About the Author
Oliver Stone made such iconic films as Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, Salvador, and W.
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The Untold History of the United States Chapter 1
WORLD WAR I:
Wilson vs. Lenin
The election of 1912 found Woodrow Wilson, a former president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, in a hard-fought four-party race against two former presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—and Socialist Eugene Debs. Though Wilson won the electoral college vote handily, the popular vote was closer: he received 42 percent to 27 percent for Roosevelt, the Progressive Party candidate, and 23 percent for Taft. Debs, running for a fourth time, tallied 6 percent of the vote.
Wilson would put his personal stamp on the office and the country to a much greater extent than his immediate predecessor or his successors. Descended from Presbyterian ministers on both sides of the family, Wilson could be strongly moralistic and infuriatingly and self-righteously inflexible. His rigidity was often fueled by the dangerous belief that he was carrying out God’s plan. He shared his predecessors’ sense of the United States’ global mission. In 1907, the Princeton president declared, “The doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down. . . . Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process.”1 In keeping with that sentiment, he would repeatedly transgress against the sovereignty of unwilling nations. And he shared his southern forebears’ sense of white racial superiority, taking steps to resegregate the federal government during his tenure in office. Wilson even screened D. W. Griffith’s pioneering though notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families. In the film, a heroic Ku Klux Klan gallops in just in time to save white southerners, especially helpless women, from the clutches of brutish, lascivious freedmen and their corrupt white allies—a perverse view of history that was then being promulgated in less extreme terms by William Dunning and his students at Columbia University. Upon viewing the film, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”2
As Richard Hofstadter noted over seventy years ago, Wilson’s “political roots were Southern, his intellectual traditions were English.” Among the English thinkers, he was most taken with the conservative views of Walter Bagehot. Bagehot’s influence was apparent in Wilson’s 1889 study The State, in which Wilson wrote, “In politics nothing radically novel may safely be attempted. No result of value can ever be reached . . . except through slow and gradual development, the careful adaptations and nice modifications of growth.” What he liked about the American Revolution was that, in his view, it wasn’t revolutionary at all. The French Revolution, on the other hand, was an abomination. He deplored Thomas Jefferson’s embrace of revolution in general and the French Revolution in particular. He disapproved of labor and agrarian radicalism and expressed greater sympathy for business than for labor. Overall, Wilson had a deep abhorrence of radical change in any form.3
Wilson’s hatred of revolution and staunch defense of U.S. trade and investment would color his presidency and influence his policies both at home and abroad. “There is nothing in which I am more interested than the fullest development of the trade of this country and its righteous conquest of foreign markets,” he told the Foreign Trade Convention in 1914.4
Together these views shaped Wilson’s policy toward Mexico, where American bankers and businessmen, particularly oilmen, had a major stake in the outcome of the revolution. Between 1900 and 1910, U.S. investments in Mexico doubled to nearly $2 billion, giving Americans ownership of approximately 43 percent of Mexican property values, 10 percent more than Mexicans themselves owned.5 William Randolph Hearst alone held over 17 million acres.
U.S. and British corporations had thrived under Porfirio Díaz’s three-decade dictatorship, laying siege to almost all of Mexico’s minerals, railroads, and oil.6 They had reason for concern when Francisco Madero’s revolutionary forces overthrew Díaz in 1911. Many U.S. businessmen quickly soured on the new regime and applauded when Victoriano Huerta, with the support of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson, ousted Madero in the waning days of the Taft administration.7 But Woodrow Wilson, upon coming to power, not only refused to recognize the new government, whose legitimacy he questioned, he sent tens of thousands of troops to the Mexican border and warships to the oil fields near Tampico and the port of Vera Cruz.
Wilson, who had once voiced a desire to teach Latin Americans “to elect good men,”8 itched for an excuse to intervene directly, overthrow Huerta, and tutor the backward Mexicans in good government. He got what he wanted on April 14, 1914, when U.S. sailors who rowed to Tampico were arrested for being in a war zone without a permit. When the Mexican commanding officer released them a couple hours later, he apologized both to them and to their U.S. commanding officer, Admiral Henry Mayo, who refused to accept the apology in the face of such an insult. Mayo demanded that the Mexican forces give a twenty-one-gun salute to the American flag. Instead, General Huerta added his apology and promised to punish the responsible Mexican officer. Over the objections of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, Wilson backed Mayo. He rejected Huerta’s offer of a reciprocal salute by the two sides and asked Congress to authorize the U.S. military to exact “the fullest recognition of the rights and dignity of the United States.”9 Congress eagerly complied. Wilson sent a force of seven battleships, four fully manned marine troop transports, and numerous destroyers to Mexico. When Mexicans at Vera Cruz resisted U.S. seizure of a customhouse, over 150 were killed. Six thousand marines occupied Vera Cruz for seven months.
In August 1914, U.S.-backed Venustiano Carranza replaced Huerta. But Carranza, a staunch nationalist, refused to bargain with Wilson, who then threw his support behind Pancho Villa, beginning a bungled series of political and military interventions into the Mexican Revolution.
While the United States was busy policing its neighbors to the south, far more ominous developments were occurring in Europe. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian fanatic on June 28, 1914, triggered a chain of events that, in August, plunged the world into the most brutal orgy of bloodshed and destruction humanity had yet seen. That predominantly European bloodletting—the Great War, World War I—would be only the start of a century of unending warfare and horrific violence, human and technological barbarism on an unimaginable scale, that would later come to be known as the American Century.
The twentieth century dawned with a rush of optimism. War seemed a distant relic of a cruel and primitive past. Many people shared the optimistic belief propounded by Norman Angell in his 1910 book The Great Illusion that civilization had advanced beyond the point where war was possible. Such optimism proved illusory indeed.
Europe was awash in imperial rivalries. Great Britain, with its powerful navy, had reigned supreme in the nineteenth century. But its economic model of cannibalizing the economies of increasing parts of the globe and not investing in its own homegrown manufacturing was failing. Reflecting Great Britain’s ossified social order and lack of investment at home was the fact that, in 1914, only 1 percent of young Brits graduated from high schools compared with 9 percent of their U.S. counterparts.10 As a result, Great Britain was being eclipsed by the United States in terms of industrial production, and, more ominously, its continental rival Germany was competing in the production of steel, electrical power, chemical energy, agriculture, iron, coal, and textiles. Germany’s banks and railroads were growing, and in the battle for oil, the newest strategic fuel that was necessary to power modern navies, Germany’s merchant fleet was rapidly gaining on Great Britain’s. Great Britain was now 65 percent dependent on U.S. oil and 20 percent on Russian and was coveting potential new reserves of the Middle East, which were part of the tottering Ottoman Empire.
A latecomer to the imperial land grab, Germany felt cheated of its due. It intended to right that wrong. Its economic and political penetration of the Ottoman Empire worried Great Britain. It set its sights on Africa. It wanted more.
Other troubling signs appeared. A European arms race was occurring on land and, especially, at sea, where Great Britain and Germany battled for naval dominance. Great Britain’s big-gun dreadnought class of battleships gave it the upper hand—for now. And European nations conscripted young men into vast standing armies.
Entangling alliances threatened to turn local conflicts into global conflagrations. And in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, what looked like a third Balkan war quickly spiraled out of control. The Central Powers—Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary—lined up against the Triple Entente—France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Russia. Others would soon join. The battlefields would run red with blood.
Only Europe’s large socialist and labor parties and trade unions could prevent the slaughter. Many belonged to the socialist Second International. They knew that the most important conflict was between capital and labor, not German workers and their British counterparts. They pledged that if the capitalists went to war, the workers would refuse to follow. Why, they asked, should workers die to enrich their exploiters? Many supported a general strike. The more radical, like Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, vowed, if war started, to overthrow the capitalist regimes. Hopes of stopping the madness rested with Germany, where the Social Democrats were the largest party in parliament, and with France.
But those hopes were crushed when German socialists, claiming they had to defend the country against the Russian hordes, voted for war credits and the French, vowing to defend against the autocratic Germans, did the same. Only in Russia and Serbia did the socialists stand true. In country after country, nationalism trumped internationalism, loyalty to nation outweighed loyalty to class. Europe’s naive young men marched off to die for God, glory, greed, and defense of the fatherland. Humanity was dealt a blow from which it has never fully recovered.
The slaughter was on as civilization plunged into what Henry James described as “this abyss of blood and darkness.”11 American social reformer Reverend John Haynes Holmes expressed the crushing impact it had on reformers everywhere: “suddenly, in the wink of an eye, three hundred years of progress is tossed into the melting-pot. Civilization is all gone, and barbarism come.”12
Most Americans sympathized with the Allies against the Central Powers, but few clamored to join the fight. Americans of all political persuasions feared getting dragged into Europe’s bloodletting. Eugene Debs urged workers to oppose the war, wisely observing “Let the capitalists do their own fighting and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.”13 As reports of the fighting filtered in, antiwar sentiment held strong. The most popular song of 1915 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”
Despite overwhelming sympathy for the Allies, the United States declared neutrality in the war. But many Americans, particularly those of German, Irish, and Italian heritage, sided with the Central Powers. “We have to be neutral,” Wilson explained, “since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.”14 It was, however, a neutrality in principle more than in practice. Economic interests clearly placed the United States in the Allied camp. Between 1914, when the war began, and 1917, when the United States entered, U.S. banks loaned $2.5 billion to the Allies but only $27 million to the Central Powers. The House of Morgan was especially involved, serving as the British government’s sole purchasing agent between 1915 and 1917. Eighty-four percent of Allied munitions bought in the United States during those years passed through Morgan hands.15 Overall, the $3 billion the United States was selling to Great Britain and France by 1916 dwarfed the miniscule $1 million it sold to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although deep-seated resentments toward Great Britain, stemming from the Revolutionary period and the War of 1812, had not completely abated, most Americans identified the Allied nations as democracies and Germany as a repressive autocracy. Czarist Russia’s involvement on the Allied side made it difficult to draw such clear lines. And both sides regularly violated the United States’ neutral rights. Great Britain, relying on its superior naval power, launched a blockade of northern European ports. Germany retaliated with a U-boat (the German word for “submarine” was Unterseeboot) campaign that threatened neutral shipping. Wilson accepted the Allied blockade but protested vigorously against Germany’s actions. Bryan foresaw clearly that Wilson’s tilt toward the Allies would drag the United States into the war and tried to maintain a more evenhanded approach. He had opposed allowing loans to the combatants, warning Wilson, “Money is the worst of all contrabands because it commands everything else.”16 Though intent on remaining neutral so that he could help mediate an end to the war, Wilson rejected Bryan’s effort to bar U.S. citizens from traveling on belligerents’ ships.
In May 1915, Germany sank the British liner Lusitania, leaving 1,200 dead, including 128 Americans. Roosevelt called for war. Despite initial disclaimers, the ship was in fact carrying a large cargo of arms to Great Britain. Bryan demanded that Wilson condemn the British blockade of Germany as well as the German attack, seeing both as infringements of neutral rights. When Wilson refused, Bryan resigned in protest. Though Wilson had won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” he was increasingly coming to believe that if the United States didn’t join the war, it would be denied a role in shaping the postwar world.17
On January 22, 1917, Wilson dramatically delivered the first formal presidential address to the Senate since the days of George Washington. He laid bare his soaring vision for peace and the future. He called for “peace without victory” based on core American principles: self-determination, freedom of the seas, and an open world with no entangling alliances. The centerpiece of such a world would be a league of nations that could enforce the peace, a demand initially advanced by groups within America’s peace movement such as the Woman’s Peace Party.
When he concluded, the Senate erupted in applause. Senator John Shafroth of Colorado called it “the greatest message of a century.”18 The Atlanta Constitution wrote, “ ‘Startling,’ ‘staggering,’ ‘astounding,’ ‘the noblest utterance that has fallen from human lips since the Declaration of Independence,’ were among the expressions of senators. The president himself after his address said: ‘I have said what everybody has been longing for, but has thought impossible....
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