Posts Tagged ‘Woodrow Wilson’

How America shaped the early 20th century

January 12, 2015

Adam Tooze in THE DELUGE: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, which I just got finished reading, traced the impact of the emergence of the United States as the world’s dominant superpower and arbiter of world affairs.

He described in great detail the struggles in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Japan for security and economic stability, and how they all hinged on the action and inaction of the USA.

Leaders of the USA today call our country the “indispensable nation”, and assert the right and the power to be the arbiter of the world.  Tooze’s book shows how this self-appointed role began.

24926_large_The_DelugeThe early 20th century USA was a new kind of world power, Tooze wrote.  It had a greater area and greater population than any European country except Russia.  It was uniquely invulnerable to invasion.  It was the world’s leading manufacturing nation, agricultural producer and oil exporter and, as a result of the war, the world’s leading creditor nation.  No other country could even come close to matching American power.

Tooze began his history in 1916 because that was when Britain, France and their allies came to realize how much they depended on the United States, not just for supplies, but even more for financing of the war.

Woodrow Wilson’s policy was to use this leverage to dictate a “peace without victory,” a compromise peace based on liberal democracy, international law and—most importantly—a worldwide open door for U.S. commerce.

The United States was not interested in new territorial acquisitions because it didn’t need them.  All it wanted was access to other nations’ territories by American business.

Wilson’s neutrality became politically unsustainable because of German attacks on U.S. shipping, and the Zimmerman telegram to Mexico urging reconquest of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but he still tried to maintain U.S. position as an arbiter above the fray.

His Fourteen Points encouraged liberal democrats around the world.  According to Tooze, with better decisions and better luck, there might have been a compromise peace between the pro-democratic Provisional Government of Russia, which came to power in March 1917, and a German government forced to yield to pressure from liberals and socialists in the Reichstag.

But the USA and the other allies pressured Russia’s Provisional Government to go on fighting, and the German army successfully counterattacked.  The Russians ceased to hope for peace and the Germans ceased to see a need for peace.   Wilsonian liberal movements in China and Japan also received no support, partly because of Wilson’s racism.

Tooze pointed out that the Fourteen Points were all highly consistent with American national interests.   The first three points were (1) no secret treaties, (2) freedom of the seas and (3) removal of barriers to equality of trade, all policies that advanced U.S. economic interests.

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Martin J. Sklar on corporate liberalism

November 30, 2014

The giant business corporation is a type of institution which has made possible economic growth and creation of wealth on a scale never before seen in history.  It also is a concentration of economic and political power that is dangerous to a free and democratic nation.

One of the great issues of American public policy, for more than a century, has been how we the people can get the benefit of the corporate form of organization without allowing it to swallow up everything else in American life.

sklar.corporatereconstructionMarty Sklar, a college classmate of mine at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, went on to become a historian whose field of study was this issue.  I didn’t keep in touch with him after college, but I recently read magazine articles paying tribute to him as a historian on the occasion of his death.  I was intrigued enough to get a copy of his major book, which is out of print.

The Corporation Reconstruction of American Capitalism, written in 1988, is about the debate over corporate monopoly and anti-trust law in the era when corporations first came to dominate the U.S. economy.

It covers roughly the same period and issues as Altgeld’s America, but in a very different way.  Ray Ginger’s book is about the hurly-burly, corruption and violence of street-level politics and labor struggles in Chicago, while Sklar’s book is about high-level discussion of public policy.

American statesmen saw that corporate trusts and monopoly represented a dangerous concentration of power, which farmers, laborers and independent business owners could not withstand.  But at the same time, these same corporations increased economic efficiency and productivity and raised the American material standard of living to a level never before seen.

I remember Marty in his college student days as a strongly committed left-wing radical.  But in his book, he seems well-content with the workings of American capitalism and American statesmanship.

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Looking back on the Progressive Era

February 10, 2012

I first read RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: A History of Modern American Reform by Eric Goldman when I was in college in the 1950s.  It is a history of American progressivism and liberalism from Grant to Truman.  Its pivot is the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.  I reread it a couple of weeks ago to see if it held any lessons for today.

The issues of the Progressive Era – corporate monopoly, Wall Street’s power, corruption, global trade, immigration, racial and religious prejudice, the gap between the haves and the have-nots – are still with us today, and our thinking on these issues has not gotten far beyond the ideas of the Progressive Era.

Goldman focused on the ideas of middle-class reformers and college-educated intellectuals, rather than insurgent farmers and industrial workers, which I think is justified, because few social reforms have ever been accomplished in the United States without the support of the middle class.

He did not attempt to define progressivism and liberalism, words which represented different things in different eras.  If there are any common threads at all in progressivism, they are sympathy for the underdog, opposition to the power of big business and a desire to improve rather than replace American capitalism and democracy.  Communism, anarchist and other radical ideologies are outside the scope of Goldman’s book.

At the dawn of the Progressive Era, the big banks, railroads and industrial corporations largely controlled government in their own interest.  Corruption was rampant; bribery was common.  What was even more powerful than money was what Goldman called “the steel chain of ideas.”  It was commonly accepted that regulation of economic activity was (1) unconstitutional, (2) contrary to the laws of economics, (3) contrary to Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest and (4) contrary to God’s law—all arguments that are still made today.

Goldman devoted several chapters to reform interpretations of law, economics, Darwinism and the social gospel.  The common thread was the pragmatic philosophy that there is more than one way of looking at any thing, and you should choose the one that works best for the benefit of all.  John Dewey was the great exponent of this way of thinking.  The problem with this way of thinking, as Goldman pointed out, is that a pragmatist has to make a separate decision in each situation because on the circumstances of the particular case.   Pragmatism is not founded on a rock.  It is hard for pragmatists to stand up to absolutists.

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