Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a remarkable leader. Except for Stephen Grover Cleveland (whose conservative viewpoint made Wilson say he was really a Republican), Wilson was the only Democrat elected to the Presidency for any time after James Buchanan left in 1861 (and after Andy Johnson succeeded to the office in 1865). He put through some of the most progressive programs of any President, such as the Clayton Anti-trust Act, the Underwood Tariff, the Federal Reserve Act, the appointment of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. But Wilson, like his equal Republican rival Theodore Roosevelt, could not stand anyone standing up against his point of view. This is why his personality clashes with Roosevelt were so funny - both looked ridiculous. Wilson also had other flaws. A fervent southerner, he adored BIRTH OF A NATION (calling it "history written by lightning") and he re-instituted Jim Crow in the Federal Government. Still historians consider him among the top ten Presidents (as they also feel about Theodore Roosevelt).
Wilson hated war - he had seen the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina in 1865, probably by Sherman's Northern troops. He thought it was a great tragedy to avoid. So when war broke out in Europe in 1914, Wilson did everything in his power to keep the U.S. neutral. He might have succeeded except he was pro-Allied (especially towards Great Britain) in his feelings, and the Kaiser's government kept blundering in handling the U.S., first by an espionage campaign in American, combined with major sabotage incidents like "Black Tom" Island in 1916, then by the use of unimpeded submarine warfare against the Allies (leading to the sinking of ships like the Lusitania, and Wilson's threats of breaking off diplomatic relations), and finally the idiotic offer of an alliance to President Carranza of Mexico against the U.S., to give him back the southwest United States!. Despite winning the 1916 re-election against Charles Evans Hughes on a slogan: "He Kept Us Out Of War!", Wilson decided that we had to go to war in early 1917. he hated having to make the choice, but he saw it was inevitable.
In February 1917, after Germany decided to resume submarine warfare, Wilson broke off diplomatic relations. Then he decided to pass a bill that authorized American passenger and freight carrying vessels to be armed. It seemed a reasonable act - just short of war that Wilson still hoped to avoid, but all of sudden a group of ten Senators from both parties decided to oppose it, feeling it was too militarist a policy move. The leaders of the opposition were Progressive Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and his closest friend and ally in the Senate, George Norris of Nebraska (Tom Bosley).
Norris had a career in the Senate that lasted from 1912 to 1940, followed by a couple of terms in the House of Representatives before he resigned in 1944 due to ill-health. If one looks at the so-called sacrifice that the Senators in PROFILES IN COURAGE made, Norris is not really a good choice. He was always a forthright, reform minded legislator - he had helped (as a Congressman) to undermine the powerful Speaker of the House Joe Cannon in 1910, and had never feared doing what he felt was right. And his legacy as a statesman is impressive. The Tennessee Valley Authority, that gives electric power to the lower mid-west, was his idea and statute. He created the Norris - La Guardia Labor Arbitration Act with Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s. There were other examples.
But in 1917 he was quite an isolationist: but an understandable one. Most Americans saw the European war for what it was - a vast death trap for the combatant powers. Norris and LaFollette and Senator Vardamann and the other senators who opposed the Ship Subsidy Bill did not want American boys to die in a war that was not our business. So Norris and his friends were able to stop Wilson in his tracks - which did not endear them to Wilson, or the other pro-War figures (such as Anglophile Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts) who felt the statute was necessary. Wilson, despite his real hatred of the situation, was angry at being stymied, and made a comment referring to the "little group of willful men" who prevented a great nation from acting. Further ship sinkings made Wilson and Lodge seem right. So the public turned against the Senators. One scene in the show, which I always remembered, was of Bosley boarding a streetcar, and the car empties of everyone else on board.
It did not help in the long run. Shortly afterward German Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmermann made his stupid offer to President Carranza, and the isolationist press in the far west turned anti-German. Wilson now (still reluctantly) requested a declaration for war against Germany. On April 6, 1917 it passed both houses of Congress.
Interestingly, several pacifists still voted against the war (not Norris or LaFollette). Jeanette Rankin, a congresswoman from Wyoming, voted against the declaration of war. She was defeated for reelection as a result. She stayed in Wyoming politics, but was not elected to national office again, until 1940, when she again was elected to the House. Just in time for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and F.D.R.'s request for a declaration of war against Japan. Rankin voted against that too - and was defeated again for re-election. Well, she was consistent.
We would be in war only a year and a half, but out casualty rate of 250,000 show what we would have been losing if Wilson had not been against participating earlier (our casualties would have been on par with the other Allies). His own reaction when he heard of the Declartion passing and the cheers he heard summarizes his own agony over what had to happen: "Why are those people cheering?", Wilson asked, "Don't they realize I've just condemned their sons to death?"
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