"The world must be made safe for Democracy."
"Absolute identity with one's cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership." Thomas Woodrow Wilson
— Woodrow Wilson
(December 28, 1856 — February 3, 1924) was the 28th President of the United States, serving from 1913
, and the ninth from the Democratic Party. He immediately followed William Howard Taft
, and preceded Warren Harding
. The only President with a doctorate, Wilson is most well-known for his domestic reforms as well as his leadership during World War I
He was born in Virginia just years before the Civil War
, and it was his exposure to the destruction of the war that fueled his desire for peace later in life. After overcoming possible dyslexia as a child, he proved to be an excellent student. Wilson briefly flirted with practicing law, but he switched career choices and instead chose the study of politics. He went to Princeton
as an undergraduate, and eventually earned a Ph.D in history and political science at John Hopkins University in 1886, making him the only President with a doctorate so far.note
Wilson was arguably the first President who was a trained politician, since he was educated in diplomacy, governance, and statecraft. Many Presidents practiced law
, but only Wilson studied actual government for a living. He wrote numerous books about political science during the first several decades of his life, and his works are considered foundational to the establishment of political science as a separate and well-respected academic discipline. His most important work as a scholar was his doctoral dissertation, Congressional Government
(1885), which studied how political power in The Gilded Age
was not in the hands of a strong leader in the White House, but in the hands of congressional committees. He predicted that the Constitution's checks-and-balances system would inevitably lead to a situation where the executive branch and the legislative branch are each controlled by different parties who won't agree on anything, and this will cause a deadlock and prevent any bills from getting passed
. In fact, he initially thought that America should adopt a parliamentary government like those in Europe, but he was later impressed by the leadership of Grover Cleveland
and Theodore Roosevelt
and changed his mind about that last point. His work studying public administration was also very important, and he published a popular biography of George Washington
He went back and forth between various universities for a while before finally coming back to Princeton in 1890. This is about the same time the Progressive Movement (a liberal reaction to the conservatism of the Gilded Age which Wilson despised) began, and Wilson became one of the Movement's most famous leaders. Wilson thought that Princeton, supposedly one of the most prestigious universities in the country, was just a campground for rich students to earn degrees on the basis of their parents' money and not on actual academic performance. When he became president of the university in 1902, he initiated some major reforms, adding new programs, changing the lecture structure, and tried (but failed) to get rid of elite upper-class clubs and make the college more fair. In just a few years, Princeton became one of the most acclaimed universities in America. Now well-known in New Jersey
, the Democratic Party state leaders offered him their ticket for governor in 1910. He ran on a platform of progressive reforms and eliminating the power of corrupt party machines. After he won in a landslide, the party leaders were shocked to find out that he meant all of it
. Notably, he introduced direct party primaries to New Jersey, which severely limited the power of party leaders and gave more power to the voters. Other accomplishments include passing a public utilities commission, effective regulations on big business,note
and a worker's compensation system for those injured or killed on the job.note
Wilson quickly became a darling of the Progressives and a household name across the country, and many proposed that he run for the presidency.
Following a close primary, the Democratic Party chose him to be their nominee in the 1912 presidential election. They needed a leader who could take them out of the 19th century and into the Progressive Era, and Wilson was seen as their man. That same year, the Republicans split apart when former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt
, after failing in his attempt to win the party's nomination from incumbent William Howard Taft
, chose to run as a third party candidate. Wilson ran on a platform of abolishing what he identified as the "triple wall of privilege" - the banks, the tariffs, and the trusts. Whereas Taft and Roosevelt wanted to regulate businesses and only break up the corrupt trusts, Wilson said that this would get in the way of economic growth and the only acceptable solution would be to break up all trusts. This way, all of the new companies would even each other out and essentially leave the economy to regulate itself, small businesses would no longer be squished under the foot of the monopolies, and the economy would be more competitive. Additionally, he wanted to weaken the power of Wall Street bankers, which had recently caused a stinging financial panic in 1907, and lower the tariffs, which he said defended the trusts from foreign competition. He called his policies the "New Freedom." Wilson also criticized both of the two for making the federal government too powerful, and Wilson called for stronger states' rights. With the Republican vote split, Wilson easily won a landslide in the Electoral College despite only winning 41% of the popular vote. Wilson still likely would have won anyway, since Taft was really unpopular. The split in the Republican Party led to Taft's conservative wing taking over in the following years, while Wilson helped move what was traditionally the very conservative Democrats to the left and make them the party of reform.note note
Wilson is usually remembered as a cold intellectual who used logic far more than feeling while he was in charge of the country. In truth, it would be closer to the truth to claim he was the opposite of those things. While Roosevelt had the image of a rough cowboy who always wanted to get what he wanted, he was actually a far more flexible man than many people realize, and he was willing to bend core beliefs if it benefited him. Wilson, however, usually had an "all or nothing" attitude towards politics, and he was convinced that he was always in the right. Supremely religious (so much so, in fact, that he believed in predestination, and that God placed him on the Earth to lead the country
), he did not doubt that God was on his side, and he demonized people who disagreed with him. While this energized him as a leader and helped him accomplish as many good things as he did, it also meant that he would rarely compromise with people whom he did not like. This would prove to be the downfall of Wilson after years of political victories in the White House. On the other hand, Wilson honestly was a sincere man who usually had the country's interests at heart rather than personal power. He was a steadfast defender of key American values, and he believed that it was America's role in the world to defend and spread democracy throughout the world. Additionally, he only appeared cold and unfeeling when he was in public. In private, he was a warm friend and a loving father and husband. During his second year in office, Wilson's wife Ellen died. Incredibly shocked, he would spend his days walking around the White House simply whispering "...My God, what am I to do?" The next year, he was introduced to a beautiful widow named Edith Galt. They pretty instantly fell in love, and the two of them married a week before Christmas. They didn't marry in the White House because of the rumors going around.
It was under Wilson that the center of power in Washington switched from the legislative branch to the executive branch, completing Andrew Jackson
's goal of making the President the spokesman for the entire voting population rather than a Congress of regional politicians. He showed a consistent ability to guide major legislation through both chambers, meeting with congressional leaders regularly to discuss policy and keep Congress under his influence. Additionally, Wilson became the first President in over a century to personally appear before Congress and deliver speeches in support of his policies, breaking a tradition in place since the days of Thomas Jefferson
. He was also the first President to regularly schedule press conferences. With Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, Wilson had a perfect opportunity to implement his New Freedom platform and build upon the previous victories of the Progressives. Wilson established key regulatory agencies which remain in place to this day, such as the Federal Trade Commission, created to investigate companies suspected of unfair and anti-competitive business practices, namely false advertising and fraud. His most important domestic initiative was the creation of the United States' central banking system, the Federal Reserve System
, to put the United States on a uniform paper currency for the first time and prevent more depressions caused by bank panics. Known as the Fed, it is a nationwide system of twelve regional banks, each with its own central bank, that are themselves private banks, but they are controlled by the Federal Reserve Board, whose members are appointed by the federal government. The Fed regulates the banks, lends money to banks when they are on the verge of collapsing, controls the money supply, and makes the currency more elastic. This way, it was easier for the average American citizen to get loans from their banks, since the Fed would send money for banks going through rough times to use as a crutch. Every dollar banknote in America is actually a Federal Reserve Note, and they are liabilities of the Federal Reserve Banks. The importance of the Fed can not be overstated; it is the government's most important tool to manipulate the economy, and it has prevented most economic downturns after the Great Depression from being as severe as they could have been.note
Other notable domestic initiatives of the early Wilson administration include a dramatic tariff rates reduction, a graduated income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment, which legalized such an income tax, was passed during the Taft administration, but he never had the chance to pass one), federal funds to create more and better highways, compensation for federal workers, an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, and the Clayton Antitrust Act
. The latter strengthened previous anti-trust legislation, making it illegal for companies to buy stock in competing companies and practice price discrimination; it also declared that unions are not trusts and that striking was legal. Wilson attempted to make child labor illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled that the law doing this was unconstitutional. He was a hardcore advocate for federal support for farmers, and passed bills which created federal farm loans, created agricultural colleges to teach farmers about new developments in agriculture, and helped create warehouses for their staple crops. The first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis (a famous lawyer, Progressive movement leader, and political adviser for Wilson who helped plan the Fed), was nominated by Wilson, and he appointed the first Secretary of Labor, William Bauchop Wilson (no relation), since Taft created that Department hours before leaving office. While Teddy is remembered as the first and greatest conservationist President, Wilson was the one who created the National Park Service in 1916 to formally organize the national parks and forests, and he also added the Grand Canyon
to the NPS. The Seventeenth Amendment (direct elections for United States Senators) was ratified during his first year, a move which he supported. During his early years in office, probably the worst thing he did was the introduce segregation to federal agencies, including the Navy and the Postal Service, for the first time since the Civil War. When questioned about such practices, he infamously declared "If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it."
American imperialism in Latin America was at its height when Wilson entered office. A devoted anti-imperialist, Wilson ended Taft's "dollar diplomacy" with Latin American countries (basically, the federal government does whatever it takes to protect the monetary interests of America's businessmen, including sending troops). He extended citizenship to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico and passed the Jones Act, which gave the Philippines a limited self-government and promised them eventual independence. The Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark (mostly to keep Germany from doing that first), and work on the Panama Canal was completed during Wilson's first term. Ironically, Wilson ended up intervening in America's southern neighbors just as much as Roosevelt and Taft did
, but for very different reasons. When Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic were on the verge of revolutions, he sent the Marines to those countries to restore peace and democratic order, but these occupations lasted for years. Meanwhile, Mexico was still going through The Mexican Revolution
, and this resulted in numerous instances that nearly caused war with the United States. Wilson refused to recognize the government of General Victoriano Huerta after he seized power, the United States occupied the Mexican port city of Veracruz for six months to prevent a German shipment of weapons from reaching the Mexican government. This caused Huerta to lose power and give power to Venustiano Carranza (Mexico's current constitution was drafted on his watch). Pancho Villa, one of Carranza's enemies, was unhappy with this and crossed the border to attack the New Mexico town of Columbus in an attempt to provoke an American declaration of war. In response to the first attack on American soil since the Civil War, Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to capture Villa, leading to an ill-fated expedition through northern Mexico which ultimately failed to trap him. In the end, though, Wilson avoided mistakes that could have caused war, largely because of events going on in Europe. During the war, American troops occupied Cuba and Panama, both of which were already American protectorates.
Larger events abroad would eventually come to overshadow Wilson's domestic affairs. World War I broke out nearly two years after his election. At the time, American public opinion was largely opposed to any sort of serious involvement by the United States. It was by and far not an American affair, and as the war worsened and became a truly global conflict stretching from the fields of France and Flanders in the West all the way to German colonies in the Pacific, American opposition to entering the war only increased. However, as the war dragged on and the Central Powers grew increasingly more desperate to defeat the Allies, it became clear that American neutrality was not to last. German policies, "unrestricted submarine warfare" in particular, were a point of contention in German-American relations. After the sinking of the Lusitania
, a British passenger liner which was carrying American passengers (German officials alleged at the time that the ship was also shipping arms from the US-this was eventually proven true), a diplomatic crisis erupted between the US and Germany. In the end, Wilson kept his cool, and the crisis died down without war between the US and Germany. However, the Lusitania
would not be the only vessel carrying Americans to be sank by German vessels, as the Germans continued to practice unrestricted submarine warfare. In some ways, the United States was in a state of unofficial war with Germany by the time the 1916 elections were rolling around. Additionally, most American businesses were making money off of supplying the British and French armies (the Royal Navy was blockading Germany, so none of the Central Powers could receive any aid), which was only more incentive for the Germans to sink American ships.
Wilson had a much more difficult job winning reelection than he did first getting into the White House. He simultaneously had to advocate both remaining neutral and building up the military in case the United States was drawn into the war. The Democratic campaign slogan that year, "He Kept Us Out of War," referred to both the war in Europe as well as the war in Mexico, which is often forgotten by many people today. The Republicans reunited and nominated Charles Evan Hughes, who previously taught, hilariously, at New York Law School alongside Wilson. However, Hughes was equally bad at creating a coherent message, and he made different promises at different campaign rallies, leading the Democrats to label him "Charles Evasive Hughes." It also helped that many of Hughes policies were just slightly different than those that Wilson was also running on, such as an end to child labor, worker safety laws, and minimum wage laws. Still, though it was clear that the race would be a close one, Wilson went to bed on election night thinking that he was going to lose. After a few days of closely counting the votes in swing states, many were surprised to hear that Wilson won. The incumbent's campaign slogan in the shadow of a destructive war in Europe appealed to enough voters, and Hughes made the mistake of insulting a California Senator, which convinced enough people there to vote Democrat. Wilson once again did not win over 50% of the popular vote, giving him the dubious honor of being one of two 20th century Presidents to win twice with only a plurality. The other was Bill Clinton
, who went up against a major third party ticket both
times. Interestingly, Wilson had a plan if he lost reelection where both the Vice President and the Secretary of State would resign, and Wilson would appoint Hughes as Secretary of State. Wilson himself would then resign, and, by the presidential succession laws of the time, Hughes would now be President. Concerned with the rapid progress of events in Europe, he reasoned that a five-month lame duck period would not at all be desirable and worried that something terrible could happen before Hughes was sworn in.
After starting his second term, he attempted in vain to convince the European leaders to compromise, and said that only a "peace without victory" would not start a new war
. There was even talk within Congress of arming merchant ships. Ultimately, however, what would push the US into a war against Germany would come in the form of a telegram sent by German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government. The telegram reflected sentiments in German leadership at the time that America's involvement in the conflict in Mexico at the time was something large enough to distract America's attention and prevent the possibility of an American entry into WWI. Thus, Zimmermann's telegram promised Mexico that if it attacked the United States, Germany would pledge support and return the territories that had been taken from Mexico by America in the Mexican-American War. For Wilson and for America, this was the final straw. The Lusitania
had angered people, but ultimately, sentiment had been against intervention at the time. Now, Germany had crossed the line. Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war upon Germany, and the rest is history. Though the vote in Congress was overwhelmingly in favor of war, there were still several who voted no, including the first woman to sit in Congress, Jeanette Rankin, who argued that, as the only person in Congress representing the female half of the population, she was obliged to vote no since the majority of them did not want to send their sons, husbands, and brothers to fight overseas.
Unskilled in military strategy, he chose to handle running the country to fund the war and provide aid for European countries. The actual fighting of the war was left in the hands of General Pershing. While Wilson initially wanted the army to be made up entirely of volunteers, but after only 73,000 people volunteered in the first week he accepted the idea of a military draft. The first American draft since the Civil War, it raised the number of Army soldiers to 10 million in just a few months (for what it is worth, you'd be surprised to hear that the majority of people supported
the draft). Funding and organizing the war required a massive
overhaul of how the government ran the country. Americans saved food by eating no food on certain days ("Meatless" Mondays and "Wheatless" Wednesday) and cutting back on automobile rides and other luxuries, leaving the military with a surplus of resources with which to fight the war, and daylight saving time was introduced to conserve coal and oil. Future President Herbert Hoover
led the Food Administration, which encouraged farmers to produce more crops and meat for the soldiers abroad and to help save starving Europeans. The government funded the war through Liberty Bonds, which were bought by millions of citizens to show their support of the war, and by raising taxes. The Liberty Bonds saw the national debt skyrocket
from 1.2 billion in 1916 to 25.5 billion
in 1919. Temporary alliances were formed between unions, industries, and the government that helped the factories produce the war materials needed. While initially there was much confusion, by 1918 America was running as smoothly as possible to back the war, largely because the government took control of the railroads. For what it is worth, nearly all of the agencies made for the purpose of running the war were shut down when the Central Powers surrendered. Largely due to the industrial needs of the war and the destruction of European factories, America became the largest industrial and economic power in the world, a position it would keep for the rest of the century.
Unfortunately, this came at some cost: America was swept with war fever, and those who did not support the war were looked down upon. Certain immigrant groups, especially German Americans, were largely discriminated against, and the country moved towards "Americanization" rather than letting each ethnic group do what it pleased. German books were burned, German music was banned by many towns, and German foods were given new, "American" names. Congress passed both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress anti-war movements and jail those who criticized the Wilson administration's handling of the war. One of the approximately 2,000 prosecuted was Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of America - he still ran for the presidency while he was in prison. Radical unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World were especially targeted. The Wilson administration more or less used the opportunity of the war to cripple the power of socialists in the country, who held enough power at the time that both parties were worried. The Committee of Public Information, led by powerful journalist George Creel, sent 150,000 speakers across the country to gather crowds and deliver short speeches to build support for the war. The war just happened to coincide with a worldwide outbreak of influenza, and the disease easily spread through all of these large crowds. Wilson's policies of repression at home continued with the Red Scare
of the later years of his second administration following Red October
. Led by Attorney General Palmer, the "Palmer raids" rounded up about 10,000 radical leftists and others viewed as threatening to national security, with a few hundred deported from the United States (for what it is worth, these started after Wilson's stroke - see below). Additionally, many Southern blacks recognized wartime production in the North as an economic opportunity to escape Jim Crow and segregation, and millions of them moved to Northern cities in what is known as the "Great Migration." However, this led to a backlash against them in the North, since many Northerners thought that blacks should stay in the South
. Race riots broke out in over 20 cities, blacks were assaulted by whites, and many people were killed. This also helped lead to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, unfortunately.
Meanwhile, the suffragist movement was rapidly moving towards its goal of extending the right to vote to every adult woman in the country. With many working positions freed while the men fought overseas, women had more jobs than ever before and, with them, more social power. It was at this point that suffragists, citing the loyalty women across the country were showing, declared that letting women vote was a necessary war measure. While it is usually remembered that Wilson opposed women's suffrage entirely, he actually did support it as long it was a state-by-state basis
, since he thought states should handle their own voting rights themselves. During his first term, when New Jersey was going to hold a referendum on women's suffrage, Wilson announced that he was going to return to his home state and vote in favor (sadly, it didn't get passed). During his reelection, he accepted a party platform which included voting rights for all women, too. This stance on the issue wasn't enough to satisfy many women, though. A handful of women, led by suffragist Alice Paul, protested in front of the White House demanding that Wilson give them the vote, holding up signs calling him "Kaiser Wilson" and even chaining themselves to the White House fence
. The police eventually locked them in prison and started force-feeding them when they went on a hunger strike, which horrified Wilson. Realizing that by this point women were going to win the right to vote soon, Wilson announced his personal support for an amendment to extend suffrage to both sexes, and worked behind the scenes the get the amendment passed through both Congress and some state legislatures. How much this political U-turn is because of a change of heart or because of political pressure is debatable, but it's probably a mixture of both. By 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment passed. Ironically, the majority of women voted Republican in that year's election. He created the Women's Bureau in 1920 to protect women in the workforce, though most of them gave up their jobs when the war ended and went back home
. Early in his presidency, Wilson also made Mother's Day a holiday, making him quite easily the favorite president of the Hallmark company.
After Russia fell to both the Germans and revolution, millions of Central Power troops were free to attack France in the Western front. It is (arguably) due to the huge amount of money, resources, and troops poured into France that they were able to repel the German advances in 1918. However, actual battle success was slim up until the final few weeks of the war, and major advances forward for the Allied Powers did not occur until around September. It is mostly recognized that the promise of more American troops showing up that convinced the German government to surrender. When the revolutionaries in Russia released documented correspondence with other Allied countries proving that the war was not being fought for purely honorable intentions, Wilson seized the opportunity and proposed his vision of a post-war world. All of the major Allied Powers were either republics or constitutional monarchies, and Wilson changed the goal of the war to make the world "safe for Democracy." Wilson, warning that punishing Germany would only lead to another war, proposed ideas such as free trade between all countries, self-determination for all the peoples of Europe, the end of secret treaties, and, most importantly of all, the creation of an international organization to settle disputes between countries and prevent future wars. The Allied countries in Europe, which spent the past few years making secret agreements over how to punish Germany and divide its colonies, were obviously not amused. Wilson's Fourteen Points
would form the basis for his actions after Germany's surrender. He also sent thousands of American troops into Siberia as part of a joint Allied intervention to prevent the Bolsheviks from seizing the many Allied weapons there and to rescue the tens of thousands of Czechoslovak troops trapped in Russia, which is one of the reasons why communist Russia always had troubled relations with America (that whole "communism vs. capitalism" thing also had a lot to do with it), and it's an interesting example of how there were already tensions years before the Cold War
On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered. This was initially celebrated in the US as Armistice Day, but now it's just Veterans Day to celebrate all American war veterans. Wilson shocked the country by announcing that he would personally sail to Europe to take part in the peace negotiations, becoming the first sitting President to visit Europe. While popularly received by the European public, the leaders of the other Allied Powers were largely unwilling to listen to Wilson and give up their plans after years of bloody, destructive fighting. Additionally, the 1918 congressional election put a Republican majority in the Senate, and they were highly suspicious of Wilson's goals, something the leaders of the UK (David Lloyd George
) and France (Georges Clemenceau) were willing to exploit. It didn't help that Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau were so much at odds personally: Wilson being the sanctimonious professor
, Lloyd George being the laid-back and convivial but somewhat weak-willed politico
, and Clemenceau being a vengeful firebrand
. (As Lloyd George put it, when asked how he had done at the Conference: "Not badly, considering I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.") In the end, the Treaty of Versailles resembled their goal of punishing Germany rather than Wilson's Fourteen Points - Germany was totally disarmed, it was forced to take full blame for the war and repay massive war debts to the Allies, and its colonies were divided between France and the UK. Wilson still managed to win a few battles, though - he secured the independence of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia in Eastern Europe and the redrawing of several borders based on where each ethnic group is populated. Most importantly, the League Of Nations
was created, and Wilson hoped that this body would settle any disputes between post-war Germany and the rest of Europe. (Wilson would win 1919's Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to create the League.) The Treaty of Versailles was completed after much debate and negotiation, and pretty much everyone agrees that it was an awkward Frankenstein's monster combining Wilson's plans for peace with French and British plans for revenge, and revenge dominated. No one was fully satisfied with the treaty, but everyone agreed it was better to just end the war and pass the treaty, whatever misgivings the other countries had.
Wilson now had the difficult job of getting it passed through the Senate, and this is where he made a series of important missteps. At home, most people were indeed willing to join the League. However, most Republicans in the Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, had reservations about the League - in particular, they opposed how membership in the League would force the United States to defend any other members who are invaded, which they saw as a violation of America's neutrality and of Congress' sole right to declare war. Republicans were also pretty mad that Wilson took only Democrats with him to Paris - this was largely because the presumptive Republican delegate would be Lodge, and Wilson and Lodge could not stand to be in the same room together. (The fact that, at the height of his popularity, Wilson got rather cocky also has to do with it.) Perhaps scarred by his experience in Europe, Wilson did not show his usual ability to find a compromise and decided to turn towards the American people to build support. He toured the entire country, traveling long distances by train and making numerous speeches each day. This was taking a huge toll on his body, however, and eventually he collapsed just when it seemed like the necessary public support could be won. Returning to Washington, Wilson had a stroke just days later that paralyzed him for the rest of his presidency. While never exactly the healthiest man in the world, Wilson had shown signs of fatigue just before the tour and ignored his doctor's advise to stay in the capital. His stroke produced a constitutional crisis the likes of which were never imagined at the time - he was clearly incapable of continuing his duties as President, but, since he was alive, it was not clear if the Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, should or even legally could
take over. (Marshall was widely seen as a total clown, to the point that many of Wilson's Republican enemies wanted Wilson to stay in office because they hated Marshall even more.) Wilson was hidden from the public eye in the White House, where only his doctors, his closest advisers, and his wife regularly saw him. It is widely held that Edith Wilson unofficially took charge of the federal government for at least several weeks, and she at least controlled what information went to Wilson during this time.
The battle in the Senate continued, and it soon became clear that Lodge had firmly gained the upper hand. He announced 14 reservations over the Treaty, including the League. The stroke had a huge effect on Wilson's psyche, too, and he became unreasonable and lost his touch with reality. Days before the vote over the Treaty in the Senate, Wilson told fellow Democrats to vote against it. In the end, America never ratified that Treaty of Versailles and never joined the League of Nations. Additionally, as millions of soldiers returned from Europe, it became clear that Wilson put little thought into post-war planning. As economic problems started to escalate and unions which piped down for the war began striking once more, Wilson had his stroke, and the strong leadership needed to pull the country away from a downturn was lost. A stinging recession began, with high unemployment (above 12% when he left office) and runaway inflation (it peaked at an unfathomable 18%
in the year after fighting ended) haunting the country just in time for the 1920 election. Unsurprisingly, Republican nominee Warren Harding
, running on a platform of a "Return to normalcy," managed to win the White House. A peace treaty with Germany would eventually be negotiated after Wilson left office. The Eighteenth Amendment was also passed in 1919, banning alcohol throughout the country and starting the Prohibition era. Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act designed the give the federal government the power to enforce the amendment, but it was passed over his veto. After years of political victories and nationwide popularity, Woodrow Wilson left office both crippled by his stroke and in the shadow of his greatest defeat. He would die just three years later. Since America never joined, the League ended up being a powerless, toothless organization that was unprepared to resolve any diplomatic disputes or prevent another war. Thus, just as Wilson predicted, another war broke out
, and the Great War would become known as World War I. While nobody can ever know for sure what would have happened if America had joined the League of Nations and if the tensions and conflicts that eventually lead to another world war could have been prevented by the United States, everyone knows what happened when the U.S. failed to join the League.
For such an important President, you'd be surprised by how divisive he is. While he is still viewed highly by academics, who often rate him in the top ten presidents (albeit usually at around eighth place), the public is less keen on him. A 2007 poll
found that only 56% of Americans had a favorable impression of him, compared to 85% for Teddy Roosevelt and a surprisingly high 57% for the seemingly-forgotten Taft (though it's worth mentioning that 25% did not give an answer on Wilson).note
Wilson's reputation changes every few decades, with some generations admiring him and others taking a much harsher view. It seems that his reputation is currently declining. More recent historians have criticized Wilson for his racism, the interventionist Latin American policies, his administration's record on civil liberties (probably the worst in American history, admittedly), and his stubborn refusal to compromise over the League. His post-stroke incapacity has also been a rough spot even if it isn't entirely his fault; in 1967, the 25th Amendment
was passed to smooth over the presidential succession issues, with Wilson's stroke being an example of how it needed to be fixed. Still, Wilson's influence is a lasting one for his country. His New Freedom policies and his wartime mobilization were the groundwork for the programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt
's New Deal. The government took a greater role in managing the economy and protecting both consumers and workers from big business. He was (arguably) the first major world leader to fully recognize the need to help international stability and prevent major wars from breaking out, leading to today's United Nations
to arbitrate disputes between world powers. Most importantly, his vision of the United States protecting democracy abroad has undeniably endured as the hallmark of American foreign policy. Wilson is on the $100,000 dollar bill, but these have been discontinued since 1969.
For some of the other controversies surrounding Wilson, see the analysis page
Tropes associated with Woodrow Wilson:
- America Saves the Day: He envisioned a world where the United States would be a force for good in the world, a force to defend democracy and defeat injustice everywhere.
- Arch-Enemy: Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. He was Wilson's biggest critic, especially when it came to foreign policy, and single-handedly reduced the President from World Hero to a lame duck President in a matter of months. Lodge's loyalists, a group of Senators opposed to the League of Nations, dubbed themselves the "Battalion of Death." Uh oh.
- Badass Bookworm: While not necessarily of the "badass" variety, Woodrow Wilson was a titanic figure on the international stage who was perfectly willing to exert the force and authority of the then-rising power of the United States of America.
- He did run the country for years while fighting off his own poor health, too. That took some level of strength.
- Black and White Morality: One of his flaws is that he often saw the world this way.
- British Teeth: He fits this trope despite not being British. Wilson had a notorious reputation for being cold in public and rarely smiling. This was secretly because he had horrible teeth. See for yourself.
- Corrupt Politician: No and yes. When he ran for Governor of New Jersey and later for President, Wilson made it clear to party bosses that he was running with no strings attached. However, the Sedition and Espionage Acts during World War I were... questionable, to say the least.
- Determinator: Worked himself to the point of an incapacitating stroke, just to drum up support for his Fourteen Points, and apparently still died believing their implementation was the only hope for peace.
- Deadpan Snarker: "Don't interfere while your enemy is destroying himself." Which he said in reference to his campaign for President. The fact he was obscenely right (courtesy of a sizable majority of the Electoral College) only makes it better.
- Fair for Its Day: Some of his views that are less popular now were the consensual norm back then. Others, not so much.
- Freudian Excuse: He grew up in the South during The American Civil War. This was responsible both for his racism as well as his commitment to peace.
- Good Flaws, Bad Flaws: His racism is in the blurred area between them. On one hand, yes, he was a racist even by the standards of the oh-so-very-racist early 20th century. On the other hand, he was born in the South just years before the Civil War, giving him something of a Freudian Excuse. Wilson has some others, but this is the one usually brought up.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Some of his ideas and actions are admittedly... disputable to say the least. And then there are those who somehow take these and morph Wilson into either an Illuminati stooge or the honorary founder of the Third Reich. Seriously. Even in much more sensible circles, some scholars criticize his naivety in Versailles, his blatant racism (even for his time), and the arrests made during the war.
- Glenn Beck has pushed this angle a great deal, and he and other right-wing figures have made much of Conspiracy Theories regarding Wilson's implementation of the Federal Reserve System to stabilize the US economy. Though it is worth mentioning that the Federal Reserve was created after years of planning in response to a banking crisis in 1907 that nearly caused a severe economic breakdown. Wilson, who had already stated that he was in favor of a Federal Reserve System, just happened to be the one in office when the time came to make it happen.
- As a whole, libertarians despise him. Some of it is understandable, but a lot of it just make them look looney.
- The point about "honorary founder of the Third Reich" is attributed to the fact that Hitler himself in Mein Kampf enthusiastically praised USA under the Progressive Movement (with its Pledge of Allegiance, eugenics laws and stuff like that) as a role model for governing a nation, though Wilson was not the only one pushing for said changes and based on his extreme pro-democracy beliefs (which is the main reason he entered WW1 in the first place) it's fairly clear he would get along with Hitler about as well as FDR did.
- Contrary to how most people remember it, Wilson was not completely opposed to women's suffrage, though it took one of his daughters pointing out that he was denying himself four votes (his three daughters and his wife) if he was. He just thought it was a matter for individual states, and not the federal government. He did, however, think that women should still Stay in the Kitchen and not hold jobs and run for political office, so there's that (this was the majority view then).
- Hypocrite: "The world must be made safe for democracy. Now excuse me while I arrest thousands of anti-war dissidents and stifle free speech."
- Ignored Expert: If the Allied powers listened to Wilson post-WWI, WWII might not have happened, at least not to the same scale.
- The Irish Question: Wilson was initially much praised by Irish nationalists (and Irish Americans) who wanted him to support their own national aspirations at Versailles. When he ignored them he was subject to much bitter recrimination. His reasoning was that, unlike all of the ethnicities in Central Europe who were under the control of other peoples, the Irish had representation in the British Parliament and had the legal power to handle the matter themselves. Plus, he didn't want to anger the British delegates at Versailles.
- Irony: Wilson appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis. He also appointed to the Court a man named James Clark McReynolds, who was a vicious antisemitic, sexist, racist, lazy, self-centered, and all-around asshole. McReynolds, previously Wilson's Attorney General, refused to talk to Brandeis or even sit next to him, even though, by seniority, they were supposed to sit next to each other. He carried on this tradition with Justices Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter, the later Jewish Justices. He would turn his chair around or walk out of the room whenever black or female attorneys spoke before the Court, and he personally insulted every one of his colleagues (even Taft, his superior) on several occasions. When he died, none of the other Justices attended his funeral. In fact, many historians believe that Wilson nominated McReynolds to the Court just to get rid of him.
- It's All About Me: Even his fans have to admit that Wilson seemed to believe that only he was actually capable of changing the world for the better.
- Love It or Hate It: Basically, he seems never to have taken the middle ground on anything. He was a vile racist who was dedicated to world peace. It's pretty much impossible for anyone to love everything about the man, so you either praise what you agree with (being right about WWII) and ignore the rest, or focus on his flaws, of which there were many. He was pretty much a bowl of sugar and salt.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: Privately he was actually a charming, funny man, but outwardly he seemed cold.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The Treaty of Versailles, though what came out of Versailles was exactly the kind of punishing, harsh treaty that Wilson had argued AGAINST for the duration of his time at Versailles, he did wind up compromising on a great many of his points to obtain the creation of the League of Nations however, which gave more leeway to more vengeful nations such as France to kick Germany while she was down.
- Nice to the Waiter: He was a warm, charming man despite his cold, academic facade.
- Noble Bigot: How his fans perceive him.
- One of Us: Wilson was in office when the movie industry really started to come of age and he was very enthusiastic about the new medium.
- He was also a huge fan of baseball.
- Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Not Wilson, who was usually regarded as a talented speaker. His Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, was this. He was basically the Joe Biden of the early 20th century. One of the reasons why Wilson would not transfer his presidential powers was because putting Marshall in charge of the country was widely considered to be a bad idea, even within the Democratic Party.
- Our Presidents Are Different: President Iron, definitely.
- Pet the Dog: Wilson was outspoken about aiding the Armenians suffering from a genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War One, and even helped set the boundaries for an independent (though short-lived) Armenian state after the war. However, it was only because the Armenians were mostly Christians that he wanted to help them.
- Though Wilson was also the only of the Big Three to support Arab claims for independence at Versailles.
- Wilson twice vetoed the Immigration Act of 1918 (also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act). The act barred homosexuals, epileptics, polygamists, anyone who was physically or mentally defective, illiterates over the age of 16, "idiots", "feeble-minded persons", and many others deemed undesirable from immigrating to America. It also completely barred immigration from any country that was in the Asian Barred Zone◊ which included the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and much of Central Asia. Sadly, Congress overrode Wilson's vetoes and the bill passed.
- While of course one can argue that events beyond his control certainly helped, Wilson's public speech before Congress endorsing an amendment granting women the right to vote was arguably the deciding factor in it getting added to the Constitution.
- Wilson, the most religious President of the 20th century, did not doubt that evolution was real: "Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised."
- Politically Incorrect Hero / Politically Incorrect Villain: Depending on how you view him.
- The Professor: He was the President of Princeton before he ran for President, and is also the only U.S. president who held a Ph.D.
- The Smart Guy
- Start X to Stop X: Enter a war to END all war! Could not possibly fail!
- Urban Legend:
- Many people who despise the Federal Reserve often mention that just a few years after signing it he said "I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country." in a speech about the Fed. Except Wilson never actually said this and he considered the Fed to be one of his crowning achievements. The remainder of the fake "speech" consists of actual statements of Wilson's, copy-and-pasted out of context from his actual speeches and writings in an effort to make it sound like something Wilson would've actually said. All of those lines predated the establishment of the Fed, and in fact many of them were from an essay he wrote explaining why he thought a central bank was needed.
- Additionally, the story of Wilson saying that The Birth of a Nation was "like writing history with lightning" and that it was "so terribly true" is also false. It seems that Thomas Dixon, the man who wrote the book the movie is based on and a former student of Wilson's, may have even made up the story in an attempt to gain more attention. In fact, Wilson released a press statement in which he condemned the "unfortunate production." However, it is possible that Wilson did like it and only released the statement to avoid controversy.
- Some also claim that he was a closet supporter of the Confederacy. To quote Wilson himself, "Because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy."
- Values Dissonance: He segregated the government racially. When blacks complained about it, he said "If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it." (never mind the fact that most blacks were barred from voting by various legal tricks). He was also unabashedly anti-immigrant and criticized Irish immigrants harshly.
- He also launched the Espionage Act of 1918, which punished "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" against the US government that served the purpose of arresting those against World War I. This order was ironic — he spent his academic days complaining about the US government and the constitution and wished to persecute as president those who preached the same things he once did.
- Some argue that he was highly racist even for his own time. Of course, he was born shortly before The American Civil War in Virginia, not too far from the Confederate capital at Richmond, so...what do you expect?
- Well, when you set desegregation back a good few decades. In the case of the Navy, he barred them from a service that was at times more than 1/3 African American going back to the revolutionary war.
- Vindicated by History: For all of his faults, he called World War II pretty early. “For, I tell you, my fellow citizens, 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.” (Sept. 8, 1919)
- The world at large had a much more favorable view of Wilson in the years after World War II, the consensus being that if people had actually listened to him then the second one would have been avoided. Since then, his reputation has fluctuated a lot.
- The War to End All Wars: His goal was to make sure the Great War was this. In the short term, he obviously failed. In the long term, World War II was the last war fought between all of the major world powers. Subsequent wars have been either revolutions/civil wars, regional wars with major powers "aiding" each side, or the major powers invading smaller countries for some purpose or another.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Critics accuse Wilson of being this, proponents say Wilson's idealism was just what everyone needed at a dark and cynical time. The real answer is somewhere in between: try telling a Czech or a Serb just how "overly idealistic" the man who helped them gain independence was without starting a heated argument, but on the other hand, Wilson's idealism could occasionally steer him astray, and cause him to make politically unwise decisions and assuming the American people would unite behind him all the time, one of his biggest mistakes was the failure to realize that this was not the case.
- Young Future Famous People: Not Wilson. But during the peace conference in Versailles, he met a young teacher, activist, and pastry chef from French Indochina who asked to meet with Wilson to discuss Vietnamese independence. Wilson, frightened by the young man's socialist beliefs, brushed him off. The man was Ho Chi Minh.
- At any rate, does anyone believe that Wilson could have convinced Clemenceau to decolonize Vietnam right after France just won a war?
- Your Cheating Heart: He started having an affair while he was still president of Princeton. His wife found out and was heartbroken, but in the end she decided she still loved her husband and that they should try to work things out.
Wilson in fiction:
- The character of Lazarus Long from various Robert A. Heinlein novels is revealed to have been named after Wilson: His birth name is Woodrow Wilson Smith.
- In The Simpsons, Bart pranks Mrs. Krabapel by sending her love letter from a guy with Gordie Howe's face and Pres. Wilson's ("Woody") name.
- Alexander Knox played him in the 1944 biopic Wilson.
- Wilson's ominous second term is chronicled in Gore Vidal's Hollywood. The President, thin-skinned and oversensitive to criticism (even from advisers), essentially shrinks the executive branch to fit inside a tiny study, with only his doctor and wife allowed inside for "health" reasons. As Wilson becomes more and more cloistered inside his own head, his political enemies are allowed to run rampant; Wilson's only response is to take trips abroad, or tour the country to rally support from his base. His health is eventually shattered by all of these excursions.
- Wilson is president of the Confederacy during the Great War in Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 series.
- He appears several times and dies prematurely in 1915 in Swarm on the Somme.
- Gus Dewar, one of the main characters in Ken Follett's Door Stopper novel Fall of Giants, works for President Wilson.
- He (or rather, his ghost) shows up in The Venture Bros. to briefly play a celebrity perfume guessing game with 21.
- The Birth of a Nation contains a quote from him on an intertitle.
- Legendary folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie (the guy who sang "This Land is Your Land") was named after Wilson.