In This Review

The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I
The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I
By Thomas Fleming
Basic Books, 2003, 512 pp

In one of the most bitter attacks on Woodrow Wilson since William Bullitt and Sigmund Freud dissected his mental makeup, Fleming takes a meat cleaver to Wilson's foreign policy record. The attack is so indiscriminate -- whatever Wilson does is wrong, and anybody who attacks him, whether from the right, from the left, or on the grounds of ethnic politics, always gets a sympathetic hearing -- that the book often misfires. Even so, Fleming illuminates many aspects of Wilson's character and career that conventional hagiographies skim over. For example, he assembles the entire grim record of Wilson's assault on dissent during the war: Eugene Debs in prison, The Nation suppressed, thousands of German-Americans harassed and some lynched, the forerunner of the aclu banned from the mails. Yet when all was said and done, Wilson was probably right to keep the United States out of the war in 1914 -- and probably right to intervene in 1917, when the alternative was a likely German victory followed by a harsh peace. Although the Treaty of Versailles was no gem, its worst provisions were forced on Wilson by Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando. Fleming shows that Wilson's place in American history needs to be reexamined by a generation of historians not emotionally wedded to celebrating Wilson as the father of the progressive tradition in the Democratic Party; this book, however, is more prosecutor's brief than historian's verdict.