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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

May 1975


Presidential Power

"No reader can fail to learn how powerful, how almost arbitrary, and, indeed, how potentially dangerous is the role of the President of the United States in foreign affairs"

by Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr.

IN each of his seven roles, as academic, governor, leader of the New Freedom, apostle of neutrality, commander-in-chief, peace negotiator, and rejected statesman, Woodrow Wilson is of perennial interest. His actions, even more his motivations, are like Hamlet's -- the constant subject of debate. One of England's most celebrated judges, Lord Devlin, has devoted twenty years to studying Wilson's fourth role, played from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to America's declaration of war in 1917. Too young himself to have been a combatant, but having lost a cousin in battle, Devlin has been fascinated by the workings of Woodrow Wilson's mind, which led him, as Winston Churchill said, to play "a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man."

Faithful to the canon enunciated by F. W. Maitland, the master of legal history, Devlin has recognized that "if history is to do its liberating work it must be as true to fact as it can possibly make itself; and true to fact it will not be if it begins to think what lessons it can teach." In the first fifth of Too Proud To Fight, Devlin rapidly reviews Wilson's career as scholar, Princeton president, and New Jersey governor. Here he has been much aided by earlier books by Ray Stannard Baker, Henry W. Bragdon, and, above all, Arthur S. Link. While acknowledging Wilson's debt to his father, Devlin eschews the psychoanalytical approaches of William C. Bullitt and of Sigmund Freud; but he sums up the facts like a judge sitting in a case where motive is the critical issue.

Return to Flashback: President's Day When Devlin reaches his central theme, the period of American neutrality, he painstakingly examines the political and legal issues presented to the United States in its attempt to maintain neutral rights against the British blockade of Germany and the retaliatory action of Germany in inaugurating submarine warfare.

He chronicles Wilson's descent from the high principle with which he challenged the Germans over the sinking of the Lusitania when he saw that the price of neutrality would be war. Devlin observes Wilson attracted by a new vision of America's duty to remain outside the conflict so that, thus detached, she could offer not only mediation but the gift of permanent and universal peace.

Suddenly, in the midst of Wilson's efforts to act as peacemaker, on January 31, 1917, Germany announced it would begin unrestricted submarine warfare. Then Wilson recognized that if he avoided war he would lose his power to make the peace. So he threw overboard his earlier commitments and led the United States into belligerent association with the Allies.

In drawing his picture, Devlin necessarily concentrates on Wilson as the tragic hero, but the supporting cast of characters is not neglected: Colonel House, Wilson's spokesman to the European leaders; William Jennings Bryan, Wilson's first Secretary of State, who vainly sought to keep America out of the war at all costs; his successor as Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, a second-class lawyer with a mind so legalistic that he sought to collect from the painter John Singer Sargent reimbursement for a five-dollar government cable inquiring how he could effectively return to Germany his prewar decoration.

There are splendid appraisals by Devlin of the British statesmen of the period, particularly Sir Edward Grey, who as Foreign Secretary was the first major figure to advocate a league of nations. We get rounded portraits of the four most important ambassadors of the neutrality period: Walter Hines Page, the American ambassador to the Court of St. James's who became so involved with the country to which he was accredited that upon his untimely death he was memorialized by a tablet in Westminster Abbey; the ambassador to Berlin, James W. Gerard, who never quite escaped his Tammany antecedents; the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, a man far too temperamental for his post; and the envoy whom Devlin regards as the best qualified for his task, the German ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff.

Devlin does not differ from the estimate of earlier writers that Wilson was not a thinker but an orator and preacher; a writer of history without a historical mind, a political leader who did not enjoy the give-and-take of consultation; a lawyer without interest in the law; and such a doctrinaire believer in an absolute standard of morals that once he had made up his mind he was certain that his view alone could be right.

When hostilities began, Wilson was faced by an England which, departing from earlier principles of neutrality, blockaded the whole of Germany, not merely the entry to those ports which were bottled up by English ships. Claiming retaliatory privilege, Germany resorted to submarine warfare that was as indiscriminate as the English blockade. Confronted by both sets of violation of its interpretation of international obligations, the United States government might merely have discouraged trade with, or credits to, any belligerent. This is precisely what the isolationists in the period between World War I and World War II sought to make a permanent policy in future wars. Alternatively, the American government, without enforcing an embargo or uttering moral judgments, might have let matters drift, at least until it appeared that the Allies were being catastrophically beaten. That is the course which, in his retrospective assessment, the sagacious diplomat George Kennan concluded would have been most in accord with our vital interests and not inconsistent with our national honor. The third course, and the one initially followed by Wilson, was to declare our neutrality, to assert that America was not concerned with the causes of the war, and to insist in diplomatic notes that all belligerents should adhere to the Hague Conventions, the Declaration of London, and other principles of neutrality law. In short, Wilson sought to maintain the freedom of the seas for neutrals so that they might trade freely in non-contraband goods and travel safely in any merchant vessel.

In the light of our own conduct in World War II, the Wilsonian approach seems time-bound and unresponsive to technological changes in commerce and in war. We now perceive that the United States has always had a vital interest in preventing Germany or any other power from becoming master of both land and sea. Moreover, we ourselves have used since 1941 the tactics of total warfare, in which civilians have been sacrificed as readily as soldiers.

Wilson took a long time to move from his original position as the defender of obsolete principles of neutrality. As late as January, 1917, he was so determined to maintain our neutrality that he encouraged the Federal Reserve Bank to warn American banks against investing heavily in British and French short-term treasury notes. "It was the crisis of the war, less dramatic but more deadly than the battles in the spring of 1917."

But when the German government announced that it would begin a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson realized that the German government had been planning grave invasions of neutral rights at the very time it had led him to believe that it would respond to his efforts to mediate the war. What persuaded Wilson to change his policy, from being "too proud to fight" to becoming an adherent to the Allied cause, was his awareness of having been deceived rather than the March, 1917, disclosure of the Zimmermann Note, in which Germany had offered Mexico the territory of three American states in the event that both Germany and Mexico later should be engaged in war with the United States.

As Devlin tells the story, Wilson was motivated by his view that he had a moral duty to bring about a peace which would create a new world order outlawing war. He was not responding to vanity, nor to the economic interests of the United States, nor to any legal obligation, nor even to an appraisal of American vital interests. The case is persuasively made. But perhaps an even greater lesson emerges from the account: no reader can fail to learn how powerful, how almost arbitrary, and, indeed, how potentially dangerous is the role of the President of the United States in foreign affairs.


Return to Flashback: President's Day


Copyright © 1975 by Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr.. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1975; Presidential Power; Volume 235, No. 5; pages 89 - 91.

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