21 January 2011

"Total war demanded totalitarian power"

From chapter one of "Dreamers of the Day," by Mary Doria Russell.   This is a novel, and I haven't had time to research how historically accurate this excerpt is, but it sounds chilling:
In 1913, America had a professor-president in the White House—a man of intelligence and principle, elected to clean up the corruption that had flourished in the muck of politics for so long. Public health and public schools were beating back the darkness in slums and settlements. The poor were lifted up and the proud brought down as Progressives reined in the power of Big Money...

The Great War and the Great Influenza fell on our placid world almost without warning...

Reelected, barely, on a peace platform, our professor-president remained steadfast even when he was called a coward for refusing to involve us in the madness of foreigners. Then, eight weeks after Woodrow Wilson’s second inaugural, a document was “captured” and made public. In it, the German foreign minister urged the Mexican government to join Germany in a war against the United States and, in so doing, to reclaim the lost lands of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

Call me cynical. I always thought that document was a fraud. And even if it was genuine, why send our boys to France if the threat was on our southern border?...

In fact, Mr. Wilson informed the nation, the Almighty Himself no longer wanted America to stand aloof from the slaughter in the Old World. “America,” the president declared, “was born to exemplify devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”... Mr. Wilson assured us that this crusade was God’s will and God’s work...

If Abraham Lincoln had erred in allowing the press to criticize the government during our Civil War, Woodrow Wilson vowed, “I won’t repeat his mistakes.” The president didn’t repeal the First Amendment; he had, after all, recently sworn to uphold the Constitution. The press could print what it liked, of course, but the post office didn’t have to deliver it. The Wilson administration ordered the confiscation of anything unpatriotic, which is to say anything critical of his administration. Total war demanded totalitarian power, Mr. Wilson told a compliant Congress. “There are citizens of the United States,” the president thundered, “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.”

Anyone who protested, or even voiced reluctance, was called a traitor...


  1. Chilling, yes -- and also very familiar.

    You might also be interested in this fascinating excerpt from Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, just posted at the Atlantic:


    I was intrigued by the viewpoint of one who knew and understood the politics of the day...and by how familiar those politics sound to a modern reader.

  2. Gee..that sounds familiar. Something along the lines of "give a dog a bad name and hang it". This has gone on from Biblical times thru Goebbels to our current spin-meisters - plus ça change.

  3. One theory about WWI. We had lent Britain lots of money. If Britain lost, we'd never recollect on those loans.

    Of course, if this had anything to do with Wilson's reasoning, or simply helped him gain support, is beyond my level of scholarship

  4. It is pretty accurate. I read about this in a non-fiction account of the 1918 flu pandemic. I believe the book was called The Great Influenza.


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