Friday, August 7, 2009

The Follies of Woodrow Wilson--

An Intellectual in Search of An Abstraction

This site celebrates the wisdom of common people, and as we know, the positive forces that make a society prosperous always come from the bottom--its people, for they are the “Ultimate Natural Resource” of any nation. Conversely, we know that the most harmful decisions come from the top--from those people in governing elites who try and direct national energy in some “ideal” direction. That isn’t to say that common people don’t make mistakes--it’s just that any one individual’s mistake does not significantly impact society as a whole, whereas decisions at the top, mandated by governmental law and regulation, have wide and often unintended repercussions.

Barabara Tuchman’s excellent book “The March of Folly” provides an interesting recap of some of the worst cases of governmental folly during the past 3,000 years of societal history. Her survey identifies those times when decisions were made by leaders that did not advance the interests of their nation. She concentrates on cases where there was compelling evidence that the decision would be detrimental but the leaders still proceeded on a predictably doomed course of action.

Her examples provide proof, if any is needed, that sagacity, character, and an ability to admit error and change course are much better assets in a leader than high intellect. That is why common people make better leaders than intellectuals. For example, she cites the “best and brightest” men serving with President Kennedy in the early 1960’s : Although they were mostly demonstrably brilliant “Harvard” men, they displayed extraordinarily little evidence of sound decision-making during the three years they kept escalating the conflict in Vietnam.

Regarding the onset of WWI, Tuchman points to the folly of German leaders when they deliberately provoked America into entering the conflict. By 1916, both sides were nearly exhausted, and had sacrificed millions of lives at Verdun and the Somme. The allies saw no hope of winning unless America added its muscle with troops on the continent. German leaders, also faced with a probable stalemate, would not accept an end to hostilities unless they got the best of the settlement. Without American intervention, an eventual deadlock was fairly predictable.

Some German leaders saw their only hope lay in aggressive naval operations-- first to remove the blockade keeping food from reaching Germany, and secondly to help shut down supplies reaching England. But that meant using their submarines to sink American supply ships with the downside risk of bringing America into the war. In spite of many high level German ministers’ warnings, the decision was made to send out the U-Boats, and, as a result, America sent millions of troops to fight in Europe and Germany suffered an agonizing total defeat.

Tuchman indicates that the folly of the Germans was in not accepting the alternative-- “A better outcome could have been won” by accepting President Wilson’s offer to negotiate a peace, “knowing it would be a dead end, thus preventing or certainly postponing the addition of American strength to the enemy. Without America, the Allies could not have held out for victory and, as victory was probably beyond Germany’s power too, both sides would have slogged to an exhausted but more or less equal peace.”

Thus, the German leaders unwisely chose the gamble, and lost--but although Tuchman, does not mention it, didn’t President Wilson display equal folly by taking up the challenge and sending millions of American men to die in France? If the alternative was to let both sides fight it out to an exhausted equal peace, should not any wise American leader have avoided entry? Many “isolationists” effectively argued that case. That we had little to gain and much to lose.
We could have continued a naval “war” and used the convoy system to continue helping Britain. The loss of shipping, no matter how severe, would have been a lot less than what we suffered by sending ground forces. Instead, we had to pursue Wilson’s abstract goal to “win the war to end all wars.”

Of course, Wilson's “vision” of world governance failed to end wars, and, it sent millions of young Americans to their death--just to swing the tide among nations that had been battling each other for a thousand years. So, could WWI also be called Wilson’s folly? And wasn’t it a bigger folly than the Germans? One can understand the authoritarian Prussian generals’ Machiavellian motivation, but Wilson led a democracy that had always honored the Monroe Doctrine of not interfering outside the Western Hemisphere. And we had little to gain!

Equally intriguing, is Tuchman’s suggestion that if the Europeans had been allowed to fight it out, the long-term consequences would have changed history for the better--”no victory, no reparations, no war guilt, no Hitler, possibly no second World War.”
After all, it was the total defeat of Germany that bred the seeds of WWII. The French diplomats at Versailles, having been rescued by America, demanded the most severe reparations and punitive actions against Germany, and these harsh measures sowed the seeds of vengeance that helped Hitler‘s rise to power. Thus Wilson’s entry into the war served no purpose except to create a fire within Europe sure to boil over in a greater conflagration than ever.

It is an interesting sidelight that the French diplomats took advantage of President Wilson’s obsession with the League of Nations to gain their ultimate revenge on Germany. Before the French would support Wilson’s League, he had to allow France to impose the severest penalties on Germany. Wilson knew that burying Germany under impossible reparations would breed future conflict, but he allowed the French to do that in order to gain their approval of his utopian dream-- the League of Nations.

As a former Ivy League professor, Woodrow Wilson was a predictable intellectual in the pursuit of an abstraction--the League of Nations was “designed” to ensure world peace and didn‘t. Indeed he “bought” its approval from French diplomats only by sowing the seeds for the next war! Wilson’s Follies compounded into three: 1.) leading America into its first foreign war, 2.) giving up on sensible peace terms to gain the League, and, 3.) allowing the French to dictate terms that were unbearable to Germans and led to WWII.

Then, to pay for it all, he gave us the IRS and the income tax.


J.Jay said...

"Intellectual" does not mean "infallible." Your thesis seems to be that every great organization would be better off if run by "common folk," because intellectuals are universally bumblers, rogues, fools, and jerks. Intellectuals make plenty of mistakes, but if you were to run a controlled experiment with Joe Sixpack placed in the same positions of authority as one of your examples, you would find (in my humble opinion) even more mistakes being made.

Anonymous said...

Hi J,

I may have just answered your point about intellectuals in the Thomas Brewton blog where we have been discussing whether the Founding Fathers were intellectuals. Many ordinary people get educated one way or another and go on to become very uncommon men and women-They are the ones who can well manage organizations, small busineseses, etc. It is their practical mind-set compared to the reliance on abstract concepts that make them effective and different from intellectuals.

The word "intellectual" is a difficult concept in itself, but there are two kinds of minds--those who love abstract theory and those who prefer the concrete. In Common Genius I try and make the distinction clear. Abstractions are not all bad--indeed they are helpful in the physical sciences. But they have a poor record, and have been very destructive, in the socio-economic-political fields.