History Thursday: Iran, Woodrow Wilson and making the world safe for democracy

The recent violence with Iran got me thinking about Woodrow Wilson.

More than 100 years of American foreign policy has hinged on a concept Wilson introduced as he went before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917 to seek a Declaration of War against Germany.

“The world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson told Congress. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”

Many remember those words, but many have forgotten the sentences that followed: “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.”

When he concluded the speech, Wilson received applause. He then returned to the White House, put his head down on his desk and wept, according to his secretary Joseph Tumulty. Wilson purportedly said, “My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.”

(Historians dispute the veracity of Tumulty’s account. Historians often dispute the veracity of accounts. If one could create a cottage industry monetizing historians disputing the veracity of accounts, one would be stinking rich.)

Wilson ran and won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” He ran that campaign with no small amount of support from journalist George Creel.

After the election, when Wilson was quite through keeping us out of war following the news of the Zimmerman telegram, he appointed Creel head of the Committee on Public Information. Creel then launched a massive propaganda campaign to sell the war.

Wilson would go so far as to sign the Espionage Act to stifle decent and jail critics of America’s involvement in the war, including perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who ran his last campaign for president in 1920 from prison.

In nearly every American military engagement since, the idea of making the world safe for democracy has been a primary justification for intervention. In some cases, the justification has been entirely apt; in others, not as much.

These days, I’m less interested in that line from Wilson’s speech than I am in the ones where he said, “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”

A cynic would laugh this concept out of the room, likely by arguing something along Charles de Gaulle’s line that, “No nation has friends, only interests.”

Perhaps the cynic has a point. How many American military conflicts over the past 100 years can be wholly, unequivocally attributed to small-d democratic altruism, and not, at least in part, more selfish ends?

With regard to the Trump Administration’s Iran strategy, however, I’m at a total loss. How does ripping up a deal that had halted Iran’s nuclear program make the world safe for democracy? How does Iran beginning to enrich uranium again as a result serve America’s self-interest? How does ramping up aggression serve either end?

Perhaps the problem here is that I’m looking for a thoughtful, long-term strategy. Occam’s unrelenting razor simply tells us: there isn’t one.

David C. DeWitt
David C. DeWitt is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience covering Ohio politics and policy. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS and Plunderbund.com covering topics such as education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, government, business, labor, energy, environment and social issues. His work has also appeared in Government Executive, the Columbus Dispatch, Girlfriends magazine, Bleacher Report and the Ashtabula Star Beacon, among others.