Saturday, January 26, 2008

Wilson and fascism

-- by Dave

One of the more interesting chapters in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is the one devoted to consigning Woodrow Wilson to the pigpen of fascism. I've never been much of an admirer of Wilson, mainly due to his suppression of wartime dissent and general civil liberties afterward, embodied by the Palmer Raids.

Indeed, Wilson's rhetoric -- warning of "hyphenated Americans who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life" -- sounds very much like a modern day right-wing complaint. Indeed, Goldberg complains about multiculturalism along similar lines.

His main claims against Wilson involve the civil-liberties issues and various aspects of his authoritarian personality and its manifestation in policy. However, there is nothing particularly fascist about these aspects of Wilson's presidency. In calling it "fascist," Goldberg clearly is relying on his manifestly inadequate definition of fascism, which in fact only describes authoritarianism generally.

So I asked one of our regular readers and commenters, a history professor who specializes in Wilson and thus goes by the moniker "Woodrowfan," to offer his two cents' worth. Rather than assess whether Wilson was fascist by following Goldberg's plainly self-serving definition, he's examined the matter by using the criteria for fascism offered by more serious (ahem) and broadly respected scholars, both acknowledged experts in the field.

Here he is:
Hello. Well, Dave and Sara suggested that I chime in on this issue of Jonah's revisionist version of fascism. Frankly I find "Liberal Fascism" (sic) to be so silly that I suspect that the major historical journals will ignore it, but for the sake of accuracy I'll add a few words.

First off, who the heck am I to be chiming in? I'm a professional historian with a doctorate from a good Midwestern university. I teach college and work with museums. My specialty is late 19th- and early 20th-century American politics and foreign policy and my book on Wilson is being published by a good university press later this year. While it won’t have a snappy cover like "Liberal Fascism" (sic) it will have the advantage of being edited and fact-checked by actual experts in the field. I've also given papers at professional conferences and written articles on Wilson and his period so I have some expertise as to the 28th American President. I prefer to keep my anonymity simply because I like to keep my political opinions separate from my job. I don't discuss politics at work and I don't let my students know which party I support. And Dave and Sara know my real identity as we've talked on and off for awhile.

Oh, and before I go further, why the nick, "Woodrowfan?" I needed a name to use on the liberal blogs I read and I saw others using variations on JFK, Clinton, FDR, Jefferson, Truman, etc. Since I study Wilson's era and Wilson himself, I used his name. OK, on with "Liberal Fascism." (sic)

First, let's address the elephant in the living room with Wilson. Was he a racist? Of course he was. Born in Virginia before the Civil War, he grew up in Georgia and South Carolina during and after the war. His father was a Confederate sympathizer and Wilson grew up in the South of the mid-19th century. As far as we can tell his parents never owned slaves but they had black servants either free blacks or slaves provided by Wilson's father's congregation. Wilson had the racial attitudes you'd expect from someone in his time and place. African-Americans were considered socially, politically and intellectually inferior. They were denied the right to vote, lynchings were common, discrimination wide-spread and institutionalized. Wilson saw this as normal. He told "darkie" and "coon" jokes which would curl the hair on a modern listener and as President he allowed his cabinet members to segregate most of the federal worker and institute Jim Crow in the federal workplace. A handful of agencies, such as the new Department of Labor, did not segregate but they made up only a tiny proportion of the federal government in 1913. Wilson condemned lynching, but in a way that could, at best, be described as lukewarm.

Does this make him a fascist? If it does, then a large majority of Americans in 1912 were fascist. Only a small group of Americans objected to Jim Crow in anything more than a pro-forma way. When a conservative Republican administration came into office in 1921 they didn't reverse Wilson-era segregation, they maintained it. Read the letters and press of the time and if you're not used to it the casual use of "n****r" and other such terms it can be jolting. Jim Crow was an awful system but it had at least the tacit backing of most Americans on every part of the political spectrum.

I've heard Wilson referred to on blogs as the most racist American President ever. I suspect the slave-owning Presidents have him beat on that score, and even as modern a President as Nixon seemed bigoted against more peoples than Wilson, judging from the Nixon tapes. Wilson at least though that blacks would eventually reach a level of "civilization" equal to whites in the future (i.e., a century or two). That's more than can be said about Teddy Roosevelt. Yeah, Teddy had Booker T. Washington for dinner. Once. Wilson invited Washington to his inauguration as President of Princeton. Both men were willing to meet with a few select African-Americans, if they were educated and polite. Neither man was a poster-child for the NAACP and by today's standards both were not only racist but very racist. That doesn’t make them fascist. To put it crudely, all fascists are racist, not all racists are fascist.

Jonah claims that Wilson was a liberal fascist (sic). Let's look at the traits common to fascist movements from Stanley Payne, in Fascism: Comparison and Definition (1980): and see how Wilson fits.

A. The Fascist Negations:

-- Antiliberalism

-- Anticommunism

-- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right)

Anti-liberalism? As Thomas Knock argues in "Against All Wars" Wilson took much of his inspiration from liberals and socialists in American politics. They were perhaps his most important allies politically. Wilson is regarded by most historians as the prototypical liberal Democrat of the Progressive Era. His administration passed child labor laws, currency reforms, an eight-hour day law, laws governing working conditions for sailors, etc. Yeah, he was slow to endorse women's suffrage, but he came around in 1918 and pressed Congress to pass the 19th amendment. He vetoed anti-immigration laws an being discriminatory. He was, to put it bluntly, the most liberal and the biggest reformer in the White House between Lincoln and FDR.

Anti-Communism: Yes, of course he was. Most American liberals and conservatives were. However, he opposed intervening in the Russian Revolution and regretted letting Britain and France pressure him into it. He felt that Russia should work out their destiny on their own.

Anti-Conservatism: “A conservative is a man who just sits and thinks, mostly sits.” Woodrow Wilson.

Every fascist movement I've ever studied hated liberals and hated communists. Wilson was a liberal and disliked communism but didn't see it as that much of a threat. (Although he allowed Attorney General Palmer to overreact in 1919-1920.) Fascists seem to hate conservatives because they don't go far enough, they're not reactionary enough. That does not fit Wilson. He thought conservatives were already too reactionary.

Score 1/2 of 3.

B. Ideology and Goals:

-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models

-- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist

-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers

-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture

These are rather broad but I'll take a shot at it.

1. Creating a nationalist authoritarian state? No. Read through Wilson's writings and his speeches as a historian/political scientist and as a politician. He wanted to encourage debate to reach consensus. During World War One Wilson allowed, and even encouraged, suppression of dissent. It's easily the largest blot on his record after race. It was also a huge political mistake as well as being morally wrong as it silenced some of the very allies he needed during the League ratification debate. Americans today don't realize, however, how little understanding their was at the time for freedom of dissent during wartime. Republicans like Roosevelt wanted to hang dissidents, a position even Wilson never took. Wilson feared entering the war because he knew how the public would react, and he was right. It wasn't just a blot on Wilson's record, it was a blot on the history of the entire country because stifling dissent was so popular. Was it fascist? At its worst, yes. Was it meant to be a permanent policy? No.

2. A national corporatist structure? (I am using this term as a shorthand for all the variations.) Hell no. Wilson's "New Freedom" policy was intended to restore competition between businesses, not to integrate monopolies into the economy. Jonah seems to think all regulation of business is fascism without regard to its purpose or effects. Every fascist system I've studied as been very pro-big business and very anti-union. Big business hated Wilson and supported the Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 in hopes of getting him out of office. Read through Wilson's mail and through the press of the time if you think big business liked Wilson.

Wilson was also pro-Union and remained allied with the AFL throughout his career. Yeah, the Wobblies hated Wilson, and he them. But the hatred of a radical union didn't reflect the opinion of all unions, especially after Wilson sided with the railroad union to win the 8-hour workday.

3. An empire? Three words: League of Nations. The first major international organization to include the small states and to give them a voice is about as unfascist as you can get. Some historians on the left disagree but he also acted to protect the right of small countries to run their own affairs, including Mexico. Yes, he invaded Veracruz, Some on the left cry "oil", never explaining why if Wilson invaded for oil he invaded Veracruz (which had none) and pulled the U.S. fleet away from Tampico, which was the heart of the Mexican oil industry. Again, read through the original documents (something that seems to have escaped Jonah). Wilson wanted the Constitutionalists to drive out the Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta and he ordered Veracruz taken to stop a shipment of arms from reaching him. Yes, Smedley Butler says it was for big business. Butler isn’t actually the best source late in his life. None of the FDR specialists I know believe in the 1933 coup plot either (some FDR specialists may, but the ones I know do not). Butler is fun to read but on Wilson he's wrong. His judgments don't match the records. Hell, Wilson passed on John Reed's writings from Mexico to his ambassador in Britain because, he said, Reed "had it right."

What about Mexico in 1916? Haiti and the Dominican Republic? Wilson would have been a poor President if he had not reacted to Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico. He did try to keep the U.S. military from trying to widen the war, something he also did at Veracruz in 1914. When the U.S. military pressed Wilson to move on to Mexico City he refused. As for Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Guilty. He intervened during times of chaos. In those cases the U.S. acted like the hemisphere's big brother.

Also note that Wilson accepted international mediation when the U.S. intervened in Mexico, accepting offers from the so-called ABC and ABC-BUG nations respectively (ABC-Argentina, Brazil, Chile, BUG-Bolivia, Uruguay, Guatemala). Try to imagine a fascist state accepting an offer by smaller, weaker states to mediate.

4. Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture.

Pretty damn broad, but I see what the author is getting at. Well, Wilson did try to unify the country during the World War but it's not quite what the original author of these traits had in mind. And besides, the word "secular' is as unlike the stern Wilson, the "Presbyterian Priest," as is the word "goofy."

Score: I'll give a full point for World War One's suppression of dissent and ½ point for Haiti and the DR. 1.5 of 4.

C. Style and Organization:

There is a lot here, let's do them one at a time.

1. Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects.

Sorry, that was me snickering. Romantic? Mystical? Esthetic? Sorry but NO.

2 . Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia.

During World War One with groups like the Four Minute Men, a little bit. But militarization? Again, no way except for the preparedness campaign, something started by the right. We'll give a half point here.

3. Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence

Wilson thought war was sinful, cruel and wasteful if occasionally necessary as a last resort. He resisted efforts to get the U.S. into the World War in 1915-1916, refused the cries of the right and of business to take over Mexico, and founded the League to prevent war from happening again. Yeah, the League failed, but the crucial point here is that Wilson not only tried, he drove himself to the point where he almost died to get the U.S. into the League. Again, check the documents. Did the U.S. military, or Teddy, think Wilson loved force, loved war? If you believe that, I can convince you William Howard Taft looked good in a speedo.

4. Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society.

Well, Wilson was sexist, as were 95% of American males at the time. He was very much the scholar in politics though, especially compared to Teddy. Roosevelt fits this criteria far more than Wilson.

An organic view of society? Yes. Wilson earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins studying under German-trained scholars such as Herbert Baxter Adams. They believed nations developed like organisms, evolving over time. Wilson was explicit on this point.
½ point for organic.

5. Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation

Whoa. Bad, bad fit. Wilson saw youth as important, he was a college teacher for cripes sake. But exalting youth? Emphasizing the conflict of generations? Again, a very bad fit, so that's a no.

6. Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective

Eh. Wilson believed in a strong executive, that the President, the only office elected by all the people, was the only representative of all the people. Authoritarian? He'd deny it, but yeah, he hated when people argued with him once he made up his mind. I'll give this one a full point although I think it's not the best fit for Wilson's leadership style.

Score: 2 of 6:

Final score: 4 out of 13. Not very high, is it?

Now let's look, briefly, at Paxton's criteria.

- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions; NO.

-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it; NO, not even during World War One was it this extreme.

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external; NO .

-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences; NO. (hell, he believed in individualistic liberalism!)

-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary; NO. (vetoed immigration laws, remember)

-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny; YES, but could be changed by the people at any time through elections with mass suffrage.

-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason; LOL, NO. Wilson was all about trusting reason over emotion. See his reaction to the Lusitania.

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success; Good God, NO.

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle. WOW, a big NO here. Not obey God's law? Wilson understood Darwin to be evolution and gradual change, NOT a Social Darwinism. Wilson, BTW, had no problem with evolution like William Jennings Bryan. His favorite uncle, James Woodrow, had an advanced degree in science and was kicked out of teaching seminary in South Carolina for teaching evolution.

So far Wilson isn't scoring too highly on the fascism scale. Basically he fits Jonah's version of fascism because he supported reform and was a racist. Not exactly a convincing argument. Where's the love of war? It's not there. Where's the scapegoating of a minority? Again, it's not there, expect for a short period during the war. Where is the religious hatred? Wilson appointed the first Jewish and Catholic professors at Princeton and the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court. Where is the love of the military? Wilson respected the military but believed it had to be subservient to civilian leadership.

OK, what about the KKK? It's always back to race when discussing Wilson. It's unavoidable. Let's start with the question I get sometimes, was Wilson a KKK member? NO. He thought they were thugs. In 1923 he wrote to a friend in Texas and remarked that the KKK was one of the worst things to happen in the U.S. He praised the Reconstruction Klan in his history books, but also noted that they disturbed order more than they restored it (a quote Griffith and Dixon omitted from "Birth.") As I already noted, he did not share the 1910-20s Klansman’s hatred of Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

Birth of a Nation! I hear you cry. Yes, he saw it in the White House. (It was, for what it's worth, the second movie shown in the White House, not the first.) He was friends with Thomas Dixon in grad school, briefly. They stayed in touch, but were not close. Dixon asked Wilson to view a new movie that was a wonderful new teaching tool. Wilson loved movies and agreed. It was shown in the White House because Wilson was in mourning and so could not go to the theater (his wife died in August 1914; Birth was shown in February 1915). Did he say "It's like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true."? Probably not. The only eyewitness account, taken down decades later, claimed he sat silently through the movie and left without saying a word. I've held his program from the movie. It's been wadded up into a ball. His friend Dr. Cary Grayson picked it up and saved it. Did Wilson wad it up as he sat? We don't know, but it is an interesting possibility. He treated most of his theater programs gently.

Wilson MAY have told D.W. Griffith that "it's like teaching history with lightning", especially since the movie was promoted to Wilson as a new teaching tool. But the rest of the quote is likely Dixon's invention. I've spent a couple years tracking down the origins of this quote and I am fairly certain now that he did not praise Birth as in the quote, and in fact he refused to endorse or condemn it.

Did Wilson share the view of Reconstruction portrayed in the movie? He didn't see the Klan as total heroes, but most Southerners including Wilson saw Reconstruction the way it was told in Birth. Wilson wrote "Division and Reunion" in the 1890s, the first supposed "non-partisan" history of the Civil War. But, yes, he did agree that the Reconstruction governments were bad. But, once again, this is how most white Americans, even Republicans, saw it.

So, where does this leave us. Well, I don't take the history in "Liberal Fascism" (sic) seriously, and I doubt any other historian will either except for a small handful of right-wing professors on the fringe on the discipline. The book will sell a lot of copies to conservatives who like to read nasty stuff about the left. But is it serious history? Is it good history? Is it accurate history? No. That's it, a plain and simple, no. It may, however, do some good by prompting real historians, and real writers to examine fascism and in doing so they'll find that fascism hides and grows which is always has, on the right wing. Jonah may well have inadvertently turned a flashlight onto his own political allies. I hope so.

Many thanks, Woodrowfan, for contributing to the record on this.

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