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September/October 2004 Historically Speaking Illusions and Realities in World War I Thomas Fleming Two years ago, when I decided to write a book on the American experience in World War I, I thought I had discovered the best opening for a historical narrative I had seen in forty years ofwriting books. On the night ofApril 1, 1917, onlyhours before Woodrow Wilson was scheduled to go before Congress and ask for a declaration ofwar, the president sent for Frank I. Cobb, editor ofthe New York World, a stalwart supporter ofhim and the Democratic Party. As Cobb told the story, he rushed to Washington , arriving at the White House at 1:00 a.m. He and Wilson talked into the dawn. Wilson told Cobb he had "considered every loophole" to escape going to war but each time Germany blocked it with some "new outrage." Then Wilson began to talk about the impact the war would have on America. "Once lead this people into war," the president said, "and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be ruthless and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fiber ofour national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street." "He thought the Constitution would not survive it," Cobb said. "That free speech and the right of assembly would go. He said a nation couldn't putits strength into a war and keep its head level; it had never been done." "Ifthere's any alternative, for God's sake let's take it," Wilson exclaimed. "Well I couldn't see any, and I told him so," Cobb concluded. This touching scene coincided with another episode I discovered in the memoir of Woodrow Wilson's secretary, Joseph Tumulty, a man whose name was often spokenwith respectin myboyhood home inJersey City. Tumulty was born not too many blocks from my house. Tumulty told how he and Wilson returned to the White House on that April evening after the president's speech to Congress , calling on America to fight a warwithout hate, a war to make the world safe for democracy. The soaring rhetoric had been received with near hysterical applause. Tumultyaccompanied Wilson to the cabinet room, where the president broke down. "My message today was a message of death for our young men," Wilson said. "How strange it seems to applaud that." The presidentlaunched into an emotional monologue, defending his long struggle to keepAmerica neutral. Finally, Tumultysaid, "he wiped away great tears [and] laying his head on the table, sobbed as ifhe was a child." Here, it would seem, was a double dose ofheartbreakcombined with globe-girdling drama. I could almost hear the sympathetic sobs as readers turned the opening pages. Alas, additional research led to anothervariety of heartbreak: the literary kind. These two scenes, which are in numerous biographies ofWoodrow Wilson and histories of World War I, never happened. According to the White House logs, Frank Cobb did not set foot in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the night ofApril 1, 1917. Nor didJoe Tumulty return to the White House to witness Wilson 's supposed breakdown after his speech. What was going on here? It took a lot more research to find the answer. Both these men were Wilson worshippers. They told these stories after the war in a forlorn attempt to make their hero look good. The grim prophesies Cobb put in Wilson's mouth in 1917 all came true in the next eighteen months. The war made an appalling mess of the United States, prettymuch as his pseudoWilson said itwould, and it did an even worse job on Wilson's reputation. Several historians have tried to rescue Cobb's tale bytransferring it backtwo weeks, when the newsman did visit the president. One went so far as to concede that Cobb may have "improved" the story a little, but it was essentially true. The trouble with this argumentis the way Cobb's version ofa president frantic with anxietyis contradicted bysomething else that Wilson said around the same time. In February 1917, after the United States had broken diplomatic relations with Germany, pioneer Chicago social workerJane Addams visited the White...


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