World War I, The Russian Revolution & Woodrow Wilson
This first prequel chapter of the video documentary series can be viewed here. The series can also be viewed in its entirety on Netflix, or purchased directly at untoldhistory.com. Below is our transcribed text of the chapter, written by Peter Kuznick, Matt Graham and Oliver Stone. In a 1999 presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush, moderator Jim Lehrer asked, "People watching tonight, they want to base their vote on differences between the two of you as president. Is there any difference?" Al Gore responded:
"We have a fundamental choice to make. Are we going to step up to the plate as a nation - the way we did after World War II, the way that generation of heroes said, 'Ok, the United States is gonna be the leader', and the world benefitted tremendously from the courage they showed in those post-war years."
And then George Bush:
"Yeah, I'm not so sure that the role of the United States is to go around the world and say 'this is the way its gotta be.' We can help. And maybe its just our difference in government, the way we view government. I mean, I want to empower people; I want to help people help themselves, not have government tell people what to do. I just don't think its the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, 'we do it this way, so should you.' So I'm not exactly sure where the Vice President's coming from, but I think we need to convince the people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. We're going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not! Our military is meant to fight and win war. That's what its meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops. But I'm gonna be judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious."
narrated by Oliver Stone...
The 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore confronted the American people with two different visions of the future. Few remember that exactly 100 years before the American people had been asked to make a similar choice. They were asked to decide wether the United States should be an empire. Republican William McKinley's vision of the American future lay in free trade and overseas empire. By contrast, Democrat William Jennings Bryan was an outspoken anti-imperialist. Few noticed a third choice - socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. The socialist movement represented the new working class when no one else would; to them, empire meant one thing and one thing only - exploitation.
Incumbent President McKinley was running off a soaring economy and a victory over Spain in the war of 1898. McKinley believed America must expand to survive. Bryan, known as the "great commoner", was an enemy of industrial tycoons and bankers, and was convinced that McKinley's vision would bring disaster. Quoting a letter by Thomas Jefferson, he said, "The one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American is that we should have nothing to do with conquest."
Having now annexed several foreign colonies - the Philippines, Guam, Pago Pago, Wake and Midway islands, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and asserted practical control over Cuba - the United States was about to betray its most precious gift to mankind... While most Americans thought the United States had fulfilled its manifest destiny by spreading across North America, it was William Henry Seward, Secretary of State to both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, who articulated a far more grandiose vision of the American empire. Although he failed more often than he succeeded, he set his sights on acquiring Hawaii, Canada, Alaska, The Virgin Islands, Midway Island, and parts of Santo Domingo, Haiti, and Columbia. A lot of this dream would actually come true.
While Seward dreamed, the European empires acted. Britain led the way in the last 30 years in the century, gobbling up 4,75 million square miles of territory, an area significantly larger than the United States. As the Romans did, Britain believed her mission was to bring civilization to mankind. France added 3.5 million square miles. Germany, off to a late start, added 1 million. Only Spain's empire was in decline.
By 1878, European empires and their former colonies controlled 67 percent of the earth's land surface, and by 1914 an astounding 84 percent. By the 1890's, Europeans had carved up 90 percent of Africa, the lion's share claimed by Belgium, Britain, France, and Germany. The United States was anxious to make for lost time, and although empire was a hostile concept to Americans - most of whom had come from immigrant stock - it was now an era dominated by the robber barons, in particular, an aristocracy known as "the four hundred." With their huge estates, private armies, legions of employees, men like J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and William Randolph Hearst held enormous power.
The capitalist class, haunted by visions of the revolutionary workers who formed the Paris Commune of 1871, conjured up similar visions of radicals upsetting the system in the United States. These radicals, or "communards," were also called communists almost 50 years before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Jay Gould's 15,000 mile railroad empire epitomized the worst of the robber barons. He was perhaps the most hated man in America, having once boasted that he could hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.
When the financial panic of Black Friday (May 5, 1893) hit Wall Street, it triggered the nation's worst depression to date. Mills, factories, furnaces and mines shut down shut down everywhere in large numbers. Four million workers lost their jobs. Unemployment reached twenty percent. The American Railway Union, headed by Eugene Debs, responded to layoffs and pay cuts by George Pullman's Palace Car Company, and shut down the nation's railroads. Federal troops were sent in on the side of the railroad magnates - dozens of men were killed, and Debs spent six months in jail. The socialists, trade unionists and reformers at home protested that capitalism's cyclical depression resulted from the under consumption of the working class.
In his pioneering photography, Jacob Riis shocked the nation by first documenting the misery of New York City's poor. Working-class leaders were arguing for redistributing wealth at home so that working people could afford to buy the products of America's farms and factories. But The Four Hundred, the oligarchs, responded that this was a form of socialism. They said there could be a bigger pie for all, and argued that the U.S. had to compete with foreign empires and dominate the trade of the world so that foreigners would absorb America's growing surplus.
Profit for them was clearly abroad in trade. The chief prize was China. To tap this vast market the U.S. would need a modern steam-powered navy and bases around the world to compete with the British Empire with its major concession at the port of Hong Kong. Russia, Japan, France and Germany were all clawing to get in. Businessmen began pressing for a canal across Central America which would help open the door to Asia. In this climate of global competition, in 1898 the United States annexed Hawaii - almost 100 years later a U.S. Congressional Resolution apologized to native Hawaiians for the deprivation of their right to self determination.
Cuba, less than 100 miles from the shores of Florida - had revolted against the corruption of Spanish rule, and the Spanish reacted by incarcerating much of the population in concentration camps where ninety-five thousand died of disease. As the fighting increased, powerful bankers and businessmen like Morgan and the Rockefellers, who had millions invested on the island, demanded action from the president to safeguard their interests. President McKinley sent the US Maine to Havana Harbour as a signal to the Spanish that the U.S. was keeping an eye on American interests. On a night in February 1898, with the tropical heat more than 100 degrees, the Maine was suddenly blown up, killing 254 seamen, supposedly sabotaged by the Spanish.
The U.S. yellow press, embodied in William Randolph Hearst, led a crazed tabloid reaction and created a vigilante climate for war. The New York Journal's cry, "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain," millions read it, convinced that Spain - this arcane Catholic power - was capable of any evil trick to preserve her empire. When McKinley declared war, Hearst took credit: "How do you like the Journal's war?"
Often remembered by Teddy Roosevelt's symbolically colourful charge up San Juan Hill, the Spanish American War was over in three months, Secretary of State John Hay calling it "a splendid little war." Out of almost 5,500 U.S. dead, fewer than 400 died in battle, the rest succumbing to disease. Sixteen-year-old Smedley Darlington Butler lied about his age and signed up with the Marines. He would become one of America's most famous military heroes, winning two Medals of Honor in a career that would shadow America's destiny to come.
With victory, American businessmen swept in, grabbing assets where they could, essentially making Cuba into a protectorate. United Fruit Company locked up two million acres of land for sugar production. By 1901, Bethlehem Steel and other U.S. businesses owned over 80 percent of Cuban minerals.
More than 70 years later, in 1976, an under-reported official investigation by the Navy found that the most probable cause for the sinking of the Maine was a boiler that exploded in the tropical heat, causing the ship's ammunition store to explode. As with Vietnam and the two Iraq wars, the U.S., basing its reaction of false intelligence, went to war because it wanted to.
In the glow of victory, however, the U.S. found itself with a much bigger problem. She'd acquired from the Spanish a gigantic, ramshackle landmass in the Far East, the Philippine Islands, which were viewed as an ideal refuelling stop for China-bound ships. As in the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, the fighting there began successfully. Commodore George Dewey had destroyed the Spanish fleet in May, 1898, in Manilla Bay. One anti-imperialist noted "Dewey took Manilla with the loss of one man, and all our institutions."
The Anti-Imperialist League was founded in Boston in 1898, seeking to block U.S. annexation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Its ranks included Mark Twain [as well as Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams, William James, William Dean Howell, and Samuel Compers] who famously asked "Shall we go on conferring our civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give these poor things a rest?" President McKinley did not share that mindset, opting finally for annexation: "There was nothing left for us to do but take the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very could by them as our fellow men, for whom Christ also died."
McKinley was ignoring reality. Under the fiery leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipinos had established their own republic in 1899 after being freed from Spain and, like the Cuban rebels, expected the United States to recognize them. They had overestimated their ally, and now they fought back. After one protest, Americans lay dead in the streets of Manilla.
America's yellow press cried out for vengeance against the barbarians. Torture, including water-boarding, became routine. The insurgents, or "our little brown brothers," as they were nicknamed, were pumped full of salt water until they "swelled up like toads" to make them talk. One soldier wrote home, "We all wanted to kill niggers. This shootin human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces." It was a war of atrocities. When rebels ambushed American troops on the island of Samar, Colonel Jacob Smith ordered his men to kill everyone over the age of ten, and turn the island into a "howling wilderness."
More than four thousand U.S. troops would not return from this guerrilla war, which lasted three and a half years. Twenty thousand Filipino guerrillas were killed, and as many a two hundred thousand civilians died, many from cholera. But because of distorted press reports, mainland Americans comforted themselves with the thought that they had spread civilization to a backward people.
American society grew more callous from this war, as this new doctrine of Anglo-Saxon superiority not only justified a nascent empire, but changed social relations at home, as southern racists, resorting to similar arguments, initiated a campaign against the true meaning of the outcome of the American Civil War, and passed new Jim Crow laws enforcing white supremacy and segregation.
In China, a similar yearning for independence led to the homegrown Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Nationalist-minded Chinese rose up with fury to murder missionaries and throw out all foreign invaders. McKinley sent 5,000 American troops to help the Europeans and Japanese defeat the rebels. Lieutenant Smedley Butler was in the invading force, leading his Marines into Beijing, where he saw firsthand how the victorious Europeans treated the Chinese - he was disgusted.
Thus, as in 2008, the 1900 election took place with U.S. troops tied down in numerous countries - in this case, China, Cuba, and the Philippines. And yet, McKinley, basking in the glow of victory over Spain, beat Bryan by a wider margin than he had in 1896. Socialist Eugene Debs barely registered with under one percent. Americans had clearly endorsed McKinley's vision of trade and empire. At the height of his popularity, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist (Leon Czolgosz) in 1901. The assassin had complained about American atrocities in the Philippines.
The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, an even more unabashed imperialist, continued his policies. And Roosevelt, orchestrating a revolution in Panama - a province of Columbia - signed a treaty with the newly created Panamanian government to lease the canal zone, receiving the same rights of intervention the U.S. had forced upon Cuba. The Canal was built with great difficulty, and finally opened in 1914.
In the years to follow, U.S. Marines were repeatedly sent in to protect U.S. business interests in what were now called "Banana Republics," considered backward and in need of strong rule by sometimes brutal dictators able to force U.S. business interests on the workers and a resistant peasantry - Cuba (1906 - 09, 1912, 1917 - 33), Honduras (1911, 1912, 1924, 1925), Nicaragua (1907, 1910, 1912 - 33), the Dominican Republic (1903, 1914, 1916 - 24), Haiti (1914 - 33), Panama (1908, 1912, 1918 - 20, 1921, 1925), Guatemala (1920), Mexico (1914). American occupations often lasted for years, sometimes for decades.
No one had more first hand experience intervening in other countries than Smedley Butler, now a Major General in the Marine Corps. Adored by his men, they called him "old gimlet eye" after a wound sustained in Honduras. And at the end of his long and highly decorated service, he reflected upon his years in uniform:
"I spent 33 years and 4 months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks, from Second Lieutenant to Major General, and during that period I spent most of time being a high-class muscle man for big business, or Wall Street, or for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. I helped make Mexico - especially Tampico - safe for American oil interests in 1914; I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in; I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909 to 1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China, I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. During those years, I had, as the boys in the backroom would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel I could have given Al Capone a few hints - the best he could do is operate his racket in three districts; I operated on three continents."
His overall outspokenness over the years would cost Butler dearly when he was passed over as Commandant of the Marine Corps, which he now left in 1931 under a cloud of contention.
"War is a racket" is what Butler was saying, and World War I was among the most dismal episodes in human history. One of the lesser known facts of this story is that on the eve of World War I, the banks of the British Empire were in crisis. Britain's economic model of cannibalizing the economies of increasing parts of the globe in order to survive, and not investing in its own homegrown manufacturing, was failing. Cycles of depression came and went. In contrast, the newly unified German Empire was leading the nations of continental Europe in a new system away from free trade to protectionist measures that encouraged the growth of domestic industrial base not as dependant on colonization. Germany was competing in the production of steel, electrical power, chemical energy, agriculture, iron, coal and textiles. Its 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 Britain's. England, now heavily dependant on oil imports from the U.S. and Russia, was desperate to find potential new reserves in the Middle East which were part of the tottering Ottoman Empire. And when the Germans began building a railroad to import this oil from Baghdad to Berlin through their alliances with this Ottoman Empire, Britain was deeply opposed. The interests of their nearby Egyptian and Indian empires were threatened. Enormous unrest in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia, helped block the Berlin-Baghdad railroad from completion.
In fact, it was a minor affair in Serbia that finally set off the chain of events of World War I, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, were assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo in the baking summer of 1914. The situation deteriorated quickly in a series of complex alliances between competing economic empires, which led to the greatest war yet in human history.
The war was a slaughter from beginning to end on a level incomprehensible to the public. In the First Battle of the Marne in 1915, the British, the French, and the Germans suffered five hundred thousand casualties each. The war lasted beyond all expectations. In one brutal day at The Somme, Britain lost sixty thousand dead. France and Germany suffered almost a million casualties during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Repeatedly ordered to charge into the teeth of German machine-gun and artillery, France ultimately lost half of its young men between the ages of 15 and 30.
Germany first used poison gas successfully at the battle of Ypres in April, 1915, blanketing French troops along four miles of trenches. The Washington Post reported that French soldiers were driven insane, or died from agonizing suffocation, their bodies turning black, green or yellow. The British retaliated with gas at Loos in September, only to see the wind shift and the gas blown back into the British trenches, resulting in more British casualties than German. In 1917, Germany unleashed even more potent mustard gas weapons against the British again at Ypres. The novelist Henry James wrote:
"The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness is a thing that so gives away this whole long age, during which we have supposed the world to be gradually bettering."
Woodrow Wilson was the embodiment of the Henry James pre-war ideal of hope and civilization. First elected president in 1912, he echoed most Americans' sympathy of the Allies - Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia - against the Central Powers - Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey. But, he didn't join the war, explaining, "We have to be neutral, since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other." He won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, "He kept us out of war," but he would soon reverse himself.
Wilson was an interesting man. He had been president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey. Descended from Presbyterian ministers on both sides of his family, he exhibited a strong moralistic streak and sometimes a self-righteous inflexibility. He shared a missionary's sense of America's global role, and believed in the export of democracy - even to countries unwilling to receive it. He shared, as well, his southern forebears' sense of white racial superiority, taking steps to desegregate the federal government. When a delegation of African-Americans petitioned him, he replied, "Segregation is not a humiliation, but a benefit."
The old anti-imperialist, William Jennings Bryan, now serving as Wilson's secretary of state, tried to maintain America's sense of neutrality in the war, but Wilson rejected his efforts to bar U.S. from traveling on ships of countries at war. Britain, which for nearly a century now controlled the Atlantic with its superior naval power, had launched a blockade of northern Europe. Germany retaliated with a highly effective U-boat campaign that seemed able tilt the balance of power on the high seas. In May 1915, a German U-boat sank the British liner, Lusitania, leaving twelve hundred dead, including 120 Americans. It was a shock; there were calls for America to go to war. But, despite initial disclaimers, it was found that the ship was indeed in violation of neutrality laws and carrying a large cargo of arms to 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.
Wilson was increasingly coming to believe that if the U.S. did not join the war it would be denied a role in shaping the post-war world. And in January, 1917, he dramatically delivered the first formal Presidential Address to the senate since the days of George Washington. He called for 'peace without victory' based on core American principles of self-determination, freedom of the seas, and an open world with no entangling alliances. The centre piece of such a world would be a League of Nations that would enforce the peace. Wilson's idealism has always been suspect because it seemed to be consistently undermined by his politics. American neutrality was, in effect, more a principle than a practice.
J. P. Morgan, along with Rockefeller of Standard Oil had been one of the two titans of American finance since the civil war. He died in 1913, but his son, J. P. Morgan Jr., effectively served as America's banker to the British Empire between 1915 & 17 when the U.S. entered the war. Initially the U.S. would not allow American bankers to float loans to the belligerents, knowing that this would undermine America's stated neutrality. But in September, 1915, in his first term, Wilson reversed himself, and in that month Morgan floated a $500 million loan to Britain and France. By 1917 the British War Office had borrowed close to two and a half billion dollars from the House of Morgan and other U.S. banks on Wall Street - only $27 million had been loaned to Germany. In 1919, after the war, Britain found itself owing the U.S. the staggering sum $4.7 billion - $61 billion today. Morgan also became the sole purchasing agent for the British Empire in the U.S., placing some $20 billion in purchase orders and taking a two percent commission on the price of all goods, favouring friends like Du Pont Chemical, Remington, and Winchester Arms.
Socialist Eugene Debs had consistently urged workers to oppose the war, 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."
Whether for financial or idealistic reasons, in April 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, saying "the world must be made safe for democracy." Six senators voted against it, including Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and fifty representatives in the House including Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman ever elected to Congress. Opponents attacked Wilson as a tool of Wall Street. "We are putting a dollar sign on the American flag," charged the respected Senator George Norris of Nebraska. Opposition ran deep, but Wilson got his wish. Yet, despite government appeals for a million volunteers, reports of the horrors of trench warfare dampened enthusiasm and only 73,000 men signed up in the first six weeks, forcing Congress to institute a draft.
As 1918 dawned, it looked as if the Central Powers might indeed win the war and defeat the Allies, which threatened to leave U.S. bankers in a huge financial hole. America rallied with patriotic Liberty Bond drives. And many of the nation's leading progressives - John Dewey, Walter Lippmann - took Wilson's side. It was the midwestern Republicans like La Follette and Norris who understood that the war was the death knell for meaningful reform at home.
And Congress demonstrated this in passing some of the most repressive legislation in the country's history - The Espionage Act of 1917 and The Sedition Act of 1918 - which curbed speech and created a climate of intolerance towards dissent. University professors who opposed the war were either fired or cowed into silence. Hundreds of people were jailed for speaking out, including Industrial Workers of the World leader Big Bill Haywood. Eugene Debs protested repeatedly, and was finally arrested in 1918, saying, "Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." Before being sentenced, he eloquently addressed the courtroom:
"Your Honour, years ago I recognized my kinship within all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal class, I am of it; while mere there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The judge sentenced Debs to 10 years in prison; he served three, from 1919 -21.
With Wilson's permission, the Department of Justice destroyed the I.W.W. - the Wobblies - while some Americans marched off to war to the strains of the hit song "Over There." The Wobblies responded with a parody of "Onward Christian Soldiers" titled "Christians at War," which ended with "History will say of you, that pack of goddamned fools." One hundred and sixty-five of their leaders were charged with conspiring to hinder the draft and encourage desertion. Big Bill Haywood fled to revolutionary Russia; others followed. German-Americans were singled out with particular animosity. Schools, many of which demanded loyalty oaths from teachers, banned German from their curricula, and orchestras dropped German composers from their repertoires. Just as french fries would later be renamed "freedom fries" by congressional xenophobes furious to French opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, during World War I hamburgers were renamed "liberty sandwiches" and sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage," German measles, "liberty measles," and German Shepherds became "police dogs."
The war years were to bring unprecedented collusion between large corporations and the government in an attempt to stabilize the economy, control unfettered competition, and guarantee profits to munitions makers, who were sometimes characterized as "merchants of death."
It was more than a year after declaring war that U.S. troops finally arrived in Europe in May, 1918, six months before the war's end, where they helped beleaguered French forces turn the tide along the Loire River. With its manpower and its industrial might, the U.S. presence had an enormous psychological effect on the war, and demoralized the Germans who finally surrendered. The long, dreary war ended on November 11th, 1919.
The losses were staggering. Of the 2 million American soldiers who reached France, over 116,000 died, and 204,000 were wounded. The European losses were truly beyond reason - up to an estimated 8 million soldiers, and 6 to 10 million civilians dead, the latter often due to disease and starvation. But as happened in World War II, no people suffered more than the Russians, with more than 1.7 million dead and almost 5 million wounded.
Those who survived were living in a new world order. Britain and France had been badly weakened; the German Empire had collapsed; the Austro-Hungarian Empire, more than fifty-years-old, was over, resulting in the chaotic restructuring of Eastern Europe; and the great polyglot Ottoman Empire of Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Muslims, Christians and Jews, which had lasted for six hundred years, now crumbled. In Russia, a mysterious group of revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks, promising land, bread and peace, took power in October, 1917, in the ruined realm of Tzar Nicolas II who had lost the army in the slaughterhouse of World War I, and with the trust of the soldiers and workers who were fed up by the brutality of this war.
The Bolsheviks were deeply inspired by a German-Jewish intellectual, Karl Marx, calling for the social and economic equality of man, and they immediately set out to reorganize Russian society at its roots, nationalizing banks, distributing land and estates to the peasants, putting workers in control of factories, and confiscating church property. Then in March, 1918, eight months before the end of World War I, and almost two months before U.S. troops saw action in France, Vladimir Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germany, pulling Russian troops from the war. Woodrow Wilson and the Allies were furious.
The Bolsheviks were vowing to destroy the old, secretive ways of capitalism and empire building, throwing them into the dustbin of history. They were promising, incredibly, world revolution, and there were uprisings in Budapest, Munich and Berlin. The remaining European empires - Belgium, Britain, and France - trembled. Not since the French Revolution, some 125 years before, had Europe been so profoundly shaken and changed.
Inspired by the Russian Revolution, a wave of hope gripped colonized and oppressed peoples on six continents. In one brazen act, Lenin's Red Guard ransacked the old Foreign Office and published what it found - a web of secret agreements between the European allies, dividing the post-war map into exclusive zones of influence. Much as the United States would react to the WikiLeaks publication of its diplomatic cables in 2010, the Allies were outraged by this violation of the old diplomatic protocol, which now exposed the hollowness of Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination after the war. Wilson - appalled as he was by Lenin's actions - was already aware and disgusted by what the British and French had secretly agreed to. But nonetheless, he sent American troops into battle on behalf of the French and British Empires.
Russian Civil War 1918 - 23 The conservative counter-revolution against the Bolsheviks was ferocious. Separate armies were attacking the new Russia from all directions - native Russians and Cossacks, the Czech Legion, Serbs, Greeks, the Poles in the west; the French in Ukraine; and some seventy thousand Japanese in the Far East. In reaction, Lenin's co-revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky ruthlessly put together a Red Army of approximately five million men. The outspoken, but influential, ex-Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, said "Bolshevism ought to be strangled in its cradle." An estimated forty thousand British troops arrived in Russia, some deployed to the Caucuses to protect the oil reserves at Baku. Though most of the fighting would be over by 1920, pockets of resistance persisted until 1923. In a foreshadowing of what was to come some sixty years later, Muslim resistance in Central Asia lasted until the 1930's. Wilson originally hesitated to join the invading forces, rejecting the notion of overthrowing the new regime, but ended up sending more than thirteen thousand American troops, and helping arm and finance the anti-Bolshevik forces. Robert La Follette in the Senate deplored this action as a mockery of Wilson's idealism.
To deny the counter-revolutionaries their major rallying point, in July, 1918, in a devastating shock to the ways of pre-war old Europe, Lenin ordered the execution of the Tzar and his family. The family, who had been exiled into the interior, were shot and brutally finished off with bayonets in the cellar. Lenin's secret police - the Cheka - were successful in mopping up many of the Bolshevik's remaining enemies. Tales of the "red terror," often exaggerated, were carried west, and when Wilson allowed U.S. troops to remain in Russia until 1920, he deeply poisoned the beginning of any U.S.-Soviet relationship. The U.S. would not recognize Soviet Russia until Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in 1933.
When he arrived in Europe in December, 1918 for the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson was mobbed by adoring crowds - 2 million in Paris. When he entered the Rome, the streets were sprinkled with golden sand as per ancient tradition - the Italians proclaimed him "the god of peace."
Twenty-seven nations met in Paris on January 12, 1919. Wilson was the star. The world was going to be remade. It was indeed his most glorious moment in time. But as it was with Alexandre in Babylon, Caesar in Rome, and Napoleon on the frontiers of Europe, a zenith of success had been reached. Wilson considered himself "...the personal instrument of God..." and the peace conference was the crowning moment of his divine mission. In reinterpreting World War I ideologically along the lines of the wars of the French Revolution a century earlier, Wilson was claiming that this was a war to change humanity, "a war to end all war." And in an address to the United States Senate that year, he was to say:
"America's world role has come by no plan of our conceiving but by the hand of God. It was of this that we dreamed in our birth. America shall indeed in truth show the way."
In Wilson's view, Manifest Destiny was no longer a case of continental expansion. It was no a divinely ordained mission to humanity. This idea of saving humanity became essential to the American national myth in all subsequent wars.
In an attempt to counter Lenin's revolutionary appeal, Wilson had, one year earlier, while the war was still raging, announced a set of international democratic principles, including free trade, open seas, and open agreements between nations that would become the basis of a new international peace. He called this the 14 Points. The Germans surrendered on the basis of Wilson's 14 Points, believing he would guard them from dismemberment by the Allies. They even changed their form of government, adopting a republic and opposed the Kaiser, who soon disappeared into exile.
The United States was the new dominant force in the world. Although it had been a debtor nation in 1914, owing $3.7 billion, by 1918 it had become a creditor nation, and was owed $3.8 billion by its allies. Nonetheless, the old multi-national empires that had stood since the Middle Ages had no interest in Wilson's idealism. They wanted revenge, and money, and colonies. British Prime Minister Lloyd George noted that in the United States "not a shack had been destroyed." French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, whose country had lost over 1 million soldiers, commented, "Mr. Wilson bores me with his 14 Points. Why, God Almighty has only ten!" As a result of this attitude, several of Wilson's ill-defined 14 Points would be removed from the Treaty of Versailles.
Britain, France and Japan divided the former German colonies in Asia and Africa, and paying lip-service to the promised self-determination of the Arabs who had revolted against the Ottoman Empire, Winston Churchill and the Foreign Office divided that empire, creating new client states such as Mesopotamia, which was arbitrarily renamed Iraq. The prospect of a future Jewish homeland in Palestine was also established in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the Jewish banker Lord Rothschild. A protectorate was established by the League of Nations over Palestine. Approximately 85 percent of the native population was Palestinian Arab, and under 8 percent was Jewish.
The old empires sanitized their actions by calling these new protectorates "mandates," and Wilson went along with it by arguing that the Germans had ruthlessly exploited their colonies whereas the Allies had treated their colonies humanely, an assessment that was created with incredulity by the inhabitants of French Indo-China. Ho Chi Minh, as a young man, rented a tuxedo and a bowler hat and visited Wilson, carrying a petition for Vietnamese independence. Like other third-world leaders in attendance, Ho would learn that liberation would only come through armed struggle, not Woodrow Wilson's largesse.
Although Lenin was not invited to Paris, Russia's presence cast a pall over the meetings. Lenin called Wilson a "...smoother over..." He said, "...only genuine revolutionaries may be trusted..." And as the delegates sat, communists took over Bavaria and Hungary, and threatened Berlin and Italy. Lenin's call for world-wide revolution as heard in the third-world, in lands as far away as China and Latin America. Focused intently on his League of Nations, which he considered essential in preventing future war, Wilson failed to secure the kind of non-punitive treaty he had publicly advocated, as Britain and France perversely applied Wilson's concept of self-determination against Germany, leaving millions of citizens stranded outside their new, shrunken borders.
In its famous "War Guilt Clause," the Treaty of Versailles placed the entire blame for starting the war on Germany, and not the other colonial empires, and required them to pay almost $33 billion to the Allies in war reparations, more than double what Germany expected.
Prominent in Wilson's delegation was Thomas Lamont, the House of Morgan's leading partner, upon whom Wilson relied. Lamont would make sure that Germany's payment to Britain and France would in turn allow them to repay the fortune they had borrowed on Wall Street to survive the war. In reality, then, the entire new structure of international finance was built on the shaky foundation of German war reparations, which would shortly contribute to a German economic collapse, out of which Adolph Hitler would emerge.
In years to come the U.S. Congress would investigate the machinations of the so-called "merchants of death." These were the industrialists and bankers who made obscene profits from the war. No one was convicted, nothing proven, but there remained a lingering populist feeling of distrust for World War I. Many, including congressional leaders, felt that millions had been sacrificed in a financial boondoggle for bankers and other war profiteers. The bitterness of this feeling was intense.
Wilson came home to a country where American labor was rife with discontent and desperate for reform. In the year 1914, by example, as many as 35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents. Over 4 million workers went on strike in 1919 alone - 365,00 steel workers, 450,000 miners, 120,000 textile workers. In Seattle, a general strike shut down the entire city, and in Boston the entire police force walked out, leading the Wall Street Journal to warn, "Lenin and Trotsky are on the way." President Wilson, in response, wanted to kill off Lenin's message. Communism was a European madness, not an American one. In the so-called "Red Summer" of 1919, even race riots exploded out of control in Chicago and several other cities, including Washington D.C. Federal troops arrived to restore order.
President Wilson continued to travel the land, arguing that the U.S. needed to ratify the Versailles Treaty and establish the League of Nations to ensure his vision of world peace. Progressive republicans denounced Wilson's "League of Imperialists," bent upon defeating revolutions and defending their own imperial designs. Critics demanded changes but no modifications were acceptable to Wilson. His health began to suffer, and in a final speech in Pueblo, Colorado in September, 1919, he collapsed. He suffered a severe stroke, and was incapacitated for the rest of his life.
In November, 1919, federal agents were unleashed under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in the first of a series of raids on radical and labor organizations across the country. The operation was run by the twenty-four-year-old director of the Justice Department's Radical Division, J. Edgar Hoover. Estimates vary, from three to ten thousand dissidents were arrested, many incarcerated without charges for months. Hundreds of foreign-born radicals, including Russian-born Emma Goldman, were deported as civil liberties were increasingly abused, identifying dissent with un-Americanism.
The Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty by seven votes. The League of Nations was born, but was crippled without the participation of the United States. Wilson died in 1924, a broken man.
By the early 1920's the America of Jefferson, Lincoln, and William Jennings Bryan ceased to exist. It had been replaced by the world of Morgan, Wall Street bankers and huge corporations. Wilson had hoped to transform the world, but his record is much less positive. While supporting self-determination and opposing formal empire, he intervened repeatedly in other nations' internal affairs, including Russia, Mexico, and throughout Latin America. While encouraging reform, he maintained a deep distrust of the kind of fundamental and at times revolutionary change that would actually improve people's lives. While endorsing human brotherhood, he believed non-whites were inferior, and desegregated the federal government. While extolling democracy and the rule of law, he oversaw egregious abuses of civil liberties.
Wilson's failures capped a period in which America's unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice, and diplomacy propelled the country towards becoming a new empire. The public in 1900 had rejected William Jennings Bryan, and embraced William McKinley's vision of trade and prosperity, and in so doing legitimized his imperial conquests. The 1900 election had indeed started the United States on a trajectory upon which there was no turning back.
Next, Episode B: 1920 - 40; Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin: The Battle of Ideas