I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.

Woodrow Wilson, 1919

b.1856 d.1924
Few men in American politics have risen from obscurity as quickly as Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States. In 1909 he was the president at small, struggling College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). A few years later he was President of the United States and the best hope for world peace.

Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856 - the son of a Presbyterian minister and staunch secessionist. Despite several bouts of ill-health he graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1879, earned a law degree from the University of Virgina Law School, and a PhD from John Hopkins University in 1886.

In 1909 the Democratic Party plucked Wilson from his university post and got him elected Governor of New Jersey. His skills quickly made him a candidate to lead the party into the 1912 elections. With the Republicans split between William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party, Wilson was easily elected President. With his election he became our first and only American President to hold a PhD.

Wilson used his formidable political skills to pass a legislative agenda in his first term that is almost forgotten because World War I dominates the history of the era. Getting Tariff Reform, the graduated income tax, child labor laws, the 8-hour workday, and creation of the Federal Reserve passed through both houses of congress would have been an admirable legacy in its own right, but the war dominates his legacy as President.

Ironically, Wilson narrowly won re-election with the slogan, "He kept us out of war." But shortly after the 1916 election he entered the US into World War I. And while isolationist sentiment dominated the country, Wilson magically brought public opinion along with him - due in no small part to his use of the Four Minute Men. America's entrance into the war turned the tide against Germany. Within months the Germans agreed to an armistice based upon Wilson's famous 14 Points

At the end of the war he travelled through Europe - becoming the first American President to leave the country while in office1. He drew huge cheering crowds and was regarded as the world's best hope for peace. Though not entirely receptive to his plans for Germany or the Ottoman Empire (see the King-Crane Commission), his European allies did agree to his plans for a League of Nations - the predecessor to the United Nations.

Upon his return to the States, Wilson found a Republican-controlled Senate opposed to the treaty he'd worked so hard to achieve. He physically wore himself out trying to gather public support. He served the remainder of his Presidency as a near invalid and died in 1924.

1 As pointed out by Telcomac99, and despite what my source says, in November, 1906, Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal - so Wilson could not have been the first President to leave the country while in office.


Like many other progressives in the early 1900's, Woodrow Wilson showed little interest in the plight of African Americans. In fact, he shared many of the racist attitudes prevalent at the time. Although Wilson denounced the Ku Klux Klan's "reign of terror", he sympathized with its motives to restore white rule in the postwar South and to relieve whites of the "ignorant and hostile" power of the black vote. In his early years as a student of the prestigious Princeton, Wilson had declared that "universal suffrage is the foundation of every evil in this country." He sharply opposed giving the vote to uneducated whites, but he detested the enfranchisement of blacks, arguing that Americans of Anglo-Saxon origin would always resist domination by "an ignorant and inferior race." He believed that white resistance to black rule was "unalterable".

Later, as a politician, Wilson courted black voters, but he rarely consulted African-American leaders and repeatedly avoided opportunities to associate with them in public. Many of the southerners he appointed to his cabinet were uncompromising racists who systematically began segregating the employees in their agencies, even though the agencies had been integrated for over fifty years. Workplaces were segregated by race, as were toilets, drinking fountains, and areas for work breaks. When black leaders protested these actions, Wilson replied that such racial segregation was intended to eliminate "the possibility of friction" in the federal workplace.

Let the downvoting begin!

I searched all over the web, even read The Ten Things You Can't Say in America, and I can't find a good rebuttal anywhere for the allegation that Wilson was a racist. Most historians consider him a Great President, and either refuse to tackle the issue or file it under his Pros and Cons.

James Loewen, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, has written that Wilson "appointed southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks" and "personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations."

The NAACP launched a public protest in 1913 against Wilson for "introducing segregation into the Federal Government."

He was, however, a deeply Christian person, and nearly every historian says that is what drove him to do all that they praised him for.


Woodrow Wilson was, to the best of my understanding, the first president to employ 'we’re fighting the evil guys' tactic before we entered into war. In virtually every battle since then, we have gone in with the ‘higher moral ground’ or at least that’s what the American people have been told. America went into WWI to ‘preserve Democracy’ despite our century long grudge against Britain. Apparently, they seemed to be the lesser of two evils. It was either the ‘thieves’ (Britain) or the ‘murderers’ (Germany). So, America plunged into war for the good of Democracy, or so we were told.

This situation may appear similar to the situations occurring in today’s world. If one looks close enough, it is obviously apparent the politicians of today are employing some of Wilson’s tactics of propaganda. For example take the war against terror in Afghanistan. Who have we been told we are fighting? Oh yes, I remember, an ‘Axis of evil’ and the ‘Evildoers’. These people have been dehumanized to the point of monsters. Sounds kind of like the government propaganda going on during WWI doesn’t it? Be careful what you believe. Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.

According to Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen, there is strong evidence that Woodrow Wilson was, as opposed to the image of the progressive idealist we are so often given, in fact a vehement white supremacist who pursued highly anti-democratic and even inhumane policies both in America and around the world.

First, let's discuss evidence of his white supremacism, since that seems to be the most popular topic in this node.

Before he became the U.S. president, he was the president of Princeton, the last major northern university that refused to admit black students. He turned away many prospective black students during his tenure, saying that their desire for education was "unwarranted."

1. After congress thwarted an attempt to establish a legislative program that would curtail the civil rights of blacks, his administration simply pursued its racial agenda through other avenues, using his presidential powers to remove blacks from roles they had traditionally held and preventing black federal employees from using the same bathrooms, cafeterias, and workspaces as white employees. One "justification" offered was that blacks supposedly contracted venereal and other contagious diseases with high frequency, making integration dangerous to the health of whites. According to historian Lawrence J. Friedman, Wilson also rationalized it as a kindness. To one black delegation, he said "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen."2 The benefit, he said, was that blacks working with only a white supervisor would not lose their jobs to their more energetic white counterparts. This was the first time the federal government was segregated since Reconstruction, and it would not become completely re-integrated for over five decades. In Novermber of 1914, a black delegation visited the White House to ask him to reverse his racial policies. In this meeting, he was rude and hostile and ended up practically throwing them out of his office. In 1916 the Colored Advisory Comitte of the RNC said that

"No sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all colored citizens from representation in the federal government."

There are far more sinister examples than those, however. His racially charged History of the American People was quoted repeatedly in the racist propaganda film "The Birth of a Nation" (which inspired William Simmons to reestablish the Ku Klux Klan)-- which was in turn based on the book "The Clansman" by Wilson's former college classmate and close personal friend, Thomas Dixon. Although Wilson publicly said he did not like the film3, and even called the Ku Klux Klan "obnoxious" and "harmful", he can hardly claim total innocence; at best, he was merely a paternalistic racist who really thought his ways were best for all involved (like those types who genuinely believe that if only the government would remove itself utterly from the affairs of business, no one would go without.) The upsurge in racial violence during his second term, however (lynchings occured as far north as Duluth), may well have been sanctioned by him in the minds of many americans. It's not as though there weren't enough cues: in addition to being quoted repeatedly in the first major american motion picture, his Creel Committee on Public Information saturated the nation with dehumanizing propaganda against both Germans and those resistant to the war effort. The contribution of the Creel Committee to the already growing atmosphere of hatred and intolerance cannot be overstated. There is also the case of his vetoe of a provision on racial equality in the charter of the League of Nations. While it has been suggested that this was an attempt to appease Australia, and indeed if Australia was not resistant to it other political pressures may have overridden Wilson, Australia's racial philosophy was hardly out of line with his own, not to mention his own discriminatory policies could have been threatened if it passed.

Woodrow Wilson also appears to have been a fierce nativist, although his record in this regard appears mixed. Although he attempted to remove opposition to the war within the largely Irish Democratic party by promising Irish-Americans that he would seek independence for Ireland after the war, he would fail to follow through on his promise. In the wake of the Irish-American backlash against this, Wilson accused Irish- and German-American groups of threatening the League of Nations and America with propaganda, saying

"...and I cannot say this too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."

Equally disturbing as his racial policies were his blatant abuses of civil rights. His administration pushed forward what should be the two most infamous pieces of legislation in american history: the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. If your high school history textbook mentioned these at all, then you probably know the name of Eugene V. Debs, a socialist figurehead who was arrested for making an anti-war speech warning potential draftees of the dangers of serving in Europe. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison according to the provisions of the Sedition Act. He remained in prison, languishing, his conviction having been upheld by the Supreme Court, until Warren G. Harding became president. It is from this episode that we get the phrase coined by Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (and I paraphrase), "Freedom of speech lets you say whatever you want to, but you can't shout fire in a crowded theater." At least 1,500 people were convicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which were prevented from being repealed by Wilson in 1920 and, although significantly scaled back in 1921, still remain part of the U.S. legal code. Wilson also receives undue credit for the development of Women's Suffrage during his administration. In fact, he personally opposed giving women the right to vote, and his wife was vehemently against it. He only stopped opposing it (and having suffragists arrested) after he became convinced that it was politically inexpedient to oppose it.

Now let's go to his military interventions around the world, excepting of course World War I itself.

  • Nine different operations in Mexico, beginning in 1914 and continuing throughout Wilson's presidency. These invasions were deeply unpopular, and are likely the cause of Warren G. Harding's landslide victory over Wilson's heir apparent at the end of Wilson's term. Rejecting his claims that they were vital to protect american business interests, american citizens, Congress, and even the warring factions in Mexico's ongoing civil war demanded that the troops be withdrawn
  • Marines landed in Haiti in 1915. There, american troops forced the Haitian legislature to elect the preferred american candidate. Haitian peasants were put into shackles and forced to work on road construction crews. After the Haitian legislature refused to declare war on Germany when America did so, it was dissolved, and Haitians were forced to vote for a new, less democratic constitution, which passed by an absurdly large majority. Land was taken away from farmers and gather into large plantations. When the Haitian people tried to resist in the only manner left to them, over 3,000 Haitians were killed in what Marine General George Barnett descirbed as Practically indiscriminate killing.
  • Forces sent to Cuba in 1917. The repeated interventions in Cuban politics from the Spanish-American war onwards would eventually cause Cuba to turn to Communism as the only way to resist american influence. Latin Americans don't named a corrupt form of government after a piece of U.S. legislation for nothing.
  • Landed a total of 12,000 troops on the eastern and western coasts of the nascent Soviet Union in 1917. The troops that landed on the east coast penetrated to the Lake Baikal region. This invasion served the dual purpose of trying to prevent the Germans and Bolsheviks from accessing Czarist weapons caches and aiding the White Russian anti–Bolshevik movement based in Omsk. With american aid, the White Russians managed to extend already bloody Russian Revolution by another two years. By 1920, the White Russians disbanded, and the american troops withdrew. Given that Fascist governments of the sort Stalin introduced require external enemies to justify their existence, it is arguable that this action set the stage for the Cold War by giving Russia proof that America would destroy it if at all possible.
  • Maintained troops in Nicaragua throughout his administration. In addition to propping up an unpopular president who was chosen by Banana Baron Samuel Zemurray (see: Banana Republic), and ensuring that the Bryan-Chamorro treaty, benficial to the U.S., was passed, american soldiers put down a rebellion by Benjamin Zeladon, whose dead body was seen by young Augusto Cesar Sandino, who would later start his own rebellion and inspire the still later Sandinista government.

Wilson also intervened in Panama and the Dominican Republic, but I have not found any information pertaining to those events. The majority are contained here.

Clearly, Woodrow Wilson's record is far from flattering. Although he could hardly be considered the most racist president, especially in comparison to his successor, who was inducted into the KKK in the White House, and while he did a great deal of good which cannot be ignored, he set a highly toxic precedent which long outlasted him. In the conflicts he maintained, began, encouraged, or failed to stem, the darker side of his legacy has taken almost a century to pan out, and, if the present generation fails to sufficiently learn the lessons of the past, it will be extended far beyond the human species should be required to bear.

1 I have not been able to verify this, as I have not found it anywhere but in Lies My Teacher Told Me. I included it because there's reason to believe it, and there are reasons not to believe it, so please contact me if you find any information contradicting or supporting this. 2http://www.reason.com/links/links121802.shtml 3Wikipedia reports that the quotation "It is like writing history with lightning...and yet it is all so true," purportedly uttered by Wilson, was invented by a Hollywood press agent. Although the makers of "The Birth of a Nation," successfully defended the film against charges that it was racially inflammatory in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP using this quotation, giving this some credibility, I'm going with Wikipedia on this one because this is the only mention of any information disputing its origin that I've found.

My favourite quote about Woodrow Wilson comes from one of my favourite historians, Walter McDougall. McDougall puts in the mouth of Wilson, the progressive hero and the architect of the idealistic League of Nations, the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.".

If you understand that, you understand a great deal of American foreign policy in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Wilson was the first president to argue that the American people had to make real sacrifices for the sake of people on the other side of the planet, and the first to argue that only by doing so could Americans continue to enjoy security and prosperity. When he dispatched American men (not quite boys: back then, the average age of a soldier was 25 - so perhaps not quite men either) to participate in World War I, he started a long tradition which would see millions of American soldiers come back to Europe again, and to Asia, and the Middle East, and almost everywhere else - all for the sake of the ideas that this progressive hero championed.

By deciding to fight Germany, Wilson was the first American president to act forcefully on the idea that the United States could only continue to be a liberal, democratic nation when it existed in a world where the most powerful states also shared its values. What he feared most was a steady collapse of the other democratic states in the world leading to the ascendancy of undemocratic states like Imperial Germany. If that happened, then he feared the United States would have to turn itself into an armed camp and sacrifice its own basic freedoms to maintain a large military and a careful state of watchfulness. It was the first instance of the "domino theory".

It was the classic liberal fear of the military-industrial complex combined with a fear of the conditions that made a military-industrial complex necessary; it led, ironically, to the creation of the complex to try to stop the conditions coming about anyway. Wilson was the first president who told Americans that their own security depended on the security of the rest of the world - the first president to suggest that the bad guys lurking in in Europe or Asia could very quickly come knocking on their own doors. It was truly a small step to trying to "police" the jungles of Vietnam or "spreading democracy" in Iraq.

Even Wilson's most liberal ideas, such as the League of Nations - which was a forerunner of the United Nations - were based on the same assumptions. Wilson wanted an organization that would "make the world safe for democracy" and hoped he could find a way for diplomacy to contain the undemocratic states and stop events like World War I happening again. His vision of negotiated management of foreign affairs failed, but his passionate belief in the importance of democracy overseas lived on. For Europeans like me, this was fortunate - America intervened again in Europe in World War II, gently cajoled into doing so by another liberal president who believed that democracy in America could not survive without democracy being protected overseas.

Wilson wanted, as I said, to "make the world safe for democracy". Some of his successors, and their neoconservative advisors, wanted to make everywhere democratic. The basic ideas were not dissimilar - once it was accepted that the security of the United States rested on stopping the emergence of powerful, undemocratic powers dominating the rest of the world, it was not so great a leap to this sort of zeal. Now the United States faces a rising China which may yet pose a challenge to the sort of liberal international order the Wilson and his successors have believed is vital to the security of the United States. They will be bearing that sword in mind.

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