Glenn Beck has done what I thought impossible. He made me take to defending Woodrow Wilson. As the line in the old Al Jolson/Judy Garland song had it, “I didn’t want to do it.”
For years, I have been providing students in my presidency classes with a short cut to use in deciphering world problems that arose in the last century. “Ask yourself wherein lay the cause of almost any international difficulty we find ourselves embroiled in today,” I would tell them. “And the odds are high that whatever your question, the answer starts with Woodrow Wilson.”
Those voicing qualms about he United States’ sending troops abroad on expeditions of “nation building,” a la Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were referred to studies of Wilson’s military intervention into Mexico. Its purpose, Wilson said, was to teach the people of Latin America how to “elect good men.”
Those sorting through competing claims Israelis and Palestinians make to identical plots of land were instructed to read Wilson’s pronouncements at the Paris Peace Conference. Almost simultaneously, he endorsed both the pro-Zionist Balfour declaration and Arab nationalism.
Those perplexed over the ethnic cleansing, mini-wars, and subsequent wars that erupted in the Balkans in the 1990’s were invited to investigate the role Wilson and his mapmakers played in creating the artificial state of Yugoslavia. In the name of self-determination, they fused into a new country several entities that had little in common and which retained sentimental ties to more powerful nations outside its borders (Croatia with Germany; Serbia with Russia). So much for an end to the entangling alliances and balance of power politics Wilson had cited as the principal causes of the war.
Wilson proclaimed the “Troubles” in Ireland an internal matter within the UK. The rest of the world would regard them as that, until the time of Bill Clinton. French decolonization? Wilson dismissed the entreaties and arguments of a Vietnamese waiter, who had been so inspired by the Fourteen Points to journey to Paris in hope of a word with his would-be liberator. The gentleman in question was a fellow named “Ho Chi Minh.”
I frequently refer to the inherent contradiction of Wilson’s support of racial segregation at home and self-determination for those abroad (or at least for those who were European and Caucasian). Logic was never his forte. And, it was Wilson who first put on the table the unsolvable question of when nations of the world should surrender a portion of their sovereignty in pursuit of some greater good, be it world peace, the environmental security of the planet, or whatever else proved popular with transient governments at the time.
All and all, Wilson’s was not an easy record to defend. But it became one the instant Glenn Beck got a hold of it. He blames Wilson for the Holocaust: Because, Beck argues, many in the “Progressive Movement” to which Wilson belonged believed in eugenics, the false science that asserted the superiority of the white race, Progressives (i.e. Wilson) brought on the extermination of six million Jews. Beck’s reasoning is rather interesting. Because Progressives believed a bad thing and the Nazis, who later came on the scene, believed in the same bad thing and put it into practice, Progressives caused Nazism. [See photos from Beck's D.C. rally.]
In making this fantastic assertion, Beck steers away from the one thing Wilson did that may have helped bring on the Second World War, but not the Holocaust. He acceded to the Allies’ demands that Germany pay exorbitant and punitive reparations for having caused the war. These, of course, fueled some of the grievances on which Hitler preyed in order to seize power.
According to Professor Beck, who “instructs” students online at appropriately and modestly named “Beck University,” progressivism (ergo “Wilson”) was the “cancer” that provided momentum to both Nazism and communism, a creed he says places a greater premium on the earth and animals than on humans.
He does not bother to explain why, if communism was one of the natural (and, perhaps desired) fruits of Wilsonianism, Wilson sent U.S. forces into Russia during the civil war that followed revolution there to resist the Bolsheviks. Nor does he credit the United States or Franklin Roosevelt, the president he detests as much as he does Wilson, for defeating Hitler.
It does not take students of Beck’s “lectures” to discover that his true target is not Wilson at all, but the Obama administration. He takes great pains to present it as the embodiment of the new fascism and the incumbent president, the ideological heir of Wilson. Never mind that unlike President Obama, Wilson proposed not a single entitlement, nor mandated that citizens purchase any products. (Is it not strange that an “analyst”--I cannot refer to him as an “historian”--who criticizes Obama as someone “outside” the “American” experience would consider communism and Nazism, as practiced by Obama’s predecessors, part of that very tradition.)
With Congress preparing to debate the size of the country’s budget and its debt ceiling, we can expect Beck to turn his ire on Wilson yet again. We will learn that the federal income tax became law under Wilson and that he was the driving force behind the creation of the Federal Reserve, an institution Beck’s fellow flat-earther Rep. Ron Paul would like to abolish. Tea Party advocates, whom Beck claims to be doing a service, appear not to need many lessons either in American history or civics. They will hear Beck tell them that Wilson brought an end to child labor, ushered in the eight-hour day and workman’s compensation, and federal-state matching highway funding. Many, in a manner reminiscent of former Vice President Dick Cheney will responds with a single word, “So?” [See editorial cartoons about the Tea party.]
Of late, Beck has turned his wrath against a president harder to besmirch than Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt. Among Roosevelt’s “fascist” legacy are national parks, anti-trust policies (enacted in the name of enhancing competition), and federal inspection of meat and medicines. Which candidates in the last election ran against these? (Please send me a list.)
As evidence of TR’s “socialist” intentions, Beck settled on this quote from the Rough Rider, “We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used … We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” Roosevelt said nothing about these earnings reverting to the government. (He, like Wilson, did advocate income and estate taxes.)
Perhaps Professor Beck would like to explain how Roosevelt’s remarks differed in sentiment from those of the conservative Calvin Coolidge, of whom he claims to approve, made in 1925:
“Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.”
Ronald Reagan had good reasons for hanging Coolidge’s portrait in the White House Cabinet Room. And Coolidge and a good many conservatives who came after him had reason for revering Theodore Roosevelt. Coolidge called Roosevelt “the advocate of every good cause” who “awakened the moral purpose of the nation and raised the standard of public service.” The not so “Silent Cal” said that Roosevelt “appealed to the imagination of youth and satisfied the judgment of maturity.” [See a photo gallery marking Reagan's 100th birthday.]
In his response to an admirer’s inquiry as to which presidents he admired, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., who founded the modern conservative movement, put TR high on his list. He admired Roosevelt for being “so decisive as a character” (no “ditherer” he) and for “leaving a mark, rather permanently on the historical scene.”
Whatever mark Beck leaves behind, it will hardly be advancing the American people’s knowledge and appreciation of their own history. It is bad enough when statesmen commit folly by failing to heed the lessons of history. It is worse when a charlatan invents historical facts to discredit his political opponents, when logic and the true presentation of facts would do.