Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / Woodrow Wilson

Go To
"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 (December 28, 1856 February 3, 1924) was the 28th President of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921, and the ninth from the Democratic Party. He immediately followed William Howard Taft and preceded Warren G. 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 a few years before the Civil War, and his exposure to the destruction of the war 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 PhD in history and political science at Johns Hopkins University in 1886, making him the only President with a doctorate so far (JDs don't count).note  Despite this, he was never actually referred to by anyone as a doctor, in part because America had already spent 124 years simply calling the chief executive officer of the country "Mr. President," and wasn't about to change that nownote . 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 in the hands of congressional committees, not in a strong leader in The White House. 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. 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 based on their parents' money rather than 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 trying (this last unsuccessfully) to get rid of elite upper-class clubs and make the college fairer. 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 what he said. 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 President.

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 — William Jennings Bryan had gotten the ball rolling on this during his three presidential campaigns, but was no longer seen as a credible candidate after all three campaigns ended in landslide defeats — and Wilson was seen as their man. That same year, the Republicans split apart when former President Roosevelt, after failing in his attempt to win the Republican 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 was to break up all trusts. This way, all 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; lower the tariffs, which he said defended the trusts from foreign competition; and ultimately refused to accept any money from big business or from people involved in it while he was campaigning, saying that he was running for the people and not for the rich. 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 

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 reality 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 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 Wilson's downfall after years of political victories in the White House. On the other hand, Wilson was a sincere man who usually pursued power so he could do what he thought was in his country's interests. 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. There was mutual Love at First Sight, 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 appear before Congress personally 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 schedule regular press conferences. With Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress when he became President, Wilson had a perfect opportunity to implement his New Freedom platform and build upon the Progressives' previous victories. 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 cannot 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 enact 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 (they had previously been prohibited under the Sherman Antitrust Act on those grounds). 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 Departmentnote  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 popular 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 to introduce segregation to federal agencies, including the Navynote  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, which 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, and the United States Marines occupied the Mexican port city of Veracruz for six months to prevent a shipment of weapons from reaching the Mexican government (believed to be German, they were actually financed and sent by Americans). This caused Huerta to lose power and he was replaced by 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, but not admitted until the 1980s when the UK warned salvage divers about the danger of explosives on the wreck), 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 Evans Hughes, a former Supreme Court Justice 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.note  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 four-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 preoccupation with the conflict in Mexico might 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.note  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, and the US in 1916 had extracted the Sussex Pledge from Germany, promising to prevent any future incidents (within the same month the telegram was revealed, the pledge was broken, further aggravating US-German relations). 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, 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, particularly given how few were willing to volunteer). 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.note  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 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 A.M. 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 (where they wouldn't be competing with Northern whites for the same jobs). Race riots broke out in over 20 cities, blacks were assaulted by whites, and many people were killed. This also helped the revived Ku Klux Klan gain steam, 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 supported on 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 wasn't 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. They were sentenced to prison, where the officials 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 that poured into France that they could 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 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 postwar world. All 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 began.

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 replaced the Democrats' majorities in both houses of Congress (the Senate more importantly) with Republican majorities, and the latter 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 postwar 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 there 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 something 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, concealing her husband's illness and disability from the general public.

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 G. Harding, running on a platform of a "Return to normalcy," easily won 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 enacted to 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 led 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.

Wilson's presidency is now included in, though not synonymous with, what is called "the nadir of race relations in the US". His presidency saw a surge in lynchings, including as far north as Duluth, Minnesota, the largest number of installations of Confederate War monuments in US history, the segregation of the federal government and the enactment of Jim Crow as the law in the federal military, and the Red Summer of 1919, which saw at least 60 race riots targeting black communities across the entire country. While he didn't cause all of these things (he was responsible for segregating the federal government), he was a staunch white supremacist and anti-Semite and certainly didn't help make them better. The surge in monument production was due to it being the 50 year anniversary of the The American Civil War and their incredibly racist children wanted to honor their now aged and dying veteran fathers.

The rise of lynching and the Red Summer was caused by a multitude of factors, almost none of which were Wilson. It was the combination of the first Great Migration out of the south as black families were recruited as scabs in response to union demands and decreased labor supply (armies need bodies), black soldiers returning from the war advocating for civil rightsnote  and communismnote , and the economic crash caused by the increase in labor supply and decrease in demand as the federal government stopped buying stuff for the war effort. That all of this occurred with the newly terrifying Soviet Union rising to threaten rich people and Christians wasn't missed by anyone, hence the Red Summer. When people found themselves on the streets and hungry thanks to the wealthy and powerfulnote  not anticipating what has happened after every major conflict at least since the end of the War of the Spanish Succession led to the The Golden Age of Piracy, they naturally found themselves blaming a convenient, powerless, local victim. Again, Wilson didn't cause it, but a young lawyer working in the Department of Justice's Radical Division (no, it meant they targeted political "radicals") targeted the victims of this violence for suppression, disruption, disinformation, entrapment, violence, and a false propaganda campaign in the press. That was J. Edgar Hoover. He was doing COINTELPRO in 1919, 37 years before it became official FBI policy.

Wilson's anti-Semitism didn't just impact his response to the Red Summernote , but was also partly responsible for the formation of the League of Nations. While his stated goal was to prevent another such conflict as The Great War (remember, he both opposed the war and entering it), he also wanted to use it in exactly the same way the US would later use the United Nations, as a tool to attack, sorry, to defend against the new (and Jewishnote ) communist nation of the Soviet Union. His anti-communism wasn't strictly anti-Semitic, though; he also hated communist activist Helen Keller (after she learned to talk, it turns out she had some shit to say). Unsurprisingly, Wilson's racism and anti-Semtism, and their impacts on some of the projects he pursued (or didn't pursue), don't typically make it into US textbooks. However, they are known, and help explain why "the president who won World War One!" isn't on any of the moneynote .

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 wasn't his own 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 (though in a way he actually opposed, which, good for him).

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Knight Templar: As noted above, Wilson had a mentality of always being in the right and believing God put himself on Earth for a special reason.
  • Historical Domain Character: If a story involves the suffragettes or America in World War I, chances are he will be in it.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade / Historical Villain Upgrade: Depends on the person and when it was made. For decades he is depicted as the Big Good who gave women the right to vote and led America during World War I. Recently, Wilson is more likely to depicted as an open racist and The Fundamentalist.
  • Serious Business: Takes his job as president very seriously.
  • The Stoic: Often depicted as very cold and calculating and showing very little emotion.

Wilson in fiction:

Comic Books

  • Superman story The Living Legends Of Superman gives him a heroic upgrade: In the very distant future, President Woodrow Wilson is regarded by future generations as a renowned hero who made the world safer for democracy.


  • Alexander Knox played him in the 1944 biopic Wilson. This being a work of patriotic wartime propaganda, the take on Wilson is hagiographic, and the Great War is just there to be mined for topical allegory about its sequel. The Aesop is, of course, that World War II could have been prevented had the U.S. listened to Wilson and joined the League of Nations. The film was a critical smash but a Box Office Bomb.
  • The Birth of a Nation contains a quote from him on an intertitle:
    The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation. . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.
  • In Reds, Wilson is essentially played as a Greater-Scope Villain. John Reed actually supports him in the 1916 election due to his purported anti-war stance. As a radical, Reed doesn't really expect Wilson to live up to it, but he figures that Wilson is the lesser evil. Later on, Louise Bryant unfavorably compares Wilson to the Bolsheviks, as the latter kept their promise to take Russia out of the war. Naturally, the Palmer raids are also touched on.
  • In 1974, CBS aired a Made-for-TV Movie called The First Woman President, focused on the period when Edith Wilson is alleged to have run the country. It starred Eva Marie Saint as Edith and Richard Basehart as Woodrow.
  • As a World War I period piece, he's the American president in The King's Man. He first resists accepting the validity of the Zimmerman note, forcing the protagonists to verify it at great cost, and then gets seduced and blackmailed by Mata Hari (one of the shadowy cabal of supervillains behind the conflict) to keep America out of the war and ensure the defeat and destruction of Britain, such that the final MacGuffin is a film reel of the affair.
  • In the 2004 Docudrama TV movie 12 Days of Terror which is about a series of shark attacks in Jersey in July 1916, One scene sees him in the background giving a speech to a crowd about keeping the United States out of war.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A flashback in one of the President's Vampire novels has Cade conversing with Edith Wilson during the period when she effectively took over from her husband. He's shown to have a deep respect for her, which is saying something.
  • Robert Conroy's Alternate History novel 1920: America's Great War has the Zimmermann telegram not being sent, and thus America being given no impetus to enter WWI, which the Central Powers end up winning. Wilson in turn wins a third term for, once again, keeping America out of the war. However, he still ends up having a stroke (albeit later than in real life), which in this case actually kills him.


  • Legendary folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie (the guy who sang "This Land Is Your Land") was named after Wilson.


Western Animation