Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America, my fellow citizens — I do not say it in disparagement of any other great people — America is the only idealistic Nation in the world. - Woodrow WilsonI've spoken before about -isms. I'm not a huge fan of -isms: a political (sometimes philosophic, but often at odds with actual philosophy) worldview that tends towards absolutist, nothing-can-fail belief. Libertarianism, Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, Monarchism, Nationalism, Anarchism, they've all got flaws and yet to even point that out brings out the True Believers railing against your Blaspheme. Even Pragmatism has its issues (yeah, I went there. Deal with it).
Idealism - in this definition a belief in a high-value ideal (something flawless or perfect) that is at odds with the real world - is one of the worst beliefs a national leader can hold. It may seem nice to have an Idealist in charge, someone with a high moralistic bent eager to forge a better world, but given the day-to-day struggles and compromises that make governance work an Idealist in the White House can quickly lead to broken government and shattered lives.
When I first read James David Barber's Presidential Character book, I was amazed that he had placed Woodrow Wilson in with the Active-Negative crowd. This was years ago, in college during one of my Poli Sci classes I needed to take for my Journalism degree. I was operating with the knowledge gleaned from high school textbooks: textbooks that merely summarized history, not provided better detail or context or enlightenment. Textbooks that pointed to Wilson as a Great Man, desirous of peace after a disastrous world war, felled by rivals who were slighted by his foreign policy vision.
Barber (pg. 48-57 mostly, 4th ed.) provided better detail and context: Wilson-As-Idealist made him straight-up Uncompromising, a key component of A-N behavior. For someone as learned as Wilson was - the only President to be a PhD, and the first President to genuinely study politics and public administration as a career - he did little research nor show much respect for facts and knowledge outside of his argument.
Things that Wilson were: Wilson was a trained orator and debater, visiting lecturer and professor at various colleges before settling down at Princeton, an avid sports fan. He was also uncompromising to the Nth degree:
Wilson was no blundering bully; part of his persuasive power was that he put his case so well. But he could not brook opposition at close quarters. He wanted agreement, support, allegiance - not controversy... As Colonel House, writing before his break with Wilson, explained, the President "finds great difficulty in conferring with men against whom, for some reason, he has a prejudice and in whom he can find nothing good." (pg.50-51)
This was someone who wrote in his doctoral thesis turned book Congressional Government about how the U.S. Constitution's model of checks and balances were flawed: that power divided between the legislature (Congress) and executive (President) created a nation lacking accountable leadership. Wilson abhorred compromise, the currency of governance in a working federal system: things were either Right or Wrong, and the Right Way the only way. He felt the President could, should serve as a parliamentary leader with a compliant Congress running under the President's majority party. This was someone unprepared to deal with a Congress that was by law and practice separate from the Presidency...
In terms of the era, Wilson was part of the Progressive period that saw more political reform over its 20 year run - from Roosevelt to Taft to Wilson - than our nation had seen in nearly 200 years. During this era we had amendments reforming our taxation to a progressive income tax (16th), an amendment to directly elect senators (17th), an amendment allowing women the vote (19th). There was also an amendment prohibiting alcohol (18th), the grandest attempt yet by idealists looking to cleanse the nation of the sin of drunkenness, but it was an overreach into social behavior that no law could uphold, leading to future politicians to repeal the 18th with the 21st. Wilson had a hand in some of these amendments (he supported suffrage), stood against a few others (he vetoed the Volstead Act enforcing Prohibition but was overridden), but basically presided over the culmination of efforts that defined the age.
Wilson also finished a decade-long effort to resolve the economic woes our nation suffered over the struggles of national banks, gold standard vs. silver, and the deep cycles of Depressions and Panics. The formation of the Federal Reserve System - in response to the Panic of 1907 - was finalized under Wilson's direction. In these respects, Wilson had a long-standing impact on the nation's well-being.
Wilson's greatest failing wasn't the first World War. As President he did his duty to answer the nation's needs first: and the nation didn't need to go to war when it started in 1914. As President he did his duty when it became clear by 1917 that Germany wasn't going to let the United States perform "business as usual" trying to trade with nations (Great Britain) at war against Germany (to be fair to Germany, U.S. neutrality excused a lot of material - non-military but stuff like food and medical supplies - getting shipped to England that helped keep that nation fighting).
No, Wilson's greatest failing was managing the peace that followed the armistice (Ironic in that Wilson wanted to be a peacemaker: he had seen the aftermath of war in the Reconstruction Era and understood the costs). He decided on making a direct effort to press his Fourteen Points - his peace plans to ensure no more world wars - and did so with a naive belief he could debate his point of view to successful solution.
Wilson failed to realize the level of enmity France had against Germany - stemming from the disastrous war of 1870 that humiliates France to this day (much of the "surrender" mockery comes from how swiftly a newly forged German nation stomped on a larger, more historically significant French nation) - and also failed to realize how eager the UK and France were to keep their overseas empires afloat (and expand by taking over German/Austrian/Ottoman remnants). An idealistic man not used to compromise was forced by the reality of dealing with global leaders on equal footing as his to give up on Point after Point he tried to establish as part of the peace process. It didn't help that Wilson fell ill during the trip and wasn't physically capable of arguing his position with a vengeful French leadership. He clung to his last Point - the formation of a League of Nations to use diplomacy to enforce peace between nations - as a long-term fix for the Points he had to give up.
But because Wilson's Fourteen Points were used as an argument for Germans to end the war, the Germans were angered by the betrayal when France's aims - to break German military might and impose War Guilt on them (when it really should have fallen to Serbia and Austria) - became the foundation of the Treaty of Versailles. That would be the beginning of national anger that would come back to bite the whole world on its collective ass...
The bigger problem came from back here at home. When Wilson went overseas, he did so on his own terms and with his own people. At no time did he consult with the Senate - the body that has to ratify any treaties - and it was a Senate that happened to be held by the Republican Party. When Wilson returned, it was to face Henry Cabot Lodge, his arch-nemesis and the one man determined to stick it to Wilson in the worst way.
Lodge was not an Isolationist - someone who believed the United States should just stay out of meddling in foreign affairs - but he benefited from a strain of that movement that railed against the League of Nations as threatening national sovereignty (the fear of the New/One World Order we see today). Lodge also benefited from the fact that Wilson had no idea how to forge a consensus among his own political allies in the Senate and Congress: the Democrats were hopelessly divided among themselves on the Treaty, giving Lodge ample working room to keep Wilson from getting his Treaty and League of Nations passed.
Wilson, ever convinced of the Righteousness of his cause, and convinced he could use his oratory skill by speaking directly to the people, decided to go on national tour rather than deal with a Congress he couldn't control, speaking wherever he could to argue for his peace plan... and driving himself pretty much into frail health, leading up to a devastating stroke that would incapacitate him for the rest of his failed second term.
In hindsight, some of Wilson's beliefs spoke true. He was right in the long run that the United States could not afford to be isolationist, that our failure to join a League that our own President designed would leave it weakened and incapable of stopping the wave of fascism, military adventurism, and empire-building that would consume the globe by the 1930s. Wilson's problem was that he couldn't even comprehend how other people could oppose him on that, and couldn't figure out ways to deal on the issue.
Wilson believed in the Great Man theory of history: that a will to perfection embodied in one all-powerful leader would guide a grateful nation onto the proper track of history. He never understood what the Founders understood: it takes a nation (made up of Men and States) to build a nation, and that meant getting 120 million or so Americans (at the time of Wilson's tenure) to agree on something for better or worse.
And yeah, don't get me started on Wilson's terrible civil rights record. Partly from Wilson's own personal beliefs (born in Virginia and coming of age during Reconstruction) which read today looks a lot like patronizing ignorance: and partly from the fact that Wilson was the first Democrat in the White House since Cleveland and so filled his Cabinet with far too many Southern Democrat segregationists as a means of promoting future party leadership. That's not even going into the first Red Scare this nation ever saw under the Palmer Raids.
Next up: A President Whose Worst Enemies Were His Closest Drinking Buddies
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