Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear

Article excerpt

Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear. By Richard Striner. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 290 pp.

Richard Striner considers Woodrow Wilson the worst wartime president ever to straddle a pot. Striner has previously written on Lincoln, whom he praised for combining moral idealism with strategic cunning (see, e.g., Lincoln and Race [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012]). Wilson, in his view, never understood the threat that a German victory in World War I would pose to national security. He neglected to prepare seriously for mobilization. And he failed to grasp how he could leverage American participation to achieve his diplomatic objectives. In seven hard-hitting chapters, each focused chronologically on one of the wartime or postwar years, Striner flays Wilson's "miserable judgment," managerial incompetence, "naive suppositions," disdain for Congress, unsystematic work habits, as well as such character flaws as petulance and grandiosity. Even Wilson's rhetoric leaves the author cold. He echoes H. L. Mencken's description of its "ideational hollowness, its ludicrous strutting and bombast, its heavy dependence upon greasy and meaningless words, its frequent descents into mere sound and fury" (pp. 240-41).

Striner bases his interpretation on a close reading of the inclusive 69-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson (A. S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924, vols. 1-69 [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966-94]). He does not engage Wilson's numerous hagiographers, except for John Milton Cooper, Jr., whom he uses as a foil (Woodrow Wilson: A Biography [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009]). Scholars who revere Wilson as the model for American missionary idealism and humanitarian interventionism in our own day will find Striner's formulations heavyhanded and ungenerous. Still, the author has marshaled some arresting evidence that previous analysts preferred to overlook out of respect for the president's noble motives.

Where others have portrayed Wilson as a resourceful defender of neutral rights through 1917, Striner depicts him as prey to confused emotions and as reactive rather than strategic in approaching substantive issues. Moved by Christian piety and a conviction that he alone represented the silent mass of mankind, Wilson not only advocated peace without victory, but also felt that "white civilization" depended on preserving neutrality (p. 98). He pursued wholly unrealistic efforts at mediation and in December 1916 almost embroiled the country with England until Secretary of State Robert Lansing toned down his proposed note. Colonel Edward M. House and Lansing figure in this narrative as sensible men who kept Wilson's mania within bounds, quite opposite to Cooper's description of Lansing's "dastardly act of duplicity" (p. …

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