Woodrow Wilson ’79
Sidney E. Dickinson

Woodrow Wilson was a very monumental man too, and Princeton men will always follow the progress of his legend, as his stature continues to grow with time and the volume of Wilson studies increases.

Best known and most sympathetic of recent books is by Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson (2 vols., 875 pp., Longmans, Green, $15), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. This is the only complete biography using up-to-date materials and treats him in most readable from as a prophet form a personal point of view. For our tastes it is too sympathetic – in seeking to re-create Wilson’s mind, the author adopts all his judgments and prejudices, and all his opponents, therefore, are wrong. The effect is something like the biography of Ray Stannard Baker, who had to interrupt his subject in the middle of sentences to applaud.

Mr. Walworth doesn’t know much political history, which cannot be said about our next two authors, who are history professors: John M. Blum (Yale), Woodrow Wilson and The Politics of Morality (215 pp., Little, Brown, $3.50) and John A Garratty (Michigan State), Woodrow Wilson (206 pp., Knopf, $2.50). Both are brief, lucid, well written, interpretative rather than detailed, and set him in the context of his times. Our own preference is for Professor Blum’s, even if for symmetry he calls our jovial friend Dean West “dour.”

Both professors discuss Wilson’s peculiar “moralistic” approach to politics and the problem of his strange and complex personality. Judging from the continuous series of nervous breakdowns and psychosomatic illnesses from which he suffered, the man seems to have lived in a state of controlled hysteria. Some inner insecurity, some compulsive necessity compelled him to identify his own opinions with righteousness and to denounce honest and honorable men who happened to disagree with him as unprincipled and “wilful,” and as a consequence his life was a series of broken friendships. It is this part of the Wilson psyche that Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George, political scientists trained in dynamic psychology, treat in their consistently interesting Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (362 pp., John Day, $6). Like all psychologists they go back to childhood, where they find that he was continually humiliated by his father and that thereafter political power was a means of restoring the self-esteem damaged as a child. A strong opponent, like West of Lodge, evoked this father image and with it passionate and uncontrollable resentment. The argument is plausible but the evidence purely circumstantial – only the living can be psychoanalyzed.

A most unusual book is Herbert Hoover’s The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson (318 pp., McGraw-Hill, $6). Not very lightly written, it presents the remarkable spectacle of a deep felt tribute by a Republican President to a Democratic one. It is itself a document of history, because it records the collaboration of these two statesmen during the World War and after.

None of these works can properly be compared with the “scholarly” works of Professor Arthur S. Link, whose third installment of a seven volume biography will be published by Princeton University Press this year; it will be entitled Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915, the first two were Wilson: The Road to the White House (570 pp., 1947, $7.50) and Wilson: The New Freedom (504 pp., 1956, $7.50). This is history in the grand manner, based on indefatigable research in the five tons of Wilson materials in the Library of Congress, plus encyclopedic study of manuscript collections of Wilson’s contemporaries and a complete knowledge of political history; it is impartial, detailed, chiefly political, and incidentally, excellent reading. Professor Link is only 39 years old, and when this monumental study is finished many years hence, he says with a glint in his eye, it “won’t need to be done again.”

Yet it can be questioned if any of these excellent studies have done ultimate justice to this remarkable figure. All of them are conditioned by a peculiar presentist view of Wilson – by the notion of failure, of what Mr. Hoover calls “a Greek tragedy, not on the stage of imagination but in the lives of nations.” Representing a country that was an unknown quantity in international relations, for a brief and blinding moment Woodrow Wilson achieved moral and intellectual dominance of the world. He forced the cynical peacemakers at Versailles to accede – or seem to accede – to his Fourteen Points, and to something totally new, his League of Nations. Then he was forced to witness the total ruin of his aspirations – this was his ordeal, this was his tragedy. Professor Thomas A. Bailey entitled his two books on peacemaking, Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace and Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal. This is good “theatre” but is it good history?

All of these authors approach their subject with forebodings of disaster, premonitions of tragedy, and a search for omens; and all betray, in our judgment, that peculiar blind spot of the intellectual, that all problems are solvable, or at least that some super figure could have found a solution – and not to have found a solution is to have failed. Well, Franklin D. Roosevelt was Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and observed all of Wilson’s “mistakes” and “tragedy” very close at hand; in World War II he was careful to avoid them, solicitously conciliating the Republican Senators (including Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.). Yet after all his careful maneuvering and historical homework, we can fairly ask by the same logic: “Who lost this peace? Who betrayed whom this time?” Can peace by won, or is the whole idea a fallacy?

Was Woodrow Wilson’s story a tragic failure? Or is it a marvelous success story of a magnificent leader who jammed a splendid reform program through a reluctant Congress; took us into a war which we should have entered at exactly the time when we were psychologically prepared; proved to be an inspiring and victorious war-time leader; and given the warring peacemakers, made the best peace possible. If he failed to get the United States to join the League of Nations, in retrospect it appears that our membership would not have been very spirited, certainly not enough to deter Hitler. *

The point is that Wilson’s record was not one of failure but of spectacular accomplishment – and to hold him up “objectively” to an artificial standard of what some hypothetical super President might have done is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. This is why Mr. David Lawrence ’10 nominated him for “The Man of the Half-Century.” A creature of brains and ideals, he left his aspirations clothed in documents of glittering rhetoric, for all to read.

To talk of his self-righteousness, ruthlessness, broken friendships, father hostility and moralistic approach to politics is a subtle way of ignoring his accomplishments. Cromwell was not a very charming fellow, and John the Baptist probably wasn’t either. These are parts of his character, true, but they made possible that total personality the dynamic, driving, imperious leaders who galvanized people to follow.

The best way to look at Wilson, in our opinion, is to stand in the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall and study the remarkable Dickinson portrait (reproduced on the previous page). The eyes and the jaw capture better than words the ruthless force and driving ambition of this “Presbyterian priest” (it was said of his eyes, “if you saw them on a horse, you wouldn’t buy the horse”). Here are some impressions of him by Princeton contemporaries:

The core of his being was a flaming ambition, which his religion fanned rather than quenched, by presenting it with successive programs of reform. And along with ambition went an impatient craving for immediate domination which was kept reasonably in curb by his own good sense until health deserted him. – Edward S. Corwin

Before five minutes had passed I knew that I was in the presence of a very great man … I had never before talked face to face with so compelling a person … We knew him to be authentically a great man before the country at large. – Robert K. Root

[He] was in many respects the greatest man I have ever known. – Edwin G. Conklin

President Wilson was the dominant factor. I am sure that all the newcomers had unbounded confidence in him and that this was the ultimate source of their faith in the future of Princeton … they felt the direct influence of his strong personality. – Charles H. Smyth Jr.

Wilson was not temperamentally suited for the scholarly life or the necessarily cautious, compromising ways of college administration. If the Graduate College struggle had been “won,” he soon would have been embroiled in another conflict with those he liked to regard as his “constituents.” It was inevitable that he should leave, and he himself said he was glad to be leaving “a talking profession.” But he never gave up his Princeton associations, and the night before his inauguration went to a big Princeton dinner; he entertained the Triangle Club and his ’79 Classmates at the White House, with his closest friends, “The Witherspoon Gang,” spending the night, and came back to Reunions in 1914. Colonel House noted in his diary that when there was no immediate business the President liked to reminisce about Princeton, and he once astounded a friend in the ’20’s by asserting that although in invalid retirement, he had hoped to be called back to Princeton to finish up the work he had begun there.

Princeton should be proud to have fostered and trained such a very great man, and grateful to him for having set for its destiny “a habitual vision of greatness.”

*Within a few years Wilson came to believe that the American people had not been “ready” for the League of Nations; his hopes, therefore, had not been betrayed, they were mistaken.

This was originally published in the January 15, 1960 issue of PAW.