5 NOVEMBER, 1918: Midterm Matters

It’s fair to say that in early November 1918, for the first time in years, peace had replaced war as the world’s principle preoccupation.  Pretty much every literate person on the planet knew peace was imminent, and a large chunk of them knew that the ways peace was shaped and maintained were likely to define their future.

Reaching a state of peace was contingent on agreement between the Great War’s three long-term heavyweights:  Germany, Britain and France.  With Russia and Austria-Hungary effectively excluded from international diplomacy, and most other belligerent nations dependent upon the heavyweights, this was obvious to anyone paying attention.  In broad terms it was equally clear what each of the main empires, as well as almost all their allies and dependents, would want from the agreement that followed.

Germany and its surviving allies wanted to remain intact and rebuild, while Britain and France wanted to increase their imperial resources and security by any means feasible.  France was more interested in fleecing Germany through reparations, while Britain and most of the other allied states were primarily concerned with territorial expansion.  There were of course many other personal, social, philosophical or political visions of the future at play in the world of November 1918 – these were, after all, very interesting times – but the big picture smacked of all the same ambitions that had characterised ‘old world’ diplomacy and geopolitics before the ‘war to end wars’.

On the other hand there were two new players at the great game’s top table.  Both had become infinitely more influential since 1914 and both represented a threat to the status quo or, depending on your point of view, a chance to really change the world for the better.  Radical socialism, in charge but fighting for its life in the former Russian Empire, promised a new world order but generally frightened more people than it attracted, and the Bolshevik government was anyway unlikely to be involved in the peacemaking process.  Radical liberalism, as represented by the United States, was altogether more cuddly and definitely would have a voice at the peace talks.

Radical liberalism postulated a future of peaceful reform, of guaranteed civil liberties and of economic prosperity through trade, underpinned by the harmonious co-existence of peoples with sovereign control over their ‘natural’ domains.  The United Sates of America, founded on anti-imperialist principles and well on the way to becoming the world’s first military and economic superpower, was the one major belligerent espousing radical liberalism, and the creed was embodied in the person of its president, Woodrow Wilson.  As peace beckoned in late 1918, it was to Wilson and the Fourteen Points – his sketchy blueprint for future peace – that most of the war-torn world turned in hope or fear of real change.

Just about sums it up.

I’ve chatted around them before and this isn’t the day for a detailed analysis, but whatever the merits or failings of the Fourteen Points they were popular with and well known to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.  A rallying call for pacifists and a beacon of support for populations seeking independence or autonomy, they came across as a benevolent package of common sense sufficiently homespun for the tastes of moderate observers everywhere.  To a lot of people in a lot of countries, they marked out a road to the kind of future that might justify the horrors of the previous four years.

The power of the United States as a force for change on the Wilsonian model was more of a threat than a promise to anyone with a major stake in the status quo – and in national terms that meant the War’s winners.  In Britain, France and Italy in particular, public opinion was divided on the merits of the Fourteen Points and national leadership regarded the USA’s attitude as the principle obstacle to the spoils of war.  By November 1918 one of the few issues that united premiers Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando was a shared determination to secure the national interest (and national votes) by doing everything in their power to disarm and thwart Wilson’s radical agenda.

History records that they succeeded, or at least that the complexities and machinations surrounding the peacemaking process robbed Wilson’s vision of the consistency and clout needed for survival in subsequent decades.  In other words the Fourteen Points were paid lip service and the institutions they created left toothless, while Europe’s old-school imperialists built for one last hurrah.  For this, post-War European peacemakers have been often and roundly condemned, though as representative democrats they were in no position to lead their countries into Wilson’s paradise.

Blame has also been heaped on the Republican Party for blocking US ratification of the peace treaty and membership of its international police authority, the League of Nations.  Generally described as a retreat into isolationism by the US, and perceived as a conservative refusal to do the rest of the world any favours, the political reaction against Wilson in his home country is seen as the final nail in the coffin of radical liberalism as a world-changing force.

So the crafty, greedy imperialists and the self-centred, greedy isolationists killed off the idea of a world in self-regulating liberal harmony.  When the next world war gave international regulators another shot at the idea, in and after 1945, the presence of two military superpowers, one of them anything but liberal, ensured its stillbirth.  It hasn’t been seen since.

That thesis, which just about sums up the heritage take on the peace from a European perspective, largely ignores one of the principle reasons for Wilson’s failure – Wilson himself.  The president is conventionally described as naive in his dealings with wily old world politicians, note is taken of his personal stubbornness and inflexibility, and much is made of his ideals.  He is popularly portrayed as the man the world hoped he was in 1918:  the good guy. The US looks more closely at its presidents than we do, and Wilson’s reputation at home is closer to the truth, which is that he was an arrogant academic, a really lousy politician, and as much to blame as anybody for the failure of his peace plan on both sides of the Atlantic.

The President’s travails in Versailles are a story for another year, but on 5 November 1918, half way through his second term in the White House, the Democrats suffered a crucial defeat in the midterm elections to Congress, and it was largely Wilson’s fault.

World saver? Dangerous idealist? How about all mouth, no trousers?

The only elections held while the US was actually fighting the First World War, the midterms took place in the middle of the global flu epidemic – which had killed almost 200,00 Americans in October – and until just before the vote they were fought with kid gloves.

The flu epidemic, at its peak in the US during the autumn of 1918, would be prolonged by troops returning from Europe.

During eighteen months at war both main parties had shown restraint when it came to attacking the other, partly to bolster national unity and partly to be seen bolstering national unity.  It suited the national interest for Wilson to be considered above the dirt of party politics, a firm but bipartisan hand on the tiller during a storm.

Republicans were generally against the expansion of government functions to administer the war effort, and regarded proposals for a post-War League of Nations as the thin end of a very dangerous, interventionist wedge.  Slim Democrat majorities and the changes implied by an end to war had shortened the odds against them taking control in both houses of Congress, but the unspoken truce kept Wilson’s personal popularity out of the equation – until he put it up for grabs.

On 25 October, against all advice and without sparing the righteous indignation, Wilson lowered himself into the political bullring, issuing a call for voters to support the Democrats on the grounds of national security and throwing in a few attacks on the Republicans. The effect on voters was comparable with the impact made by the UK’s Prince Charles when he interferes in politics, in that Wilson’s popular stock fell and his message quickly stopped being the story. By losing his nerve and tossing away his electoral invulnerability Wilson dispelled the illusion of national unity, reignited the flames of party rivalry and let the politics of personality back into the fight for votes.

Wilson, who came across in public as the aloof academic he was, despised the politics of personality and was no good at them. Having come to power thanks to a split in the Republican Party and been re-elected as a familiar pair of hands at a time of global crisis, the decision to get personal against a re-united opposition just as the crisis was coming to an end was about as clumsy as clumsy gets.

Wilson intervention did him no good at the polls.  The Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and 25 in the House of Representatives, giving them a majority in both chambers and hobbling Wilson’s administration for the remaining two years of his (peacetime) presidency.  They took the White House in 1920 and held it for twelve years, during which three politically inert administrations presided over a rollback of federal regulation that ended in massive depression.  It’s no wonder American historians point to the 1918 midterms as a major watershed in US politics – but given that the same elections effectively doomed Wilson’s foreign policy, and by extension extinguished any hope of world peace based on his Fourteen Points, it does seem surprising that European historians largely ignore them.

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