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America Leaks! It started with a president

June 17, 2013, at 7:48 AM
 

This is the first in a series of posts about leaking classified information in America. My aim is to add some context to the news of the day, to show a bit of continuity with history, and to try to assess what happens next.

Modern presidential press management traces its lineage to the failure of Woodrow Wilson to tend to the journalists who followed him as he crafted the League of Nations Treaty in Versailles.

The Bob Woodward of the time was a bombastic dandy named Herbert Swope, who wrote for the New York World.

The sojourn to France was Swope's first big assignment, and he couldn't comprehend the restrictions the White House had placed on the press corps — and why the press corps seemed so damned compliant. (Does this sound similar?)

As John Maxwell Hamilton chronicled in Journalism's Roving Eye, a magisterial look at foreign reporting, President Wilson was secretly negotiating a treaty that had, as a core principle, the provenance of openness and honesty. This irony would prove to be among the reasons for the treaty's downfall. China knew about Wilson's secret talks with Germany about annexing Chinese territory to Japan, and leaked this language to a Chinese-American journalist who worked for the Chicago Tribune. (China leaked first!)

Upon publication, it caused an outcry in the U.S. Senate, which hardened suspicions that Wilson was not being forthcoming.

The secrecy itself wouldn't have been a problem if Wilson had explained what he meant by "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at," or had indicated a willingness to negotiate broadly.

It didn't really mean that every sensitive point of world diplomacy had to be in the open. Isolationists in America were aghast at this idea. Rather, according to Hamilton, Wilson meant "no treaties would be created without citizens knowing that negotiations had taken place and having a chance to discuss the terms later."

Belatedly, as Wilson realized he was losing the battle of public opinion, he personally leaked a copy of the treaty provisions to Swope that involved reparations to Germany.

It did not work. German-Americans obviously opposed the harsh financial penalties on Germany. Irish-Americans thought the treaty was too easy on Britain.

The mixed messages hardened opposition in the U.S. Senate, where the Treaty was defeated. Wilson suffered a stroke in the middle of a nationwide tour to try and gin up support for it.

A lesson from history: Wilson assumed a narrative and failed to control it, trying belatedly to change public opinion with leaks, but was unable to sell a treaty that had been tagged from birth with the color of foreign influence and secret deals.

 

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