August and September have passed by so quickly. The heat and humidity have given way to cool nights. I can see the once green leaves of summer yellowing on the limbs, and fluttering to the ground. The tangy scent of their decay heralds a last glorious show of color before the trees settle in for winter’s deep sleep. This autumn, however, there is another kind of change in the air, one that feels dangerous, like the winter in Game of Thrones, capable of denying spring and summer their right to return. I am constantly reminding myself to breathe, to take heart, and have courage as the wild winds of 2020 rage around us. I take solace where I can, and recently I have found inspiration from an unlikely source.
I have been researching the decade leading up to World War One for my book, Ahote’s Path. It is one of my new year’s resolutions, to finish the book this year, but as 2020 blows all of us about, I find myself having to consider if I can make this timeline. I was very ill from February through early April, but May and June I regained my health and started to pick up steam on the book, making some good forward progress. As I wrote, I realized that I needed to do more research on events in the United States during the decade of 1910-1920. In late June, I identified and checked out from the library some promising sources. I hadn’t even started reading before learning that my mom’s health was failing. Then, in early July, I suffered a bad fall, hitting my head pretty hard. Two days later my mom passed away. Between grief and a concussion, I renewed those books three times before I ever found it possible to sit and read them. It was a welcome relief to immerse myself in history, and be, once again, curious and engaged.
It is this research where I found an unlikely source of comfort. I had studied World War One many years ago, in college, but as I read about it this time, I felt a deeper understanding of what it must have felt like to have lived it. Nearly four years of Donald Trump’s chaotic, self centered presidency have taught me first hand what it feels like to have our country’s values seriously undermined. I felt it helped me identify with what it might have been like to be an American citizen during President Wilson’s terms in office.
Woodrow Wilson was not like President Trump on the surface. He was an educated and well spoken man. But he was like Trump in that he was willing to sacrifice every principle upon which our nation stood to achieve his goals. I’m sure President Wilson would have argued that his goals were for the betterment of all humankind. He would have objected to being compared to Trump, whose goals appear to be more for the betterment of his own personal wealth. It is perhaps because of this sense of greater purpose that Wilson managed to do what Trump has so far desired but not attained. I am going to hold up some of Wilson’s actions, so you to see what an intelligent and motivated man was able to achieve once he started tearing at the fabric of American values.
Wilson enacted the Espionage Act, effectively turning dissent into treason. Hundreds of people we’re thrown in jail for voicing any opinions that didn’t align with Wilson’s war efforts. There was one account I read, where a man was sent to the workhouse for 90 days for handing out copies of the Declaration of Independence at a Fourth of July celebration. On the copies, the man had written one question, “Does your government live up to these principles?”
Millions of men were forced into conscription. Many went proudly, but any who questioned, protested, or felt morally opposed, were treated as traitors and sent to prison for years.
Most people have heard about the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. It followed the war ravaged world around; a second, more deadly grim reaper, than the guns on the killing fields of Europe. Then (as now) Wilson’s government denied the seriousness of the disease. No one in the government would allow the pandemic to interfere with preparations for war. Crowded military bases kept churning out men, sending both the soldiers and the pandemic off into the world, spreading the virus far and wide. The ships soldiers traveled on to Europe became death ships, leaving in their wake a steady stream of dead bodies buried at sea. Even after the tide had solidly turned against the Germans, these death ships ran on at full capacity. In the end, the final death toll from the pandemic was officially declared to be 20 million people world wide, but there are later estimates by historians that say that number was more likely have to been 50-100 million.
Wilson put into place a Committee of Public Information. It’s purpose was to create a war fever among the populace. They did so by spreading propaganda, selling the American people not only on the necessity, but on the higher purpose of this war. There ensued a crusade of conformity and mob mentality that eased Wilson’s path in dismantling the principles of democracy.
In the name of the war effort, Wilson conferred broad censorship rights on the Postmaster General, Albert Burleson, an extremely prejudiced man, whose biases went unchecked in what he chose to censor and refuse to post.
Wilson waged an all out war on unions. Nothing could be allowed to stop the production of materials needed for the war effort. Labor disturbances were viewed as treasonable offenses, and labor leaders were all labeled as German agents.
In the name of the war effort, Wilson made a proclamation seizing the control of the nation’s railway system, putting it under a new Federal Railway administration.
Prohibition had been a cause floating around American politics for years, but it was finally put into law under Wilson’s presidency because America needed clear headed soldiers and a sober populace to service the war effort.
Even the constitutional amendment of the right of women to vote, a bright spot in Wilson’s legacy, might not have happened then if not for the war effort. American women had been striving and failing to meet this goal for decades. Their intensified protests during the heat of the war became a damaging ordeal for the President and the Democrats. In 1918, Wilson was forced to concede that an amendment on women’s right to vote was both just and necessary for the war effort.
I think I’ve given you enough to see that the war effort substantially changed the United States, turning it into something frighteningly dystopian. Back then, Woodrow Wilson claimed that this sacrifice would be for the betterment of the world, but if that was the case, then his part in the drafting of the treaty of Versailles was a betrayal of everything he believed in. It was a vengeful and rapacious document. Instead of bringing an end to all war, it set the stage for a second world war, and more than a century of worldwide unrest.
I realize that none of this sounds at all like a likely source for solace, but it gave me a perspective of our current times that I hadn’t considered before. Wilson’s war fever spell was shattered by his failure with the Treaty of Versailles. As he faltered, it was the everyday folk of America who started to pick up the pieces. I know some of the people who brushed off that dirt, stood themselves back up, and started rebuilding their lives. They were my grandparents. For them, ordeals were nothing new. They’d already escaped from the pograms of Russia. They’d persevered through the difficulties of starting a completely new life in a whole new county. They had just survived the Great War, and the pandemic. At the war’s end, they were all still in their late teens or just entering their 20’s. America was a mess, there were loud and angry debates from Capital Hill, there were race riots, police riots and acts of terrorism, but nevertheless, my family, and many others like them, moved forward from that point, getting married, building careers, having babies, continuing a cycle of generations into which we were all born. The Great War would not be the end of the travails awaiting them. They would go on to survive the political and social upheavals of a stock market crash, a great depression, a dust bowl, a second world war, a cold war, and some of them even made it beyond that, catching a glimpse of the ordeals that awaited their great grandchildren.
The times we are in right now are unsettling, but we are not the first humans to live through unsettling times. Taking this journey back to when my grandparents were young, reminded me of how to go forward. Just live each day, love your family, meet the challenges to your best ability, and have faith that life will go on. There will always be people casting their spells, driven by a need to be noticed and admired. Perhaps the way to end the cycle of human ordeals, is for us to fully grasp that a better world for all can never be built from war. It needs to be built with compassion, wisdom, the right use of power. It requires faith and courage, kindness and forgiveness. It requires us to protect the lives entrusted to us from generation to generation. The way to a better world is through love.
I’m going to leave you with some family pictures of days in the sun, filled with family, filled with love. Memories to keep us warm on chilly fall nights and the winter that’s coming.