Essay

Only the beginning

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A century ago this month, my great-uncle came down with pneumonia. He was on his way to France to fight the Huns, WWI, the “Great War.” That illness set him behind the rest of his platoon, but he caught up, and then was killed, not long after, hit by a grenade in a gully that I can almost certainly locate on Google Earth. I can’t help but think of him once in a while these days. Never knew him, of course, just a doughboy in 1918, pretty much alone, war facing him, a kid from small-town Wisconsin, thousands of miles from home, in “the war to end all wars.”

President Woodrow Wilson, like each and every President–and each of us as well–was a bundle of contradictions, his very soul a nest of hooks. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to be in government. A portrait of Gladstone hung in his boyhood bedroom, and he made no bones about his future–he wanted to be a statesman.

In private he was an entertainer. He could dance a jig, tell hilarious jokes, imitate people with enough talent to put him on a stage. But he loved ideas more than jokes, and was, for better or worse, a no-holds-barred intellectual. His father, a Presbyterian minister, home-schooled him until he was 13 years old, took him all over, to museums and factories and cotton gins–and gave him thereby a sturdy understanding of the world of his time. He became a thoughtful scholar, a much beloved teacher, and, eventually, President of Princeton University. Prof. Wilson wrote highly acclaimed books on American government.

He’d grown up in the American South, in the bloody maelstrom of the Civil War. His very first memory, he used to tell people, was hearing someone say that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President and now there was going to be war. He was four years old.

Throughout his life, he remained a segregationist, a racist. His father’s church became a hospital for the bloodied Rebel troops. What he saw in that church, he never forgot. Some call him the only President of these United States to grow up in a defeated nation. What he experienced in the American South during and after the Civil War made him dedicate himself to peacemaking. It was difficult, very difficult for him to bring America into the trenches of the First World War.

But staying out became impossible when German U-boats sunk American shipping. The Lusitania wasn’t the only vessel to go down with its innocent passengers. And when intelligence discovered Germany was attempting to enlist Mexico’s help in defeating the Allied nations, the peacemaker understood that his America was going to have to go to war.

Woodrow Wilson was the last President to write his own speeches. He didn’t have a cadre of writers around to make his rhythms dance and his metaphors glow. Any lyrical sense to his words came from his soul.

On April 1, 1917, just a few days more than exactly 101 years ago, the scholar-President pulled an all-nighter on a speech he would deliver the next evening to a joint session of Congress, one of the most significant speeches in American history, the speech that would carry a single line to the practice of American foreign policy for generations: “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

“The challenge is to all mankind,” he said.

          Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

Oh, so reluctantly, a peacemaker was going to war.

          With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent courses of the Imperial German Government be in fact nothing less than war against the government of the United States.

When he finished, Congress got to its feet immediately and saluted him with a thunderous ovation.

Wilson was dumbfounded. “My message today,” he told an aid later, “was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.”

When he finished that speech, President Woodrow Wilson, having declared America at war on Germany, laid his head on the Cabinet table and cried.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this, and for your research. I have always found it too easy to demonize and even hate Woodrow Wilson. I repent, at least a little bit.

    • James Schaap says:

      You have good reason to demonize. Most of us don’t need a sidekick to play good cop/bad cop.

      • Daniel J Meeter says:

        The Hungarian Calvinists of the area around New Brunswick , New Jersey, blamed him for the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered Imperial Hungary after the Armistice. They said it was from his sour grapes after his having been part of the Presbytery of New Brunswick (to which Princeton belonged), which had trouble with the local Hungarian congregations! The Hungarians are all about sour grapes. They hang on to them themselves (they make great wine) and they are quick to assume them in others. And yet it might in some part be true with Wilson. I am fond of sour grapes myself.

  • Marlin P VIS says:

    Recently enjoyed reading Jeff Shaara’s “To the Last Man.” Always enjoy Shaara – good storyteller. His book does not paint Wilson as a peacemaker, but rather as someone clueless as to the bigger picture. Being someone who is not a Wilson fan, it was easy for me to accept Shaara’s portrait. I do appreciate another opinion. As an aside, Shaara’s book gave me a new appreciation for George Patton. Didn’t realize he was even involved in WWI, and in the newly organized tank command at that. History is much more interesting than fiction, even though, of course, a bit of Shaara’s telling is fiction. Maybe more than a bit, but …

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thank you, Jim, for making it possible to see a deeper reality in Wilson, to peer into his hurting soul. I was moved by this story, enough to want to put my head on the desk and weep with him. Keep the stories coming, Jim.

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