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Monday, August 10, 2020

View of the Week (Weekly Edition): On President Wilson


The Great Influenza

Today's selection -- from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. In 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson was in Paris singlehandedly masterminding the direction of post-war treaty negotiations toward the new ideals he had established, he fell ill. That illness may very well have been the Spanish Flu, which had as a side effect an unexpected debilitation of the brain. Whatever it was, after he recovered, Wilson was not the same. The outcome of the talks turned darker, conforming much less to his ideals, and resulted in the acrimony that helped lead to a second world war:

"In March another 1,517 Parisians died [of the Spanish influenza], and the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that in Paris 'the epidemic of influenza which had declined has broken out anew in a most disquieting manner .... The epidemic has assumed grave proportions, not only in Paris but in several of the departments.' That month Wilson's wife, his wife's secretary, Chief White House Usher Irwin Hoover, and Cary Grayson, Wilson's personal White House physician and perhaps the single man Wilson trusted the most, were all ill. [Georges] Clemenceau and Lloyd George both seemed to have mild cases of influenza.

"Meanwhile the sessions with George and Clemenceau were often brutal. In late March Wilson told his wife, 'Well, thank God I can still fight, and I'll win.'

"On March 29, Wilson said, 'M. Clemenceau called me pro-German and left the room.'

"Wilson continued to fight, insisting, 'The only principle I recognize is that of the consent of the governed.' On April 2, after the negotiations for the day finished, he called the French 'damnable' -- for him, a deeply religious man, an extreme epithet. He told his press spokesman Ray Stannard Baker, '[W]e've got to make peace on the principles laid down and accepted, or not make it at all.'

"The next day, April 3, a Thursday, at three P.M., Wilson seemed in fine health, according to Cary Grayson. Then, very suddenly at six o'clock, Grayson saw Wilson 'seized with violent paroxysms of coughing, which were so severe and frequent that it interfered with his breathing.'

"The attack came so suddenly that Grayson suspected that Wilson had been poisoned, that an assassination attempt had been made. But it soon became obvious the diagnosis was simpler, if only marginally more reassuring. Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's chief of staff, had stayed in Washington to monitor political developments at home. Grayson and he exchanged telegrams daily, sometimes several times a day. But the information of the president's illness was too sensitive for a telegram. Grayson did wire him, 'The President took very severe cold last night; confined to bed.' Simultaneously he also wrote a confidential letter to be hand-delivered: 'The President was taken violently sick last Thursday. He had a fever of over 103 and profuse diarrhoea .... [It was] the beginning of an attack of influenza. That night was one of the worst through which I have ever passed. I was able to control the spasms of coughing but his condition looked very serious.'

"Donald Frary, a young aide on the American peace delegation, came down with influenza the same day Wilson did. Four days later he died at age twenty-five.

"For several days Wilson lay in bed, unable to move. On the fourth day, he sat up. Grayson wired Tumulty, 'Am taking every precaution with him .... Your aid and presence were never needed more.'

"Wilson for the first time was well enough to have visitors. He received American commissioners in his bedroom and said, 'Gentlemen, this is not a meeting of the Peace Commission. It is more a Council of War.' Just before getting sick Wilson had threatened to leave the conference, to return to the United States without a treaty rather than yield on his principles. He repeated that threat again, telling Grayson to order the George Washington to be ready to sail as soon as he was well enough to travel. The next day Gilbert Close, his secretary, wrote his wife, 'I never knew the president to be in such a difficult frame of mind as now. Even while lying in bed he manifested peculiarities.'

"Meanwhile the negotiations continued; Wilson, unable to participate, was forced to rely on House as his stand-in. (Wilson had even less trust in Secretary of State Robert Lansing, whom he largely ignored, than in House.) For several days Wilson continued to talk about leaving France, telling his wife, 'If I have lost the fight, which I would not have done had I been on my feet, I will retire in good order, so we will go home.'

"Then, on April 8, Wilson insisted upon personally rejoining the negotiations. He could not go out. Clemenceau and George came to his bedroom, but the conversations did not go well. His public threat to leave had infuriated Clemenceau, who privately called him 'a cook who keeps her trunk ready in the hallway.'

"Grayson wrote that despite 'that ill-omened attack of influenza, the insidious effects of which he was not in good condition to resist, ... [the president] insisted upon holding conferences while he was still confined to his sickbed. When he was able to get up he began to drive himself as hard as before -- morning, afternoon, and frequently evening conferences.'

"Herbert Hoover, not part of the American peace delegation but a large figure in Paris because he had charge of feeding a desolated and barren Europe, said, 'Prior to that time, in all matters with which I had to deal, he was incisive, quick to grasp essentials, unhesitating in conclusions, and most willing to take advice from men he trusted .... [Now] others as well as I found we had to push against an unwilling mind. And at times, when I just had to get decisions, I suffered as much from having to mentally push as he did in coming to conclusions.' Hoover believed Wilson's mind had lost 'resiliency.'

"Colonel Starling of the Secret Service noticed that Wilson 'lacked his old quickness of grasp, and tired easily.' He became obsessed with such details as who was using the official automobiles. When Ray Stannard Baker was first allowed to see Wilson again, he trembled at Wilson's sunken eyes, at his weariness, at his pale and haggard look, like that of a man whose flesh has shrunk away from his face, showing his skull.

"Chief Usher Irwin Hoover recalled several new and very strange ideas that Wilson suddenly believed, including one that his home was filled with French spies: 'Nothing we could say could disabuse his mind of this thought. About this time he also acquired a peculiar notion he was personally responsible for all the property in the furnished place he was occupying .... Coming from the President, whom we all knew so well, these were very funny things, and we could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind. One thing was certain: he was never the same after this little spell of sickness.'

"Grayson confided to Tumulty, 'This is a matter that worries me.'

"'I have never seen the President look so worn and tired,' Ray Baker said. In the afternoon 'he could not remember without an effort what the council had done in the forenoon.'

President Woodrow Wilson is pictured above with Allied leaders, with whom he would negotiate during the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson fell ill at the conferences in spring 1919.

"Then, abruptly, still on his sickbed, only a few days after he had threatened to leave the conference unless Clemenceau yielded to his demands, without warning to or discussion with any other Americans, Wilson suddenly abandoned principles he had previously insisted upon. He yielded to Clemenceau everything of significance Clemenceau wanted, virtually all of which Wilson had earlier opposed.

"Now, in bed, he approved a formula Clemenceau had written demanding German reparations and that Germany accept all responsibility for starting the war. The Rhineland would be demilitarized; Germany would not be allowed to have troops within thirty miles of the east bank of the Rhine. The rich coal fields of the Saar region would be mined by France and the region would be administered by the new League of Nations for fifteen years, and then a plebiscite would determine whether the region would belong to France or Germany. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which Germany had seized after the Franco-Prussian War, were moved from Germany back to France. West Prussia and Posen were given to Poland -- creating the 'Polish corridor' that separated two parts of Germany. The German air force was eliminated, its army limited to one hundred thousand men, its colonies stripped away -- but not freed, simply redistributed to other powers.

"Even Lloyd George commented on Wilson's 'nervous and spiritual breakdown in the middle of the Conference.'

"Grayson wrote, 'These are terrible days for the President physically and otherwise.'

"As Grayson made that notation, Wilson was conceding to Italy much of its demands and agreeing to Japan's insistence that it take over German concessions in China. In return the Japanese offered an oral -- not written -- promise of good behavior, a promise given not even to Wilson personally or, for that matter, to any chief of state, but to British Foreign Secretary Alfred Balfour.

"On May 7 the Germans were presented with the treaty. They complained that it violated the very principles Wilson had declared were inviolate. Wilson left the meeting saying, 'What abominable manners .... This is the most tactless speech I have ever heard.'

"Yet they had not reminded Wilson and the world that he had once said that a lasting peace could be achieved only by -- and that he had once called for -- ''A peace without victory.'

"Wilson also told Baker, 'If I were a German, I think I should never sign it.'

"Four months later Wilson suffered a major and debilitating stroke. For his months his wife and Grayson would control all access to him and become arguably the de facto most important policy makers in the country.

"In 1929 one man wrote a memoir in which he said that two doctors believed Wilson was suffering from arteriosclerosis when he went to Paris. In 1946 a physician voiced the same opinion in print. In 1958 a major biography of Wilson stated that experts on arteriosclerosis questioned Grayson's diagnosis of influenza and believed Wilson had instead suffered a vascular occlusion -- a minor stroke. In 1960 a historian writing about the health of presidents said, 'Present-day views are that [Wilson's disorientation] was based on brain damage, probably caused by arteriosclerotic occlusion of blood vessels.' In 1964 another historian called Wilson's attack 'thrombosis.' In a 1970 article in the Journal of American History, titled 'Woodrow Wilson's Neurological Illness,' another historian called it 'a little stroke.'

"Only one historian, Alfred Crosby, seems to have paid any attention to Wilson's actual symptoms -- including high fever, severe coughing, and total prostration, all symptoms that perfectly fit influenza and have no association whatsoever with stroke -- and the on-site diagnosis of Grayson, an excellent physician highly respected by such men as Welch, Gorgas, Flexner, and Vaughan.

"Despite Crosby, the myth of Wilson's having suffered a minor stroke persists. Even a prize-winning account of the peace conference published in 2002 observes, 'Wilson by contrast had aged visibly and the tic in his cheek grew more pronounced .... [It] may have been a minor stroke, a forerunner of the massive one he was to have four months later.' There was no stroke. There was only influenza. Indeed, the virus may have contributed to the stroke. Damage to blood vessels in the brain were often noted in autopsy reports in 1918, as they were in 1997. Grayson believed influenza was a cause of Wilson's 'final breakdown.' An epidemiological study published in 2004 demonstrates definite linkage between influenza and stroke.

"It is of course impossible to say what Wilson would have done had he not become sick. Perhaps he would have made the concessions anyway, trading every principle away to save his League of Nations. Or perhaps he would have sailed home as he had threatened to do just as he was succumbing to the disease. Then either there would have been no treaty or his walkout would have forced Clemenceau to compromise.

"No one can know what would have happened. One can only know what did happen.

"Influenza did visit the peace conference. Influenza did strike Wilson. Influenza did weaken him physically, and -- precisely at the most crucial point of negotiations -- influenza did at the least drain from him stamina and the ability to concentrate. That much is certain. And it is almost certain that influenza affected his mind in other, deeper ways.

"Historians with virtual unanimity agree that the harshness toward Germany of the Paris peace treaty helped create the economic hardship, nationalistic reaction, and political chaos that fostered the rise of Adolf Hitler.

"It did not require hindsight to see the dangers. They were obvious at the time. John Maynard Keynes quit Paris calling Wilson 'the greatest fraud on earth.' Later he wrote, 'We are at the dead season of our fortunes .... Never in the lifetime of men now living has the universal element in the soul of man burnt so dimly.' Herbert Hoover believed that the treaty would tear down all Europe, and said so.

"Soon after Wilson made his concessions a group of young American diplomatic aides and advisers met in disgust to decide whether to resign in protest. They included Samuel Eliot Morison, William Bullitt, Adolf Berle Jr., Christian Herter, John Foster Dulles, Lincoln Steffens, and Walter Lippmann. All were already or would become among the most influential men in the country. Two would become secretary of state. Bullitt, Berle, and Morison did resign. In September, during the fight over ratifying the treaty, Bullitt revealed to the Senate the private comments of Secretary of State Robert Lansing that the League of Nations would be useless, that the great powers had simply arranged the world to suit themselves.

"Berle, later an assistant secretary of state, settled for writing Wilson a blistering letter of resignation: 'I am sorry that you did not fight our fight to the finish and that you had so little faith in the millions of men, like myself, in every nation who had faith in you. Our government has consented now to deliver the suffering peoples of the world to new oppressions, subjections and dismemberments -- a new century of war.'

"Wilson had influenza, only influenza."

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