A. Scott Berg ’71 is a member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees, which recently voted to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson 1879 from the School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college that bore his name. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Berg is also the author of Wilson, the bestselling 2013 biography of the former University and American president. PAW spoke to Berg about changing assessments of Wilson and how we should view him today.
Did you agree with the decision to remove Wilson’s name?
Yes. For me, the decision was complicated and correct. History keeps evolving, and so must institutions if they wish to remain vibrant and relevant. Nobody understood that better than Wilson himself, who jolted Princeton when he hired its first Jewish and Catholic faculty members and fought to rid the campus of its exclusivity by challenging the club system. It was that very crusade to diversify and democratize Princeton that captured national attention and catapulted him from academia to the White House in just two years.
Are you concerned that the focus on Wilson’s racism will erase recognition of his positive achievements?
I’m concerned that it might — because time tends to shrink significant events and people to bullet points and thumbnails; and I would hate to see one of the most idealistic figures in history — and Princeton’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner — reduced to a one-word epithet.
Biographers also confront “presentism” — the tendency to apply contemporary values while interpreting the past. In the case of Wilson, long ranked among our greatest presidents, increased focus on racism has demoted him in the last few decades. That particular reassessment is long overdue, though it should be examined with a wide lens. When Wilson ran for president in 1912, avowed members of the Ku Klux Klan proudly served in the Senate and “separate but equal” was the law of the land. After 13 years of research, I found Wilson to be a centrist on race matters. But today, his allowing Jim Crow back into the federal offices — which quickly permeated most of American society and remained for half a century — has become a hallmark of his administration and rendered him an extremist. Wilson’s got to own that resegregation, and people of every successive era must reckon the extent to which that should define the rest of his predominantly progressive career.
Would you write your book differently today?
I don’t think so, because I feel I dealt with him fairly, especially in detailing what I consider his “genteel racism.” Wilson was not a hater, and it would have been far too simplistic to tar him with that brush. He did not equate segregation with subjugation; and his basic desire to avoid “friction” between blacks and whites — as well as political expediency — dictated most of his racial policy. That said, I also show numerous instances of his ignoring blatant inequality that he could have fixed, and in what I consider his most egregious act of omission he failed to acknowledge some 350,000 African American soldiers who served on the Western Front. Their return in 1919 provided an opportunity for Wilson to welcome them home with first-class citizenship, and I think his failure to do so ignited several months of white-supremacist terrorism and rioting known as the “Red Summer.”
You have also written a biography of Charles Lindbergh, another person whose accomplishments are stained by accusations of bigotry. How do you write about complicated figures like that?
With as much objectivity as possible. I don’t break ground on any of my books with a thesis and then look for evidence to support it; I try instead to draw material from a wide variety of documents and witnesses, and I let the many voices I encounter reveal the story to me.
In writing about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism and his role in the America First movement, I had access to unpublished and unexpurgated diaries of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and the first drafts of the speeches he delivered; I spent an afternoon with the elegant R. Douglas Stuart Jr. ’37, who had been a law student in New Haven when he and a few friends (Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart, and Sargent Shriver) started the America First Committee; I interviewed a Jewish doctor whom Lindbergh had helped escape from Nazi Germany; and combing through newspapers, I found that FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes called Lindbergh “the number-one fellow traveler of the Nazis in the United States.” I present all those pieces to readers so that they can arrive at their own informed conclusions.
How should Princetonians think about Woodrow Wilson in 2020?
First of all, we should keep thinking about him — because, for better or worse, he created much of the world in which we live today, from the infrastructure of our economy to the foundation of our foreign policy, and he converted Princeton from a lazy country club into the rigorous beacon of higher education that attracted each of us. For me, Wilson was a great man with tragic flaws — a 19th-century son of the South who thrust the United States into a 20th-century world. He accomplished great things, and he inflicted great harm.
For the last few years, I’ve been reviewing a lot of civil-rights history through the eyes of Thurgood Marshall, my next subject, and I believe we’re now witnessing a historic moment in the struggle for racial equality in this country, one of truly heightened awareness and nationwide commitment. I think our University should be part of that movement. Ironically, the grand gesture of removing Wilson’s name from the School and the College becomes a bold enactment of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” the very words he delivered at the University’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1896.
And since 2014, anybody passing through the FitzRandolph Gate will also find that our informal motto, carved into the walkway leading to Nassau Hall, has been enhanced by a few words Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 suggested: “and the service of humanity.”
I believe Wilson would approve of these changes cropping up on our campus, as they’re all part of the ongoing constructive engagement with our past that empowers us to keep adapting for the future. “We are not put into this world to sit still and know,” he said at his inauguration as Princeton’s president in 1902; “we are put into it to act.”
Interview conducted and condensed by M.F.B.