Editor’s Note: The following piece is adapted from Arthur Herman’s new book, 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Order. It appears here with permission.
Starting in 1917, Lenin and Wilson left important, lasting achievements, for better and for worse, that would shape the next century and beyond and that still animate much of what happens today.
Lenin’s legacy extends beyond the history of communism, however. It was Lenin who made the terms terror and terrorism part of the global political vocabulary, and who made imposing terror on innocent civilian populations by both official and unofficial means (the thrown hand grenade, the targeted assassination, the taking of hostages, the murder of family members, the car bomb, and the suicide vest) part of the normal revolutionary repertoire. Stalin would use terror to subjugate entire populations (including those of eastern Europe); Mao would do the same in China and Tibet. Both would pass the practice along to others — in Mao’s case, to Communist terrorist groups across Asia in the 1950s and ’60s; in Stalin’s case, and that of his successors, to terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Today’s al-Qaeda and ISIS killers are as much Lenin’s heirs as Stalin’s, Mao’s, or Castro’s. Their goals are also very similar: the destruction of the existing order, with the aim of imposing a new order — in the case of al-Qaeda and ISIS, one inspired by the Koran and sharia law rather than by The Communist Manifesto, even though, in its broadest outlines, it sometimes doesn’t seem so different.
For Wilson, the legacy looks more complex, but one single, ineluctable fact emerges from what he started in 1917: U.S. global hegemony, right up until today.
Wilson’s legacy looks complex, but one single, ineluctable fact emerges from what he started in 1917: U.S. global hegemony, right up until today.
Historians and others sometimes like to date the arrival of that U.S. hegemony, of the United States as a superpower, as the end of World War II. This is a well-worn misperception and myth. Memoirs such as Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation, meaning the creation of the U.S.-led liberal international order that supposedly dominated and stabilized the world after 1945, have compounded that myth. If anything, Acheson, Truman, George Marshall, and the others were latecomers to the feast. It was America’s entry into the First World War, not the second, that signaled the arrival of the United States as the single most powerful nation on earth, and that reconstructed the world system around a new centrifuge of global power.
Compared with its economic and financial dominance, America’s military and strategic power was a lesser contribution to that hegemony, at least at first. Although Wilson and Pershing wound up adding nearly 2 million American soldiers to the military balance on the Western Front, virtually none of them remained in Europe by 1923. Nor is it the case that U.S. membership in the League of Nations could have prevented war in Europe., any more than it could have prevented war in Asia. The United States’ distance from Europe ensured that it would exercise almost no direct influence on the tumultuous events that would engulf the Continent over the next two decades, from the rise of Mussolini and Hitler to the outbreak of the next war in 1939, League or no League. If anything, the Soviet Union, for more than two decades after the 1917 revolution a pariah state and also not a member of the League, had a far more decisive impact. For instance, Hitler could not have fought a war against Britain and France if he had not signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin two weeks before he invaded Poland.
Nor were the interwar years a complete waste, as far as the United States was concerned. Contrary to later myth, “American diplomacy was ceaselessly active in European questions” in the Republican 1920s. It was the 1930s of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats, who were embarrassed and horrified by Wilson’s legacy, that firmly shut the door on Europe. By 1933, the issue of reparations was dead. All the former Allies except Finland had defaulted on their debt to the United States, and the United States let it happen. (Also by then, Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, had made it clear he would not be paying reparations to anybody, treaty or no treaty.)
All the same, by that date the leadership of America in the world financial system, which Woodrow Wilson had made possible and on which entry into the First World War had put the final seal, was now evident to all, and was permanent. After the 1920 depression, the American industrial economy and trade with the United States had become the sustaining engine of world growth, even in the darkest days of the Great Depression of 1930–32. No country would ever again rise to prominence by ignoring or snubbing American financial interests, or without calculating the United States’ economic clout — not even the Soviet Union, whose own rebirth as an industrial economy under Stalin was made possible only by American engineers and business interests, from the United States’ iron and steel industry to its mining, oil, and natural gas to its railroads and hydroelectric-power grid.
Adolf Hitler realized this, too. After coming to power in 1933, he launched himself in a race to dominate Europe before he believed the United States would — a race he lost during World War II. It was, in fact, a competition he had no hope of winning, once America’s vast economic resources were mobilized for all-out war.
Because it was not until World War II that the military and strategic components of American hegemony came back into line with a world economic order built since 1917 around the United States. In 1945, American troops and naval fleets did not go home; this time they stayed in Europe to meet a new threat, a Soviet Union transformed by war from pariah nation into an economic and strategic superpower; and they stayed in Asia long enough to blunt a Communist push to turn victory in China into a sweep through the Korea Peninsula and then into Indochina and Southeast Asia.
Today the United States’ status as the dominant global power, Wilson’s most lasting legacy, seems threatened once more.
The Soviet Union that dominated the Communist world in 1945, much as the United States dominated (though never commanded) the capitalist free world, was, at first glance, a far cry from the one Lenin left when he died in 1924. That Russia had been a bankrupt and virtually failing state, an international outcast unrecognized by any nation except its fellow outcast, Germany, and the hub of an international Communist conspiracy that was as ineffectual as it was despised. In 1945, it was the world’s second-largest economy with the world’s biggest army and, in terms of sacrifice and gain, the key victor of World War II — and four years later, the world’s only nuclear power after the United States. It enjoyed power and reach in Europe and Asia that the czars had only dreamed about, and international communism was becoming an empirical reality, significantly in the most populous nation on earth, China.
Yet this Soviet Union was still very much Lenin’s. Much of its vaunted international eminence was transient and illusory, and the result of the complete destruction of its twin nemeses, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It was a brutal police state run by the same narrow and narrow-minded elite who were corrupted but also paralyzed by total power and terrified by any hint of dissent or opposition. It was still an economic basket case, barely able to feed itself, whose relations with its neighbors were characterized by intimidation and terror. In many ways, it’s the same Russia that persists today.
Since the Soviet Union now possessed nuclear weapons, however, it was assumed to be a superpower as well. In retrospect, it seems easy to predict who would ultimately win the Cold War. It was much harder for those who lived it to know what the final outcome would be. In the end, of course, after decades of bitter conflict, Wilson’s America prevailed over Lenin’s Soviet Union. By every measure, that was a better outcome for the world and for the global future. Yet, now, more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the same uncertainties that were seen in 1917 and at the dawn of the Cold War have returned. The new world disorder isn’t going away anytime soon.
This is because today the United States’ status as the dominant global power, Wilson’s most lasting legacy, seems threatened once more. Both Russia and China loom large as challengers, on the economic as well as military and strategic planes; never before, not even in the bleakest days of the Cold War, has the United States’ position as leader of the international order been threatened by two powerful rivals at once. There are fierce calls to “Make America great again.” Whatever the merits of that case, the fact is that the need to build a new, more durable order out of the outmoded old American hegemony has never been greater.
That makes learning the lessons of Wilsonism from 100 years ago more urgent than ever.
— Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.