“a little group of willful men”

Unwilling to lead the nation into war but alarmed by Germany’s U-boat attacks against neutral shipping, President Woodrow Wilson sought permission from Congress in 1917 to arm America’s merchant marine. The bill was successfully filibustered in the Senate, leading to what may yet be the most furious scolding of the Congress by an American president:

“A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

In the event, the attacks continued, war broke out following publication of the Zimmerman Telegram, and the merchant marine were armed — albeit too late for those sent to Davey Jones’ Locker by the inaction of naive fantasists.

Every headline from the debt negotiations reminds me of that famous showdown and the awful consequences of that backward-looking refusal-to-act.

Then, as now, the established order had failed; blatantly failed; ruinously failed. Some, like Wilson, saw opportunities. Others, like the ‘willful men,’ saw a future of vague ever-shifting terrors and tried to stop the clock. That never works of course and, thanks to fanciful hankerings after a mythical, golden, isolationist past, the U.S. was flat-footed when war became unavoidable.

There are sound reasons to hope that the debt impasse ends soon, but there is no good reason at all to assume that it will. Circumstances change, but the self-serving character of politicians is a constant. If enough Congressmen think it serve their interests to permit the nation to default — the nation will default. The debt limit will eventually be raised, but it isn’t at all inconceivable that it will happen only after the dominoes have begun falling.

The happy upside is that events are going to force upon the country some fundamental and long-overdue reflection about the proper scope of government, about what we want it to do and how much we’re willing to pay to see it happen. That is a very good and necessary thing. Let’s all hope that, as it continues in earnest over the next several years of budget fights, the nation conducts it with more civility and intelligence than it has so far.


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