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“THIS MAN'S MIND AND SPIRIT”
Each year, in the morning on December 28, a military honor guard carrying the American flag presents a wreath that bears the words “The President.” Accompanying the honor guard are members of the clergy, who carry a cross and say a prayer. The clergy are present because the wreathlaying ceremony takes place in front of a tomb in the Washington National Cathedral. Since the day is only a week after the winter solstice, the low angle of the morning sun causes bright colors from the stained glass windows to play across the floor of the alcove where the tomb is located, over the stone sarcophagus, and on the words carved on the walls. The alcove contains two flags, the Stars and Stripes and the orange and black–shielded ensign of Princeton University. The wreath laying takes place on the birthday, and at the final resting place, of the thirteenth president of Princeton and twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
The ceremony and the tomb capture much about this man. The military presence is fitting because Wilson led the nation through World War I. The religious setting is equally fitting because no president impressed people more strongly as a man of faith than Wilson did. His resting place makes him the only president buried inside a church and the only one buried in Washington. The university flag attests to his career in higher education before he entered public life. Wilson remains the only professional academic and the only holder of the Ph.D. degree to become president. The inscriptions on the alcove walls come from his speeches as president and afterward. Wilson made words central to all that he did as a scholar, teacher, educational administrator, and political leader; he was the next to last president to write his own speeches. No other president has combined such varied and divergent elements of learning, eloquence, religion, and war.
In 1927, three years after Wilson’s death, Winston Churchill declared, “Writing with every sense of respect, it seems no exaggeration to pronounce that the action of the United States with its repercussions on the history of the world depended, during the awful period of Armageddon, on the workings of this man’s mind and spirit to the exclusion of every other factor; and that he played a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man.” Churchill was referring to the part that Wilson played in World War I and above all, his decision in 1917 to intervene on the side of the Allies. That was the biggest decision Wilson ever made, and much of what has happened in the world since then has flowed from that decision. Unlike the other American wars of the last century, this one came neither in response to a direct attack on the nation’s soil, as with World War II and Pearl Harbor and the attacks of September 11, nor as a war of choice, as with the Gulf War and the Iraq War, nor as a smaller episode in a grand global struggle, as with the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Many have argued that the United States joined the Allies in 1917 because great underlying forces and interests involving money, ties of blood and culture, and threats to security and cherished values were “really” at work. Perhaps so, perhaps not, but one incontrovertible fact remains: the United States entered World War I because Woodrow Wilson decided to take the country in.
Despite his deep religious faith, he did not go to war in 1917 because he thought God was telling him to do it. When someone telegraphed him to demand, “In the name of God and humanity, declare war on Germany,” Wilson’s stenographer wrote in his diary that the president scoffed, “War isn’t declared in the name of God; it is a human affair entirely.” To Wilson, as an educated, orthodox Christian, the notion that any person could presume to know God’s will was blasphemy. Likewise, as someone born and raised in the least evangelical and most God-centered of Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian, the notion of a personal relationship with the Almighty was foreign to him. Three months after the outbreak of World War I in Europe and at a time when he was enduring agonies of grief after the death of his first wife, he told a YMCA gathering, “For one, I am not fond of thinking about Christianity as a means of saving individual souls.”
Wilson practiced a severe separation not only between church and state but also between religion and society. Unlike his greatest rival, Theodore Roosevelt, he never compared politics with preaching. Unlike the other great leader of his Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, he never supported the greatest moral reform crusade of their time—prohibition. Also unlike Bryan, he saw no conflict between modern science and the Bible, and he despised early manifestations of what came to be called Fundamentalism. By the same token, however, he had little truck with the major liberal religious reform movement, the Social Gospel. Wilson remained a strong Presbyterian, but his second wife was an Episcopalian who continued to worship in her own church. He was the first president to visit the pope in the Vatican. He counted Catholics and Jews among his closest political associates, and he appointed and fought to confirm the first Jew to the Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis.
A person with that kind of religious background and outlook could never be either of the two things that many people would charge him with being—a secular messiah or a naïve, woolly-headed idealist. Wilson was bold, extremely sure of himself, and often stubborn, and he did think of himself as an instrument of God’s will. But according to his beliefs, every person was an instrument of God’s will, and even his own defeats and disappointments were manifestations of the purposes of the Almighty. Such an outlook left no room for messianic delusions. It did leave room for idealism, but that did not distinguish him from the other leading politicians of his time. Except for a few crass machine types and hard-bitten conservatives, all the major figures in public life during the first two decades of the twentieth century proclaimed themselves idealists. Roosevelt and Bryan did so proudly, and nothing infuriated Roosevelt more than to hear Wilson called an idealist. Moreover, this was, as Richard Hofstadter characterized it, “the age of reform.” Prohibition, woman suffrage, anti-vice campaigns, social settlement houses, educational uplift, and an embracing set of political movements loosely gathered under the umbrella of “progressivism” were the order of the day. In that context, Wilson came off as one of the most careful, hardheaded, and sophisticated idealists of his time.
His circumspection extended to foreign as well as domestic affairs. By his own admission, he did not enter the White House with much of what he called “preparation” in foreign affairs. As a scholar, he had studied and written almost exclusively about domestic politics, and the only office he had held before coming to Washington was a state governorship. Even before the outbreak of World War I, two years into his presidency, he began to deal with problems abroad, particularly fallout from the violent revolution next door in Mexico. Wilson had to learn diplomacy on the job, and he made mistakes, particularly in Mexico, where he originally did harbor some facile notions about promoting democracy. He learned hard lessons there, which he applied later in dealing with both the world war and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
Like others at the time, Wilson invested American intervention in the world war with larger ideological significance and purpose. But he had no illusions about leading a worldwide crusade to impose democracy. The most famous phrase from his speech to Congress in 1917 asking for war read, “The world must be made safe for democracy”—perhaps the most significant choice of the passive voice by any president. A year later, speaking to foreign journalists, he declared, “There isn’t any one kind of government which we have the right to impose upon any nation. So that I am not fighting for democracy except for those peoples that want democracy.” Wilson did not coin the term self-determination—that came from the British prime minister David Lloyd George, who also coined the phrase “war to end all wars,” words Wilson probably never uttered. Later, he did sparingly adopt “self-determination,” but always as something to be applied carefully and contingently, never as a general principle for all times and places.
Wilson’s most renowned policy statement, the Fourteen Points, addressed specific problems of the time as much as larger conditions. Half of the points addressed general matters—such as open covenants of peace, freedom of the seas, and an international organization to maintain peace, all carefully couched as aims to be pursued over time. The other half dealt with specific issues of the war—such as the restoration of Belgium, an independent Poland, the integrity of Russia, and the matter of autonomy—but not necessarily in specific terms—so, for example, there is no mention of independence for subject peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Wilson’s moral authority and America’s lesser taint of imperialism made the soberly stated Fourteen Points a rallying ground for liberals and progressives throughout the world, but if he could have heard the ways later generations would use “Wilsonian” as an epithet to scorn naïve efforts to spread democracy in the world, he might have echoed Marx’s disclaimer that he was no Marxist, just Karl Marx: he was no Wilsonian, just Woodrow Wilson.
In World War I, he fought a limited war, though not in the usual sense of a war fought with limited means and in a limited geographic area. He fought with all the means at his disposal for limited aims—something less than total, crushing victory. This was a delicate task, but he succeeded to a remarkable extent. In just over a year and a half, the United States raised an army of more than 4 million men and armed and sent 2 million of them to fight on the Western Front. This miracle of mobilization foiled the hopes of the Germans and allayed the fears of the Allies that the war would be over before the Yanks could arrive. Feats of industrial, agricultural, and logistic transportation organization speeded the arrival of those “doughboys.” Those accomplishments dovetailed with the president’s liberal program to persuade the Germans to sue for peace in November 1918 rather than fight on to the bitter end, as they would do a quarter century later. This was Wilson’s greatest triumph. He shortened World War I, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people owed their lives to him.
Tragically, his greatest triumph sowed the seeds of his greatest defeat. For the men and women who wanted to build a new, just, peaceful world order, World War I ended in the worst possible way—neither as a compromise accepted by equals nor as an edict imposed upon the defeated foe. One of those alternatives might have offered Wilson a chance to make his ideas of peace work. Instead, he tried to thrash out the best settlement he could through arduous negotiations at the peace conference in Paris in 1919. Those negotiations wore him out physically and emotionally and produced the Treaty of Versailles, which left sore winners and unrepentant losers. This peace settlement might have had a chance to work if the victors had stuck by it in years to come, but they soon showed they would not. The first of the victors to renege was the United States, which never ratified the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the organization that Wilson helped establish to maintain the peace, the League of Nations.
The decisions he made in waging war and making peace have stirred almost as much argument as his decision to enter the war. The Fourteen Points drew fire as obstacles to total victory, and such attacks would spawn the next generation’s misguided consensus that World War II must end only with “unconditional surrender.” Wilson’s part in the peace negotiations at Paris has drawn fire as a quixotic quest after the mirage of collective security through the League of Nations, an allegedly utopian, or “Wilsonian,” endeavor that traded vague dreams for harsh realities and derailed a more realistic settlement, which might have lasted. Worst of all, arguments about the political fight at home over the treaty and membership in the League have cast him as a stubborn, self-righteous spoiler who blocked reasonable compromises. That view of him has often overlooked or minimized one glaring fact: in the middle of this fight, he suffered a stroke that left him an invalid for his last year and a half in office. Wilson’s stroke caused the worst crisis of presidential disability in American history, and it had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect on him. Out of a dynamic, resourceful leader emerged an emotionally unstable, delusional creature.