Wilson ran for reelection on the platform 'He Kept Us Out Of The War' - a promise that he knew he would not keep.' 161 days later and according to Wilson's request, the United States Congress declared war on Germany.
By Amity Shlaes
WHICH PREVIOUS president does President Barack Obama resemble most?
Historians have likened the forty-fourth president to the thirty-second, Franklin Roosevelt. Obama, after all, chose to open his first term with a progressive campaign that explicitly evoked FDR’s progressive Hundred Days. But Roosevelt functioned in a more political and opportunistic fashion than does Obama.
Asked once about his philosophy by a close colleague, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt replied, “I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” Obama, by contrast, approaches topics with the comprehensive high-mindedness of a law-school professor. Roosevelt lived fraternally, for and in coalitions, whether the task was building them up or knocking them down. FDR’s New Deal consisted of an entire network of deals between varying parties—between government and Congress, or, for a time, between government and big business, and between a leader and his people. Obama places less emphasis on “between.” Our current president prefers to go it alone. Instead of a deal, Obama offers principles for others to endorse if they wish.
Recently, scholars have started to point to similarities between Obama and another two-term progressive professor, Woodrow Wilson. After all, the twenty-eighth president, like Obama, looked at the world in terms of idea and cause. And in the case of Wilson, like Obama, there is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. “Are people interested in personalities rather than in principles?” Wilson’s daughter Nell recalls Wilson asking in 1912 as he campaigned for president. “If that is true they will not vote for me.”
Perhaps because 2013 marks the centenary of Wilson’s inauguration, the Obama-Wilson comparisons are popping up with greater frequency. Often, the subject seems to be not whether Obama evokes Wilson but how. Not atypical has been the discussion of the two presidents in the New Republic, which was itself born during the Wilson era. Presidents Wilson and Obama share the feature of “technocratic arrogance,” argues Jeffrey Rosen. Rosen says it is no accident that Obama has leaned on a harsh Wilson-era law, the Espionage Act of 1917, to prosecute leakers of defense intelligence. Like Wilson, Obama, we are told, has a penchant for going to extremes, which has manifested itself in the prosecution of even mild offenders. The Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin offers a somewhat more flattering comparison. Obama resembles Wilson in his faith in government, Kazin writes, suggesting that Obama’s twenty-first-century plans to expand domestic government are possible only because Wilson “laid the foundation for the 20th century liberal state.” Without Wilson, there would have been no New Deal, and then no Great Society, and no Obama health-care reform and regulation. Wilson ought to be rated more highly, Kazin argues. As important as Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, he is “the forgotten president.”
That Wilson laid the foundations for modern presidential policy, foreign and domestic, cannot be denied. Wilson’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, waged little wars to gain strategic territory for the United States, whether the territory involved was Cuba, the Philippines or at the Panama Canal. For TR, war was an impulse. Wilson, by contrast, proved the original neocon. He was ready to stake all on a big war if that war would serve a principle—in his instance, the principle of making the world “safe for democracy.” Wilson’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of Americans and ship them overseas in World War I was so bold a move that many of his predecessors would never have even contemplated it. “Perhaps the greatest foreign army that ever crossed a sea in the history of the world prior to the present war was the Persian army of a million men, which bridged and crossed the Hellespont,” Wilson’s secretary of war, Newton Baker, wrote in wonderment. Persia’s army failed. America’s did not.
Wilson altered foreign policy in another way, by establishing American multilateralism. Whether the framework today is the United Nations or the G-20, the very assumption of the value of that framework can be traced back to Wilson, as John B. Judis has done in The Folly of Empire. Wilson’s own multilateral project, the League of Nations, was an exercise in futility, and most Americans know the story of how, while selling the League to the country on an exhausting railway tour, Wilson fell ill and then suffered a stroke that enfeebled him, putting paid to his dreams of League participation. But Wilson got Americans into the habit of thinking multilaterally, a shift that has proven more profound than the establishment of any individual institution. Harry Truman was a young captain mustering out in the same month that Wilson and the Allies handed a defeated Germany the Treaty of Versailles. Back at home, preparing to use his knowledge of supply chains to start a new life as a haberdasher, Truman watched Wilson launch an impassioned campaign for the League of Nations.
In domestic policy, Wilson left just as strong a mark, signing laws that created many of our modern institutions. Not only did Wilson sanction the income tax, he also backed the credo that Obama and indeed all Democrats sustain today: that taxing the rich more heavily than others performs the necessary work of “equalization” of an out-of-kilter society. Wilson signed into law the Clayton Antitrust Act, our first modern piece of antitrust legislation. And it was Wilson who, with great presidential effort, forced the Senate to confirm his nomination to the Supreme Court of Louis Brandeis, the nation’s most powerful trustbuster. Under Wilson, the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission were established, the latter representing the first comprehensive effort by the federal government to regulate commerce.
That Wilson has been forgotten, however, is a more dubious contention. Out of a tactical desperation to eschew any similarity with modern Republicans, Democrats tend to play down the fact that Wilson’s military interventionism in the name of sovereignty or morality resembles that of George H. W. Bush, who defended a Kuwaiti border, or George W. Bush, who also made war not only against terror but also for democracy. But to this day the public ranks Wilson among the top presidents in polls, beside George Washington or Franklin Roosevelt and well ahead of James Madison, John Adams or Ronald Reagan. William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, the presidents who preceded or followed Wilson in office, commonly rate much lower than the former governor of New Jersey. And succeeding presidents of both parties paid great tribute to Wilson. Coolidge, the president in office at Wilson’s death, said that Wilson “made America a new and enlarged influence in the destiny of mankind.” The New Yorker Franklin Roosevelt, who had served as assistant secretary of the navy under Wilson, took it upon himself to raise millions to establish foundations and funds to honor Wilson’s name. Truman, who went on to found the League’s successor, the United Nations, called Wilson “the greatest of the greats.”
SUCH TRIBUTE raises a question: Does the record of the twenty-eighth president actually warrant superstar status? Or was his record more mixed than his fans acknowledge? Wilson’s foreign-policy record itself has been scrutinized and found wanting by European historians, but too rarely subjected to searching examination by American ones. A second and even less examined area is the effect of Wilson’s progressive domestic program, the New Freedom. Both areas are worthy of attention because whether or not today’s politicians drop Wilson’s name, their actions, more often than not, are based on the premise that Wilson is worthy of emulation. A 2009 biography of the president, Woodrow Wilson, by John Milton Cooper, indicates simply that Wilson was a great and remarkable leader, and sunnier than his dour reputation might suggest.
All the more welcome, therefore, is the darker Wilson, by Pulitzer Prize winner A. Scott Berg. Berg, who has chronicled the lives of Maxwell Perkins, Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Goldwyn, seeks to study the president’s “lengthening shadow” over our modern affairs. Indeed, Berg promises a new approach to Wilson, looking at, as the jacket copy says, “not just Wilson the icon—but Wilson the man.” Berg gained access to a valuable trove of newly uncovered material, including descriptions of a little-known operation performed on Wilson at the White House and details from Wilson’s physician, Cary Grayson, from the period when Wilson vainly sought Senate ratification of his League of Nations treaty and suffered multiple strokes. Such valuable facts are marshaled by Berg with the aim, as he put it in a recent interview, of telling the story not only of Wilson’s political odyssey, but also “the twentieth century through his life.”
And a tumultuous life it surely was, starting with its origins during the Civil War era. Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, the son of a stern Presbyterian minister, Joseph Ruggles Wilson Sr. During the war his family knew privation: short of several staples, Wilson’s charitable mother fed him nightly on soup made out of cowpeas. The sheer carnage of the North-South contest and the sight of blood and wounds captured the child’s attention first. All his life, Berg perceptively notes, Wilson would “gravitate toward women who could both nurse and nurture,” partly because his mother was such a woman, and partly, doubtless, because nurses were the figures who mitigated the suffering of soldiers.
But the impression of the War Between the States upon Wilson was not and could not be merely emotional. No, the environment was rich with contradictions that could not escape a perspicacious child. Wilson’s first schoolmaster was a veteran who called the Civil War the “War of Southern Independence.” Wilson came to chafe at the economic hypocrisy of the commerce-oriented North, which backed a tariff system that disadvantaged commerce of all kinds relating to agriculture. Moreover, Wilson was in Augusta, Georgia, when federal agents arrested Jefferson Davis, and he believed that the Civil War was not only about slavery but also about a subjugation of states and regions by a predatory national power. “A boy never gets over his boyhood,” the president explained, and “never can change those subtle influences which have become part of him.” Indeed. As president, Wilson approved of the extension of segregation in the federal civil service.
As boy and then man, Wilson often struggled. Wilson had trouble reading, suffering from what we today call dyslexia. Detached even as a youth, Wilson found his teachers and peers did not always recognize his brilliance or favor a youth they rated as prissy. The 1883 purchase of a typewriter changed his life. The young man first enrolled at the College of New Jersey, and then studied law at the University of Virginia. Disliking what he discovered of the practice of law, and unwilling to descend to the level of soliciting clients, Wilson determined to become a professor. Around the same time, his loneliness ended. He fell hard for Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of another Presbyterian minister. She reciprocated Wilson’s ardor.
Berg is among the first to focus on the extensive epistolary exchanges between the two lovers. The intensity of their affection for each other quickly emerges: Wilson worshipped Ellen as though he had never had another friend. It was to Ellen that the young man revealed his greatest secret: “I do feel a very real regret that I have been shut out from my heart’s first—primary—ambition and purpose, which was, to take an active if possible a leading, part in public life and strike out for myself, if I had the ability, a statesman’s career.” Wilson’s passion is so great that the reader fears that Ellen will dump him. But she did not, and the pair married just as Wilson commenced teaching, lecturing at a women’s college, Bryn Mawr, and then at Wesleyan in Connecticut, before returning to the College of New Jersey.
There Wilson experienced some of his greatest triumphs.
As Berg notes, Wilson early on gravitated toward certain philosophies and shunned others. He was not a fan of moral complexities. The young teacher approved of the conservative authority of a monarch, at least as described by Edmund Burke. He respected democracy more than the Constitution, which, he wrote in an 1885 book, Congressional Government, was “only the sap center” of governance. In 1905, the Supreme Court struck down a New York state law limiting the number of hours a baker might work, arguing that the law compromised the “liberty of the individual” to make a contract.
The case, Lochner v. New York, outraged many progressives, Wilson among them. In a second book, published in 1908, Wilson warned that “the Constitution was not meant to hold the government back to the time of horses and wagons.” This lapidary phrase influenced future presidents, especially Franklin Roosevelt. After learning that the Supreme Court had rejected the labor rules of his National Recovery Administration, FDR acidly paraphrased Wilson and suggested that the new case, Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, was taking America back to the “horse and buggy definition of interstate commerce.”
Suspecting Congress, both Senate and House, of political mediocrity, Wilson also concluded that “the best rulers are always those to whom great power is intrusted.” The American system of checks and balances irritated the academic in Wilson. He wrote, “The federal government lacks strength because its powers are divided.” Wilson preferred the all-or-nothing and love-me-or-leave-me approach of the parliamentary system, where the prime minister rules until he loses the confidence of lawmakers.
EVEN AS he typed and argued, Wilson’s family grew. Soon he and Ellen could count three daughters, Eleanor, Margaret and Jessie, all of whom adored him. Wilson’s family formed a moat between him and the rest of the world. Wilson had little to do with the eating clubs and the social whirl of Princeton (as the college was renamed in 1896), later captured by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he regarded with anathema and sought to anathematize. In the classroom, the firm-jawed, erect and pious Wilson inspired his students. Like his father, he relished preaching to his flock. In 1902, the college’s trustees named Wilson president, the first man to hold that job who was not an ordained minister. Wilson envisioned what he called “a Princeton in the nation’s service.”
Soon he would demand that America play a similar role for the world. His appreciation for the value of executive authority was heightened by his promotion. Working on an early speech to the Princeton community, Wilson confessed to Ellen, “I feel like a new prime minister getting ready to address his constituents.”
Reforming a university is a risky venture that can cost an unwary president his post. A few years later at Amherst College, another gifted president, Alexander Meiklejohn, flamed out in trying to lead his college toward “service” and away from the clutches of the Protestant Church. The trustees in the Connecticut Valley, including President Calvin Coolidge, ended up dismissing Meiklejohn, leaving their beloved school a mass of recriminations, embarrassments and tears. As Berg shows, Wilson moved with alacrity to extrude students who failed to work hard enough or who violated the Princeton honor code. The mother of a boy expelled for cheating wrote to Wilson and tried emotional blackmail: “I am to have an operation and I think I shall die if my boy is expelled.” Wilson would have none of it. “Madam,” he replied, “we cannot keep in college a boy reported by the student council as cheating; if we did, we should have no standard of honour. You force me to say a hard thing, but, if I had to choose between your life or my life or anybody’s life and the good of this college, I should choose the good of the college.”
A ferocious recruiter, Wilson went after his academic prey with the same single-mindedness Theodore Roosevelt exhibited in pursuing an African elephant. Wilson offered a young Chaucer scholar at Yale named Robert Root a salary of $2,000, on the high side, and interviewed him for only forty minutes, during which time, Root remembered later, “Wilson asked no questions but spoke only of his plans for Princeton.” By the end Root was spellbound, so much so that had Wilson asked him to “work under him while he inaugurated a new university in Kamchatka or Senegambia,” Root recalled, “I would have said ‘yes’ without further question.” Root added, “I think that no university in the country has ever, before or since, added to its faculty at one blow so large.”
Equally intrepid as a fundraiser, Wilson studied donors for their quirks. While not officially a minister like his father, Wilson approached his targets with an unapologetic missionary zeal. Many on Wilson’s list of likelies were Presbyterians, and, as Berg notes, Wilson had no trouble “shamelessly bagpiping Princeton’s heritage wherever he could.” Wilson worked hard to extract millions from Andrew Carnegie, the great industrialist-turned-philanthropist, boasting to the old boy that he himself was “of pure Scots blood” and that Princeton was “thoroughly Scottish in all her history and traditions.” Scot that he was, Carnegie stayed tight, coughing up not hoped-for millions but a measly $100,000 for the conversion of swampland into a lake for Princeton’s crew team. Wilson pocketed the money but expressed his disappointment: “We needed bread and you gave us cake.”
But under Wilson, Princeton became Princeton. Millions were raised, and those millions were spent well. The college got a real campus with quadrangles. It deepened its academic bench with respected scholars, and took its place among the serious universities. The New York Evening Post observed: “He has ruined what was universally admitted to be the most agreeable and aristocratic country club in America by transforming it into an institution of learning.” To be sure, there were moments of failure, even at Princeton. Wilson had been ferociously battling with his former chum Andrew F. West, dean of the graduate school at Princeton, over the establishment of a new graduate college with quads and tutorials based on the Oxford model. Wilson wanted it located in the heart of the college; West believed it should be separate. Wilson saw opposition to his plans not simply as an intellectual disagreement, but also as traitorous. He would not compromise. But his uncompromising stance meant that just as he would fail in the League of Nations debate, so he lost the conflict with West after a wealthy Princeton alumnus named Isaac Wyman left his estate to the college and named West as one of two executors. Wilson was finished. “We have beaten the living,” he told his wife, “but we cannot fight the dead. The game is up.”
BUT HE entered a new one. Now it would be Woodrow Wilson in the nation’s service. New Jersey politics of the period was a jungle of interest groups and insiders. But Wilson did not run with the pack. He ensured that it ran after him. Presenting his lack of political experience as an advantage, Wilson ran as a nonpolitician with the capacity to break corruption. The Princeton man’s speechifying entranced New Jersey party operators, who found the reformer refreshing. “Attempting none of the cheap ‘plays’ of the old campaign orator,” wrote a state lawmaker who became a fan, James Tumulty, “he impressively proceeded with this thrilling speech.” Wilson’s message at a state Democratic convention deeply impressed the Jersey cynics as well: “The future,” Wilson said, “is not for parties ‘playing politics’ but for measures conceived in the largest spirit.”
In 1910, Wilson won election as governor, a post in which he quickly discovered his inner progressive. His first move was to introduce a measure known as the Geran bill that required the direct elections of candidates in primaries rather than leaving the choice of men to county and state conventions. The bill became law the following April. Other measures were soon adopted. Joining Republican reformers, he made workers’ compensation New Jersey law, and established state oversight of transportation and utilities. A corrupt-practices law targeted electoral bribery and fraud. The old insiders marveled. There seemed to be nothing that Governor Wilson could not accomplish. His New Jersey work quickly earned the attention of national progressives, including the great activist against the railroad trusts, attorney Louis Brandeis, who journeyed to Sea Girt to visit with the governor in the summer of 1912. Brandeis educated Wilson on what he called “the curse of bigness,” the case that the size of large companies alone damaged the general welfare. Shrewder than anyone expected at charming the West, Wilson’s courtship of Texas was complete when he charmed Edward Mandell House (often known as “Colonel House”), the heir to a Texas fortune and a man of whom peers said “he has the entire state of Texas in his vest pocket.”
As Berg sketches it, Wilson’s ascent to the presidency was remarkably smooth. Wilson was a lucky fellow: the nation’s most famous progressive leader, former president Roosevelt, decided to create his own Bull Moose Party, and targeted his former protégé, President William Howard Taft. Wilson watched Taft and Roosevelt tussle with each other while he looked on serenely for an opening. In 1911, Roosevelt had written in Outlook magazine that he nursed concerns about the trust-busting he himself periodically championed: “Nothing of importance is gained by breaking up a huge interstate and international industrial organization that has not offended otherwise than by its size.” This softening was all that Wilson required. Wilson ran for president as a high-minded antitrust hawk, and fate favored his chances. In the same way that H. Ross Perot’s decision to run for president in 1992 against fellow conservative George H. W. Bush created an opportunity for another legally oriented professor and governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the progressives’ split in 1912 worked for Wilson. The election went four ways, with the resolute socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, taking 6 percent of the vote, the Republican Taft taking 23 percent and Theodore Roosevelt claiming 27.4 percent. Wilson therefore won with a plurality of 41.8 percent.
At this point one might ask: Was the university president really ready to assume the presidency? Wilson’s 41.8 percent was the narrowest mandate any new president has enjoyed since then. It was narrower even than Bill Clinton’s slender 1992 plurality, which stood at 43 percent. For an executive who believed that his power base was the people, that fact must have been profoundly discomfiting. What’s more, the national scene that was the playground of a Roosevelt or a Taft was brand new to Wilson. As he moved into the White House, Wilson’s health already troubled him. He suffered from hypertension and was in the habit of pumping his stomach to siphon out gastric acid. When physician Cary Grayson demanded that Wilson halt this weird practice, the patient, as he always did to those closest around him, lashed out, calling Grayson a “therapeutic nihilist”—and then hired Grayson as chief White House physician. In reviewing the Grayson papers, Berg shows that when Wilson made Grayson White House doctor, he expected Grayson to give his chronic stomach disorder the same attention that Colonel House or Joe Tumulty, now in the Wilson entourage, might dedicate to foreign or domestic policy. His own importance was as significant as the welfare of the country. Grayson’s reports of his patient convey a sense of an autocrat who had already internalized a sense of his authority over the entire globe, practically declaring, “The world, c’est moi.” Wilson categorized all his troubles, whether troubles of state or health, in the same way: he referred to his gastric disorders as “turmoil in Central America” or “disturbances in the equatorial regions.”
IN 1913, THE new president could take comfort in two facts. The first was that the progressive train itself was moving forward: ratification of amendments to create the income tax, to get women the vote and to create a modern central bank were in progress or had already occurred. All a president need do was play the role of the statesman Wilson had described to Ellen, seat himself at the head of the train and claim victory. This Wilson did, with the distinctions between his own progressivism and Theodore Roosevelt’s fading to nothing. Wilson surrounded himself with like-minded men, including Brandeis. He also hired a brilliant treasury secretary, William McAdoo. He managed to overcome, at least momentarily, a natural aversion to Congress and, stunningly, traveled to the Hill to pitch his New Freedom program before lawmakers, the first president to do so since John Adams. Wilson’s wife was also ill, and the Wilsons and their three daughters enjoyed an active social life. Before long McAdoo, a distinguished widower, would court and win the hand of Wilson’s daughter Eleanor, an event that only reinforced the clubbish aspect of the president’s inner circle. The second advantage was that the area Wilson liked least, foreign policy, did not seem particularly significant. “It would be the irony of fate,” Wilson said, “if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”
It did. Just sixteen months after Wilson assumed office, in a period when Wilson was distracted by Ellen’s illness, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. By August 1914, Wilson was convinced that the United States could stay neutral: “We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.” Just days later, Wilson’s wife died. Always uxorious, the president nearly died from grief after his wife’s passing. “God has stricken me almost beyond what I can bear,” he wrote around the time of Ellen’s death. Later, in mourning and as Germany invaded France and Belgium, Wilson wrote that the European war distracted him. “In God’s gracious arrangement of things I have little time to think about myself.” Berg, with harsh accuracy, notes of the self-centered Wilson that “with the destruction of his universe, he found strength in the collapse of the world.” Berg goes on to trace the familiar story that follows: Wilson did lead the United States in entering the war, did ship those millions overseas, did lead the nation in sustaining hundreds of thousands of casualties, and crafted a peace plan on the principles of democracy and self-determination.
Berg paints all this well, capturing the president’s agonies at his wife’s death. Even after remarriage, Wilson kept a flashlight on his stand at night, shining it on a pastel portrait of Ellen whenever he felt distress. Berg’s coverage of Wilson’s illnesses, including a difficult recovery from an operation that foreshadowed his stroke, is excellent. The presidency aged men terribly in those days, a smoke-filled era that knew no statin drugs, no angiograms and no antibiotics. Wilson was no exception, and Berg’s camera moves close in to show the tension in Wilson’s neck that signaled circulatory weakness. In Berg’s picture, one can almost detect the hardening of the presidential arteries.
Berg likewise skillfully conveys the effect of Wilson’s temperament and plans upon the course of the war. After first staunchly opposing entry, and even campaigning on staying out in 1916, Wilson in the end did jump in. As is so often the case with presidents, the challenge of the crisis moved Wilson to respond instinctually, rather than intellectually. Wilson’s instinctual response was religious: America became the “Christ’s Army” he had described in his early writings. The president who had so boldly favored freedom abroad that he placed the word in the title of his program now behaved in remarkably cavalier fashion when it came to the freedoms of others at home. Over the course of the war Wilson ran roughshod over the civil rights of war skeptics. Debs’s campaigning against the war may have been wrong, but Wilson seemed to derive a special joy from keeping his old political opponent behind bars.
Funding a “Christ’s Army” required enormous sacrifice, as all realized. But what the country could not expect was the autocratic way in which the administration would exact that sacrifice. Wilson and McAdoo settled on a policy of confiscatory taxation and heavy borrowing to fund the conflict. Just years before, when lawmakers had conceived of the income tax, they set the levy at a top rate of 7 percent. Wilson and McAdoo did not hesitate to raise that rate all the way up into the 70 percent range. Their justification for the tax rise was not merely based on expedience but also on morality. “We need not be afraid to tax them, if we lay taxes justly,” he said. Socking it to the wealthy was for their own good as well as the country’s. Once again, he took pleasure from scourging errant sinners.
The presidential son-in-law, for his part, set the total amount to be borrowed in splendidly offhand fashion, which he later described:
I had formed a tentative conclusion as to the amount of the first loan. It ought to be, I thought, three billion dollars. I can hardly tell you how I arrived at the sum of three billions. . . . I am sure that the deciding influence in my mind was not a mass of statistics, but what is commonly caused a “hunch”—a feeling or impression rather than a logical demonstration.
Any protest at such high-handedness risked earning public condemnation from the administration as representing the motives of a low and coarse partisan operator. “Politics is adjourned,” as Wilson loftily told the Sixty-Fifth Congress.
During the war and after the armistice, Wilson turned ever inward, playing solitaire aboard the ship that took him to Paris. After greeting him with a hero’s welcome, France frustrated Wilson. He was disturbed by French leader George Clemenceau’s implacable anti-German stance. Wilson joked that France’s position resembled that of an India rubber ball: “You tried to make an impression but as soon as you moved your finger the ball was as round as ever.” Rather than persevere, Wilson faltered. His principle of self-determination was inconsistently and self-servingly applied at the conference. He returned to America with a new mission, but was unable to execute it, either. Increasingly, and especially through the difficult and vain domestic campaign to win support for his League of Nations, Wilson was afflicted by poor health. As he rasped his way across America on a whistle-stop tour, he sacrificed himself for his faith.
BERG IS admirably alert to Wilson’s debilities, mental and physical. But his smooth professionalism means that he has offered a rather superficial account. For in focusing so diligently on Wilson’s tender psyche and health, he neglects to give attention to the consequences of Wilson’s style or his policies. What is missing, in other words, is an analysis of Wilson as president rather than celebrity or psychiatric case. This is a grave defect in a book seeking to offer a definitive account. For Wilson was not merely weak. He was also, often, just plain wrong.
The error starts on the crucial foreign-policy front. Was U.S. entry into the European war warranted? Most of us believe so, but the case is not really considered by Berg. After the war, Europe desperately needed comity, some sense of international union to preclude a repeat of World War I’s carnage. But that comity could not be enforced if the parties involved, domestic or foreign, were not all in agreement. Wilson antagonized the House and Senate by failing to win their support for his League effort, leaning on Colonel House rather than the House. The president antagonized the Senate in turn by presenting the treaty for ratification as a fait accompli. He thereby doomed what he deemed his own most precious objective.
More importantly, Wilson missed what others easily saw. Without bearable terms for Germany, the League of Nations could not function, and Germany, wounded by the war-guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles, would go to war again. Those who cared not a whit for the feelings of antagonized U.S. senators, the Europeans, discerned this failure most clearly. Wilson, John Maynard Keynes said, “allowed himself to be drugged by their atmosphere” at Versailles. To Wilson, his league mattered more than Germany. The president treated Germany as he had the wayward Princeton student: as an abomination, a pestilence to be expelled from the pristine Wilsonian consciousness. Keynes was shocked and ended up writing a book that prophesied the next war, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Another perceptive observer wrote that Wilson was “a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant of the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong.” Perhaps H. L. Mencken, who branded Wilson the “late Messiah” and a “fallen Moses,” captured Wilson’s sententious delusions best: “When Wilson got upon his legs in those days he seems to have gone into a sort of trance, with all the peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a frenzied pedagogue.”
In the case of domestic policy, the damage created by Wilson’s fecklessness was also not inconsiderable. McAdoo’s relentless fund drive did pay for the war, but also created “economic consequences of the peace” at home. America, then an academic and intellectual backwater, lacked a Keynes to limn those consequences. And Republicans were not eager to appear disloyal. But the consequences were real, starting with a fierce inflation that the Wilson administration never acknowledged. After wartime price controls were lifted, prices shot up by 30–40 percent. Individual businesses made immense fortunes supplying the weapons and goods for Wilson’s crusade, but the general financial markets went on a “capital strike” after the war ended. Taxes were so prohibitive that many companies hesitated to rehire. Unemployment was heading upward, too, past the 10 percent line. In his 1919 State of the Union address, Wilson went so far as to say, as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan later would, that tax rates like his own depressed enterprise. But he did not declare the autocratic experiment over. Quite the contrary. In the end the mess Wilson created could only be addressed by a drastic cutting back of government and a severe tightening of interest rates. William P. G. Harding, the head of the Federal Reserve, found himself playing the ugly role Paul Volcker would later hold, doubling interest rates to kill inflationary expectations. This treatment worked: after a year or two, the inflation and joblessness were gone. But the Fed effort, especially, imposed a recession on the nation. One of the casualties of that recession happened to be the haberdasher shop of the man who so admired Wilson, Harry Truman.
Truman never made the connection between Wilson’s arbitrariness and the depression, as they called it then, of the early 1920s. Nor, for that matter, did many others at the time. In a gold-standard era, inflation was so rare that citizens did not recognize the new animal when they saw it. Therefore Wilson was given a pass, even supported, when he rated the high prices as the consequences of war profiteering. Nor was Wilson alone. This monetary misunderstanding begat subsequent errors and losses.
A striking example of such incomprehension came across my desk as I researched my own presidential biography, Coolidge. In 1919, the Boston police force, demanding higher compensation, joined Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor and walked off the job. Chaos ensued in Boston, and the sitting governor of the state, Coolidge, backed up the Boston police commissioner in a decision to fire the strikers. Conservatives strongly admire the Coolidge decision, and many believe that it inspired Ronald Reagan in an equally tough decision he took more than half a century later, the decision to fire the striking air-traffic controllers of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Conservatives also cite the courage of Coolidge in discussions over the pension demands of public workers in Wisconsin or Michigan. The general argument is that Coolidge, and then Reagan, taught public-sector unions a necessary lesson.
Yet a perusal of the details in the Boston case reveals a hidden factor in the Boston police action: inflation. As prices rose following the war, wages did not rise with them, and policemen struggled to pay for their families. In those days, there were no automatic adjustments to wages for changes in the price level. The Housewives’ League wrote the president a letter that grappled with the mysterious price problem, asking him to “reduce the cost of living, which through present prices of bread, meat and corn has become unbearable.” The policemen needed, and wanted, more money. By treating such concerns as mere labor obstreperousness, Coolidge and others ignored a true grievance. Those others included President Wilson, who, after hesitating, came down on the police like a ton of cobblestones, calling their strike “a crime against civilization.” Thus did Wilson hurt the labor movement at the center of his progressive platform.
BERG REFRAINS from illuminating such internal inconsistencies and consequences of progressive policy. This unwillingness doubtless derives in part from the perils of the biographical genre. A biographer must choose between telling the story from his subject’s point of view and telling it from his own. Often, opting for the former conveys more information. Perhaps Berg concluded that suspending disbelief and trailing Wilson faithfully on his via dolorosa would give Americans the man he had promised. As Berg has doubtless observed, the results of hostile or even purely analytic biographies are often mediocre: Robert Caro’s portrait of Robert Moses of New York represents the rare exception. And an intensely hostile biography will stoke a fire, but the smoke it generates precludes enlightenment. In addition, in getting to know one’s subject, the biographer comes to like and defend him. To pen a hostile biography is a desolate task, especially over a decade, the period of time for which Berg studied Wilson. In the case of a president, let alone a war president like Wilson, to criticize one’s subject also feels downright treasonous.
The book market for its part reinforces these antianalytic tendencies in authors. Biography readers are like the voters whom Wilson looked down upon: they prefer personality to ideas. They enjoy the odd portrait of the villain: Hitler, Mao, Stalin. But most U.S. readers will not accept anything close to a vilification of an American president. As a result of some mix of these factors, Berg does not entirely achieve the “telling of the twentieth century” to which he aspires. He separates icon from man, as promised, but does not deliver the era. Wilson is just Wilson.
Perhaps a description of the full extent of Wilson’s folly requires not a biography but a general history. In Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, Ronald Pestritto has carried out some of the work, but he focuses more on the sphere of philosophy than on quotidian society. In Bernard M. Baruch, a biography of Wilson’s adviser and financier of that name, James Grant captures some of the more unfortunate financial results of the Wilson administration. But more is required. If Wilsonian interventionism failed abroad, modern interventionists need to know more about why that happened. And if Wilsonian intervention in the economy failed at home, modern planners and presidents, including of course President Obama, need to know that, too. That Wilson could not recognize the damage he perpetrated hardly constitutes an excuse for historians to downplay it. The discussion over what variety of Protestant or narcissist Wilson was has been long, interesting and stimulating, but the next biographer would do well to focus on his policies in a more thorough and sustained fashion. America’s early progressives, presidents and others, require at this moment not canonization but invigilation.
Amity Shlaes, chairman of the board of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, serves as director of the 4% Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. She is the author of Coolidge (Harper, 2013) and The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Harper, 2007).
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