1917 – Arthur Herman


The subtitle to this book is “Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder.”  It’s a fascinating book written with a thesis that Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin actually had a lot in common in their view of and approach to the world.  The author’s contention is that both men used the end of the First World War to usher in their own utopias, and in so doing sowed the seeds that resulted in decades of “world disorder.”  Really enjoyed the book and learned a lot.

The book starts at the end of 1916 when Wilson had just won reelection on a platform of “He kept us out of war” and Lenin lived in exile in Switzerland.  Over the next year, Wilson decided to commit America’s troops to the war, and Lenin – with Germany’s help (the Germans decided to send Lenin back because they knew he was a revolutionary and they hoped to destabilize the country and get it out of the war – their plan worked to perfection) – went back to Russia and fomented revolution.  1917 thus became a year that really changed the history of the rest of the century.

Wilson was an interesting guy.  He had somewhat of a messianic complex that didn’t respond well to those who disagreed with him.  His perspective was that you could agree with him or you were evil.  That didn’t endear him to many in congress.  He also had a vision of the world that thought if you simply got everyone around the same table and explained the advantages of peace and cooperation, they would all agree.  His ultimate goal was the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations that he thought would usher in a period of lasting peace.

Lenin assumed that if he was able to overthrow first the Czar (which actually happened before he got back to Russia) and then the provisional government that arose after the Czar abdicated, that the working proletariat worldwide would rise up in revolution against the capitalist bourgeoisie that exploited them.  He saw an end to capitalism once the workers united in violent rebellion.  This never happened as he envisioned it, but he and his followers were able to overthrow the government and take power in Russia.  And then he used this power to ruthlessly take out anyone he saw as a potential enemy.  Stalin is usually blamed for the massive bloodletting of communist Russia, but it was all started on Lenin’s watch.

Interestingly, both men were ultimately felled by strokes.  Wilson probably had his first stroke during peace negotiations in Paris in 1918.  He eventually had more strokes and spent most of his last year in the White House essentially incapacitated with his wife holding cabinet meetings and signing papers on his behalf (you could make an argument that the US has already had a female president).  Lenin’s health failed in the early 20s as a result of strokes and also as a result of a failed assassination attempt.  Both men died within a month of each other – Lenin in January, 1924, and Wilson in February, 1924.

Wilson lived to see the League of Nations established, but not with the United States participating.  The US Senate didn’t ratify the agreement because of concerns over national sovereignty.  The rejection probably furthered his health issues.

I recommend the book to those who like 20th Century history.  The only criticism I’d level at it is that the author doesn’t like Wilson at all, and there are instances where he inserts his negative opinion about him with no notice that it’s his opinion.  He also tends to blame all kinds of bad things that happened after WWI on Wilson – probably a bit of an overstatement.  That’s a minor criticism, however, as overall the book is enjoyable to read and really informative.

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