Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

by John Milton Cooper Jr.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307277909
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2011
Pages: 736
Sales rank: 201,686
Product dimensions: 8.98(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.41(d)

About the Author

John Milton Cooper, Jr., is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Breaking the Heart of the World: Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations and The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, among other books. He was recently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents

Prologue "This Man's Mind and Spirit" 3

1 Tommy 13

2 Woodrow 33

3 Professor 56

4 Bold Leader 79

5 Academic Civil War 102

6 Governor 120

7 Nominee 140

8 The Great Campaign 159

9 Preparation 182

10 Beginnings 198

11 Taken at the Flood 213

12 Triumph and Tragedy 237

13 Irony and The Gift of Fate 262

14 The Shock of Recognition 285

15 Second Flood Tide 307

16 To Run Again 334

17 Peace and War 362

18 Waging War 390

19 Victory 425

20 Covenant 454

21 Peacemaking Abroad and at Home 476

22 The League Fight 506

23 Disability 535

24 Downfall 561

25 Twilight 579

Notes 601

Sources and Acknowledgments 669

Index 677

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Woodrow Wilson 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
KA-Swenson More than 1 year ago
A balanced, soundly researched depiction of an enigmatic, yet underappreciated, statesmen ~ few finer men have held the office of President.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Woodrow Wilson: A biography by John Milton Cooper was a bit of a disappointment. As an average person genuinely interested in Woodrow Wilson’ not only a president but an actual human; this biography fell a bit short. I was fully expecting to find out things I would have never known about one of the most interesting presidents of the United States. This unfortunately did not happen. This is mostly due to the strictly informative nature of the book. Mr. Cooper chose to write in a very factual manner. Cooper spent most of his time detailing Wilson during his presidency, and spent little time on anything other than Wilson in WWI. Yes; this was an incredibly important time of history, but Wilson had a much more extensive resume. Wilson expanded the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with his Clayton Anti-Trust Act. Wilson also had to follow Teddy Roosevelt as a president. Although both of these are covered by Cooper, he hardly goes into depth. Wilson was also a professor of political science, and later the president at Princeton. Again, while stated; Cooper did not seem to find this part of Wilson’s life worthy of his time. It may seem contradictory; Cooper was able to capture most of Wilson’s personality. Cooper e4vealed Wilson’s personality through Wilson’s decision-making process. Cooper did not try to reveal it through anecdotes about Wilson through interviews of Wilson’s friends or the like. Interview or stories about Wilson as a regular person would have been much more appreciated. Cooper tried to capture who Wilson was but did it in too formal of a way. In essence, Cooper’s biography serves its purpose very well. Cooper intended to inform people on Woodrow Wilson, Wilson’s policies, politics, and presidency. If one intended to research Wilson this biography would be incredibly helpful. If one intends to learn about Woodrow Wilson as a person, this biography would be somewhat useless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the first book on Woodrow Wilson and it did not disappoint. Mr Cooper presented a wonderful biography and I was very impressed with how he was able to make me feel as though I knew Mr Wilson personally.
zen_923 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
An excellent biography of Woodrow Wilson, this book is well-researched and easily understood. It provides an outstanding narration of the people, the places and the events that shaped Woodrow Wilson's personality and decisions. I would have wanted the author, however, to have put more depth in his narration and analysis of Woodrow Wilson as the war president and as the Versailles Treaty negotiator. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in 28th President of the U.S.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing 11 months ago
a nice and interesting biography, I learned a lot about this man, it is well written. puts wilson in the context of the cultural ot the age
porch_reader on LibraryThing 11 months ago
This is a very complete biography of Woodrow Wilson, and although it took me a while to finish, I really enjoyed this book. First of all, Wilson's story is a fascinating one. Before entering politics, Wilson was a political scholar and the president of Princeton University. He was elected President of the United States in 1912, defeating the incumbent William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. His early years in office were marked by a focus on domestic legislation that advanced the Progressive cause. His first term was marred by the death of his wife Ellen. Just over a year later, he married Edith Gault. Although Wilson tried to maintain the U.S.'s neutrality, in 1917 the U.S. entered World War I. After World War I, Wilson traveled to Paris to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty that would prevent future wars. He advocated for a League of Nations. However, as he was traveling through the U.S. to gain support for the treaty, he suffered a stroke. Although he remained in office until the end of his term, Wilson's power was diminished, and the peace treaty was not ratified by Congress. Three years after leaving office, Wilson died and was buried in the basement of the future Washington National Cathedral. With such an eventful presidency, it's hard to imagine a biography of Wilson that wouldn't be fascinating. Cooper did a good job of provide detail and context for the major events of Wilson's life. He pays special attention to Wilson's relationships with a number of close aides and with his wife, Edith, who was very involved in political affairs, especially after Wilson's stroke. At times, Cooper contrasts his generally favorable point-of-view of Wilson with less favorable portrayals by others scholars. It might have been nice to see more support for these conclusions. But this is a minor issue. Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a complete look at the life of this fascinating President.
mjgrogan on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Embarrassingly here are the new things I learned from this 600 page book that I¿ll likely retain five years hence:¿The ex-president used to go by his birth name of Tommy Wilson.¿He was a big baseball fan. Obviously before the Houston Astros ruined the sport for many of us.¿He almost took his first academic post at the University of Arkansas before they rescinded the offer! (way to go Hogs¿or Cardinals or whatever you were called in those days)If anyone¿s still with me, the most important aspect of Cooper¿s biography is that it serves to balance the divergent viewpoints about Wilson that followed his presidency. The author readily acknowledges the camp that vilifies Tommy as a racist war-mongerer who¿s actions ¿ or in the case of civil rights, inactions ¿ inexorably led to the Cold War, World War Zwei, and ill guided Birmingham fire hoses. This happens to be a camp ¿ seemingly following no particular partisan line ¿ that has authored all the books mentioning Wilson I¿ve read of late. At least from the standpoint of someone who doesn¿t know any better, I found Cooper¿s narrative to be successful in this regard. The structure is predictably chronological but I never got the sense of being bogged down in some particular time frame/event. I¿ll stop short of saying that I didn¿t occasionally desire a nap while reading this sizeable tome. In fact the only reason I got through the last 200 pages in two evenings is that my library due date was upon me and I can no longer entertain the thought of standing in a lengthy, angst-filled line to pay a 15 cent library late fee to an anti-social miscreant. (No offense to libraries in general but at Boston¿s Central Public Library they apparently only hire surprisingly unhelpful misanthropes to handle all public interactions). The whole, if you will, story flows well from his pre-Confederate birth to his final, incapacitated days attempting that lawyer thing again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. Mr. Cooper wrote a highly intelligent biography of Woodrow Wilson. I was so captivated by the history of Wilson, that I made a side stop to visit birth home in Staunton, Virginia. More people should become knowledgeable about this president. He (Wilson) was a very complicated person. The only thing that disturbed me was that he was not an advocate for African Americans. But I suppose this was his southern background. My question would be to historians "Was Wilson a racist". Would love to hear what they have to say.
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I love biographies.