The actual language is illuminating: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
It’s important to remember that Wilson’s Fourteen Points were in part a capitalist counterpoint to the Russian Revolution, which had occurred only two months earlier and was accompanied by the publication of secret treaties and this statement by Leon Trotsky:
“Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests. Imperialism, with its dark plans of conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest level.”
Among the documents the revolutionary Soviets released were the secret protocols of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which proposed to divide much of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence, with Tsarist Russia to get much of present-day Turkey. This did not ennoble the cause of the Triple Entente, but it surprised no one with even a passing familiarity with the big-power realpolitik that produced it.
Thus secrecy has been a matter of white-hot controversy throughout modern times and has been employed for causes generally embraced today (the Sons of Liberty, cited by Obama in his surveillance speech this month) and for some that are still matters of contention (the Manhattan Project, for example, or American overtures to 1980s “moderates” in Iran).
Into this polarizing vortex we now mix the “president knows best” impulse, favored by some presidents (George W. Bush) but not employed by others (Franklin Roosevelt, who also faced tremendous national-security threats).
Obama clearly is troubled — tortured, you might say, if that were not a loaded word in this context — by this issue, torn by what he thinks is right and by what he thinks about when he confronts the threats the country faces by groups hostile to American interests and the American way of life. In some ways, his life is a struggle to reconcile the one with the other.