The question that Julia Ward Howe posed in 1899—“Why should we fear to pass from the Old Testament of our own liberties, to the New Testament of liberty for all the world?”—could serve as an epigraph for Walter McDougall’s scholarship over the past 20 years.
Howe welcomed this New Testament revelation just months after America’s decisive war with Spain, a war that ended one empire and launched another. Swift American victories in the Caribbean and the Pacific signaled for Howe a new era of humanitarian interventionism. Just a few months later, Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine, praised the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the “priestess of righteous war and holy peace.” No tribute could have more concisely summed up Howe’s career as a crusader or more tellingly highlighted the amalgamation of spiritualized war and peace that marked the Progressive mind. Indeed, shortly after Gilder’s birthday tribute, Howe was introduced to a Boston audience as “Saint Julia.”
The parallels to McDougall’s depiction of President Wilson are striking. That should not surprise us since they both sang out of the same civil religion hymn book, literally in the case of Wilson singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic lustily in his grandfather’s Congregational church in England in late 1918. If Howe was the “priestess of righteous war and holy peace,” then Wilson was the priest. But more than priest, he was beatified as the patron saint of righteous interventionism. He even had trouble in his own rhetoric separating the messianic nation from the messianic President. Scholars may try to downplay or even dismiss Wilson’s messianic consciousness, but it is just too prevalent and consequential to ignore.
In his 1997 revisionist classic, Promised Land, Crusader State, McDougall identified the U.S. war against Spain as the national experience policymakers and opinion-makers used to transform American principles from an Old Testament of “Liberty at home, Unilateralism abroad, an American System of states, and Expansion” into a New Testament of “Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment, and Global Meliorism.” The change from Grover Cleveland to William McKinley, even from McKinley’s First Inaugural to his Second, marked a reinvention of America from an autonomous power preoccupied with perfecting its own institutions at home, into a crusader knight on a mission to remake the world.
Recently, in The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy and in his Liberty Forum essay, McDougall has turned from the rubric of an Old Testament/New Testament in American foreign policy (and national self-consciousness) to the darker problem of “heresy in American civil religion.” A reinvented civil religion, promoted with tragic effectiveness by Progressives, has betrayed America’s true interests. Progressives orchestrated and perpetuated this “deformation” of American civil religion. Or, as McDougall claims, they turned American civil religion upside down. They embraced the very things George Washington, the founder of American orthodoxy, had warned against. In place of “virtue, humility, and prudence in foreign relations,” Progressives pursued “power, glory, and pride.”
The other participants in this symposium may choose to respond to McDougall’s case for counterfactual history and his indictment of Wilson for his string of bad choices. Historical inevitability doesn’t survive McDougall’s account of intervention in 1917, as it shouldn’t in any genuine scholarship. But I can imagine reactions to his argument ranging from an emphatic no, to a qualified no, to a “yes, but” to an enthusiastic “yes, and.” McDougall doesn’t need my help, but I’d like to develop two points in the “yes, and” category to confirm his diagnosis of Wilson’s madness.
I recently had the opportunity to reread Randolph Bourne’s “The State” for the first time in perhaps 25 years. It is brilliant. Bourne left the manuscript unfinished at the time of his death in 1918, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic. It was published in 1919 in a collection called Untimely Essays. It couldn’t be more timely.
McDougall is correct to say that “the Wilson administration was what inspired . . . Bourne’s phrase, ‘War is the health of the State.’” What is most striking about Bourne’s essay in the context of McDougall’s argument is that Bourne clearly grasped the problem of civil religion in modern war even if he never used the phrase. By the cultivated “mysticism” of the modern State, Bourne meant something very close to the Progressives’ civil religion heresy.
As that high priest of that civil religion, Wilson set out to make America sacred. In that effort, he succeeded better than anyone before or since, and there had been many who tried in the 19th century, especially during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.
It is tempting simply to quote large sections of Bourne’s essay and leave it at that. There is an edge and wit to his writing that disappear in any summary. But his main point can be distilled without doing too much damage. Bourne argued that one of the chief lessons of the First World War (already by 1918) was the way in which mobilization had “brought a sense of the sanctity of the State.” The idea of making America sacred—the very purpose and result of modern civil religion—should have shocked the sensibilities of modest republicans in peacetime busy with the unglamorous comings and goings of ordinary life in their homes, communities, churches, and businesses. They could (and did) ignore the State and were unimpressed by the pretentions of local, state, and national governments, whose public servants were the neighbors they knew only too well. “In a Republic,” Bourne wrote, “Government is obeyed grumblingly, because it has no bedazzlements or sanctities to gild it.”
But sanctity is what the State craves. And it knows how to get it. Mobilization for modern warfare transformed the State’s identity in the public mind. Politicians, clergy, and the intellectuals knew that a sanctified State would achieve a driving unity of purpose never possible to curmudgeonly republicans content to live in an unholy nation with their fellow sinners. In a modern democracy, the people suffer under the delusion that they, through their representatives, and not the President, have willed the war.
As Bourne put it: “The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purpose, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men.” Once that has happened, the citizen has forgotten that the non-political part of life is really what life is all about, and instead sacralizes the State as the source of his true community, his true Church, the mystical body in whose shadow “we live and move and have our being.”
War is the health of the State. War is the health of civil religion (or perhaps McDougall would prefer to say that war is the health of heretical civil religion). The State’s power to wear way old bonds of affection, to coerce, unify, universalize, and sanctify is unleashed in war. The State is made into a mystical being, guiding the nation and its government along the paths of righteousness. “As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of men, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation.” Total war pulls the individual out of his mundane life and gives him a high sense of purpose and a supreme self-confidence in “the rightness of all his ideas and emotions.” The citizen experiences a rebirth. And “war orthodoxy” becomes the only test for true membership in the household of faith.
Not only was Woodrow Wilson what Bourne called a “state idealist” (as Wilson’s writings from the late 1880s showed) but he knew how to talk about imperial war in a way that enhanced the mysticism of the modern state. This is my second “yes, and.” Chronologically it comes earlier in his career.
In 1901, Professor Wilson, still a fairly obscure member of the Princeton political science department, published his complete five-volume History of the American People. In it he laid out a vision of America’s benevolent empire that is consistent with his efforts from 1914 to 1918, though the efforts of Wilson the commander-in-chief would be exponentially larger in scale and scope.
His rise was meteoric, as the political scientist would soon be called to the presidency of Princeton University and from there to the Governor’s Mansion in New Jersey. By 1913 he would be ensconced in the White House—an astonishing rise for an egghead academic with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins.
Whatever the material and strategic reasons for the War of 1898, the U.S. acquisition of the Philippine Islands marked a new epoch in the nation’s relationship to the Great Powers. Never before had America conquered territory it had no intention of incorporating into its federated republic of self-governing states. This was empire, and the advocates of intervention admitted it. But for Progressive imperialists like Wilson, this was to be a new kind of empire, a benevolent empire of peace, justice, and prosperity that fulfilled rather betrayed America’s Founding principles. President McKinley himself justified the war against Spain as a redemptive war for Christian civilization. Wilson ended his sprawling Whig narrative of the American epic with the events of the Spanish-American War, the debut of the United States as a major world power.
Wilson celebrated that debut. His alleged anti-imperialism always favored empire of the right sort, practiced by enlightened, democratic Great Powers who lifted alien peoples from barbarism to civilization. In 1917, Germany was the wrong kind of empire, Britain and France the right kind.
This was empire with a clear conscience.
The American empire, Wilson explained in 1901, resulted from a “war of impulse” waged by a peace-loving, unprepared people; it was “unpremeditated,” the result of America’s merely obeying an instinct of its noble character. The war sought no “selfish material interest,” existed to “succor” the “oppressed,” unified national sentiment in a common cause, healed sectional wounds left by the Civil War, beckoned the nation to a new frontier, and made the Executive the leader of the three branches of government in domestic and foreign affairs. The American people “had given themselves a colonial empire” (an odd way to talk about the realities of war and politics) and had “taken their place of power in the field of international politics.” They had reached “a turning point in the progress of the nation.”
Above all, this war was part of the grand narrative of America’s industrialization, maturity beyond partisan and labor strife, and constructive legislation for social betterment. Indeed, the last word of Wilson’s ponderous five volumes was “progress.”
The consistency in Wilson’s mind over the course of the two decades between the Spanish-American War and Armistice of the Great War is evident in the address he gave before the U.S. Senate in 1919, upon his return from Paris. Presenting the Treaty of Versailles to the senators, he was still thinking of the events of 1898. That was the pivotal year when America first proved to the Great Powers that they had nothing to fear from an imperial United States. And now, 20 years on, the nation had proven it once again and in a more dramatic way to an astonished world. A passage from the closing of that speech could be inserted at the end of Wilson’s History of the American People with few changes:
America may be said to have just reached her majority as a world power. It was almost exactly twenty-one years ago that the results of the war with Spain put us unexpectedly in possession of rich islands on the other side of the world and brought us into association with other governments in the control of the West Indies. It was regarded as a sinister and ominous thing by the statesmen of more than one European chancellory that we should have extended our power beyond the confines of our continental dominions. They were accustomed to think of new neighbors as a new menace, of rivals as watchful enemies. There were persons amongst us at home who looked with deep disapproval and avowed anxiety on such extensions of our national authority over distant islands and over peoples whom they feared we might exploit, not serve and assist. But we have not exploited them. We have been their friends and have sought to serve them. And our dominion has been a menace to no other nation. We redeemed our honor to the utmost in our dealings with Cuba. She is weak but absolutely free; and it is her trust in us that makes her free. Weak peoples everywhere stand ready to give us any authority among them that will assure them a like friendly oversight and direction. They know that there is no ground for fear in receiving us as their mentors and guides. Our isolation was ended twenty years ago; and now, fear of us is ended also, our counsel and association sought after and desired. There can be no question of our ceasing to be a world power. The only question is whether we can refuse the moral leadership that is offered us, whether we shall accept or reject the confidence of the world.
If America shall make you free, you shall be free indeed; the Redeemer Nation casts out all fear.
In light of such hubris, there is every reason to take seriously the messianic nation that Woodrow Wilson constructed out of words.
“Why should we fear?” Julia Ward Howe asked in 1899. “Fear not,” said Wilson in 1919.
But reasonable fear in 1917 (or back in 1898) would have enabled Wilson to count the costs empire exacts on national security, prosperity, liberty, self-government, and humility.
 Laura E. Richards and Maud Howe Elliott, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 (Houghton Mifflin, 1916), Volume 2, pp. 259, 264, 265.
 See Michael S. Nieberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 8.
 All quotations taken from Randolph S. Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: Essays by Randolph S. Bourne, 1915-1919, edited by Carl Resek (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), pp. 65-72.
 All quotations taken from Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People (Harper and Brothers, 1903), Volume 5, pp. 269-300. The work was originally five volumes, but Harper brought out a 10-volume edition in 1918, capitalizing on Wilson’s celebrity and the war. Wilson’s text remained unchanged.
In asking us to consider alternative histories of American responses to the Great War, Walter McDougall provides a splendid model of what the strategic theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, called “critical analysis.” Said the famous Prussian war college professor, it is not enough to complain that the results of a particular strategic decision were bad. One…