Concise Untold History of the United States
The 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore confronted the American people with a stark choice between two different visions of the future. Few remember that exactly one hundred years before, the American people had been asked to make a similar choice. They were asked to decide whether the United States should be a republic or an empire.
Incumbent Republican president 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. To socialists, empire meant one thing and one thing only—exploitation.
McKinley ran touting a soaring economy and a victory over Spain in the war of 1898. McKinley believed that America must expand to survive.
Bryan, a Nebraska populist known as “the Great Commoner,” was an enemy of industrial tycoons and bankers. He was convinced that McKinley’s vision would bring disaster. He quoted Thomas Jefferson’s comment that “If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it 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.
The presidential election of 1900 pitted Republican William McKinley (left), a proponent of American empire and a staunch defender of the eastern establishment, against Democrat William Jennings Bryan (right), a midwestern populist and outspoken anti-imperialist. With McKinley’s victory, Bryan’s warnings against American empire would, tragically, be ignored.
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 American empire. He set his sights on acquiring Hawaii, Canada, Alaska, the Virgin Islands, Midway Island, and parts of Santo Domingo, Haiti, and Colombia. A lot of this dream would actually come true.
But while Seward dreamed, the European empires acted. Britain led the way in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, gobbling up 4.75 million square miles of territory, an area significantly larger than the United States. Britain, like the Romans of yore, believed her mission was to bring civilization to mankind. France added 3.5 million square miles. Germany, off to a late start, added one 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, they controlled an astounding 84 percent. By the 1890s, 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 up 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 “400,” with their huge estates, private armies, and 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 nightmarish visions of radicals upsetting the system in the United States. These radicals or communards were also called communists more than fifty years before the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Jay Gould’s fifteen-thousand-mile railroad network epitomized the worst of the robber barons. Gould 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” 1893 hit Wall Street, it triggered the nation’s worst depression to date. Mills, factories, furnaces, and mines shut down everywhere in large numbers. Four million workers lost their jobs. Unemployment reached 20 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 workers were killed and Debs spent six months in jail.
The socialists, trade unionists, and reformers at home protested that capitalism’s cyclical depressions resulted from the underconsumption of
the working class. In his pioneering photography, Jacob Riis shocked the nation by 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 goods they produced in America’s farms and factories.
But the 400—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. The profit was clearly abroad—in trade, cheap labor, and cheap resources.
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 1898, in this climate of global competition, the United States annexed Hawaii. Almost one hundred years later, a U.S. congressional resolution apologized “to Native Hawaiians” for the deprivation of their right “to self-determination.”
Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the shores of Florida, had revolted against the corrupt 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 USS Maine to Havana harbor 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 one hundred degrees, the Maine suddenly exploded, killing 254 seamen, allegedly sabotaged by the Spanish. The U.S. “Yellow Press,” led by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, led a crazed tabloid reaction and created a vigilante climate for war.
The Journal cried: “Remember the Maine, To Hell With Spain!”
Millions read it, convinced that Spain, this decaying Catholic power, was capable of any evil deed to preserve her empire. When McKinley declared war, Hearst took credit: “How do you like the Journal’s war?” he asked.
Often remembered by Teddy Roosevelt’s symbolically colorful charge up San Juan Hill, the Spanish-American War was over in three months. Secretary of State John Hay called it a “splendid little war.” Out of almost fifty-five hundred U.S. dead, fewer than four hundred 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 span America’s early descent into global empire.
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 seventy years later, in 1976, an under-reported official investigation by the navy found that the most probable cause of 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 on 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. It had acquired from the Spanish a gigantic but ramshackle land mass in the Far East—the Philippine Islands—which were viewed as an ideal refueling 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 Manila Bay in May 1898. One anti-imperialist noted, “Dewey took Manila with the loss of one man, and all our institutions.”
The Anti-Imperialist League, founded in Boston in 1898, sought to block U.S. annexation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Its ranks included Mark Twain, who famously asked, “Shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest?”
President McKinley chose the former, opting finally for annexation. “There was nothing left for us to do,” he declared, “but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”
McKinley ran into one major problem—the Filipinos themselves. 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 it. They had overestimated their ally. And now they fought back. After one protest, Americans lay dead on the streets of Manila. America’s Yellow Press cried out for vengeance against the barbarians. Torture, including waterboarding, became routine. The insurgents, or “our little brown brothers” as William Howard Taft, the governor-general of the Philippines, called them, 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 shooting 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 guerilla war, which lasted three and a half years. Twenty thousand Filipino guerillas were killed, and as many as 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. The doctrine of Anglo-Saxon superiority that justified a nascent empire was also poisoning social relations at home as southern racists, resorting to similar arguments, intensified their campaign to reverse the outcome of the American Civil War and passed new Jim Crow laws enforcing white supremacy and segregation.
Plowing on a Cuban sugar plantation.
The United Fruit Company office building in New Orleans. The Spanish-American War proved quite profitable for American businessmen. Once the war in Cuba ended, United Fruit took 1.9 million acres of Cuban land at 20 cents an acre.
In China, a similar yearning for independence led to the homegrown Boxer Rebellion of 1898 to 1901. Nationalist-minded Chinese rose up with fury to murder missionaries and throw out all foreign invaders. McKinley sent five thousand American troops to help the Europeans and the Japanese defeat the rebels.
Lieutenant Smedley Butler was in the invading force leading his
Marines into Beijing where he saw firsthand the way the victorious Europeans treated the Chinese. He was disgusted.
During the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, atrocities were common. U.S. troops employed the torture we now called waterboarding. One reporter wrote “our soldiers pumped salt water into men to ‘make them talk.’ ”
Thus, as in 2008, the 1900 American 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, in 1901, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. The assassin had complained about American atrocities in the Philippines. The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, an even more unabashed imperialist, continued McKinley’s expansionist policies. And Roosevelt, orchestrating a revolution in Panama, a province of Colombia, 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.
The bodies of dead Filipinos. A Philadelphia reporter wrote that soldiers stood Filipinos on a bridge, shot them, and floated the corpses down the river for all to see.
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 down the throats of resistant workers and peasants.
Cuba. Honduras. Nicaragua. The Dominican Republic. Haiti. Panama. Guatemala. Mexico. U.S. occupations often lasted for years, sometimes for decades.
No one had more firsthand experience intervening in other countries than Smedley Butler, now a major general in the Marine Corps. He was adored by his men, who 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. In his book, War Is a Racket, he wrote, “I spent thirty-three years and four 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 my
time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. 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 1909–1912. 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 back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
General Smedley Butler fought in the Philippines, China, and Central America. He wrote that he was “a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers . . . a gangster for capitalism.”
His outspokenness over the years would cost Butler dearly when he was passed over as commandant of the Marine Corps, which he left in 1931 under a cloud of contention.
If “war [was] a racket” as Butler said, World War I was among the most dismal episodes of racketeering 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 move away from free trade to protectionist measures that encouraged the growth of a domestic industrial base not as dependent 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 dependent on oil imports from the U.S. and Russia, was desperate to find potential new reserves in the Middle East, which was 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 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 and a series of complex alliances between competing economic empires 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 single day at the Somme, Britain lost sixty thousand. France and Germany suffered almost a million casualties during the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
Repeatedly ordering its soldiers to charge into the teeth of German machine guns and artillery, France ultimately lost half of its young men between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Germany first used poison gas at the second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, following an abortive attempt at Bolimów on the eastern front, 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 turned black, green, or yellow.
The British retaliated with gas at Loos in September, only to see the winds 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.
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 Henry James’s prewar ideal of hope and civilization. First elected president in 1912, he echoed most Americans’ sympathy for 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 re-election in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but he would soon reverse course.
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 resegregate the federal government. When a delegation of African Americans petitioned him, he replied: “Segregation is not a humiliation, but a benefit.”
U.S. soldiers undergoing anti-gas training at Camp Dix, New Jersey. Despite being proscribed by civilizations for centuries, chemical warfare became widespread during World War I. Thousands died from poisonous gas attacks.
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. citizens from traveling on ships of belligerent nations.
Britain, which for nearly a century had 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
to tilt the balance of power on the high seas. In May 1915, a German U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania, leaving 1,200 dead including 128 Americans. It was a shock. Some called 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, fearing that Wilson was inching toward war. He was right. 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 postwar 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 centerpiece of such a world would be a league of nations to enforce the peace. Wilson’s idealism has always been suspect because it seemed to be consistently undermined by his politics. American neutrality in this war was in effect more a principle than a practice.
J. P. Morgan and Rockefeller of Standard Oil had been the two titans of American finance since the Civil War. Morgan died in 1913, but his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr., effectively served as America’s banker to the British Empire between 1915 and 1917, when the U.S. entered the war.
Initially, the United States 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, ignoring Bryan’s advice, 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 $2.5 billion from the House of Morgan and other Wall Street banks. Only $27 million had been loaned to Germany.
By 1919, after the war, Britain found itself owing the United States a staggering sum of $4.7 billion—$61 billion in today’s dollars. 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 2 percent
commission on the price of all goods, favoring friends like the owners of Du Pont Chemical and 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, as did 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 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 seventy-three thousand 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—including John Dewey and Walter Lippmann—took Wilson’s side. But it was the midwestern Republicans like La Follette and Norris who understood that the war was a death knell for meaningful reform at home.
And Congress confirmed 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 toward dissent.
University professors who opposed the war were either fired or cowed into silence. Hundreds were jailed for speaking out, including Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leader “Big Bill” Haywood. Eugene Debs protested repeatedly and was finally arrested in June 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.”
Wisconsin’s Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette was one of six senators who voted against U.S. entry into World War I.
Before being sentenced, Debs eloquently addressed the courtroom, “Your honor, 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 element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
The judge sentenced Debs to ten years in prison. He served three, from 1919 to 1921.
With Wilson’s permission, the Department of Justice destroyed the IWW—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 God damned fools.’ ”
One hundred 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 now 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 at French opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, during World War I, hamburgers were renamed “liberty sandwiches” and sauerkraut was called “liberty cabbage.” German measles became “liberty measles” and German shepherds became “police dogs.”
Under the 1917 Espionage Act, the U.S. imprisoned hundreds of draft protesters, including IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood and Socialist Eugene Debs. Debs (pictured here addressing a crowd in Chicago in 1912) had urged workers to oppose the war, proclaiming, “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.”
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 munition 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, when they helped beleaguered French forces turn the tide along the Marne 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 11, 1918. The losses were staggering. Of the 2 million American soldiers who reached France, over 116,000 died and 204,000 were wounded. 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 in this war than the Russians, with 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 bread, land, and peace, took power in October 1917 in the ruined realm of Tsar Nicholas II, who had lost the army in the slaughterhouse of World War I and with it the trust of both 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.
And in March 1918, eight months before the end of World War I and almost two months before U.S. troops saw action in France, Bolshevik leader 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 uprisings ensued 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.
Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia on November 7, 1917, dramatically altering the course of world history. Lenin’s vision of worldwide communist revolution would capture the imagination of workers and peasants around the globe, posing a direct challenge to Woodrow Wilson’s vision of liberal capitalist democracy.
In one brazen act, Lenin’s Red Guard ransacked the old foreign office and published what was found—a web of secret agreements between the European Allies, dividing the postwar map into exclusive zones of influence. Much as the United States would react to the Wikileaks publications 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 of and disgusted by what the French and British had secretly agreed to. But, nonetheless, he sent American troops into battle on behalf of the French and British empires.
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, Poles in the West, the French in Ukraine, and some seventy thousand Japanese in the Far East. In reaction, Lenin’s revolutionary coleader Leon Trotsky ruthlessly put together a Red Army of approximately 5 million men. The outspoken and 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 Caucasus 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 into the 1930s.
Wilson initially 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. Senator Robert La Follette 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 prewar Europe, Lenin ordered the execution of the tsar and his family. Exiled into the interior, they were all summarily shot and brutally finished off with bayonets in the cellar.
Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, was successful in mopping up many of the Bolsheviks’ 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, it deeply poisoned the beginnings 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. Two million cheered him in Paris. When he entered 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. Wilson considered himself the “personal instrument of God” and the Peace Conference was the crowning moment of his divine mission. It was indeed his most glorious moment, but, as with Alexander in Babylon, Caesar in Rome, and Napoleon on the frontiers of Europe, a zenith of success had been reached.
President Woodrow Wilson speaking at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, September 1919. Reelected president in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson entered World War I in 1917, hoping to give the United States a hand in shaping the postwar world. Through this and other actions, Wilson put his personal stamp on the office and the country to a much greater extent than his immediate predecessor or his successors.
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 wars. In an address to the United States Senate that year, he was to say that America’s road on the world stage “has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God. . . . It was of this that we dreamed in our birth. America shall in truth show the way.” In Wilson’s view, America’s manifest destiny was no longer a case of continental expansion. It was now a divinely
ordained mission to humanity. This idea of saving humanity became essential to the American national myth in all subsequent wars.
From left to right: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. At the conference, most of the lofty rhetoric of Wilson’s 14 Points was rejected by the other Allies, who were out for revenge, new colonies, and naval dominance in the postwar world.
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, multinational 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 one 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 fewer than 8 percent Jewish,
The old empires sanitized their actions by calling these new colonies “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 greeted with incredulity by the inhabitants of French Indochina.
Ho Chi Minh as a young man rented a tuxedo and 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 worldwide revolution was heard in the Third World, in lands as far away as China and Latin America.
French Indochina’s Ho Chi Minh rented a tuxedo and bowler hat and visited Wilson and the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, carrying a petition demanding Vietnamese independence. Like most of the other non-Western world leaders in attendance, Ho would learn that liberation would come through armed struggle, not the colonizers’ largesse.
Focused intently on his League of Nations, which he considered essential to preventing future war, Wilson failed to secure the kind of nonpunitive treaty he publicly advocated.
Britain and France perversely applied Wilson’s concept of self- determination against Germany—leaving millions of citizens stranded outside their new, shrunken border. 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 it 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 made sure that Germany’s payments 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 Adolf Hitler would emerge.
As this December 1919 Punch cartoon shows, Congress’s rejection of U.S. participation in the League of Nations rendered the League largely ineffectual. Wilson had helped guarantee the League’s defeat by silencing potential anti-imperialist allies during the war.
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 had 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: 365,000 steel workers, 450,000 miners, 120,000 textile workers. In Seattle, a general strike shut down
the entire city. In Boston, even the police force walked out, leading the Wall Street Journal to warn: “Lenin and Trotsky are on the way.”
In 1919, more than 4 million U.S. workers struck for higher wages, better conditions, and organizing rights. As illustrated by this leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, the Russian Revolution helped inspire this intensified labor militancy.
President Wilson, in response, wanted to discredit Lenin’s message. Communism was a European madness, he insisted, not an American one.
In the so-called Red Summer of 1919, 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 Nations as a League of Imperialists, bent upon defeating revolutions and defending their own imperial desires. Critics demanded changes, but no modifications were acceptable to Wilson.
His health began to suffer and, at 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, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer unleashed federal agents 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. Somewhere between three and 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 and dissent was identified 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 1920s, the America of Jefferson, Lincoln, and William Jennings Bryan had 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 those of Russia, Mexico, and throughout Latin America. While encouraging reform, he maintained a deep mistrust of the kind of fundamental, and at times revolutionary, change that would actually improve people’s lives. While endorsing human brotherhood, he believed nonwhites were inferior and resegregated 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 toward 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 the U.S.’s imperial conquests. The 1900 election had indeed started the United States on a trajectory from which there was no turning back.