Arthur S. Link
Princeton Alumni Weekly. January 23, 1991.

Tom Krattenmaker is the senior writer in the university’s Office of Communications.

Imagine finding out in the last mile of a marathon that the distance to the finish line had suddenly lengthened, but that the detour was worth the trip.

That vastly understates the recent experience of Arthur S. Link, the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History and the editor since 1958 of the multi-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Link, who published his first book on Wilson (Wilson: The Road to the White House) in 1947, has dedicated his lengthy scholarly career to the twenty-eighth president. But it was just last spring that Link made one of his most startling discoveries about his subject.

The discovery came about when Link received a large package of documents from the son of Dr. Cary Grayson, Wilson’s personal physician at the time of his futile fight with the Congress over whether the United States would ratify the Versailles Treaty and join the League of Nations. The package turned out to be only the tip of the scholarly iceberg. Link learned that the Grayson family had four filing cabinets crammed with documents that offer a wealth of insights into Wilson’s perplexing, ineffective behavior during the critical struggle over ratification. The biggest prize of all was his medical records, which the doctor’s family had kept from historians out of respect for the confidential nature of patient-physician relations.

The records show that Wilson was vexed by serious cerebrovascular disease even before October 1919, when he suffered a major stroke. In fact, Wilson had been afflicted by interruptions in the flow of blood to his brain for years – as far back as 1896 – and this condition hampered his mental functions at a time when he, and the world, needed intellectual adroitness.

“It is one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century,” Link says. “The man who was most responsible for building support for the idea of a league of nations was struck down just as his leadership was most needed. And he was struck down by events over which he had no control.”

According to Link and other scholars, the medical records cast a new light on the bitter end to Wilson’s Presidency. In the past, some analysts and biographers of Wilson advanced theories about a fatal psychological or character defect, but they now seem far less credible.

The records include a firsthand account of the President’s grim condition following the stroke. Francis X. Dercum, a neurologist and stroke specialist who rushed from Philadelphia to Washington after Wilson’s collapse, describes the sixty-three-year-old Wilson falling into and out of consciousness. One side of his face drooped, and his left leg and arm were completely paralyzed.

Equally important, Link notes, the records show that the stroke was the culmination of a disease that had Wilson in its grip during the crucial preceding months. Backed by modern-day analyses of the records, Link sees in Wilson’s intransigence and muddled thinking the classic symptoms of someone suffering from cerebrovascular disease.

Wilson’s pre-stroke condition, Link observes, “had disastrous implications in his negotiations with the Senate. He was just the beginning talks with a large group of moderate Republicans who had ‘moderate’ reservations to the treaty. His medical problem simply threw him into a state of disorientation, confusion, memory loss, intransigence. He seemed to lose the customary powers of leadership and conciliation that would have succeeded in getting reasonable groups together on a platform that would have put the treaty and league across.”

It would not have taken much to accomplish this reconciliation, says Link, because national sentiment was favorably inclined toward the league, and senators’ objections were relatively minor. The Wilson who performed so adroitly at the Paris Peace Conference certainly could have forged a compromise, Link says. And so could have Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, if Wilson had died or resigned, according to Link. (The Wilson papers show that Wilson indeed would have stepped down after the stroke had his wife not vetoed the idea.)

It's an academic exercise, of course, but imagine the implications. Link, for one, doubts that Hitler would have gotten away with aggression for as long as he did if the United States had joined the League of Nations.

The discovery of this seventy-year-old evidence has had dramatic implications, too, for Wilson’s chief biographer, who this spring will oversee the publication of the sixty-fourth volume of the Wilson papers. The new materials supplied by Dr. Grayson’s family stretched by several hundred pages the amount of space that will be needed to cover Wilson’s life from late 1919 to 1920.

It means a lot emotionally to Link as well. The seventy-year-old historian identifies with the former president, a fellow Virginian and a man who helped shape the university where Link has toiled since 1959. He speaks of Wilson as if he knows him personally, because, in a way, he does.

The new medical information is both painful and reassuring to Wilson admirers. It hurts to learn of a great man’s medical woes, but it’s heartening, Link says, to discover that Wilson’s problems were caused by physical ravages rather than ineptitude or character flaws.

“I’m dedicated to historical truth first,” says Link. “Having said, that, I can say I’ve found Wilson one of the most attractive and endearing persons I’ve ever encountered in history. I think I know Woodrow Wilson. If he had neuroses, I would know it. If he had psychoses, the whole world would know it by now. When a well person who normally gets on with people – the person I call the ‘characteristic Wilson’ – goes off and does impulsive, irrational things at times, there has got to be a cause. If the cause is psychological, that’s going to persist. But problems arising from what might be called interpersonal relationships are episodic and rare in Wilson’s case. So I would say there is a very measurable, absolutely identifiable connection between his health and his behavior.

“The failing of Wilson’s health at such a critical juncture is very hard to take emotionally after you’ve lived with the man for fifty years. It is sometimes like going through a prolonged serious illness with a close friend.”

This was originally published in the January 23, 1991 issue of PAW.