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Our Prophet 
of Peace

Wilson: Pusillanimous humbug or great leader?

By From the March 2014 issue

Woodrow Wilson opening game 1916 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Wilson
By A. Scott Berg

(Putnam, 832 pages, $40)

This is an interesting book about a very interesting subject, on whom the needle of agreed judgment has failed, more agitatedly than with most American presidents, to settle on a consensus. To his detractors, Woodrow Wilson was a naïve interloper, infusing deadly serious strategic considerations with sophomoric nonsense about “open covenants openly arrived at”; a hyper-righteous, puritanical Presbyterian inflicting absurd restraints on America’s natural allies for the benefit of her enemies; an innocent abroad in a diplomatic Babylon whose ineffectual, feckless amateurism inadvertently assisted dictatorial aggression and the development and spread of totalitarianism. His positions of “watchful waiting” and “being too proud to fight” were just pusillanimous humbug.

To his admirers, Woodrow Wilson was voice of sanity and intelligence and a prophet of peace and international law, as well as an effective war leader and a distinguished reforming president. The admirers are much closer to the truth, and Scott Berg, though not uncritical of his subject, is among them. Wilson rescued the Democratic party from its oscillations between the harebrained populist bimetallism of three-time defeated presidential standard-bearer William Jennings Bryan, and the rule of the big-city party bosses sustained by patronage and exploitation of immigrant masses, last represented as a presidential candidate by Alton B. Parker, the sacrificial offering to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. Wilson brought back the thoughtful reform party of Grover Cleveland and Samuel J. Tilden, who was robbed of the 1876 election but agreed to concede if Rutherford B. Hayes ended both the military occupation of the South and the exclusion of southerners from the cabinet. (Hayes, an officer and a gentleman, did away with both.) Wilson set the Democrats on the path of rational reform that would be pursued by Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, and even Lyndon B. Johnson, before the Democrats crumbled under the pressures of Vietnam and fell into the hands of completely unsuitable people such as the McGoverns, Carters, Mondales, and opprobrious candidates of more recent vintage who shall remain nameless.

When the associations of (liberal) American historians first began 50 years ago compiling composite lists of the presidents in order of the general esteem in which they were held, Wilson came fourth behind the universally admired triumvirate of Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and just ahead of Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jackson, and Truman. The just-retired Dwight D. Eisenhower was then 22nd. As time has elapsed, Wilson has slipped, Eisenhower has closed in on Truman, Reagan has parachuted himself in close to the big three, and the swiftly advancing challenger on the outside is Richard Nixon, who, as cant and emotionalism subside, is given credit for the outstanding successes he wrought from the catastrophic year of 1968 to the negotiated end of the Vietnam War in 1973. Time has brought not only a heightened appreciation of many Republican presidents, including Grant (now championed for retention on the $50 bill by senior resident Democratic historian Sean Willentz, albeit probably just to keep Reagan off it), Taft, and Coolidge, but also Wilson’s being delivered as a burnt offering to Republicans.

Woodrow Wilson’s achievements as president would normally qualify him to retain his original position, apart from the undoubted claims of Reagan: He reduced the tariff, enacted the Clayton Antitrust Act, founded the Federal Reserve, vastly increased conservation activities, ended Taft’s dollar diplomacy foreign policy, accentuated anti-monopoly initiatives without resorting to the sort of scorched earth terror campaign against commerce and finance favored by the Obama administration, and vetoed the Volstead Act that brought in Prohibition, though Congress overrode his objection. Thus the most insane legislative initiative of the United States in the 20th century (until the War on Drugs) was adopted, the individual rights of Americans were curtailed, and one of the country’s largest industries was handed to what soon, thus lubricated, became organized crime. Wilson’s hands were as clean as his judgment was sober. Practically his only setback was the punitive expedition to Mexico, following factional raids by bandits into New Mexico during the prolonged and sanguinary Mexican Civil War. John J. Pershing flailed about inside Mexico, rousing Mexican hatred of the gringos without apprehending any of the major provocateurs, while Wilson unsuccessfully sought a face-saving way to extract himself from the chaos. The violence could have, but did not, serve as a convincing cautionary tale for the sort of reception that awaited further such interventionist ministrations down the road. Wilson at least mobilized enough men to protect the southern border, and made his exit eventually. The Mexican fiasco hardly prepared Pershing for the Western Front: Pancho Villa and Victoriano Huerta were no Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Wilson steered judiciously clear of World War I and was re-elected in 1916 in a very close race, edging out Charles Evans Hughes, a future secretary of state and Supreme Court chief justice. A century earlier, Madison had been provoked to war by British outrages against the U.S. on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. Wilson faced no such impertinences from the British and French. The blockade of Germany and its allies was an inconvenience, but one easily compensated for by the greatly increased commercial traffic with Britain and France. And the threat of the U.S. entering the war was sufficient to deter more than occasional German submarine attacks on American shipping until the German General Staff, afflicted by the same suicidal underestimation of American righteous strength that persuaded the Japanese of the wisdom of attacking Pearl Harbor and Stalin of the strategic genius of entering into the Cold War, forced Wilson’s hand by sinking American flag merchant vessels on sight in 1917.

Wilson had remained neutral as long as possible, but he could not stand for such an outrage. It must rank as one of the most brilliant policy improvisations of modern times that instead of just huffing and puffing and going to war as Madison had (very ineffectually—the United States never did penetrate more than 60 miles into Canada, even then only at the cost of having Washington occupied and partly burned), Wilson announced that the United States was going to war “to make the world safe for democracy” and was entering “a war to end war.” His message to Congress on April 2, 1917, was one of many great speeches in his career, and one of the most overpoweringly eloquent ever delivered at the U.S. Capitol, concluding: “The day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.” The exhausted Allies, whom Wilson designated as “associates” in order to preserve the moral impartiality of the United States and make the distinction between the despotic Imperial German government and the German people who were its victims also, were uplifted. The French had already taken over 1.5 million dead and the British about half as many, yet their exhausted populations applied themselves to the war with redoubled fervor. After a few months to crank up, Wilson delivered two divisions a week to France, with minimal losses despite the German submarine danger, and proved to be one of America’s very greatest war leaders.

As all the world knows, in his effort to produce a conciliatory peace, he lost control of the negotiations, and what resulted was a peace that filled Germany with a repressed hunger for vengeance without durably subduing it, and one that Wilson’s opponents at home, taking advantage of his complete inflexibility, were able to sabotage. The League of Nations was launched without the United States; the promised defensive alliance between the U.S., Great Britain, and France, which would have prevented World War II, was not set up; and the United States lapsed back into the mindless isolationism of Harding’s 1920s, to the sound of jazz, the speakeasy, and the stock ticker. Berg ascribes responsibility for his subject’s mishandling of negotiations in Paris and in Washington to his declining medical condition and a sequence of small strokes, which culminated in Wilson’s complete collapse. If anything had gone differently—tactically, medically, or if his incapacitation had been acknowledged and the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, had taken over—enough would have been salvaged of Wilson’s grand vision to have made another world war unlikely.

In sum, Woodrow Wilson emerges from this readable and comprehensive book a very capable and talented and successful president. He was also a great prophet who was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with a vision of enduring peace and of a supranational community of interest. With the exception of Jefferson, and perhaps of John Quincy Adams, he was the greatest intellectual who has ever occupied the White House. At a human level, he was a dangerously obstinate man who was frequently impossible to reason with—he seems to have believed that the United States won World War I, a view not borne out by the facts. But he was also good humored, and he comes out of this account more sympathetically than his great rival, Theodore Roosevelt, who emerges as a neurotically bellicose egomaniac. Lloyd George is shown as a clever and able scoundrel, Clemenceau as a tiger of cynical but cultured and ferocious vengeance, which is right on both counts. Winston Churchill comes off as having been rather anti-American until a least a decade after Wilson’s death, by which time America had become the only port in the inter-war storm, when he began extolling the collective virtues of the English-speaking peoples.

Scott Berg, like many biographers well-dispositioned toward their subjects, gives Wilson the benefit of some doubt more often than he deserves. Wilson was a Virginia racist, if one tempered by Christian civility, and he doesn’t deserve Berg’s apologia. Wilson’s dogmatic, professorial, low-church Protestant rigidity deserves more of the blame for the disaster of the peace than Berg assigns—it cannot all be laid on his medical condition. Yet Calvin Coolidge, whom Wilson himself considered an honest and decent man, spoke nothing but the truth in his official statement on Wilson’s death: “He gave utterance to the aspiration of humanity with an eloquence which held the attention of all the earth and made America a new and enlarged influence in the destiny of mankind.” 

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About the Author

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, both published by PublicAffairs Books.