Monday, February 23, 2009

Wilson's Return to the United States

Ninety years ago today, Woodrow Wilson arrived aboard the George Washington at Boston. There are some wonderful photographs of Wilson's four voyages on the GW at:

Wow! If anything about the whole picture of 1919 impresses upon us the differentness of that time from our own, I nominate Wilson's whole course of action relating to the Peace Conference.

This President left the United States for the Peace Conference quite early, on December 4, only a few weeks after the War ended. He arrived in France nine days later but toured France, Italy, and Britain for nearly a month. Then to Paris for the Conference opening. Then, worried about affairs at home, especially rumblings about Wilson's plans for the Peace, he headed home and arrived in the United States on February 23. He left again eleven days later, on March 6, arriving in France on March 14. The Versailles Treaty signed, he left for the United States on June 29, 1919, reaching New York on July 8. He had been out of the country for six months all told.

Originally, his plan was to have someone else represent the United States, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing was indeed named head of the U. S. Delegation. But Lansing's resistance to making the League of Nations the centerpiece of the peacemaking caused a rift which widened during the Conference.

Indeed, numerous rifts emerged between Wilson and those close to him in this period. Even as we speak, ninety years ago, trouble is brewing between Wilson and his "alter ego," Colonel House. Much more on that later.

Actually, from the 1960s there has been a running debate on the nature of Wilson's personality and his health, some scholars contending that serious neuroses influenced the increasingly inflexible Wilson, some contending that a series of strokes really did the same thing. The debate is much more complicated, and from any point of view, fascinating. It is also quite redolent of facts about Wilson, his milieu, etc. Some hefty disagreements emerged in the eighties in this debate, with some historical heavyweights weighing in, including Arthur Link, editor of the Woodrow Wilson Papers. (An excellent summary of the various stages of the debate to 1983 is in an article by Jerrold M. Post, "Woodrow Wilson Re-Examined: The Mind-Body Controversy Redux and Other Disputations," Political Psychology 4, No. 2 (June 1983): 289-306.)

One conclusion to be drawn about Wilson is that neither mental nor physical health was robust by the end of the war. Indeed, his natural inflexibility seems to have reached a zenith at the time of the Conference.

Be that as it may, it is difficult to imagine any modern President being gone for any extended period, much less six months. Next time we touch on this issue: "Who was in charge back home?"

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