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The fateful blunder that radically altered the course of the twentieth century—and led to some of the most murderous dictators in history
President Woodrow Wilson famously rallied the United States to enter World War I by saying the nation had a duty to make “the world safe for democracy.” But as historian Jim Powell demonstrates in this shocking reappraisal, Wilson actually made a horrible blunder by committing the United States to fight. Far from making the world safe for democracy, America’s entry into the war opened the door to murderous tyrants and Communist rulers. No other president has had a hand—however unintentional—in so much destruction. That’s why, Powell declares, “Wilson surely ranks as the worst president in American history.”
Wilson’s War reveals the horrifying consequences of our twenty-eighth president’s fateful decision to enter the fray in Europe. It led to millions of additional casualties in a war that had ground to a stalemate. And even more disturbing were the long-term consequences—consequences that played out well after Wilson’s death. Powell convincingly demonstrates that America’s armed forces enabled the Allies to win a decisive victory they would not otherwise have won—thus enabling them to impose the draconian surrender terms on Germany that paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
Powell also shows how Wilson’s naiveté and poor strategy allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia. Given a boost by Woodrow Wilson, Lenin embarked on a reign of terror that continued under Joseph Stalin. The result of Wilson’s blunder was seventy years of Soviet Communism, during which time the Communist government murdered some sixty million people.
Just as Powell’s FDR’s Folly exploded the myths about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Wilson’s War destroys the conventional image of Woodrow Wilson as a great “progressive” who showed how the United States can do good by intervening in the affairs of other nations. Jim Powell delivers a stunning reminder that we should focus less on a president’s high-minded ideals and good intentions than on the consequences of his actions.
A selection of the Conservative Book Club and American Compass
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Historian Jim Powell is the author of FDR’s Folly and The Triumph of Liberty. A senior fellow at the Cato Institute since 1988, he has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, American Heritage, Barron’s, Esquire, the Chicago Tribune, Money magazine, Reason, and numerous other national publications. He has lectured at Harvard, Stanford, and other universities across the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia, and South America. Powell lives in Connecticut with his family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
HOW DID THAT MONSTROUS WAR HAPPEN?
World War I marked the end of a glorious era, the most peaceful period in modern history. The last general European war had concluded a century earlier, in 1815, when the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated and banished to a shabby house on St. Helena, a British-controlled island in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 1,140 miles west of South Africa.
The Napoleonic Wars helped convince several generations that war was an evil to be avoided. The dapper Corsican Napoleon had emerged as a military strongman amid the wreckage of the French Revolution. In 1799 and 1800 he led successful French military campaigns against Austro-Hungarian armies in Italy and Germany. In 1799 he seized power in a coup. He declared himself to be consul for life. He resolved to conquer Egypt, gain French territory in the Caribbean, and extend his influence throughout the Mediterranean. He annexed Piedmont and forced a more congenial government on the Swiss Confederation.
Napoleon established the first modern police state. He tapped Joseph Fouche, who had been educated for the clergy but had never taken his vows as a priest, to organize a secret police force. As a Jacobin during the French Revolution, Fouche had organized mass shootings. He developed Napoleon's spy network throughout Europe, and he arranged to have adversaries abducted and shot.
The nationalist fury that swept through Germany during the mid-twentieth century, providing political support for Hitler, began to develop after Napoleon humiliated the German-speaking people. He defeated the Austrian army at Austerlitz (1805) and crushed the Prussians at Jena (1806). Prussian generals turned out to be cowards, and the Prussian army quickly disintegrated. Prussia had built a system of forts that were expected to provide a sturdy defense, but they generally surrendered without much resistance. Napoleon ordered that German-speaking states, including Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, and Berg, be combined to form the Confederation du Rhin--the Confederation of the Rhine. The French had already, in 1792, annexed territories west of the Rhine, notably Cologne and Mainz.
Napoleon dismissed corrupt old tyrants, an action that local people surely appreciated, but in many cases they were replaced by Napoleon's relatives, who became corrupt new tyrants. He imposed his Code Napoleon on conquered territories. Based on Roman law and some 14,000 decrees issued during the French Revolution, this was a simplified civil law code providing uniform rules for people to live by. Napoleon abolished the hodgepodge of feudal laws and customs. As historian J. M. Thompson noted, "The Code Napoleon contained less than 120,000 words and could be carried in the pocket."
Some 100,000 of Napoleon's troops occupied Prussia at the nation's expense. In 1807 he signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Russia, stripping Prussia of German-speaking provinces north and west of the lower Elbe River, and Polish provinces to the east.Altogether, Prussian territory was cut from 89,120 square miles to 46,032. Napoleon demanded that the Prussian government pay him 140 million francs. This amounted to a huge tax that devastated the economy. Making things worse was Napoleon's "Continental System," aimed at harming Britain by closing Europe's ports. The Continental System meant that Prussia couldn't earn its accustomed revenues from grain exports.
When Napoleon was paid off, he withdrew his forces from Prussia and turned his attention elsewhere, and the Prussian king pondered how his state might regain its place in the world. He was persuaded to name Karl vom Stein as chief minister. Stein was fascinated by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who had urged dramatic reforms on the last French king to possess absolute power, Louis XVI. Stein persuaded Frederick William III to issue the Edict of Emancipation, in October 1807, which abolished feudal privileges and restrictions on the sale of land. In other words, he opened up property markets, erasing legal distinctions among aristocrats, merchants, or peasants. Stein also extended civil rights to Jews. He was convinced these reforms would unleash the energies of the people.
Prussia also reformed what was left of its army: ineffective officers were dismissed; junior officers were promoted on merit; army policies were adopted to improve efficiency. The long process of rebuilding got under way. The consequences of the Napoleonic Wars were devastating as they played out decades later in Prussia and throughout Europe.
The Napoleonic Wars themselves were bad enough. Historian Paul Johnson observed that the wars "set back the economic life of much of Europe for a generation. They made men behave like beasts, and worse. The battles were bigger and much more bloody. The armies of the old regimes were of long-service professional veterans, often lifers, obsessed with uniforms, pipe clay, polished brass, and their elaborate drill—the kings could not bear to lose them. Bonaparte cut off the pigtails, ended the powdered hair, supplied mass-produced uniforms and spent the lives of his young, conscripted recruits as though they were loose change. His insistence that they live off the land did not work in subsistence economies like Spain and Russia, where if the soldiers stole, the peasants starved. . . . Throughout Europe, the standards of human conduct declined as men and women, and their growing children, learned to live brutally."
The savagery was shocking. Reporting on Napoleon's campaign in Spain, historian Antonina Vallentin wrote: "French corpses piled up in the mountain ravines. . . . Drunk with fury against the servants of Christ who preached hatred, the French soldiers sacked the churches, carried away the objects of veneration, profaned the House. The village priests slaughtered the French who sought refuge among them. Farms were left burning like torches when the French had passed by. The wounded and the ill were murdered as they were being taken from one place to another. The roads were strewn with denuded corpses; the trees were weighed down with the bodies of men hanged; blind hate was loosed against hate, a nameless terror roamed the deserted countryside, death came slowly through the most frightful mutilations."
Napoleon's worst horrors occurred during the Russian campaign. In the spring of 1812, he assembled some 600,000 soldiers—his "Grand Army" including Prussians, Austrians, and Italians. They crossed the Niemen River, which flows from western Russia into the Baltic, and headed east in a front some 300 miles wide. Napoleon wanted a decisive battle that would force Czar Alexander I to become his subject, but the czar's forces harassed Napoleon's soldiers in skirmishes, then withdrew into the interior of the country, destroying fields, towns, and cities as they went, denying Napoleon the opportunity to replenish his supplies. The farther Napoleon advanced, the farther Russian forces withdrew, and the more devastation Napoleon encountered. His forces entered Smolensk, only to find it consumed by flames.
According to historian Christopher Herold, "The progress of his carriage along a road choked with limping cripples, stretchers, and ambulances set him into a somber mood. In Smolensk he passed carts loaded with amputated limbs. In the hospitals the surgeons ran out of dressings and used paper and birch bark fibers as substitutes; many of those who survived surgery died of starvation, for the supply service had virtually broken down. In addition to the battle casualties, hundreds of men fell victim to the Russian secret weapon, vodka, dying by the roadside from a combination of raw spirits and exposure. Such, it must be emphasized, was the condition of the Grand Army not during its tragic retreat but during its victorious advance."
Although Napoleon's supply lines were stretched to the limit, he could see that his forces would disintegrate if they spent the winter in Smolensk. He decided they must continue on to Moscow. The September 1812 Battle of Borodino was among the few engagements—there were some 30,000 French casualties and 45,000 Russian casualties. On September 14, Napoleon reached the outskirts of Moscow with about 90,000 soldiers. He stopped advancing and waited for a Russian delegation to surrender, but they never came. By the time Napoleon actually entered Moscow, it was burning.
French soldiers reveled in the riches they looted from the city, but they needed food. Foraging in the countryside yielded less and less. Their boots had worn out, and they had nothing else to wear. They didn't have winter clothing when the weather turned bitter cold in October. By then, Napoleon recognized that he had to retreat, and he headed for Smolensk. As his soldiers retreated, they were attacked by Cossack fighters and peasant guerrillas. One of Napoleon's generals, Philippe-Paul Segur, recalled that "the earth was littered with battered helmets and breastplates, broken drums, fragments of weapons, shreds of uniforms, and blood-stained flags. Lying amidst this desolation were half-devoured corpses."
The first heavy snowfall was on November 6. Segur wrote, "Objects changed their shape; we walked without knowing where we were or what lay ahead, and anything became an obstacle. . . . Yet the poor wretches [Napoleon's soldiers] dragged themselves along, shivering, with chattering teeth, until the snow packed under the soles of their boots, a bit of debris, a branch, or the body of a fallen comrade tripped them and threw them down. Then their moans for help went unheeded. The snow soon covered them up and only low white mounds showed where they lay." Cossack fighters and peasant guerrillas massacred the stragglers, and Russian armies joined the rout. When Napoleon's Grand Army had been reduced to about 9,000, he went ahead to rais...
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