Niccolò Machiavelli, the famous Renaissance political philosopher, had a low opinion of his fellow man. In The Prince, he advised rulers to make free use of deception in their quest for power. “Men are so simple that the deceiver will always find those ready to be deceived.” The average run of humanity, fools that they are, judge by appearances rather than realities. For instance, “a certain contemporary ruler is forever preaching peace and good faith,” and, since people go by words instead of deeds, he is believed. His deeds, however, show him to be an “an enemy of both, who has never honored either one.”
Woodrow Wilson spoke incessantly of his passion for peace and his hatred of war, and he has usually been taken at his word, by historians and the public alike. Yet the realities of his presidency were quite different. Even prior to embroiling the United States in the carnage of World War I, Wilson repeatedly intervened with military force in Latin America. Arthur S. Link, the most celebrated of Wilson scholars (and the most pious of worshippers), conceded that the years of his administration witnessed intervention “on a scale that had never before been contemplated, even by such alleged imperialists as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.”
Since the Navy and Marines were Wilson’s chief instruments, Franklin Roosevelt, his energetic and ambitious assistant secretary of the Navy, barely 31 at the time, was a key collaborator. In these forays south of the border, Roosevelt advocated and supervised what liberals traditionally denigrated as “gunboat diplomacy.”
The United States sent troops into Cuba, extended a protectorate over Nicaragua, and imposed a military occupation on the Dominican Republic. In 1915, Haiti was invaded and subjugated, at the cost of about 2,000 Haitian lives. Marine Gen. Smedley Butler was commander of the operation in Haiti, which he ruled as a police state. He boasted that roads were being built at the cost of only $250 a mile. Since General Butler had thousands of Haitians kidnapped, compelled them to live in camps under Marine guard, and forced them to work on the roads, it is small wonder that he was able to show such excellent cost control. His boss, Franklin Roosevelt, visited Haiti on a tour of inspection. Roosevelt found Butler’s regime eminently satisfactory. The Haitians had been raised to the level of civilization by true progressive principles and were now ready for democracy.
The Caribbean and Central America were sideshows, however, to Wilson’s meddling in Mexico, where he tried to manipulate the course of a civil war. This led to the fiascoes at Tampico and Vera Cruz.
In April 1914, a group of American sailors landed their ship in Tampico without permission of the authorities and were arrested. As soon as the Mexican commander heard of the incident, he had the Americans released and sent a personal apology. That would have been the end of the affair “had not the Washington administration been looking for an excuse to provoke a fight” (in Link’s words), in order to benefit the side Wilson favored in the civil war. The admiral in charge demanded that the Mexicans give a 21-gun salute to the American flag. Washington backed him up, issuing an ultimatum insisting on the salute, on pain of dire consequences. Naval units were sent to seize Vera Cruz. The Mexicans resisted; 126 Mexicans were killed and close to 200 wounded (according to U.S. figures), and, on the American side, 19 were killed and 71 wounded. Plans were being made for a full-scale war with Mexico.
As the crisis heated up, Franklin Roosevelt, on a trip to the West, kept issuing statements on the likely outcome of events. It would be “War! And we’re ready!” he told reporters. With barely concealed hypocrisy, he stated, “I do not want war,” adding, “but I do not see how we can avoid it.” But Roosevelt was unaware that, in the meantime, the senseless bloodshed in Vera Cruz had given Wilson cold feet. Moreover, in Mexico both sides in the civil war now denounced Yanqui aggression. Wilson backed off and accepted mediation. The crisis was defused — no thanks to the surprisingly trigger-happy assistant secretary of the Navy, who had never experienced combat and who was destined, of course, never to experience it.
In later years, Eleanor wrote: “Franklin’s job in the Navy Department was, I believe, one of the milestones of his life. It would have been easy for him to have become a nice young society man.” Instead, Roosevelt found himself in the middle of what has been called “the Wilsonian Revolution in government.” Today, the presidency of Woodrow Wilson is increasingly recognized as a turning point in American history. In the years of peace but especially in the war years, it effected an immense transfer of power from civil society to the state and prepared the way for even greater transfers in the future.
As a high official of the administration, Roosevelt was able to observe firsthand Wilson’s method of governing. One aspect that must have struck him, as it did others, was the peculiar role that the president devolved upon his intimate friend, wealthy Texan and Democratic Party politico Col. Edward Mandell House. Mostly forgotten now, Colonel House was a curious personage. The prevailing climate of opinion in Wilson’s Washington in those days is suggested by the extraordinary influence he wielded. Never elected to any office, never confirmed by Congress, Colonel House nonetheless exercised more power in America than anyone except the president himself. Wilson once went so far as to say, “Mr. House is my second personality. His thoughts and mine are one.”
In 1912, House published a strange novel, Philip Dru, Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow, which tells much about the progressive mentality of the period. In this story, Americans had become virtual serfs of the barons of industry and finance. Philip Dru, a brilliant young West Point officer turned social worker and writer, decides to fight against the corrupt and selfish cabal oppressing the masses: “He comes panoplied in justice and with the light of reason in his eyes. He comes as the advocate of equal opportunity, and he comes with the power to enforce his will.” Dru leads the people against the selfish capitalists and their minions, and after a brief bloody, cleansing (civil) war — the last war required before justice prevails forever — he sets out to remake America. He appoints himself dictator, writes a new constitution, and creates a welfare state. Then Dru turns to world affairs, and, together with the leaders of the other powers, establishes a permanent order of peace and justice. This work, by Wilson’s “second personality,” was oddly prophetic as well as revelatory, and surely deserves to be better known today than it is.
At all events, House, totally beholden to Wilson, enjoyed a position never before known in American government. A personal confidant and emissary of the president, entrusted to carry out secret missions of particular importance, he became the role model for the man who would play the same part once Franklin Roosevelt was president — Harry Hopkins.
Like House, Wilson himself, and virtually all of the other leaders in the administration, Franklin Roosevelt was dedicated to the dual aims of the progressive movement as they understood it — the centralization and organization of American life through the national government and the application of American power to spread progressivism throughout the world.
As soon as he entered on to his job, Roosevelt proved himself much more aggressive than the secretary of the Navy under whom he served, the kindly, slow-moving newspaper editor from North Carolina, Josephus Daniels. Where Daniels was cautious and penny-pinching, Roosevelt was flamboyant and ready to spend the taxpayers’ money with gay abandon. Understandably, the Navy brass much preferred him to Daniels, since Roosevelt was much quicker to sign big requisitions for supplies.
In the years immediately prior to U.S. entry into the European war, a “preparedness” movement gained ground, spreading the idea that America needed a vast new armaments program to guard against the potential Hunnish invaders of our shores. Though “preparedness” was originally spearheaded by Theodore Roosevelt, his bitter enemy, Wilson climbed on the bandwagon. Franklin Roosevelt was probably the most bellicose member of the administration, and certainly the one with the most grandiose plans for the armed forces. The Navy appropriations bill presented to Congress in 1916 (which was approved) appropriated $600 million to build 250 ships — the largest allocation ever voted for the navy by any nation. (Once war came, the sky was the limit for Roosevelt’s empire: by the end of the war, the Navy had expanded from 65,000 men to nearly half a million and more than 2,000 ships.)
As part of the “preparedness” campaign, Roosevelt advocated universal military training for all American youth. Others did as well, but he went much further. He asserted that all citizens “owe a personal obligation to the Government to assist in time of war.” Roosevelt pushed a plan for total mobilization: “It will include both men and women, some for the trenches, some for the machine shops, some for the offices, some for the railroads, and some for the sewing machines.” Yet, “national mobilization will not make us militaristic,” he insisted. One of Roosevelt’s major biographers, Frank Freidel, characterized this plan, bluntly, as “a labor draft.” Those are small words regarding the frivolous ideas of the young Roosevelt, but the reader is invited to ponder what they would have meant for our country.
Aside from military preparations, Wilson’s peacetime years saw other innovations that augured ill for traditional American freedoms. In the year 1913, two fateful novelties were introduced. In February, the Sixteenth Amendment, legalizing the federal income tax, was declared in effect. In December, Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act. Government power was reaching qualitatively higher levels. But this was nothing compared with what would occur once war came.
The process by which America became embroiled in the First World War can be followed in a number of reliable and very readable works, including Walter Karp’s brilliant book, The Politics of War. It is the story of such manifold deception and credulity as would have brought the wry little smile to Machiavelli’s lips that the cynical philosopher was famous for. The gullible American public was deceived by the reigning political class working in tandem with the British propaganda machine. The U.S. ambassador to England constantly deceived the State Department, which was eager to believe his lies. Above all, Woodrow Wilson deceived the people and his lieutenants as well as himself.
After William Jennings Bryan resigned as secretary of state, none of the leaders in Washington was truly neutral, least of all Franklin Roosevelt. Anglophile to the core, they were all partisans of the British cause. Thus, they really saw nothing wrong with the illegal British hunger-blockade of Germany that was starving millions, while they righteously denounced the retaliatory German submarine campaign as sheer murder. When the threat of mass famine led the Germans to announce unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, the result, on April 2, was the American declaration of war on the German Empire.