Richard Hofstadter:


WOODROW WILSON:
THE CONSERVATIVE AS
LIBERAL

Richard Hofstadter, one of the most stimulating and perceptive writers among the rising generation of American historians, is a professor at Columbia University. His study of The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It has been hailed for its fresh and critical examination of the major political figures in our history. The following critique of Wilson's peace program springs from Hofstadter's conviction, expressed in his Introduction, that "In a corporate and consolidated society demanding international responsibility, cohesion, centralization, and planning, the traditional ground is shifting under our feet." He believes, "A democratic society, in any case, can more safely be overcritical than overindulgent in its attitude toward public leadership."

WILSON'S uncertain course during the neutrality period revealed two inconsistent strategic ideas. The first was that the United States must remain the Great Neutral, the conservator of sane and just peacetime values, the exponent of "peace without victory." The second was that the Allies must not be allowed to lose the war, that the "military masters of Germany" must be crushed.

This same contradiction pursued him to the Peace Conference. What he really wanted was not simply a "peace without victory," but a victory to be followed by an unvictorious peace. He wanted the Allies and Germany to come to the conference table as victors and vanquished and sit down as negotiators. Events soon impressed upon him the impossibility of any such thing. He told one of the American experts who accompanied him to Paris that "we would be the only disinterested people at the Peace Conference, and that the men whom we were about to deal with did not represent their own people." The second statement was in some ways an unhappy delusion, but the first was true: the United States, thanks in part to Wilson's restraining influence, was the only nation among the victors that came without a set of strictly national aims, without a single claim for territory, indemnities, or spoils, with the sole demand that the Allies restrain themselves in the interest of a just and more durable peace. The Conference was an affair of three sides-- the victors, the vanquished, and Wilson.

In the absence of American claims, which might have been used for trading purposes, Wilson had two cards to play: the threat of a separate peace with Germany, and the financial supremacy of the United States. The mere hint of a separate peace by Colonel House in November 1918 threw the Allied representatives into consternation and precipitated their acceptance of the Fourteen

____________________
Reprinted from Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, pp. 272-275. By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1948 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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