It’s Boxing Day 2018, and in Britain we’re either shopping or slacking, the latter a clear dereliction of our duty to save the nation by spending more than we can afford. Some of us are watching professional sport but these days that counts as a form of shopping, as does taking a holiday during the ‘festive’ season. What we are not doing, with parliament on vacation and world news restricted to natural disasters or routine ceremonials, is politics – which, given Britain’s current political circumstances, says something about how completely we buy into the primacy of commercial Christmas over everything else in late December. It wasn’t quite like that in 1918.
Christmas was big by 1918. The habits we now call traditions were well established, though as bare bones compared with today’s sophisticated exploitations, and the implied pause for religious reflection was taken seriously by a very large chunk of the population. Then again, the holiday did not, as it does today, blot out the real world, and on Boxing Day 1918 the attention of the informed nation, and especially that of more than seven million people living in and around London, was firmly fixed on one event that had nothing to do with nativity. For the first time in history, a sitting US president was visiting Europe, and on 26 December he was arriving in Britain.
Even by the fanfare standards surrounding the office today, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t just any old sitting US President. As 1918 drew to a close he was by far the most famous person in the world, and although it’s probably fair to say he loomed less large in the thinking of radical socialists, he was at the absolute peak of his personal influence over world affairs. Millions of people in dozens of countries regarded Wilson’s ideas as the greatest, if not the only hope for the peaceful development of human civilisation, and hoped that the power of his office combined with his much-vaunted commitment to principles would deliver just that. In an age when reputations were relatively immune to mass scrutiny on a personal level, he was rock star, Messiah and geopolitical colossus rolled into one.
Up there on his pedestal, Wilson did have enemies. A small but fierce minority in many countries – wartime winners and losers alike – regarded Wilson as a potentially deadly threat to civilisation as they liked it, less violent than the bogeyman menace of Bolshevism but much more in their face. Significant in that they represented many of the most powerful people in those countries, these minorities ended 1918 determined to scupper Wilson’s liberal agenda for the forthcoming peace negotiations by any means acceptable to their populations. Broadly speaking, and judged largely through the medium of the popular press, those populations were deeply committed to the principles embodied by Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan, but rather more committed to either gaining rewards or escaping punishment for their parts in the late war – so Wilson’s overseas enemies felt they were in with a chance.
Wilson was probably the most famous person in his own country, though Charlie Chaplin could give him a run for his money, but he was never a particularly messianic figure. Though granted a certain hallowed status by press, politicians and propaganda while the USA was actually at war, his ungainly and unsuccessful intervention in the midterm elections had reduced him to the ranks of ordinary, if high-profile politicians by late 1918. This meant Wilson was open to personal criticism, like any other political leader, and his much-heralded departure for Europe on 4 December 1918 – an extended visit that would keep him away for more than six months, apart from a one-month spell back in the US – was seen by some US observers as evidence of his arrogance, self-importance and belief in his own legend. I’ll get around to the controversies surrounding those chosen or not chosen to accompany Wilson’s delegation when the peace conference itself gets going, but for now I want to concentrate on the President’s instant impact on European life.
Wilson travelled aboard the SS George Washington (a German liner interned in 1914), arrived at Brest, France, on 13 December and proceeded to Paris. He had visited France before, as president-elect in 1912, but this time the population gave him the full superstar treatment, thronging every street through which he passed and every perch from which he could be seen. He remained in France until Christmas, accepting adoration wherever he went, and took the boat train next day to London.
Wilson’s advisors – well aware that the newly re-elected Lloyd George government regarded the President and his ideas with deep suspicion – expected a more restrained welcome from the British, but they were wrong. From the moment Wilson’s train arrived at Charing Cross station he might as well have been in Paris. The streets were packed with civilians in party mood, military honour guards accompanied his progress and he triggered a major outbreak of flag draping and waving. Only the fact that he rode the two-mile carriage journey to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a king distinguished the day from its French counterpart.
Wilson beamed a lot that day in London, and gave a short speech to the adoring multitudes from the Palace balcony, but he’d been to Britain several times before becoming president and didn’t stay long in the capital. After a meeting with Lloyd George he travelled north for a little rest and relaxation, setting in motion what would become something of a presidential tradition by visiting Carlisle, the birthplace of his mother, and stopping on the evening of 29 December in Manchester, where he was given the full rock star welcome next day and delivered a speech at the Free Trade Hall. He returned to Paris on New Year’s Eve, but just for the night before setting off for Italy.
The Italian welcome for Wilson put Britain and France in the shade, at least in terms of hyperbole, with plenty of popular calls for sainthood to match his local nickname as the ‘god of peace’, accompanied by a torrent of praise for his beatific good looks from a gushing press. If there is an explanation for this extreme excitement that doesn’t involve national stereotyping, it lies in the difference between contemporary Anglo-French and Italian attitudes to the USA.
The Italian population, like the British and French, was cheering because it was understandably and madly in love with peace, and besotted enough to overlook the fact that Wilson’s brand of peace expressly rejected many of their most cherished national ambitions – but Italians also saw Wilson (and by extension the USA) as a protector against their other powerful allies. Italians had spent much of the last three years carping about a perceived lack of material support or strategic respect from the British and French, and since the Bolsheviks had made public all the wartime secret treaties to which Russia was party, they had known the promises that brought them into the War could not and would not be kept. Simply put, most Italians expected the British and French to stitch up Italy at the forthcoming peace conference, and wanted to believe that Wilson was principled enough, powerful enough and sufficiently steeped in traditional US hatred of empires to stop them.
Wilson stayed in Italy until 6 January, fitting in talks with King Victor Emmanuel, Prime Minister Orlando and Pope Benedict XV, the latter an irritant to an Italian government on very frosty terms with the Vatican. With no time to undertake a proposed visit to Belgium – which eventually took place in June – he returned to Paris in time for the official opening of the peace conference on 7 January.
I’ll no doubt fall to chatting about the peace negotiations during the next few months, but today is about Woodrow Wilson’s pioneering display of global superstardom. A spectacularly bloated product of circumstance and a somewhat arrogant academic’s self-belief, Wilson’s triumphant progress as something between Christ and the Beatles was something new in the world, and announced an age of mass adulation for individual leaders fuelled by ever-expanding, increasingly efficient global communications networks.
You see where I’m headed here? Wilson’s reputation as the great bringer of peace fell apart as soon as it was seriously tested, and his ideas collapsed when they were applied to geopolitical reality. From the moment the peace conference got underway his star was on the wane, and it never recovered. At home and abroad, he proved to be a let-down, and the lesson for his adoring millions should have been clear – but we never did get the message that media fantasies always let you down, and whole populations have been falling for global superstardom ever since. So a happy new year to both my readers, and put those flags away.