“We Are All Liberals”
Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era.
by Arthur Link.
Harper. 331 pp. $5.00.
At his inaugural in 1913, Woodrow Wilson might have summed up his age by paraphrasing Jefferson and saying that “we are all liberals; we are all progressives.” For Wilson of the reformist New Freedom, Theodore Roosevelt of the insurgent New Nationalism, and the native Socialist Eugene Debs had, together, polled over eleven million votes that year, as against a scant three million for the unhappy William Howard Taft (And Taft himself, as Professor Link points out, would have denied emphatically that he was a conservative in 1912.) In those days “liberal” and “progressive” were words with political sex appeal. A decade of muckraking had left the business ethic discredited and Old Guard politics suspect; millions of Americans went out to “stand at Armaggedon and battle for the Lord,” with no less than three platforms of protest to choose among. Even George Perkins, J. P. Morgan’s partner and the financier of United States Steel, joined social workers like Jane Addams, curmudgeons like Harold Ickes, and radicals like John Dewey in singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” before adopting the most advanced reform program that had been presented since the Populist upheaval. The fortunes of reform looked bright indeed.
Yet a short eight years later, reform was dead and the Progressives were scattered to the four political winds. Some sailed for the Left Bank and renounced politics; some became high-priced lawyers for the corporations and utilities; some rejected reform and embraced a Marxist theology which led to Stalinism. Those who tried to uphold the old Progressive banner found themselves ignored by the majority of the American public; they cast their protest ballots for an isolated La Follette rather than trying to select the “more progressive” of Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis.
The Progressive Era clearly has a special interest and relevance for our own generation, which has just emerged from another great American reform period. A searching examination of Progressivism might help illuminate our present political situation and the nature of American politics. Unfortunately, Arthur Link gives us no such study in his Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era. He has produced a very fine vignette of the pre-war Wilson, and an incisive study of American diplomacy during this period. His chapters on mission-of-democracy adventures in South America, U. S. Mexican relations, the neutrality and preparedness controversies, and the seesaw of American-British and American-German antagonisms are well done. When he concludes that before 1917 neither Wilson nor the American people viewed the First World War as a moral struggle, and that neither banker investments nor an anti-Prussian dedication was responsible for our intervention, Professor Link helps us toward a correct and properly complex understanding of a much misinterpreted and oversimplified page of American history. Yet something more is desired and expected from his volume.
One doesn’t like to criticize an author for not having written another book. But I must say that such is my feeling about this volume. The jacket proclaims it to be one of the first in the New American Nation Series of Harper Brothers, edited by Henry S. Commager and Richard Morris of Columbia University; the purpose of the series is to make a “fresh and judicious appraisal of the whole of the American past” in the light of the advances in scholarship that have been made since the appearance of the original American Nation Series. But Professor Link’s volume on Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era is mostly about Wilson and Wilsonian diplomacy, and slights the American scene upon which the Progressive drama was enacted; his work is chiefly notable as an earnest of the excellence of his forthcoming biography of Woodrow Wilson.
Writing to a friend in 1912, the philosopher of the New Nationalism, Herbert Croly, declared triumphantly that “the Progressives are now talking a doctrine that is certain to cast a shadow across all our tomorrows.” This doctrine, which was one of pursuing Jeffersonian objectives by Hamiltonian means, has indeed cast such a shadow. The major schools of American liberalism stand divided today on just the issues which divided Wilson and T.R.: How far should the government go in remodeling the social system? Should giant corporate enterprise be “busted” or “adjusted”? Was it possible to wed ideals to power in a foreign policy viable for a democratic nation in an undemocratic world? Could the high-minded reform impulse be accommodated to the necessities of “practical” politics? To the casual student, the New Freedom of Wilson and the New Nationalism of T. R. would seem to represent two distinct and opposed plans for reforming America. Yet the striking question which a close study of the Progressive Era raises is whether the New Nationalism was not then and is not now an inevitable course (and if so, what elements of choice still remain within the New Nationalist framework). Did not Wilson, the bitter anti-Hamiltonian who campaigned to make the race for profit fair for the small contestant, find himself forced by events to enact virtually the entire New Nationalist platform by 1916? And, twenty years later, did not another Jeffersonian, Franklin Roosevelt, find, when the mild adjustment phase of his first two years had failed, that he had to embark on a program of Hamiltonian policy which would have warmed the heart of Herbert Croly? Could Wilson (or Franklin Roosevelt) have chosen any other action to meet the needs of reform?
It is obvious that the Progressive Era has much to tell us about the roots of American reform and the attitudes which underlie the movements of American foreign policy. It is a pity that a book demonstrating such mastery of sources and primary materials as Professor Link’s could not have included a really searching study of a crucial period in American history.