Wilson, Bush, and History
March 11, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     I had a history minor in college, so listen up. I 
know what it is to stay awake long nights boning up on 
why World War I started -- the world war nobody talks 
about -- and to remember the facts long enough to pass an 

     In a nutshell, some archduke got shot in Serbia, and 
the next thing you knew the French and Germans were 
slaughtering each other. The English jumped in on the 
French side. So did the Russians.

     Americans wanted no part of this, until Woodrow 
Wilson decided that although war was bad, a "war to end 
all war" and "to make the world safe for democracy" would 
be okay. So the United States got a piece of the action 
and Germany was defeated. Wilson went to Europe to seal 
the victory and ensure democracy and self-determination 
for all nations, some of which had to be invented for the 
purpose. So the map of Europe was redrawn. Seemed like a 
good idea at the time.

     But out of the rubble crawled new leaders like 
Hitler and Lenin, and the Versailles settlement didn't 
hold. The new Europe soon became something nobody had 
imagined, and another world war, even worse than the 
first, was the result.

     It started when Hitler's Germany and Lenin's Russia, 
now owned by Joe Stalin, invaded Poland. Right-thinking 
people declared war on Germany, but not on Russia, and 
when the shooting finally stopped, they awarded Poland to 
Stalin. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Franklin 
Roosevelt, Wilson's disciple, thought the United States 
and Russia could jointly ensure a just and lasting peace. 
That peace lasted a few minutes. The United States faced 
a greater danger from a nuclear-armed Russia than it had 
ever faced from Germany (or Japan).

     Once again, the postwar world was something nobody 
predicted, because, as before, nobody could even have 
imagined it.

     History is a lot like the toy kaleidoscopes we used 
to buy at the dime store. Shake it a little, and you get 
a new pattern -- nothing mysterious, but impossible to 
predict. In retrospect it always seems clear, but nobody 
knows what the next pattern will be.

     Today, partly as a result of the 1991 Gulf War, we 
are in another situation nobody could imagine a few years 
ago. As usual, our rulers think another war will produce 
the desired results, such as democracy all over the 

     Wherever they get this idea, it is not, shall we 
say, from an inductive study of history. They are about 
to plunge into another situation nobody can safely 
predict, let alone imagine. If the United States attacks 
Iraq, it will no doubt win -- that's the easy part -- but 
the kaleidoscope will be shaken again, and in a few years 
we will be living in a world we wouldn't recognize today.

     In Shakespeare's most famous play, Prince Hamlet 
learns that his uncle has murdered his father. He thinks 
he can "set it right" by killing his uncle and avenging 
his father. But when he finally resorts to violence, 
everything goes wrong, and the kingdom of Denmark falls 
to its enemy, Norway. Hamlet gets his revenge, which he 
feels is fully justified, but it comes at a cost he has 
failed to foresee. Events have spun out of his control.

     Men usually feel justified in starting wars. But 
even if they originally have justice on their side, war 
itself produces chaos and totally unexpected results that 
confound their plans. No matter how bad Saddam Hussein 
is, it doesn't follow that war on Iraq will lead to 
President Bush's dream of democracy spreading 
contagiously through the Middle East. History has never 
yet worked like that.

     Like Wilson, Bush is a moralistic Protestant who 
feels he has a divine mission to change the world. Bush 
too is a product of the Ivy League, though unlike Wilson, 
a minister's son who presided over Princeton University, 
he isn't exactly a student of history. Wilson wrote more 
books than Bush has read, but that didn't make him wise. 
Neither man should ever have been let near a Bible.

     In fact Bush may be about to do for the twenty-first 
century what Wilson did for the twentieth. The two men 
seem pretty evenly matched in hubris. Bush has evidently 
exchanged the intoxication of liquor for the intoxication 
of power.


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