Glende on Startt, 'Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, and the Fourth Estate'

James D. Startt
Philip Glende

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

Printable Version:

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 agenda. 

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 SocietyStill, 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:

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