Segments descriptions
American Presidents Series
      Progressive Era
, Part 2   

              Description: Wilson

Progressive Era, Part 2
                    sampler  3’20”    (50’ lecture)

At the outbreak of World War I, why does President
Wilson’s call for U.S. neutrality in thought as well as
 action can be seen as somewhat dishonest and open to question?

play sampler




28.  Woodrow Wilson. 
Moral evil in others.  A Democrat, Wilson is elected in 1912 when the Republican vote is split.  Born in the South just before the Civil War.  A stern upbringing leaves him with the belief that anyone who opposes him on any issue is considered morally evil, a mindset with significant implications when President.  His Progressivism is questioned in the contrast between the public view and the reality. 



U.S. neutrality in WWI.  Wilson declares U.S. neutrality at start of World War One in Europe in 1914.  U.S. expectations of increased trade with both sides are thwarted by English surface naval power which blocks German ports.  Germany counters with the U-boat to attack Allied shipping.  Wilson, with his sense of moral superiority, ignores German warnings of Americans sailing on British ships, including the Lusitania and the Sussex, which are sunk.  Being an Anglophile sympathetic to the Allied cause, he responds harshly to German violations of U.S. neutrality, but not to British violations.



U.S. enters WWI.  Wilson is reelected in 1916 on the theme of "He kept us out of war," but leads the U.S. into the war in April, 1917.  The official reason is "the freedom of the seas."  On a deeper level there is anticipation of significant economic gain, and Wilson's personality which sees Germany as a moral evil.



Should U.S. have stayed out of WWI?  The brutality of trench warfare is testified to by the huge American casualties during the relatively short period of our participation.  There is the practical judgment of whether U.S. could have stayed out of the war, and the moral judgment of whether the U.S. should have stayed out, both with significant implications for whether World War Two would have occurred.



Loss of civil liberties.. During the war there is domestic terror and mass hysteria, with Wilson leading the way with curtailment of U.S. civil liberties, including the government smashing of the Socialist Party, roundup of radicals, the "Palmer Raids," and the emergence of J. Edgar Hoover.  During this period domestic reform is halted.



The Peace Treaty:  Intent mainly for revenge on Germany, the Allies brush aside Wilson's 14 points.  Solely blaming Germany for the war, their harsh demands for reparations become grist for the rise of Hitler and Nazism.  U.S. disillusion sets in after the Senate rejects the League of Nations when Wilson refuses to compromise with Senate modifications.



Wilson's legacy:  Wilson's health deteriorates and his wife becomes unofficial acting President.  In Wilson's world view, the League of Nations is to be not an idealistic utopia but a tool for the U.S. to dominate the world.  The political debate since WWI and into the present and future is how to assert America's will on the world-- by military force or by economic and political pressure.  America is superpower.  The war diverts reform.



29.  Warren G. Harding.  Elected in 1920 in Republican landslide, is from Ohio, owns a newspaper, has limited qualifications.  Considered a failure as President, probably a nicer guy than Wilson.  His administration is riddled with cronyism and scandals (Teapot Dome), but he also had some capable cabinet members.  Harding dies in office.



30.  Calvin Coolidge.  Governor of Massachusetts, he is known for breaking of the police strike.  His persona leads to the tag, "Silent Cal."  He seems to suit the times, is popular, and easily wins reelection in 1924.  As an example of his superficiality and limited ability, he blocks help to farmers because he sees them as inconsequential.