Woodrow Wilson ’79.
Princeton University Archives

The author is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Since 1953, he has been a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This article was originally given as an address at the commemorative dinner marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Woodrow Wilson, held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennan retains copyright. The photograph of Woodrow Wilson on the facing page is courtesy of the University Archives. Firestone Library. – Editor (1974).

It comes as a rather unexpected jolt – one feels one’s self, in fact, somewhat taken aback – to be turning once more, amid all the passions and preoccupations of our own time, to the once-familiar but now, for many people, somewhat obscured figure of Woodrow Wilson, this extraordinary man who once clothed, or was clothed by, the highest office of this land. It is not that it was really so long ago. His presidency occurred during what I might call the politically conscious lifetime of many of us who are still around. And it certainly could not be said that the period of his presidency was a dull or uneventful one in the life of the nation. On the contrary, it coincided with what I personally believe to have been the most crucial and in a sense the most fateful years in the history of modern Western civilization; he was obliged to shape American policy in the face of the greatest single catastrophe – namely, the First World War – that this civilization has ever suffered. No American statesman, unless it be Lincoln, had ever faced a heavier responsibility.

But so stormy has been the development of our world environment and of our country itself in the 50 years that have passed since Wilson’s death; so traumatic have been the happenings of this period; so many have been the curtains raised by intervening events between our present concerns and our historical memory; and so great, finally, is our present bewilderment, so poorly do we understand what has happened to us over these past five decades, where we have come from, and where we are going, that it is not easy to establish, when suddenly called upon to do so, the relationship between Wilson’s experience – his aspirations, his achievements, his failures – and the various predicaments that mark our situation today.

It is not hard, of course, to recall the main circumstances of that experience and the personality by which it was borne. There is something unforgettable in fact about the figure itself: the fine, strong, lively face with the grey eyes and the prominent, determined chin; the impeccable, elegant attire; the impressive public presence in which vigor and cheerfulness and affability were combined as few others could combine them with a perfect courtesy and dignity, and finally, the firm oratorical competence: the intellectual ascendancy, the lucidity and polish and grace of public utterance. No man in modern times, to my mind, ever better looked or acted the part of an American president.

We even see now in the light of the excellent historical literature that has recently become available to us something of the immensely complex composition of the inner man – the richness of contradiction that marked his personality, the mixture of the cold and the warm, the practical and the visionary, the wise and the naïve, the ambitious and the selfless. And we see the comparable contradictions in his political style: the elaborate deference and attention to the Congress on the one hand (Wilson showed a greater punctiliousness in this respect, I believe, than had any president for a hundred years before him), and yet, on the other hand, at times a deep distrust of the whole legislative and political establishment, national and international, and a persistent tendency to go over the heads of that establishment and to appeal to the masses of the people with a view to making them his allies against all these intervening powers and principalities.

We see too a man whose intuitive judgments on points of principle were very often, in the light of history, extremely perceptive and accurate, a man who was at his best when he was putting these judgments forward and moving to establish them in the public mind and who was by no means unreasonable or impractical or unconstructive in working out with others the application of these determinations of principle, once they had been accepted, but a man who at the same time was easily put off and made uncertain and caused to flounder if his declarations of principle were challenged and frustrated, if he was forced to compromise what he thought was on principle sound and right.

And we see, finally, the great loneliness of this man as a statesman, a loneliness which to some extent perhaps was inseparable from the high office he occupied but which, for personal reasons, seems to me to have been particularly acute in his case. He described that loneliness himself, consciously or subconsciously, in the beautiful tribute to Abraham Lincoln which he delivered at the latter’s birthplace in 1916. It was a very lonely spirit, he said then, speaking of Lincoln,

…that looked out from underneath those shaggy brows and comprehended men without fully communing with them, as if, in spite of all its genial efforts at comradeship, it dwelt apart, saw its visions of duty where no man looked on. There is a very holy and very terrible isolation for the conscience of every man who seeks to read the destiny in affairs for others as well as for himself, for a nation as well as for individuals. That privacy no man can intrude upon.

All this we see in the man. And it is also not difficult to recall the salient features of the experience that flowed from the interaction of this personality with the challenges and events of his time. One remembers the excellent contributions to the internal development of American society that marked the initial years of his presidency, the many perceptive and forward-looking reforms with respect to finance and business and labor and agriculture. One remembers, too, the long struggle during the first years of the World War to persuade the Congress to improve the defenses of the country for the event that it should be dragged by the force of circumstances into a war it did not desire. These seem to me to have been among his finest, certainly his most successful, efforts.

Wilson did his utmost to keep the country out of the First World War. He saw, up to 1917, no clear American interest in the things that the warring parties professed to be fighting for. With the causes of the war, he said, less than a year before our entry into it, “We are not concerned. The obscure fountains from which its stupendous flood has burst forth we are not interested to search for or explore.” But there were forces that threatened to sweep the country into the war: our commitment to the principles of neutrality; the pro-entente sympathies of much of the Eastern establishment; the heavy-handed stupidities of the German high command. These were forces outside his control. He saw them coming and struggled against them. He struggled against them, above all, by trying desperately to bring the war to an end at the time when it should have ended – in 1916, before we could be dragged into it and before old Europe could complete the destruction of the cream of its youth and complete the tearing of itself to pieces. We see how hard he worked to get the warring powers to accept the idea of a compromise peace, how little responsive they proved to be, intoxicated as they were with their military fixations and extravagant war aims, and how little real loyalty and support he received at this moment from some of those in his entourage to whom he looked for just these things. And one sees him swept then by these forces which were too much for him – which would have been too much for anybody – into the maelstrom of war, compelled against his will to lead the country into a vast conflagration, the causes of which he did not fully understand or respect and in the outcome of which he had only a dimmed and doubtful confidence, compelled to associate himself and his people with allies now partially blind with the passions of war, their vision distorted by bitterness, hatred, fear, and in some instances cupidity, confronting adversaries similarly motivated and similarly committed.

And now he was faced with the task of finding an adequate rationale for a war effort we had not been able to avoid. The ostensible reasons for our involvement were, when closely examined, ironic and absurd. It was a curious procedure, on the face of it, to vindicate one’s neutral rights by abandoning all neutrality. What sense did make, one could ask, to sacrifice the totality of one’s neutrality in the name of protecting a portion of it? Of course, the defense of neutral rights was not the only reason for our entry. But precisely because the real reasons were ones outside of our own control, precisely because the country was brought to war by forces over which it was not the conscious master, because this helplessness was too great to be confessed, because the recognition of it could never have provided an adequate basis for war morale in a great democratic nation, Wilson had no choice but to cast about for a better, more plausible, and more inspiring concept of what we were fighting for, even if it had to be somewhat forced and not fully consistent with his previous positions.

He did his best. He proceeded to formulate and enunciate (and no one could have done it more eloquently) a concept of war aims and hopes for the postwar future that could justify not only our war sacrifices and losses but the much greater ones of our allies and associates as well. The result of this effort was the famous vision with which we are all familiar: the great vision of a world without war, of an international society based on law and liberal justice and organized for their support, a society where force would be ruled out as the arbiter of events and where the strong would accept a benevolent responsibility for the weak. He had entertained this concept even earlier, before we were obliged to enter the war. He had hoped, at that time, to make this country the instrument of its realization precisely by keeping us aloof from the war, by preserving the vigor of our economy, by preserving our freshness, our fidelity to our own ideals, our innocence, if you will, as the great reserve of strength and hope for the creation of a new world. Now he was forced to alter this image and to persuade people that we could successfully pursue this same vision not by keeping out of the war but precisely by getting into it. And he was also forced, as the war approached its end, to try to enlist behind this vision the assent and enthusiasm of embittered, over-wrought allies, still consumed by the passions of the struggle and the dreams of revenge.

All this was of course too much. No man could have accomplished it. Fifty years later, a great many people would come to understanding, in the light of the development of nuclear weaponry, that the vision he put forward might be not just the dream of an idealist but was the price for the survival of civilization. In 1918, few could see this, few, particularly, who sat in the seats of power. The vision had no greater commendation than his own faith and his own persuasiveness. And we all know the outcome, that endlessly tragic outcome: the rebuff in Paris at the hands of the Allied leaders; the desperate effort to save the concept of the League of Nations even if it had to be at the cost of acceptance of a German peace treaty that accorded neither with his hopes nor with what he conceived himself to have promised the Germans in his Fourteen Points speech; then the crushing – to him almost inconceivable and unendurable – blow of the emergent opposition to the League itself in the American Senate; finally, his desperate effort to take his case to the country, to enlist the support of common people across the country, of those popular masses in whose enlightenment and idealism and confidence in himself he had always so touchingly believed, to enlist this support against the obstruction of the legislators; and then, of course, the breakdown of his health in the midst of this Western speaking tour, the final rejection of the treaty, and the sad last years; a man broken in body and spirit, the greatest work of a lifetime seemingly destroyed, possibilities for usefulness, which only a short time before had seemed of transcendent and universal importance, now suddenly and irrecoverably lost.

I have never been an admirer of all of Woodrow Wilson’s political philosophy. Insofar as it continued to affect the minds of people down to our own age, I have felt obliged to take issue, more than once, with elements of it from the academic lecture platform. But I can think of no career in our public life more tragic than this – tragic in the classical Greek sense of man as the victim of his own contradictions – the plaything of forces within himself, yet beyond his control.


Well, then, where does this leave us? How do we relate this figure, this experience, to our own time? Tragedy, it would seem, yields no specific, concrete answers to anything, particularly not the passing problems of a later age. Tragedy sits there, sphinxlike and enigmatic, brooding over its human victims, hugging its secret to itself.

I could, of course, point to specific insights in Woodrow Wilson’s philosophy that seem to me to have been of great importance not just for the people of his time but even more of us. These would be in particular the insights relating to the uses of war, in its modern aspect, as a weapon of policy: his very proper distrust of the value of total military victory, his skepticism of the reality and permanence of a victor’s peace imposed on other people by the force of arms; and his immensely penetrating and significant recognition that modern war is not just an instrument with which you do ghastly things to other people but an instrument which, however successful in the strict military sense, does ghastly things to you as well, and to the texture of our own civilization, to the integrity of your own ideals, to the humanity of your youth, to your image of your own society.

I could talk about all these things. They deserve attention. But from the standpoint of our inquiry now, as we look back over this 50-year interval that separates us from the moment of Wilson’s death, there is something more central and more important, and that is the image of the man himself, as he stood there in the midst of all his strivings. For in that image there were elements – the stern sense of duty, the high concept of public office, the total personal integrity, the dedication to public interest, and above all, the persistent, never-flagging effort to formulate an elevated concept of the purposes of this nation and of its function in the pattern of world history, to articulate this concept before the people at large and bring them to share it, in short, to encourage Americans to take a higher and more inspiring view of themselves as a people. All of these were elements in the Wilsonian image applicable today not just to those in high office but to all of us who take any part at all in the public affairs of the country. They were elements timeless in their value, as applicable to any one age in the life of a democratic society as to any others, elements which only at their peril will people of our time stamp as old-fashioned or outdated.

It is not for us to harbor certainties about what really constituted success or failure in the work or an earlier statesman. We understand too poorly the stuff of our own time to be the perfect judges of the relationships between cause and effect in another one. What stands out in Woodrow Wilson, what we can respect and hold in memory and draw wisdom from, was primarily the texture of the effort in itself. It was an effort more important in its intrinsic quality and in its eloquence as an example than in its tangible and visible results.

It can be said of Woodrow Wilson that he gave to the interests of the country and of the world, as he perceived them, everything that God had given him in the way of natural endowment: his intelligence, his physical strength, his idealism, his belief in the national community of which he was a part, and his capacity for faith in something higher than any national community at all.

What more could anyone ask?

Let the man who is conscious of no failures in his own life reproach Woodrow Wilson for the ones attributed to him. Let the man who thinks he has made a finer effort than this look condescendingly, if it pleases him, on the gallant and tragic figure.

This was originally published in the October 1, 1974 issue of PAW.