Wilson, Bush, and History
March 11, 2003
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
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
didnt hold. The new Europe soon became something nobody had
imagined, and another world war, even worse than the first, was the
It started when Hitlers
Germany and Lenins 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, Wilsons
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).
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
thats the easy part but the kaleidoscope will be shaken
again, and in a few years we will be living in a world we wouldnt
In Shakespeares 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 doesnt follow that
war on Iraq will lead to President Bushs 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 ministers
son who presided over Princeton University, he isnt exactly a
student of history. Wilson wrote more books than Bush has read, but that
didnt make him wise. Neither man should ever have been let near a
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.