X-Post: [Jhistory]: Glende on Startt, “Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, and the Fourth Estate”

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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

Estate_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

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 License.