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Essay Argues that Woodrow Wilson's World War I Policies Were Influenced by Memory of Reconstruction

Discussion in 'Post Civil War History, The Reconstruction Period' started by Pat Young, May 19, 2017.

  1. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    In the new book Remembering Reconstruction:Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era Edited by Carole Emberton et al LSU Press (2017) there is an essay “A Bitter Memory Upon Which Terms of Peace Would Rest” Woodrow Wilson, the Reconstruction of the South, and the Reconstruction of Europe by SAMUEL L. SCHAFFER. The essay argues that Woodrow Wilson's memory of Reconstruction as a boy and young man and his study of it as a scholar influenced his approach to the post-World War I settlement for the defeated states of Europe.

    Wilson was born in 1856 and he experienced the war as a child, seeing Jeff Davis after he was captured by Union troops, having wounded Confederates cared for at his father's church, and seeing Robert Lee.

    As a Southern Progressive, he saw the war's outcome as difficult, but holding long-term promise. By setting aside slavery and the old agrarian oligarchy, it allowed the South to construct a more modern society. In casting aside the doctrine of states' rights, it allowed the South to join the national community. Wilson believed, however, that Federal Reconstruction policies seriously handicapped the rebuilding of the South. He hoped that after World War I the Western powers would avoid the pitfalls of American Reconstruction.
     
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  3. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Wilson wrote in his 1902 textbook A History of the American People, that “the corruption and destruction” of southern society, “a reign of ignorance, a regime of power basely used,. . . [a] burden and [a] nightmare.”

    Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era (Kindle Locations 4292-4294). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.
     
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  4. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Schaffer writes that:

    The reasons for Reconstruction’s failure were clear to Wilson. First of all, it had been discharged under vengeful circumstances. The passions of the Civil War, he wrote in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly, had brought “the dangerous intoxication of an absolute triumph upon the side that won” and “the bitterness of death upon the side which lost.” Victorious Republicans...viewed southern states as conquered territories. These Radical Republicans did not know the South, nor did they care about it. Their goal, Wilson concluded, was “not the rehabilitation of the southern governments.” Rather, it was to punish the South, to enfranchise the Negro, and to establish permanently their own political power. They were, he concluded, “bent upon bringing the South to utter humiliation." Second, Wilson argued, Reconstruction was a political and racial revolution—and not of the good sort. In his mind, the wrong people had been placed in power. Encouraged and protected by federal troops, white Republicans and their black allies replaced white southern Democrats in the polling booths and in offices of power. “The most influential white men were excluded from voting,” Wilson lamented in his textbook Division and Reunion, “while the negroes were all admitted to enrollment.” This was a problem, he asserted, because blacks—“a race so recently slaves”—were “unfit to exercise their new liberty.” They were, in his words, “a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.” As a result, “unscrupulous adventurers” swarmed south, set up shop as politicians, politicians, duped these “ignorant” Negro voters to elect them, and oversaw the “ruin of the South.” The result was moral and political chaos, Wilson argued, a social order turned upside down. Reconstruction was, simply put, a “perfect work of fear, demoralization, disgust, and social revolution.” The end of Reconstruction, according to Wilson, came about only when the right political and racial order was restored: white southerners in charge, Yankee Republican carpetbaggers banished, and blacks returned to the fields. This happened, Wilson wrote in Division and Reunion, when newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes “very wisely ordered the removal of the federal troops from the South,” enabling a “concerted effort by the whites of the South to shut the Negro out.” Sometimes this happened by hook and by crook. At others, by noose and firebrand. But while Wilson regretted the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, its members had simply been, he explained, “aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation.” And the benefits were incontrovertible: the removal of the “incubus of that ignorant and hostile vote” allowed the “natural, inevitable ascendency of the whites, the responsible class.”

    Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era (Kindle Locations 4298-4323). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.
     
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  5. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Wilson hoped that the war in Europe could reach a negotiated settlement before one side or the other won a decisive victory. He said:

    “Upon a triumph which overwhelms and humiliates cannot be laid the foundations of peace and equality and good will. An irreparable damage to civilization cannot promote peace.”

    Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era (Kindle Locations 4384-4386). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.
     
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  6. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Schaffer says that while Wilson's "No Victors/No Vanquished" approach is often written off as pure idealism, it was grounded in his experience of Reconstruction. According to Schaffer:

    He was speaking from experience, and his language reveals as much. “Humiliation”. . . “resentment”. . . “one nation forcing its will upon the other”. . . “irreparable damage to civilization”—these were the exact same terms he had used to describe the results when avenging Radical Republicans had descended on a conquered South. Words were important to Wilson—he had made a living skillfully wielding them—and he used the same language to describe what might happen in the European aftermath as he had to describe what did happen in the reconstruction of the American South. Taken in this light, Wilson’s famous speech calling for a “peace without victory” seems practically lifted from his History of the American People’s description of Reconstruction.

    Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era (Kindle Locations 4393-4396). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.

    Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era (Kindle Locations 4390-4393). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.
     
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  7. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    After the war, when Wilson went to Europe to help negotiate the Versailles Treaty, he told the other leaders that “I was born in a conquered and devastated country...That has helped me, believe it, to understand the questions which are asked here.”

    Interestingly, the French leader Clemenceau had been in the United States during Reconstruction working as a journalist.

    Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era (Kindle Location 4477). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.
     
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  8. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail Sergeant Major

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    All of Wilson's policies, foreign or domestic, were influenced by his formative years in the Reconstruction South.

    Wilson's is perhaps the most tragic presidential story of all.
     
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  9. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Schaffer says that while there were any factors that influenced Wilson's policies during World War I and during treaty negotiations, one clear factor was Reconstruction and its outcomes as he perceived them.

    The essay gave me a lot to think about.
     
  10. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail Sergeant Major

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    Well, I don't doubt that Schaffer is correct that Reconstruction influenced Wilson in his thinking on how post-WWI Europe should be organized.

    I merely note that it also affected his thinking on subjects like domestic race relations, labor policy, railroads, banking, etc...
     
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  11. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Oh, sorry, I wasn't directing that at you.
     
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  12. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail Sergeant Major

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    No harm, no foul, my brother.
     
  13. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    That was a pulled over at a reststop post on my phone!
     

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