So Henry Cabot Lodge Was One of History's Villains?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, was published by Basic Books on June 1.

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Maybe it's time to revive one of Massachusetts' most famous men. From a distance of almost a hundred years, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge may have a lot to tell us about how to conduct America's foreign affairs in a chaotic world.

For too long Lodge has been demonized as the prototype of the isolationist, because he led the fight against President Woodrow Wilson's 1919 attempt to make the United States a member of the League of Nations.

In fact, Lodge was a strong advocate of American involvement in world affairs. From his election as senator in 1893, his greatest ambition was to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He saw an active foreign policy as crucial to forming America's national character.

Lodge was profoundly influenced by America's Civil War, which he saw as a conflict between good and evil. He thought America's role in the world was to fight similar battles beyond its shores. This meant America had to be strong. He pushed hard for a big navy and an expanded army. He supported the Spanish American War. The struggle for an independent Cuba was "a great broad question" in which "right and wrong are involved."

Lodge saw America's world role as a way to attract young people to a "new ideology of leadership" where they would find "fresh sources of energy" more ennobling than the commercial and material ethos of American big business. He believed American idealism could become a more significant force in world affairs than the often "sordid" imperialism of Britain, France and Russia, who dominated two thirds of the globe.

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When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, Lodge enthusiastically supported his internationalism. He backed the creation of the Panama Canal and Roosevelt's role as a mediator in the Russian-Japanese War. He was equally enthusiastic about insisting on an "Open Door" policy in China. He exulted when Roosevelt sent America's "great white fleet" around the world.

For Lodge the worst foreign policy sin was inaction and pale neutrality. During the first three years of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson seemed to embody these vices. Lodge was convinced that Great Britain and her allies, France and Russia, were fighting for "the right" and Germany was not only wrong but evil.

Wilson's claim that there was no moral difference between the European antagonists struck Lodge as close to blasphemy. Lodge wanted America to side with the Allies and join the victorious powers in a "League to Enforce Peace," after the war. He repeatedly condemned Wilson as a weak indecisive leader, an opinion the senator did not change after America finally entered the war on April 6, 1917. After the war, Wilson's concept of a League of Nations that would obligate the United States to fight future wars without the consent of Congress violated Lodge's belief that the use of force should spring from the united will of the American people.

Wilson saw Lodge as a meanspirited narrow man who was ready to "break the heart of the world" for partisan political advantage. He grew to hate Lodge and his supporters as "bungalow minds" and refused to accept their insistence on reservations in the League covenant to preserve American sovereignty.

Lodge won the political battle. Wilson, the League and the Democratic Party were routed in the election of 1920. But Wilson's backers managed to demonize Lodge so thoroughly, he barely won reelection to the Senate in 1922. The demonization grew apace in the decades after Lodge's death in 1924. Forgotten was his vision of an America that could bring a new idealism to international affairs under the inspiration of strong leaders.

Succeeding generations of voters and politicians have backed Henry Cabot Lodge, not Woodrow Wilson, in affirming an international commitment but retaining control of America's sovereignty. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. the senator's grandson, pointed this out after World War II. Writing to one of the senator's biographers, the younger Lodge noted that "the United Nations of today falls squarely within the limits of that [Lodge] proposition. The representatives of nations at the United Nations are ambassadors, and for the very reason that the sovereignty of their country is not compromised." The younger Lodge added that the decision of the American people in 1920 in the light of America's experience in subsequent years "seems remarkably far-sighted."

Lodge's vision of an America that is prepared to work with the international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations but retains the freedom to act independently when necessary seems remarkably close to President George W. Bush's approach to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the future, let's hope that Mr. Bush retains Lodge's conviction that the use of force must always be on behalf of justice and freedom.

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Joe Caramello - 9/14/2003

Let us not forget that Wilson was also a racist and an anti-semite.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/31/2003

I think Fleming is correct in suggesting that Lodge's attitude toward international organizations has been close to the mainstream of American politics since.

However, the world context has changed greatly since 1919. There is far more experience, for better and for worse, with international agreements and organizations. Moreover, international law--taken in its broadest sense--has come a long way.

In 1919, the development of international rules for trade was in its infancy. Since then, international business necessities, another world war, and a greater sense of interdependence born of advances in communication and trade have resulted in new layers of international laws and regulations.

None of these layers are strong (though some are stronger than others), but their existence and the sense that they are useful has led an increasing number of Americans to accept the idea of an international order that the US should support, even at the cost of some freedom of action.

Consider G. W. Bush and Iraq. While much of his willingness to try for a new U.N. resolution was based on foreign policy needs, it proved important at home, too. Many Americans opposed war without UN authorization. Many more were only willing to support Bush after he tried to get them on board.

Fleming is right that a majority of Americans are still unwilling to give up sovereignty (that is, the ulitmate power to say no to an agreement). However, on a more practical level, more Americans now that even before desire the U.S. to act in accord with those agreements. It is at least possible that this is becoming the new main stream.

Jeffrey Manecke - 7/28/2003

It's hard to find a bigger racist than Woodrow Wilson! So, don't start that name calling game - your boy will get the worst of it. Wilson was "supposed" to know better.

Josh Greenland - 7/28/2003

"Equally contemptable was the idea that France, Russia, and Britain were somehow better than Germany and Austria."

I've read that during WWI, American Jews favored Germany and its allies, because they fervently wished for the defeat of anti-Semitic czarist Russia.

S. R. Cundiff - 7/27/2003

Dr. Fleming has demonstrated that Lodge was as guilty as the odious Wilson for vice crusading international relations, and for a contemptable subservience to Great Britain. Mencken had it right: The US State Department under Haye-Lodge-Wilson was just a waiting room for the British Foreign office. Equally contemptable was the idea that France, Russia, and Britain were somehow better than Germany and Austria. See, by the way, Mencken's outstand essay on Theodore Roosevelt: "Roosevelt: An Autopsy". See also DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln for the cause of it all.

TCG - 7/24/2003

Which racial assumptions are you ascribing to TR? I never really got a overtly "rascist" twinge when I read through some of the biographies and his own writings. What should one make of his having B.T. Washington to dinner at the White House? Or his public denunciations of lynchings? While he was certainly no angel when it comes to race (and few were in that time) to summarily dismiss him as a guilty rascist assumes many things, not necessarily so in our day, let alone his.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 7/24/2003

I was surprised that commentators hadn't raised Wilson's racism immediately. He greeted the showing if D. W. Griffith's 1916 celebration of the Klan as "history written with fire" after a White House showing, just for starters. But let's also temper enthusiasm for Lodge's support for the 1890 Force Bill, which was intended to preserve black Republican votes in a "Jim-Crowing" South.

But the more interesting question is how historians render value judgments. I'm not a fan of Wilson or Lodge--indeed, Wilson's reactionary ambassador to Russia, David R. Francis, is the Great Demon of St. Louis history to me, though now celebrated but what amounts to "neocon" revisionist biography for his prescience about the Bolshies; his neighbors and flacks, by the way, were supporters of that city's referendum-passed Segregation Ordinance of 1916, but that was a minor sin compared to the impact of his Mississippi Valley trust Co. (a wholly-owned subsidiary of something called North American Securities)on the built environment, labor relations, and so on, including the shaping of local history by very sophisticated means.

I think it is incumbent on historians not to let contemporary enlightenement--if such it be--control our assesments of the past and past actors; we can, however, legitimately question--and argue about--the consequences of what past actors have done and debate how to measure their influence. To use a discrete example again, I am sure that many of us, not just me, would be appalled by the pomposity and arrogance of a Francis--at the same time I am fascinated by his role in what was a remarkably creative period in a city's past. But it's quite another matter when assessing his and his fellow's impact--absolutely disastrous and plain to see--on his city. There may certainly be a relationship between his values and his consequential actions. To start with them and then judge him would not wash.

That leads me back to Lodge: To use him as an endorsement of US/Bush unilateralism is tautological. If anything, the failure of post-WW1 internationalism was a terrible lost opportunity. To say that the failure of the League of Nations-brought about by stubborn adherence to sovereignty--proves Bush right makes no sense. Depression and war--the second act of what began in 1914--would seem to call forth another judgment.

Jim Wilson - 7/23/2003

Mr. Carey should also do some reading on Wilson's racism. By comparison Lodge was a beacon of tolerance and racial harmony. When judging the past one MUST take the context into account. At the time racialism and eugenics were the cutting edge of science. The fact that much of it is now recognized as pseudo-scientific nonsense doesn't automatically bequeath post-WWII hindsight onto people who died long before it began. There are plenty of people at this very moment who don't consider themselves racist who are constantly telling folks of African descent in America what they can and can't do, and what they can and can't think, and they're very quick to point the finger at others as racists. We call them "liberals" for reasons unknown. Before pointing the finger at somebody in the past, check the mirror first. I have a number of friends who are routinely chided for not being "black enough." What the heck is that supposed to mean? One of them is even from Malawi. Racism isn't always so obvious to those who practice it--they might be racist with the nicest of intentions. Cut HC Lodge some slack and try to be a little tolerant of the errors of others.

Walter Kamphoefner - 7/23/2003

H.C. Carey might take his own advice and do some reading of his own. Lodge may well have been a racist (to paraphrase an old Quaker: We are all racists except thee and me, and sometimes I have my doubts about thee), but he was after all the author of the 1890 "Force Bill," an unsuccessful attempt to protect black voting rights in the South. So when I am teaching the history of race relations, Lodge is a hero of sorts. However, when I am teaching immigration history, Lodge is one of the leading villians as a proponent of Anglo-Saxon race ideas and immigration restriction. So above all Lodge is a good illustration of the folly of trying to force the past into the straitjacket of presentist categories.

HC Carey - 7/23/2003

Read Morris' biography of theodore Roosevelt, or Hogansons"defending american Manhood, or look at the anti imperialism wesite. Lodge's racial views are a matter of historical record. As I argued, racism was common at the time, but Lodge was a particularly virulent racist, as seen in his determined refusal to allow anything like self government to the Phillipinos on the gournds that they were racially unqualified. If you don't wnat to read the books I suggested, just to a web search for "henry cabo lodge" and "race" or "racism."

But if you don't actually know anything about lodge, then I can understand why you would object to my comment--maybe

If we are asked--in the original piece--to make a judgement about Lodge, then my making a judgement is surely reasonable. Being a person in the present, I am unable to judge by any standards other than the standards of the present--indeed, the original piece asks us to consider Lodge in light of the present day policies of the Bush administration, so it too asks us to consider Lodge by present day standards. In my world view, racism is unethical and anti-American. I suppose, since you find the subject tiresome, we could simply avoid it. By your logic, it would then be reasonable to say that since racism was not uncommon in 1935, hitler should not be condemned as a rascist.

I've actually spent a lot of time with Lodge and his circle, and he was plain and simple a racist, so were many men of his generation, as I said. Lodge was worse than most and his actions in 1898 and 1919 appear hypocritical

Do some reading, and get back to me

John Kipper - 7/23/2003

Ah, yes, the ulitmate response: Racist. Obiviously after the arbiter of all morality, Carey, proclaims this canard without offering any proof, all right-thinking people must abandon any analysis of Lodge's postion against the League of Nations in conection with American sovereignty. After all, no really intelligent man could hold views that Carey, arbitrarily, declares as racist, without any attribution of fact, without any regard for historical context and without any relevance to the argument. By this definition Scorates, Plato and Aristotle, all of whom firmly believed in the manifest superiority of Hellenic
civilization were racist, or at least guilty of a non-diverse world view of the human condition. Luckily, these three dead white men had no influence upon future thought.

I would say that Lodge is in better company than Carey.

Gregory Dehler - 7/22/2003

Lodge has been villified largely out of the belief that he kept the United States out of the League of Nations and hence should share some blame for World War II. If Wilson would have been more flexible, he could have gotten the US in the LON with a few reservations. To me the debate is largely one of principle as Article X was unenforceable in any case. But, I think if the USA had joined the LON in 1919 it still would have been what it was ultimately to become: a tool of European imperalists. How the French treated the US at Paris would have been the same way they would have treated us at the LON. There is no way I can see that the LON would have suddenly gotten backbone by American participation.

HC Carey - 7/22/2003

Like many men of his generation, true, but Lodge was worse than most. His racism was coupled to class snobbery and the worst kind of imperialist aggression. Unlike, say Theodore Roosevelt, who shared many of Lodges assumptions about race, Lodge never tempered his racism with a vision of democracy. He was a jingo and warmonger in 1898; his distrust of the Wilson initiatives after WWI looks less like enlightenment and more like the stubborness of an old imperialist. Peace and Freedom? Tell it to Emilio Aguinaldo

I'm perfectly happy keeping him as a villian, though I've no doubbt he was kind to his grandchildren