It might truly be said that the death, funeral and burial of Thomas Jefferson’s American republic came about at the hands of the nation’s three most prominent wartime presidents . . . with Abraham Lincoln digging the grave, Woodrow Wilson constructing the coffin and Franklin Roosevelt performing the final interment of America’s body politic.
As to the wars themselves, while there is little question concerning the reasons for America’s involvement in World War Two, the casus belli for both the War of Secession and the First World War can be, and still are, hotly debated. It should also be noted that in the case of the latter conflict, leading Southern statesmen were on both sides of the argument for America’s entry into that war.
Leading the congressional battle against America’s participation in the “war to end all wars” were a number of Southern members of Congress headed by House majority leader Claude Kitchin of North Carolina. Kitchin’s father, William Kitchin, had been a post-Reconstruction Democratic member of Congress from North Carolina . During the War, he served as a captain in the 2nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment that had been part of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On the other side of the argument was a Texan, Edward Mandell House, President Wilson’s principal advisor and his alter ego. House was born in Houston in 1858, the seventh child of a British pastry chef, Thomas House, who had immigrated to New York in 1835. A year later, the elder House moved to New Orleans to run the bakery at one of America’s finest hotels, the St. Charles, but later in 1836, he went to Houston to fight in Texas’ war for independence. After that, House settled in Houston and opened a general store and cotton exchange.
In 1851, Thomas House founded a steamboat company and during the War of Secession, his ships served as blockade runners between Galveston and British Nassau. After the War, House began extending loans to local cotton planters, an activity that later made him one of Houston’s major bankers. House also served a term as mayor of Houston during the War and in 1866, he started the city’s first gas company and street railway, as well as its Board of Trade, Cotton Exchange and the Texas Central Railroad. When he died in 1880, House was the third wealthiest man in Texas.
When House’s son Edward was a student at the Houston Academy, he was known to have verbally and physically abused former slaves. In later years, his diaries were filled with many racial comments that evinced a strong feeling of white supremacy. Young House was later sent to prep schools in Virginia, Connecticut and England and finally to Cornell University in New York. During his junior year at Cornell, his father became gravely ill and House returned to Texas to manage the family businesses. His first association with politics began in 1892 with a major role in the successful reelection campaign of Texas Governor James Hogg. His work gained him an appointment as an honorary colonel in the State Militia . . . a title that would follow House for the rest of his life.
Before moving to New York City in the early 1900s, House was largely responsible for the successful election campaigns of three other Democratic governors in Texas, Charles Culberson in 1896, Joseph Sayers in 1900 and Samuel Lanham in 1904. His outstanding work in those elections also brought him to the attention of the Democratic National Committee that gave him great influence in the highest levels of the party.
House’s rise to national fame began in 1911 when he met the newly elected governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. Like House, Wilson was a product of the antebellum South, having been born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1856. Two years later, Wilson’s father Joseph Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, was transferred to Augusta, Georgia, where the family remained until 1870. Rev. Wilson owned a few slaves and during the War of Secession was a strong supporter of the Confederacy, as well as serving as a Confederate Army chaplain.
After the War, Rev. Wilson became a professor at a theological seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, and while young Woodrow was initially enrolled at Davidson College in North Carolina, he soon transferred to the College of New Jersey which later became Princeton University. After college, Wilson returned to Augusta to practice law but soon switched to an academic career that culminated in his appointment as president of Princeton University in 1902.
A decade later, Wilson received the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey and had his first meeting with Colonel House. An intimate relationship soon developed between the two and within a year of their initial meeting, Wilson was quoted as saying that House was his “second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one.”
During that early period of their association, House wrote his political novel “Philip Dru: Administrator” in which he envisioned a futuristic, dystopian America that is violently overthrown in a civil war and turned into a utopian state run by a benevolent dictator who makes sweeping progressive reforms. The book then had America leading the creation of a new world order headed by a League of Nations that controlled such entities as a world bank, world court and world army.
Aided greatly by House’s political acumen and tireless assistance, Wilson won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912. In the election, Theodore Roosevelt’s split from the Republican Party and his run as an independent ensured Wilson’s landslide victory over Republican William Taft. Aside from the minor Mexican Border War and some sporadic fighting with native tribes in both the American Southwest and the Philippines, the only major battles in which Americans were engaged at that time were political and social. In Europe, however, the clouds of a worldwide conflict were already gathering as Wilson took office in March of 1913.
By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the major counties of Europe were divided into two triple alliances, with France, Great Britain and Russia on one side and Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire on the other, with each group engaged in both arms and economic contests. The actual rumblings of war, however, did not begin until 1911 when France and Germany had a short conflict over Morocco, with another taking place between Italy and the Ottoman Empire in Libya. During the following two years there were minor wars in the Balkans, with the final act taking place in June of 1914 when Serbian nationalists assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and World War One erupting two months later.
In America, public opinion concerning the war in Europe was initially divided, with many voices calling for the United States to remain neutral. In addition, at the war’s outset, the Allies were confident they could defeat the Central Powers either on the field of battle or by an illegal war of attrition via a naval blockade of all German ports. Within a year, however, the war had developed into a stalemate with an ever-mounting number of casualties on both sides and no end in sight. When the British liner “Lusitania” was sunk by the German submarine U-20 in May of 1915 with the loss of over a hundred twenty American lives, England saw a chance to sway American public opinion in its favor.
Stories were planted in American newspapers that the ship was an innocent passenger liner that had been illegally attacked and that the sinking was widely celebrated in Germany. After the sinking, a few hundred satirical bronze medallions showing the sinking were privately minted in Munich, but British propagandists falsely claimed that it was an official medal awarded to the crew of the U-20. England later had a quarter of a million iron copies of the medal cast and distributed worldwide. The actual story of the sinking was quite different however.
At the start of the war, three Cunard liners, the “Lusitania,” “Mauretania” and “Aquitania,” were designated by the Royal Navy as armed merchant cruisers and were so listed in the authoritative British publication, “Jane’s Fighting Ships,” a book which was used by all German U-boats to identify enemy warships. In addition, at the time of its sinking, the “Lusitania” was also carrying tons of contraband munitions that had been loaded aboard in New York, the explosion of which undoubtedly contributed to its rapid sinking. Furthermore, the German Embassy had placed ads in all the New York newspapers prior to the departure of the “Lusitania” warning Americans and other neutrals about the dangers of sailing aboard such British ships.
Prior to the war, President Wilson had sent House to Europe to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, in an effort to avert a conflict, with the United States acting as a guarantor of world peace. While Wilson’s efforts bore no immediate fruit, he and House continued to try and create a situation in which militarism could be ended, national self-interest strengthened and American-style democracy spread throughout the world. After war broke out, however, while the president told Americans that the country would remain completely neutral, House used every effort to tilt Wilson’s thinking toward England and France.
After the sinking of the “Lusitania,” House told Wilson that America could no longer remain a “neutral spectator.” In regard to that sinking, when Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan urged that American remain neutral and stated that the sinking was no more illegal than the British starvation blockade of Germany, House succeeded in having Bryan removed from office and replaced by his protégé, Robert Lansing, with House then becoming the de facto secretary of state. In that role, he urged a huge military buildup and while Wilson still dreamed of world peace, House was dreaming of both America’s world power abroad and the building of a utopian, centralized state at home. House was also subtly and persistently moving Wilson toward a more pro-Allied position.
When Wilson ran for reelection in 1916, House played an even greater role in the campaign and portrayed Wilson as the president who had kept America out of the war. In the election, Wilson beat his Republican opponent, Charles Hughes, by just twenty-three electoral votes and only a month after his inauguration the following March, Wilson, with House’s constant urging, went before Congress to call for a declaration of war against Germany.
By that time, intensive Allied propaganda, mainly from Great Britain, had turned many Americans against the Central Powers in general and Germany in particular. Numerous false atrocity stories from England had been widely reported in the American press and as Great Britain had cut the Atlantic telegraph cables from the Continent at the start of the war, no German reports could be received. Pro-German publications, such as George Sylvester Vierek’s English-language weekly “The Fatherland” that once had as many as a hundred thousand readers, were forced to either change their policies or shut down.
There were many in America though that still regarded the country’s entry into war a grave mistake. These included women’s groups, religious leaders, labor organization and even a few major industrialists like Henry Ford. In Congress, a number of Southern Democrats led by House Majority Leader Kitchin voted against Wilson’s call for war in April of 1917. Congress heeded the call, however, and overwhelmingly voted to plunge America into the European conflict.
Soon after war was declared, Wilson organized a group of well over a hundred academics headed by House called the “Inquiry” which began planning the dismemberment of the three Central Power empires and the creation of several new, democratically-run nations in Europe and the Middle East that would work in concert with the League of Nations that House had envisioned in his 1912 novel. All of this was later spelled out in the fourteen-point proposal that Wilson presented at Versailles in 1919.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Wilson, like Lincoln before him and FDR later, instituted an unpopular military draft and income tax, as well as introducing several unconstitutional actions to curb any dissent regarding the war, allow any disparagement of the president or oppose the draft. Among these were the espionage and sedition acts of 1917 and 1918, the creation of the American Protection League to carry out the censorship of mail and newspapers and the deportation of hundreds of American citizens.
America’s entry into the war, of course, tipped the scales in favor of the Allies and in a little over a year an armistice and the surrender of the Central Powers were attained. However, the ensuing Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles that was drawn up the following year dictated extremely harsh terms on the defeated nations. So harsh that one international legal expert, Professor James Brown Scott of George Washington University, noted that “the statesmen have made a peace that makes another war inevitable.”
Let us suppose now that America had heeded the pleas for neutrality from people such as Congressman Kitchen and had ignored the propaganda from England, a nation Americans fought to gain their independence and again a few years later to retain it, as well as coming close to fighting in 1861 as an ally of the Confederacy. If America had remained on the sidelines during the First World War and there had been no Versailles Treaty, drastically new scenarios would have been written in the pages of history.
In Europe, there would have been little chance of a Hitler-led Germany emerging to bring on an even greater global conflict . . . one that would see the development and use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, without Hitler and his need for a Versalles scapegoat, the Jews would have retained their place in European society and there would have been no Nazi Holocaust. In the Middle East, if the British and French had not been allowed to carve up the Ottoman Empire to form their own spheres of influence, many of the problems and conflicts which have plagued that area since World War One would not have occured. In Asia, with Japan on the losing side, that nation would not have gained its string of vital Pacific bases from a defeated Germany.
In the case of the United States, the immediate benefit would, of course, have been the saving of a hundred thousand American lives. However, America’s neutrality would still have allowed it to emerge as the world’s most powerful nation. Furthermore, by refusing to go to war against nations with whom America had never had any real argument, it would have given the United Staes even greater influence with both the victors and the vanquished. It would also have put our country on a far different political and social course.
Lastly, such an alternate history could have truly made the First World War a war to end all major wars, rather than what historian David Fromkin recently termed as “a peace to end all peace.”