Woodrow Wilson, center, is honored in England in 1918. He was on his way to peace talks in France.
On the 150th anniversary of his birth, scholars take a fresh look at his legacy

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.

Woodrow Wilson 1879 was not an ironical man, but there is considerable irony in the fact that as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of his birth next December, it finds itself grappling with many of the same issues he confronted – and in many of the same places. Within the last decade, American troops have fought in the Balkans, a region that precipitated World War I; and in Iraq, in many ways a creation of the peace conference that ended the war. Meanwhile, the United States continues to debate its role in the United Nations, an organization formed after World War II – a conflict Wilson predicted would take place if the country failed to join the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations.

Wilson lives on in other ways, in debates over the limits that may be placed on civil liberties in the name of security during wartime, in the battle between hawks and doves for control of the Democratic Party, and in the policies of the Federal Reserve Board, one of Wilson’s most significant legislative achievements. He lives on even, it seems, in the clash between a strong-willed president of an Ivy League university (Harvard, in this instance) and its willful factions.

Yet as Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs marks its 75th anniversary with a symposium April 28 and 29 examining Wilson on his 150th, Wilson is often obscured behind more dynamic presidents, perhaps most particularly Wilson’s rival in the three-way election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt. Within the last decade, Roosevelt has been the subject of no fewer than half a dozen popular biographies, while Wilson, by comparison, has been neglected (two biographies, and neither sold very well). As President George W. Bush pursues a foreign policy in which might be heard echoes of Wilson’s declaration that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” it is time, many say, if not for a reappraisal, then at least a reappreciation of the country’s 28th (and Princeton’s 13th) president.

“There’s been all this stuff on Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan,” notes John Milton Cooper Jr. ’61, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, who has written several books about the Progressive Era. “Not a word about Woodrow Wilson. As stacked up against, say, T.R., Wilson was a lot less colorful, and I think that, privately, he took pride in that. He wasn’t about making a lot of noise. I think its’ interesting how the country in 1912 found itself gravitating toward the guy who made a little less noise, but a little more sense.”

Not so fast, counters columnist George F. Will *68, who points out that Wilson won the White House with a smaller share of the popular vote than any president since Lincoln. “Both Wilson and Roosevelt were deeply convinced that they could ride the new horses loose in an industrial America. There were astonishing egos in both.”

Wilson was a complicated and sometimes contradictory president, possessed of forbidding mien yet passionate toward his family and quite attractive to women. The first university president or Ph.D. to occupy the White House, he won re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” yet led us into that war less than a month after his inauguration. He was a leader whose idealistic rhetoric captured the world’s imagination, yet he is popularly portrayed as having betrayed those hopes at the Paris peace conference. The author of a landmark treatise on constitutional government, Wilson wrecked his presidency, many say, by his failure to compromise with Congress over the terms of America’s admission to the League of Nations.

The controversy over Wilson’s legacy begins at Princeton, where he graduated with the Class of 1879 and then spent much of his pre-presidential career, first as a professor and, from 1902 to 1910, as president. Though Wilson often is remembered for his failed attempts to introduce a “quadrangle” plan (an idea reborn decades later as the residential college system) and to locate the Graduate College on the main campus, no one had more of an effect on transforming Princeton into a world-class university, says A. Scott Berg ’71, who is working on a biography of Wilson.

“By the time Wilson became president, Princeton was for many students and alums a glorified country club,” Berg explains. “His introduction of the preceptorial method is perhaps his most enduring achievement, but he had a lot to do with shaping the curriculum and inventing the idea of majoring in a particular area of study during a student’s last two years. He uncorked a spirit on campus – that Princeton was to be a serious academic institution, one that would produce graduates that would serve the nation.” Indeed, Wilson coined the motto, “Princeton in the natin’s service,” in a speech in 1896.

That spirit, Berg suggests, survived Wilson’s acrimonious fights with the trustees and faculty over eating clubs, residential colleges, and the location of the graduate school. “While they were defeats for Wilson at the time he left Nassau Hall, here we are a century later bringing them about,” Berg says. “An important component of Whitman College and the four-year colleges is that of graduate students within them, in essence integrating the graduate school into the life of everyone on campus. Wilson lost these battles during his lifetime, but he is winning the war from beyond the grave.”

Wilson was inaugurated in 1911 as governor of New Jersey, and two years later was president of the United States, an office he had been mentioned for as early as 1908. While Wilson’s record in foreign policy receives the most attention, Cooper says that he is a forgotten genius for his domestic record.

“There were three great legislative presidents of the 20th century,” Cooper contends: “F.D.R. with the New Deal, L.B.J. with the Great Society, and Wilson with the New Freedom. Of those three, I would even argue that Wilson was the greatest. He was only two years removed from academic life, which is supposed to be the worst preparation for politics. Yet in the first year-and-a-half of his presidency, you get tariff reform, the income tax, the Federal Reserve, and the Clayton Antitrust Act, which is still our basic antitrust law. Then in 1916, you get another raft of reform legislation: a child labor law, the first federal aid to farmers, and the eight-hour day for railroad workers. Wilson’s domestic presidency needs to be sung again.”

Cooper also believes that new scholarship is beginning to recognize Wilson as an alternative model for the strong president. “Our image of the strong president is based on F.D.R. and L.B.J. with a little T.R. thrown in – basically, a meddlesome bully,” he contends. “Wilson was different. He had a very collegial approach to leadership. He treated his Cabinet members like responsible adults. He would set the policy but gave them a lot of room to run things.” Furthermore, Will adds, many of Wilson’s aides, particularly Franklin Roosevelt, his assistant secretary of the Navy, went on to lead modern liberalism for another generation. “Wilson’s presidency was to Roosevelt’s as the Mexican War was to the Civil War,” Will explains. “It’s where we trained our officer corps.”

President Woodrow Wilson ’79.
Arnold Genthe, 1916.
Presidential scholarship has taken note of Wilson’s racism; a son of the South, he failed to pursue racial justice (including a federal anti-lynching law) and allowed segregation in federal offices. While they do not excuse it, many historians stress that it must be viewed in context. “Wilson is like all the other men we examine on their 150th anniversaries,” says historian John Morton Blum: “a man who lived within his own times and with its limitations. Wilson was simply typical of his generation of Southerners in his attitude toward race, immigrant groups, and Catholics.” Berg counters that Wilson was, in fact, advanced for his time on matters of religion, appointing the first Jewish and Roman Catholic professors at Princeton and the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis.

Wilson himself noted the irony that, given his extensive pre-presidential training in domestic affairs, his administration should be dominated by foreign affairs. It is in this area that he remains most controversial.

The decision to commit the United States to World War I in April 1917 was the most difficult of Wilson’s presidency. Just months after winning re-election on a policy of neutrality, he took the country to war on the side of the Allies. “Wilson’s preferred policy was to try to broker a nonpunitive compromise peace, a peace without victory, which would then be enforced by a League of Nations,” Cooper says. “But the Germans announced unrestricted submarine warfare early in 1917, and how was he to respond to it? Wilson concluded that that the best way to achieve the sort of peace he envisioned was to have a seat at the peace table, which meant he head to go into the war.”

One key to understanding Wilson, historians agree, is his religious faith. “Wilson had the certitude of a fierce Presbyterian,” Will says. “He believed that there is a God and God has intervened in history before and can do so again.” Adds Berg: “Wilson was a Presbyterian minister’s son. Strictness and righteousness permeated everything he ever said or did.”

Fascinating insights into Wilson’s conception of the presidency may be found in Wilson’s war message to a joint session of Congress, delivered on April 2, 1917, which Cooper calls the greatest piece of presidential oratory since Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “I have called the Congress into extraordinary session,” Wilson began, “because there are serious, very serious choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.” When, one might ask, was the last time a president spoke with such constitutional humility?

Cooper, however, thinks the key insight into Wilson’s character can be found in the speech’s peroration. Declaring that “the right is more precious than peace,” Wilson said that American should feel privileged to “spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her,” he concluded, “she can do no other.”

“That last sentence is an exact paraphrase of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms,” Cooper notes. “I think there’s a key there. Wilson was wrestling with the same sort of problem Luther had, which was, how is the Christian going to live in a sinful world? We can only presume to know God’s will imperfectly, and so we have to do the best we can. Luther’s conclusion of what to do was: Sin boldly. Essentially, I think that’s how Wilson portrays the United States, as a nation trying to be righteous and do good in the world. We’re cast into this terrible situation where there is no good alternative. In a situation like that, he was going to sin boldly.”

Wilson’s decision to take the United States into World War I, however, remains open to historical debate. “Some would argue that American intervention was disastrous,” says Christopher Hitchens, who has written extensively about modern European and American history, “because if it hadn’t occurred, the British and the Germans would have had to accept some sort of agreement, possibly two years earlier than they did. With the arrival of the United States, the British felt that they could press on to complete victory, which they never got, throwing away hundred of thousands of people in the meanwhile, while the Germans felt that they had to fight it out to the end. I can see the argument and that American intervention shortened the war, but I can also see the argument that it lengthened it.”

While Wilson pursued a policy of total national mobilization, placing much of American industry under government control and reinstating the draft for the first time since the Civil War (and, in the opinion of many, trampling on civil liberties at home), he began preparing for the eventual peace almost immediately, articulating his vision of the postwar world in his Fourteen Points 10 months before the Armistice. The Fourteen Points, which rejected secret treaties and espoused the self-determination of peoples, captured the world’s imagination and perhaps raised popular expectations higher than could ever be realized. Some scholars of European history, including emeritus Princeton professor Arno Mayer, have suggested, however, that the Fourteen Points were put forward as a kind of public relations counterpoint to the Bolsheviks’ publication of the czar’s secret treaties, and to rebut the idea that the war was another land grab by the great powers.

Carole Fink, a professor at Ohio State University who has focused on modern European history, disputes both the idealism and originality of much of Wilson’s vision for the postwar world. She adds, however, that “the things Wilson did accomplish – the moral stature of the man, the energy, the conviction, the rhetoric, which was stirring, and the hope he inspired – were very significant.” Fink also sees significance in Wilson’s personal diplomacy, particularly his sailing to Paris in December 1918 to attend the peace conference at Versailles – the first president ever to visit Europe while in office. “There’s something about face-to-face summitry having a power in our world that I think Wilson was one of the first people to recognize,” Fink says. “He went out to the streets; he recognized that part of American power was his presence.”

Harvard historian Erez Manela, the author of a forthcoming book on Wilson and colonialism, calls Wilson “a man ahead of his time.” “Wilson envisioned a type of international society, of multilateral cooperation between notionally equivalent units, at a time when this was quite a radical idea,” Manela says. “We take it for granted now that this is more or less a desirable shape of international society, but Wilson was the first important political figure to put his weight behind it. And although it was rejected at the time both by great-power leaders in Paris and by the U.S. Senate, it was resuscitated during World War II by strong Wilsonians, headed by F.D.R., and turned out to be the blueprint for the postwar order.”

Will, who characterizes Wilson’s experience in Paris as “a cautionary tale,” argues that he should have seen failure coming. “It is not an excuse to say, ‘I tried but failed,’ if what you tried was predictably going to lead to failure,” Will says. “It is not an excuse in a political man to be oblivious to the boundaries of the possible.” He adds that Wilson should have been particularly sensitive to what Will characterizes as the folly of nation-building. “We did nation-building and regime change in the American South. You would have thought that Woodrow Wilson, who was a Southerner, would have understood from the living memories of Reconstruction that we don’t know how to do that. It took us 110 years, more or less.”

“The United States did not go into the League because Wilson wouldn’t let us,” Cooper says. “There could have been a compromise, and Wilson wouldn’t pay the price. But the question then is, why? Most interpretations say that was because of the stubborn, inflexible Wilson who wouldn’t have half a loaf, but that’s not what Wilson was like as a leader.” Cooper emphasizes the crippling stroke Wilson suffered in September 1919 as he barnstormed the country to whip up support for the League, which not only left him physically incapacitated, but also exacerbated his natural intransigence.

Whether the history of the 20th century would have been different had Wilson not suffered that stroke, had he swallowed his pride and compromised with Henry Cabot Lodge and Senate Republicans, who feared that participation in the League would compel the United States to commit troops or money to maintain the security of other member nations, remains one of the great “what-ifs” of modern history.

“Wilson made quite a few mistakes [in the League fight], such as not taking a more substantial Republican with him to Paris,” Manela says. “He thought he could force them along, but he was wrong. But it’s hard to say [after his stroke] whether he’s to blame for what happened or whether he was just out of the picture.” Even without joining the League, the United States in the 1920s signed treaties purporting to limit the size of world navies and, even more audaciously, to outlaw war. None of it slowed the rise of German militarism in the 1930s, which, historians tend to agree, was as much the fault of the worldwide economic crisis as it was the weakness of the League of Nations.

Still, the United States today finds itself committed to exporting democracy to other parts of the world and to building a stable polity in Iraq, an endeavor that is sometimes called “Wilsonian,” though historians will continue to debate whether the appellation is fair – to the endeavor or to Wilson.

“Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say that of all the things Marx got wrong, the wrongest was that since the coming of industrialism, all pre-industrial categories such as religion and ethnicity had lost their saliency,” Will says. “Today that’s all we talk about or read or fight about. That is something Wilson had no inkling of, I think he really thought that the world had begun anew, that there had been a fundamental rupture. Well, there are no fundamental ruptures.”

This was originally published in the April 19, 2006 issue of PAW.