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.
The Act forbade virtually all criticism of the government and one could go to prison for doing so – even if the utterance was true. The government convicted over 1,000 people for violations of the Act, in some cases for as long as 10 years. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law in three cases and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinions in each (Debs v. United States, Frohwerk v. United States and Schenck v. United States). Wilson even requested that Congress pass anti-sedition legislation after the war. Congress, however, wisely declined his request.
The Justice Department enlisted 90,000 volunteers – spies, actually – into the American Protective League, which variously persecuted the Wobblies and monitored neighborhood discipline. The league’s American Vigilance Patrol targeted ‘sedition’ and enforced rationing while ‘encouraging’ everyone to buy Liberty Bonds. Posters and advertisements constantly harangued the population and Wilson spoke often of a ‘sinister intrigue’ in America carried on by ‘agents’ and ‘dupes’.
The government inserted itself into the nation’s life by means of Executive Order 2594, which created the ‘Committee on Public Information’. The CPI zealously promoted the government’s viewpoint in the press while creating a legion of ‘four minute men’ who would deliver mini-lectures before entertainment of all kinds.
Wilson and the federal government threatened dissenters with imprisonment while taking control of virtually every aspect of the national economy, nationalizing the railroads and overseeing all means of production. Needless to say, individuality and self-determination were not encouraged:
One outgrowth of the Progressive Era, of the emergence of experts in many fields, was the conviction that an elite knew best. Typically, [Walter] Lippmann later called society “too big, too complex” for the average person to comprehend, since most citizens were “mentally children or barbarians. . . . Self-determination [is] only one of the many interests of a human personality.” Lippmann urged that self-rule be subordinated to “order,” “rights,” and “prosperity.”
Wilson stoked a frenzy and positioned himself at the center of everything.
And Wilson gave no quarter. To open a Liberty Loan drive, Wilson demanded, ‘Force! Force to the utmost! Force without stint or limit! The righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the law of the world, and cast every selfish dominion down in the dust.’
As we contemplate the crises of our own day and the man elected president by a bare majority, let’s all understand that what’s happened before can indeed happen again. Woodrow Wilson’s intellectual tastes and political science are those of today’s ‘progressive’ elites. And as in Wilson’s day, the elites fervently believe that they know best.