Wilson’s writings, stored in these files, are expected to fill 48 volumes.
John W. H. Simpson ’66

As we gathered up our notes, we asked Arthur S. Link if there are special problems involved in editing a person’s papers and at the same time writing that person’s biography.

“No. Quite the contrary. The two are mutually self-supporting. Much of what is in the Wilson Papers has come as a result of my having discovered material for the biography.” He had written two volumes of it before being chosen in 1958 to edit the Papers. He called this kind of edited collection “the perfect, complete biographical form. There is no way a biography, however long and good, can reveal the complete range and dept of thought, personality, and actions, of its subject. The biographer is constrained – whether writing in one volume or eight – to impose a structure on the subject’s life: something based on the biographer’s subjective judgment.

“The editor of a large series of papers is able, through the very documents themselves, to let the subject and the people around him speak for themselves, tell their own story. The editor becomes the architect in a sense, but he is the servant of the subject; he subordinates himself. In a biography the subject inevitably takes a form imposed upon him by the biographer. In the documents, the subject produces, in effect, his own autobiography – but a fuller, more objective autobiography than he could possibly write, since the autobiographer has many of the same problems a biographer has. In a large collection of papers, you face the documents and print them.

“There is no way a biographer can fully and truly show a human being. You can say that so-and-so was thoughtful and kind, but when you print his correspondence the reader can see him in action. In Wilson’s busiest periods, in times of greatest crisis, you find him taking the time to thank someone for a small favor, to thank a chauffeur for driving him on some trip.”

We asked Link if he ever regretted giving up work on the biography. He shook his head. “When I took over the editing of the Papers, I made the decision to give myself to it as long as the job required, out of a deep conviction that this was the most important thing I could do. More important than the biography. And I have done it cheerfully despite the laments of my friends, who are impatient for me to get on with the biography. Working with the Papers has deepened and informed my understanding of Wilson, and I am eager to get back, now, to the biography, which, if the Lord gives me life and strength, I should be able to do in 1984, when I expect to be through with the editing. Though Volume 27 has just come out, Volume 34 is nearly ready for publication.” Link has a staff of three professional historians assisting him with the Papers. “They are my strength and stay,” he said. “I couldn’t get out even a volume a year (we produced four volumes last year) without them and the supporting staff.”

We volunteered that in our recent study of Wilson we had found him much more appealing – more, well, human – than we had supposed him to be, particularly in his warm, close, often amusing relationships with his family. We were moved and saddened by the tragedy of his final years, and wondered if Link approaches the writing of his biography’s last volumes with reluctance. “I don’t expect to find it too depressing,” he replied, “because I will be dealing with a multiplicity of other characters whom I hope to handle with sympathy and understanding. But the last years will be difficult to write; one does become emotionally involved. I found editing Volume 30 of the Papers, in which the first Mrs. Wilson dies, extremely upsetting emotionally.”

Wasn’t Wilson, in fact, too sensitive, too emotionally vulnerable a man to have tried to make it in national politics? “Actually, Wilson promised his first wife – after becoming so upset during his battles as president of Princeton – that in politics he would keep himself detached emotionally, and he succeeded remarkable well in doing that until the devastating stroke of October 1919, when the sad and tragic part of his story began. But, interestingly, even during the travail of his illness he preserved a remarkable serenity and detachment because of his confidence in Providence and in the goodness and wisdom of God.

“He once said to his doctor that, disappointed and frustrated as he had been, he believed things would come out well. He really believed that. Even at the end he was serene and at peace with himself, because he always took the long view – forward and backward – the long perspective of history. He spoke frequently of ‘trying to rise above the events of the moment.’ He said constantly at the peace conference that ‘we’ve got to construct a peace that all of the countries involved will want to support 25 years from now.’”

Does Link ever question his decision to devote his working life to one man? “No. Both in writing the biography and in editing the Papers, I have been involved in a very important era – all aspects of it – the transformation of America from an agrarian to an industrial society, from a country isolated and provincial to a great world power. In dealing with Wilson, one is brought into contact not only with great movements and developments but with other individuals as fascinating in their way as Wilson. In the Papers we print not only what Wilson wrote and said but the letters and remarks of many of his contemporaries. My approach to both the biography and the Papers has been more that of the historian than of the pure biographer. Seeing Wilson in the whole context of the time is important for any historian to do.

“As for Wilson himself, people do ask, ‘Don’t you tire of him? How can you spend so much time on one man?’ The answer is very simple. I find him constantly fascinating and intriguing. The way he grows and changes! At intervals the tedious work of the day suddenly explodes when you find something that sets your own imagination afire! The man is full of intellectual surprises! There has never been in American history – except for Jefferson,  Madison, and Lincoln – a political mind so diverse, complex, and far-ranging as Wilson’s. You might ask the same question of students of Bach. In many ways the two men are comparable, Bach in music and Wilson in politics. There is very little in either field that they did not attempt. A musical scholar could spend a lifetime gladly on Bach without boredom. Wilson holds the same fascination for the historian who cares about the philosophy and practice of politics.”

In the preface to Volume 5 of his biography, Link says Wilson’s policy toward German submarine warfare “has been grossly misunderstood by earlier writers, including the present author.” Has Link through the years found himself to have been wrong on many points in his earlier writings? “I think historians in general have been wrong, most particularly on the range of Wilson’s thought, on the quality of his scholarship, on the creativity of his mind, on the remarkable efficiency with which he could put his intelligence to work. And, last but not least, on the essential personality of the man.

“This is not surprising when you consider that, for example, when I began my biography in 1944 many of the most essential materials were not yet available. Wilson’s papers from 1874 to 1897 were discovered in his former Washington home in October 1963. This included many of his family letters, lecture notes, student essays, many unpublished writings: 19,000 documents in all! Before that time, all Wilson papers prior to 1902 were contained in two boxes. We didn’t have access until 1962 to the correspondence between Wilson and his first wife – some 2,800 letters. And not until 1976 were the letters between Wilson and his second wife opened.”

In one of his books Link calls Wilson “the pivot of the 20th century.” What did he mean by that? “He happened to be President at a time when economic and social changes were being forced on America. He laid the foundation for our modern political economy. He was President when, as he put it, ‘in somebody’s wisdom,’ the U.S. had to enter world affairs, for the first time. He was the man who turned things around. The American people were not prepared for the changes that had to be made, but history has a way of taking care of things like that. Wilson helped the American people to accept the fact that there could not be peace in the world without U.S. participation and leadership in international affairs. He was the first real anti-colonialist, the first anti-imperialist statesman of the 20th century.”

Might Carter turn out to be another pivot?

“Our recent obsession with military security has prevented this nation from playing what Wilson saw as its true role in the world. It led to Vietnam. I believe Carter understands that.” Link took from the coffee table a column by James A. Wechsler torn from the New York Post and read aloud:

President Carter’s vulnerabilities are many, but on one issue he exhibits a quiet, continuing tenacity. It could be the battle that determines his place in history. The issue is his pursuit – often in the face of rebuffs abroad and sniping at home – of some semblance of control and deceleration of the nuclear arms race…His roughest trials are still ahead. Let it at least be said that he has so far held to his course on the transcendent issue.

He put the column down. “I don’t think Carter is going to succeed in one or two terms, as Wilson didn’t, but I believe he can begin – has begun – the process. I believe he recognizes that the search for peace has to be unending. The major question confronting mankind is whether we can achieve sufficient disarmament to permit civilization to survive. This country needs to give moral leadership. To work unrelentingly to that end. I don’t think Carter – well,” with a small smile, “he hasn’t ‘preached’ enough, so far; ‘preached’ in the best sense.”

This was originally published in the September 25, 1978 issue of PAW.