During the crisis of World War I, Woodrow Wilson imposed fascism on America. He called it ‘War Socialism’. And what’s happened before can happen again.
In previous installments here, here and here, we examined Woodrow Wilson’s distaste for natural law and the Declaration of Independence, his rejection of limited government and the separation of powers, his infatuation with German historicism and his desire to place government in the hands of pristine experts. For Wilson, people were not individuals but moving parts of the organic state – and Wilson most assuredly worshipped the state.
In common with much of the Progressive intelligentsia, Wilson openly admired European fascism. After all, this was a man who wrote in Chapter 3 of Constitutional Government, ‘Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.’
In other words, for Wilson there were no immutable principles of government, only the needs of the moment as understood by elites who were ready to analyze, regulate and impose their will on the masses. This is the essence of fascism: elites imposing order, using crisis as pretext and cult of personality as the vehicle.
For Wilson and the elites, World War I was the crisis needed to impose a despotic order on America never seen before or since. One of the very best descriptions is found in The Great Influenza, John Barry’s account of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. As recounted by Barry, the Wilson administration suppressed vital information that would have reduced the country’s vulnerability to the plague – all ostensibly done in the interest of prosecuting the war.
And Wilson would prosecute the war with messianic passion. In Barry’s words, Wilson believed that ‘his will and spirit were informed by the spirit and hope of a people and even of God. . . . He is probably the only American president to have held to this belief with quite such conviction, with no sign of self-doubt. It is a trait more associated with crusaders than politicians.’
To Wilson, the war was a crusade. He wanted the American people ‘to forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.’ And he intended to wage it without mercy or quarter, stating that ‘the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.’
The hard line was designed to intimidate those reluctant to support the war into doing so, and to crush or eliminate those who would not. Even before entering the war, Wilson had warned Congress, “There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, . . . who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. . . . Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
He intended to do so.
His fire informed virtually everything that happened in the country, including fashion: to save cloth, a war material—everything was a war material—designers narrowed lapels and eliminated or shrank pockets. And his fury particularly informed every act of the United States government. During the Civil War Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imprisoning hundreds of people. But those imprisoned presented a real threat of armed rebellion. He left unchecked extraordinarily harsh criticism. Wilson believed he had not gone far enough and told his cousin, “Thank God for Abraham Lincoln. I won’t make the mistakes that he made.”
The government compelled conformity, controlled speech in ways, frightening ways, not known in America before or since. Soon after the declaration of war, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act through a cooperative Congress, which balked only at legalizing outright press censorship—despite Wilson’s calling it “an imperative necessity.”
Wilson and his minions nevertheless censored the mail, monitored book withdrawals from the Library of Congress, asked for and got from Congress a Sedition Act more onerous than John Adams’s – and enforced it. [click to continue…]