Monday, December 28, 2015

Woodrow Wilson, Haiti, and Democracy

Although one of Woodrow Wilson’s most famous speeches was about “making the world safe for democracy,” it is not entirely clear exactly what he meant by the word ‘democracy.’

Given his willingness to impose his will on postwar Europe, redrawing the map as he dissolved some nations and created others, it is plain that he did not subscribe to the traditional notion of popular sovereignty in which the legitimacy of the government arose from the consent of the governed.

From his dealings with, e.g., Haiti, it is obvious that Wilson did not understand ‘democracy’ to mean the right of a people freely to elect representatives constituting a republic. Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano writes:

Haiti was suffering from chronic insurrections by local rebels a hundred years ago. In 1915, when the rebellions came to a head, Wilson wrote to Robert Lansing, his secretary of state, “I fear we have not the legal authority to do what we apparently ought to do.” Yet, Wilson continued, “I suppose there is nothing for it but to take the bull by the horns and restore order.” To this end, Wilson deployed U.S. troops to Haiti, forcing the Haitians to elect an American puppet government.

Wilson freely admits that he lacks “the legal authority to” intervene so decisively into Haiti’s internal affairs, but he does so nonetheless, raising procedural concerns.

There was more at stake than the domestic tranquility of Haiti. As the Wall Street Journal reported on February 15, 1915,

American and French Ministers have protested issue by Haiti of $8,000,000 Treasury notes in violation of contract with National Bank of Haiti.

Wilson, however, continued his rhetoric. Not only did he use the word ‘democracy,’ he also mentioned ‘equality’ - no doubt to the surprise of the Haitians, who were experiencing neither of those two. In a speech on December 7, 1915, Wilson proclaimed about his policies toward the nations of central America and the Caribbean,

This is Pan-Americanism. It has none of the spirit of empire in it. It is the embodiment, the effectual embodiment, of the spirit of law and independence and liberty and mutual service.

Any naive understanding of Wilson’s use of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ in the context of foreign policy would be dissolved by an examination of his domestic policies. His introduction of segregation among the employees of various federal agencies, his efforts to keep African-American students from enrolling in universities, and his other blatantly racist policies undermined his proclamation, in the same speech, that

All the governments of America stand, so far as we are concerned, upon a footing of genuine equality and unquestioned independence.

The next day, the New York Times reported the skepticism at Wilson’s feigned enthusiasm for equality. (The population of Haiti is approximately 95% Black.) On December 8, 1915, the Times informed its readers that

The welcome the President expressed for the southern republics into a new equality with the United States came as a surprise to some Senators who recalled that the President would ask the Senate at this session to ratify treaties with Nicaragua and Haiti establishing protectorates over those countries.

While Wilson’s speeches were filled with references to ‘democracy’ and ‘equality,’ it is clear from his actions that his use of these words was either idiosyncratic or simply insincere. His actions were, however, emblematic for his progressivist wing within the Democratic Party.