Woodrow Wilson & Permanent Counterrevolution as U.S. Global Policy – Tariq Ali

Text from The Dilemmas of Lenin (2017), by Tariq Ali. Chapter 8: October, p 184. Images added.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin speaking in Petrograd, April 1917.

Even as Lenin was presenting the April Theses to the Petrograd Soviet, the war party in Washington was almost ready to move into Europe. Woodrow Wilson was in discussions with close advisors regarding US entry into the First World War. Wilson, still regarded in some circles as an ethical liberal figure – and an internationalist, no less – was in reality a fairly typical U.S. politician who wore the mask better than most. In private he sometimes discarded the pretence, informing his close friend and confidant Colonel House in 1913 that ‘he thought lying was justified in some instances, particularly where it involved the honor of a woman…[and] where it related to matters of public policy.’ When House suggested that it might be better to remain silent rather than lie, Wilson agreed a bit too quickly and promised he would do so in the future. Another lie. His public statements were, in the main, pure deception and contradicted actions already taking place on the ground. This was very clear in his attitude to the Russian Revolution. In public he expressed some understanding of the event. Behind the scenes he united with his fellow orthodox Presbyterian and secretary of state Robert Lansing, who saw Bolshevism as a scourge of Christianity and its attached civilisation. Wilson vetoed any recognition of the Soviet government.

President Woodrow Wilson, left, and Col. Edward M. House, Wilson’s confidant and adviser on foreign affairs.

Already heavily engaged in supervising US interventions in Mexico to seal off the revolution in that country, he now began to be distracted by the rapidly changing situation in Russia. All of this was masked by statements declaring that with the overthrow of the tsar, all the Entente powers were now democratic as compared to the German-led despotism. He was, as he saw it, merely ‘steering our own public opinion in the right path’.

Wilson saw Mexico and Russia as similar political problems. After October this became an obsession. Backed strongly by the Gompers unions and the American Federation of Labor, he warned the Wobblies and other radical groups that Bolshevik propaganda in the United States would be dealt with severely. He kept his promise. And not just at home. Wilson believed, like most of his European allies, that the Bolshevik government was too unstable to last more than a few months, a year at most. It could be easily destroyed. He decided to arm and fund the White armies of Kolchak and Denikin, just as he had done with Carranza in Mexico. In public he lied once again, first declaring how passionately he supported the right of nations to self-determination, explicitly informing the American public and the world ‘that every people has the right to determine its own form of government’, and insisting that the Mexicans should choose their own leaders even as he was preparing to sent the US Navy to occupy Veracruz in 1914. US Marines were dispatched to take Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916, then sent on a land expedition deep into the heart of Mexico.

U.S. troops march through Vladivostok, Russia while Japanese Marines stand at attention. September 1918 Public Domain image.

In October 1918, Wilson’s deceit reached a new peak: ‘My policy regarding Russia is very similar to my Mexican policy. I believe in letting them work out their own salvation, even though they wallow in anarchy for a while.’ Thus began a secret war against revolutionary Russia that was never sanctioned by Congress. That same year military units were sent to Vladivostok and Archangel. Unsurprisingly the Bolshevik leaders responded to this hostility, but only verbally. On reading a telegram from the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, Wilson was outraged by its ‘impudence’. Trotsky had asked, quite openly, for Soviet diplomats to be given travel documents ‘to America and other countries to propose the overturning of all governments not dominated by working people.’ This worried Wilson to the extent that he accepted his secretary of war’s advice not to reveal Trotsky’s cable to the public, lest it encourage a ‘class war’ and help the Wobblies and the antiwar socialists.

Eugene Debs drew quite a crowd for his famous 1918 Canton, Ohio speech which led to his arrest, trial, conviction and sentence of ten years in prison.

Right-wing trade union leaders had already expressed strong concerns to Wilson that the utopian Bolshevik experiment was encouraging dreamers in the United States; unless this pacifism and glorification of strikes was stopped, it could spread from Europe to ‘Chicago, New York, San Francisco and our other foreign industrial concerns’. Mass repression against the Wobblies and ‘foreign, especially Italian anarchists’ commenced in 1918. In September of that same year, Socialist party leader Eugene V. Debs (one of the founders of the Wobblies) was arrested under the Sedition Act for having declared in public that the war was imperialist and ‘our hearts are with the Bolsheviki of Russia.’ He was sentenced to ten years in prison. US military officers attached to the expeditionary force in Archangel pleaded for even more intervention. Their leader, Colonel James Ruggles, suggested that ‘it is far better to kill the head – here in Russia – than to run the risk of having to do it at home.’ On the eve of the country’s decisive entry into the European civil war and world politics, US global policy could be defined simply: permanent counterrevolution. Nonetheless the Bolsheviks preferred to concentrate their ire on British and French imperialism, and attempt to drive a wedge between the latter and the United States. Chicherin, who succeeded Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs, was more diplomatic in tone when communicating with Washington but kept a regular barrage going, warning Wilson that US money and guns were wasted on trying to help ‘a doomed corpse’.




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