Martin Dyckman: Wilson endured the kind of opposition Obama faces today

 You’d think the Republicans would have figured out by now how to be rid of President Obama.  It would be simple: just say something nice about him, and he’d be put out of action by the shock.

He can’t catch a break from them no matter what he does. Their latest snarl blames him for Vladimir Putin’s Crimean anschluss. Why? Because Obama showed “weakness” when he didn’t bomb Syria — which most Americans opposed — and called instead on Russia and other nations to help put pressure on the Assad regime.

Note that Obama’s critics don’t blame the European Union nations, even though they have a vastly greater stake in Ukraine than we do.

The president incorporated a Republican idea, the individual mandate, in the health care reform that he hoped would be the signature achievement for him that it was for Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

The Republicans were not won over, and have devoted 25 hours a day ever since to attacking him over it.

Obama’s mistake, it appears, was to let it be known how much he wanted a health care bill.

Has any president ever been beset by so much implacable partisan opposition?

I had thought not, but that was before reading A. Scott Berg’s compelling new biography of Woodrow Wilson.

It’s titled, simply, “Wilson.”

That president’s signature achievement was to be the League of Nations, which he truly hoped would vindicate American involvement in World War I, put an end to all wars, and make the world “safe for democracy.”

His mistake, in retrospect, was to let it be known how much he wanted it.

In Paris, where he spent six months negotiating the Versailles treaty of 1919, Wilson’s ardor for the League enabled more cynical colleagues to extract unwise concessions, among them overly severe reparations from Germany and a Japanese foothold in China.

Back in Washington, even before he left, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and other Republican opponents attempted to preclude any League of Nations and then spent Wilson’s absence plotting to keep the United States out of it.

The scheme was not to defeat it “by direct frontal attack,” which Lodge did not think would work, but with “reservations” that he knew Wilson could not accept. And that is how the story eventually played out, with the defeat of the treaty.

The League would be established by 54 other nations, but without the United States it was impotent.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, then an assistant secretary of the Navy, learned that during the opening of the Paris conference the Lodge cabal “made up their mind before they knew anything about the Treaty or the League of Nations that they were going to wreck it whether their consciences demanded it or not.”

There was something about Wilson that Lodge simply despised — owing, perhaps, to their common career origins in academe — and Wilson had not completed his first term when Lodge confided to Theodore Roosevelt, “I never expected to hate anyone in politics with the hatred I feel toward Wilson.”

Those who are idealists can be off-putting to those who aren’t, and Wilson was perhaps the most thorough (and uncompromising) idealist who ever occupied the White House.

There were only two glaring exceptions: the Southern-born racial prejudices that allowed government agencies to be segregated for the first time since the Civil War, and Wilson’s petulant refusal to pardon Eugene Debs, the Socialist presidential candidate who had been imprisoned for opposing the war.

But when it came to America’s interest in that war, Wilson’s aims were entirely noble.

Without the League, he told the Paris conference, “no arrangement that you can make would either set up or steady the peace of the world.”

Ever since, Berg writes, “many have considered Woodrow Wilson’s idée fixe an idealistic pipe dream. For him, it was anything but. He did not consider the League part of a peace settlement so much as its very foundation — the chassis on which the framework of peace could sit and the future of international cooperation could advance. To act otherwise meant perpetuating the ancient feuds over the same patches of territory.”

One of history’s saddest “what-if” questions is to ask whether a League of Nations with the United States as a member could have averted World War II.

It’s impossible to know.

At least America didn’t make that mistake a second time.

The United Nations has its imperfections, but there hasn’t been another world war.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives at Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Martin Dyckman


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