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PARALLEL UNIVERSE: Reassessing Woodrow Wilson on the 150th Anniversary of His Birth

Posted by kinchendavid on December 19, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Editor, Huntington News Network

And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:12

Hinton, WV – The biblical saying about books also applies to the ranking of U.S. presidents — of which there is no end.

The other day, I read a review of a new biography of Calvin Coolidge in which the reviewer said “Silent Cal” is moving up in class among the professoriate that does such things: professional, academic historians. Here’s a good source for presidential rankings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_rankings_of_United_States_Presidents

Thomas Woodrow Wilson has always fared well in these rankings — ranking in the top 10 — partly I think because he’s our only president with an earned doctorate, which he obtained at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the early 1880s. In a 1982 poll, academics ranking him sixth out of 36 presidents and in a 2000 poll, Wilson again ranked sixth out of 41 presidents, according to the Wikipedia entry on Wilson

He earned the doctorate after being admitted to the bar in Georgia, after only a year of law school at the University of Virginia. Pretty good for a fellow who didn’t learn to read until he was 12 years old!

Maybe this is one reason why Ph D historians have always looked kindly on their fellow dyed-in-the-wool academic, who was president of Princeton University and, briefly, governor of New Jersey, before he was elected president in 1912. “

Why talk about Wilson now? For one thing, the 150th anniversary of his birth is on Dec. 28; he was born in Staunton, VA on Dec. 28, 1856. He died in Washington, DC on Feb. 3, 1924 and is the only president buried in Washington.

For another, I’ve been troubled by the high ranking of Woodrow Wilson for many years. A professor at Concord University in Mercer County, the late Sidney Bell, was one of the first historians to cast a critical eye on Wilson’s place in history. Bell, who came recommended to me by two of his students, wrote an outstanding 1972 book examining Wilson’s diplomatic efforts.

Bell’s very readable and solidly documented book, “Righteous Conquest: Woodrow Wilson and the Evolution of the New Diplomacy” (Kennikat Press, Port Washington, NY, London, 1972) is worth looking up. As the title indicates, Bell deals largely with Wilson’s diplomatic efforts, including his gunboat diplomacy south of the border. Bell states that “Wilson defined himself as right, and America as right whenever it was going his way. ….Whatever served his conception of justice became right.” (Page 8).

Bell glosses over Wilson’s racial beliefs by saying Wilson he was responsible “for the introduction of a greater degree of segregation of Negro employees of the Federal Government ‘for their own good.’” (Pages 39-40). Odd that these “Negro” (the accepted word in 1972) employees didn’t need this protection under the previous Taft and T.R. Roosevelt administrations!

And I’ve just made the acquaintance of a man with a Harvard master’s degree in political science, Nicholas Patler, who expanded his master’s thesis into a 2004 book detailing the resegregation of federal jobs under Wilson’s administration – an the massive civil rights protests that followed. Patler’s book, “Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration: Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century” (University of Colorado Press, 2004), will be published in a paperback edition early in 2007 and I plan to review it.

To borrow a phrase from a conservative/libertarian talk show host on CNN, as a historian I’m a rodeo clown, but I’ve read widely and absorbed much material in 40 years of book reviewing and I tend to agree with the revisionist historians that Woodrow Wilson was a deeply flawed president who is the real inspiration – not the fabled “neocons” – for our current failed foreign policy messes in Iraq.

Yes, Wilson was an interventionist in the mold of George W. Bush – and many other presidents, even though he presented the facade of a man who didn’t want to bring the U.S. into the bloodletting in Europe. Before he took us into a war that his first secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, opposed – the Great War (later renamed World War I) — Wilson sent troops south of the border. We even occupied cities in Mexico in the wake of guerilla raids into the U.S. by Pancho Villa and others.

From the Wikipedia entry on Wilson: “Between 1914 and 1918, the United States intervened in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama. The U.S. maintained troops in Nicaragua throughout his administration and used them to select the president of Nicaragua and then to force Nicaragua to pass the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty. American troops in Haiti forced the Haitian legislature to choose the candidate Wilson selected as Haitian president. American troops occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934.”

Just as Colin Powell resigned as Secretary of State in apparent disagreement over Bush’s policies, so did Bryan resign in 1915 over Wilson’s interventionist ways. Bryan was replaced by a more compliant Robert Lansing (sound familiar?) and after the 1916 Presidential campaign, during which Wilson campaigned against Republican Charles Evans Hughes with the slogan “He Kept us Out of War,” we entered a war that I believe – and more and more historians are coming round to the position – we had no business in.

The 1916 election sounds eerily like the 2000 one; from Wikipedia: “The final result was exceptionally close and the result was in doubt for several days. The vote came down to several close states. Wilson won California by 3,773 votes out of almost a million votes cast and New Hampshire by 54 votes. Hughes won Minnesota by 393 votes out of over 358,000. In the final count, Wilson had 277 electoral votes vs. Hughes 254.”

Our entry into another of Europe’s endless wars created much of the mess we’re in now, not to mention leading to the rise of Nazism and fascism and the Second World War. Many historians believe that absent the U.S., the war would have petered out by 1919 or 1920, with none of the poisonous after effects of the Treaty of Versailles. It’s important to remember that the Germans and their allies, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, were not the same countries they were a few years later. Sigmund Freud’s sons fought for Austria and Hitler’s commanding officer – the lieutenant who recommended the future Fuehrer for an Iron Cross — was a Jew.

Too, Wilson’s disregard of the Bill of Rights and the right to protest, led to the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union by Roger N. Baldwin in 1920, three years after Baldwin and others who opposed the entry of the U.S. into the European conflict were deprived of their constitutional free speech rights. That alone will cause many conservatives to despite Wilson! Historians gloss over Wilson’s trampling of the protests, blaming it on his notorious attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, but Wilson, his second wife Edith Galt Wilson and his equivalent of Karl Rove, Col. Edwin House, knew what they were doing.

I’ll grant many good things to Wilson: Elected as a Democrat after Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft divided the GOP vote, Wilson and the Democratic congress:

* Created the Federal Reserve system

* Created the Federal Trade Commission

* Enacted the Clayton Antitrust Act

* Passed the Federal Farm Loan Act.

* Supported measures that eventually led to women getting the vote in 1920, something France didn’t do until 1945.

If you’re looking to blame the federal income tax – which became law in 1913 – on Wilson, forget about it: It was pushed by previous Republican administrations to replace monies lost by tariff reform.

In many ways, the two Wilson terms were precursors to the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, one of Wilson’s advisers at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, William C. Bullitt, was an early supporter of FDR’s run for the Presidency in 1932 and was rewarded by being named the first ambassador to the Soviet Union when we recognized the regime in 1933. Bullitt has a further connection with Wilson: He collaborated with Sigmund Freud, also born in 1856, on a psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson that was almost universally attacked when it was published four decades ago. Bullitt and a fellow Freud patient, Princess Marie Bonaparte, were instrumental in rescuing Freud in 1938 when the Nazis took over Austria.

Nick Patler, from Wilson’s birthplace of Staunton, Augusta County, VA, earlier this year gave a speech discussing aspects of Wilson that are glossed over in most biographies. He promised African-American voters, the vast majority of whom were Republicans, a better deal, but he reneged on that promise once in office. His administration, Patler writes, resegregated the federal government and replaced most of the black postmasters, for instance, with white Democrats.

To read Patler’s speech, delivered at Princeton, N.J., last April, click here for a pdf.

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