Historian Thomas Fleming undoubtedly would bristle at being labeled a "revisionist" because of the baggage that term now carries. Fleming is certainly no America basher; in fact, he's one of the staunchest defenders of the legacy of the Founding Fathers against the revisionists who have worked the last 50 years to sully it.
But with 2001's "The New Dealers' War" and now, "The Illusion of Victory," Fleming can be seen as our foremost debunker of the myths of 20th-century American history.
The notion of World War I as "the war to end all wars" is widely derided in history books, but less so is Wilson's equally unprophetic slogan that the conflict aimed "to make the world safe for democracy." As Fleming illustrates in "The Illusion of Victory," a more accurate slogan would be "To Set the Stage for Totalitarianism."
This is a fortuitous time for a reexamination of Wilson's presidency. Too many historians give Wilson high marks for his visionary internationalism, which led to the League of Nations.
While they admit the league was a flop and Wilson's inability to persuade the Congress to approve American membership was a huge political embarrassment, the League of Nations provided the pattern for the modern shining example of international cooperation, peacekeeping and democratic ideals - the United Nations.
It sure did.
And as Fleming shows, Wilson miscalculated almost every aspect of America's entry into the war, from the nature of the enemy and the allies to the cost and commitment that would be required. He failed to foresee the bad faith and avarice of the victorious allies and bungled the domestic politics of getting the Senate to sacrifice even a little national sovereignty for his vision of world cooperation.
Fleming details how Wilson fell hook line and sinker for the propaganda churned out by British intelligence, believing manufactured stories of raping, pillaging, murdering Huns. He not only tilted neutral America's resources toward the British, but he also asserted the right of Americans to safe passage on ships carrying arms to Britain.
Wilson believed America's commitment of troops to the war would be fairly small, as the Allies had the kaiser on the ropes. But as Gen. John J. Pershing discovered to his horror, the British and French were the ones in retreat, and it would take a draft to raise enough American troops to turn the tide.
Counting fatalities from disease, twice as many Americans died to give one group of European empires an advantage over another in less than two years than in our decade-plus hostilities in Vietnam.
Of course, this was nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of British and French troops who died charging machine guns over a mere few kilometers of ground, thanks to the incompetent and merciless butchers they called generals.
But nothing that happened during the war was as shameful as the fact that the British and French kept up the blockade of Germany for five months after the war's end. While Wilson made his victory lap before adoring European throngs, thousands of German children and old people died as Herbert Hoover desperately pleaded for food aid.
Fleming writes that Wilson chose to enter the war in large part because he believed it was the only chance America had of shaping the peace. Even so, America ended up with nothing to say about the Treaty of Versailles, whose unjust punishments and humiliation of the German people is universally blamed setting the stage for Hitler.
Meanwhile, Wilson's crackdown on dissent was the low point in American freedom. One Michigan man, for example, did hard time for being sarcastic about war bonds; even worse, Wilson let his minions fan the flames of race hatred against German-Americans.
Then there is the strange case of Wilson himself. Exhausted from fighting with the Senate over the League of Nations, he collapsed from a stroke, but his wife and a toady admiral lied to the Cabinet, the Congress and the country about the president's incapacitated condition and let the country drift for nearly a year through some very tough times.
By the time Wilson was done, even an undistinguished Republican like Warren G. Harding was able to trounce the Democrat candidate, making Wilson a political as well as a policy failure.
"The Illusion of Victory" is steeped with Fleming's signature lively style and wit, and it sure to be as fiercely argued about as last year's "The New Dealers' War." For dousing historical illusions with the cold water of reality, Fleming can't be beat.