A decade ago, thirty American historians and two politicians (Mario Cuomo and Paul Simon) were asked to rank the greatness of the presidents by their performances in office. Not surprisingly, Woodrow Wilson ranked as one of the Near Greats. Wilson, after all, is most often remembered as a well-intentioned idealist and “progressive,” whose dream of drawing the world together into a peaceful League of Nations was thwarted by American isolationists and demagogues.
Jim Powell (not one of the historians polled in 1996, obviously) sets the record straight in Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin & World War II. Powell shows that Wilson’s arrogant decision for the U.S. to enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” led to tens of millions of deaths by making many of the horrors of the remaining 20th century inevitable. “No other U.S. president,” he writes, “has had a hand — however unintentional — in so much destruction. Wilson surely ranks as the worst president in American history.”
Powell’s book is great, easy-to-read revisionist history. I’d heard some of this material before in lectures at both Cato and the Mises Institute, particularly in talks by historian Ralph Raico, but I don’t think it’s ever been pulled together as powerfully as it is here. Each chapter in Wilson’s War is titled with a provocative question: “How Did That Monstrous War Ever Happen?” “Why Did Wilson Pressure and Bribe the Russian Provisional Government to Stay in the War?” “How Did Hitler Exploit Wilson’s Blunder to Recruit 50,000 Nazis?” What Powell does so well is summarize the Big Picture to make his case against Wilson crystal clear to even those unfamiliar with the details of the Great War. In about 35 pages, he manages to review almost 100 years of European history before WWI. Powell paints a fascinating picture of Wilson’s arrogance, naiveté, and incompetence even before his decision to send Americans overseas; until I read this book, I was largely uninformed about Wilson’s fiasco in trying to bring “freedom and democracy” to Mexico.
Wilson’s War isn’t a monster. It’s only 300 well-researched pages and can be read in a few days. At a time when I think too many libertarians are horribly ignorant of U.S. foreign policy and its history (witness today’s pro-war libertarians), studying this book is time very well spent.
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