Woodrow Wilson. Photo: Princeton Alumni Weekly

Today is the one-hundredth anniversary of America’s declaration of war against Germany, and thus of her joining the British, French, and Russian empires in their tremendous struggle against the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires—a struggle that was known at the time as the Great War. “Great,” that is, in the sense of large, as in “Great Britain” or “great toe”—as some in Great Britain still call the big toe. It certainly was a big war. The biggest ever up until that time if you go by the number of combatants involved and the number of casualties they sustained. The other kind of great—as in “great man” or “great meal”—that war, more recently known as World War I, was not. Certainly not for the people involved, the scale of whose suffering and death has since become legendary.

I have written here and here to contrast President Wilson’s message to Congress requesting the declaration of war with the famous speech to Parliament by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, of two and a half years earlier. In 1914, Britain’s entrance into the war was seen by Sir Edward to depend upon honor, and specifically the honor involved in Britain’s treaty obligation to guarantee the Belgian neutrality that was being violated during the opening days of the war. Britain, thought Sir Edward, would be dishonored and any subsequent treaty obligations rendered worthless if she failed to enter the war on the Franco-Belgian side in response to such a provocation.

By contrast, President Wilson never mentioned honor in connection with America’s entry into the war, even though Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, the ostensible reason for the declaration, gave him good reason to do so. To Wilson, America had to be going to war for something much bigger and much more universal than mere honor or patriotism, let alone German violation of American neutrality. He was doing it, as he famously said, because “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Not our democracy, but just plain Democracy, with a capital “D.” And safe also for “the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

I sometimes wonder how many people, even how many naive progressives, believed then that we had determined on joining in this mass slaughter on the European continent for peace and safety and a universal dominion of right. I’m sure that not many believe it now. If we were going to war for abstract ideals of Democracy and Freedom, many people then and later must have reflected, when would we ever not be going to war? For Wilson’s high-principled language has returned periodically ever since to plague his presidential successors, all of whom (at least until the incumbent) appear to have considered some variation on it to be de rigueur when taking the country to war for patently other reasons. Even President Roosevelt never mentioned honor in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He, too, felt he could only admit to a willingness to fight for “Democracy,” though in so doing he allied himself with the dictatorship of Stalin in Soviet Russia.

Almost exactly fifty years after President Wilson’s address to congress, and almost exactly fifty years ago, as The New York Times reminded us on Tuesday, Martin Luther King Jr. made a splash in the media by coming out against the Vietnam War. Now the Vietnam War, as we learned from the Pentagon Papers, was also fought for honor, though those who had made the decision to fight it thought it politically inexpedient to say so. Instead, the cause on whose behalf we were said to be fighting was, once again, our old friends Democracy and Freedom. Except that, fifty years later, Martin Luther King wasn’t the only one to find such an appeal pretty phony-sounding—or to find in Communism an appeal to universal principles even more compelling (though of course even more phony). But the Times headline about how King “came out against Vietnam” badly understates the case. In fact, as the article itself made clear, he likened his own country to Nazi Germany in its conduct of the war and explicitly renounced his loyalty to his country in favor of “the brotherhood of man,” saying that he was “bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism.”

If you ever wonder how patriotism was transformed into “nationalism” and sent to the sin bin of human sentiments and motivators, here is as good a place as any to start. And it seems to me that we have Woodrow Wilson to thank for it, whose disdain for merely patriotic war-making ultimately provided the rationale for the anti-war movement which has crippled American foreign and defense policy ever since Vietnam. “We have no honorable intentions in Vietnam,” said Martin Luther King—and how could he have thought otherwise when we had declined to mention any such intentions as a reason for going to war, even when they had been the reasons, for half a century?

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.