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Wilsonianism and the Versailles treaty

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Interviewer: You discuss the so-called Wilsonian moment during and after World War I as a pivotal point in the development of anti-Western nationalism. Why were nationalistic movements in east Asia, the Middle East, and eastern Europe disappointed in the peace agreement at Versailles?

Eric Foner: President Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles outside Paris to take part in the negotiations for the treaty ending World War I. Of course, Wilson had put forward his Fourteen Points and his rhetoric; the war, he said, was to make the world safe for democracy. One of the Fourteen Points was self-government for people who were under the rule of others. Wilson was basically talking about Europe. World War I led to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and those peoples in eastern Europe deserved nations of their own. Out of World War I came new nations—Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc., who had been ruled over either by the czarist empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But of course, people in other colonies around the world also said, wait a minute, what about this principle of democracy, does it apply to us? The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was destroyed, but Wilson did not say, therefore, those people should get national independence. What about the British colonies in India? What about the French colonies in Vietnam and southeast Asia? Their leaders came to Versailles and said, what about this Wilsonian moment of self-determination? But first of all Wilson shared American racial views very deeply and didn’t believe nonwhite peoples were capable of self-government—he was thinking of Europe. And the British who were winners didn’t want to dismantle their empire, neither did the French. So, the promise of democracy was betrayed at Versailles, at least from the point of view of people like Gandhi from India, Ho Chi Minh from Vietnam, or people fighting for the independence of Egypt from British rule. So it led to a great sense of disappointment in the end; that the Wilsonian principle was not really applied to many of the colonial possessions of the world, and the Wilsonian moment ended in widespread disappointment when it had begun in great hopes of worldwide change.

World War I, pt 1: effects on civil liberty

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Interviewer: How did America's involvement in World War I affect civil liberties in this country? Why did Progressive leaders not oppose government repression?

Eric Foner: Civil liberties were not major concerns of Progressives. They tended to look toward national government as a powerful expression of the common good, the public will as opposed to selfish interests like big businesses or political bosses, etc. So the idea of civil liberties—that is, rights that an individual maintains against government—didn't really mean that much to most Progressives. Now, when World War I began and then when the United States entered the war in 1917, it unleashed tremendous repressions of civil liberties, probably the most extreme in all of American history. Thousands of people were rounded up for criticizing the war, for there was tremendous opposition to American involvement in World War I. Many, many critics were jailed; German Americans in particular were subjected to all sorts of harassments and taxed. Super patriotism reigned. The notion that you could criticize the government and still be loyal disappeared during World War I. Now, some Progressives were alarmed by certain excesses, like the banning of magazines and things like that, but most of them went along with this because they saw the war as a way to react, as Woodrow Wilson said, "to make the world safer for democracy and also to purify American life." It expanded the power of the government. The government began regulating all sorts of economic endeavors that Progressives called upon it to regulate. So they saw civil liberties as things that were expendable or could be pushed aside in this effort to create a powerful government that was now pushing the society forward. But, unfortunately, the result of all this was actually to empower the most reactionary elements of the American society—those people who wanted to simply repress labor, to repress any criticism of the government. Instead of being the apotheosis of Progressivism, the war really killed it.

World War I, pt, 2: Treaty of Versailles's continued harm

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Interviewer: How did the peace settlement at Versailles continue to do harm throughout the twentieth century?

Eric Foner: Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles at the end of World War I hoping to create what he had been calling for: a peace without victory, a peace that would make the world safer for democracy. Unfortunately, America's allies had their own aims and interests. The British, the French, they wanted to punish Germany, they wanted to get reparations from Germany for all the losses, debts, and economic disasters suffered in World War I. They were not interested in political self-determination for their colonies; they wanted to absorb Germany's colonies into their own empires. So Wilson was faced with the problem that he had certain ideals but his allies didn't want to go along with them; consequently, a vast negotiation and set of compromises took place. The map of the world was redrawn. Wilson's idea of putting together different ethnic groups in their own countries in Eastern Europe came to fruition; new countries like Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were created, but none of those was really ethnically homogeneous. The peoples of Eastern Europe were all mixed up with each other, and so later on, much later, we see bitter battles in those regions between different ethnic groups despite the careful drawing of political boundaries, which Wilson oversaw. Moreover, in the rest of the world, Versailles sowed the seeds for conflict and disaster. Instead of giving independence to colonial people—India, African nations, Middle Eastern nations—Versailles just redrew the map of empire and absorbed the German colonies into the British and French empires. The disappointments of the nationalistic aspirations of these people led eventually to conflict in the Middle East and to the Vietnam War. All these are places that had been promised independence during World War I and then were betrayed. So the failure of Versailles haunts much of the twentieth century.

World War I, pt, 3: perennial questions in American history

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Interviewer: You point out that World War I raised questions that are perennial in American history: "What is the balance between security and freedom?" "Does the constitution protect citizens' rights during wartime?" "Should dissent in wartime be equated with lack of patriotism?" Could you tell us what events raised these questions, and how they were resolved at the time?

Eric Foner: Once the United States entered World War I, President Wilson engaged in mobilization, trying to gain broad public support for the war. There were many Americans who were opposed to entrance into World War I. Socialists, many labor leaders, anarchists, many German Americans—that was the largest ethnic group in the United States, and many of them were sympathetic to Germany—did not want the United States fighting Germany. There was a lot of opposition, and Wilson felt that opposition to American involvement was going to weaken the war effort.

Congress passed laws in 1917 and 1918, the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act, particularly the Espionage Act, which basically made it illegal to say anything against the government—anything which criticized the government, which brought the government into disrepute, as the law said. In other words, if you said, "the president's not doing a good job," that's bringing him into disrepute, which criticized the economic system of the country. Those were all made federal crimes. And many people were arrested under the Sedition and Espionage Acts for criticizing the draft, for criticizing the war. What happens in this circumstance is that other groups use the opportunity to fight old battles against old enemies. Employers used this to get labor leaders arrested, to get IWW radical laborites arrested, not because of what they said about the war—the employers realized that didn't make any difference—but because they wanted them out of their factories, out of their labor organizing.

And the government raided the offices of radical labor unions; after the war they deported hundreds of anarchists; many people were put in jail, socialists were arrested, socialists elected to the New York Assembly were barred from taking their seats. There was a massive suppression of freedom of expression, probably the worst in all of American history, in World War I, ironically, presided over by President Wilson who claimed that the war was meant to make the world safe for democracy. Somehow this contradiction seems to recur in American history. Wars in the name of democracy and freedom seem to go hand in hand with restrictions on those very freedoms at home.