Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear. Richard Striner. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
When is it enough to just say a president was crazy?
Americans have become inured to the idea of a personality-driven presidency. Bush (the 2nd) was a Texas lawman dispensing justice in a black and white fashion suited for the frontier; Obama embodied the law professor, long on talk but short on action; and Trump…the legacy of his personality remains to be seen. We as a people often fit our views of complex policies into a framework defined by how we perceive the then-sitting president and his persona.
This picture of the president and his policies define, rightly or wrongly, their historical image. Never mind examples that run counter to this dominant narrative — the pragmatic and deliberate Bush contemplating the Surge or Obama the ultimate gambler authorizing the raid to kill Bin Laden. In foreign policy, this tendency moves further to the fore due to the mythology of “doctrines” — thanks James Monroe — and the idea that a president crafts a vision of the United States' relationship with the world and then enacts policies or takes actions to attain this vision.
Our historical image of Woodrow Wilson reflects this tendency. We label individuals and ideas as “Wilsonian” if they exhibit a utopian vision of the world as it should be based on a set of moral ideas that, often times, appear quaint or naive. Rarely in the twenty-first century do we believe that being “Wilsonian” is a good thing, though many argue that neoconservatives and liberal interventionists both share principles borrowed from the twenty-eighth president. Our vision of Wilson, top hat on head and moralistic 14 Points in his coat pocket, being hailed by the war-fatigued European countries, must be bookended by his return to America, hat now in hand, begging the nation to approve the League of Nations. In this way, his failure and his series of strokes conveniently play out as a Grecian tragedy with an American chorus passing judgment on a president consumed with hubris.
Richard Striner would gladly don a toga and take his place at center stage as a member of this mythical chorus. After having spent the preponderance of his career focusing on Lincoln and his legacy, Striner chose to examine Woodrow Wilson’s crisis decision-making. His latest book, Woodrow Wilson and World War I, falls completely in line with the others that harangue the president for his handling of the initial European crisis, his mismanagement of pre-war preparedness and eventual mobilization, and his failure to secure a lasting peace. For Striner, these can all be chalked up to Wilson not being well: he suffered from arteriosclerosis (of which Striner argues the effects of became evident shortly into the crisis over American neutrality); he experienced a series of small, and later large, strokes that debilitated him, leaving him, at times, in a state of near-dementia; and worst of off all, he bore the burden of a moralistic narcissism that left him unable to view the world outside of himself. And to cap it off, Wilson fell in 1915 to the worst malady of all — an “amorous euphoria” so acute that he “literally danced as he walked and sang aloud the words to the hit song ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll.’” The twenty-eighth president, amidst one of the direst crisis in the history of the republic, fell in love.
As Striner sees it, these mental and bodily failures proved “a burden too great to bear.” Wilson literally broke down and failed — in mind, body, and governance — during the war. Increasingly isolated and sickly, Wilson devoted himself to the idea that he, and the United States as an extension of himself, represented the only means to save the world from anarchy. Wilson first pursued this by attempting to act as a heavy-handed arbiter of peace, then later shed this role to act as a vengeful judge of the unworthy. Driven by a near messianic image of himself, Wilson increasingly sought only the pedantic counsel of his chief advisor, Colonel Edward House, and his new love and later wife, Edith Bolling. Deluded by the soothsaying of his inner-party, and potentially altered by the early onset of his cerebrovascular condition, Wilson arrived in Paris wholly unprepared to manage the machinations of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom as they set to adjudicate the war's end in their favor.
In this manner, Striner provides modern-day readers with the key to avoiding foreign policy shortfalls: do not elect sickly, and newly widowed, presidents. At each tense moment of crisis, Wilson failed because he lacked a steady constitution. Without explicitly jumping from out the pages of his book to physically shake you, Striner seems to make the case for an alternate history: if only Theodore Roosevelt had won in 1912, the United States would had a vigorous (and healthy and safely wed) president able to adeptly handle the crises that the world conflagration presented him with. Never mind that “TR” had his own “larger than life” ego, had pursued a singular vision of imperialism based on a combination of American exceptionalism and a hodgepodge of eugenics and white supremacy, or that he died during the first week of 1919. Not important, Striner claims; writing in summation, he asks, “At what point in the career of a leader…does the inability to deliver good results — strategic incompetence — vitiate the effort by giving ‘a good cause a bad name?’”
And yet, what do we lose when we succumb to the idea that personality serves as the dynamo of history? At numerous times in his narrative, Striner flirts with providing a nuanced perspective of the Wilson White House and its policy development process. In 1915, Wilson sought to maneuver the nation through the complexities of legal neutrality and maritime law in the immediate aftermath of the Lusitania tragedy. Striner outlines how through an over-reliance on Colonel House, the planned irrelevance of the State Department, and a general foreign policy naiveté, Wilson found himself outmaneuvered in his efforts to protect American shipping and lives. Shortly thereafter, he gave a speech that lambasted German-Americans and laid the groundwork for the restrictive Espionage Act.
When is it enough to just say a president is crazy? When we allow ourselves to believe in the “Great Man” myth; if only the man and moment had met in 1914, this tragedy might have been avoided.
But Striner cuts this introspective analysis of policy development and diplomatic wrangling short, providing little of value for future practitioners looking to avoid strategy formulation pitfalls. Why? To expound on the aforementioned image of the besot Wilson dancing a jig at the thought of his new lady love. Later in the book, Striner chooses to examine Wilson’s personality rather than the intricacies of the Paris deliberations. “When Clemenceau had sneered that Wilson thought himself another Jesus Christ, he was only slightly off the mark: Wilson thought of himself as a prophet...who could see the course of Providence and herald the glory to come.” And through it all, the president’s heart and mental problems prevented him from fully framing the problems at hand. If not for his oversized hubris, Striner and the chorus proclaim, his health would have been his downfall.
When is it enough to just say a president is crazy? When we allow ourselves to believe in the “Great Man” myth; if only the man and moment had met in 1914 (or for Striner, 1912 for TR to be president), this tragedy might have been avoided. Such thinking completely ignores the complexity and contingency of war and diplomacy while inadvertently playing up an exceptionalist narrative of American centrality. While Wilson’s personality, health, and proclivities weigh heavily in the discussion of World War I, their role should be analyzed in the context of the process (or lack thereof) of policy development.
Wilson grew increasingly isolated during the war, relying only a handful of sycophants and ignoring the experts, both military and diplomatic. Yes, his messianic vision clouded his perception of events, but this is particularly striking when one considers the impact this had on how Wilson viewed dissent and the Republicans. His disregard of partisan politics left the Republicans outside looking in at Paris, and they used this as a political tool to excoriate Wilson upon his return. Is this Wilson’s fault for being a sickly narcissist, or the failure of a partisan system that oftentimes conflates foreign policy with domestic debate? Striner would say the former, but the latter provides a more fulsome analysis of American history and the foreign-domestic policy interrelationship.
Would Roosevelt have better navigated the nation through World War I and cemented a lasting Peace? Taking it further, would Gore have invaded Iraq, or Romney forcefully confronted Russian intransigence in Ukraine? We do not know, we cannot know, and such speculation breeds shallow analysis and weak history. We do know that Bush ordered American forces into Iraq and that Obama sought a complicated diplomatic solution to events in eastern Ukraine. And the reasons for these decisions involved an interplay between process, cultures, organization, contingency…and yes, personalities. But working to understand this interplay builds knowledge, and with experience, wisdom. Purely accepting that all we need is a good leader leaves us in a state of wishfully searching, hoping someday we will walk from our newly chosen one’s house, whistling the latest love song and dancing in the street.
Andy Forney is an active duty Army officer currently assigned to the Army Capabilities Integration Center and a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Christian University. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header image: Woodrow Wilson and King Charles V of the United Kingdom.