Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

lutionary and an imperialist; but their doctrinaire notions have not been influential in Western historiography. Equally unconvincing to most scholars has been the interpretation of Wilson as primarily an anti-Bolshevik leader, an interpretation which William Appleman Williams presented in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy ( 1959). But in Woodrow Wilson and World Politics, Professor Levin has reoriented the Wilson image in a book of solid scholarly credentials. Levin pictures a Wilson who, while adroit and pragmatic in the details of policy-making, was actuated by a powerful liberal ideology which led him to fight communist revolution with at least as much energy and dedication as he gave to the struggle against the reactionary claimants of the prewar social order. Wilson certainly had his differences with the forces of conservative imperialism in France, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere; but Levin's book has brought into full view Wilson's constant preoccupation with the task of defeating the revolutionary left. Levin attempts to show how the mandate system for former colonies, the Wilsonian position on reparations and all territorial questions, and the League itself; were all parts of a Wilsonian design to make the world a collection of peaceful, gradualist nation-states where American moral principles and economic interests could thrive.

This perspective places Wilson in the liberal center of world politics. Yet it is a relatively conservative position, tending always to become more rightist as hard choices have to be made. Levin makes the case that Wilson's ideology contained elements more tenaciously conservative than had previously been acknowledged. Much stress is placed on Wilson's belief in "American liberal-exceptionalism," an uncritical faith that American influence is invariably benign and ought to be extended; and on his equally unquestioning faith in an ever-expanding American capitalism. Levin emphasizes also Wilson's deep distrust of violent social change, his preference for gradualist and absorptive solutions, working within the old framework of political and economic relations rather than breaking sharply with them. In view of the attention given in earlier writing on Wilson to his activities as a social critic and friend of the underdog, it is perhaps Levin's most useful service to have concentrated our gaze on the conservative fundamentals of Wilson's outlook. These conservative components have been obscured by the President's impressive career as rhetorician for social reform.

Undoubtedly, some readers will have objections to Levin's interpretation. He hints that it was but a short distance from Wilsonianism to the counterrevolutionary interventionism of liberals like Dean Rusk and Lyndon B. Johnson. This leap will shock some students of history, whose instincts tell them that no person should be assigned either credit or blame for decisions taken years after his death by men in vastly altered circumstances. But leaving aside the question of Wilson's influence on subsequent foreign policy, it may also be said that Levin has let the nationalistic, anti-revolutionary Wilson obscure the sincere apostle of progressive social change. Many will insist that Wilson wanted -- and represented to millions of people -- a middle way between revolution and reaction, a strongly reformist alternative which need never have degenerated into a conservative imperialism disguised in idealistic rhetoric to mask its coarse intentions. In this connection, some will argue that Wilson was sympathetic to socialism, so long as it chose parliamentary means to its ends.

As events have worked out, American foreign policy from the drafting of

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