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 Wilson, Bush, and History 

March 11, 2003

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 exam.

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).

[Breaker quote: The unimaginable future]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 place.

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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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