Woodrow Wilson’s ghost haunts Election 2012

(Nantucket) For years the Fog Island Diner has been a rendezvous for early risers who enjoy sitting around drinking coffee, maybe trying one of Bessie’s famous omelets, and discussing the “Great Questions of the Day” while waiting for the morning papers to arrive from the Airport.

A fascinating topic of late has been the discovery by a local salvage firm of a long lost German submarine – the U-550 – which has been resting upright and nearly intact on the bottom of Nantucket Sound since April of 1944 when it sank a U.S. Merchant vessel and was itself sunk by American Destroyers.

German submarines have a rich history in Nantucket waters in both World Wars. In 1916 a German U-Boat was the cause of the first “October Surprise” in an American Presidential Election.

When a lone German U-Boat surfaced off Nantucket and by naval gunfire rapidly sank three British merchant vessels bound for New York just four weeks before the election the news created a sensation that quickly played into the politics of the day. At the time the United States had not entered the War and President Woodrow Wilson was pursuing a policy of strict neutrality and urging all belligerent powers to accept his doctrine of “Peace without Victory”.

Wilson’s opponent Charles Evans Hughes and the Republican Party were strongly pro-British and were demanding U.S. entry into the war on the side of Britain.

While the sinking of the British ships were in no way a violation of U.S. neutrality the uproar was politically devastating to Wilson whose campaign for re-election came down to a single slogan: “He kept Us out of the War”.

In contrast Theodore Roosevelt – campaigning hard for Hughes – publicly denounced Wilson as a “coward´ and said his inaction over the “German outrages” was “dragging American honor in the mud”.

While the sinkings were a political bonanza for the Republicans and almost cost Wilson the election, in the end he prevailed in the closest Presidential election in history (until 2000) thanks to isolationist sentiment in the West, and a very large turn-out among German Americans.

Today exactly one hundred years after Wilson first gained the White House we are witnessing the most starkly ideological Presidential election in American History, a contest over which Woodrow Wilson’s legacy casts a long shadow.

The Progressive Movement in America, and the Social welfare state that it strives for essentially owes its success to the striking achievements of three U.S. Presidents: Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Wilson’s “New Freedom,” FDR’s “New Deal,” and LBJ’s “Great Society” all rested on the premise that there was something fundamentally wrong with American Society and that only dramatically enhanced Federal power could correct these failings.

Just as LBJ saw his “Great Society” as the natural flowering of the “New Deal”, so too did FDR harken back to Wilson’s “New Freedom” for philosophical and political inspiration.

Wilson – the former Princeton professor – had intellectual antecedents, but no national political role model. Thus he himself was the Founding Father of Progressivism’s political ascendance.

Fittingly Wilson’s first and most significant innovation was the aptly named Federal Progressive Income Tax. Launched at a seemingly innocuous rate of 1% on the highest incomes this seedling of the Redistributionist State would grow higher every time the Democratic Party gained the requisite political leverage.

Commenting on the role of Chance and Accident in human history the 17th century French philosopher Pascal whimsically asserted that the world would be a very different place if Cleopatra’s nose had been a little shorter.

Speculating in that vein, what if Woodrow Wilson had never become President? How different might have been FDR’s New Deal, and its descendent “Great Society”?

One man alone was responsible for making Wilson President, and that man was Theodore Roosevelt. Upset at the policies of his handpicked successor William Howard Taft the Old Rough Rider bolted the Republican Party and ran for President on a Third Party ticket thus splitting the GOP vote and delivering the White House to Wilson who had no chance of beating either Republican one on one, TR came to bitterly regret the results of his intemperate action. So have many others in the century since.


William Moloney is a Centennial Institute Fellow and former Colorado Education Commissioner. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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