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How perceptions of presidents might have been different

Oh, the joys of counterfactual history:

“Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, inserted the United States into World War I. That was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that ended the war would not likely have been so lopsided. The Versailles Treaty’s punitive terms on Germany, as Keynes predicted in 1919, helped set the stage for World War II. So it is reasonable to think that had the United States not entered World War I, there might not have been a World War II. Yet, despite his major blunder and more likely, because of his major blunder, which caused over 100,000 Americans to die in World War I, Wilson is often thought of as a great president.”

“The danger is that modern presidents understand these incentives. Those who want peace should take historians’ ratings of presidents seriously. Beyond that, we should stop celebrating, and try to persuade historians to stop celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn’t happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted. If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.”

Thanks to EconLog for the link.

Of course – and this is going to get debate going – if the US had not entered WW1, how do we really know what would or would not have happened several years hence? What configuration of forces and political developments would have arisen? There is simply no way anyone can know for sure.

29 comments to How perceptions of presidents might have been different

  • Laird

    You’re right, there is no way of knowing what would have happened had the US not entered WWI. But to hazard a guess, the relative parity of the warring factions (absent US presence) suggests that the eventual peace treaty would not have been as punitive to the losers and would, in fact, have been an actual treaty and not merely an armistice. The likelihood of preventing WWII seems (to me) substantial.

    Wilson was elected largely on the strength of his promise to keep the US out of the European war. (His 1916 re-election campaign was centered around the phrase “He kept us out of war”.) He lied. Once he had managed to engineer our entry he forceably suppressed any anti-war sentiments. He was President when the US implemented the modern income tax, and presided over the creation of the Federal Reserve. He pushed through some massive expansions of the federal government (the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, etc.) He instituted the first draft since the Civil War. He was a passionate advocate of the ridiculous League of Nations (fortunately, the Senate kept us out of that, although the idea resurfaced in the form of the worthless United Nations which haunts us to this day). And he was grossly and overtly racist, keeping blacks out of government and segregating them in the military.

    In my opinion Wilson was one of the worst presidents of the 20th century (yes, that’s saying a lot), and one of the unsung villains (did I just invent that phrase?) of our history.

    I can’t wait to read what Paul Marks has to say about him.

  • Laird

    Aargh! Smited over a diatribe against Woodrow Wilson! Is the Smitebot a closet Wilsonian?

    My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine.

  • Simon Jester

    If anything, my impression was that the US was actually least keen on punitive measures being taken against Germany. Versailles without the USA might have been far harsher.

    On the other hand, I’ve always thought it was the fact that much of Germany was convinced that it hadn’t been properly defeated in the First World War that lead directly to the Second, rather than the harshness of the reparations (which they mostly didn’t pay). The absence of the USA among the Allies might have reduced German willingness for an armistice, with the eventual result of a clear and decisive military defeat – and no “stab-in-the-back” myth.


  • the last toryboy

    The Germans would have starved to death in 1919. Even as it was a million Germans died in 1919 due to the Entente blockade. Also, Entente improvement in tactics and equipment were, by 1918, able to break trench lines. See the Battle of Amiens. And finally, while all sides were scraping the bottom of the barrel by 1918 the Germans seemed to be rather worse off based on what actually happened.

    American involvement in the war was mainly psychological it seems to me, ie the Germans knew that there was simply no hope, none whatsoever, when the US became involved, while they might still have entertained the notion of holding out against an Entente without America. I suppose the real question is, would the Spring Offensive have happened without the US being in the war. I can’t really see why not.

    Also the Treaty of Versailles was not lopsided. It was neither punitive enough nor lenient enough, but in an unhappy place in the middle. Look at what happened in 1945 – dismemberment, Four Power occupation, partition for 50 years – /that/ is a punitive conclusion to a war. One which makes the victim emphatically unable to wage war ever again. The Germans got off light after WW1. Versailles was punitive enough to annoy the Germans but not punitive enough to stop them from waging another war.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    On the other hand, without Wilson we wouldn’t have Clemenceau’s “God gave us ten commandments: we broke them. Mr. Wilson has given us fourteen points; we shall see.”

    That’s got to be worth something.

  • Alsadius

    Why would Versailles have been less punitive without America at the table? Wasn’t it mostly the French who were pushing the Carthage solution, and the Americans were the strongest voices of moderation?

    I have no love for Wilson, but this seems a false criticism.

  • TDK

    The Americans, reluctant to get involved in Europe, had already started a retreat into isolation by the time of Versailles. It’s hard to imagine that the treaty was more punitive with their involvement.

    Against that, Wilson was an advocate of the Nationalist ideal of one people (nation) per state and arguably this was a contributing factor to both start of the second world war and the failure of the small states to put up any substantial resistance to German expansion.

  • You know, Obama’s divide-and-conquer style of government is really creating civil “wars” all across the country.
    We still have the “War on Drugs.”
    Then came the “War against Poverty”
    “The Class Warfare”
    “The War on Women”
    and then he obviously attempted to begin a “racial war” in the tragic Trayvor case in FL, before knowing the facts.

    President Obama is doing everything he can to divide this country before the election so he can make a new version of his empty 2008 “change” rally. *sigh*

  • The authors should have explained how the US could have easily avoided World War I. It’s not all that obvious to me how after the Germans initiated unrestricted submarine warfare. Short of, of course, simply ending all trade with belligerents.

    As the Versailles treaty: an alternate reading of history might be that the terms of the peace were far too light, rather than too harsh. In 1918, the German army was defeated in France. A generation later, it came back for more. In 1945, the German army was destroyed in Germany, along with much of that country, and Germany has been peaceful ever since. World War II knocked imperialist ambitions out of German culture in a way that World War I did not.

  • Ben

    If historians’ ratings are to be taken seriously, a dangerous incentive will be created for them to be slanted.

    It’s only their irrellevance which gives any assurance of honesty.

  • RRS

    The assumption may have been reached too quickly, but the gist of the paper seemed to be that one should not read works of history for the judgments of their writers, but for content and comparisons.

    Jacques Barzun, on being identified as a “Teacher of History,” demurred with something to the effect that History is read, not taught.

    History is not taught, it teaches. Meager though our learning be.

    Incidentally, there is a neat interview of Dr. Henderson on Stephenhicks.org (about a month back but still up.

  • I think the point about Versailles is that without US involvement in WWI, any peace treaty would be between two sides that had pretty much fought each other to a standstill and neither side would be in a position to impose swingeing terms on the other.

    Whether such a result would have led to a longer period of peace before the next eruption of European hostilities is arguable. Personally, I think it unlikely, especially considering the big red bear in the east, which would possibly be tempted to start picking at the scraps in fairly short order.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Hold on. Without US involvement, would the front have descended into a standstill? Or would the ‘Allies’ have managed to push through?

    IIRC, Russia was out of the war with its revolution. Germany was free to swing their armies on that front to France. Without the overwhelming counter of the US, what would have been the effect of that? Without American troops, would the Allied counteroffensive in 1918 be as effective?

    A standstill and subsequent exhaustion would likely have led to a more equitable armistice between the warring parties. But if one side managed to gain enough momentum to steam-roll the other, then the resulting treaty would have likely to be VERY punitive, without some level of US intervention.

  • veryretired

    It is a mistake to attempt to deal with the wars of the 20th century as if they are discrete entities, instead of inter-connected phases of an ongoing conflict.

    WW1 was the suicidal implosion of the aristocratic social structures that had governed Europe, and much of the world at one time or another, as the inheritors of the Holy Roman Empire.

    The fall of the eagles opened the door for experimentation with the theoretical ideologies that had been promulgated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, democratic socialism, fascism, and marxism.

    WW2 was the closing battle of the centuries long European civil war, and was probably unavoidable once the world-wide depression had descended on and badly damaged the economies of the nations which later found rejuvenation and renewal in aggressive, despotic militarism.

    Wilson was a thoroughly despicable person who wandered the country into a pointless military engagement, the ensuing distaste for which severely handicapped the US from recognizing and preparing for the next phase of the conflict.

    Autocratic government is a form of gang warfare, both internally and externally. They can no more stop themselves from fighting than the prohibition gangs in Chicago, or the modern drug gangs around the world, can keep from jostling against one another, and killing anyone that seems to be in their way.

    The US has been repeatedly engaged in conflicts along the fault lines left behind by the collapse of the great world empires, starting with the Spanish, and continuing down through the decades to the current day.

    Warfare is the result of the tectonic movement of cultures and civilizations across the globe. The tensions build over long periods of time, awaiting the slippage of the human fault lines known as intellectuals, and their political acolytes who are foolish enough, and power-mad enough, to attempt to put their theories into practice.

    Beneficial outcomes are the extreme exceptions, and cataclysmic death and destruction the norm.

    We are all sitting on the political and social equivalent of the Yellowstone supervolcano right now, but instead of impersonal natural forces, it is human greed and stupidity that hold us hostage.

    Only an adamant committment to human dignity as expressed by respect for individual rights and liberties can cork the coming eruption.

  • David Crawford

    Calvin Coolidge. Gosh, to ever have a man as wise as him in the White House again. Unfortunately we probably will never see the likes of him ever again.

    If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.

    More quotes from Silent Cal.

  • Ed Snack

    Well, FWIW, without US entry into the war in 1917, then I suspect that there would indeed have been a different treaty, a very one-sided treaty imposed by Germany that gained large chunks of France, with Great Britain settling for the preservation of empire and little else.

    The great 1918 offensive by Germany would likely have succeeded, and even if only resulting in a stalemate, would have led to a psychological dominance. What loomed large in German minds once the offensive became bogged down is that the were a million Americans in France waiting to take the offensive. Without that the Germans would have been more inclined to push on, much less likely that their troops would start rebelling, and I don’t think that French morale could have stood, and political will in Great Britain was lacking, perhaps only Haig truly believed that the allies could win in early 1918, and he had no political power base at all.

    So Wilson’s decision to enter the war was, IMHO, critical. The severity of the Versailles treaty was largely down to the Grench, and Foch in particular. Haig for example wanted a much less punitive document.

    Wilson was a deluded idealist, but I believe that his strategic judgement that the US needed to join the war to enable it to be won was correct.

  • Kim du Toit

    What a load of revisionist bollocks. Wilson didn’t “insert” the U.S. into WWI; the Kaiser was actively conspiring to bring Mexico in on the side of the Germans (ref: Zimmerman telegram), and that, coupled with the unrestricted warfare program, is what caused Congress to bring the U.S. into the war.

    One of the principal reasons why the Germans sued for peace in 1918 was not that they were being defeated — even though they were retreating — it was the fact that they were facing certain defeat, as the U.S. was prepared to send up to ten million soldiers and an uncountable number of aircraft into the fray, and the German generals knew that the outcome was inevitable.

    The German civilian population’s high death toll in 1919 was not from starvation, but from Spanish flu. That’s not to say that the blockade was not causing untold hardship to the Germans, of course, but let’s at least grant a few facts to the argument.

    Another fact: Wilson was appalled at the severity of the surrender terms of Versailles — read his own letters for proof — and he did all he could to try to ameliorate them. But the French and British were (quite understandably) in no mood to adopt a live and let live attitude.

    Those who want peace should take historians’ ratings of presidents seriously.”

    More arrant bullshit. When “historians” include the likes of lefties Eric Hobsbawm, Simon Schama and AJP Taylor — and their lefty outloook is the norm in the current historiandom, not the exception — then why should we take any historians’ ratings seriously? And which historians should we believe? I suspect that presidential ratings from, say, Victor Davis Hanson, Paul Johnson and John Keegan would look remarkably different from the ratings given by the first three, and yet I’d take VDH, PJ and JK as being far more balanced and, oh, more factual in their opinions. (A historian’s ranking position of a single president — Franklin D. Roosevelt — would tell you all you needed to know about his political posture.)

    But heaven forbid that historians should let facts get in the way of their opinions.

  • RickC

    Kim du Toit,

    Knowing Dr. Henderson’s writings I believe you are arguing with a typo re that last sentence. It probably reads, “Those who want peace should [not] take historians’ ratings of presidents seriously.” 😉

  • Laird

    It is indisputable that Wilson ran for re-election on an explicit campaign of keeping the US out of the war. He lied; I believe it was always his intention to drag us into it. The American people had no appetite for war, and no dog in that fight; it was not a “war against evil” the way WWII was. The “peace movement” of the time was very strong. (A popular song in 1914 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”. Check it out here. I have a copy of the original 78 RPM record.) Wilson and his minions had to demonize the peace movement, resort to overt propaganda and repress any dissent, to get Congress to go along. (They even wrote a song to counter the one I mentioned above, called “I’d Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier”. It was never popular; try to find a recording.)

    Even if the Kaiser were negotiating with Mexico to enter the war, so what? It was unlikely to happen, and wouldn’t have affected us anyway had we remained neutral.

    And the Germans would not have agreed to such onerous peace terms had the US not entered the war. Our entry did indeed ensure their “certain defeat”, and without it the terms of the peace treaty would likely have been substantially more equitable. I don’t dispute that Wilson was opposed to those draconian terms, but it was his action in dragging the US into the war which made them possible.

  • lucklucky

    “The Versailles Treaty’s punitive terms on Germany, as Keynes predicted in 1919, helped set the stage for World War II. ”

    Pffft. What made possible the WW2 was Pacifism.
    There is no other reason for the French army’s paralysis while Poland and Czechs were being eaten by Germany

  • Kim du Toit

    Lucklucky has the truth of it, although I would suggest that by the time it was Czechoslvakia’s turn for Nazi occupation, the game was already up.

    A single brigade of French and/or British troops sent to counter Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and it would have been Game Over for Der Fuehrer.

    But pacifism coupled with cowardice won the day; Daladier et al. and Baldwin/Chamberlain were in thrall to the paciifists, so WWII (a.k.a. The Fruits OF Appeasement) became inevitable.

    Laird, perhaps Wilson was intending to drag the U.S. into WWI as you say (and that’s by no means a settled matter all by itself), but never forget that without the support of Congress, the U.S. wouldn’t have sent a single soldier Over There. Also, don’t forget that pacifism in 1914-17 America was also supported by worthies such as Samuel Gompers’s socialists and the pro-Kaiser Deutsche Bund. Wilson may well have “demonized” the pacifists as a cheap political move, but that doesn’t mean that there were no demons in the movement.

  • Paul Marks

    Woodrow Wilson (like Richard Ely and other American “Progressives”) had a strange love-hate relationship with Germany.

    Like so many of the American elite he spent time there are was educated in Germanic collectivism in his university years.

    However, he thought the old Kingdoms and Grand Dutchies and Free Cities of the German Empire absurdly outdated – that humanity had “evolved” past these things.

    Of course the Germans who ceated the Third Empire (the Germany of Wilson’s day being the Second) agreed with Wilson on these matters.

    Who is right in the debate between Kim de Toit and Laird?

    They are both right.

    Wilson did want war – after all America could hardly replace Imperial Germany as the model for world Progressivism if Imperial Germany still existed.

    However, the German government actively provoked war (thus putting the opposition to people like Wilson and Richard Ely in an impossible position).

    The German government declared war on Russia when they knew Nicky II had no intention of declaring war on them (their motive was that they knew Russia would get stronger in future years, if it was allowed to do so, so the jumped on Nicky’s gesture of mobilization in the face of the attack upon Serbia).

    The German government actually faked an attack by France – in order to have an excuse to attack France in 1914 (again they knew if they waited France would grow stronger militarily in future years).

    And, yes, Germany followed a practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, and plotting with various Mexican leaders – policies that played into the hands of Wilson.

    Had the German government followed more sensible (and more moral) policies the hand of Wilson’s foes (both Republicans and Democrats – for both parties were split into pro and anti war factions) would have been much stronger.

    Would Germany have won the war without American intervention.

    I suspect “yes” is the best guess.

    And, sadly, German actions would most likely have been very bad (see above – and also remember it was the Germans who sent “Lenin” into Russia and bankrolled his movement to destroy Russia).

    However, the actual outcome of the war was even worse.

    For example, Imperial Germany was just using “Lenin” – had they won the war, they would have been very unlikely to leave this rabid dog (and his demented Comrades) in power.

  • Paul Marks

    And if the allies had, somehow, managed to win the war without American intervention?

    Well Wilson was a Progressive (and water is wet) – he hated ideas like restoring an independent Kingdom of Bavaria (and so on).

    But people like General Foch were not Progressives.

    So Germany might well have been broken up.

  • John K


    For once, I disagree with you. I think Britain and France would have won the Great War without the USA’s participation. The fact is that by 1918 Germany was pretty well finished at home. The allied naval blockade had succeeded very well, and the British Army’s breakthrough on the western front was rolling the Germans up. The war was over. This is not to say that the American entry into the war didn’t boost allied morale, and depress that of the Germans, and the Americans of course provided manpower. However, their troops were raw, and suffered heavy losses because Pershing was too arrogant to listen to British and French advice, and the Americans provided little in the way of materiel, although that would have changed in 1919.

    What might have been different is that without America, maybe the Germans would have been tempted to try and hold out longer. This would have resulted in the Allies entering Germany proper and knocking them out once and for all. The British Army of 1918, the finest we have ever fielded, was well up for it. There would have been no stab in the back myth then, Germany’s defeat would have been total, and maybe the frustrated Austrian artist would never have been able to begin his rabble rousing career.

    On a more positive note, we can certainly agree that Woodrow Wilson was a shit of the first order.

  • Paul Marks

    John K.

    After Russia was knocked out of the war (thanks to “Lenin” with his German support) the farming and other natural resources of the Russian Empire lay open to the Germans.

    “Lenin” was indifferent to how many Russians starved to death, so he made no real objection to German occupation of wide areas and massive tranfer of food and so on to Germany.

    The Royal Navy blockaid was hitting hard – but it really super hard AFTER Germany was forced to stop fighting (the large scale civilian deaths in Germany happened after the end of the fighting – one reason the Germans hated us so much, they hated us because the Royal Navy action continuned after the Imperial German Armed Forces stopped fighting).

    Why did they stop fighting – why did they also pull out from the East?

    Why did German fighting spirit collapse – at home and at the front?

    Why was General L. found laying on the floor frothing at the mouth?

    What was in his hand?

    The intelligence reports on the strength of AMERICAN forces.

    Two million men already in Europe by the end of 1918 (the Germans had managed to kill over a hundred thousands of them in only a few months – but that was like a “few leaves in a forest”) and another TWELVE MILLION training at home.

    The French and British armed forces were very strong by 1918 (thanks partly to the failure of German “War Socialism” in German military production – and partly due to the financial loans organized by the Morgans for Britain and France).

    But it was the AMERICAN factor that really pushed the German High Command into despair.

    And the despair at the top, went right down to the rank and file.

    Everyone knew the “Americans were comming” (indeed vast numbers of Americans were already there) – it was all hopeless now.

    Operation M. was the last desperate to win the war before the Americans could get to the front.

    But if failed – only just, but it failed.

    Even Storm Troops (in their leather jackets and so on) could not break through to Paris, or cut the allied armies in two (although they came close).

    The air was filled with allied aircraft, and the land was weighted down with allied tanks.

    But why did the Germans attack at all?

    Why did they not just sit in their Western positions (occupying lots of northern France, Belgium and Lux) – and exploit the East?

    They attacked because they had to attack – even though Germans had to climb over piles of their own dead during the offensive.

    And they had to attack – because they knew “the Americans are comming”.

    It was now or never – but only now or never because of their own government’s folly in playing into Woodrow Wilson’s hands.

    “No Paul – the British and French could have broken through the German defences even if the Germans had not spent their strength in the 1918 offensives”.

    Well I do not agree with you John – but you may be correct.

    Which is why I put in my comment above.

    Had Britain and France won the war without American intervention then peace terms would have been dominated by France.

    Contrary to what British history books imply – it was the French (not the British) who were in command on the Western Front in 1918.

    And Foch and the others would have broken up Germany (whatever Haig and co wanted to do – or the British politicians back in London).

    Actually the French policy might well have been the correct one.

    So perhaps (if you are correct about Britain and France being able to win without American intervention) the intervention of the Americans was a very bad thing.

  • John K


    I am sure that the prospect of American intervention was very bad for German morale, even though the bulk of that intervention was not due until 1919. Nonetheless, the 1918 victory was largely won by Britain and France, and mostly by Britain. Although Germany had won in the east, I doubt that they would have been quickly able to exploit the capacity of the Ukraine to produce food, and they would still have had to garrison the east, even though some troops would have been released to the western front.

    I remember seeing a TV interview with a Great War veteran a few years ago, who said that morale was high as they pushed the Germans back, and they wanted to finish the job off once and for all. The Armistice put paid to that. As you say, freed of Wilson’s progressive morality, France and Britain may well have decided to return the new state of Germany to its constituent parts, which would have made it much harder for malcontents like Hitler to have got up to no good.

  • Paul Marks

    Operation Michael – the desperate series of German offensives in 1918, would they have been launched if the Americas had not been comming?

    These offensives (and their failure) did massive harm to the German army.

    Harm that would not have happened had they remained in behind their defences.

    However, you are right about Wilson’s “Progressive morality” the key word being “Progressive” of course.

    Woodrow Wilson was not particuarly concerned with German suffering (or with the suffering of any human beings – come to that).

    But a broken up Germany?

    A restored Kingdom of Bavaria and so on?

    That would be a reactionary nightmare to someone like Wilson – not what he wanted at all.

    By the way – Pershing (the American military commander) agreed with the French that Germany must be crushed – or there would be a terrible war in the future.

    But Wilson did not want a strong independent France (any more that “FDR” did – De Gaulle was right to distrust him), still less did Wilson want a France that was in control of the the land on the west bank of the Rhine.

    And the British commander?

    What do you think?

    Do you think that Haig wanted to honour the incredible sacrifices his men had made over four years (with hundreds of thousand of them dying) by actually achieveing true victory?

    Of course he did not.

    He had no more political sense than he had military sense (his military sense was shown at the Battle of Loos in 1915 – and Haig’s moral sense was shown by the skillful way he managed to get Sir John French blamed for his, Haig’s, own mistakes).

    Haig was in favour of cutting a deal with the Germans (even the ragtag socialist government that had taken power) and ending the war without real victory.

    So much for a million British dead.

    And for the one million seven hundred thousand French dead.

    And the more than one hundred thousand American dead.

    And (yes) the one million eight hundred thousand German dead.

    And the millions of Russians.

    And the vast numbers of Italians.

    Of Romanians.

    Of Bulgarians.

    Of Belgiums.

    Of Turks and others.

    Of Serbs.


    They died for a “20 year truce”.

    Foch called it “treason”.

    But with the British and Americans in alliance he could do nothing .

  • staghounds

    What is this “equitable ” nonsense? Germany made the war, the treaty SHOULD have been punitive.

    In fact it was if anything not punitive and militarily weakening enough. Still it probably would have prevented a second war if the British and French had enforced it.

    And Laird is VERY generous to the slug Wilson, who brought the United States into war for reasons of pure ego.

  • John K


    An interesting point about Operation Michael, whether the Germans would have tried for a breakthrough if the USA had not been in the war. As it is, I do think that the British Army of 1918 would have broken the German defences come what may, the advances they had made in the use of tanks, aircraft and creeping barrages were considerable, and the army we fielded in 1918 was the strongest and best we ever had. As for Haig, it’s a bit harsh to blame him for the mistakes of Loos in 1915 without acknowledging the huge strides made in the next three years. The current British Army, which still seems baffled by IEDs and sends men out to die in unsuitable vehicles, does not lead me to believe that we are better now than we were then.