Woodrow Wilson

A Noble Failure: Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency Considered

A new biography makes the case for Woodrow Wilson as an unrecognized great American president. Michael Kazin isn’t convinced.

Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty

Few Americans who care about their nation’s past think fondly of Woodrow Wilson; the ahistorical majority probably doesn’t think about him at all. Six presidents in the 20th century managed to win re-election; Wilson is the only one who lacks a distinguishing trait—such as FDR’s perpetual smile, Nixon’s angry paranoia, or Reagan’s hearty optimism—or a nickname—like Dick, or Ike, or Bill. And he achieved nothing, like the New Deal or a conservative “revolution,” that would earn him either mass hatred or reverence today.

But Wilson’s time in office was, in fact, of enormous consequence. A devout Presbyterian and crusading liberal, he struggled mightily to put his grand ideals into practice. Yet his deeds had a way of defying his purposes, and he left the White House as an invalid and perceived as a failure.

With the help of a Democratic Congress, Wilson established the Federal Reserve System, launched the progressive income tax, forged an alliance with organized labor, and, bowing to spirited protests by feminists, called for passage of the woman suffrage amendment. At the same time, however, he let two powerful cabinet secretaries segregate their departments and hosted a screening of The Birth of a Nation—giving tacit approval to D.W. Griffith’s splendidly crafted, flagrantly racist film.

Wilson’s international record was plagued by even greater contradictions. He hoped the Mexican Revolution would bring “self-government” to its people—and dispatched Marines to Vera Cruz to overthrow the country’s new leader whom he despised. For nearly three years, Wilson kept the U.S. from entering the slaughterhouse of World War I. Only a “peace without victory,” he argued, could justify the sacrifice of millions of lives. But, in April 1917, goaded by U-Boat attacks and a zeal to remake the global disorder, he persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany, proclaiming “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Lawmakers quickly initiated the first draft since the Civil War and passed an Espionage Act that made nearly all vocal opposition to the military build-up a criminal offense. It remains on the books today, as Edward Snowden recently discovered.

Finally, after two million U.S. troops had forced the Kaiser’s government to agree to an Armistice, Wilson traveled to Paris to help write a treaty that would set up a League of Nations which might really end all wars. But he could not prevent the European victors from holding on to their empires. Then, the U.S. Senate—led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge—voted the entire treaty down.

Wilson could only bewail the defeat in private. In the fall of 1919, after returning from an exhausting trip to sell the treaty in the Western states, he had suffered a massive stroke. During the remaining seventeen months of his presidency, he was completely dependent upon his wife Edith and a few close aides. Sadly, it would have been better for his historical reputation if Wilson had died on the stump, martyr to an uncompleted, if blemished, quest.

A. Scott Berg is the latest writer to try to make sense of this complicated president—and to describe how his fifty-seven years before ascending to the White House might explain how he behaved when he got there. No previous biographer has told the story so well. Berg, author of bestsellers about the lives of Charles Lindbergh and Katherine Hepburn, captures Wilson’s brilliance as a writer, orator, and the president of Princeton without minimizing his self-destructive aversion to compromise, both as an academic and politician, or his ability to be what his Secretary of State called “a wonderful hater.”

At length and without melodrama, Berg describes Wilson’s restless passion for his first wife Ellen, who died in 1914, and then for Edith, whom he wed, amid controversy, just sixteen months later. He also adeptly narrates Wilson’s furious struggles against Republicans at home and prime ministers abroad while pausing to insert small but memorable anecdotes that reveal the mingling of the political with the personal. On Valentine’s Day in 1919, the president found a way to sneak the First Lady and his physician, Cary Grayson, into a critical meeting of the peace conference, where only participants were allowed: “At the far end of the great salon, opposite the great clock, heavy red brocade curtains concealed a narrow alcove…they could take their places before the diplomats arrived and remain until the last of them had exited. By peeking through the curtains, they could witness this moment of history.”

Berg uncovers few significant details that previous biographers—the best of whom are Arthur Link and John Milton Cooper, Jr.—neglected. Still, unlike his scholarly predecessors, he actually convinces you to like the man, who was nearly always photographed with pursed lips and a stiff collar worn up against his chin.

Unfortunately, Berg makes less of an effort than did Link and Cooper to understand Wilson as a man of his times; his talent as a biographer tends to overwhelm his desire to be a historian. He gushes about his subject’s energetic eloquence, pointing out that Wilson was the last president to write all his own speeches. Yet fine orators were abundant in American politics at the turn-of-century America (William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, and Robert La Follette made their reputations on the stump), and Berg fails to explain how Wilson soared above the rest.

Similarly, he quotes Wilson’s firm conviction, after being elected in 1912, that “God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” A century later, no liberal politician would talk like that. But it seemed far less presumptuous in an era when evangelical Protestanism was the unofficial faith of the land. Here, as elsewhere, Berg focuses tightly on contingencies but underrates the contexts which give them meaning.

Nor does he have much appetite for making judgments about the most profound decision Wilson made: to take his nation into the Great War. At first, Wilson took seriously his admonition to Americans to “be impartial in thought, as well as action.” As late as the winter of 1916, he declared that the war was unjust because it was fundamentally undemocratic: “This war was brought on by rulers, not by the people; and I thank God that there is no man in America who has the authority to bring war on without the consent of the people.” Until early in 1917, he even held friendly meetings with key members of the anti-war movement, most of whom supported him for re-election believing he would “keep us out of war.”

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On the other hand, the president was a lifelong Anglophile; his mother was born in Britain, his greatest political heroes were Edmund Burke and William Gladstone, and the Lake District was his favorite place on earth. Less than a month after Europeans went to war, he told his closest advisor, Colonel Edward House, that a German victory “would change the course of our civilization and make the United States a militarist nation.” Fatefully, Wilson did not insist that American business stay neutral in deed. So J.P. Morgan became the banker for the Allies, and American food and steel kept the British war effort going. All that aid helped lift the U.S. out of a serious recession.

Wilson’s decision to protest and eventually go to war to resist one side’s violation of neutral rights—Germany’s U-Boat warfare—and not the other side’s—Britain’s blockade of Germany, meant that the US was not really impartial. Given the superiority of the British Navy on the Atlantic, submarine warfare was the only response the Germans could have made to the blockade of their country. So it was only a matter of time before they provoked the U.S. into declaring war.

American intervention played the critical role in ending the war the way it did. What turned the tide against Germany was not the actual fighting done by US troops, nearly all of which occurred in the final six months of the conflict. German generals recognized they had no ability to counter the two million fresh “doughboys” who would be arriving at the front by the summer of 1918. So, that spring, they threw nearly all their able forces into a final offensive in northern France. But their supply lines were too long, and their army too small, exhausted, and demoralized to achieve its objectives.

We know the tragic consequences which ensued. There was to be no “peace without victory.” As Wilson could have predicted, the punitive settlement made in Paris did not last. Most historians now agree that Wilson could have won Senate approval for the peace treaty, if he had accepted some of the reservations which Lodge and his supporters demanded. But American membership in the League of Nations would not have stopped the rise of fascism, Nazism, or the Communist International—which, together, sowed the seeds of the next world war. So the terrible irony is that US entry into World War I made that next and far bloodier global conflict more likely.

As the historian John Coogan wrote, “It was the genius of Woodrow Wilson which recognized that a lasting peace must be ‘a peace without victory.’ It was the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson that his own unneutrality would be a major factor in bringing about the decisive Allied victory that made a healing peace impossible.”

Berg, characteristically, refrains from offering anything resembling a definitive conclusion. He ends his always graceful portrait by quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served under Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and continued to admire his mentor’s vision of “public service, liberal thought, the extension of democracy, and peace through justice.” Wilson’s “lengthening shadow” over our own time, Berg suggests, should earn him a place in the pantheon of great, if flawed, leaders of the nation.

Yet his biography is unlikely to alter the unhappy reputation of the president whose idealism outpaced his powers. Like Lyndon Johnson fifty years later, Wilson gambled that he could carry out sweeping reforms at home while sending a vast army to fight a war of choice abroad. The reforms endure; fortunately, his tolerance for Jim Crow does not. But Wilson’s failed gamble that a war could banish both war and tyranny from the earth still casts the most enduring shadow over his legacy.