The Long View: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

Wilsonian is a term not often used to express admiration or approbation, but perhaps President Woodrow Wilson [Amazon link] deserves another look. This is a fine piece of mild historical revisionism, putting Wilson in historical context, something the man himself would appreciate. How many of us now remember that before Wilson was elected to the presidency, he was generally considered a conservative? He was also a best-selling author and the first President from the South after the Civil War. He was a preacher's son, and his oratorical style exemplified that background:

[T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.

Wilson was a passionate advocate of state's rights, even to the point of risking war with Japan over a California law preventing Japanese from owning land. Wilson also re-segregated the civil service, appointing Southern whites to positions held by black Republicans under Teddy Roosevelt. These acts are not surprising given his Southern birth, but the label of "Progressive" can easily confuse us today.

Even Wilson's most [in]famous accomplishments, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, could perhaps be considered something of a success. The League implemented the Treaty, and then closed up shop when that task was accomplished. Even though the United States never joined the League, most of its goals were accomplished, and it had the form that Wilson intended for it; by and large, Wilson got what he wanted at Versailles.

Eerie, in retrospect, is this quotation from his whistle-stop tour to advocate for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles:

You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

A presentiment of doom was common in fin de siècle Europe, but this is a disturbingly accurate prediction of the rest of the twentieth century. In many ways, Wilson set the tone for the American century, in concert with his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

Some of the premises from which Wilson operated perhaps were ill-considered, but his projects often had the right goals in mind. Both the premises and the goals are still with us, no matter how little regard we have for the man who fostered them.


Woodrow Wilson

A Biography

By August Heckscher

Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991

745 Pages, US$35.00

ISBN: 0-684-19312-4

Reviewed by

John J. Reilly

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a commonplace to say that the two great revolutionaries of the 20th century were Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, and that of the two Wilson has proven to be the more successful. Nonetheless, Wilson has become an oddly disliked figure. The term "Wilsonian" is often used as a derisive synonym for "utopian," and the man himself is recalled as a hectoring minor prophet, too inflexible even to see his pet nostrum, the League of Nations, through to ratification by the United States Senate. This biography of Wilson, written just as the Cold War was ending, puts some of the grosser calumnies against Wilson to rest. Readers should note that the biographer is a fan: August Heckscher is a former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Still, the book at least touches on the failures as well as the successes of Wilsonianism. We also get personal information essential to understanding Wilson, especially his medical history. More important, though, the book gives us a starting point to discuss an issue that Wilson first broached and whose relevance has only increased since this biography was published: the relationship between democracy and world order.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was born "Thomas Wilson," a name that he would gradually drop as his education advanced, though there were always a few friends who called him "Tommy." The place of birth was Virginia. He would become the first president from the South after the Civil War, after having experienced defeat and then occupation in the aftermath of that conflict. In Heckscher's account, however, Wilson was an eccentric Southerner. All four grandparents were born abroad in Scotland or Northern Ireland; his mother came from Scotland. His family on both sides were Presbyterians. Many of his relatives, including his father, were ministers. Old-fashioned Presbyterianism has a reputation as one of the more somber versions of Christianity, but the Presbyterianism of the Wilson family was neither gloomy or old-fashioned: this reviewer was reminded of the minister's family in Norman MacLean's novel, A River Runs Through It. As the biographer puts it:

Indeed, the religious faith the young Wilson derived from his father's teaching was not the sort manifesting itself only in dark moments, but grew stronger in times of confidence and elation when God's watchfulness seemed to be validated by outward experience. The coming together of worldly good fortune with a feeling of inner blessedness could make the Presbyterian of liberal faith, as it made Wilson in his happiest periods, a charismatic figure.

Actually, if one is looking for literary analogues to Wilson, one might consider the young H.P. Lovecraft. Both had boyhoods given over to fantasy and dreaming, and both were generally thought to suffer from some mild disability. Both would also acquire a taste for writing self-consciously archaic prose, which Wilson would employ in his popular histories. (The biographer thinks those works, such as A History of the American People and George Washington, were terrible potboilers, but they did sell well). One major difference was that young Lovecraft was precocious, while Wilson did not learn to read until he was nine; debate continues about whether Wilson was dyslexic.

A greater difference was that Wilson's father did not die young, but saw Wilson through undergraduate school, law school (Wilson practiced law for only a few months), and then graduate school. The bulk of Wilson's academic career was spent at Princeton University, which was still called "The College of New Jersey" when he entered as a sophomore. He would teach at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan University (in Connecticut), and at Johns Hopkins, where he also did his graduate work in the newest German methods of historiography, but he returned to Princeton and would eventually serve as its president from 1902 to 1910. His career as a young scholar coincided with an expansion of higher education in the United States unmatched until the 1950s. Wilson frequently received invitations to teach at, and sometimes even to head, new universities in the Midwest. He was tempted by these offers, but seemed to understand that his chance of influence in his own lifetime required that he not stray too far from the Boston to Washington DC corridor.

Though he trained as a historian, Wilson's academic reputation rested on his work as a political scientist. His first book, Congressional Government (published 1885 and still in print) deplored the eclipse of the executive branch in the years after the Civil War and argued for more effective government through greater cooperation between the president and Congress. Indeed, Wilson seemed sometimes to argue for something like a parliamentary system. His desire for more effective government was characteristic of the Progressive Era in which he played so conspicuous a part. The sentiment was remarkably nonpartisan: progressives were Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. The progressive agenda was variable, expanding from a core of issues that all sane people saw had to be addressed to more speculative issues with even more speculative solutions. The reformers' to-do list ran from reform of the banking system to female suffrage to ending child labor, and on through assuring the safety of the food supply and the criminalization of the recreational use of narcotics, not to mention the breaking up of business monopolies and the public ownership of utilities and even of the railroads. Wilson once deplored the fact that the term "socialist" had been appropriated by an eccentric school of economics, since obviously all public policy should be concerned with the good of society as a whole. In Wilson's sense, a policy of lowering tariffs to promote competition (something he did during his first term as president) could be characterized as "socialist."

Towards the end of Wilson's career, Oswald Spengler would predict, in characteristically cryptic fashion, that the final public morality of the West would be something called "Ethical Socialism." Spengler was no doubt thinking of Bismarck's social policy, but the term far better fits Spengler's contemporary, Woodrow Wilson.

Theodore Roosevelt is the contemporary to whom Wilson is most often compared, but there are stronger parallels (or at least it seems to this reviewer) between Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They shared an organic view of historical development and a fundamentally historicist metaphysics. The organicism no doubt puts them in the great conservative tradition of Edmund Burke; indeed, during his academic career, Wilson was generally regarded as a conservative. As a historian, Wilson favored narrative that attempted to recapture the texture of the period under discussion. (In this he anticipated the historiography of people like R.G. Collingwood; Wilson even attempted to employ the prose style of the period he was writing about, with results that were not invariably happy.) However, for Wilson there was a characteristically Progressive Era twist to the historical cast of mind. Burke emphasized the incremental and non-programmatic development of society as part of an argument against projects of social engineering. Wilson, in contrast, looked to organic models of change for an argument that change is possible, even mandatory.

The author notes Wilson's antipathy to the philosophy of Jefferson the Founding Father (though he gave high marks to the record of Jefferson the President). From this we may surmise that Wilson disliked Jefferson's appeal to universal, ahistorical, self-evident truths. This is very much the view that Holmes held toward natural law, and particularly to attempts to impose any theory of pre-existing, non-textual rights through constitutional judicial review. As a practical matter, these concerns met: Holmes spent much of his career as a jurist trying to persuade the courts not to strike down the social legislation that people like Wilson were enacting. Holmes argued that it is fundamentally lawless for the courts to overturn laws on behalf of "rights" not found in the text of the Constitution. This issue would surface again, in another context, in the later 20th century.

The parallels to Holmes should not be overstated. Holmes was an agnostic Social Darwinist who adopted historicist pragmatism as the last resource against nihilism. In Wilson's view, both business and government had an essentially moral basis. Wilson needed historicism as a medium through which Providence could transform the world. If Wilson rejected the idea of primordial self-evident truths, that was because he believed the future could do better. Though the term does not occur in this biography, Wilson seems to have been a postmillennialist of a very thorough and sophisticated sort. The complaints heard in the early 21st century that the government of the United States is being theocratized in an unprecedented fashion must contend with statements like this from Governor and then President Wilson:

[T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment. Sometimes, according to the author, Wilson seemed to think there were two kinds of law: law that simply codifies the facts of society as they exist, and law that runs ahead of the facts to fix the moral parameters of the living generation. Where Wilson differed from Lenin, and for that matter from contemporary and later exponents of the "living constitution," is his insistence on fostering revolution through legislation enacted by democratic means.

If the biographer is to be believed, Wilson displayed a taste for social revolution even as president of Princeton, but in a characteristically Wilsonian fashion. His first concern was to raise academic standards. As a college administrator, he set his face against preferential treatment for athletes (and, perhaps not incidentally, undertook to suppress the riot and vandalism for which the burgeoning college populations of the day were notorious). He attempted to bring the system of elective courses under control. Students should have some control over what they studied, but he insisted that every course of study include some exposure to the whole field of learning. Despite his training in German historiographical methods (or perhaps because of it) he opposed the attempt, then very popular, to make the liberal arts conform to the methods of the physical sciences. He shared Matthew Arnold's insistence on the priority of liberal learning.

The revolutionary element appeared in Wilson's plan to suppress Princeton's famous "eating clubs," or at least to diminish their importance to a point where they would no longer be the organizing principle of undergraduate life. The eating clubs, Wilson argued, were the preserves of the very rich. Their existence tended to divide the student body on a class basis. Wilson's remedy was to reorganize the campus on the basis of residential quadrangles, which would function something like the system of residential houses at Harvard. In a not unrelated move, he wanted to incorporate Princeton's new graduate schools into the body of the campus. Wilson argued the merits of the arrangement for the coherence of the university. He also made clear his desire to prevent rich alumni from controlling the development of the new schools: Princeton had been offered large gifts conditional on the new schools being located in palatial campuses of their own, far from the main body of the university.

In carrying out his academic initiatives, Wilson honed his practice of turning controversial questions into matters of principle, with himself occupying a moral high ground from which there could be no retreat. This worked better with some issues than with others. His reform of the curriculum was well received. As university president and as lecturer, Wilson was wildly popular with the students, even the ones in the eating clubs. Long after his tenure as president, the quadrangle plan was carried out. The graduate schools, however, are still over the hills and far away.

Wilson did have flaws. His marriage to Ellen Axon ended only with her death in 1914 (they had three children: all daughters). We are assured that Wilson's reputation as a womanizer was grossly exaggerated, but there is good evidence for one affair toward the end of Wilson's time at Princeton, during the long, separate vacations that the Wilsons were in the habit of taking:

These complex relationships show the dualism that often characterized Wilson. He could appear to be different men, the one scarcely aware of what the other was thinking. Thus he seems never to have felt the need to make a choice between [Ellen] his wife and Mary Peck. The same post that in 1909 carried from Bermuda letters to Ellen that might have been those of a bridegroom to his bride, carried to Mary passionate assurance of how ardently she was missed.

One cannot help but note the same duality in Wilson's dealings with Germany in 1918. In one telegram, he might offer to serve as a mediator between the Central Powers and the Allies; in the next telegram, he might write as a belligerent who required the capitulation of his interlocutor. One cannot also help noting how often this strategy worked, on the public and private level.

In any case, as a political scientist and a lecturer on government reform, Wilson developed a national reputation of a size that even the politicians noticed. Thus came the invitation from the Democratic Party bosses of New Jersey to run for governor of the state, an eminence to which he was duly elected and served from 1910 to 1912. His platform as a candidate was typical of progressives of both parties: direct election of United States senators, a worker's compensation system, primary elections to select party nominees for almost all offices, the creation of commissions to regulate public utilities. There were differences in emphasis in the bipartisan progressive movement of the time. At first, for instance, Wilson was skeptical of such progressive measures as the referendum and recall elections. Not until he became president did he support suffrage for women, and he never endorsed the prohibition of alcohol. Wilson believed as much as Theodore Roosevelt in the need to expand the functions of government, but he took longer to come to the conclusion that these functions had to be exercised at the federal rather than the state level. Only reluctantly did he abandon the view that business monopolies could be broken up through ordinary legal processes, rather than preserved and regulated in the manner that Roosevelt pioneered.

Wilson's election to the presidency in 1912 capped the strangest presidential campaign in the 20th century. The Republican Party self-destructed when former president Theodore Roosevelt, denied the Republican nomination, ran as the candidate of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party. The incumbent president, Robert Taft, seems to have stayed in the race as the Republican candidate to ensure that Roosevelt would not win. Meanwhile, many progressives who might ordinarily have voted for Wilson voted instead for Eugene Debs, the candidate of the Socialist Party, who received almost a million votes. Wilson actually received fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan did in 1906, when Bryan lost. Nonetheless, not only was Wilson elected, but his party controlled both Houses of Congress.

Wilson adopted the term "The New Freedom" to describe his program. As the biographer points out, it had a substantially different coloration in his first term from his second. During the first four years, Wilson was concerned with institutional reform. He got Congress to create the Federal Reserve System, which gave the United States a central bank for the first time since the administration of Andrew Jackson. This measure made the financial system less disaster-prone (although, as later events would prove, not disaster-proof). Perhaps more remarkable to contemporaries, he succeeded in lowering tariffs and reforming the tariff system. He did this despite the vampiritic flocks of lobbyists the issue attracted to Capitol Hill, much as business taxes do now. Wilson created the Federal Trade Commission to take some of the responsibility for anti-trust regulation from the Justice Department.

A worldwide recession was starting as Wilson took office, but despite the increase in unemployment his administration was seen as competent and effective. He won reelection in 1916 by a narrow but respectable margin. He had planned to devote his second term to what we would now call "social issues": an eight-hour day; an end to child labor; provision for cheap credit to farmers. He did make progress towards these goals. He also intervened in some major labor strikes in a way that reassured the labor unions that the federal government was on their side. However, regarding Wilson's domestic initiatives, one must note that his record on racial issues was appalling from first to last, even by the standards of the time. During his first term, the federal bureaucracy began to be racially segregated. Far from extending patronage jobs to black Democrats, which he had hinted in 1912 that he might do, he routinely appointed white southerners to jobs that had been held by black Republicans appointed by Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson declined to tell California that its new legislation barring Japanese from owning land was plainly contrary to United States treaty obligations. In effect, he risked a war with Japan to support a doubtful interpretation of states' rights.

Wilson had not even mentioned foreign affairs in his first inaugural address. His appointments in this area suggested that it was not one of his priorities. William Jennings Bryan was his first Secretary of State; Bryan was no fool, but he did serve grape juice rather than wine at diplomatic receptions, and his pacifism made him increasingly irrelevant as relations with the Central Powers deteriorated. He would eventually resign, to be replaced by Robert Lansing, a lawyer with a better education and a smaller imagination.

Actually, Wilson's foreign troubles began long before the First World War. His administration found itself called on to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate revolutions; or perhaps better, revolutions that marked important social transformations from mere changes of dictators. Wilson did not always do this well, particularly with regard to Latin America, and most especially with regard to Mexico. Wilson wanted to see land reform in Mexico in order to ensure the survival of electoral democracy, so he often found himself supporting the more radical alternative against the party with the better chance of maintaining stability. The policy backfired badly when Poncho Villa, whom Wilson had once supported, began making raids into the United States.

Wilson would later identify the Russian Revolution as a "deep" revolution. He deplored the Bolshevik turn that the originally liberal revolution of 1917 took, but believed that it was just a phase, like the phases of the French Revolution. He had no patience with the English, and especially the French, proposals to back counter-revolutionary forces in Russia, though some Americans were among the Allied troops sent to guard facilities in Russia from the Germans.

From the outset of the First World War, it was Wilson's position that the strategic interests of the United States lay with an Allied victory, or at least with a conclusion to the fighting that did not diminish the roles of France and Britain in the world. A decisive German victory, he thought, would require the United States to militarize on a permanent basis, a stance Wilson believed incompatible with the institutions of American government. However, the perhaps unfortunate slogan of his 1916 election campaign, "He kept us out of war," was perfectly sincere. The optimum outcome was "peace without victory," resulting in a situation in which the differences between the great powers could be settled by arbitration. The process of arbitration, Wilson also immediately surmised, would have to be permanent, requiring a permanent international institution to coordinate a permanent peace. Even when the United States became a belligerent in 1917, Wilson was very slow to attribute the principal blame for the war to Germany. Neither was he ever altogether willing to abandon the hope of acting as the intermediary between the two sides and negotiating a peace on neutral principles. Wilson's unilateral issuance of the 14 Points as a statement of war aims reiterated this aspiration.

Strange as it may seem for a southerner, Wilson's model throughout the war was Abraham Lincoln; and moreover, the mystical Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address. In that statement, Lincoln prescinded from a discussion of the merits of the arguments made by either side for fighting the Civil War. Instead, he directed the nation's attention to the inscrutability of Providence in the course of the war and its effects. Neither side got what it expected or what it desired. Lincoln then spoke of a postwar America reunited "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Few nobler words have ever been spoken by a statesman. However, what Wilson the war leader never entirely took on board was that those words had been spoken after victory for the North was assured. It also bears repeating, perhaps, that Wilson's notion of a postwar settlement was implemented more fully than Lincoln's ever was, but the post-Versailles peace of Europe was at least as unsatisfactory as America's Reconstruction Era.

The 14 Points had not been issued in a vacuum. There had been quiet diplomacy at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 that suggested a negotiated peace might be possible. The 14 Points specified the withdrawal from occupied countries, forbade crushing indemnities to be laid on either side, and sought to dampen the ambition to acquire new colonies by reconceptualizing the colonial empires as a system of trusts for the benefit of their peoples. Meanwhile, there would be an orderly transition to self-determination by the small nations of Europe. All these good things, of course, were to be overseen by a League of Nations. Lincoln could not have done better. However, the magnanimity of Lincoln's Second Inaugural evaporated when the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were announced. Though the terms were not uniquely harsh for a country as badly defeated as Russia had been, they showed that Germany had no intention of helping to create the world of neutral principles that Wilson envisioned. Wilson's reaction to this rebuff (and of course to the Germans' offensive that spring, which sought to win the war outright) reflected an essential feature of liberalism even at its finest: the enemy was not simply criticized, but delegitimized. The war could now be prosecuted without restraint, because the German Empire had, in effect, seceded from rational humanity. Wilson would again offer to intercede for Germany, but only on the condition of the end of the regime that had distained the principle of universal justice in the form of the 14 Points.

We see this same evolution in Wilson's own position toward his domestic opponents. Here is a vintage Wilson rejoinder, from as early as the election campaign of 1916, to a telegram from an irate Irish American who accused Wilson of Anglophilia:

I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not I will ask you to convey this message to them.

The worst excesses against civil liberties during Wilson's Administration occurred after his major stroke when he we was no longer running his own government, but perhaps there really was less place for dissent in Wilson's scheme of things than was in Jefferson's theory of natural rights, or even in Holmes's pragmatism. There came a point in any controversy with Wilson in which to oppose him was to oppose History. Wilson made it his business to ensure that history won.

This biography points out that Wilson got quite a lot of what he wanted at the Versailles Conference in 1919, especially during the first session. The League of Nations itself was much as he had proposed it. It was made integral to the Treaty of Versailles (the League Covenant is articles 1 to 26 of the treaty). He certainly succeeded in preventing the French from turning the League into an anti-German alliance, and he helped limit the dismemberment of Germany. He had some success with regard to colonial questions: the European empires at least made their territorial acquisitions in the form of League trusteeships; the Japanese were harder to restrain. His greatest single failure was in connection with reparations to be paid by Germany, especially the open-ended reparations that the Conference initially contemplated. It is not true that there was no negotiation with Germany over the final form of the treaty; Wilson was instrumental in getting the terms clarified, and in some instances mitigated, in response to the German protests at the first draft. However, he opposed a renegotiation of the treaty. He was not unduly concerned with the details of the treaty: its terms would take years to implement, and its more irrational features could be rectified through negotiation under the supervision of the League. That was not so different from what actually happened, but the League turned out to be less important than he had hoped, in part because the United States never joined.

The biographer's account of Wilson's doomed attempt to get the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the United States Senate may strike some readers as revisionist, though in fact the information is not new. The Democratic Party had lost control of Congress in the elections of 1918 (partly because Wilson was suspected of being soft on Germany), so Wilson's strategy seemed to have been to take a maximalist stand to limit the concessions he might have to make later. Publicly he said that the treaty had to be approved without amendment or reservation, on the grounds that the treaty could not be renegotiated and the Allies would regard conditional approval as a rejection. Privately, however, he prepared a draft of acceptable reservations and gave it to Senate minority leader, to be presented to the Senate only on the president's instruction. Some senators were in fact proposing amendments that were designed to kill the treaty, but some proposed reservations simply clarified that the League Covenant did not override the Constitution of the United States, particularly with regard to the power of Congress to declare war. Such reservations would have been well within the limits of diplomatic practice. With modifications, in fact, the League seemed to enjoy majority popular support.

Nonetheless, there was opposition among isolationists in the West and Midwest against the League in any form, and Wilson felt that he could not proceed to concessions until it was clear that he had the public unambiguously behind him. So, he undertook the famous whistle-stop tour of 1919, stopping at places large and small to deliver jeremiads like this to increasingly enthusiastic audiences:

You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

Strong stuff, and it seemed to be working. However, it was obvious to those around him that Wilson was falling apart. He had actually suffered some minor strokes as early as his tenure as president of Princeton, and there had perhaps been another two incidents during the Versailles Conference. Under the unrelenting stress of the Western Tour he began to seem almost like the politician in the film The Candidate, who is reduced to incoherence in the later part of his campaign. Wilson started saying things that were not his policy, such as that reservations to the treaty were the same as amendments and both were unacceptable. In any case, he eventually suffered a major stroke (another parallel with Lenin, actually). The League campaign lapsed because Wilson was no longer able to negotiate with the Senate and would not allow others to do so for him.

Not long after the death of his first wife, Ellen, Wilson had created a mild scandal by marrying one Edith Bolling Galt. Edith Wilson is sometimes said to have been the first female president of the United States, because her control of the presidential sick room gave her effective control of the government. This exaggerates her role. Certainly she diminished the influence of Wilson's gray eminence, Edward Mandell House (best known by the courtesy title "Colonel House"), and of and Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's secretary and political advisor from Jersey City. However, as the biographer points out, neither Edith, nor Secretary of State Lansing, nor the relentlessly unassuming Vice President John Mitchel, ran the government during the last year and a half of the Wilson presidency. After some weeks, Wilson was able to conduct carefully controlled courtesy interviews, but he could do little work beyond saying "no." He did understand his condition. He confined most interaction with the executive departments to occasional advice, which he left to the discretion of the cabinet secretaries. In the case of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, his lack of oversight was to have very unfortunate results.

After leaving the White House, Wilson recovered somewhat. He was able to greet visitors, make a few public appearances (especially on Armistice Day), and even to make a few speeches. He carried on a limited correspondence (he still typed, though less well than formerly) and published one essay on the theme that the way to combat Bolshevism was to reform capitalism. When he died in 1924, he was scarcely a forgotten man, but one with an ambiguous historical reputation. He and Edith are buried now in the nave of Washington Cathedral.

Judging by this biography, Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles was a far nearer thing than we usually imagine, so much so that we must ask ourselves whether it would have made much difference if Wilson had completed his Western Tour and reached an accommodation with the Senate. The idea of a permanent body to administer the terms of a complicated multilateral agreement is far from utopian. The Congress of Vienna, which settled Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, continued after a fashion as the Concert of Europe to oversee the peace. The Concert was an alliance rather than a perpetual diplomatic conference like the League, but the principle was not so different. Wilson, by the way, despised the Congress of Vienna: an odd assessment, considering that the Viennese settlement was far less vindictive than the Treaty of Versailles would be.

The addition of the United States to the League would have augmented its capacities, and maybe also its sphere of attention (certainly the League would have paid more attention to Latin America and to East Asia). However, it is hard to believe that the effectiveness of the League would have been fundamentally increased, or that World War II would have been prevented. The harsher features of the Treaty of Versailles had already been renegotiated by the time the wheels started to fall off the international system in the 1930s. In any case, it simply was not true that the United States was an isolationist power in the 1920s. The US was deeply involved with the Bank of England in managing the world's monetary system; there were even quite a few US military interventions. US interest in international cooperation waned during the 1930s, and there is no reason to think that US membership in the League would have altered that trend.

Indeed, one might think of the League as a relative success whose posthumous reputation was blackened by comparison with the rhetoric of its founding. The League was created to oversee the implementation of the treaty of Versailles. Within a dozen years the treaty had been implemented or was obsolete. Soon thereafter the League went out of business. Is that really so surprising?

But what of the high hopes that accompanied the founding of the League? Wilson's arguments for the League echo Immanuel Kant's proposal for "perpetual peace" guaranteed by a universal confederation of liberal republics. Wilson's logic also reflects the Augustinian principle of the Tranquility of Order. As Wilson put it:

The world can be at peace only if it is stable and there can be no stability where the will is in rebellion, where there is not tranquility of the spirit and a sense of justice.

There is some sense in which this has to be true: no order, including a world order, is going to be durable unless the people who live under it accept its demands and benefits as legitimate. No doubt, in the working of the Providence in which Wilson set so much faith, some such legitimate world order will eventually appear. The problem is the premise that the predicate of legitimacy is neutrality, that no just order may retain historically conditioned content, or perhaps may not even serve any moral principle. Oddly enough for a philosophy named after a man with such a lively appreciation of historical context, Wilsonianism makes the organic the enemy of the just.

Again, there are parallels between Wilson's thought and that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes famously asserted that law should be made for the "bad man," for the subject who could not be expected to act from higher motives, but would do whatever he could that did not incur legal sanction. This is a clarifying principle that has its uses. However, taken literally, it would mean that everyone subject to the law would have to be treated as a potential criminal. Similarly, Wilson's hope that the peace after the First World War would be a peace without victors might have odd implications if it were made a universal principle. A world without victors would, in effect, be a world in which every country was treated as a conquered country. Whatever was not mandated by the universal consensus of neutral principles would be forbidden. Opposition to the consensus would be delegitimized, in much the way that the government of imperial Germany was delegitimized by its refusal in early 1918 to accept Wilson's offer of arbitration on the basis of disinterested reason.

These criticisms do not mean that Wilson's goals of effective government and universal peace through justice are either misguided or unobtainable. They do suggest that some of the basic premises of this enterprise need to be rethought.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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