1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder

Until the calamities of 1939−45 prompted a name change, what we now call World War I was known as either the Great War or, wishfully, the War to End All Wars. A century later, it looks more like the true Mother of All Wars, including how its Ottoman Empire sideshow — a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia and all that — created the modern Middle East. This may explain why the big cataclysm’s centennial commemorations from 2014 on have been so short on zest.

We don’t much mind honoring gory history so long as its upheavals feel safely remote from civilization’s settled, confident present. That’s hardly the situation here, though — not with the prospect of another showdown as mindless as the one set off by Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 crisping the air everywhere from Donald Trump’s Washington to Pyongyang and Tehran. No longer a quaint business featuring spike-helmeted kaisers, khaki puttees, herky-jerky silent films, and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” World War I looks increasingly like our own anxious era’s origin story.

Welcome to the overarching premise of Arthur Herman’s 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder. It stands out in the glut of revisionist histories timed to World War I’s 100th anniversary, not least because it’s a terrific read. Even when you want to quarrel with Herman’s interpretations, he’s a whiz at organizing his complicated materials for maximum narrative clarity and dramatic effect. His provocative pairing of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s inventor, with Woodrow Wilson, the most intransigently high-minded of U.S. presidents, as the joint architects of the chaotic planet we know today is never boring, no matter how irritated you may be by his ambition to turn “Tommy and Volodya” (one of his breezier chapter titles) into unwitting kindred spirits.

The way they’re portrayed here, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say there are moments when only Lenin’s goatee and Wilson’s silk topper will keep you able to tell them apart. Lenin struggled to turn post-Romanov Russia into the unlikely starter wife for his fantasy of worldwide proletarian revolution, while Wilson, maybe even more imaginatively, tried to repurpose the Western Front’s barbaric slaughter into an abolition movement against the wickedness that had led to it in the first place. Both were, in Herman’s view, radical zealots, equally determined “to transform events . . . in ways that would make those events consistent with their larger vision.” Even though neither man’s vision prevailed in the long run — that’s how it goes with visions — 1917 amounts to a prosecutor’s brief against both on a charge of shared messianic absolutism.

Except, perhaps, among a few diehard Communist dotards, the deleterious effects of Lenin’s ideas aren’t in much dispute. Once the Bolsheviks secured power, an outcome far from guaranteed when the famous German-sponsored train transporting Lenin from Swiss exile chugged into Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917, his ruthless conflation of patriotism and party loyalty laid “the essential foundation of the totalitarian state.” Not only Mussolini and Hitler, but Mao Zedong and, in our time, Kim Jong-un, owe Lenin’s example for making their variants on it possible.

Dispelling any lingering sentimentality about where the Marxist dream went wrong, Herman does a first-rate job of demonstrating that Stalin’s USSR — gulag, show trials, vulpine secret police, and all — was by no means a travesty of Lenin’s blueprint but its fulfillment. (“Yes, we are oppressors,” Lenin once bluntly said, because revolutions with no real popular backing can’t work any other way.) However, Wilson doesn’t really come off much better, at least aside from Herman’s acknowledgment that Lenin’s embrace of murderous violence would have horrified him.

You don’t have to be much of an admirer of our twenty-eighth president — and who is anymore, except a few diehard Princetonian dotards? — to think there were plenty of other significant differences. One of them is that, even at its most vainglorious, Wilson’s project — unlike Lenin’s — didn’t include the destruction of representative democracy to help realize his goals. He merely had a temperament amazingly ill suited to democracy’s give-and-take, which comes under the heading of personality flaws and not crimes against humanity.

That’s why there’s a certain underhanded brilliance in comparing Wilson to Lenin so relentlessly. No liberal himself — his current home base is the right-wing think tank the Hudson Institute, and he’s a regular contributor to the likes of Commentary and National Review — Herman is a man on a mission he plainly delights in: doing his bit to discredit the liberal tradition by giving one of the Democratic Party’s bygone paragons feet of clay that reach, in Wilson’s case, right up to his pince-nez. It doesn’t even matter that Wilson is hardly a hero to the Woke Generation, as white supremacists with a virtuous hankering to impose America’s will abroad aren’t popular campus figures these days. Linking twentieth-century American liberalism to twentieth-century totalitarianism is an old game among conservative intellectuals, but Herman’s originality is all in personalizing things by rooting his case in the similarity of Lenin’s and Wilson’s psychological makeup and depicting both as fanatics.

If that requires playing fast-and-loose with ideological categories on occasion, Herman certainly goes about it nimbly. Among other ploys, he habitually identifies Wilson as a capital-P “Progressive,” not merely a Democrat; while Wilson himself wouldn’t have objected to the label, Herman rather scurries past the fact that it was a catchall term for reformists back then, with prominent proponents in both parties. The effect is to make unwary modern readers see Wilson as much more of a left-winger than he was, setting up broad-brush claims on the order of Herman’s sweeping assertion that Wilson saw the war as an opportunity “to realize his Progressive dream of a nation that responded to the agenda and needs of government — as opposed to the other way around.” (Really? How very Leninist of him.) On the flip side, Herman breezily equates the Bolsheviks’ creation of a state security apparatus to enforce ideological conformity with “what would come to be called ‘political correctness,’ ” which is really pretty disgraceful as drive-by calumnies go.

In other words, you’d do well to take his more extreme elaborations of his schema with roughly a pound of salt. That frees you up to enjoy his book’s considerable virtues, from its lively storytelling — lots of quasi-cinematic cross-cutting between capitals — and zesty plunges into the intricate political maneuverings that Lenin ruthlessly mastered and Wilson obstinately held himself above, to Herman’s frequently acute insights into how both men’s minds worked. If he’s at his weakest, not to say shoddiest, when he’s trying to turn his leading actors into funhouse-mirror soul mates — their diametrically opposed understanding of the machinery of power is enough all by itself to demolish that notion — he’s much more convincing when he’s plumbing them separately as individuals and giving the manufactured parallels a rest.

Herman’s portraits of the other key players in 1917‘s vast canvas are often stimulating as well. Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government the Bolsheviks overthrew, emerges here as a more impressive, less feckless figure than the sad sack of caricature — a man, in fact, with the gifts to have emerged as “the George Washington of the new Russia” if Lenin’s greater wiliness hadn’t thwarted him. (Charmingly, Herman mentions that he once met Kerensky, who didn’t die until 1970, in the latter’s old age.) A good deal less persuasively, Herman blames Wilson for dooming Kerensky’s government by not pressuring his new European allies to end the war before Russia collapsed, a scenario that evaporates in the face of Britain’s and France’s likely reaction to the proposal.

He’s on surer ground assessing how Wilson’s hauteur checkmated him politically at home. Clearly a much bigger fan of Theodore Roosevelt’s boisterous conception of the United States as an emerging world power than he is of Wilson’s maddeningly lofty version, Herman argues that Wilson’s rejection of Roosevelt’s eager offer to raise a division of volunteers to fight on the Western Front — which most historians treat as a well-deserved rebuke to the former president’s bellicose vanity — was actually one of his key mistakes, making an enemy out of not only T.R. but his Senate ally Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge, of course, ended up as the man chiefly responsible for torpedoing American participation in the League of Nations, Wilson’s ultimate dream.

Nonetheless, by ultimately bringing the United States into the war, Wilson did launch us on the road to becoming a world hegemon, even if that status wasn’t certified until the end of World War II. From Herman’s perspective, this was a more or less unqualified “Good Thing,” putting him in the odd position of giving Wilson credit for letting the genie out of the bottle, after spending several hundred pages castigating him for confusing genies with the Holy Ghost. Trying to reconcile the public relations value of Wilsonian idealism with the Kissinger-style Realpolitik he obviously prefers in practice makes his concluding pages fairly convoluted, but most readers will have caught on well before then that the pleasures of 1917 are in its energy and detail, not its ambitious but bungled aspirations to big-picture profundity.