The President's Dictatorship

By John Jay Chapman

[The North American Review, October 1918]

Whether one admire Mr. Wilson without reserves or with reserves, events have made him the foremost man of the world; and his position deserves to be dispassionately studied.

His recent course with regard to Russia is an example of his amazing political insight. When Russia collapsed the statesmen of Europe saw the need of reforming the Eastern battlefront as quickly as possible. They saw the emergency from a military point of view; and were alarmed lest Germany might be able to draw together the fragments of chaos on her eastern border, establish some sort of civil order, and perhaps even recruit her armies from Russian sources. The Allies besought the President to join hands with them, and especially with Japan, and to march into Russia through Siberia.

Mr. Wilson, after his own slow manner, saw not clearly as yet, but he felt that there were other elements in the case besides war. There were race prejudices, national ambitions, past history. The Japanese had been the historic enemies of the Russians; and this sudden interest of the Japs in the welfare of Russia might be misunderstood. Mr. Wilson knew instinctively that some kind of new question had come into the war through the downfall of Russia. He also knew that the American people would only fight for a civic principle. The issue must be accepted by him from the first as a clear principle of government, or there would be trouble later in the United States. He kept the whole of Europe waiting for three months while he turned the matter over in his mind and while the outlines of the misty world landscape emerged upon his view. At last he got as far as seeing and saying that we must "stand by Russia." Then he waited quietly, not only till his own mind was clear, but till some little cloud of civic and military activity—a cloud perhaps no bigger than a man's hand—should appear in Russia and should become a nucleus for the practical application of his thought. When this happened he spoke. His idea was exceedingly simple. It was the idea expressed in the line of Byron (I wonder Mr. Wilson did not quote it). "Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow." The consequences of the delay in the friendly action turned out to be quite different from what was expected. For the taste of German methods which the Russians had been getting during the intervening months was leading to a reaction in favor of the Allies. Whether Mr. Wilson foresaw this reaction I do not know; but at all events, fate blessed the delay, as fate has often done for Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Wilson displayed during the first months of the war a similar temperamental procrastination. At that time the savants of France, who are as erudite as anyone can be, and are trained in impartiality through a life-long devotion to purely intellectual matters, concluded upon an examination of Mr. Wilson's utterances that the President belonged to a well-known type of American mind. The key to this type of mind was, they said, the American belief, the training, the conviction, the national superstition, that where war was concerned the Executive must not outrun the people in his thought. The French savants produced State papers of Madison and Jefferson, they expounded forgotten episodes in American history to prove their thesis. The savants were probably right in seeing an American tradition in the President's unwillingness to lead the public. I am one of those who think this a regrettable tradition, and believe that a President ought to be a leader of popular thought; but let us consider the matter scientifically and see whether, as a mere mouthpiece, Mr. Wilson did not, even in those early months of the war, speak the popular mind with as much accuracy as the times permitted.

There was one phenomenon of the epoch which was peculiar to the case and perhaps novel in human history. This novel feature was the stunning effect which the war produced upon all thinking people in America. Let anyone who is given to intellectual pursuits remember the effect upon his mental operations of the Invasion of Belgium and the German deeds that followed it. The professor returned to his classes in the Autumn of 1914: he held the book in his hand but he saw not the page. The brush of the artist would not paint; the chisel of the sculptor would not bite; the pen of the writer seemed unhandy and half-paralyzed. All men lived in two worlds at once—in the familiar, fast-disappearing world of yesterday, and in the unknown, looming, terrific world of to-morrow. Creative activity was impossible. The editors and journalists had the best of it; for they were at once and professionally submerged in the oncoming universe.

The rest of the thinking classes were obliged to wait till their old habits, practices, schemes, and points of view were eaten up by the crisis, and the whole of life had become a war-life, the cosmos a war-cosmos. I challenge every American painter, musician, poet, novelist, and ask him whether there is not in a corner of his study some debased half-thing, some dissonant experiment, equivocal, peculiar, unexpressive, which remains as an ugly memento of that first epoch of the war.

Looking back at the matter from this distance of time, it seems quite natural that the State papers of an executive—which, after all, are samples of a particular species of art—should show signs of the same mental disturbance that was rendering inarticulate the thinking classes of the country; and especially so in a country where the traditions of Presidential utterance were such as the French savants had perceived. The process of government is, in all ages, veiled in mystery. There is always doubt as to how events are linked together, and what it is that causes or permits them. Historians are always poets; they are forced to employ metaphors, and they spend their brains in finding poetic phrases to explain and justify the past. Just wily the United States arose is hard to state. Just how much influence Frederick the Great had on the history of Prussia can only be expressed by a myth. The process by which an understanding of the German peril spread through this country is already a question of legendary lore. The survivors of the period are now writing memoirs which historians will cite with reverence. This question of the part played by Mr. Wilson will forever be surrounded with a nimbus of conjecture; and it is wise even now to approach the matter with a consciousness of its insolubility.

We may say this much with certainty: that whether it be in times of crisis or of quietude, a great deal goes on in any community besides the things that meet the eye. The air is full of unwritten laws and inaudible voices, and public opinion, which seems so free, is really the result of battling cross-currents, speech and silence, thought and prejudice, faith, emotion, vision, blindness, courage, fear.

John the Baptist is already in communion with his followers before he opens his mouth. The followers are lying hid, lost and scattered. He goes into the wilderness to collect his thoughts, and in order that the people may come to him one by one and by natural selection. He is really the voice of to-day; but we do not find this out until next year, because we only see him next year. The office-holder, on the other hand, is the man of the moment. His voice is the extreme opposite to a voice crying in the wilderness. It is the voice of the majority, or at least of a very large and respectable class. He can retain office only on this condition. Mr. Wilson was re-elected because " he kept us out of war"; and the uncertain sounds he gave forth during the months before our declaration of war represented the amorphous condition of men's minds at that time. Those utterances resemble the groan which the phonograph gives out before the needle finally finds the thread of the record. But these sounds are true to that portion of the disc which they traverse. Mr. Wilson was the needle that was true to the disc of public opinion during that epoch.

I cannot go as far as those who say that we do not want a prophet in the White House, or that an executive is stronger in the end if he lets the people find out things before he expresses them. Any such view seems to contradict reason. It appears to me that the world must somehow be the better for any voice that cries in the wilderness, even if it cries from the top of the White House and the crier is evicted from the premises in consequence. But I admit that Democracy tends to create the other type of brain, and that Mr. Wilson is the greatest example of it that has ever been seen. Through his mind as a center pass to-day the aspirations, the will, emotions, the destinies of I know not how many millions of people. You will notice that this last note of his about Russia contains some quiet words of extraordinary wisdom expressed almost as in an aside. He does not wish, he says, "to restrict the actions or interfere with the independent judgments" of the Allies, though he hopes they will assist in the plan. This is notice to America that we are forcing no alliances. He has put the news in the shape of a public word to the Allies. Mr. Wilson knows that Europe will do nothing without consulting America. By his previous delay and by this stately bow to the Allies he retains the leadership of the world.

We should hardly be human if we were not moved by the spectacle of this concentration of power in one man. His power is real power; there is not a trapping or a symbol of royalty about him. His influence is all idea. He is a superman if ever there was one, a composite and abstraction of human will. He has become so, not by the exertion of personal will, but by the suppression of it. The conduct and the physical energies of Germany had thrown all the rest of Europe into a panic, and with the instinct of self-preservation they turned to America. They improvised a dictator. The apparition reveals the importance of America, and it has flashed out so rapidly and glows with such brilliance that we feel as if the reality behind the vision must always have been there. We do not feel as if America had merely emerged, but as if she had now first become visible. This is deeply true; for America has not lived solely on the Western Continent; she has lived in the half-conscious aspirations of all the European peoples during the last six generations. They had dreamed of America. The free nations of Europe welcomed our armies to their shores. It was not merely a cry for help that drew us there, but the ancestral faith that Europe had in us. Even the German rulers cannot trust their subjects for a moment lest the enthusiasm for America spread.

It is this old faith in the Western world that is going to be put to the test in the years that immediately follow the war. The anguish of the world has brought us into power. How long this condition will last, and through what stages the political forces of Europe will sink into new channels and probably absolve us from abnormal responsibilities, we do not know. The United States is to be tried in the fire of success as other nations have been—and no one of them has come out scathe less. The ambition and cruelty of the Spaniard in the sixteenth century were proverbial. The insolence of Frenchmen in the age of Louis XIV was wounding to the pride of all other nations. At a later date the nod of the Duke of Wellington was insufferable. The very qualities developed by success have heretofore been the primal course of the downfall of nations. The fall of Prussia is the latest, crudest, and most theatrical illustration of a natural law. History will have this much to say in favor of that tardiness of our entry into the war which the course of our President so truly reflected, namely, that the delay demonstrated, as nothing else could do, our unwarlike ambitions. It made plain, not only to the foreign world but to ourselves, that we accepted the war reluctantly, as an inevitable conflict in which our own faith and future were involved. And now we face this situation: that the United States will probably soon possess the most effective fighting machine in the world. I suppose it is impossible that the consciousness of this fact should not show upon the lip of every American in the near future; and I look with some dread for the symptom, because it is a symptom of decay. Nineveh and Babylon rise up before me when I see it. There is something in the exertion of power which is not good for human nature; and war is only wholesome when it means pure sacrifice, absolute heroism. England would be stronger to-day if she had never taken India. The possession of India has saddled England with a duty towards herself of which she cannot disencumber the minds of her children, a legacy of moral responsibility, self-interest, and pride. The past has saddled us also with the vices of bur ancestors. We have the race question, and Mexico, and enough other domestic problems to occupy such energy and such virtue as there may be in us.

At any rate, let us not rejoice in becoming a World Power. Let us be weary at the very thought of it. Let us adopt no tone of bettering humanity or pushing our sacred institutions over the face of the earth—for this is the suggestion with which the serpent will approach us. Yes, to be sure, we are policemen and missionaries, and have a God-given errand to perform. Let us do it thoroughly, but without boasting, and above all without becoming professionals. We must do it as amateurs—as emergency workers—and get back to our labors at home with minds enriched through the war and friends gained in it, but retaining in our hearts as little ambition for power and glory as when we went forth.

As for Mr. Wilson, it is likely that the same qualities which raised him to power will cause him to relinquish the sceptre without a struggle, when the crisis is past. Let us hope so; for thus only can his conduct serve as a parable and an example to the nation.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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