What are we to do with Woodrow Wilson?
George Washington is a consensus “great president.” So is Abraham Lincoln — maybe the greatest of all our political presidents. So is Franklin Roosevelt.
But Woodrow Wilson? A century after his presidency, the jury is still out. He was president when America “won” World War I. He articulated the noblest reasons for those who fought in that awful and unnecessary conflict. He tried, with the best of intentions but with flawed tools, to save the world from another horrible war. He was among our most educated (the only one with a doctorate) and thoughtful chief executives.
Yet Wilson, in declaring war on Germany in 1917, also declared war on a good portion of America as well. He did everything that he could to stifle dissent about what he was doing. That included a vicious war on Americans of German descent, but Wilson’s actions went far beyond that. His demand for the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which Congress passed during the war, gave him as much power as the Kaiser of Germany, and he and his adherents used that power to its greatest extent on many American, not just those with German-sounding names.
His excuse, of course, was that America was at war. It’s an excuse that tyrants always hide behind. Many Americans bought that then, and they are still buying it today.
Wilson became a visible example of the way a true American president — one who leads with confidence rather than fear — should not act. He knew better, and he should have done better.
Wilson has been on my mind lately because of a new biography, The Moralist by Patricia O’Toole, that I have been reading and a three-part American Experience series from the Public Broadcasting System (link below). Both cast in sharp relief the contradictions of Woodrow Wilson.
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