The racist slant emerged to remove rightly Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college. Yet from the outset and inception, his name should never have graced either. As President, Wilson lacked strong liberal Presidential leadership. Elected with only 42 percent of the popular vote in 1912 due to the divided Republican and Progressive tickets, he further scraped by to defeat Republican Charles Evans Hughes by a narrow electoral college margin and popular vote in 1916. He did not use his public pulpit to entreat and turn the heads of the German and Irish population and peacenik isolationists to join in a patriotic conflict raging in Europe bringing the country together to demand the nation enter the war on the allied side until it was inevitable in 1917.
Yet, once committed with a draft of men and opposition to it and entering the rising war in France, Wilson was instrumental in supporting the most horrendous and devious assault on free speech, a free press, and civil rights with the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act of 1918 since the Alien and Sedition Act of 1789.
The Supreme Court upheld wrongly the convictions in the Charles Schenck and Eugene Debs, 1919 cases highlighted by Justice Holmes under the “clear and present danger” rubric; yet, with a change of heart, Holmes reversed his own doctrine to state that speech could be curtailed only if it represented an “imminent and immediate” threat to violence in his dissent in the soon later Abrams case. The irony today is the University supports broad free speech expression as Holmes declared in that Abrams dissent. The background on these Supreme Court cases I comment upon because Wilson agreed with the Court's decisions as he refused to free Eugene Debs from incarceration in prison. Ironically, the less-than-majestic President Harding did free Debs a few years later.
And the notorious warrantless Palmer raids (A. Mitchell Palmer, Wilson’s attorney general) — arrests, convictions, incarcerations, poor Russian immigrants’ wholesale deportations, all without hearings or trials — were the utter worst violations of civil rights and freedom of speech we’ve had to endure. That was under Wilson’s presidency.
Wilson’s first choice for the Supreme Court was Southerner James C. McReynolds, who became one of the most backward, rude, radical, illiberal, and obstreperous justices ever on FDR’s court. That choice was somewhat reprieved by his choices of progressive liberals Louis Brandeis and John Clarke. But his choice of McReynolds castigates Wilson from the outset.
Yes, Wilson’s conception of the League of Nations was ahead of his time. But as intractable, rigid, and self-serving as Wilson was, he torpedoed the vote to affirm the League in the negative vote by Congress. A former British Prime Minister made a special trip to Washington to plead with Wilson to accept the compromise on our nation’s sovereignty in the League with his adamant Republican Senate foe Henry Cabot Lodge. Wilson would not even deign to meet this emissary. He defied any modest compromise with Lodge; both hated each other, and the League was doomed in this country.
Thus, Wilson, wracked with illnesses and depressions as president, ineffectual for months, a willing scourge to our basic Bill of Rights in free speech, a free press, and basic civil rights, Wilson acted more the stern Presbyterian elder lecturing strict morality and the wrath of God, the social historian Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry in sheep’s clothing.
No, it is not the specter of just racism, which is the tip of the Wilson legacy iceberg as president. All reason enough to remove his name from the Princeton scoreboard.
Yet, the opportunity to name the school in place of Wilson was apparently overlooked. But President Eisgruber and the Wilson Committee can now do real justice to that school and name it the George F. Kennan School of Public and International Affairs. The greatest American diplomat in the 20th Century bar none. He named it the “cold war” and he held in check our ignorant bombastic statesmen and military chiefs, many of whom wanted be the first aggressor to bomb Russia to death and so destroy ourselves in the process with a Third World War.
And while they are about it, name a lecture hall in the school after the other brilliant patriot who stopped the invasion of Japan and was done dirt later by the Gray Committee and the AEC and the horrid Lewis Strauss — name it after the magnificent physicist and Director of Los Alamos and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.