- - Wednesday, April 11, 2018



By Patricia O’Toole

Simon & Schuster, $35, 656 pages

In terms of formal education and academic background, Woodrow Wilson ranks high — perhaps at the top — of any list of intellectual American presidents.

He was also a decent man, in the truest sense of the term. Author Patricia O’Toole is correct in terming him a “moralist.”

A man with a strong religious background — his father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers — his beliefs were largely private. He was not a Bible-thumper who claimed to know “God’s will.”

Yet, despite his virtues, the one word that best describes Wilson’s legacy is “tragic.” Further, his failings were chiefly of his own making.

Even as a young man, his curiosity seldom went past “book learning.” As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he wrote his thesis on congressional government — but never traveled the 30-odd miles to Washington to see Congress at first hand.

He suffered from political deafness. He knew he needed Republican support to achieve his goals in the Paris peace talks that ended World War I. But his chosen delegation ignored prominent Republican leaders in favor of an obscure former ambassador.

And, perhaps most fatally, he seemingly was blind to centuries of European history in a forlorn hope that continental leaders would choose morality rather than war to settle their differences. Unfortunately, these leaders relied more on military theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz (Prussia) and Antoine-Henri Jomini (France) than on advocates of peace.

The tragedy was that Wilson’s proclaimed “war to end all wars” brought an uneasy peace that ruinously collapsed in less than two decades.

Before his election, he worried that it would be “an irony of fate” if world politics dominated his presidency, given that his scholarship had focused on domestic politics.

But as Ms. O’Toole notes, “The great deficiency in the education of Woodrow Wilson was not in foreign relations but human relations he showed no interest in mastering the arts of friendship, collaboration and disagreement.”

Nonetheless, Wilson’s political rise was swift after internal turmoil forced him to leave the presidency of Princeton. He served two terms as New Jersey governor, then became the first Southerner to win the White House since the Civil War.

Early achievements were impressive. He persuaded Congress to cut the average tariff by 25 percent, and impose a graduated income tax to make up for lost revenues. Persons earning less than $3,000 (the vast majority of working Americans) were exempt. The top rate was 7 percent, but only for persons earning more than $500,000. The creation of a Federal Reserve Bank stabilized the banking industry. An eight-hour workday was enacted for companies engaged in interstate commerce.

He became the first president to meet regularly with the media, holding 64 press conferences his first year.

In foreign affairs, Wilson was an early activist, telling a British diplomat, “I propose to teach the Southern American Republics to elect good men.”

No previous president had sent troops abroad more often than Wilson: To Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico (twice), Panama (twice) and Honduras (five times).

President Wilson’s reluctance to become involved in what was initially termed “The Great War” heeded public opinion, considering the millions of persons who had fled to the U.S. to avoid being impressed into endless European bloodshed.

German blunders — notably submarine warfare — eventually forced him into the war. (Another factor was a German overture to Mexico to attack America in return for the restoration of its lost lands in the West. In reality, Mexico posed no military threat.)

Declaring that “the world must be safe for democracy,” Wilson pushed through new laws that jailed protestors in record numbers. As Ms. O’Toole comments, “He has gone into history as the president whose administration outdid all others in prosecuting dissent.”

At the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson failed in efforts for a moderate settlement. Other nations wanted to punish Germany and they prevailed, chiding Wilson for his posture as “the most morally upright statesman” present.

But Congress had fallen into the hostile hands of Republicans, and Wilson refused even minor charter changes, including provisions that would have forced U.S. entry into future wars.

Wilson embarked on a nationwide speaking tour to muster support for the league. But not even his close advisers knew that Wilson suffered serious health problems dating to his youth. He suffered several minor strokes while at Princeton.

He had a “minor but ominous stroke” about a month after winning the presidency. During his first 10 months in office, Wilson was “sick in bed” at least six times. Recurring ailments constantly bedeviled him.

A disabling stroke felled him during his futile quest for league approval. The Senate rejected it three times.

The verdict on Wilson? A valiant try, but neither European statesmen nor his own people heeded him. Might, not morality, prevailed.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 non-fiction books.

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