- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010


By John Milton Cooper Jr. Knopf, $35 599 pages

Reviewed by David C. Acheson

John Milton Cooper, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, having authored two books on facets of Woodrow Wilson, now gives us a comprehensive and interesting biography of a brilliant, complex and fascinating personality.

Wilson, seemingly austere and driven, does not have a firm hold on the affection of the American reader. Yet he is worth study asthe classic exemplar, at the highest level, of outstanding ability and noble ambition being undone by forces that he underestimated and by individuals whom he misjudged. All the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy are present, and Mr. Cooper treats them skillfully.

Wilson’s early career showed amazing achievement in scholarship and education. Raised by middle-class parents in Staunton, Va., and North and South Carolina, “Tommy” Wilson was a bright boy who did well in his studies and liked baseball. After a year as a student at Davidson College, he transferred to Prince- ton, where he read widely and was attracted by the world of ideas, particularly in political theory and practice.

He was an undergraduate success and became managing editor of thePrincetonian, the campus newspaper. He took graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and wrote a book, “Congressional Government,” which was published by Houghton Mifflin to enthusiastic reviews. Bryn Mawr College then “snapped him up.”

Wilson received a full professorship at Wesleyan University, then at Princeton, where he became the most popular member of the faculty. Not yet 40 years of age, he was the brightest star on the Princeton faculty, doing heavy extra work. In 1896, at age 40, he suffered a small stroke from which he apparently recovered, but which may have had permanent effects.

At Princeton, Wilsonengaged the attention of the political as well as the academic world and, in 1902, was unanimously elected university president. Seeking to upgrade the university’s graduate education, he proposed a plan to create a graduate school with a tutorial system, but the dean and some of the trustees wanted to locate it off campus. Wilson thought it important to locate the school centrally on the Princeton quadrangle.

The issue of the “Quad plan” erupted into an “academic civil war,” and trustees who Wilson thought agreed with him were persuaded by the dean and by the terms of two important bequests to support an off-campus site. Wilson’s plan also required the removal of the traditional eating clubs, which ignited further alumni and trustee opposition.

Mr. Cooper makes it clear that Wilson’s defeat in the Quad plan battle was largely the result of inadequate consultations and preparation of the ground by Wilson, driven as he was by excessive self-confidence and no little arrogance. Mr. Cooper strongly suggests that impatience and misjudgment that brought Wilson to his major frustration at Princeton were also the causes of his more crushing disappointment in his campaign for the League of Nations in 1919.

In 1910, Wilson was ready to move into politics, and the state Democratic bosses sought his candidacy for the governorship of New Jersey. Wilson ran aneffective campaign and won. He was a strong, progressive governor and won battles in the Legislature for utility regulation and a primary election law. Soon the bosses overrode his legislative proposals and the Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature.

But by now it was 1912 and Wilson was a candidate for president of the United States. His campaign for the Democratic nomination was opposed by Oscar Underwood and “Champ” Clark. Under the two-thirds rule for nomination at the convention, Clark failed to reach the mark. When Underwood and William Jennings Bryan supported Wilson and the progressive platform, Wilson gained the nomination. The process at the convention took three days and 46 ballots.

The three-way campaign of 1912 - William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson - requires little explication here, except to say that, though Wilson was not confident, the Republican split virtually assured a Wilson victory. Early in the new presidency, Wilson’s legislative agenda was huge: tariff reduction, the Clayton antitrust act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Federal Reserve Act, nominations.

“Colonel” Edward M. House, a Texan transplanted to New York, who had been active in the campaign, emerged as a frequent adviser, chiefly in foreign affairs. He was to prove troublesome in the run-up to war and in the postwar peace negotiations, undercutting the president and pursuing his own agenda.

Bryan, as secretary of state, was eager to keep the United States out of war when the European hostilities broke out in 1914, but the German submarine warfare against neutral shipping and losses of American lives built up pressure to go to war.

Bryan resigned and Wilson, with misgiving, replaced Bryan with Robert Lansing, a mediocre time-server who regularly intrigued against Wilson and undercut him in dealings with foreign governments. Bryan’s loss also gave more scope to House, who also pursued his own ends with foreign governments and departed regularly from Wilson’s instructions.

At the Paris peace conference, Wilson favored a peace treaty less vengeful toward Germany than the terms favored by France and Britain, in the belief that crippling the German economy with heavy reparations would destabilize the German government and the duration of peace. He also made a personal commitment to a League of Nations that would seek the settlement of disputes and avoidwars.

This last, particularly, was for Wilson not only a policy but a very personal and emotional commitment. He sprung the League on the peace conference with wholly inadequate advance consultation and preparation. He underestimated the ferocious French insistence on a heavily punitive peace treaty, overestimated his weak British support, overestimated the force of his personal advocacy and enlightened outlook and overestimated the fidelity of House and Lansing. Above all, he had taken no steps to enlist key people in the U.S. Senate, the body that would have to ratify the peace.

The Senate rejected the League of Nations and ratified a heavily punitive treaty that destabilized the German economy and became the grievance that brought the fall of the government and the emergence of Adolf Hitler. Mr. Cooper makes a strong case that misjudgments of people and forces that caused him to lose the Quad battle at Princeton were the same defects that ledto his policy defeat in 1919.

David C. Acheson is a retired lawyer and foreign-policy analyst in Washington.

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