[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [Jhistory]: Glende on Startt, 'Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, and the Fourth Estate'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Oct 23 15:57:12 MDT 2018

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 5:55 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [Jhistory]: Glende on Startt, 'Woodrow Wilson, the
Great War, and the Fourth Estate'
To: <H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org>

James D. Startt.  Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, and the Fourth
Estate.  College Station  Texas A&M University Press, 2017.  416
pp.  $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62349-531-2.

Reviewed by Philip Glende (Indiana State University)
Published on Jhistory (October, 2018)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Glende on Startt, _Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, and the Fourth

In _Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, and the Fourth Estate, _James D.
Startt chronicles President Wilson's rocky relationship with the
press, including those who could be counted as supporters, in the
period leading up to American entry into World War I, during the war,
and while involved in the peace talks afterward. Startt credits
Wilson with advancing president-press relations but faults him for
repeatedly missing opportunities to use the press to advance his

After an introduction on the press and propaganda, Startt traces
Wilson's handling of the war chronologically from early 1915 to 1920,
starting with Wilson's determination to stay out of the European war
and ending with Wilson enfeebled by a stroke and defeated by an
anti-internationalist Congress. Startt relies on extensive research.
The bibliography lists 75 manuscript collections, 54 American
newspapers, 22 periodicals, and 50 special interest publications,
such as periodicals from the African American press, the ethnic
press, labor publications, and the socialist and radical press.
Indeed, the notes run 57 pages. If anything, the detailed account of
which paper said what about a Wilson initiative or statement begins
to overwhelm the larger narrative. Startt also cites numerous other
scholars, including two of the more prominent Wilsonians, the late
Arthur S. Link and John Milton Cooper Jr., but Startt's book draws
mainly from original sources.

Wilson, high-minded to a fault, mistrusted the daily press.
Repeatedly, Startt observes, that wariness clouded his judgment and
his willingness to engage with the press in an effort to communicate
his ideas and shape the course of events. It also affected his
ability to fight his critics, including former president Theodore
Roosevelt, an isolationist who still knew how to command the bully
pulpit. Startt notes that Wilson held weekly press conferences early
in his term, and that by doing so, he elevated the status of the
Washington correspondent. However, those press conferences were few
and far between after the sinking of the _Lusitania _and the death of
nearly 1,200 in a German torpedo attack in May 1915. Startt argues
that Wilson was concerned his words would be misinterpreted and his
thoughts miscommunicated, especially to European diplomats and
combatants. "Wilson was unable to bring himself to trust the
correspondents with delicate international news," Startt concluded.
"His passion for accuracy made him intolerant of news too hastily
gathered and too carelessly dispatched" (p 326).

Wilson was a man of contradictions. As an early twentieth-century
progressive with a keen appreciation of government, Wilson signed
into law a collection of reforms, including the Federal Reserve Act,
the Clayton Antitrust Act, the LaFollette Seamen's Act, and
legislation establishing the eight-hour day for railroad workers. But
as the United States pledged to enter the war, Wilson also presided
over the creation of antidemocratic national security initiatives,
complete with a far-reaching propaganda apparatus. Though a liberal
globalist in his aim for American participation in the war, Wilson
fought the war at home by casting doubt on the patriotism of
immigrants, especially German Americans. This was despite the fact
that the United States was at the time a nation with a large
foreign-born population. In fact, as Geoffrey Wawro pointed out in a
recent _New York Times _opinion column, approximately one-fourth of
all draftees in 1918 were first-generation immigrants.

Wilson also sought to repress dissent, and then later supported or
tolerated the excesses of the campaign to silence radical antiwar
voices. Congress enacted the Espionage Act in June 1917, followed in
the fall by the Trading with the Enemy Act, and the Sedition Act of
1918. "The mainstream press," Startt noted, "only mildly protested
the act" (p. 151). These laws led to the routine surveillance of
socialist papers. More than 2,000 people were prosecuted for
violating the Espionage Act, Cooper noted in _Pivotal Decades: The
United States 1900 to 1920 _(1990). The ethnic press was forced to
submit English-language translations of any stories that involved the
war, imposing a substantial burden on marginal publications. "To many
small foreign-language newspapers, that ban all but prohibited
publication," Startt observes (p. 125). As Startt notes, Wilson
complained repeatedly about partisan critics in the mainstream press,
such as the newspapers operated by William Randolph Hearst. But
Wilson made no real effort to silence general-circulation newspapers
and magazines. Instead, Wilson supported a campaign to make the press
safe for democracy, focusing enforcement of the new laws on the
socialist press, Bolsheviks, and labor radicals, such as the
Industrial Workers of the World. Eugene Debs, the perennial socialist
candidate for president, was sent to federal prison for an antiwar
speech in Canton, Ohio. Fellow socialist Victor Berger also was
convicted of violating the Espionage Act. His newspaper, the
_Milwaukee (Wis.) Leader, _was banned from the mail, an
administrative decision that amounted to prior restraint. Dozens of
other socialist and radical publications faced a similar fate. In
_Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years: 1870-1920 _(1997), David Rabban
notes that this period of repression ultimately led the Supreme
Court, especially Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Wilson
appointee Louis Brandeis, to declare that suppressing unpopular
speech was a violation of the First Amendment. Indeed, as Paul Murphy
notes in _World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United
States_ (1979),_ _the modern concept of civil liberties and its
appreciation as an American ideal emerged as a reaction to the
zealous curtailment of rights during the war. Wilson gave lip service
to freedom of speech and urged that the laws be applied judiciously.
But in the moment of military conflict, Wilson chose loyalty and
conformance over allowing any radical dissent that questioned our
alliances, our motives, or our capitalist underpinnings.

_Woodrow Wilson, The Great War, and the Fourth Estate_ is at its
strongest in documenting the editorial response of newspapers and
magazines in the United States and in Great Britain to Wilson and his
administration from 1915 to 1920. Its focus is on the political and
diplomatic spheres, not on military activities, except as they forced
Wilson to respond in some way. As a chronicle of events and
communications, it is a detailed history of World War I as seen
through the lens of President Wilson. It covers the period leading up
to the April 1917 entry into the war; the buildup of American
military strength and the dispatch of the American Expeditionary
Force; Wilson's Fourteen Points for peace; his relationship with his
secretary, Joseph Tumulty; his eventual falling out with his adviser
Colonel Edward House; the Bolshevik revolution; the surrender of the
Central Powers in November 1918; the Paris Peace Conference; the
ill-fated League of Nations proposal, including the opposition of
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and others; demands from the victors for
the spoils of war, especially German territory and debt payments; and
Wilson's subsequent debilitation.

The activities of the Committee on Public Information (CPI),
documented by Stephen Vaughn in _Holding Fast the Inner Lines _(1980)
and by other authors, is lightly covered in Startt's work, though
Startt notes that the CPI had done its job so well that anti-German
sentiment hindered Wilson's overall desire for a peace settlement
that did not mete out a heavy punishment on what was left of the
German state. As John Maxwell Hamilton of the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars and co-author Meghan Menard McCune
noted in a recent posting in _The Conversation, _it was also the CPI
that dispatched Edgar Sisson to Petrograd only to return with
fraudulent documents--fake news from Russia a century ago--purporting
to show that the Bolshevik revolution was the work of the Germans.
Startt also observes that while the CPI was later faulted for excess,
during the war critics argued that the CPI was not doing enough to
achieve victory, spawning individual state efforts and unofficial
loyalty campaigns.

Startt demonstrates a command of the editorial support or criticism
voiced in important newspapers and magazines throughout the nation.
Key figures in Startt's account include Hearst, who owned a
nationwide string of newspapers in major cities and who was a
strident critic of Wilson; newspaper magnate and Wilson supporter E.
W. Scripps; Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher of the _New York
Evening Post _and the _Nation_; a very young Walter Lippmann of the
_New Republic; _and editors of numerous individual papers, such as
the _New York Herald Tribune_, the Philadelphia _North American, _and
the _Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican. _Indeed, for Startt,
editorial opinion is the proxy for public opinion, though, of course,
the two are not the same. For public reaction, one could turn to
David Kennedy's _Over Here: The First World War and American
Society__. _Still, Startt provides a rich account of elite opinion,
as expressed in the nation's largest general-circulation newspapers,
periodicals, and the special-interest press. Without the competition
of radio, television, and more modern forms of communication, the
printed word, and especially editorial columns, undoubtedly carried
more weight in public affairs it does today. "No other medium then
available could offer such a comprehensive representation of public
opinion," Startt argues (p. 324).

Startt also provides a reminder that the partisanship now seen on Fox
News, MSNBC, and other news outlets is not an anomaly of the era of
President Donald Trump and the ascendancy of the conservative Right.
Indeed, the press of a hundred years ago, in addition to being
sensationalistic in news columns, was highly engaged in political
issues on its editorial pages, and off. Repeatedly, Startt cites
correspondence indicating that editors and publishers begged the
president to allow them to speak on his behalf on one issue or
another. Far from standing apart from government as an impartial
observer, the press lords and their editors engaged in a personal
journalism that unabashedly assumed newspapers and magazines were
political instruments to be used to advance an ideology.

Citation: Philip Glende. Review of Startt, James D., _Woodrow Wilson,
the Great War, and the Fourth Estate_. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
October, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52901

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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