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Analysis: Woodrow Wilson
"[W]hen I came to study Wilson at Versailles, blithely carving up the Austro-Hungarian empire, I could understand why this ignorant would-be Metternich drove Dr. Freud so mad that he felt obliged to publish a libelous 'psychoanalysis' of Wilson, without having met him, of course."
Gore Vidal, Palimpsest

Woodrow Wilson's presidency is filled with much in the way of controversy by historians in recent years, generally because of his questionable foreign policy and well documented racism.

On the foreign policy front, he has become highly controversial for getting America involved in the war in the first place. Some of the Patriotic Fervor policies he pursued during America's entry into World War One may well have assisted the spread of Spanish Influenza from its starting point in Kansas despite the warnings of doctors and scientists of the time to avoid the massive, crowded war rallies that were great for morale but terrible for sanitation and containing the spread of disease. This, combined with the fact that the world for the most part still had lacked the capacity and knowledge to easily contain a disease to any one area helped assure that the pandemic that had originated in the United States came to the rest of the world. He also favored the British and French during the conflict, while, at the same time, overlooking their own violations of American neutrality, by doing such things as mining the North Sea and cutting the Trans-Atlantic Cable.

But the single biggest controversy stems from Wilson's handling of the post-war peace. First of all, when the Germans came to him seeking peace, he refused to talk to them unless the Kaiser abdicated and a new government was elected. The reason for this was his idealism: He saw the war as a battle between Democracy (America, Britain and France, as Russia had already dropped out of the war) and Absolute Monarchies (Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire despite the fact that Germany was already a constitutional monarchy with a mostly elected government and both of the other two had elected legislatures that had power but were too busy squabbling and fighting to use it) and refused to do business with a "non-democratic regime". Of course the Kaiser abdicated, but all this did was lead to the weak Weimar Republic, an unstable government that the German people never trusted and came to hate as becoming scapegoated for all of Germany's post-war miseries. Wilson also did not bring any Republicans with him to the Treaty talks (a huge faux pas at the time as foreign policy was supposed to be non-partisan) thus greatly ticking off the Republicans who had just won a majority in the Senate (the body that passes treaties).

To add insult to the growing list of injuries, he didn't live up to his own 14 Points; most notably, he wanted all nations treated as equals, but consented to telling Germany to wait out in the hallway while the other nations talked about the terms of the peace treaty. (Compare that to the Vienna Conference of 1815, where the European victors agreed to welcome French representatives following Napoleon's defeat.)note  Though it is worth pointing out that many other Allied leaders wanted to prevent the Germans from being involved in the peace conference at all - Wilson supported their delegation's right to be there despite pressure on all sides. He demanded self-determination for all national groups except Germans, thus condemning the entirety of the German people rather than merely the Prussian militarists and autocrats he so despised. He eventually abandoned most of his 14 Points in favor of the League of Nations. This led to the war guilt clause which saddled Germany with the fault for the war as well as the reparations to pay for it. And Wilson consented to all of this.

The irony of it all is that Wilson could have avoided it. He could have made the Allies hold the talks in public and allow Germany in to the talks because he held all the cards. He had actually threatened the Allies into the talks by saying that if they didn't come, he would pull the US out of the war and leave the Euros to fight among themselves. Considering the sorry state of the Allied forces (the biggest Allied combatant, France, had already experienced military mutinies), they would have had no choice. And he still allowed this to happen. Why? Because he felt all issues could be resolved in the League of Nations. Which America hadn't even joined yet.

Many historians argue that none of this affected the Republicans' feelings on this matter at the time, as they were staunchly isolationist. In truth the Republican Party was not nearly as isolationist as everyone thinks it was. They were simply keeping up with America's old idea of avoiding "foreign entanglements" (hence why the U.S. was an "associated", not Allied Power); post war America simply tried to keep the peace in its own way outside of such things as the League of Nations. And let's not forget that the main criticism to Wilson's plans was the unfairness towards Germany and the seeming hypocrisy of the other nations (some of which were already making secret agreements with each other in defiance of the 14 Points).

All of these points have led to a major controversy surrounding Wilson's legacy. This has even led to thoughts among some that Wilson can accept a lot of the blame for World War II. The discussion of the issue is currently a source of contention and ongoing discussion.

At the same time, if he is guilty, then Wilson is far from alone for failing to truly secure peace in Europe. There is also the matter of incidents prior to the peace conference. America only entered the war in 1917 and only started to actually help to a notable capacity a year later. By that point, there were years of secret agreements and promises between the governments of both sides, and they weren't going to give them up to some outsider whose country hadn't suffered like the Europeans did. Wilson entered a spider web of old European issues and he couldn't quite escape from them.

Additionally, while Wilson usually had an ability to find a compromise (even if he is most remembered for the time he didn't), he was up against Georges Clemenceau, France's prime minister. He was alive when Prussia (the German state which united the others into a single Germany in 1871) defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War and always had a deep-seated hatred of the country as a result. He was a dominating, forceful personality while Wilson was a quieter, more introspective man. Clemenceau succeeded in one-upping Wilson during the conference and managed to succeed at his goal of not just punishing the country, but making Germany suffer. As for the UK (the strongest power at the time), its prime minister, David Lloyd George, was an agreeable sort of fellow and didn't want to alienate Conservatives at home and ended up doing little to try and find middle ground between these two opposing men—if indeed he would have had the wherewithal, considering that he was even less forceful than Wilson (hence his famous quip after the Peace Conference that he hadn't done badly, considering that he had been negotiating with "Jesus Christ [i.e. Wilson] and Napoleon [i.e. Clemenceau]"). It also didn't help that Britain was in the process of trying to give its colonies a freer hand, and had to mediate among the various leaders of the Dominions—made extremely difficult by the fact that Canada was more or less aligned with Wilson but Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (and especially Australia, thanks to PM Billy Hughes) were with Clemenceau. In the end, the peace treaty leaned a lot closer to Clemenceau's vision than Wilson's. History may well have taken a very different path if literally any other man was representing France.

There is also the issue of the Russian Revolution, which cast a huge shadow over how the leaders conducted business at Versailles. They were afraid of what would happen if Lenin managed to unite communist Russia and start to leak socialism into other parts of Europe - namely, Germany, which was utterly humiliated in its defeat and broken economically. It's not difficult to see why they would worry that socialist movements would start over there and further threaten the balance of power. Part of the reason why they embraced the idea of creating an independent Poland was to provide a buffer zone between Lenin and a broken Germany. One could even argue that the leaders were more concerned with preventing another country from falling to revolution than they were with actually creating peace.

One last issue must be taken care of to evaluate Wilson's legacy: two decades of depression, dictatorships, and decisions between 1919 and 1939. Is it truly fair to blame Wilson (as well as the others) for things they could not possibly have foreseen? Would the second World War have started if it wasn't for men like Hitler, who showed up in the years after the peace conference? If certain other paths had been taken, perhaps history may have changed. We will never know, though.

In short, this issue is infinitely complicated.
This Is ItAnalysisYasuko Kobayashi

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