutocrat, Nelson Aldrich). Except for the timely foundation of the Federal Reserve, the advent of World War I might have had quite a different impact on the United States. In the event, the new-born Federal Reserve was able to stem the inevitable initial panic.

Wilson’s determination to lead the U.S. into World War I on the side of the Allies, and his rhetorical power, in defining the meaning of that intervention as a fight for Democracy, for Americans and the world, is his most salient achievement. The U.S. spent much of the 19th century as the Last Best Hope, in a world still dominated by European Empires and feudal aristocracies. Wilson saw, correctly, that World War I was the final crash, and championed the conjunction of popular, democratic government fused to the nation-state.

In our present-day division of ideologies, the conservatives look back and secretly mourn the passing of hereditary aristocracy in WWI, while much of what passes for the left, disdains nationalism and populism along with racism, and not without reason. The sense of political solidarity, which rests on a shared cultural identity, is suspicious to the idealistic left, today, as smelling of racism, and its consequences in the violent exclusion or extermination of whole peoples, in the pursuit of nation-building, makes Wilson’s vision seem dubious to us. It is easy for technocrats to discount the importance of populism and solidarity in the building of the welfare state.

Today, a politics, without political solidarity, and without representation for the interests of the 99%, seems unable to use technocracy alone to sustain institutions, against the plutocracy. As the institutions of liberal internationalism and institutionalism — of which Wilson is the grandfather, if FDR is the father — crumble from corruption as the American hegemony Wilson tried to initiate, and the American democracy he tried to re-invigorate, erodes away, we might be more sympathetic with his having fought some good fights.

32

Harold 12.26.11 at 7:38 pm

Very enlightening, Bruce Wilder. I remember my grandfather, who brought me up, and who was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, denouncing Wilson, I think mostly he detested the idea of League of Nations, which my grandfather pronounced “would never work, because they tried it in the Bible and it didn’t work then.” My grandfather, who had enlisted in World War 1 to help England, was apparently not upset about Wilson’s getting us into WW1. (He was, however, horrified at the profanity of the Nixon tapes, having voted for Nixon). On the other hand I was surprised to read words from leftist journalist George Selden, a foreign correspondent in WW1, expressing admiration of President Wilson. Selden, apparently was no pacifist, nor for that matter, an anti-intellectual. Your post helps elucidate some of these apparently contradictory phenomena.

What is confusing is that conservatives and racists often assume the mantle of defenders of culture and civilization — frequently with the excuse that the end justifies the means (corruption, censorship, disregard of human rights, etc.)

33

John Quiggin 12.26.11 at 8:12 pm

On various comments above, I think the correct response to Will is that based on the Southern realignment. Wilson was on Will’s side, just as Lincoln was on ours.

Will and Wilson belong to the party of Jefferson (Thomas and Davis), even if it has swapped names with its opponent.

On Andrew Jackson, I agree again, but I wasn’t going for a comprehensive list.

34

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.26.11 at 8:44 pm

@31, technocratic liberalism doesn’t need any special suspicions to reject populist. It’s just that technocratic approach is the opposite of populism. Excluding the population from decision-making is the point; technocrats create and fine tune the incentives, the population responds to the incentives. Their participation can only screw things up, and they don’t even need to know what’s going on.

Also, it doesn’t seem obvious that the sense of political solidarity should necessarily rest on shared cultural identity, of the sort that you’re implying there. There are all kinds of political solidarity; 30 thousand volunteers fought for the Spanish republic in the 1930s.

35

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 12.26.11 at 9:28 pm

“Corruption is a very positive sign of government” is probably in the top ten stupidest statements I’ve read on Crooked Timber, Henri. The Nazis were both power mad; often they were corrupt as well, like Göring. Trying to argue these faults as exclusives (as whoever-it-is you were quoting) is not just dumb, it’s ahistoric.

The only way your statement is true is as follows: once you have signs of a corrupt government, you can arrest them – hopefully replacing them with someone else more competent, more benevolent and less indolent. That’s positive. That’s a rough description of Queensland politics in the late eighties.

36

Antonio Conselheiro 12.26.11 at 9:34 pm

The term “populist” has proven hard to define (Gellner, Canovan, Taggart, et al.), and I have proposed that it be defined entirely by the fully-reciprocated animosity technocrats feel toward them. Just bring a technocrat into the room and if there’s immediate hostility, it’s a populist.

37

Barry Freed 12.26.11 at 9:42 pm

@Down and Out of Sài Gòn
That’s a Noam Chomsky quote. Say what you will about good old Noam, and personally I have a lot of time for him, but he’s got this extreme visceral hatred of JFK that blinds him even in the face of documentary evidence to the contrary. I remember a number of years ago when a bunch of documents from his administration were declassified which showed JFK considering backing out of the then limited commitment of “advisors” to Vietnam and Chompsky was having none of it on some kind of anti-JFK a priori grounds or so it seemed. I still dig the man but after that I no longer take his facts at face value.

38

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.26.11 at 9:49 pm

@35, yeah, it’s not my statement, it’s Chomsky’s. I agree that that it smacks of trolling, but he certainly has a point: when it come to power, a hustler, a wheeler-dealer, a common thief is far less dangerous than a megalomaniac.

39

geo 12.26.11 at 10:37 pm

JQ @33: Will and Wilson belong to the party of Jefferson (Thomas and Davis)

I’m with Marc @ 23, the dear deleted Jack Strocchi, and others in thinking that this sells Wilson and Thomas Jefferson seriously short. The achievements the above commenters have listed are solid ones.

But again I think your posing of the question involves — forgive this resurrection of an earlier hobbyhorse — a failure to disaggregate. To rank sufficiently large and complex phenomena, like presidential administrations, along a linear scale is an invitation to fruitless quibbling. Now if you had proposed that “Wilsonian idealism” — meaning the frequently alleged tendency of United States foreign policy to promote democracy and self-determination for other peoples, regardless of American economic or strategic interests — was a fraud and a myth, and that Will or anyone else who takes “Wilsonian idealism” at face value is speaking nonsense, then I’d cheer you on.

As for Jefferson, he is (along with Lincoln) our American civic Shakespeare: the author of imperishable works that are the literary lodestone of American political culture. Suppose it were discovered tomorrow that Shakespeare had committed some crime equivalent to Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (to which JQ, I recognize, prudently refrained from referring) or failure to free his slaves. Would anyone suggest, the day after tomorrow, that Shakespeare’s achievement was “overrated”?

40

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 12.26.11 at 11:03 pm

Erik Loomis@28: it’s nice that one amusing but throwaway paragraph inspired two whole posts on LGM. But maybe you’re not seeing the forests for the trees. History is good, but hagiography is not – and that “US History” link smells of hagiography. It’s like any work about Lincoln who tries to cover up that he was manic depressive.

Perhaps a good compromise here would be to replace Jackson on the twenty by Clay and Webster, but not Calhoun.

Barry and Henri: I thought it may have been George Will. If it’s Chomsky – well, I expected better of him.

41

John 12.26.11 at 11:14 pm

I’d like to dispute Quiggin’s discussion of Wilson. I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to say that Wilson “lied America into the Great War.” I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean. Wilson’s neutrality policy was certainly tilted towards the Entente. But it was tilted towards the Entente because it was pretty strongly in US interests to be able to trade with the Entente powers, and that meant taking a hard line stance against German submarine warfare.

But the real issue here is that the key decisions which led to war between the United States and Germany in 1917 were made by Germany. They were made by Germany in full knowledge that they would almost certainly lead to American entry into the war, and they were made in order to pursue a policy (unrestricted submarine warfare) which did not and could not achieve its political objectives. The Kaiser, Ludendorff, and Holtzendorff made the key decisions that brought the US into the war, and it’s hard to see, say, a President Taft or Hughes (to say nothing of Teddy Roosevelt) behaving all that differently from Taft. Even the policy advocated by Bryan probably wouldn’t have prevented American entry. The Germans decided to have a war with the United States, and they knew this was what they were doing.

The sort of knee jerk assumption that non-intervention would have been the right decision for the US irritates me, too. There were legitimate reasons for the US to prefer an Entente victory to a German one. We can’t judge the actions of statesmen in the teens based on what we all know happened in the 30s.

Wilson’s domestic legislative achievement was also much more impressive than Quiggin suggests. The creation of the Federal Reserve; the Clayton Act, which legalized labor unions, among other things; and the Underwood Tariff, which introduced the income tax, were all important achievements. The idea of comparing Wilson’s domestic policy achievement unfavorably to TR’s is ridiculous – Wilson was far more successful in getting Congress to pass important progressive legislation than TR was, and Wilson’s achievements in that field were probably the most impressive of any president between Lincoln and FDR.

He was, indeed, a racist and an enemy of civil liberties. And his policy at the Paris Peace Conference was high-handed and often foolish (although one can go too far in criticizing the Treaty of Versailles and its accompanying treaties, which may well have been about the best that anyone could have expected). But his achievements were also real, and claiming that he lied the US into World War I is deeply unfair.

42

Jib 12.26.11 at 11:21 pm

@31

Wilson’s determination to lead the U.S. into World War I on the side of the Allies, and his rhetorical power, in defining the meaning of that intervention as a fight for Democracy, for Americans and the world, is his most salient achievement.

And this is why he is overrated. This may have been the greatest strategic blunder in American history. It is hard to come up with a worse outcome for WWI than the one that actually occurred. Counter-factual’s are extremely difficult but if Germany wins WW1, there is no Hitler, no holocaust, probably no Stalin (I doubt Germany would have allowed the Soviets to stay in power in Russia and Germany controlled much of the East prior to armistice) and no general world war II in Europe.

Hard as it is to accept, Imperial Germany would have been a better world citizen than either the Nazi’s or the Communist’s.

It is not clear what would have happened to imperialism world wide without a post-WW2, not to mention the civil rights movement in the US. And there would have still, most likely, been war in the Pacific but clearly the world would have been better off without another general war in Europe not to mention Nazi’s running a militarized industrial world power. All of which occurred because the US intervened in WW1.

43

Josh Lukin 12.27.11 at 12:21 am

Yeah, JQ, there’s been a longstanding wingnut campaign in the U.S., spearheaded by Glenn Beck and other Fox News personalities and spread through various conservative study groups around the country, to denounce “progressives” by associating them with the evils of Woodrow Wilson: Will’s really late to the party on this one.

44

Jack Strocchi 12.27.11 at 2:42 am

Pr Q said:

His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint.

This seems especially uncharitable. Wilson was strongly pro-union, pro-suffragette, pro-poor farmer, pro-children. Wikipedia reports:

Historian John Cooper argues that in his first term, Wilson successfully pushed a legislative agenda that…remained unmatched up until the New Deal. This agenda included the Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act and an income tax. Child labor was curtailed by the Keating–Owen Act of 1916. He also…imposed an 8-hour workday for railroads. Wilson…became a major advocate for the women’s suffrage.

If this is legacy is not “particularly progressive from a left viewpoint” then nothing is.

45

maidhc 12.27.11 at 3:49 am

I can’t agree with Glen Tomkins that Harding was just incompetent. He was thoroughly corrupt, but on a mean and petty scale, unlike the more grandiose type of corruption demonstrated by some of the others.

Can we admire Jefferson for stating that the legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed, and at the same time condemn him for imposing an unwanted system of government on the reluctant inhabitants of the Louisiana territory without seeking their opinion on the matter?

If we reserve our admiration for people who have been totally consistent throughout their entire lifetimes, we would be starting with a very short list, I think.

geo’s discussion of Shakespeare, is interesting, in that if we look at modern writers’ personal lives, some of them are not very nice at all, but in general we judge their works separately. (Bill Knott’s comment on Ezra Pound, “at least he made the quatrains run on time”.) Should politicians be judged on their private lives too?

With Jefferson you could argue that keeping slaves was more of a public issue, although it was also an economic issue for him as he was not very good at personal money management. If he had spent less on books, architecture and other projects, he might have been able to pay off his debts and free his slaves. But he didn’t.

46

Helaine 12.27.11 at 4:18 am

A lurker coming out of hiding for this one …

Wilson was arguably a decent president of the United States, but a disaster for the rest of the world. On one hand, the United States’ successful adventure in World War I left us as one of the dominant world powers forever after (so far, anyway). On the other hand, many historians believe that had the US not entered the war in 1917, the war might have likely ended in something of a stalemate by the end of that year. Given the history of Europe in the period between 1919-1945, there is a plausible argument to be made that a stalemate might not have been such a bad thing. It’s hard to imagine anything worse could have resulted from such a scenario than what actually occurred in the decades after.

47

Bruce Wilder 12.27.11 at 5:17 am

The slaves were making the money he was not saving to free them.

I doubt Jefferson would consider the transfer of Louisiana from the sovereignty of the self-crowned French Emperor to a country, whose constitution and traditions provided a regular means of organizing and establishing democratic self-government, to be a practical contradiction of his principles. On the other hand, holding his slaves, from whom he never asked consent for his governance of them, must have seemed a powerful contradiction, both of his personal principles and those he had assigned to his country.

48

Bruce Wilder 12.27.11 at 5:21 am

Wilson was a contradictory man. He persecuted the sufragettes for protesting at the White House, using his own words on their banners. And, then, he asked the Congress to pass the 19th amendment, securing women the right to vote. American wages rose rapidly during his wartime management of the economy, but he practically destroyed the radical labor union movement.

49

John 12.27.11 at 6:34 am

On the other hand, many historians believe that had the US not entered the war in 1917, the war might have likely ended in something of a stalemate by the end of that year.

What historians are those? This seems unlikely to me – neither side wanted to quit until it was sure it had either lost or won, and neither of those outcomes would have occurred by the end of 1917.

And there’s no particular reason to think the Germans would have won, either – American troops weren’t essential to stopping the last German offensive in 1918. So the most likely outcome would seem to be renewed stalemate.

And this is why he is overrated. This may have been the greatest strategic blunder in American history. It is hard to come up with a worse outcome for WWI than the one that actually occurred. Counter-factual’s are extremely difficult but if Germany wins WW1, there is no Hitler, no holocaust, probably no Stalin (I doubt Germany would have allowed the Soviets to stay in power in Russia and Germany controlled much of the East prior to armistice) and no general world war II in Europe.

Two points need to be kept in mind. One is that hindsight is 20/20 – and that we can’t really have a sense of how bad a Europe run by a victorious Wilhelmine Germany might have been. But we can be certain it would have been quite bad. No Hitler and no Holocaust, most likely. But Erich Ludendorff was an extreme right-wing anti-Semite, and he was the guy running Germany in 1918. Nor is there any reason to assume that the rise of Nazism was an inevitable result of the WWI defeat – the defeat was necessary, but not sufficient, for Hitler’s rule in Germany. But the biggest problem is that none of this was foreseeable to any of the actors during the war. It is enormously problematic to judge historical actors on the basis of later events they could not possibly have anticipated.

The second point, again, is that Wilson didn’t make the key decisions that brought the United States into the war. Germany did, quite consciously and deliberately. Virtually any plausible American government in 1917 would have ended up at war with Germany – certainly a Republican administration would have.

50

Bruce Wilder 12.27.11 at 7:40 am

What is it about Wilson, which provokes this kind of mindless, empty speculation about the aftermath of World War I? Wilson is “responsible” for Hitler? Do you think the Germans had nothing to do with it? The French? All the economic pressures and technological change driving rapid evolution of social institutions and structures?

51

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.27.11 at 8:01 am

@40 Saigon, but what can be sillier than ‘this king was a nice guy and that king wasn’t’? If you’re an anarchist, the only question, with respect to concentration of power, is how much damage it’s likely to cause.

52

gray 12.27.11 at 9:38 am

@42
Given the track record of Imperial Germany in regards to peacemaking – Brest Litovsk – I can’t be quite so sanguine about a victory for them. Certainly France would have been dismembered, so, so much for European stability.

I rate Wilson highly in spite of his foul personal beliefs. He tried to make a better world with the LoN and even if it was not effective diplomatically in the end, the idea was good enough to keep after WW2.
His record of progressivism in domestic issues has =, as other posters have noted, lasted.

53

gray 12.27.11 at 9:38 am

@42
Given the track record of Imperial Germany in regards to peacemaking – Brest Litovsk – I can’t be quite so sanguine about a victory for them. Certainly France would have been dismembered, so, so much for European stability.

I rate Wilson highly in spite of his foul personal beliefs. He tried to make a better world with the LoN and even if it was not effective diplomatically in the end, the idea was good enough to keep after WW2.
His record of progressivism in domestic issues has , as other posters have noted, lasted.

54

Peter T 12.27.11 at 10:02 am

Scoring the past in terms of the present is an idle game – the past is, as they say, another country. But, if the larger perspective is the Western civil conflict that started around 1870 and ended – for the nonce – in 1945, whose essence was the question of whether governments could be directed by the mass of ordinary people for ALL the usual ends of government (economic redistribution included), and the question is

– whether various people agreed they could be so directed, and furthered their ability to do so, then Wilson surely counts for the affirmative, given his domestic record and his opposition to the leading proponents of the negative – the latter including Wilhelmine Germany.

55

John Quiggin 12.27.11 at 10:40 am

“Scoring the past in terms of the present is an idle game “

In what possible sense can this apply to Wilson’s support for Southern segregation? The US had fought a civil war over slavery and fifty years later he was still on the wrong side.

56

Black Mage 12.27.11 at 1:03 pm

As an Australian, I’d certainly describe myself as a Whitlamite, and not in a pejorative sense…

57

novakant 12.27.11 at 1:11 pm

Kennedy signed off on the “Strategic Hamlet Program” (forced relocation) and “Operation Ranch Hand” (Agent Orange) – both constitute war crimes and certainly an escalation of the war.

58

Anderson 12.27.11 at 1:51 pm

Many thanks to John at 41/49 and to Gray; I didn’t have time to spell out my “WTF?” re: Wilson and the war, but they’ve done it admirably.

People who think it would’ve been better for Germany to win WW1 have been reading too much Niall Ferguson, or someone equally inane.

59

Barry 12.27.11 at 2:23 pm

“And there’s no particular reason to think the Germans would have won, either – American troops weren’t essential to stopping the last German offensive in 1918. So the most likely outcome would seem to be renewed stalemate.”

Which might have led to a greater Soviet conquest in the aftermath of WWI, due to the fact that Germany would have been weakened by another year or two of war and blockade. In addition, there’d have been an increased chance of a communist revolution in Germany.

“Given the track record of Imperial Germany in regards to peacemaking – Brest Litovsk – I can’t be quite so sanguine about a victory for them. Certainly France would have been dismembered, so, so much for European stability.”

Assuming a ‘successful’ German conclusion to WWI, they’d have a flat-out empire stretching from the Channel [and chunks of France] to Ukraine and Belarus. With lots of continued suffering in Ukraine, Belarus and the rump of Russia/USSR due to the ‘consolidation’ of Imperial rule. This, of course, would have set things up for a repeat of the Napoleonic wars against Great Britain.

60

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.27.11 at 2:30 pm

Hmm. I don’t think Germany could win WW1. Germany had a revolutionary situation in 1918 that was very similar to that in Russia in 1917. Of course German communists failed to take over (by a hair), and got massacred, but what made the difference there (arguably, of course), was that the war was already over, and communist controlled troops refused to act and dispose of the SPD government. Had the war still been on, in all likelihood German communists would’ve prevailed. We would have a very different world today.

61

soru 12.27.11 at 3:10 pm

It’s hard to imagine anything worse could have resulted from such a scenario than what actually occurred in the decades after.

Pretty easy to imagine. War continues another 2 years after the French surrender, as Germany has no practical way of forcing the UK to stop fighting a Napoleonic-style worldwide war. Perhaps ten million more people die, many in colonial campaigns in Africa. Eventual terms, at the peace conference sponsored by Wilson, are controversial, in that despite it’s evident victory, Germany only gets 2 out of 3 of European land, African colonies and financial tribute.

Capitalism being what it is, something very like the Wall street crash and Depression happen on cue. Crippled by the costs of African colonies/rebuilding trench-ravaged land/reliance on paper financial inflows, the German economy collapses into hyperinflation. The new techniques of mass propaganda and party membership, pioneered by the communists, are used to blame those problems on the peace terms (whatever they were). Hitler’s speech about the ‘stolen fruits of victory’ is considered a classic of it’s kind. With direct Imperial rule seeming an outdated relic heading for the same fate as the Romanov’s, he marches on Berlin and secures the public backing of the new Kaiser for fascism. A few years later in Italy, Mussolini comes third behind two flavours of Socialism in an election, and so ends up in power too.

Perhaps France defaults on its tribute payments, or some UK military officers are found advising Haile Selassie’s revolt. Starting from a much stronger military starting point, Hitler wins.

20 years after Mengele’s pioneering experiments, the discovery of modern genetics starts turning Nazi racial science into an objective description of the new human subspecies the breeding and culling program has created.

Or maybe we are lucky and just get a nuclear war instead.

In general, the outcome of a war decades previously is not going to have any remotely predicable influence on economics, technologies and politics in the mid-1930s. Judge things on their own terms, not on the results of 20 more years of events and choices.

62

Ralph Hitchens 12.27.11 at 3:15 pm

I see value in counterfactual reasoning, which Niall Ferguson — whatever his faults — has promoted. Accordingly it’s interesting to speculate about a postwar Europe dominated by Wilhelmine Germany, which would likely have constrained fascism but probably not Bolshevism. Also, it seems unlikely that France would have been “dismembered” in a post-stalemate armistice. The allies did manage to contain the successful German offensives of spring 1918 with little in the way of an American presence — and that presence had little to do with the strains and stresses on Germany’s domestic situation later in 1918. As pointed out above, unrestricted submarine warfare could not and did not reverse Germany’s economic strangulation. Yes, Ludendorff was de facto the dictator of Germany by 1918, but like Hitler after 1941 he was focused on the military situation while the domestic political front was delegated increasingly fractious and unreliable politicians. I suspect German dominance of postwar Europe could not be stipulated, as some historians are wont to do.

63

Tom M 12.27.11 at 3:27 pm

Novakant says Kennedy signed off on the Strategic Hamlet Program. It was not his to sign off on.
In August 1962, GVN produced its long awaited national pacification plan with four priority areas and specified priorities within each area. At the same time, however, it indicated that over 2,500 strategic hamlets had already been completed and that work was already underway on more than 2,500 more. Although it was not until October 1962, that GVN explicitly announced the Strategic Hamlet Program to be the unifying concept of its pacification and counterinsurgent effort it was clear earlier that the program had assumed this central position.
Three important implications of this early progress (or, more precisely, reported progress) are also clear in retrospect. These implications seem not to have impressed themselves acutely upon U.S. observers at the time. First, the program was truly one of GVN initiative rather than one embodying priorities and time phasing recommended by the U.S. Diem was running with his own ball in programmatic terms, no matter who articulated the theory of the approach

From the Pentagon Papers. Defendant is innocent on count 1.

64

LFC 12.27.11 at 4:07 pm

@57
Kennedy signed off on the “Strategic Hamlet Program” (forced relocation) and “Operation Ranch Hand” (Agent Orange) – both constitute war crimes and certainly an escalation of the war.

US policy in Vietnam was one of steadily, if slowly, increasing commitment from Eisenhower on, culminating in LBJ’s 1965 decisions (bombing campaign and intro of large numbers of ground forces). As a congressman JFK had criticized Truman for the “loss” of China and as a senator in 1956 had declared S.Vietnam to be the cornerstone of the free world in Asia, so it would have been v. surprising if on becoming president he had decided that maintaining a non-Communist S.Vietnam was not important. OTOH he rejected direct military action vs N.Vietnam which Rostow was pressing for. (The strategic hamlet program was inhumane, dumb, and ineffective but whether it constituted a war crime is perhaps debatable.)

65

LFC 12.27.11 at 4:14 pm

@63
well, this excerpt from the PP is certainly in some conflict with other accounts

From David Milne, America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War (2008), p.105:
“The director of the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research, Roger Hilsman, presented the [strategic hamlet] program’s blueprint — ‘A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam’ — to Kennedy on February 2, 1962.”

p.104: strategic hamlet program was “the Kennedy administration’s central strategy for defeating Communism in South Vietnam”

66

John 12.27.11 at 4:17 pm

Germany had a revolutionary situation in 1918 that was very similar to that in Russia in 1917. Of course German communists failed to take over (by a hair), and got massacred, but what made the difference there (arguably, of course), was that the war was already over, and communist controlled troops refused to act and dispose of the SPD government.

This seems to strongly overrate the chances of a communist revolution in Germany, and to exaggerate the similarities between Germany and Russia. Revolution in Russia happened because the war was continuing. To the extent that revolution happened in Germany, it was because the war was over and Germany had not won. There was not really any internal unrest at all in Germany until it became clear that the war was lost in October 1918. The Communists had virtually no support in Germany, and did not come very close to succeeding. In addition, the SPD had learned what they saw as the lesson of the Russian Revolution – that the great danger was not from counterrevolution, but from the Communists – and they acted accordingly. It’s really hard to see a way that a Communist Revolution could succeed in Germany in 1918/19.

67

Josh G. 12.27.11 at 4:24 pm

Others have already said many of the things I wanted to say, so I’m not going to bother repeating them. One thing I’m not sure has been said with enough force is that there is a big difference between historical figures who passively go along with injustice, and those who actively perpetrate and further injustice. Therefore, to use examples from the original post, there is a big difference between Clay and Webster on one hand and Calhoun on the other. To the extent that Clay and Webster sinned, it was in not fighting hard enough against Calhoun and the powers and principalities he represented. Likewise, Woodrow Wilson can’t plead ignorance and upbringing as an excuse for his racism. Previous administrations had hired African-Americans into the civil service; Wilson fired them, an actively regressive step and not simply a maintenance of the status quo.

Regarding World War I: I’m rather baffled by some of the claims made in this thread. Most notably, John’s claim @ 41 that US entry into the war (on the Entente side) was more or less inevitable. Why? Because of unrestricted submarine warfare? That wasn’t something that Germany came up with just for the evulz; it was a response to the unrestricted surface-ship warfare that had been conducted by the UK Royal Navy for some time previously. Britain was no more solicitous of neutral rights than Germany was. And if Wilson hadn’t consciously and deliberately backed Germany into a corner, USW might never have happened in the first place. Then, too, several posters (John @ 49, gray @ 52, Anderson @ 58) seem to think that Wilhelmine Germany was somehow morally worse than contemporary Britain. Again, I’m just not seeing it. Britain was basically the Nazi Germany of the 19th century, waging aggressive war throughout the world without provocation or apology, murdering countless millions via starvation, inventing the concentration camp. While the Germans were certainly no angels in the pre-WWI era, it would be quite a stretch to say that they were worse than the Brits. Perhaps the worst colonists of all were the Belgians – another Entente power.

To Bruce Wilder @ 50: Moral responsibility is not mathematical. If two men conspire to murder a third, and then carry out that murder, they are not each 50% guilty; they are each 100% guilty, notwithstanding that there was still only one murder committed. Saying that Wilson was responsible at least to some extent for Hitler, WWII, and the Holocaust does not in any way imply that the Nazis themselves are not responsible.

Regarding Wilson’s alleged progressive record: The Federal Reserve? Really? Have you guys been asleep these past few years?

Sorry for rambling on so long. Moderators, please let me know if I’m being too verbose.

68

Chris Williams 12.27.11 at 5:13 pm

I’m not a massive fan of the British Empire, which did indeed kill millions – but it didn’t invent the concentration camp: that was a Spanish innovation.

And what’s with this downer on Chamberlain? John Q, you are Chamberlain and have just taken over as PM in May 1937. What do you do differently? You can offer two sets of suggestions if you want: one with the advantage of hindsight and one without.

69

Josh G. 12.27.11 at 5:29 pm

Chris Williams: “I’m not a massive fan of the British Empire, which did indeed kill millions – but it didn’t invent the concentration camp: that was a Spanish innovation.

The sources don’t seem to be consistent on this point. I was relying on accounts that say that the concentration camp was invented for the Boer War (Brad DeLong discusses the sequence of events here). Google Books shows some sources which repeat this account, some which say concentration camps were invented by Spain in occupied Cuba, and a few which claim that the Boer War claim is German propaganda! I suspect there is no clear answer because the dubious honor of having the first “concentration camp” depends on how the person using that term chooses to define it.

70

Anderson 12.27.11 at 5:50 pm

Britain was basically the Nazi Germany of the 19th century

I wish you had put this at the beginning of your comment, to save me the trouble of reading further.

the unrestricted surface-ship warfare that had been conducted by the UK Royal Navy for some time previously

Do you have a list of American ships sunk by the Royal Navy during WW1? Which UK surface ships left the passengers of said ships to die in the water?

Finally, see Bethmann-Hollweg’s draft of war aims, prepared not after the bitterness of years of trench warfare, but in Sept. 1914.

71

J. Otto Pohl 12.27.11 at 6:11 pm

It does appear that the Spanish beat the British by a few years in pioneering the use of the concentration camp. The Spanish used them in 1896-1897 before the start of the Boer War in 1899. The US then used them in the Philippines and the Germans in Namibia.

72

James Wimberley 12.27.11 at 6:53 pm

arc in #23: ¨Jefferson was living in an era where people took the divine right of kings seriously.¨
Who and where? Russia and the Ottoman Empire, true, but not in the frame of reference. Are you thinking of de Maistre? Did the French monarchy articulate a divine right theory in 1789 in its own defence, like Charles I of England? Britain, Prussia, and SFIK the Nordic kingdoms were constitutional monarchies.

73

ThomP 12.27.11 at 7:06 pm

Actually, of course, the practice of rounding people up and interring them en masse didn’t take humans until the late 19th Century to invent. The Russians, for example, interred Polish civilians in camps during the 18th Century.

74

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.27.11 at 7:35 pm

What’s the problem; a concentration camp doesn’t seem like too barbaric a practice, compared to, say, just massacring everybody, along with their ox, sheep, and donkey.

75

Josh G. 12.27.11 at 7:47 pm

Anderson @ 70: “I wish you had put this at the beginning of your comment, to save me the trouble of reading further.

Dismissal isn’t a substitute for reasoned argument.

The way I see it, Nazi Germany’s evil was embodied in several different policy programs. Foremost among these were aggressive warfare for territorial gain, a dog-eat-dog policy in which the poor and weak were denigrated, state-sponsored racism (including modern anti-Semitism), and genocide.

But if you examine the historical record, it becomes apparent that 19th century Britain was guilty of each of these same things. Aggressive warfare for territorial gain? Of course – the UK spent most of the 19th century painting large swathes of the map red at the point of a gun. Dog-eat-dog ideology? Check – this was the society of the Poor Law and the workhouse, the brutal and pitiless industrial society against which Karl Marx saw no remedy but revolution. Racism? There were few societies in history more racist than 19th century Britain (“the wogs begin at Calais”). Almost as soon as Darwin penned his seminal work, it was abused by his countrymen as a justification for racism. (To his credit, Darwin himself largely refrained from such speculations, but his colleagues, including Huxley, were not thus restrained.) As for genocide, if Britain’s deliberate and callous starvation of millions in Ireland and India during the 19th century does not qualify, then the word has no meaning.

Anderson @ 70: “Do you have a list of American ships sunk by the Royal Navy during WW1?

The British generally seized neutral ships rather than sinking them. Under international law, though, this doesn’t matter; both were equally in violation of the USA’s rights as a neutral power. (Neither, however, was worth going to war over.)

The purpose and intent of Britain’s blockade was to cause starvation (the UK’s favorite method of execution) in Germany. Was this really a more morally praiseworthy aim?

76

Bill Murray 12.27.11 at 8:09 pm

depending on the exact definition, the US Indian reservations were the first concentration camps, albeit rather larger in size. Started in 1849, by the Civilization Regulations of 1880, the people were confined to the reservation, there were a group of laws that only they could violate including practicing their religion.

77

CJColucci 12.27.11 at 8:12 pm

Slightly OT, but suggested by the reference to unheroic Australian political leaders, I think it would be fun to put together a list of small-country leaders who might have been the second coming of Bismarck-Disraeli-Lincoln if put in charge of a nation large enough to give their talents free reign, for good or ill. Who cares, for example, if the leader of Holland or Finland is a strait-jacketed giant among statespersons? But give them, say, Germany or the United States and then what? To be clear, I’m talking about a list of persons of ability, like, say, Lee Kuan Yew, not madmen like Kim Jong Il.

78

John Quiggin 12.27.11 at 8:19 pm

“And what’s with this downer on Chamberlain? “

My point was that Chamberlain was a figure very comparable to Clay and Webster. He faced a difficult situation, and failed to deal with it adequately. The ‘Guilty Men’ view may be an overstatement, but I’ve never seen anyone suggest that he was a Great Man, in the way routinely claimed for Clay and Webster.

In my view, admittedly with hindsight, Chamberlain would have done better in strictly military terms to defend Czechoslovakia. The Czechs weren’t militarily negligible themselves, Russia was still neutral and Mussolini wasn’t committed to war. Those facts outweigh the possible benefits of a year of rearmament, during which Germany was rearming as well. More importantly, and relevantly to the comparison with Clay and Webster, resisting Hitler was the right thing to do.

79

Anderson 12.27.11 at 8:19 pm

As for genocide, if Britain’s deliberate and callous starvation of millions in Ireland and India during the 19th century does not qualify, then the word has no meaning.

That’s odd, because I own a book of words — a “dictionary” — and it defines “genocide” as “the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group.” (You can find similar resources online.) If you think Britain did anything of the kind to Ireland or to India, then I think you are under-educated on the topics you’re addressing.

The British generally seized neutral ships rather than sinking them. Under international law, though, this doesn’t matter

It matters considerably, however, to the people who don’t drown. And you don’t know what you’re talking about; international law required all reasonable efforts to rescue the passengers. U-boats simply could not do this for any sizable number of people, so they could not comply with international law.

The purpose and intent of Britain’s blockade was to cause starvation (the UK’s favorite method of execution) in Germany. Was this really a more morally praiseworthy aim?

“The UK’s favorite method of execution.” You sound like the Stormfront character whose comments I sometimes have to delete from my blog. Germany had an option to avoid its population’s hunger: surrender. Its gov’t (none of whom were going hungry) chose to advance their political aims instead.

80

Anderson 12.27.11 at 8:21 pm

… Re: concentration camps, btw, here is something:

[Kitchener] drove 160,000 of [the Boers’] wives and children into the fifty concentration camps established along lines pioneered by Roberts but not, apparently, in imitation of those created in Cuba by General “Butcher” Weyler. Here 28,000 inmates, mostly children, succumbed to disease and malnutrition caused by conditions almost as bad as in the separate camps set up for Africans, where the mortality rate was probably even higher…. [W]hen British officers wore out the dance floor at the Bloemfontain Residency they sold the old floorboards for 1s 6d each to incarcerated Boer women to make coffins for their children.

–Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997.

81

Mrs Tilton 12.27.11 at 8:37 pm

Anderson 12.27.11 at 5:50 pm

Britain was basically the Nazi Germany of the 19th century

I wish you had put this at the beginning of your comment, to save me the trouble of reading further.

If I wanted to continue in the same note that Anderson has struck, I might point out that, unlike Josh G.’s remarks about 19th c. Britain, Anderson’s name stands right at the beginning of all his posts, thus sparing most of us a great deal of time and trouble; but as I understand the proprietors have been striving of late to raise the tone down here in the comments, I shall not do so, but will instead echo Josh’s not unreasonable suggestion that, if Anderson has an argument to make, he make it rather then simply sputtering.

82

Josh G. 12.27.11 at 8:44 pm

Anderson @ 78: “That’s odd, because I own a book of words—a “dictionary”—and it defines “genocide” as “the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group.” (You can find similar resources online.) If you think Britain did anything of the kind to Ireland or to India, then I think you are under-educated on the topics you’re addressing.

The official definition of genocide is actually not anywhere near that narrow. International law is not defined by a dictionary, but by the UN. And according to the UN, genocide includes “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Note that absolute extermination of every single person is not required. British policy in Ireland from the Plantation onward was expressly designed to squeeze out the indigenous population of Ireland and replace them with new Protestant English settlers. That’s genocide. As for the situation in India, see Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts if you need more details.

Anderson @ 78: “You sound like the Stormfront character whose comments I sometimes have to delete from my blog.

Except here it appears that you’re the one denying that your favorite nation committed genocide. I am an American citizen, but I would never deny that the USA’s treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century amounted to genocide.

Anderson @ 78: “Germany had an option to avoid its population’s hunger: surrender.

Britain had the same option if they didn’t like Germany’s U-boat warfare. Your argument here is circular: it only works if you already presuppose that the British are the good guys and the Germans are the bad guys. It’s a common error which usually results from projecting back from WWII, when that really was the case. In the Great War, though, it’s not nearly so cut and dried.

83

Anderson 12.27.11 at 8:57 pm

Anderson’s name stands right at the beginning of all his posts, thus sparing most of us a great deal of time and trouble

Handy, ain’t it?

I suppose we inhabit different interpretive communities, but in mine, equating the British Empire to Nazi Germany is just nuts. I’m waiting for someone to explain to me how I’m mistaken about that, but it hasn’t happened yet.

(And is anyone ever going to explain how Wilson “lied the U.S. into war”? I mean, yeah, he was an arrogant racist jackass, but that doesn’t quite work as an explanation of the U.S.’s entry in WW1. Leaving aside that Congress had something or other to do with it.)

“Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

And this applies to Ireland … how? It won’t do as an explanation of the great famine. And malevolently “encouraging” emigration, while wicked in itself, does not aim at “physical destruction.” Come on: Treblinka?

Except here it appears that you’re the one denying that your favorite nation committed genocide.

Hm .. do I have a favorite nation? Must ponder that. Regardless, there is a lot to criticize about the British Empire, but screeching about how it was equivalent to Nazi Germany does not make any useful contribution to that criticism.

Britain had the same option if they didn’t like Germany’s U-boat warfare.

Well, I left out another option: win the war. Britain succeeded in that. And I am well aware of the fashion for claiming that WW1

84

Watson Ladd 12.27.11 at 9:00 pm

Wilson’s participation in Versailles made the terms better for Germany then they would have been otherwise.

85

Anderson 12.27.11 at 9:01 pm

… Oops, hit wrong key. Completing # 82:

just happened of itself, but the fact remains that Germany invaded Belgium and France, and planned to keep Belgium and to reduce most of the continent to subjection to Germany. Britain did not start the war. France may’ve encouraged Russia to mobilize vs. Germany, but Germany did not then have to blunder and go to war with France. It was scarcely France’s fault, or Britain’s, that the German general staff had only one plan in the cupboard.

86

More Dogs, Less Crime 12.27.11 at 9:10 pm

I don’t have much to add on the individuals in question, but I applaud the scrutinizing of historical “great men”.

In defense of Harding, he pardoned Eugene Debs.

On Bismarck unifying Germany, was that really such a good thing?

87

Anderson 12.27.11 at 9:23 pm

On Bismarck unifying Germany, was that really such a good thing?

Bismarck must’ve had days where he asked himself the same thing, riding as he was on the tiger of German nationalism ….

88

Barry 12.27.11 at 9:40 pm

Josh G: “The British generally seized neutral ships rather than sinking them. Under international law, though, this doesn’t matter; both were equally in violation of the USA’s rights as a neutral power. (Neither, however, was worth going to war over.)”

Were the ships seized in a declared blockade zone? If so, that’s *not* a ‘violation of the USA’s [or anybody else’s] rights as a neutral power’.

89

john c. halasz 12.27.11 at 11:04 pm

@78:

IIRC it was especially the French that wanted to buy time for rearmament at Munich, since they actually had a mutual defense treaty with Czechoslovakia, as did the Soviet Union. And it was the failure of the French to honor their treaty commitment that convinced Stalin that the West was unreliable and so he looked about elsewhere…

90

L2P 12.27.11 at 11:15 pm

Webster at least has nothing at all in common with Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s big fault (whether your agree that he erred or not) was appeasing a warmongering Germany so as to ironically encourage war when strong action supposedly would have stopped Germany in its tracks. A lot of people think the allies could have defeated Germany in 1938.

Nobody thinks there’s anything Webster could have done to stop Secession. If anybody here has some argument for how Webster standing tall against the Fugitive Slave Act makes Virginia give up slavery in the 1850’s, I’m glad to hear it. Unlike Chamberlain, though, I’ve never heard anybody argue Webster could have done a thing to stop the Civil War. And nobody thinks the North could have beaten the South in 1850 (outside of some time travel fantasies.)

Still, except for the Fugitive Slave Act, he generally opposed slavery acts when they came up, opposed nullification, and fought for economic development. So you’re left with a Senator who fought against slavery when he could, fought like hell to strengthen the union, and who undoubtedly was a prime mover in making a strong Northern economy, without which the South probably wins the Civil War. Then the Civil War would be a tragedy.

That’s why most Americans think Webster is a great statesmen. That and The Devil an Daniel Webster

91

Bruce Wilder 12.27.11 at 11:20 pm

Moral responsibility requires both intent and proximate cause. It is not enough to wish a man dead, nor is sticking pins in a voodoo doll. Actually killing a man, with a suitable tool, such as a gun or a motor vehicle, in a moment of passion, or carelessness, or inebriation, or madness, carries a degree of moral culpability, less than that associated with killing a man as part of some malevolent plan to further one’s own ends. At least that’s how the civil law treats the matter, and I presume that reflects our general, shared moral sense reasonably well. We could argue about culpability in a military context, and I’m not sure what my opinion would be.

My point, here, would be that to blame Woodrow Wilson for the emergence of Hitler and the Rise of Nazi Germany, in a moral sense, with analogy to persons committing crimes, encounters two obstacles: intention and proximate cause. I have never heard anyone make the claim that the idealistic, narrow-minded, authoritarian Wilson had a deliberate intent to cause the Second World War, so I presume that the claim with regard to intent, is some sort carelessness or negligence or stupidity. Great “strategic error” was a term bandied about, up-thread, though I cannot quite distinguish a clear referent to an associated proximate cause. That’s what interests me most in this discussion: proximate cause.

Wilson, Allied Victory, the Paris Peace Conference and the Versailles Treaty -> to the emergence of Nazi Germany and the Second World War seems a long, chaotic stretch of intervening cause-and-effect to be claiming that Wilson “caused” the latter.

I can think of various specific points, on which the beginning of a long chain of cause-and-effect might be persuasively argued. Reparations. Occupation of the Ruhr. The “design” of Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, qua nation-states. And, several others.

The quixotic tendencies in French policy stand out in my mind, as misguided, but that was Clemenceau and other Frenchmen, no? The size of reparations, de-militarizing the Rhineland, occupying the Ruhr coal mines, and outside the scope of the Treaty — the failure to reform the French military command structure and personnel, reliance on the Maginot Line, the failure to intervene in Spain, etc., etc.

The Germans failed to build legitimacy for a democratic state. Part of this was the difficulty of reparations, part the difficulties associated with signing a treaty at all, compounded by irresolution in dealing with those in military command, who had lost an ill-advised war.

Wilson’s insistence on a principle of self-determination, applied to the mess left by the Hapsburg Empire, wasn’t very practical. But, nationalist aspirations were hardly of his creation; they had histories and leaders of their own.

Anyway, I just do not see a the smoking gun of proximate cause that would make sense of branding Woodrow Wilson, or his policies, as some sort of supremely bad example of something.

92

Dissent 12.28.11 at 12:16 am

The historical ignorance in this thread is simply breathtaking. It’s as if you’ve all missed out on at least 30 or 40 years of European historiography. But most galling of all is the certainty with which you make all of these assertions.

93

John 12.28.11 at 12:22 am

Josh G – you don’t see any moral distinction between stopping ships and seizing contraband, on the one hand, and sinking ships full of civilians without warning?

Whatever the immorality of the British blockade against Germany, it didn’t affect American citizens in the same way that unrestricted submarine warfare did. And it is, of course, a government’s responsibility to protect its own citizens, not to rectify injustice to foreign civilians (whose government was engaging in a war of aggression).

It’s certainly arguable that Wilson’s policies backed the Germans into a corner. But it was still the Germans who made the decision to institute a policy they knew would result in war with the United States, and, more importantly, that policy did not and could not achieve its stated objectives. Unrestricted submarine warfare did not and could not win the war for the Germans, or drive Britain out of the war, or economically cripple it. The Germans made a decision to go to war with the United States (something every German policymaker knew would result from the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare), and they made that decision for no good reason. Should Wilson have drawn the line in the sand where he did? That’s arguable, but it’s hard to see any plausible American leader in this period doing otherwise. Even a President Bryan would have been hard pressed to avoid war under those circumstances. The basic problem is one-sidedness – it makes little sense to blame United States leaders for a war which was largely provoked by Germany.

As to whether the British Empire was the “Nazi Germany of the 19th century,” this kind of thing quickly becomes tedious. If we want to, we can come up with a pretty compelling moral condemnation of every government that has ever existed. But what’s the point? The British committed their share of atrocities in building their empire. If you want to argue that this makes them as bad as the Nazis, I suppose you can go ahead, although you’ll not find many takers. But certainly the German treatment of the Herero was worse than anything the British did, and that’s in a context where the Germans had far fewer opportunities to commit colonial atrocities than the British did. Looking out Germany and Britain as a whole, it’s really hard not to view the British as more sympathetic. Germany was an anachronistic quasi-authoritarian state run by backwards reactionary aristocrats. Its goals in the war were essentially the domination of the European continent, and perhaps the world. The British were an increasingly democratic polity and their goals in the war were essentially the preservation of the status quo. I think it’s pointless to take side in century old political arguments, but it’s pretty clear and understandable why Wilson (and most other Americans not of Irish or German descent) was more sympathetic to Britain and its allies than to Germany.

On another note…

Wilson’s insistence on a principle of self-determination, applied to the mess left by the Hapsburg Empire, wasn’t very practical.

Wilson didn’t cause the break-up of the Habsburg Empire, and it was an accomplished fact by the time he got to Paris. I’m not sure what, exactly, Wilson is supposed to have done so wrong in adjudicating the numerous border disputes among the already existing successor states in 1919. The Big Three couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again even if they had wanted to, and while the settlement they worked out wasn’t perfect, what better alternative was available to them?

94

Random Lurker 12.28.11 at 12:29 am

On the sub-thread “did German defeat in ww1 cause Hitler/Stalin?”:

In my opinion, it didn’t.
European economy before ww1 was one of many capitalist states that relied on colonialism to solve the “contradictions” that early capitalism caused in their societies, both by exploiting resources from colonies and by using colonies as export markets to solve demand problems (this demand side role of colonialism is not usually considered but I think it was very important: think to the “black ship” in the Edo port).

That system reached a limit when desirable colonies ended; at that point, would-be world powers, like Italy, Germany and Japan, tought that, to become real first class nations, they really had to build their own empires. But since there were no more cool colonies left, they tought they had to attack existing world powers: Mussolini specifically spoke of Italy as a “proletarian nation”, and Hitler believed in the “life space” of Germany.

Thus ww1, and later ww2, were just the end point of european colonialism.
In facts, while France and the UK on paper won the war, in reality lost materially the war and in a short time also lost their colonial empires: the only real winners of the war were USA and USSR.

I don’t think that a victorious Germany in ww1 could change that: the victorious German empire would then just fight UK for the colonies. For example, Italy actually won ww1 but this didn’t limit Italian imperial wishes (maybe the opposite).

95

Peter T 12.28.11 at 12:33 am

On Wilson and segregation – firing black Federal employees definitely counts against him, but I’d want to know a lot more before condemning him generally. All political leaders have to weigh priorities – maybe he thought that making desegregation a hot topic would make it impossible to pass labour laws? You can’t judge on later outcomes, you have to look at what people saw their choices as, in the frame of the times.

Chamberlain’s great mistake was not to pick up Soviet offers of a general guarantee of European borders in 1938 – as so often, dislike of communism outweighed fear of fascism.

96

Dissent 12.28.11 at 12:43 am

John at 93 is the only person in this entire thread that comes even close to accurately describing historical reality. The rest of you better pipe down and hit the books.

97

John Quiggin 12.28.11 at 12:52 am

I’ll just observe that Dissent @96 is a particularly stupid comment. The historical facts are well known – nothing in this comments thread comes as news to me, and I imagine the same is true of others. So, the suggestion that people who disagree with you need to “hit the books” is just silly.

As regards the analysis being offered here, the idea that, having shown the German leaders were evil warmongers, you’ve absolved their Allied counterparts of guilt is exactly the kind of thing we had with Saddam and Iraq. With 10 million dead, and the stage set for Nazism, there is plenty of guilt to go around, including for those who want to justify war crimes in retrospect.

More generally, I’ve had it with pro-war advocates who claim superior knowledge as the basis for their position. No doubt, the Dissents of 100 years time will still be explaining the wisdom of the Iraq war and the naivety of its opponents.

98

Jack Strocchi 12.28.11 at 1:26 am

Pr Q @ #33 said:

I think the correct response to Will is that based on the Southern realignment. Wilson was on Will’s side, just as Lincoln was on ours.

I would be wary of playing the parlour game of de-rating Presidents, still less retrospective political correction, you never know who might be swept into the radioactive net. Lincoln, by universal acclaim the most admired President, had racist views and supported segregationist policies that would have earned him a life-time ban on Vdare, never mind Crooked Timber.

Cut off at 100 words, as previously advised

99

John Quiggin 12.28.11 at 1:28 am

Another interesting parallel is that the pro-war historiography on which Wilson’s defenders are relying here is very reminiscent of the pro-Confederate historiography was dominant in Wilson’s time, and supported his racist views.

100

geo 12.28.11 at 2:01 am

Whatever one thinks of Britain’s wartime blockade of Germany, it seems to hard to justify the extension of that blockade (with support from Winston Churchill) for six months after the armistice, at a cost of ca. 500,000 German lives. That may indeed have helped prepare German popular feeling for the Nazi outburst of xenophobic nationalism.

101

bob mcmanus 12.28.11 at 2:35 am

Wilson, in my opinion, is much worse than anyone here has adequately described. I believe he, and Bernays et al, essentially used WWI as a means of rationalizing the American political economy into the Fordist consumerist institutionalized oppression of the working class that we have known ever since. The Palmer raids and jailing of Debs were just the incidental final touches of the permanent elimination of socialist possibility in America.

This was very intentional and well understood. The racism, nationalism, and militarism is directly connected to the capitalist progressivism. Freaking proto-fascist.

WWI was a tool for Wilson as Iraq was a tool in the last decade.

102

bob mcmanus 12.28.11 at 2:41 am

And I don’t know if Wilson’s war economy was actually a model for Mussolini and the fascists in Germany and Japan, but I would not be surprised if they didn’t learn some useful lessons from how Wilson managed some “problems”. A place for further study, as to whether we can lay tens of millions dead at that bastard’s feet.

103

Peter T 12.28.11 at 3:02 am

Very little of the analysis here actually addresses the situations facing the people at the time. Were Allied leaders to acquiesce in Germany war aims? Fail to blockade Germany when in a war instigated by Germany? Was Wilson to let pass unrestricted submarine warfare and with it, US trade with both allied and neutral Europe? Did he have to deal politically with a Southern political bloc (probably the largest single political bloc in Congress, with firm bases in the Southern states and counties)? His presidency would surely have been judged a failure if he alienated the Southern bloc and, as a result, failed to pass any progressive measures while still getting nothing done about segregation. Hand-wringing is not an adequate substitute for choice.

104

bob mcmanus 12.28.11 at 3:15 am

“any progressive measures “

What progressive measures? Like letting a consortium of the biggest bankers determine the money supply, the price level, whether or not we have inflation or recession? Bankers? How has that worked? It is a sign of Wilson’s success that is considered a triumph of the left, in spite of obvious evidence. Post-Keynesians and MMT folk look at the Fed differently.

The Income Tax, displacing tariffs? Oh look, we are now all globalized and international, better to fight the International Workers movement.

Almost every “progressive” act can be better explained as a kind of corporatism and means of political control by elites. De-democratization, because the early teens were getting a little chancy. Debs got 20%? Let’s get to thinking here.

105

Dissent 12.28.11 at 4:53 am

What pro-war historiography?

106

LFC 12.28.11 at 5:12 am

John @41
We can’t judge the actions of statesmen in the teens based on what we all know happened in the 30s.
I agree and therefore think the argument about whether U.S. intervention in WW1 can be said to have led indirectly to WW2 is somewhat pointless. ISTM the main ’cause’ of WW2 was Hitler himself. Of course there were background factors and permissive conditions but this is one case where the “single individual decisively affects the course of history” approach applies, I would argue.

Random Lurker @94
this demand side role of colonialism is not usually considered
actually it’s an old theory: see J.A. Hobson, Imperialism

Thus ww1, and later ww2, were just the end point of european colonialism.
No. WW1 might well have occurred even if there had been plenty of “cool” (your word) colonies left.

Dissent @92
The historical ignorance in this thread is simply breathtaking.
well that’s a helpful remark

107

Chris Bertram 12.28.11 at 8:05 am

Since we’re playing the “whose the most evull!” game, I’d note that the imperial expansion of the United States westwards during the 19th century, accompanied as it was by multiple genocides, surely puts that country into contention. (Noting also that Hitler had his own clear answer to who “the Nazis of the 19th century” were.) As for 19th century Britain being especially racist, by the standards of the times, well I doubt it. The willingness of British voters to return MPs of Indian ethnicity being relevant evidence here.

108

Walt 12.28.11 at 8:33 am

Dissent, nobody cares about your pretensions to expertise. Either make an argument or shut up. Maybe wherever you are, people silent bow down before superior credentials, but this is the Internet. We require facts, or at least an effort to lie convincingly.

I have no opinion on the argument in this thread, but Christ, nothing is as irritating as someone saying “well some expert I won’t even mention proves that you’re wrong.” If you’re too lazy to actually comment, then don’t comment.

109

Josh G. 12.28.11 at 8:36 am

Chris Bertram @ 107: “Since we’re playing the “whose the most evull!” game, I’d note that the imperial expansion of the United States westwards during the 19th century, accompanied as it was by multiple genocides, surely puts that country into contention.

Fair enough. The 19th-century USA was a deeply unpleasant place in many ways.

(Noting also that Hitler had his own clear answer to who “the Nazis of the 19th century” were.)

True enough. I wonder how many Americans know that Hitler loved Westerns, and approvingly cited the US destruction of Native societies as a precedent for his own attempted conquests in the East? Things like this should be taught in history class.

I think one reason that the Nazis are such enduring villains in popular history and popular culture is that they were in many ways a reflection of our own worst nature. Their sins, committed in the 20th century, were our sins committed in the 19th.

110

J. Otto Pohl 12.28.11 at 11:44 am

Regarding the concentration camp it was obviously first pioneered in Cuba and South Africa and then the Philippines and Namibia as a tool to suppress anti-colonial resistance. It later got transformed into an instrument of internal repression first by Lenin and Stalin in the RSFSR and USSR and then later by other regimes including Nazi Germany. So the colonial origins of the concentration camp are pretty clear. I think the reason Americans find the Nazi case so shocking is because the camps were used against White Europeans (Eastern Americans). The various peoples of the USSR and the Boers in South Africa not being nearly White or European enough to qualify. Whereas at least since 1967 the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe have been made into the Whitest and most American of all Europeans thanks to a really good and quite revisionist public relations campaign.

111

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.28.11 at 11:56 am

@jch 89: And it was the failure of the French to honor their treaty commitment that convinced Stalin that the West was unreliable and so he looked about elsewhere…

No, it wasn’t a matter of ‘the West being unreliable’. If anything, too reliable. Recently declassified documents confirm that “the Munich conspiracy”, as they call it, was perceived (correctly, imo) as a deliberate policy of egging Germany on to march east and attack the USSR.

http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20080929/117271264.html

Later, on November 25, Grippenberg [Finnish Ambassador in London] reported his conversation with a British government member who assured him that Britain and France would not interfere in Germany’s eastward expansion.

“Britain’s position is as follows: let’s wait until Germany and the U.S.S.R. get involved in a big conflict,” the document reads.

112

derrida derider 12.28.11 at 12:19 pm

I’m horrified at those who think that it would have been better if Germany had won WWI. If they had, the results would not have been as catastrophic as if they had won WWII, but they’d be pretty bloody awful just the same. As others have said, just look at their statements of war aims and look at the (extremely stupid as well as unjust) Carthaginian terms they gave Russia at Brest-Litovsk.

Our view of the conduct of WWI (blundering generals, meatgrinding attrition, jingoistic propoganda etc) should be separate from both our view of the morality of the start and also our view of the morality of the settlement. It was both unwise and over-simplifying to put the guilt of the war on Germany and its ally Austria in that Treaty, but it was not clearly untrue. Austria was recklessly irresponsible, at best, in its dealings with Serbia. Germany very brutally (fearful of a repeat of their 1872 experience from franc-tireurs, they took and pre-emptively shot hostages) and without provocation invaded a country that both the British and French had given their word to defend. Should they then have stood aside? Had they done so I think our judgement on them would be a lot harsher than our judgement of Chamberlain (who after all faced some plausible MORAL, as well as military, arguments from his opponent – recovering the Rhineland, the Sudeten, Austria and the Danzig corridor all fitted with Wilsonian self-determination).

113

Random Lurker 12.28.11 at 2:19 pm

@LFC 106

I still believe that ww1, as well as ww2, was caused by the end of “cool” (sarcastic) places to colonize.
IMHO Europe, since the last half of the 19th century, was a place ridden by wars waged by small/medium powers that each fought for “expansion” at the expence of their (usually less industrialized) neighbours.
The example that I have in mind is that of the expansion of the comparatively well industrialized Piedmont to southern Italy, the subsequent unification of Italy, the Italian expansionistic policy before and during ww1, the fascist expansionistic policy between the war, fascist colonial wars (note that, even at the time, some Italian observers believed that Libya, for example, was not worth conquest because too poor, a “box of sand”), the expansionist wishes of Mussolini for ww2 (making the Mediterranean an Italian sea).
Those policies didn’t change during time; in facts Mussolini’s policy was just a prosecution of the Savoia’s policy of the 19th century.
In the same sense, to a certain degree German expansionistic policy in ww1 and ww2 was just a prosecution of prussian expansionistic policy in the 19th century.
When, on the other hand, we look to the policy of the “estabilished” european powers (France and Britain), we see that them too pursued an expansionistic policy, but in the colonies mone than in Europe: in Europe, they mostly pursued a policy of mantaining the status quo and propping up “cushion” ministates.
However France and Britain took power before Italy (Piedmont) and Germany (Prussia), so Italy and Germany coudn’t pursue the same colonial expansion, and had to resort to “colonize” the european cushion ministates (like the rest of Italy from the point of view of Piedmont) or to prey on weakened old powers like Russia and the Hapsburg empire (for the Prussians).
In the end, this rush for expansion caused ww1 and, later, ww2.

Why did all those european powers wish so much colonial or territorial expansion? I’m not able to understand it clearly, but it seems to me that the only two possible answers are: need of natural resources or need to secure export markets. This second possible answer seems more interesting to me and, although I agree that it’s an old theory, I think that in most discussions of colonialism this point gets lost.

114

Anderson 12.28.11 at 2:22 pm

Another interesting parallel is that the pro-war historiography on which Wilson’s defenders are relying here is very reminiscent of the pro-Confederate historiography was dominant in Wilson’s time

See, Quiggin tosses off that line, like he tossed off Wilson’s “lying the country into war.” We never got the slightest explanation as to how the latter was true, and I won’t hold my breath as to the former.

Germany certainly wasn’t the only country looking for war. Russia was nursing resentments after being forced to disgorge some of its Balkan conquests, and lusting after the Straits as usual. (There’s a dubious little book out, The Russian Origins of the First World War, that seems to make a rather overstated case.) Russia didn’t have to mobilize vs. both Austria and Germany, and should bear some guilt for that.

France obviously was spoiling for a rematch and wanted to recover Alsace-Lorraine, but was determined not to repeat the 1870 mistake of going it alone.

Britain – and here’s where people upthread need to open a freakin’ book sometime – did not want war. What use was war to the Liberal government and the City of London? No one factor tipped ’em over; Belgium was in retrospect a good excuse, but it was probably combined with a sense of duty to France, the traditional policy of resisting any power that sought to dominate the continent, and anxiety over the German insistence on competing with the RN – the High Seas Fleet was a gun with only one target.

But Austria’s the power that issued an ultimatum to Serbia; Germany guaranteed to back Austria, knowing full well how unlikely it was that Russia would stand idly by; and Germany went to war with France and invaded neutral Belgium, not merely as a means to an end but (see the Bethmann-Hollweg link above) with an eye to keeping the country after winning the war. Revisionist criticism can’t hide that Germany was the country that decided to roll the dice.

You want counterfactual? Try Germany telling Austria “what the hell are you doing, trying to start a European war? Tell the Serbians to behave, make them turn over a few conspirators, and let it go, you never liked the damn archduke that much anyway.” What sort of war do you get then? Any?

115

Barry 12.28.11 at 2:44 pm

“Germany certainly wasn’t the only country looking for war. Russia was nursing resentments after being forced to disgorge some of its Balkan conquests, and lusting after the Straits as usual. (There’s a dubious little book out, The Russian Origins of the First World War, that seems to make a rather overstated case.) Russia didn’t have to mobilize vs. both Austria and Germany, and should bear some guilt for that.”

This is interesting, because it’s clear that German mobilization plans were for a two-front war, and Germany had been successful in the mid/late 1800’s due to being able to mobilize large numbers of troops quickly. It’d have been (even more) foolish for Russia to attempt to deal with Austria alone.

116

Random Lurker 12.28.11 at 2:58 pm

“Britain did not want war”

Obviously Germany wanted to “rule the world” and wanted war, whereas Britain already ruled (a large part of) the world and wanted to preserve the status quo.
So while it is true that Germany “cast the dice”, it is also true that Germany was just trying to reach the position already occupied by Britain.

The real question is just “whi did those european countries want so badly expansion and colonies?”, not whether one or the other was more or less aggressive, beacuse all had an imperial policy.

117

LFC 12.28.11 at 3:29 pm

Random Lurker @113
One problem is that you’re lumping together colonial expansion w territorial expansion in general. There were various motives for acquiring colonies, including status/prestige. And some decisionmakers, notably Bismarck, resisted these lures and didn’t care much about colonies at all. Another problem is that you’re positing expansion as a kind of inevitable drive fueled by economics. But (at least some) natural resources can also be obtained by trade, of course, and levels of int’l trade (at least intra-European trade) were very high in the years before WW1. I remain skeptical that WW1 can be explained by the drive for markets (or by an inevitable urge to expand). There are other, considerably more plausible, ’causes’ incl. contingency (what if Franz Ferdinand had not been shot?). As for WW2, I’m going to plead lack of time right now.

118

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.28.11 at 3:59 pm

Random Lurker, WWI has always been known as “imperialist war”. What perceive as ‘colonialism’ in your comment (plundering resources and gaining export markets for the ruling territory) is also a species of imperialism. Colonialism is more like what was going on in American colonies in the 18th century: building and expanding settlements.

So, you’re right, but technically the essence of it was still imperialistic rather than colonial.

119

LFC 12.28.11 at 4:04 pm

WWI has always been known as [an] “imperialist war”

In some circles. Not in others.

120

Anderson 12.28.11 at 4:59 pm

So while it is true that Germany “cast the dice”, it is also true that Germany was just trying to reach the position already occupied by Britain.

Yes, Your Honor, it’s true that I hit the guy over the head and took his wallet, but he’d already made lots of money, and I was just trying to reach the position he occupied.

… If we’re going to grant utter amorality in statecraft, then what is anyone criticizing Wilson for?

It’d have been (even more) foolish for Russia to attempt to deal with Austria alone.

I take your point, but Russia’s threatening Austria did not have to mean war with Germany. That was up to the Germans. Instead of WW1, we could’ve had a localized war amongst Austria, Serbia, and Russia, with perhaps other Balkan powers jumping in. That would’ve required a good bit of self-restraint on the part of Germany, but had Germany not wanted a general war, it could have been done. Hell, Germany could’ve declared itself mediator and called for a European conference on what to do about Serbia. Austria would have been enraged against Germany, but the sad truth for Austria was that it had nowhere else to turn.

Instead, following the pattern identified by A.J.P. Taylor (and others surely), the weaker power (Austria) dictated the policy of the stronger (Germany). But Germany didn’t need much encouragement. The Germans wanted war and didn’t see any point in waiting another 10 years for Russia to further industrialize, etc.

121

Walt 12.28.11 at 5:30 pm

I wouldn’t put “the contents of your wallet” and “the contents of your empire” in the same moral category, though perhaps a Marxist would.

122

John Quiggin 12.28.11 at 10:11 pm

Germany certainly wasn’t the only country looking for war. Russia was nursing resentments after being forced to disgorge some of its Balkan conquests, and lusting after the Straits as usual. (There’s a dubious little book out, The Russian Origins of the First World War, that seems to make a rather overstated case.) Russia didn’t have to mobilize vs. both Austria and Germany, and should bear some guilt for that. France obviously was spoiling for a rematch and wanted to recover Alsace-Lorraine, but was determined not to repeat the 1870 mistake of going it alone.

OK, so you agree all the major participant governments except that of the UK were out for war from the start, and seeking (utterly foolishly, as Angell had already pointed out) territorial gains, colonies and so forth. That alone makes it clear that Wilson was joining a war between rival imperialists.

I’ll agree that the UK government had no positive desire for war in 1914 (as others have pointed out, it had no reason to want change in the existing order). If the UK had entered the war, then, after the German advance was halted at the Marne, demanded a peace without annexations or indemnities, its government would look very good in historical retrospect. In fact, of course, they did nothing of the kind. By 1915, they were signing secret treaties, planning the carve-up of German colonial possessions and so on, just like all the other imperialists.

And a similar point can be made about Wilson. His high reputation seems to depend to a large extent on the Fourteen Points – if he had made them a condition of entry to the war, he might have deserved the credit he gets.

123

Anderson 12.28.11 at 10:52 pm

OK, so you agree all the major participant governments except that of the UK were out for war from the start, and seeking (utterly foolishly, as Angell had already pointed out) territorial gains, colonies and so forth. That alone makes it clear that Wilson was joining a war between rival imperialists.

France was seeking to recover territories Germany had taken from it in 1870. That is “imperialism”?

If the UK had entered the war, then, after the German advance was halted at the Marne, demanded a peace without annexations or indemnities

Uh, what? You are so confident that the Germans would’ve been halted at the Marne without the BEF? Why?

I am not particularly interested in defending Wilson (I finished Cooper’s bio of him recently, and it didn’t improve my opinion of him), but I would like to get some explanation eventually of how Wilson “lied” the U.S. into the war, as you asserted two days ago.

124

Bruce Wilder 12.28.11 at 11:35 pm

JQ: “Wilson was joining a war between rival imperialists.”

Yes. And, your point? It was not like he was joining a gentleman’s club.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points, to the best of my knowledge, were the only comprehensive public statement of war aims by any party in the Great War. And, they did become the basis for the armistice. That was no small, or insignificant feat of statesmanship.

125

chris 12.28.11 at 11:52 pm

I wouldn’t put “the contents of your wallet” and “the contents of your empire” in the same moral category, though perhaps a Marxist would.

Depends on what you do for a living, doesn’t it? A Marxist may classify more occupations as immoral, but nearly everyone agrees that *some* people’s wallet contents are ill-gotten.

126

Peter T 12.29.11 at 2:20 am

On World War I, neither Britain nor France had any immediate plans for aggression (France had a grievance over Alsace-Lorraine, but no plan for war to recover them). Russia and Austria went to war in large part because not to do so would seriously worsen their existing internal issues with nationalism and “socialism”, by showing the dominant elites as unable to justify even their core claim to power. Germany is more complicated – fear of growing Russian power, resentment of Britain and desire to build an empire in the east all played a part. But so did fear of “socialism” – in the Kaiser’s circle a victorious war was to be a prelude to a “staatsstreich” against the Reichstag. So Germany was the main instigator (Austria would not move without German support, no-one else was under any immediate pressure to rush into war).

JQ’s suggestion that Britain “demand” a peace without annexations and indemnities in late 1914 is simply moonshine. Why would anyone listen? Germany still occupied Belgium and northern France, had defeated the Russians and it’s High Seas Fleet was intact. France had suffered nearly a million casualties, and neither Russia, Austria nor Germany could afford what would be seen as a lost war for fear of the domestic consequences (see above). To make such a “demand” would invite derision from one’s enemies while alienating one’s allies.

127

John Quiggin 12.29.11 at 2:26 am

So, better to fight on for another four years, destroying all the participants in the process? And warmongers like Peter T want to be treated as the “serious” people?

128

Peter T 12.29.11 at 7:08 am

Politics is the art of the possible. Noting that something is impossible does not make me (or anyone else) a “warmonger”. I am not advocating war – just paying attention to the possibilities open at the time. Or are we in “and a pony” territory?

129

John Quiggin 12.29.11 at 8:10 am

So, you are claiming that the UK had no choice, but to fight the war to the end, make secret alliances, starve Germany into submission and beyond etc? Since you refer to plural “possibilities”, you imply that there was some alternative to the course actually followed? What did you have in mind?

For the record, I agree that in all the cases discussed above (US before Civil War, UK in WWI) anyone who oppposed slavery or imperialist war rather than temporising paid a high price. The price was much higher in Germany in the 1930s. So perhaps the actual course of events could not have been changed. That doesn’t excuse those who in fact made the choices to bring it about, or those who retrospectively justify those choices, and lay the groundwork for similar choices today and in the future.

130

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.29.11 at 8:50 am

You build a powerful empire, like, say, Great Britain. If you want to keep it (and of course you do), you have to defend it. Defending your empire doesn’t only entail defending the territories, but also preventing, by war if necessary, potential rivals from getting too strong; otherwise it might be too late. For that reason, the idea of the UK becoming, under the circumstances, a peacemaker seems unrealistic. An empire’s gotta do what an empire’s gotta do.

131

Bruce Wilder 12.29.11 at 9:17 am

Yes, and in WWI, at least five Empires (count ’em!) were involved.

Wilson tried to make it a war to end war, but he gets so little credit for the trying. Why is that?

The wars put an end to the Empires, more or less, and that wasn’t enough, either.

132

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.29.11 at 9:53 am

Sure, there were 5 (or whatever), but I think the point of it was (as RL above said) that the established ones, that already found a sort of equilibrium among themselves, ganged up on new hungry ones, to put them down, once and for all. Which is what they did. Lofty proclamations aside. Of course meanwhile something bad happened in Russia, so they later tried to recruit their old nemesis to fix that up. But that didn’t go as planned. At all.

133

John Quiggin 12.29.11 at 11:38 am

@Bruce – how does picking the side of the (arguably) less bad empires help? It’s worth remembering that the Fourteen Points speech was delivered after the Bolsheviks had published Britain’s secret treaties with the Tsar. If Wilson had any illusions about the Allies that should have dispelled them. Instead, he made pious speeches and sent more troops.

134

Peter T 12.29.11 at 12:40 pm

My point is that the available history fairly firmly establishes that the leaders of the Confederacy, backed by majority white male opinion, preferred secession and war to any compromise over slavery. Which narrowed the choices for the North to to acquiescence in secession (with all that entailed), or war. Similarly, the ancien regimes entrenched in power in Germany, Austria and Russia all preferred war to concessions to nationalism or mass democracy – various leading members of all these regimes are on record saying just this (I recall reading statements by the Kaiser, Bulow, Bethmenn-Hollweg, Sazonov and Hotzendorf among others to this effect). Which narrowed the choices for liberal France and the UK both before the war (eg in responding to the German-initiated naval arms race) and in the war itself. Prior to 1916 there was little constituency for peace in any of the belligerents, and after 1916 Germany – with Austria in tow – was in the grip of Hindenburg and Ludendorf, who still thought they could win militarily. One can add that the resistance of central and eastern European elites to mass democracy was so strong that they again preferred war in the 30s (in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Rumania), and again this narrowed the options for the liberal powers.

Entrenched elites with a significant mass following are not easily shifted. If they are militaristic, then war is likely. When they lose touch with reality – as the Kaiser and his circle certainly did – then it’s a bit like dealing with a paranoid madman with an axe. Hurt is almost inevitable. The possibilities for avoiding a general European war were probably greatest in the 1880s, when more astute choices by German politicians could have eased the way for a more liberal internal order (Bismark’s by-passing of the Reichstag on military budgets was a particularly unfortunate precedent). By 1905 everyone was aware they were sitting on a powder keg, with the Kaiser throwing lighted matches.

The allies could certainly have made some better choices in the war, but you have to remember that few people – and very few professional diplomats or soldiers – anticipated the war they got, and few understood it even once begun until well into 1916. And the old ways of thinking – secret treaties, grabs for territory, disregard of nationalism – were alive and well at the top of all the European states – check, for instance, David Cannadine on the British aristocratic hold on the Foreign Office and the higher military, or Arno Meyer on European elites generally. Nor was the US in a position to throw stones – its action in Latin America, the US-Spanish War and its double-cross of Philippine nationalists in 1898 were in the traditions of the European diplomacy Wilson so criticised.

The lesson is the one from the Irish joke – if you want to go there, don’t start from here. Don’t let the problem form in the first place. Once formed, it may not be possible to deal with in any good way. The current form of this is evident in US politics – the Republican Party has clearly lost touch with reality, but this in itself does not deprive it of the power to do immense harm, nationally and internationally.

135

Anderson 12.29.11 at 2:11 pm

Shorter Quiggin: the Great Powers were morally corrupt because they were not governed by Gandhi-like pacifists.

Well, okay, sure, if that’s your standard. In related news, the ancients were despicable monsters for owning slaves and fighting wars, Medieval Europe exploited the peasantry, and Shakespeare was an anti-Semite.

In fact, given that history is just teeming with people who failed to hold the correct moral and political beliefs, perhaps its study should be left to the field of pathology, and morally correct people like Quiggin should stick to economics.

136

Barry 12.30.11 at 1:18 pm

Anderson 12.29.11 at 2:11 pm

” Shorter Quiggin: the Great Powers were morally corrupt because they were not governed by Gandhi-like pacifists.”

The whole point of the ‘shorter’ is to summarize, not to make things up.

137

LFC 12.30.11 at 2:29 pm

I agree with a fair amount of what Peter T wrote @134.

And I think it might be wise to separate, to a degree, the argument about Wilson from the argument about the origins/nature of WW1.

On the latter issue, Henri Vieuxtemps’ view that WW1 was simply a matter of the established empires ‘ganging up’ on the ‘new hungry ones’ ignores that the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires weren’t ‘newer’, certainly the Ottoman wasn’t. More importantly, HV might want to acquaint himself, for starters, with a bit of the vast literature on the assumptions of elites (and mass publics) in all the belligerent countries before the war broke out. (Might start with James Joll, “1914: The Unspoken Assumptions.”) Militaristic strains of elite and mass opinion were especially strong in Germany but also present in all the other European countries.

The experience of World War 1, it’s been quite convincingly argued (e.g. by John Mueller among others) changed the way publics in much of the ‘developed’ world viewed war. After WW 1, war was no longer seen by large majorities as a natural or acceptable part of state conduct or as a ‘normal’ extension of politics or as an inevitable consequence of competition among the great powers for status. Before WW1, however, that was not the case. Yes, there were principled opponents of war in 1914 but they were a minority.

Assertions about this subject that fail to take into account what the prevalent assumptions about war and great-power competition were before 1914 (and how they changed after WW1) are ahistorical.

138

LFC 12.30.11 at 2:36 pm

Of course, HV doesn’t believe ideas have any impact on history, they’re just ‘superstructure,’ so nothing I say will probably have any effect on his view.

139

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 12.30.11 at 3:31 pm

CJColucci@77:

Slightly OT, but suggested by the reference to unheroic Australian political leaders, I think it would be fun to put together a list of small-country leaders who might have been the second coming of Bismarck-Disraeli-Lincoln if put in charge of a nation large enough to give their talents free reign, for good or ill.

Possibly Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. Helped Finland leave Russia on disintegration of the empire, and helped Finland stay free of the Soviet Union 20 some years later without losing too much territory in the process. Fought and won a nasty civil war against the Reds (where 11,000–13,500 of the latter died in prison camps), but never attempted to be a dictator, and was willing to leave the country to promote stability. He set up the circumstances for Finland not only to be a democracy, but to remain one too; that makes it unique among the countries of Eastern Europe / Former Russian Empire.

On the other hand, Curtin (arguably Australia’s greatest PM) might have not thrived in a larger country. The man died of heart disease after just four years (during WWII). I couldn’t see him lasting half as long if he were a US president or UK PM. The stress would have been too much for him.

140

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.30.11 at 4:41 pm

LFC, there is a whole bunch of ideas, all kinds of ideas, available at any given time. Yet certainly only some of them could be perceived as making an impact. How do you explain it?

And all this talk about elite opinions: you’re right, I don’t get it. Those with adequate opinions (wrt the historical context, the environment) rise into the elite; those already in the elite but with stupid opinions quickly get their heads chopped off, and thus, little by little, their opinions go extinct. Evolution.

141

Bruce Wilder 12.30.11 at 6:26 pm

JQ@133: “how does picking the side of the (arguably) less bad empires help?”

It brought the otherwise stalemated war to an end.

And, Wilson managed to bring the war to an end on terms and within a framework of values, which promoted nationalism and democracy, and opened the possibility of new institutions in international relations. The Fourteen Points were hugely important in the transformation of assumptions, both of elites and mass publics, which LFC references @137.

As a sometime whig, I don’t have any trouble cheering Wilson, or understanding his claim on “greatness” among statesman. In a moment of great self-destructiveness in European affairs, he acted, with great breadth of vision and purpose. What your point would be, after this long thread, I still have scarcely any idea.

142

LFC 12.30.11 at 7:18 pm

LFC, there is a whole bunch of ideas, all kinds of ideas, available at any given time. Yet certainly only some of them could be perceived as making an impact. How do you explain it?

I have no general theory that would claim to explain, in covering-law fashion, why some ideas are more powerful or influential at time X than other ideas. Nor, I think, would I be likely to find any such theory very convincing. Obviously, ideas don’t ‘float freely,’ they have to be considered in connection with “the historical context, the environment” (including material forces etc.), but as a general proposition that doesn’t get one very far.

Your second paragraph I take to be three-quarters tongue-in-cheek. It begs the question, which is: what determines whether a given opinion is “adequate” w/r/t the historical context, and I doubt that question can be answered in the abstract or by a general formula.

143

LFC 12.30.11 at 7:23 pm

My 142 is directed to HV @140

144

Anderson 12.30.11 at 7:48 pm

141: What your point would be, after this long thread, I still have scarcely any idea.

Much better put than anything I’ve written here.

145

Jack Strocchi 12.31.11 at 4:01 am

Pr Q said:

Thomas Jefferson? He was good in theoretical terms

Jefferson was good in theory, but better in practice. His “theoretical” achievements (Declaration of Independence) were worthy enough. But his practical achievements were monumental. He founded the world’s most successful corporation (USA). He negotiated the world’s most profitable real estate deal (Louisiana Purchase). Did anyone mention his sponsoring of Lewis & Clark? In his spare time he invented Monticello, the world’s first house designed as a “machine for living”. I wonder what this giant would make of our era, knee-deep as we are in intellectual midgets.

146

LFC 12.31.11 at 6:19 am

I want to throw this in before the thread closes, b/c it relates to Random Lurker’s comments about the economic aspect of colonialism/imperialism.

Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (1991), pp.71-2 (citing M. Kitchen, The Political Economy of Germany):

Nothing could be further from the truth than the assertion that Wilhelmine Germany needed imperial expansion to secure its economic prosperity. The two decades before 1914 were a time of worldwide economic growth, in which Germany secured more than its share…. [C]olonial trade was peripheral to the health of the German economy. Three-quarters of German trade was with Europe, 60 percent with the Entente countries [Britain, France, Russia]. German colonies absorbed less than 1 percent of Germany’s foreign trade and 2 percent of its foreign investment. More important, absolute levels of colonial investment were low, because German banks had little capital left over after investing in domestic industry, which German investors, unlike the British, preferred to overseas projects.

147

Random Lurker 12.31.11 at 12:19 pm

Nothing could be further from the truth than the assertion that Wilhelmine Germany needed imperial expansion to secure its economic prosperity

Ok, but my thesis is that Germany needed expansion to secure its economic “growth”, which is not the same than prosperity (the marxian idea of crisis of overproduction).
This is an important difference because if the preceding decades were decades of worldwide growth, “starvation” is ruled off, but “overproduction” is not.
Plus, maybe the Germans didn’t really need expansion to have a thriving economy, but if they believed they did, this doesn’t make much difference.

German colonies absorbed less than 1 percent of Germany’s foreign trade and 2 percent of its foreign investment.

This means that German investment in colonies was more than twice the trade with them: this really sounds like “crisis of overproduction” to my marxist ear.
Also the low numbers might relate to the fact that German colonies were not “cool” (that is, economically profitable) colonies.

148

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.31.11 at 2:08 pm

Yeah. Something’s definitely missing in this proposition: “they didn’t get much from their colonial territories” -> “they didn’t need/want any new colonies”.

Also, the idea that German investors preferred investing in domestic industry to overseas projects – meaning what, just by virtue of being German? a genetic trait? – is positively brilliant.

149

bianca steele 12.31.11 at 6:08 pm

Now I see that I can abstain from reading George Will’s sidewinders against imaginary opponents for another year. Happy 2012!

150

Bruce Wilder 12.31.11 at 8:09 pm

The shiny new thing — capitalism and its wonder toys — tends to obscure the old thing, feudalism.

The fusion of the Vikings and Franks in the 10th century set in motion a political dynamic that led to world conquest. Leopold in the Congo was following a logic not that different from William the Conqueror or Henry Curtmantle; it was not, though a logic particular to, or characteristic of, capitalism, per se, though the Second Industrial Revolution may have been shaping the profit potential. The late scramble for colonies had little to do with capitalism’s alleged hunger for markets, and everything to with having a centuries old, militarized class of landed kleptocrats in charge of government.

151

LFC 12.31.11 at 9:14 pm

@ Bruce Wilder

At least one famous writer (as you may know) would agree with you:
Joseph Schumpeter, “The Sociology of Imperialisms” (orig. pub. 1919) in Imperialism/Social Classes (New Am. Lib. pbk. ed., 1974).

152

Jack Strocchi 01.01.12 at 10:06 am

Pr Q said:

except for the ban on the transatlantic slave trade, he did nothing to retard the growth of slavery

That “except” word is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting to prop up a shaky “nothing” thesis. Even that does not do justice to Jefferson’s anti-slavery policies. He also unleashed the Marines onto the Barbary pirate white slave traders. Only Wilberforce was a greater scourge of the scourgers.

He seems to bear as much responsibility for the Civil War as anyone.

To imply that the founding father of the Union is as culpable for the Civil War (that broke out 50 years after he left office) as, say, Jefferson Davis is passingly strange.

Comments on this entry are closed.