Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Wilsonians, part III

This mini-series ends with notes of warning, because Wilsonian idealism foundered on rocks of unintended consequences.

Wilson made his worst mistakes at Versailles. Germany had surrendered in expectation of a generous peace based on the Fourteen Points and later elaborations of them. But British and French leaders were hell-bent on revenge and on slashing the hamstrings of Germany's military power. America, too, in its thirst for reparations and passion for protectionist tariffs, turned the vise handle that squeezed Germany almost to starvation and empowered the revanchists.

Wilson made the mistake of going to Versailles personally, where politics and niggling details wrapped up his power. Had he stayed in Washington and let the diplomats do the drudgery, only intervening to resolve their impasses, he would have spent his political capital wisely. As it was, he became so distracted with the League of Nations project that he failed to insure that the peace it was built on gave it a firm foundation. His failure was a loss of the idealistic vision, not an excess of it.

Not only did it leave Germany betrayed, it created a host of new problems, and some of these were built into Wilson's idealistic vision. The map of Europe was peppered over with pockets of minorities, especially Germans and Hungarians. Large, polyglot empires like Austria-Hungary worked because they balanced the power arrangements among the many groups that comprised them. Versailles set all these peoples free and gave to each a nation. But no matter how carefully the lines were drawn, each ethnic nation ruled enclaves of another. And ethno-centric states were far less generous to their few minorities than bureaucratic mosaic-states like Austria-Hungary or Ottoman Turkey had been to their many.

Then Wilson suffered a series of debilitating strokes, and he left the country rudderless during crucial years. The Senate spurned his bid to bring America into the League of Nations. A compromise bill worked out by his old nemesis, Lodge, actually would have made for a more effective League, but Wilson, dying and bitter, ordered Senate Democrats to vote against it, and it failed.


On the home front, in America, the First World War, as all wars are wont to do, galvanized forces already at work. Even before 1917, America was deeply worried about the drift of the United States, and the national identity itself. We've learned to talk in terms of "culture wars"and that's certainly what America was fighting among itself in Wilson's era.

Fear ran high that public morals were slipping, and that fear motivated a block of values-driven voters and inspired many political leaders. A political dynamic that evolved on Wilson's watch persisted throughout the 20th century, sometimes disguised by temporary alignments, sometimes starkly illuminated, perhaps never moreso than in the presidential election of 2004.

A rough description of it might be moral liberty and economic regulation vs. moral regulation and economic freedom. The political alignment that took shape was one that modern observers often trace back no further than Nixon's "Southern strategy." But Wilson would have recognized it. The strange bedfellows of the day were urban Democrats like Al Smith and silk-stocking Republicans like the Du Ponts. On the other side was an alliance of Evangelical Christians in all regions and Southern and Midwestern conservatives.

Prohibition was the flash-point issue in this war. Franklin D. Roosevelt's victory in 1932, which history texts tend to credit entirely to the Great Depression, had more to do with Prohibition than many people realize. Democratic posters that year showed Roosevelt and his vice presidential candidate in front of a full mug of beer. Among their campaign slogans was "Roosevelt and Repeal."

But the culture war was not just over booze; it encompassed recreational drugs, sexual licentiousness, prostitution. It is difficult to appreciate this today because it is difficult to recognize the old America, which tolerated a great deal that would shock us.

My current hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is in the heart of one of the "reddest" counties in the nation. Churches are huge; this is a last bastion of creationism in the Northeast, and even the Democratic candidates have to call themselves "conservatives" (they lose anyhow). A bookstore opened downtown 10 years ago with an "adult" theme. It was firebombed.

Hard to imagine now, but in 1913, this "city of churches" boasted 50 "beer clubs" and 72 saloons. The new pastor of wealthy, fashionable St. James Episcopal Church arrived and was astonished to find a house of prostitution flourishing on the same block as his church. On further investigation, he easily discovered 40 such houses of ill repute in the town. Saturday morning burlesque shows at the glamorous Fulton Opera House (which now features only symphonic orchestras and "family" musicals) featured nude scenes. Then there were the cockfights, the gambling and lewd entertainments at theaters, fairs, and carnivals.

The bawdy houses were integrated them into the local business community. A youth from those days whose reminiscences were published in the '50s, spoke of the whorehouses while reminiscing about his first jobs as a "long-legged, red-haired kid" working for a clothing store on Queen Street. "I remember delivering beautiful clothes on approval to an exclusive brothel that accepted only the best of clientele, situated on North Prince Street near Walnut. Tips for delivering there were never less than a dime."

Later, when he was 14, he worked for a stable, and became familiar with another house of ill-repute, run by "two girls."

"They were good-natured and jolly and full of fun. One was small and dark, and the other was big-boned and blonde. They would call to me over at the stable when they wanted me to run an errand. Often they invited the men from the livery stables over to the house to help drink up the beer left from the party the night before."

With public relations like that, it's no wonder that when the two women were hauled up on prostitution charges, the neighboring business owners all testified that they never knew of anything untoward going on there. "Well, the county paid the costs" of the case, he recalled. "Couldn't get anything on them, 'cause nobody would say anything against them. Fine girls!" What was unusual in this story was the charges being brought at all, since the brothels were widely tolerated.

Modern-day "South Park Republicans" probably would be Hemingway Republicans back then. "He hated Fascism with a passion, despised liberalism and conservatism, wrote with respect of some Communists but disliked Communism. To John Dos Passos he wrote, 'I suppose I am an anarchist -- but it takes a while to figure it out. ... I don't believe and can't believe in too much government--no matter what good is the end. To hell with the Church when it becomes a State, and the hell with the State when it becomes a Church.' "

But this, too, was the era when the modern "liberal/left" in America first emerged -- the intellectuals and academics and the mainstream media (personified in Mencken) rose up to lead the reaction against fundamentalism and political excesses in the name of patriotism. At the same time, they ran up against the uncomfortable fact that America's most persistent pathologies are rooted in the essential stuff of America: the individualism, the sensible morality, the Protestant ethic, the commitment to ideals.

How could they attack the excess without seeming to aim at damaging the American ethic itself? How could they disown essential American qualities without turning the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave into a lobotomized Europe Lite? Dewey began to sketch the frame of this problem as early as 1922 (in "The American Intellectual Frontier"). But his peers didn't solve that problem in the 1920s. They still haven't.

[To be continued]