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This article first appeared in TLD 13 (May 3, 1996), an issue that was devoted to the thought of Walter Karp.
One empire, inexcusable,
with war and despotism
A review-essay on Walter Karp's The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920)
By DAVID T. WRIGHT
When I was small, my grandfather would regale me with stories about his experiences as a flier in the Great War of 1914-18. He was a genuine, bona fide war hero, decorated by both the French and Americans for his exploits in the air. His photograph from that time shows a cocky kid with a killer grin, cutting a dashing figure in his Air Corps uniform and riding boots. He must have driven the women nuts. One day, he destroyed two German fighters before being shot down and wounded by a third. He was lucky enough to crash-land behind Allied lines, where he dug a bullet out of his thigh with a pocket knife. He carried metal splinters in his arm and leg the rest of his life.
When I got older, Grandpa told me about some of the less glamorous aspects of that war. He gave me a French 75mm shrapnel shell casing, a beastly device that was filled with scrap metal and then fired at the enemy. A timed fuse triggered it over the trenches, spraying the hapless soldiers with jagged pieces of rusty steel. He showed me pictures of the great Ossuary, a monumental building in France that resembles a cross between a giant Quonset hut and a cathedral. It is the repository for millions of bones. Not skeletons, just bones and bone fragments of unidentified infantrymen from both sides, whose dead bodies were pulverized by the millions of artillery shells that fell on the hell on earth that was the Western Front. Farmers plowing their fields in the old battle zones still turn up live shells and pieces of bone. The shells are taken away by a special government bomb disposal service. The bones are added to the Ossuary.
That horrific conflict had absolutely nothing to do with us. It was a war between obsolete European empires, with neither side able to claim righteousness although both did, of course. The whole thing started when a Bosnian Serb shot and killed the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo, of all places. Outraged, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef picked a fight with Serbia, blaming her for the assassination. Russia backed up Serbia; Germany sided with Austria. And from there the conflict spread, feeding on a tangled mess of blown diplomatic opportunities, hubris on the part of national leaders, and interlocking alliances that sucked every nation into the conflict, regardless of national interest or popular will.
Except for the United States. America had no entangling alliances because she faced no credible threats. She was insulated from involvement in Europe's Byzantine intrigues by the Atlantic Ocean and her lack of a monarch. She had a large, well-equipped navy to protect her shores; thriving international trade; and newly acquired colonies, formerly Spain's. But her army was small though well-trained because there was no one in the Western Hemisphere who would dare consider starting a war with her. Even so, despite overwhelming sentiment against involvement in Europe's troubles, our great-grandfathers wound up sending hundreds of thousands of their sons across the ocean, into the biggest meat grinder the world had ever seen. How did it happen? Ah, well ... therein hangs a tale.
A Borgia from Ohio
The story begins, not with Woodrow "He Kept Us Out of War" Wilson, but with another, less celebrated, presidential icon, William McKinley. The conventional view of McKinley is that he was a weak, ineffectual man who did not want to get involved in a war with Spain, but was forced into it by events beyond his control and by the machinations of warmongers, especially those in the press. As is usual with the myths and legends of our state religion, the truth as laid out in Walter Karp's The Politics of War is quite different.
According to Karp, the Spanish-American War or, more rightly, Massacre or Rout grew out of the regime's response to the populist movement of the rural Midwest, West, and South. This is a cause dear to Karp's heart; he apparently regards Robert La Follette, the Midwest Populists' most prominent member, as something close to a saint. The Populists were a genuine grassroots movement of little people fed up with the stranglehold on the country enjoyed by the Northeastern Establishment-Big Business alliance since the end of the War of Northern Aggression. Mostly farmers and small-businessmen, they correctly saw that the big money interests were their enemies, and sought to throw them and their handmaidens, the machine politicians, out of power. Among their demands was a loosening-up of the money supply, through the free coinage of silver, as a way to devalue their debts to the bankers. And they grew powerful enough to threaten the established order, especially the Democratic Party.
The Democrats' answer, says Karp, was to run William Jennings Bryan for president, coopting the Populist movement and thereby destroying it. Karp paints Bryan not as the valiant reformer of our childhood history books ("You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!"), but as a sort of George Bush character: a loyal establishment politician and polished hypocrite who didn't really give a damn about the reforms he so vigorously espoused. Some things never change. The result, of course, was that Bryan lost the election, an outcome Karp believes was welcomed by the Democrats. The Populists collapsed like a slashed tire, the ward heelers and their cronies kept their jobs (mostly), and the New York bankers, hitherto Democrats, sought refuge in the Republican Party. As a bonus, I suppose, the Republican exponents of free silver and other troublemakers jumped or were thrown over the side.
And, of course, the bland, innocuous Republican William McKinley became president. Except that, says Karp, he wasn't innocuous. Karp backs up that contention with sufficient documentation to convince your humble reviewer that McKinley was a snake par excellence, a schemer to rival Saints Franklin and Abraham in evil and mendacity.
Now, before you give a derisory snort and reach for the remote control, take a gander at what John Hay, McKinley's secretary of state, had to say about him: "I was more struck than ever by his mask. It is a genuine Italian ecclesiastical face of the fifteenth century. And there are idiots who think Mark Hanna [a political kingmaker] will run him."  (pp. 69-70) Henry Adams said that McKinley was "easily first in genius for manipulation." (p. 70) Karp claims that when McKinley took office promising to fight business monopolies and refrain from international adventurism, he was planning, like George "Read My Lips" Bush, to break those promises even as he spoke.
Pacifying the rubes
The big question, of course, is why there was any need to pick a fight with Spain. Karp deep-sixes the conventional excuse that the greedy newspaper barons pushed for war to drive up their circulations, raising public opinion to a fever pitch. In fact, despite breathless, lurid accounts of Spain's supposed atrocities against the subjects of her shabby, moth-eaten empire, public opinion was solidly against any kind of action against her on the part of America. Moreover, he says, the big newspapers were party organs. They would hardly campaign for something if it wasn't part of their parties' agendas.
The real reason for the Spanish-American War, says Karp, was a groundswell of popular outrage against the System. People were fed up with corrupt machine politicians and the businessmen allied with them who took illicit advantage of the expanded state's power to enrich themselves at the expense of their rivals and the public. Some things never change. And as a stinking corpse produces maggots, so the resulting mess produced the "muckrakers," crusading journalists such as Ida Tarbell and, later, Upton Sinclair, who investigated, reported, and, no doubt, embellished the various horrors of the System. What better way to neutralize this new upsurge, to "unite" the country, than a nice, tidy little war?
Both political parties were eager to get America involved in some kind of war. McKinley's predecessor Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, had done his best to suck us into a conflict with Britain over a disagreement about the border between Venezuela and British Guiana. War fever had briefly gripped the nation, but it had all evaporated when the British backed down to deal with more important matters. McKinley's machinations followed what has become a customary pattern of U.S. presidents seeking to entangle the country in war. He played up various atrocities, real and imagined, committed by the filthy, horrible Spaniards. He spoke of America's obligations to "humanity." While posing to the public as a noninterventionist, he repeatedly provoked the Spanish government with harshly worded, unreasonable demands sent through diplomatic channels. And when the Spanish gave in to pressure to, for instance, moderate their treatment of civilians in the rebel zones, he looked around for new ways to provoke them, such as sending the battleship Maine to Havana.
The Spanish government, with its threadbare army and pathetic navy, tried to avoid war every way it could. But every concession was met with new American demands and new allegations of treachery and brutality. The Maine's mysterious explosion was only the icing on the cake for McKinley, who would not take yes for an answer from the desperate Spaniards. Years later, it was determined that the explosion came from inside the ship, not from electrically controlled mines deliberately set off by the Spanish, as alleged by the warmongers. Whatever the real cause, it provided a convenient backdrop to McKinley's message to Congress asking for a declaration of war. The president lied through his teeth, saying that diplomatic efforts to solve the manufactured crisis had been in vain, when in fact Spain had bent over backward to make concessions. And so Americans marched off to an easy triumph over a corrupt, decrepit European empire.
The result, as we all know, was that the United States itself became a true empire, with all the perks and opportunities for the rich and powerful, and all the costs and loss of freedom for everyone else, that an empire entails. But while the war strengthened the System for the moment, public hostility to the political and economic status quo began to rise again, setting the stage for American participation in the bloodiest century mankind has ever seen, courtesy of one of the most arrogant, nasty, and paranoid men ever to hold the presidency.
A pharisee from Princeton
I find it surpassing strange that Woodrow Wilson is today a minor deity in the left-liberal pantheon. There's even a Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., home to a motley collection of sickly Red Guard organizations agitating for Hispanic rights, alien suffrage, free condoms, etc. Wilson was nothing if not an elitist; he had nothing but disdain for the lower classes, not to mention people of color. I read somewhere that after he was inaugurated, a delegation of blacks visited him demanding that he make good on the pledges he had made in return for their support. When he denied making any such promises, they produced a letter with his signature documenting them. Big mistake. Wilson snatched the letter, tossed it in a desk drawer, and had them thrown out. He was a piece of work, all right.
Wilson had been elected on a reform platform, but like politicians today, had no intention of actually reforming anything, except the country's unfortunate reluctance to get involved in foreign adventures. Like McKinley, he was faced with the necessity of shoring up the System against mounting pressure for reform. But Wilson had another, more sinister motive as well, according to Karp. That was, he says, the burning desire to achieve greatness. Wilson once told his wife that he craved the chance to "impel [the people] to great political achievements." (p. 145) He remembered the Nobel Peace Prize won by Theodore Roosevelt for brokering the peace agreement that ended the Russo-Japanese War, and wanted the same kind of recognition for himself. And he was willing to climb every mountain, kill every soldier, and tell every lie necessary to get it, because, he thought, he deserved it.
Wilson first tried to pick a fight with Mexico, using as a pretext a coup d'etat that overthrew the government of Francisco Madero, who himself had overthrown the corrupt dictator Porfirio Diaz. He used McKinley's tactics, and even got U.S. troops into a firefight at one point. But his effort failed because public opinion wouldn't stand for it.
No matter. The outbreak of the Great War signaled a golden opportunity for Wilson to fulfill his dreams of greatness, says Karp. Beginning what has become a chronic syndrome among American presidents, he hungered to make history as a peacemaker, one even greater than the bloodthirsty TR. To broker a peace in the greatest war in history! Hot dog! Only a minor problem stood in the way obtaining enough leverage on the victorious belligerents to force their acquiescence.
The answer was simple. To earn for Wilson the exalted title of Great Peacemaker, Americans like my grandfather had to go to war.
Conning the rubes
Karp provides a shocking catalogue of Wilson's utterly cynical efforts to drag the people into a war with which they wanted nothing to do. Except for Upper East Coast Anglophile society types, there was little support for the Allies at all, and of course there was a large number of Germans and their descendants in the United States. But Wilson wanted to see the Austrians and Germans crushed, and admitted as much. (p. 173) Wilson's right-hand man, the unctuous, sinister Colonel Edward M. House, was his ally in the quest, acting as his go-between in his communications with the Allies, thus circumventing problems resulting from bureaucrats' scruples about America's best interests.
Wilson's wedge issue was the German submarine blockade of Britain. In 1915, Germany announced that U-boats would begin sinking enemy merchant ships near the British Isles, in direct contravention of "international law." Wilson leaped gratefully at the chance to demonize the Germans, conveniently neglecting to note that the submarine campaign was in direct response to the equally illegal British surface blockade of Germany. Hemmed in on all sides by enemies, Austria and Germany's only avenue for supplies of food and war materiel was the sea, specifically the Baltic. It was an easy task for Britain's huge navy to bottle them up. Cut off from trade with the outside world, their civilians soon began to suffer from malnutrition, far more seriously than the British were suffering as the result of U-boat activity. Wilson not only didn't mention this, he even made clear his intentions to side with the Allies in his secret communications with the British, assuring them that he would refrain from criticizing their blockade.
Unfortunately, the terrible atrocities of the U-boats, suitably embroidered even combined with shocking (albeit made-up) stories about German soldiers bayoneting babies failed to arouse the American people's ire.  Wilson was forced to raise the ante. He did so exactly the way McKinley provoked his war, doing his best to sabotage relations with the Germans by blatantly siding with the British every chance he got, while assuring Americans of his high-minded neutrality.
Eventually, Wilson managed to turn the country's attitude 180 degrees, making an issue out of his ridiculous assertion of the right of any American to travel on any ship of a belligerent power he wanted to, without the inconvenience of having it sunk, no matter whether it was in a war zone, no matter whether it was carrying munitions (as the famous Lusitania was), no matter whether Americans had been warned again and again that such a thing might happen (as they were before the Lusitania was sunk). By the time Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, the country had been hornswoggled into believing that going to war was the patriotic thing to do.
Circle of blood
The result of America's interference, besides a lot of dead Americans, was that the tide of the war, until then uncertain, shifted decisively in favor of the Allies. Thus, the Allies, disdainfully ignoring Wilson's comical efforts to act as leader, were able to impose horrific terms upon the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles. And that directly resulted in the troubles that brought Adolf Hitler to power and guaranteed a second world war.  Wilson wasn't even able to achieve his ambition of a League of Nations to guarantee peace. The League was founded, all right, but Americans, in an attack of good sense, kept the nation out of it.
Wilson wound up crazy and pathetic, incapacitated by stroke, with his second wife Edith (herself a real horror) acting as president. Karp thinks that Wilson actually went mad, and did so as the result of guilt and disappointment over getting us into the war and then not achieving his personal goal. I can't decide whether Wilson actually had anything resembling a conscience; maybe it's more likely that his personal hell was constructed from humiliation rather than guilt. In any case, his evil influence is still with us, and not just in the incomprehensible suffering his actions helped cause throughout this bloodiest of centuries. Today, when an American president wants to draw attention away from domestic problems or his own inadequacies, he has only to turn to Wilson's methods to get us into a nice, tidy little war. Witness Georgie Bush's demonizing of Manuel Noriega and "Sodom" Hussein.
And now witness the efforts to make Draft Dodger Bill and his increasingly flyblown regime look good. Irony of ironies, we are closing the circle that began in Sarajevo in 1914, as the United States goes to save the innocent Bosnian Muslims, filled with the milk of human kindness, from the new designated Hitler, Radovan Karadzic, and his horrible gang of baby-raping Serbs. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Some things never change.
Posted in 1996.
© 1996 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.
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1. Hay ought to have known about the faces worn by men of power: he had been personal secretary to Father Abe himself. (Back)
2. Note the fascinating similarity to the equally false accusations that the Iraqis dumped Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators. Some things never change. (Back)
3. The Treaty of Versailles also revoked the hard peace Germany had imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk, thus helping Lenin's infant regime survive and, in the fullness of time, clearing the way for Stalin and his empire. The Soviets made doubleplusgood propaganda out of the Western Powers' intervening in the Russian Civil War, but that was a mere flesh wound compared with the Germans' amputating the Ukraine! (Back)
New York: Harper & Row, 1979 (out of print). (Back)