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Architect of a Tragic Future,
This review is from: Wilson (Hardcover)
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One can argue that the modern world was defined in the period between 1890 and 1920. During this time, a framework of unprecedented regulatory legislation was written and executive action taken by Progressives in both parties to mitigate the excesses of Post Civil War industrial growth in America. Also between these years, World War I and the Treaty of Versailles redefined the map of Europe and the Mid-East, setting the stage for conflicts that began in World War II and continued through US intervention in Iraq. Readers of history are fortunate that recent biographies have been published which reexamine the roles played by two American giants from these years. Edmund Morris released the third volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt in 2010 while Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has written a new account of the political life of Woodrow Wilson.
The highlight of Berg's account is his depiction of Wilson's six month journey to Europe after the Great War to negotiate peace. Because the United States had helped turn the conflict in the favor of England, France and Italy and because all of Europe would depend on the financial resources of the US to rebuild, Wilson had the strongest hand to play of any of the negotiators. His constant challenge, according to Berg, was to get leaders of other countries "to put long-term global needs ahead of immediate national interests." Wilson's overriding goal was the creation of a League of Nations. Other negotiators quickly came to realize that Wilson would give up other deal points to keep his League intact.
Woodrow Wilson was never in the best of health. Yet, he insisted on personally completing all of the major negotiations himself, receiving hundreds of visitors and attending minor as well as major sessions. He believed the stakes to be immeasurably high. Wilson told the Council of Four that "at this moment, there is a veritable race between peace and anarchy." When his doctor warned him to slow down, the president replied, "we are running a race with Bolshevism and the world is on fire."
Others did not see things in quite this way. Berg describes Georges Clemenceau as insatiable in his desire for French security and for revenge on Germany. Stalling became his chief stratagem against the driven American president as Clemenceau constantly reverted in negotiations to positions he had already surrendered. He found Wilson overbearing, muttering that Wilson "thought himself another Jesus Christ come upon the earth to reform men." He was not the only one to see the president in this light. Wilson confidant Colonel Edward House wrote in his diary at this time: "Wilson talks like Jesus Christ and acts like (British leader) Lloyd George."
As a result of this feverish pace, Wilson fell ill and, at one point, asked the other leaders to hold negotiating sessions in his bedroom. With access to recently discovered papers belonging to Wilson's physician, Berg makes some startling claims about the extent of the president's disability during this time. He suggests that Wilson may have been exhibiting early signs of medical dementia and describes bizarre scenes in which Wilson changes the furniture around in his hotel suite after a negotiating session. Berg also claims that Wilson suffered a small stroke later in the month. Perhaps as a result, the president started to surrender more and more in negotiations to preserve his League. Longtime aide Ike Hoover said, "we could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind" and that "he was never the same after this little spell of sickness."
Wilson was able to get the League of Nations included in the treaty but paid an intolerable price. Early on, Wilson had argued that "our greatest error would be to give (Germany) powerful reasons for one day wishing to take revenge. Excessive demands," he concluded, "would most certainly sow the seeds of war." In the Mid-East, Wilson was unable to force other countries to recognize the ideal of national self-determination as enunciated in his Fourteen Points. He agreed to a compromise. "In the end, this modern state of Iraq seemed destined to remain a delicate imbalance of incompatible, even warring factions...bound together by man-made borders when they might more naturally have divided into three separate countries." In the end, the treaty reshaped the world. Berg tells us that "in the spring of 1919, (Wilson, Clemenceau, George, and Orlando) erased more boundaries and created more new nations than had ever been drawn at a single time."
"With his League in place," concludes Berg, "Wilson considered the Treaty a victory for mankind." This was, however, merely the first act of the tragedy that was to play out. The author goes on to describe Congressional repudiation of the agreement and the League of Nations. Wilson desperately tried to save his creation taking his case directly to the American people. Pushing past reasonable limits, the president fell deeper and deeper into ill health trying frantically to sell his vision of a changed future to an America that wanted only a return to normalcy
In Bergs hands, Wilson combines history, biography and Greek tragedy. The author's access to new medical records raises interesting questions about how the treaty and the future may have been influenced by the infirmities and overreach of an admittedly great man. Importantly, the book furthers our understanding of a time that created a map for a future that we have followed, often tragically, for the last hundred years.