Hundred-Year Hangover: Betrayal and Blindness in the Making of the Modern World

The unlikely figure of Woodrow Wilson has come to occupy a central place in the mindset that has for decades guided America's bipartisan foreign policy establishment. A priggish, racist, stiff-necked schoolteacher possessed of an unbending conviction of his own moral rectitude and a messianic urge to impose the values of his small elitist class on the entire world, Wilson now serves as a lodestone for both the "humanitarian interventionists" of the Barack Obama school and the neo-conservatives who dominate the Right.

Over and over, across the span of nearly a century, the foreign policy elite have re-enacted the tragic folly of Wilson's turn on the global stage, repeating the same self-delusions, the same fatal ignorance, the same cynical betrayals, and the same intractable bigotry that have condemned millions to death and fomented so much strife, suffering and extremism around the globe.

A new book tells this story, which resonates down to the latest millisecond of our day: The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism, by Erez Manela, the Harvard historian. The book is the subject of a review in the latest London Review of Books, where Pankaj Mishra provides an excellent summary of Manela's detailed history and draws out some of its broader implications.

As Mishra notes, for a brief season Woodrow Wilson was vaulted into a position of global moral authority surpassing anything seen before or  since in world politics. Even the near-universal acclaim accorded Nelson Mandela today does not really compare. For one thing, Wilson, as leader of the United States, newly victorious in world war, Wilson was vastly more powerful than Mandela ever was. To millions of people across the planet – especially those long-oppressed by the exploitation and depredations of imperial powers – Wilson seemed capable of actually changing the world, bringing a new dawn of freedom, justice, tolerance and honesty. Leaders – and aspiring leaders – of oppressed people flocked to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, hoping to meet Wilson and win his support for their plight: Ho Chi Minh, Sa’d Zaghlul (now known as "The Father of the Nation" in Egypt), Chinese reformer Liang Qichao and many others. Mishra describes the mood of the time:

Wilson....[heralded] a world where small nations would enjoy the right of self-determination. And so ‘when peace came,’ Manela writes, ‘colonial peoples moved to claim their place in that world on the basis of Wilson’s proclamations.’

In Egypt, Sa’d Zaghlul, a liberal reformist, organised a new political party called the Wafd (‘delegation’) in preparation for the Paris Peace Conference. Soon after war began, the British had declared Egypt a protectorate of the British Empire, formalising their invasion and occupation of the country in 1882. Zaghlul...denounced the protectorate as illegal and hoped to enlist Wilson on his side. ‘No people more than the Egyptian people,’ he wrote in a telegram to Wilson, ‘has felt strongly the joyous emotion of the birth of a new era which, thanks to your virile action, is soon going to impose itself upon the universe.’

Inspired by Wilson’s rhetoric, nationalist leaders in Korea wrote their own Declaration of Independence. Expectations ran even higher in India and China, which had contributed more than a million soldiers and labourers to the Allied war effort in Europe and the Middle East. [The poet Rabindranath] Tagore wanted to dedicate one of his books to Wilson and, stirred by Wilson’s wartime speeches, Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Indian National Congress jointly demanded to send their delegates – Gandhi among them – to represent India at the peace conference. In Beijing students gathered in front of the American Embassy chanting ‘Long Live President Wilson!’ Liang Qichao, the reformist intellectual and earliest inspiration of Mao Zedong, went to Paris to ensure that China’s sovereignty was respected by the victorious powers, particularly Japan, which, in a campaign green-lighted by Britain during the war, had seized German-held territory in the Shandong peninsula.

But all of these hopes, and many more besides, were to be crushed at the Paris conference. They were in fact dead letters even before the war ended; the European allies had already signed a series of secret treaties carving up the colonial world between them – a scheme which Wilson was fully aware of, as Mishra notes:

Wilson had had his chance in the spring of 1917 when he first heard of the secret treaties that outlined how Britain, France, Japan and Italy planned to divide up entire empires among themselves after the war. He could have made American intervention contingent on the Allied powers cancelling these arrangements. Instead, he pretended that the treaties didn’t exist, and even tried to prevent their publication in the US after the Bolsheviks exposed their existence.

But it was not only Wilson's acquiescence in this cynical plan that confounded the hopes of the world. There was never any chance of Wilson championing the cause of the dominated people of the world -- the non-white ones, that is – because he fully shared the dominators' imperial attitudes. As Mishra puts it:

Ho Chi Minh would not have bothered to rent a morning suit [for his failed attempt to meet Wilson in Paris] had he known that Wilson believed as much as his bellicose rival Theodore Roosevelt in America’s responsibility to shoulder the white man’s burden. In January 1917 Wilson argued that America should stay out of the war in order, as he said in a cabinet meeting, to ‘keep the white race strong against the yellow – Japan for instance’. He believed, as he told his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, that ‘“white civilisation” and its domination over the world rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact.’ Though apparently all-encompassing, his rhetoric about self-determination was aimed at the European peoples – Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Serbs – who were part of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. In his effort to establish the League of Nations as a framework for collective security and enduring peace in Europe, he had little interest in persuading Britain and France to relinquish their colonial possessions.

In his own backyard, Wilson had already invaded Mexico to overturn a government he didn't like, and imposed U.S. military occupation on Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in order to, in his words, "teach the South American republics to elect good men." He also added to the United States' own imperial possessions by buying the Virgin Islands from Denmark. As Mishra notes:

Asians and Africans accustomed to stonewalling colonial officials were naturally attracted to the generous promises of the American president. But Wilson, a Southerner who shared the reflexive racism of many in his class and generation (and liked to tell jokes about ‘darkies’), was an unlikely hero in the alleys of Delhi, Cairo and Canton. Piously Presbyterian, and a helpless anglophile (he had courted his wife with quotations from Bagehot and Burke), he had hoped that in the Philippines and Puerto Rico the United States would follow the British tradition of instructing ‘less civilised’ peoples in law and order. After all, ‘they are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice.’

Blinded by his own prejudices – and unschooled in the kind of power politics he was attempting to both practice and transcend – Wilson was easily manipulated by consummate players like Clemenceau and Lloyd George. One by one, his principles fell by the wayside, and the colonial peoples were almost totally excluded from the Peace Conference. Mishra writes:

[Wilson] barely put up a fight when it came to the rights of non-European peoples, many of whom – including the Persians and Syrians – did not get a hearing at the conference. Though backed by a majority of votes, a clause for racial equality proposed by the Japanese delegation foundered because Wilson feared alienating the British and their Australian allies, who wanted to maintain their White Australia Policy.

To a large extent anglophilia blinded Wilson and his advisers, mostly members of the East Coast WASP elite, to anti-colonial feelings in Asia and Africa. The American secretary of state fully backed British rule over Egypt. Allen Dulles, a future Cold Warrior who was then a state department official, suggested that Egyptian demands ‘should not even be acknowledged’. The British, working the special relationship to their advantage, ensured that petitions sent to Wilson in Paris were filed away never to be heard of again; they also told Wilson that Tagore was a dangerous revolutionary (he didn’t get permission for his dedication).

Indian and Korean nationalists didn’t get anywhere near Paris. India was represented by a delegation picked by the British, including a maharajah in a flamboyant red turban. The Egyptians suffered a deeper humiliation. In March 1919 the British arrested Zaghlul and deported him to Malta, provoking widespread public protests in Egypt – what later came to be known as the 1919 Revolution. Faced with nationwide revolt, the British relented and allowed Zaghlul to go to Paris. But while he was honing his English, the British managed to persuade the Americans that Bolsheviks had plotted with Islamic fanatics to fuel the unrest in Egypt. Zaghlul was on his way from Marseille to Paris when Wilson recognised the British protectorate.

The sense of betrayal was even stronger among millions of Chinese who, unlike the Indians and the Koreans, were adequately represented at the conference. Wilson was sympathetic to Chinese claims on Japanese-occupied Shandong, but he could not persuade Lloyd George and Clemenceau to rescind their wartime promises to Japan. News of China’s failure in May 1919 brought enraged students out on the streets of Beijing, denouncing the US president as a liar. Demonstrations and strikes erupted across China in what would later be known as the May Fourth Movement, an explosion of intellectual and political energy that reverberated through the next decades.

Years of conflict – and radicalization – followed throughout the dominated lands. As Mishra notes:

Wilson’s apparent complicity with old-style imperialists united many educated Asians in what Manela calls ‘cynical hostility to Western civilisation’. The early generation of Asian intellectuals and activists had looked to their Western conquerors with awe and admiration. Their nationalism tended to be frankly ‘derivative’, an admission that those who wanted to catch up with the West could do no better than learn from its industrialism and the obviously superior institutions of liberal democracy. But such bourgeois gradualism no longer seemed so attractive to many anti-colonial intellectuals after the Paris Peace Conference.

Liberals such as Tagore who believed in synthesis, a dialogue between West and East, felt particularly humiliated. Gandhi had never expected much of Woodrow Wilson but Tagore had, and on a lecture tour of the United States in 1930 he unexpectedly turned on his American audience, who were probably expecting to be educated about Eastern spirituality. ‘Our appeal does not reach you,’ Tagore said, ‘because you respond only to the appeal of power. Japan appealed to you and you answered because she was able to prove she would make herself as obnoxious as you can.’ Only a deep lingering bitterness could have made the poet tell a New York audience including Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau and Sinclair Lewis that ‘a great portion of the world suffers from your civilisation.’

This suffering – and the ignorance and arrogance that breeds it – goes on with renewed force in the modern era. The American empire of military bases and political domination "justifies" its continuing expansion – via "status-of-forces agreements" or outright military occupation – by appealing to Wilson's philosophy, which declared that the United States had been "ordained as a nation to lead all erring brothers towards the light of liberty and democracy": words that could come directly from a speech by George W. Bush or Barack Obama today. Mishra's conclusion is apt, and damning:

The victories of the Cold War – and the giddy speculation that history had reached the ideological terminus of liberal democracy – revived illusions of omnipotence among an Anglo-American political and media elite that has always known very little about the modern world it claims to have made. Consequently, almost every event since the end of the Cold War – the rise of radical Islam, of India and China, the assertiveness of oil-rich Russia, Iran and Venezuela – has come as a shock, a rude reminder that the natives of Delhi, Cairo and Beijing have geopolitical ambitions of their own, not to mention a sense of history marked by resentment and suspicion of the metropolitan West. The liberal internationalists persist, trying to revive the Wilsonian moment in places where Anglo-American liberalism has been seen as an especially aggressive form of hypocrisy. Increasingly, however, they expose themselves as the new provincials, dangerously blundering about in a volatile world.