tv The Civil War CSPAN March 22, 2015 11:28am-11:46am EDT
he suffered a stroke in the fall of 1919 in the course of the long trip across the country to get support for the league. he had become both isolated and extremely stubborn. on the balance, my own view is wilson was not the savior of the world people hoped he would be. but he was not the bamboozled and blindfolded figure spun around that people thought he was. he was a complicated man. he presided over the united states at a complicated time in a complicated world. his record is mixed. but given those circumstances, i think anyone's record would have been mixed. [applause] host: that was a wonderful survey of woodrow wilson in war and peace.
i neglected to say when i introduced you that you are canadian by birth, and you have been in england for many years. most americans think of woodrow wilson as a great idealist. that is often infused with both respect and also with a little bit of contempt, that he was a great idealist. do you think wilson was a great idealist? professor macmillan: yes, i do. you need a great idealist. we need them now. the idea we can let the long each nation in a dog eat dog world i don't think is going to work. the consequences can be so dreadful that we need to think of other ways of thinking. perhaps this is a very canadian view because we are a small power, but we see cooperation with other nations as a way for
security and safety in the world. conflicts on the scale of the first world war, much less the second world war, and let's hope there will never be that scale again, are so damaging to us all that i think it is not idealistic to build ways of preventing those. it is actually very practical. host: he is often viewed as idealistic, because when he comes back to the u.s., he refuses to compromise. much of what we think about wilson i think stems from that intransigence about compromising with his domestic foes. some people who do not think he was an idealist point to the fact that when he was negotiating in paris, as you
point out many times, he was a remarkable compromiser. in fact, some of his domestic opponents ridiculed him precisely because he had compromised too much and had betrayed his own principles again and again during the negotiations in paris. was he really a rigid idealist or was he a pragmatic compromiser? professor macmillan: i think he became more rigid when he was back in the united states. i think the consequences of the stroke are very important. the fact he was kept in isolation by his wife, that he was not either in a position to compromise or was not getting the right advice or not capable of doing it. he did compromise in paris. i think you have to. the idea you can go in and hold your ideals high and never make a compromise, he was dealing with other powerful nations.
there is a tendency for people to read back the great power of the united states, which is -- it certainly had by 1945, back to this period. it was a powerful country but not the dominant power it was going to be my 1944 and 1945. britain still had the biggest empire in the world. france was still a considerable power. wilson could not push them around in a way roosevelt could get churchill to do what he wanted. so i think wilson had to recognize other nations had interests here. there was a real problem over germany. wilson wanted a piece about retribution, although he felt strongly germany should be punished in some way. the idea wilson was prepared to be so gentle with germany i think is a wrong one.
he thought germany did need to pay a price for what it had done. he shared the view that germany started the war. it was easy for him to say we should not exact to much in the way of reparations from germany because it was not going to hurt the united states. but the french had a real problem, and so did the british. the french looked at the north of france where a lot of the war had been fought, something like one quarter of all their industrial plants had been destroyed, mines have been destroyed, their railways have been destroyed. villages and towns have been destroyed. the french lost more men proportionally to the population than anyone else. they looked across the border at germany which was relatively and -- unscathed and thought, why can the germans go on living like this and we have to rebuild? why shouldn't the german state -- germans pay? in democracies, you have to deal with what the public wants. the french public were determined to germany should pay. it probably was not sensible. in the end, it was difficult to get reparations out of germany. public opinion put clemens in a
position where he had little choice. the british had not bankrupted themselves. they spend huge amounts on the war and let huge amounts to allies. they said the french and belgians are going to get recompense for the damage done to their land, what about us? the french managed to argue that the pensions being paid to widows should be included in the bill. you could say wilson should not have gone along with this, but it was difficult to go against the allies on this. what they were doing was drying up a treaty with germany. if he failed to compromise, it might have broken down because this is something the french in particular were not prepared to compromise on. what the french did do is they backed down on a lot. they backed down on occupying germany. they backed down on long-term proposals to break germany up. the compromise was not just on wilson's side. the french compromised, the british compromised.
it was a difficult situation. one thing wilson might have contemplated, but he was against it and so were his advisers and it would have been difficult was to cancel our debts to the united states. the allies have borrowed $9 billion from the united states to pay for the war. that was one of the reasons they were so firm on getting reparations, because the british lent to the french. they both lent to the russians -- the russians not paying anything. the british and french had huge war debts they were paying off to united states. that gave added impetus to extract reparations from germany. he said why don't we just cancel the whole lot? britain and france can agree not to get reparations from germany. it probably would have been better, but politically
impossible. host: inside the united states? professor macmillan: in the second world war, they did provide a lot of the financing for the allied war effort without expecting to be repaid. host: that is a good experience of learning from the past. i tend to agree with you that wilson was an artful compromiser during the paris deliberations. everybody compromised quite a bit. the notions we often have of wilson, the rigid idealist comes from when he returned home and refuses to compromise with his adversaries. as you say and i think most historians have pointed out, in fact the best we can tell, americans supported the league. it was not that americans were isolationist in 1918-1919.
they supported america's role in the world. it was a question of how to define that, what that role would be. one of the continuing debates in american foreign relations history is the question, should wilson have compromised with lodge? once he is stricken, obviously that has a real impact on him physically and psychologically. he becomes more intransigent. but even before then, he shows every sign of not wanting to compromise at all. in fact, he shows a lot of contempt for his domestic adversaries. and of course, this increases
their contempt for him in turn. how should we explain this and should we be very critical? could we have had a constructive american role in the world if wilson had been willing to make some compromise? professor macmillan: my own view is you could any world would have been a better place for it. wilson did make compromises with republicans. this was the side of his character that said if you disagree with the, there's something morally wrong with you. he hated lodge. he thought lodge was evil. i have looked recently at the criticisms lodge made of the league covenant. these were reasonable. he is saying, should we find ourselves in advance to support
action in a conflict which we don't yet know what the conflict is going to be? these were reasonable. it is a debate that goes on. wilson treated lodge as someone beyond the pale, treated him as -- it was very foolish. he would not talk to teddy roosevelt. roosevelt wanted to go over to europe leading his own regiment. wilson would not even talk to him about it. he could have said this is wonderful, let's think about it. roosevelt was getting on and not that well, but he was not good at dealing with political opponents. he was very skillful maneuvering. he was a very effective president in many ways. you look at what he got through in terms of domestic legislation in his first term, it is extraordinary. host: you can only do that by being a great compromiser and leader. professor macmillan: when it came to making peace, he had a
vision and did not think anyone that did not have the vision was worth listening to. this is where f.d.r. was right. he made it bipartisan from the beginning. wilson didn't. when he came back to united states briefly during the peace conference, he was out of the united states until he came back on february 14 for a month, he would not see lodge. he went to boston and made a speech about his vision and those who don't agree with him which was stupid and antagonistic. he did silly things. one of his daughters had a grandson. the look at this infant and said he is just like a senator with his mouth open the whole time and keeps his eyes shut. this is stupid. host: these are important lessons for americans to think of. we tend to think contemporary partisan acrimony is unique. what we forget is in this critical time just how acrimonious and poisonous politics was in the united states.
and also how dismal the consequences were as a result of it because there was possibility for compromise. most americans wanted in some form the united states to participate in the league were -- or an international organization. it did not come about because of the intransigentce and inflexibility of these people. it is true wilson had utmost contempt for lodge. it is also true that contempt was fully reciprocated. [laughter] lodge detested wilson. these were two men who loathed one another. i want to shift the context of the conversation for a few minutes. in the aftermath of world war
ii, the treaty of versailles was going for world war ii. nowadays, the treaty of versailles, not the treaty of versailles, but the peacemakers of 1919 and 1920 are usually criticize for the problems in the middle east and persian gulf today. and that there is a huge amount of literature saying the problems in iraq and in syria today go back to the first world war. would you be kind enough to elaborate on that and tell us what you think? professor macmillan: i tend to think events cast a shadow. but you cannot look at the event and subtract everything that happens in between. to talk about europe for a second, the argument that the treaty of her silent direct we to 1939. my question was, what was everyone doing for 20 years? other things were happening. in the middle east it is true that the settlement made in the
middle east enraged a lot of arab opinion, except in egypt where there was a deeply rooted nationalist movement. but otherwise, it was more elite opinion. there was a sense among the arabs they have been promised independent states and have been betrayed. that fatally gets mixed up with the establishment of a jewish homeland in palestine, which is seen as part of the same betrayal. the presence of the jews in palestine comes to be the symbol of the betrayal of the arabs and the meddling by outside powers in a way which does not help the jews coming to palestine. i do think what was done in 1919 and subsequent years, because the peace settlement in the middle east to go while to work out and the united states was not much involved when wilson became sick, the united states to longer have strong interest there. it was not an ideal settlement.
again, it is difficult. this was a time of empire. people making decisions in the west tended to think they could dispose of peoples around the world the way they wished. it would have taken more enlightened leaders, more 20th-century leaders, rather than 19th century leaders, to recognize you could not go on crossing out people like this. one thing wilson did do which i think had some consequence was he got written into the league of nations the mandates -- and this is something he said in a subsequent speeches -- is that you cannot parcel people out and hand them around without thinking of their interests. when the middle east and african colonies were disposed of, they were not given directly to the victors. they were handed over as mandates of the league of nations. britain and france, australia, and south africa were given mandates to run these and had to report to the league of nations. there is a step forward that these territories had to be
administered in some form of international system for the benefit of the people living there. a lot of people saw that the cynical western imperialism. i think a lot was. nevertheless, it was an important idea introduced. the problem with the middle east is it was the sort of problem you had in central europe. how could you draw rational boundaries to make rational states? the peoples were mixed. you could not have ethnic states. even drying a kurdish state would have been difficult because the peoples were so mixed. in iraq, you have persons, arabs, jews -- kurdish, arabs, jews. i think iraq is more defensible than the borders of syria. iraq was geographically defensible. it had been sometimes collectively treated. baghdad was seen as a senior province. geographically, there is a