Sunday, December 28, 2014

A review of PBS's “Woodrow Wilson” movie

Disclaimer: I'm not a big fan of Wilson's presidency

Before I begin this review, I should give a disclaimer that I am not a big fan of Woodrow Wilson's presidency. His domestic policy is something of a prototype for modern big-government liberalism, and I would argue that his amateurish foreign policy in handling World War One virtually guaranteed that there would be another war later. But even bumbling incompetents can be interesting, and Woodrow Wilson has one of the more interesting lives in American history. Thus, I greatly enjoyed watching this documentary, and wanted to write a review of it here.

Jefferson Davis

Early life

The documentary shows Wilson's childhood in the South, including his living through the American Civil War, where he once saw the captured Confederate president Jefferson Davis. They also talk about his interesting career as a professor, and how he was a popular teacher with his students. There is some coverage of his at-times-rocky first marriage, and his suspicious relationship with another woman, which may or may not have developed into an affair. They also talk about his early entry into politics, and his long-time rivalry with Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt

Mexican Revolution and World War One

The documentary is divided into two episodes; and the first episode covers the first part of his presidency (namely, before the war broke out), including the high instabilities from Mexico's "Great Revolution" spilling across the border - an unstable situation the Germans tried to exploit. But the second episode focuses almost entirely on the war, which the German interest in Mexico had partly caused; as they'd tried to get us involved in a war with Mexico, to keep us out of the war in Europe. Wilson's attempts to avoid the war despite the provocations reveal him as something of a linguini-spine - a characterization made by Theodore Roosevelt, albeit in different words; and he was not the sort of man you wanted at the head of wartime government.

Picture taken shortly after the Armistice of World War One,
negotiated in this railway carriage by the men shown in this photograph

Armistice and advocacy for a "League of Nations"

When the Armistice was signed in 1918, Wilson pushed his Fourteen Points, his plan for the postwar world which included building a League of Nations. Virtually everything he proposed was rejected by his other allies (mainly the British and French), but they accepted his plan for a League of Nations, only to ironically see America itself refuse to join when the Senate refused to support this; citing fears about losing the power to decide war and peace for ourselves - valid fears, I might add - and so virtually everything that Wilson proposed went up in smoke.

John Maynard Keynes, British economist

Responses to some false claims that this documentary makes

Wilson predicted there would be a Second World War when the Senate refused to allow American entry into the League of Nations that he had created, and his correct prediction of the war might seem to support his claim of causality. But a number of his critics also predicted World War Two, including the British economist John Maynard Keynes; and their causality claims were somewhat different. (source citation) Besides that (and more importantly), if we are to say A happening before B means A caused B, then why not say that the purchase of Christmas cards in the months before December 25th caused the last Christmas to happen? The proper sequence of events is there - Christmas cards were purchased before December 25th, and there's no denying this sequence. But obviously, that doesn't mean the first event caused the second - causality is a little harder to prove than that, because you also have to eliminate other explanations for the phenomenon; and Woodrow Wilson fails at this miserably.

German demonstrations against Treaty of Versailles, 1919

The true causes of the Second World War

I don't pretend to have certain knowledge about the causes of World War Two, as it is a complicated issue that defies simple explanation; but I think there are two main aspects to it. One of them is the imposition of reparations on postwar Germany, which forced them to pay back their former enemies for the damages they had caused. The punishment justification for this fails because Germany had already suffered enough (they'd lost both the war and a generation of their young manhood); and the Allied self-interest justification fails because this made the Germans angry enough to go to war again a generation later. The last thing that would have served Allied self-interest was having another war, where they lost so many people a second time. Allied self-interest would have been better-served by the prevention of World War Two.

Adolf Hitler

Woodrow Wilson deserves some of the blame for this

The other main aspect - and the one where Wilson contributed most - is in the failure to obtain an unconditional surrender from the Germans, and change their system of government enough to make a second war less likely. It's true that there was a constitutional democracy of sorts created in postwar Germany (today called the "Weimar Republic"); but by 1933, it had unraveled enough to permit the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. While I don't think anything would have made prevention of Hitler's rise to power absolutely certain - I acknowledge the issue is more complicated than that - I think an unconditional surrender from the Germans would have permitted a more supervised transition to democracy, which would have made it less likely for the Germans to put a demagogue like Hitler into power. On this aspect of the Allied failure, Wilson is especially responsible; and I think he was probably incapable of knowing the right thing to do to prevent this outcome. He'd spent too long in academia, and lost touch with the real world.

First meeting of the League of Nations, 1920

This documentary has at least the virtue of being interesting

The documentary puts forth Wilson's own causality claims for World War Two, with the American refusal to join the League of Nations being the chief explanation used; but despite this faulty causality the documentary puts forward, one can learn a lot about Wilson and World War One by watching this documentary. While I don't agree with much that liberals have to say about the subject, I think it is often helpful to hear their side of things, if only to know better how to argue against them; and this documentary has at least the virtue of being interesting.

Conclusion: This film is an interesting presentation of an interesting life

With the wealth of real photographs and footage that they use - not to mention sound re-enactments to make the otherwise silent footage more interesting - one gets a much more realistic view of the visual aspects of Mr. Wilson's life, and this documentary has enough length to it (about three hours) to allow a very in-depth examination of Woodrow Wilson. I won't vouch for all the documentary's conclusions - they're usually just as wrong on Wilson's domestic policies as they are on World War One - but it is an interesting presentation of an interesting life, and one that belongs on the shelf of anyone who's interested in World War One. Highly recommended to others interested in Wilson's life.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Theodore Roosevelt movie

Mexican Revolution 1910 program

World War One miniseries

Yes, Woodrow Wilson predicted World War II - but so did J. M. Keynes

Available on YouTube
(see below)

Part of a series about
The Presidents

George Washington 1789-1797
John Adams 1797-1801
Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
James Madison 1809-1817
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829
Andrew Jackson 1829-1837
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909
Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945
Harry Truman 1945-1953
Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969
Richard Nixon 1969-1974
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
Ronald Reagan 1981-1989
George H. W. Bush 1989-1993
Bill Clinton 1993-2001

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