Two of the Famous Stories About Woodrow Wilson -- And They're Not True
Mr. Fleming is the author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.
Two years ago, when I decided to write a book on the American experience in World War I, I thought I had discovered the best opening for an historical narrative I had seen in forty years of writing books.
On the night of April 1, only hours before Woodrow Wilson was scheduled to go before Congress and ask for a declaration of war, the president sent for Frank I. Cobb, editor of the New York World, a stalwart supporter of him and the Democratic Party. As Cobb told the story, he rushed to Washington, arriving at the White House at 1 a.m. He and Wilson talked into the dawn.
Wilson told Cobb he had" considered every loophole" to escape going to war but each time Germany blocked it with some"new outrage."
Then Wilson began to talk about the impact the war would have on America."'Once lead this people into war," the president said, 'and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be ruthless and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street'."
"He thought the Constitution would not survive it," Cobb said."That free speech and the right of assembly would go. He said a nation couldn't put its strength into a war and keep its head level; it had never been done."
"'If there's any alternative, for God's sake let's take it,' Wilson exclaimed. Well I couldn't see any, and I told him so," Cobb concluded.
This touching scene coincided with another episode I discovered in the memoir of Woodrow Wilson's secretary, Joseph Tumulty, a man whose name was often spoken with respect in my boyhood home in Jersey City. Tumulty was born not too many blocks from my house.
Tumulty told how he and Wilson returned to the White House on that April evening after the president's speech to Congress, calling on America to fight a war without hate, a war to make the world safe for democracy. The soaring rhetoric had been received with near hysterical applause.
Tumulty accompanied Wilson to the cabinet room, where the president broke down."My message today was a message of death for our young men," Wilson said."How strange it seems to applaud that."
The president launched into an emotional monologue, defending his long struggle to keep America neutral. Finally, Tumulty said,"he wiped away great tears [and] laying his head on the table, sobbed as if he was a child."
Here, it would seem, was a double dose of heartbreak combined with globe-girdling drama. I could almost hear the sympathetic sobs as readers turned the opening pages.
Alas, additional research led to another variety of heartbreak -- the literary kind. These two scenes, which are in numerous biographies of Woodrow Wilson and histories of World War I, never happened. According to the White House logs, Frank Cobb did not set foot in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the night of April first. Nor did Joe Tumulty return to the White House to witness Wilson's supposed breakdown after his speech.
What was going on here? It took a lot more research to find the answer. Both these men were Wilson worshippers. They told these stories after the war in a forlorn attempt to make their hero look good. The grim prophecies Cobb put in Wilson's mouth in 1917 all came true in the next eighteen months. The war made an appalling mess of the United States, pretty much as his pseudo-Wilson said it would, and it did an even worse job on Wilson's reputation.
Several historians have tried to rescue Cobb's tale by transferring it back two weeks, when the newsman did visit the president. One went so far as to concede that Cobb may have"improved" the story a little, but it was essentially true.
The trouble with this argument is the way Cobb's version of a president frantic with anxiety is contradicted by something else that Wilson said around the same time.
In February of 1917, after the United States had broken diplomatic relations with Germany, pioneer Chicago social worker Jane Addams visited the White House to plead for peace. Wilson told her he had decided to intervene in the war in order to secure a seat at the peace conference, where he could argue for a peace of reconciliation and a league of nations that would ban war forever.
This was not the president created by Cobb, moaning about the dangers of illiberalism and intolerance. This Wilson viewed the declaration of war as a mere transition to the imminent peace conference. He was not in the least worried about it.
The scene evoked yet another question in this historian's puzzled head. How come? I found the answer in the Congressional Record for April 6, 1917, the day Congress declared war on Germany. That afternoon, Major Palmer S. Pierce of the U.S. Army's general staff testified before the Senate Finance Committee about the war department's emergency request for three billion dollars.
The chairman of the committee, Senator Thomas S. Martin of Virginia, was also the Senate Democratic majority leader. Martin scowled at Pierce and asked him to explain how the army was going to spend this stupendous sum, the equivalent of perhaps $50 billion in today's dollars.
Pierce began listing how much it cost to build training camps, buy rifles, artillery, airplanes -- then added nervously:"And we may have to have an army in France."
"Good Lord!" Senator Martin said."You're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?"
Few comments better exemplify the almost incredible naivete that underlay the American decision to declare war on Germany. It was a naivete shared by Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet and just about everyone else in the country.
Leading newspapers such as the New York Tribune and the Los Angeles Times assured their readers that no American army was needed in Europe. General Hugh Scott, chief of the army's general staff, put a memorandum in his files to this effect, a month after Congress declared war.
Everyone thought that the war was as good as won. All the virtually victorious English, French and Russians needed from the United States was large amounts of food, weapons and ammunition, paid for by American loans, and some help from the American navy to fight Germany's troublesome submarines
Needless to say, this assumption also deposits into history's dumpster Joe Tumulty's portrait of Woodrow Wilson sobbing that his speech meant death for countless young Americans.
What is the explanation for this incredible misconception? The answer goes back to August 4, 1914, the day Great Britain declared war on Germany. At dawn that day off the German port of Emden, a British ship, the Telconia, cut a network of undersea cables to New York City. Henceforth, almost all communications between Germany and America had to pass through London, where they were read by British censors.
American newsmen reporting the war from Berlin's side of the lines soon learned that descriptions of German battlefield prowess were cut to ribbons and often suppressed. In 1916, a troubled congressman inserted into the Congressional Record a complaint from a number of newsmen to this effect.
Meanwhile, in Wellington House, not far from Buckingham Palace, the British government put together a covert propaganda machine employing almost 1000 people, with a separate department devoted to the United States. They deluged the country with stories puffing British and French battlefield superiority. Speakers by the hundreds toured America telling the same lie.
A month after the United States declared war, British and French military missions arrived in Washington D.C. The generals revealed for the first time that the Germans were winning the war. The French army had mutinied and only two divisions were considered reliable. The British army was reeling from stupendous casualties."We want men, men, men," one French general said.
Simultaneously, the head of the British delegation, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, told Wilson about several secret treaties the Allies had signed with each other, dividing up Turkey's Middle Eastern provinces, Germany's African colonies, and large chunks of Europe and Asia. Wilson's noble war to save democracy suddenly became a war to make the world safe for imperialism.
All right, I thought. Wilson was naive, like everyone else. But he could still lead the American people, thanks to the power of his oratory. Some years ago I had read the April 2 speech to Congress and had been deeply impressed by its eloquence. Rereading it, my throat tightened at the soaring last line, with its clever play on the famous quotation from Martin Luther,"God helping us, we can do no other."
At this point in my research I had the general impression that Congress, after wildly cheering this oratorical masterpiece, voted unanimously for a declaration of war.
Imagine my surprise when I again ventured into the Congressional Record and discovered there were three days of often ferocious arguments, in which leading liberal senators such as George Norris of Nebraska and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin assailed the president as a hypocrite and a tool of Wall Street's bankers, who had loaned so much money to the British, we had to go to war to bail them out.
"We are putting a dollar sign on the American flag," Norris roared.
La Follette spoke for four hours, giving a point by point refutation of Wilson's speech, filled with scathing denunciations of the president's supposed neutrality. The senator demanded to know why Wilson had allowed American industry to become a branch of the British war machine. Why had he not insisted that Great Britain abandon its blockade of Germany, a genocidal policy that was condemning thousands of German children and elderly to death from malnutrition?
In the House of Representatives, a congressman from Chicago said a majority was opposed to the war but lacked the courage to defy the president. He got a burst of applause that shook the chamber. Another congressman said America was being driven to war by armed plutocracy crying Onward Christian Soldiers.
Even more disconcerting was a secret memorandum I discovered, describing Americans' attitude toward the war. It was written a month before the declaration of war. The authors were Colonel Edward House, Wilson's foreign policy advisor, and House's close friend, Sir William Wiseman, head of British intelligence in America. Its purpose was to give the British government a realistic appraisal of the American political situation.
The authors frankly admitted the vast majority of average Americans wanted nothing to do with the war, inadvertently explaining why Wilson had been reelected in 1916 on the slogan,"He Kept us out of war." They also noted that a worrisome number of ethnic groups were hostile to Britain. Only the"broader minded" Americans favored intervention. A realistic translation of"broader minded" would be the anglophiles of the East coast.
Then came even more amazing words:"The Administration however have always been entirely sympathetic to the Allies." House and Wiseman showed this document to the president and he gave it his covert approval. So much for Woodrow Wilson's repeatedly proclaimed neutrality.
By now I was not surprised to learn a war begun with such illusions climaxed in yet another illusion, Woodrow Wilson's journey to Paris with the blithe assumption that everyone would accept him as the savior of Europe. Instead, he became something approximating its dark angel, as he made concession after concession to the vengeful demands of other victors, reducing the Versailles Treaty to a virtual travesty of his famed Fourteen Points for a peaceful world. The New Republic, on reading the treaty, gasped that American liberalism had committed suicide. Senator La Follette called"a spoils grabbing compact of greed and hate."
Faced with massive resistance in the U.S. Senate, Wilson undertook a speaking tour to sell the treaty to the American people. Toward the end of this tour, Wilson suffered his famous cerebral thrombosis that left him a mental and physical cripple. His wife, Edith, browbeat Wilson's physician, Admiral Cary Grayson, into lying about the president's condition.
The First Lady claimed the country's top neurologist said it was vital to keep Wilson on the job to stimulate a swift, presumably full recovery. It took sixty years for the doctor's papers to surface. He actually said the president's recovery would never be more than minimal.
At the height of the furor over Wilson's ability to function as president, Edith sponsored a newspaper fraud that makes the recent uproar at the New York Times seem trivial. She invited the New York World's White House reporter, Louis Siebold, to be the first newsman to interview the president after his supposed recovery.
Edith persuaded Siebold to lie about almost every aspect of the president's condition, from his sixty second attention span to his illegible signature, which Siebold praised as" copperplate." Siebold talked about running a footrace with the invalid, whose entire left side remained paralyzed. For a final ironic touch, the newsman won a Pulitzer prize for this travesty of objective journalism.
But the truth about Wilson's illness kept seeping out, and eventually the American people lost all faith in him. In a desperation move, after the U.S. Senate had twice rejected the Versailles Treaty, the president announced the 1920 election would be"a great and solemn referendum" on the treaty and the League of Nations. The Democratic candidates followed his leadership and lost in one of the greatest landslides in American history. It was the American people who repudiated Woodrow Wilson, not some cabal of conservative Republicans, as too many historians like to claim.
What are we to make of this experience, almost a hundred years later? Should we write off World War I as stupendous as some sort of bad dream? I think that would be a mistake. World War I happened. We can't make it go away.
Perhaps the best way to look at the experience is through the lens of an idea suggested by my good friend, Rutgers historian Lloyd C. Gardner -- a covenant with power.
Painfully, with mistakes aplenty, in World War I the United States learned that power, not idealistic principles, is at the heart of history. At the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson and the United States discovered the self interest of other strong nations limited America's power.
Additional limitations resided in the passions and dreams of the masses, perhaps even in human nature itself. When Wilson attempted to appeal to the Italian people over the head of Premier Vittorio Orlando, the entire nation denounced the man they had cheered hysterically in the streets of Rome and Milan.
Still more limitations lay in the illusions of idealism -- the expectation that slogans can be easily translated into meaningful realities.
Nevertheless, idealism has remained a crucial component of the American covenant with power. But it has always been mixed with an often brutal pragmatic realism. I call this mix the great dichotomy. It runs through American history like a tangled often bloody thread.
In any application of this covenant with power, success will never be total, nor will it ever win unanimous agreement on the domestic political scene, where politicians of the opposition party will be quick -- often too quick -- to criticize. But the free society of South Korea, the independent Philippines, the democracies of Germany and Japan and the free nations of eastern Europe are proof that this unique American instrument can become a creative force for a peaceful world.
For me, the importance of this covenant with power was underscored by my visits to the battlefields of World War I -- above all the Argonne. I spent five days traversing the great valley, imagining it with German shells raining down from three sides.
On the last day I stopped in the Argonne Cemetery, where 14,200 Americans still lie beneath rows of white marble crosses. As I walked to my car, I could only hope that the men who guide America's covenant with power in the world of the 21st Century will have the courage and the wisdom to manage our often perplexing blend of idealism and realism in the cause of world peace.
God helping us, we now can do no other.
This article was first published by the National Council for History Education's History Matters and is reprinted with permission of the author. Parts of it are drawn from his book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I.
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Sheldon M. Stern - 3/15/2005
I would strongly suggest that you read the account of the October 27, 1962 ExComm meetings and the Conclusion to my 2003 book, Averting the Final Failure: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings. It's all there in great detail.
Arnold Shcherban - 3/10/2005
<famous Trollope Ploy--Robert Kennedy's brilliant idea of responding to Khrushchev's October 26 letter and ignoring his tougher October 27 letter--is a myth. It did not happen that way--period.>
And how did it happen, in reality?
Sheldon M. Stern - 3/8/2005
Regardless of whether Jerold Auerbach or Thomas Fleming first exposed the Cobb myth, the key point is that these familiar stories survive time and time again regardless of evidence to the contrary.
In 1998, I was the principal organizer of a two-day conference, "Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence" at the JFK Library in Boston. The conference papers proved that many of the conventional assumptions about Coolidge were wrong--for example--he neither said nor believed that "the business of America is business." Nonetheless, virtually every textbook I have checked in the seven years since repeats this misconception.
More recently, in my own narrative book based on the ExComm tape recordings, "Averting 'the Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings," I proved conclusively that the famous Trollope Ploy--Robert Kennedy's brilliant idea of responding to Khrushchev's October 26 letter and ignoring his tougher October 27 letter--is a myth. It did not happen that way--period. Nonetheless it continues to be repeated endlessly in books and on television "documentaries". In the most ironic case, a TV network interviewed me on this subject because they wanted to include "a revisionist" perspective in their program. When it was aired, they gave me 4 seconds of no importance and then had actor Martin Sheen, who played JFK in a missile crisis dramatization decades ago, praise the brilliance of the Trollope Ploy. In the end they decided it was a better story--especially when told by a famous actor.
The truth will ultimately trickle down and push these myths aside. But don't expect the Cobb story, the bogus Coolidge quote or the Trollope Ploy myth to disappear any time soon.
Gary Ostrower - 3/7/2005
My recollection is that historian Jerold Auerbach exposed the Cobb story as myth about 35 years ago in an article appearing in (I think) the Journal of American History.