1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder Hardcover – November 28, 2017
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“Woodrow Wilson, the liberal idealist, and Vladimir Lenin, the illiberal totalitarian, hand-in-glove unwound the old nineteenth-century order and redefined war as an existential and global struggle over ideas—with disastrous twentieth-century results. In yet another well-written and fascinating dual biography, the prolific and insightful historian Arthur Herman shows how Wilson’s naive good intentions and Lenin’s deliberate ruthlessness nonetheless had the same pernicious effect of using the state to defy human nature. A fascinating and entirely original explanation of the American and Russian origins of the modern world.” (Victor Davis Hanson, Senior Fellow, the Hoover Institution, Stanford University)
“The pairing of these two diametrically opposed figures into one biography makes this illuminating read for anybody interested in World War I, the new political order it spawned, and the failures that led to the rise of Nazism and the horrors of World War II.” (Library Journal)
"Deeply researched and engagingly written, this is a gripping account of great battles won and lost, of a triumphant war followed by a failed peace, and of clashing ideologies that shaped a century." (Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made)
From the Inside Flap
How did two men move the world away from wars for land and treasure to wars over ideas and ideologies--a change that would go on to kill millions?
In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson--champion of American democracy but also of segregation, advocate for free trade and a new world order based on freedom and justice--thrust the United States into the First World War in order to make the "world safe for democracy"--only to see his dreams for a liberal international system dissolve into chaos, bloodshed, and betrayal.
That October, Vladimir Lenin--communist revolutionary and advocate for class war and "dictatorship of the proletariat"--would overthrow Russia's earlier democratic revolution that had toppled the powerful czar, all in the name of liberating humanity--and instead would set up the most repressive totalitarian regime in history, the Soviet Union.
In this incisive, fast-paced history, the New York Times bestselling author Arthur Herman brilliantly reveals how Lenin and Wilson rewrote the rules of modern geopolitics. Prior to and through the end of World War I, countries marched into war only to advance or protect their national interests. After World War I, countries began going to war over ideas. Together Lenin and Wilson unleashed the disruptive ideologies that would sweep the world, from nationalism and globalism to Communism and terrorism, and that continue to shape our world today.
Our new world disorder is the legacy left by Wilson and Lenin, and their visions of the perfectibility of man. One hundred years later, we still sit on the powder keg they first set the detonator to, through war and revolution.--Library Journal
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I bought this book on the recommendation on an (almost former) friend. (Okay, I think our friendship will survive, but I’m going to give the guy a good talking to.)
Naively, I kept going even after reading the Preface, which was negative about both Wilson and Lenin who had a “dogmatic belief in their own mission,” further saying “Lenin’s dream (in contrast to Wilson’s) was of one class of human beings obliterating other classes.”
Not being much of a student of history, I thought I might learn facts that I hadn’t known before. And, to be fair, I did. Herman’s accounting of the major events of WWI sound right, including the importance of the Zimmerman Telegram, which was a major contributor to pushing the US into the war.
So, I shouldered on, even past “In Lenin’s mind, Russia was what we today would call a failing state, and like other radical fanatics (including Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and nearly a century later, Osama bin Laden), he sensed that a failing state offered a huge opportunity for even a tiny revolutionary minority…”
Whew! I should definitely have stopped here. First, let’s consider Mao Zedong. In the first place, Mao was hardly someone riding in at the last moment. He had been a major figure in China from 1920 until his army defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in 1949. Previously, Mao and Chiang had been allies in fighting the Japanese colonialists. Before and after this was simply civil war. And Castro? He and his army overthrew a brutal dictator, Batista, whose government wasn’t a “failed state” in US eyes. And bin Laden, what state did he take over?
But I kept reading, enduring Herman’s steady, brutal criticism of Lenin. I finally had to stop when I read “The alternative was catastrophe, although no one quite grasped it…except Lenin, who could sense weakness and disaster as a barracuda senses blood in the water.” (page 201) Or should I have been impressed that Herman could descend to understanding Lenin’s cold-blooded barracuda mind?
Having stopped, I did what I should have done originally – look at some of Herman’s sources. He heavily cites two: The Russian Revolution, by Richard Pipes and Lenin: A Biography, by Robert Service. Here’s part of what Wikipedia has to say about Pipes: “The writings of Richard Pipes have provoked criticism in the scholarly community… critics have written that Pipes wrote at length about what Pipes described as Lenin's ‘unspoken’ assumptions and conclusions, while neglecting what Lenin actually said.” This corresponds well to Herman’s channeling how Lenin “could sense weakness.”
BTW – Mr. Pipes was head of Plan B, a group of right-wingers who saw the Soviet Union as a big threat, in contrast to the CIA who said the Soviet Union was weak. This led to the giant US military buildup that we are still paying for today. From Wikipedia: “The international relations journalist Fred Kaplan writes that Team B ‘turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point’.”
Robert Service, a senior fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institute, is hardly likely to be an unbiased biographer of Lenin.
Arthur Herman himself is a member of the Hudson Institute, “a politically conservative…think tank.” He wrote another book Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator, a sympathetic portrait where he argues “"McCarthy was making a good point badly." I know a number of decent Americans who lost their livelihoods thanks to this guy.
If you like right-wing propaganda, this is a book for you. Otherwise, save your money.
Herman follows this method - of putting Lenin and Wilson side-by-side throughout. Outstanding, providing insight and understanding into both. Great!
“In April, Wilson thrust the United States into the greatest war in history up to that time, the First World War. Seven months later, Lenin overthrew a Russian democratic revolution and imposed his own Bolshevik Revolution in its place. Together, these two events changed history in ways that make the world as it existed before 1917 seem strange and alien, and the world afterward very much our world and age, the modern age. It’s an age that’s been shaped as much by what Lenin and Wilson aimed and failed to do as by what they succeeded in doing.’’
The historical vision is rare in the modern eye. Herman has one and draws a marvelous picture of both men. Even better, colors in the backgrounds and ideas that influenced their world . . .
“In Lenin’s case, that historical necessity was dictated by the works of his intellectual mentor, Karl Marx. Like Marx, Lenin had spent his life believing that the existing order, capitalism, was doomed by its own internal contradictions; the war that had dragged Russia to the brink of collapse was proof of capitalism’s historical as well as moral bankruptcy.’’
What about Wilson?
“Wilson’s historical mission was more complicated. It, too, sprang from an intellectual mentor—in his case, the German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel (who, as it happens, was also Karl Marx’s)—but it was as well wrapped up in his vision of America as the symbol of and inspiration for the universal value of human freedom.’’
This connection to Hegel - by both Lenin and Wilson - is astounding. Herman develops this at some length. Notes that Lenin (academically brilliant) spent months devouring Hegel. Lenin concluded “no one can grasp Marx without understanding Hegel.’’
This devotion (worship) of Hegel’s political state changed our world by . . .
“One thing that had not been destroyed—on the contrary, it was being immeasurably strengthened—was the power of government. Among the Great Powers before 1914, government’s share of GNP had averaged between 5 and 10 percent. In America, the share of total income accounted for by federal and local government came to just 9 percent. Three years later, those numbers had been transformed.’’
This ‘power of government’ overshadows modernity.
“The government’s ability to intervene in, and even run, the lives of private citizens had expanded beyond anyone’s imagining. This, too, marked the start of something new then but all too familiar now. Emerging from the forge of war in 1917 was the active role of government in every aspect of daily life, and the rising expectation that government can fix every problem and deal with every crisis from economic depression to childcare and climate change.’’ (235)
Who can doubt it? The curious point is that this new trust (worship) was indicated in Revelation 13 -
“I saw that one of its heads seemed to have been fatally wounded [WW1] but its mortal wound had been healed, and all the earth followed the wild beast with admiration.’’
“One mission of this book, therefore, is to show how these two intellectuals and dreamers managed to achieve those two ends and, in the process, overthrow traditional standards of geopolitics and alter forever the distribution of world power. Indeed, the world that both sought to bring into being was one that would be dominated not by laws and institutions, but by ideals and ideologies.’’
This is where it began!
“As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on the eve of the French Revolution, “Sometimes men must be forced to be free.” That was a challenge the French revolutionaries took on, with disastrous results for Europe. It was one Wilson and Lenin both accepted in 1917, with (one is forced to conclude) disastrous results for the entire world.’’
“In a strange way, he was doing exactly what another man, Lenin, was doing on the other side of the Atlantic at exactly the same time. Both men were struggling to transform events (the world war for Wilson, the Russian Revolution for Lenin) in ways that would make those events consistent with their larger vision, instead of contradicting or correcting that vision.’’
Another trenchant example of Herman’s ability to connect Wilson’s religio/philosophical thought with Lenin’s.
“Both men were obsessed with the power of mind over matter, and held the belief that by sheer force of will, one could send physical events in a certain direction simply by insisting that history dictated such a course of action. This belief would become one of the moral diseases that would afflict the twentieth century until its end. Here, in April 1917, was where it would start with Lenin and Wilson. And whereas Lenin had Marx to encourage him in this conviction, Wilson had Hegel and his own belief in an omniscient providential God.’’
1 : The German Note
2 : Russia and America Confront a World War
3 : Tommy and Volodya
4 : Neutrality at Bay
6 : President Wilson Goes to War; Lenin Goes to the Finland Station
7 : Ruptures, Mutinies, and Convoys
8 : Mr. Wilson’s War
10 : American Leviathan
11 : Russia on the Brink
13 : 1918: War and Peace and War Again
14 : 1919: Grand Illusions
Herman writes with a smooth, flowing pen. Easy to follow and interesting to learn. The characters come alive, as in a good novel, and make a compelling story.
Erudite and insightful without arrogance. Profound although avoiding obscurity.
Hundreds of (linked) notes. Detailed index (not linked)
Cast of characters organized by nation. Excellent!
(See also the three hour dvd: “Nicholas and Alexandra”, Nicholas, Lenin, Rasputin, etc., etc., all appear. Another excellent presentation of Wilson/Lenin is: “A Life in Two Centuries”, by Bertram David Wolfe. Wolfe knew Lenin personally. Fascinating! For exhaustive presentation of Russian culture see: “Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs”, by Douglas Smith)