Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief

By Ray, Christopher | History Today, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief


Ray, Christopher, History Today


Peacemaker or warmonger: history has awarded the former epithet (albeit illfated) to Woodrow Wilson, but here Christopher Ray looks at how the President performed as head of the services in conflict, and at his relationship with America's generals.

In the American era of |Progressive' reform, President Woodrow Wilson was widely regarded by many contemporaries as the very embodiment of pacifist sentiment, and was often criticised for this by political opponents. Despite this, however, his tenure in office witnessed more military interventions abroad than at any point in the history of the nation. If he appeared to abhor advance military planning, then nevertheless he used the armed forces of the United States as a tool of foreign policy to an unprecedented degree.

An explanation for this paradox cannot be found in the concept of Wilson as a prisoner of circumstance, forced to pursue policies prompted by the independent actions of the American military, State Department or |Big Business', for Wilson maintained a control over these that amounted to a negation of their former roles. In this regard military intervention during Wilson's presidency was the direct result of policies that were his alone and which were firmly based, not on pacifist sentiment, but on a principle of strict utility.

Wilson's reputation for pacifism appears to reflect more his own self-image, for he habitually referred to himself in such terms. However, if he could declare, |I am an advocate of peace...', then, nonetheless, he could also add in the same breath, |... and yet I must say that there are some splendid things that come to a nation by the discipline of war'. Partly reflecting a certain romanticism in Wilson's attitude to war often expressed to close friends in stirring quotes from Shakespeare, this attitude also reflected his belief that there was, |... something very noble in some of the characters which war develops'. A view of war as |character-building' is understandable in its appeal to a man of Wilson's idealism with his background as a teacher. However, further study of Wilson as commander-in-chief reveals a pragmatism that also demonstrates that it was questions of utility and efficiency that invariably guided his policy concerning the use of armed force. Wilson's blend of romantic idealism and pragmatism was clearly revealed in an address to the members of the National Press Club in May 1916;

If I cannot retain my moral influence

over a man except by occasionally

knocking him down, if that is the only

basis upon which he will respect me,

then for the sake of his soul I have got

occasionally to knock him down ... If a

man will not listen to you quietly in a

seat, sit on his neck and make him

listen. It is on this basis that his attitude to armed intervention abroad should be understood.

While Wilson's apparent aversion to military planning has often been explained in terms of a genuine pacifist sentiment, it is more readily explained in terms of his beliefs concerning the correct relationship between the military and the executive. Two incidents in particular demonstrate how and why he followed a policy that effectively retarded the work of both the Joint Army and Navy Board and the General Staff of the Army. The international crisis between the US and Japan that developed during the early days of Wilson's presidency in 1913 clearly threatened a direct military conflict. On this basis the Joint Board, in line with its duty to plan for any eventuality, offered the president unsolicited advice regarding the disposition of US naval forces in the Pacific. Wilson's response, forbidding the Board to meet in order to consider such questions again, unless specifically asked, essentially paralysed the Board and destroyed the basis for effective forward planning vital to the nation's security.

In the same manner Wilson also undermined the effectiveness of the General Staff when he discovered that plans had been drawn up to meet the danger of war with Germany in 1914. …

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