Woodrow Wilson, Life and Letters. Volume V: Neutrality (1914-1915)

by Ray Stannard Baker
[Doubleday, Doran, $4.00]
AT a moment when Neutrality is occupying the headlines, Ray Stannard Baker has supplied the authoritative account of the failure of Woodrow Wilson to keep us out of the World War. The present volume, to be sure, does not go to the point where America enlisted in the war to end war, but it sets down clearly the steps and missteps which eventually made belligerency inescapable.
As he proceeds upon his great task of revealing Woodrow Wilson to the future, Ray Baker unmistakably gains as an historian without sacrificing his loyalty to his hero. In the present volume three men besides the President command his attention: William J. Bryan, briefly Secretary of State; Walter Hines Page, Ambassador to the Court of St. James; and Colonel Edward M. House, the éminence grise of the Wilson Administration. Of the three, Bryan fares best; regarded at the moment as ridiculous, he now appears in the eyes of Baker, as of Walter Millis, to have been right. Page remains what he has long been recognized to have been — namely an American who, under the strain of war, ‘went’ British.
It is upon House, after all, that Baker visits the restrained but nevertheless undisguised scorn of one who believes that from start to finish he was a meddler, whose portentous pilgrimages to Europe irritated Old World statesmen without effectively advancing American ideas. Implicit in Baker’s account is the conviction that House never understood Wilson, and in the end Wilson discovered too late the basic misapprehension. The misfortune for the country and the tragedy for the President in this ‘mysterious friendship’ Baker indicates significantly.
But it is the story of the first phase in the effort to ‘wage neutrality’ which must command all attention at the moment, when another President is making the same experiment without, it seems, avoiding many of the earlier mistakes. Baker’s book is to be read concomitantly with Walter Millis’s and with the memoirs of Mr. Lansing in mind. It has the value and the limitations of the contemporary mind. It supplies ample confirmation for much of what Millis has written, but it also, while doing full justice to the efficiency of British propaganda, recognizes the human element, the effect of events upon the generation which lived them and the importance of the psychological as well as the physical circumstances.
No one can even conceivably understand the early period of American neutrality during the World War without reading this book. No volume could possibly contribute more to a real understanding of the problem which unhappily again confronts the United States to-day. It is a matter of regret, in view of the value it would have now, that Mr. Baker has not yet completed the whole story of the collapse of the experiment in neutrality of 1914-1917. Reading the first installment, however, it is easy to see why Wilson did not keep us out of war and, what is perhaps even more important at the moment, why Roosevelt may not either.