Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, likes quirky. He has written inventively about how the Scots invented the modern world (a bold and catchy thesis); Gandhi versus Churchill; Plato versus Aristotle; and declinist thought in Western civilization. Now, in his latest work, he focuses on the seemingly improbable duo of Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, who gave birth in 1917 to what Herman calls “the New World Disorder.”
The book — part narrative, part biography, and part argument — is the story of 1917, which saw the emergence of the United States as a great power and the rise of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Taken together, these two profound events rocked the international order. But none of this was expected just three years earlier, as the great powers of Europe lumbered almost inexplicably into war.
At World War I’s outset, Woodrow Wilson wrote that “the world itself seems gone mad.” Never were truer words spoken. Curiously, the great powers all counted on a short conflict; it was not to be. After two and a half years, little had been achieved except for incalculable bloodshed along trenches where gains were measured not in miles, but in yards. The Kaiser’s hope of a quick victory turned out to be a mirage. “The Germans,” Herman writes, “had staved off defeat, just barely.” And notwithstanding Germany’s unrestricted use of submarines to sink enemy shipping without warning, Germany’s options for winning the war were, by 1916, fading quickly.
For Russia, the colossus of Europe, it was a similar story. Despite its being an empire stretching over three continents, its picture became as bleak as Germany’s: The nation was hopelessly strained and demoralized by the burdens of conflict, and it was bordering on anarchy at home and collapse in the war. For Vladimir Lenin, singleminded, impecunious, and exiled in his sparse apartment in Zurich, this was an opportunity to trigger a “mass revolt” (in Herman’s phrase) that would change Russia and humanity forever. In the process, he believed, capitalism would be replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Woodrow Wilson was eyeing his own opportunities. Taking a statesmanlike tone, he had sought to keep America out of the war and called for a “peace without victory” that he was prepared to help mediate. Yet by April 2, 1917, he was singing a different tune. The Zimmermann Telegram had already revealed Germany’s secret perfidy toward the United States, arousing the ire of the American people. By now, America’s march into the war was virtually unstoppable. Wilson poured some 1 million men into Europe, and ratified the United States as the dominant power on the world stage.
Herman doesn’t really like or admire Lenin and Wilson, but he has chosen them as his protagonists because they were the pivotal arbiters of what would emerge out of the rubble of war, and theirs is a fascinating story. Herman makes it clear that even as they were different, they were also very much alike. Both men were less politicians or statesmen (one can quibble with this) than “dreamers, intellectuals” seeking to shape humanity’s true destiny. Both, writes Herman, had sweeping, revolutionary visions of “a massive upheaval” on the world stage, and each saw himself at the center of it. They wanted to create a “paradise on earth” — in Lenin’s case, a Communist one; and in Wilson’s, a liberal democracy based on humanity’s universal desire for freedom.
There are absorbing moments in the book. We see Lenin kicking around in London, Paris, and Geneva. We see him surrounded by his cohorts, including Leon Trotsky and the Georgian dropout from theological seminary known by the revolutionary pseudonym of “Joseph Stalin.” We see Lenin as head of a ruthless band of revolutionaries, leading the Bolshevik uprising in November 1917, which destroyed the nascent Russian democratic experiment. The result: the world’s first one-party-state dictatorship.
And we see the bitter fights over the post-war peace. An angry and petulant Woodrow Wilson was at the Paris Peace Conference, where he likely had a stroke (his first of three) and where he uncharacteristically imposed a hard peace on an embittered Germany, which would lay the foundations for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. With his proposed League of Nations, Wilson was willing for the United States to relinquish “some sovereignty” for the “good of the world”; arrayed against him were forces led by the tireless Senate majority leader, Henry Cabot Lodge (R., Mass.), who invoked George Washington’s warning about entangling alliances.
Wilson was committed to the League Covenant’s Article X, which stipulated that if any member of the League was attacked, every member of the League was in effect threatened as well — just as with NATO today, but on a much broader scale. To critics, including Lodge, this meant that the U.S. would be subordinating its national interests to an institution representing the global community, not the U.S exclusively — a concern that resonates in 2017.
A third stroke left Wilson paralyzed on his left side and unable to function as president for more than a year, even as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tacked one reservation after another onto the League of Nations treaty. Wilson, unwilling to compromise with his critics, doomed the treaty to be, in Lodge’s words, “as dead as Marley’s ghost” — a result that Herman applauds.
The book is filled with what-ifs about the war. What if Wilson had taken the advice of Lodge, to enter the war earlier in the first place, and to accept the League of Nations but with reservations? Herman contends that there would have been no Mussolini, no Hitler, no Second World War, no Bolshevik Revolution, and perhaps even not a Great Depression. What if Germany had accepted the offer to halt hostilities, opting for the status quo? Germany’s evisceration might have been avoided. Or what if President Woodrow Wilson had accepted Lenin’s audacious proposal to become Russia’s principal manufacturing ally? America might have received a surfeit of fur and oil in return for helping Russia become updated.
If Lenin and Wilson are the antiheroes of this book, there are two heroes: Lodge and Russia’s Alexander Kerensky, who were moderate and realistic. Kerensky was the man who might have saved Russia from political extremism. He was a member of the Duma (Russia’s first legislative body), later Russia’s minister of justice and war, and then its prime minister. But he tragically turned a blind eye to the threat posed by Lenin, and eventually was overthrown by the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution.
Herman is partial to vivid descriptions. Thus, German quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff was “bull-necked” and had a “cold, arrogant stare”; British prime minister David Lloyd George had a “florid face”; and Nigel de Grey, an Admiralty House codebreaker, was a “small, narrow-faced man.”
Herman raises some provocative questions. He speaks with a skeptical tone about the idea of self-determination of nations, which was invoked by the Western powers less for altruistic reasons than for “selfish, even cynical” ones. In the planting of the self-determination “flag,” Herman says, the groundwork was laid for the transformation of a world war into a revolution that would spark global chaos and a Communist system that would enslave millions for almost half a century. But there is an alternative view: If the American experience is about one thing, isn’t it about self-determination? When the Founders broke off from England, isn’t that exactly what they were about?
Herman is suspicious of crusading idealism and fond of realpolitik; he approvingly quotes A. J. P. Taylor’s judgment that “Bismarck fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands, the idealists of the 20th century fight ‘just’ wars and kill millions.” He says that Wilson’s utopian dream was “impractical and ignorant.”
Herman asserts that, before 1917, countries went to war to protect national interests, not ideas. This assertion does not fully hold up to scrutiny: It ignores the cataclysmic French Revolution, which, in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, mobilized whole peoples for war and swept across the European continent. It was, in effect, the first world war.
Yet there is little doubt that 1917 overturned the traditional global order. In this illuminating, important new work, Herman goes to great pains to link the chaos of 1917 with the chaos of today’s world, a world marked by al-Qaeda and ISIS (which he calls “Lenin’s heirs”), assassinations, hostage taking, car bombs, and suicide vests. Such is the inexorable rhythm of history: One problem is solved and another crops up.
– Mr. Winik is the historian-in-residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of 1944, The Great Upheaval, and April 1865.