Woodrow Wilson was once regarded as one of the great progressive presidents of the 20th century. Then historians took another look at his record on race. Today, he's a bit of a mixed bag. But one thing you can't argue is the years he was president changed the world.
Follow along as Wilson gives up on politics to become an academic, only to unexpectedly rise from Princeton president to New Jersey Governor to American President in two short years! Wilson's presidency will witness a raft of progressive change, a reactive retreat on racial progress, and a little thing called World War I. Buckle up. It's a wild ride.
1. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made – Patricia O’Toole
2. William Howard Taft – Jeffrey Rosen
3. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands
4. Warren G Harding – John W. Dean
5. FDR - Jean Edward Smith
6. Truman - David McCullough
Welcome to the Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 28, Woodrow Wilson, The Phrasemaker.
When I was growing up, I had this perception from the history I’d learned in school that there had been two great presidents in the 20th century - Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
Maybe it was because they’d presided over World War 1 and 2. I’m not sure. But that appraisal of Wilson has certainly changed in recent years and I know I am not unique in that reassessment. Just two years ago, Princeton, the University Wilson graduated from and was later president of, removed Wilson’s name from one of its buildings. What is happening to Wilson’s legacy?
Well, it’s going through a bit of a reevaluation.
Was he a progressive champion of economic equality? Or was he a racist reactionary who undid decades of progress?
Can both be true?
Did he win WW1 and change the world with his 14 points? Or did America and the Allies win the war despite Wilson and does he deserve more blame than praise for blowing up his own country’s admission into the League of Nations?
The one thing that’s undeniable is he had an impact. He was the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland in 1896, he was the first southerner elected to the White House since before the civil war, and he was at the helm of the nation during a pivotal period of war, reform, and reaction. Let’s get started, because there is a lot to unpack
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856 - that’s less than five years before the start of the Civil War. According to Wilson, one of his earliest memories was playing in the front yard and hearing someone walking by say with great disgust that Lincoln had been elected and it would mean war.
Wilson’s father was a presbyterian minister who basically helped form the confederate presbyterian church after the union, and the church, split in two.
Wilson … is going to do some pretty racist things later in life, so, it’s worth noting that this was his childhood. Growing up in the ruins of the south during and after the Civil War.
As a child, Wilson helped prepare his father’s sermons and developed a fondness for speechmaking. But Wilson and his dad seemed to get different ideas from this experience - his father wanted him to become a minister, while Wilson wanted to become a politician. When it came time to choose a college, they decided to split the difference and sent him to Princeton in 1875. His dad was happy because Princeton was a presbyterian college, and Wilson was happy because President James Madison had been an alumni.
Wilson briefly tried to be a lawyer after graduating - the starting point of so many politicians - but found he hated it. When he realized he could make a career writing about politics in academia instead, he dove in head first. Wilson’s studies took him to Princeton, UVA, and Johns Hopkins, and then he taught at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton. He eventually rose to be the president of Princeton in 1902 after making a name for himself as an expert in American presidential politics and history.
Along the way, Wilson got married! In 1883, Wilson met Ellen Louise Axson in church and five months later, they were engaged! They married Jun 24, 1885, and had three daughters together. Ellen would be known for her love of painting and her efforts to raise awareness of the terrible living conditions of Washington DC’s african american community when she later became first lady.
By 1909, Wilson was 53 years old, he’d been president of Princeton for 7 years, and he was starting to attract serious attention from Northeastern Democratic politicos. Based on his writings and his leadership of Princeton, he was progressive, but not too progressive. Even better, he was a political outsider, which the politicos believed would both make him electable - no baggage - and make him beholden to them for power if they got him elected. But what would they get him elected to? This may sound crazy, but they believed they could run him for New Jersey governor in 1910 and president in 1912 - I’m not kidding. In 1909, Harper’s Weekly predicted this very future, writing “We now expect to see Woodrow Wilson elected Governor of the state of New Jersey in 1910 and nominated for President in 1912.”
In 1910, those politicos did run Wilson for governor and, wouldn’t you know it, the timing could not have been better. 1910 was a year that went heavily against republicans, a reflection of the country’s disappointment in Taft’s presidency, and Wilson rode that wave to the governor’s mansion. Wilson was well aware of his luck, saying “The Democrats have not so much won a victory as they have obtained an opportunity.”
For the next two years, Wilson ran for president. I mean, sure, he was governor of New Jersey, but everything he did was done with an eye on reaching the white house. He convinced the New Jersey legislature to pass a workmen’s compensation law, a corrupt practices act, and to let the state utilities commission set utility rates - all nationally popular policies - and then he went on a speaking tour of the south and west to build his national brand.
And before he knew it, the election of 1912 was upon him.
The election of 1912 was the first presidential election to have presidential primaries, which almost all states have today. 13 states had primaries that year, which had long been sought by progressives as a way to break the corrupt party boss’s hold on candidates and elections. Unfortunately, competing in primaries quickly proved so expensive that it just made candidates more beholden to the big money donors who funded their campaigns - drat!
Anyway, Wilson performed ok in the primaries. He won some, but a minority. But only 13 states had them anyway, so everyone knew this would still come down to the national convention as always. But Wilson wasn’t feeling great about that, either. His big rival was a Missouri congressman-turned-Speaker of the House named Champ Clark, and everyone knew Clark was entering the convention with a roughly 450-324 delegate advantage over Wilson. But remember, ever since Martin Van Buren in the 1830’s, the Democratic party had required a two third majority to win the nomination, so Clark needed 726 of the 1,088 total delegates to win. He had a ways to go.
Wilson’s managers showed up early and immediately chased down three-time Democratic presidential nominee, and 3-time loser, William Jennings Bryan, who was there as a journalist, a Nebraska delegate, and party patriarch. It was really unfortunate Bryan had lost so damn many times because the progressive causes he’d been espousing since 1896 were finally in vogue and he might well have been able to win it all in 1912, but his three losses hung like an albatross around his neck and so he knew a fourth run wasn’t in the cards.
That said, he was still influential, so Wilson’s manager asked Bryan how he’d vote and Bryan said, as a Nebraska delegate, he was pledged to Clark on the first ballot, but “if, during the course of the convention, anything should develop to convince me that Clark cannot or ought not to be nominated, I shall support Governor Wilson.”
Clark’s 450-324 advantage over Wilson roughly held through the first nine ballots, but then on the 10th ballot New York’s Tammany Hall swung 90 ballots behind Clark, giving him his first simple majority.
One of Wilson’s managers thought that meant the gig was up - the first Democrat to win a majority had always gone on to win the nomination! - and he called Wilson to get approval for releasing Wilson’s delegates to support clark. But then Wilson’s other manager found out about this call and was livid - he thought Clark’s recent jump was the peak of his popularity, not the start of an avalanche. The manager had polled the delegates at the convention and knew most of the ones committed to regional favorites preferred Wilson over Clark and would come to Wilson when their regional candidates dropped out. Wilson was saved at this moment, too, by Bryan, who rose and requested the convention adjourn for the night, giving Wilson’s team time to get on the same page and plan its counter attack before Clark could run away with it.
When the convention regrouped, Clark’s momentum was gone. Instead, support slowly, slowly, slowly moved Wilson’s way until he eventually won on the 46th ballot with 890 votes.
Wilson was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
Now I’m not going to jump super in depth on the election of 1912, since I covered it in episode 27 on William Howard Taft, but I will recap Wilson’s platform, because he’s going to act on it.
Wilson wanted to crush the tariff to open foreign markets to American manufacturing and lower the prices of goods, he wanted to implement a progressive income tax so the wealthy would pay for the government, and he wanted to use the power of government regulations to make the American economy a free market again. That may sound counterintuitive - regulations making a market more free and open - but it’s true. He used regulation to end anti-free trade practices, like bankers serving on the boards of businesses and then giving those businesses more favorable loans to boost their own pocketbooks.
In the end, a falling out between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the republican party and opened the way for Wilson to take the white house. Wilson won a plurality of the popular vote - 6.3 million votes for Wilson, to 4.1 million for Theodore Roosevelt, 3.5 million for Taft, and 900,000 for socialist candidate Eugene Debs. But if the popular vote was close, the electoral college was a shellacking: 435 electors for Wilson, 88 for Roosevelt, 8 for Taft, and zero for Debs.
Thanks to incredibly lucky timing, Wilson had just gone from private citizen to governor of New Jersey to President of the United States in 2 years.
And so, on March 4, 1913, 56-year-old Woodrow Wilson, the first southerner elected president since before the Civil War, was sworn in as the 28th president of the United States on a wave of progressive ambition. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Wilson became president? Let’s look around.
Internationally a revolution in China had just overthrown the 276-year-old Qing dynasty and replaced it with a republic in 1911. A republic that won’t be around for long. A year before that, Great Britain’s King Edward the VII had died. His funeral was the largest gathering of royals ever - royals who would soon be tearing each other to pieces in World War I. Oh, and down in Mexico, the corrupt mexican president Porfirio Diaz stepped down and went into exile in May, 1911, after northern mexico revolted in response to him imprisoning his 1910 presidential opponent, Francisco Madero. This was actually not the end, but the beginning, of a bloody revolution that would last the next 10 years.
Domestically, the GOP had been split by the feud between Taft and Roosevelt, opening the way for the Democrats to win control of Washington D.C. for the first time in 18 years. The United states was experiencing a popular demand for progressive reform. Just one year earlier, 146 workers burned to death when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory caught fire because management had kept the doors locked to prevent workers from taking breaks. People wanted change, and Wilson was about to deliver it for them.
In this episode, I’m going to talk about three Woodrow’s.
Woodrow the progressive.
Woodrow the reactionary.
And Woodrow on the world stage.
that’s a good framing to get into the good, the bad, and the *exhale* woah-what-the-hell-was-that of Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson started his administration by calling for a special session of Congress to address his economic priorities. And he immediately showed how different he was from his predecessor, William Howard Taft.
Remember, Taft had also called a special session of Congress. He’d written a note about what he wanted from it, and then he’d stayed totally out of it and ended up getting legislation that made nobody happy.
Wilson, a historian, learned from this recent example and took the opposite approach - he got WAY involved.
On April 8, 1913, Woodrow Wilson did something that no president had done in 112 years - he walked over to the Capital building and delivered a personal public address to Congress. This hadn’t been tried since Thomas Jefferson abolished the practice, saying it smacked of Monarchy, but Wilson, who had studied Jefferson, thought TJ’s real reason for ending the practice was that TJ was a terrible public speaker. And Wilson was a great public speaker.
We haven’t really talked about this yet, but Wilson was really friggin good at Rhetoric. Wilson had always had a romanticized notion that public speaking had a tremendous power to propel a good argument to victory. Think of any sports movie where the coach gives a halftime speech to rally the team and win the game - that’s how Wilson thought politics worked.
In 1913, Wilson gave a six-minute speech to Congress in which he urged representatives to lower tariffs, pass an income tax, abolish monopolies, and pass the economic agenda he’d campaigned on.
And then he kept up the pressure by accidentally inventing the presidential press conference.
The story goes that, less than two weeks into the presidency, Wilson’s secretary invited all the members of the press to come meet the president and chat with them a few minutes. Wilson had expected to meet each reporter one at a time so he could get to know them individually, but instead all 125 reporters were led into his office at once. Wilson wasn’t sure what to do, so he gave a speech! And then he saw it appear in all the papers and he realized, hey, I should do that more often. By holding those frequent press conferences, Wilson controlled what was being discussed in the press. The entire debate over his progressive agenda occurred on his terms.
Within 12 months, Wilson got everything he’d asked for and more.
On September 9, Congress passed the Underwood-Simmons Tariff act, cutting the average tariff by 25% and introducing a progressive income tax of 1-7% on earnings. Anyone earning less than $3,000 - equivalent to roughly 70,000 today, wouldn’t pay anything.
Wilson also secured a federal trade commission, to police unfair competitive practices; a new anti-trust act, which banned price discrimination, anti-competitive mergers, and made strikes, boycotts, and labor unions legal; an 8-hour workday limit for any companies engaged in interstate commerce, and established the federal reserve, which gave the government new tools to battle economic storms in the future.
It’s an incredible resume of policy achievement. But, if I’m being honest, it wasn’t just the accidental discovery of press conferences that made it all possible. He kinda did it by signing a devil’s bargain with segregationists in the south.
That’s right, it’s time to talk about our second Woodrow - Woodrow the reactionary.
Woodrow Wilson had… always been a bit of a racist. When he was president of Princeton, he’d banned the admission of black students. As president of the United States? Well, he didn’t change his stripes.
Just months into Wilson’s administration, the two cabinet officials who were in charge of negotiating all that progressive stuff with Congress started segregating their workforces. These were teams that had worked together, black and white, for decades, and all of a sudden they were being told, nope, you’re segregated. Historian Patrica O’Toole isn’t alone in speculating that the two negotiators segregated their workforces in return for southern support of Wilson’s progressive agenda. That 8-hour work day, that anti-trust act, that progressive income tax - they came with a cost, and that cost was the hopes and dreams of hard-working African Americans.
And that’s not where the bullcrap of the Wilson administration stopped.
After the United States entered World War 1 - I’ll get more into that in a minute - Wilson established the “Committee of Public Information,” which was dedicated to censorship and propaganda. The CPI whipped the country into such a war fever that opponents of the war were forced to kiss the American flag, anti-war churches were burned, and the University of Texas fired all the foreign-born Germans on its staff.
The Ku Klux Klan, which had been killed by President Grant in 1871, was reborn, spurred by the white supremacist propaganda film “Birth of a Nation,” based on a book written by Wilson’s friend and infamously screened at the white house.
75 small newspapers were censored for not being “pro war” enough and saw the U.S. post office raise their postal rates 800%, effectively killing them and intimidating the rest of the press into touting the president’s line.
In 1918, Wilson’s Attorney General pushed for and got a sedition act that allowed him to jail and fine anyone who spoke against the war and spy on American’s mail. The anti-war socialist party was attacked particularly fiercely and its leader, our old friend Eugene Debs, was thrown in jail.
Now, some of that was blatantly unconstitutional and some of it was just dickish. But Wilson apologists would like you to know, he felt really bad about it. After segregating the federal government, Wilson felt so bad he spent a week in bed. Poor guy. And when the sedition act squashed free speech, well, Wilson just felt terrible. Seriously, that’s what they say and that’s what’s recorded. Wilson’s defense is, he’d appointed men to handle these issues - the negotiations with congress, or to run his justice department - and he was just following their advice. But, as a later president would say, the buck stops here. The president is the person responsible.
So what’s that say about Wilson? Oh no, he felt bad. Wilson could have stopped it. But he didn’t. Because, even though he’s often thought of as one of the most powerful presidents in history, he might have been one of the weakest ones.
Which brings us to the third Woodrow, the international Woodrow.
Wilson’s famous 1916 reelection rallying cry was “He kept us out of war.”
Which is really funny. Because he might have invaded more countries than any other president.
In 1915, Wilson sent marines into Haiti to restore order favorable to American business during a revolution. In 1916, he did the same to the Dominican Republic. In 1914, Nicaragua. In 1914, he occupied the Mexican port of Veracruz during the Mexican revolution, and then in 1916, he invaded again to chase Mexican revolutionary / bandit Pancho Villa.
That’s not exactly the resume of a “he kept us out of war” candidate.
And then, there was World War I.
World War I was different from all those others. The United States had stayed out of European affairs since George Washington, in his farewell address, warned against getting involved over there. Putzing around the Americas? That had been cool since President James Monroe cooked up the Monroe doctrine in 1823. But Europe? Fughettaboutit.
And so Wilson tried to stay out of the European war. He declared neutrality and dreamed of playing the role of peacemaker. But… he also might have just been a bit distracted.
In the summer of 1914, when everybody was declaring war on everybody, Wilson’s wife, Ellen, died of Bright’s disease - the same disease that killed Chester Arthur - and Wilson was thunderstruck. Like. Totally frozen. He told an aid he wished someone would shoot him. The world was going to hell and he just wasn’t all there.
Until, eight months later, he met Edith Bolling Galt, a charming, electric car-driving widow 16 years his junior, who he proposed to after 8 weeks.
Yup! He lost his wife. Was so devastated that he was hardly paying attention to one half of Europe declaring war on the other half, and then he met Edith and got engaged in an 8-week span.
Do you know what else happened during that 8-week span? German uboats sank the Lusitania, sending 123 Americans (aaaaand a bunch of weapons the ship was smuggling to the Allies) to the bottom of the sea. But Wilson again seemed to hardly be paying attention because he was too busy writing love letters to Edith - as many as three a day. Even Wilson’s right-hand man, Colonel House, couldn’t help disapproving, saying “It seems the president is wholly absorbed in this love affair and is neglecting practically everything else.”
But, well, you can’t exactly ignore world war 1 forever.
In 1917, everything came to a head. And I mean everything. There’s a good argument to be made that 1917 was the most pivotal, climactic, important year of the 20th century.
So, by 1917, the Central and the Allied powers were exhausted. Both sides had been fighting for three years. Nobody could break the gridlock! Millions were dead and it appeared millions more would die unless someone tried something crazy.
And the Germans decided to do something crazy.
On February 1, 1917, in a bid to starve Britain into submission, the Germans unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare on all vessels crossing the Atlantic. The Germans thought they could sink so many ships that Britain wouldn’t be able to import enough food to feed its people, and at first the plan looked to be working, but then the Brits and Americans made one simple change that defeated the German strategy. Instead of letting ships cross the ocean one at a time, they implemented a convoy system that sent large groups of ships together at a the same time. The reason this worked is that… the ocean is a big place. If you have 1,000 ships out there, the odds of running into any one of them isn’t bad. But if you have all the ships bundled together, it’s really hard to find anything.
Another way to think of it is… have you ever played the children’s game battleship? And have you ever tried the strategy of bunching all your ships together so its really hard for your opponent to find them? Yeah. The strategy you figured out when you were 8 is arguably how Britain won the war.
Before this strategy was implemented, though, the uboats did sink a lot of ships. A lot of … american ships. And on April 2, 1917, Wilson stood before Congress and called for a declaration of war on Germany, which it did by a vote of 82-6 on April 4, 1917. The United States was officially going to war in Europe.
But that wasn’t the only crazy thing the Germans tried. On April 17 - two weeks after the Americans declared war - the desperate Germans got a train car, loaded it full of gold, boarded the windows shut so nobody could see in or out, and then put the Russian expat and socialist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin on the train, and sent it into Russia. The Czar had been toppled a month earlier. A democracy had replaced him – Woodrow Wilson had recognized it! But it was weak. The Germans hoped that Lenin would overthrow the democratic government of Russia and take Russia out of the war.
Over the next 11 months, Lenin did exactly that. Seizing power in November, signing an armistice in December, and officially pulling Russia out of the war in March 1918. Lenin pulled Russia out of World War 1 and gave the world something it had never seen before – a Socialist republic.
But the allies couldn’t really care less about that socialism stuff quite yet. They were still fighting for survival in World War 1 and they were super freaked out about the Russians dropping out of the war.
All those German soldiers who had been fighting on the Eastern Front? They now were free to head west for a climactic showdown. It was a race against time – could the German reinforcements from the east defeat the allies in the west before the United States mobilized enough men to make a difference? Starting on March 21, 1918, the germans threw everything they had at the allied powers, knowing full well that there were no more German boys to offer to the trenches. It would have to be now or never for an imperial german victory.
And it turned out to be never. The German offensive got within 45 miles of Paris before an American army turned it away, and the Germans never got that close again. By August, the final German offensive of World War 1 was running out of steam, and that’s when the allies launched their reserves in a counter attack that effectively ended the war. The Allies’ 100 days’ offensive would see constant gains until an Armistice took hold at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - november 11, 1918 - a date you may recognize as veterans day.
But… an important thing to remember about war is that winning the war is not the same as winning the peace. And though Wilson entered the post-war treaty negotiations with a stronger hand than anyone, he totally blew it, victim to his own hubris and inflexibility.
The strong hand goes back to Wilson’s gift for rhetoric. I don’t think any other president has had such an impact on the way americans view themselves on the world stage since George Washington. Remember, Washington’s final address said “stay out of Europe!” And that had been the final word on that for 120 years. But then Wilson came in. And he painted a new inspirational picture of who Americans could be.
It started with that April 2, 1917 speech calling, for the first time, for the United States to enter World War I. The thing is, Wilson didn’t say, “Those Germans are sinking our boats. That’s unacceptable. Let’s go get them.” What he said was the United States MUST enter the war to, quote “Make the world safe for democracy.”
And Wilson kept building on that rhetorical momentum. On January 8, 1918 – months before the final German assault and nearly a year before the war’s end – Wilson gave a speech where he laid out what the postwar world order should look like. It’s known as “the 14 points.”
Many of these points were interrelated, but the big hits basically boiled down to:
This was unprecedented. Wars were supposed to be fought for selfish national interests. Britain and France, with their global empires, were certainly expecting a financial and territorial pay-day in return for the millions of lives lost. But here’s Wilson, saying no, the United States is in this war for the small guy. The Polish farmer who hasn’t had a country since 1795. The Arab Bedouin who had been ruled by the Ottomans since 1520. There was even vague language about adjusting colonial claims based on “the interests of the populations concerned,” which everyone in those colonies thought meant freedom.
When Wilson arrived in Europe for the post-war negotiations, the mobs welcomed him like he was the messiah.
But the leaders of France and Britain? They were less impressed.
“God himself was content with 10 commandments,” said France’s savvy leader, Clemenceau. “Wilson modestly inflicted 14 points upon us… the 14 commandments of the most empty theory.”
France had one overarching goal during negotiations - make sure Germany could NEVER threaten her again. The British had other priorities - namely, let’s slow the roll on any of this self determination talk. Major parts of Wilson’s agenda weren’t going anywhere. The small countries and colonies wanted Wilson’s 14 points, but Italy, France, and Britain wanted the same thing they always wanted - land, money, and power.
And so Wilson yielded these other positions. He surrendered on self determination. He let France impose disastrous reparation demands on Germany. He let France and Britain carve up the Ottoman Empire. And he let Britain, France and Japan take Germany’s overseas colonies. He even partnered with the British to make sure the league of nations charter didn’t have any language about the equality of races, as Japan had requested. Because, you know, Wilson’s racist. Wilson retreated to defending the one thing he wanted most - the establishment of a league of nations.
And France and Britain gave it to him.
But the opposition party back home… that was a different matter.
The republican party, led by Theodore Roosevelt’s old ally, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, rallied against the League of Nations. They had questions - how was this league of nations going to keep the peace anyway? The League’s charter said that if any member was attacked, every other nation would rise to repel the attacker. Did this usurp Congress’ constitutional duty to declare war? Would American boys be forced to go fight in faraway places they didn’t care a whit about? This was the heart of the opposition.
And the thing is… Wilson kinda brought it upon himself. He refused to invite any republican senators to the Paris Peace conference, where the League of Nations charter was being drawn up. He didn’t write any of them for input or advice to flatter them or bring them along with his way of thinking. When he did get back to Washington, he invited some senators to a dinner where he told them the language in the charter was final and there would be no room for debate. He was dictating instead of listening. And when you’re dictating, you’re kind of being a dictator.
When senator lodge signaled his opposition to the league charter, Wilson chose political war over political compromise, telling a group of democrats, “Get the true American pattern of war paint and a real hatchet and go out on the war path and get a collection of scalps that has never been excelled in the history of American warfare.”
As Wilson dedicated himself wholly to the passage of the League of Nation’s, the other terms of the Paris Peace conference increasingly got away from him.
U.S. Secretary of State Lansing wrote at the time, “The president has been no match for (British prime minister) Lloyd George and Clemenceau … the president has been outplayed and persuaded to do a lot of things he would six months ago have flatly refused to do. … we have the great powers dictating a peace; a victor’s peace; we have them organizing a league ruled by them; we have a treaty drafted by them, of which the lesser powers do not even know the terms, nor will they, except in the form of a summary, until the German delegates receive the text … I wonder what verdict history will pass upon this epoch-making Congress of the nations.”
The treaty of Paris that emerged from negotiations set the stage for some of the United States’ greatest conflicts of the 20th century. Germany was handed a bill of reparations so large that it would tank Europe’s economy and destroy the fledgling democratic German government trying to pay it, setting the stage for the great depression and the rise of nazism decades later.
But the Germans weren’t the only ones disappointed. Remember all those colonial peoples I mentioned, who thought Wilson and his 14 points meant a brighter future for them? One of them, a 29-year-old vietnamese man who dreamed of ending France’s occupation and forging an independent vietnam, was in Paris that summer and wrote letters to Wilson and the other world leaders calling for Vietnamese self-determination. His letters went unanswered. His name was Ho Chi Min. And we will be hearing from him again.
When the Paris peace treaty was handed down unto the world in June, 1919, there wasn’t much the world could do but sigh in collective disappointment and accept it. But when the league of nations charter was signed that month and sent to the participatory nations to ratify it, there was something Wilson’s republican opponents could do.
Senator Lodge had successfully turned much of the country against the League of Nations over his concerns that it could force the United States into wars it didn’t want to fight. Lodge had also landed on a tactic for defeating the treaty’s ratification - he proposed adding reservations to the treaty. A reservation wouldn’t actually even change the treaty. It was just kind of an official national note of “I don’t like this mutual defense bit, but I’m signing it anyway.” This was the one Republican demand, and if Wilson accepted it, he could have his league of nations exactly as he wanted it.
But, for some crazy reason, Wilson said no.
Part of this was probably… arrogance. Petulence. A childish desire to just force the issue and get exactly what you want.
But part of this might have also been, his health’s about to take a nosedive.
Wilson set out on a whistlestop tour of the country to rally support from the treaty. But he never finished the tour.
On September 25, 1919, Wilson collapsed after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado. His health, often precarious, was suddenly in steep decline. He was raced back to Washington D.C. to recover, but he suffered a serious stroke on October 2 instead. The stroke left wilson partially paralyzed. Worse, doctors believe it impacted his judgment, which may have played a role in his intransigence over the League of Nations charter, and yet, he continued to preside.
But not well. With Wilson effectively out of the picture, the League was done-for. Senator Lodge successfully defeated the ratification treaty 38-53 on Nov. 19, 1919. The united states would retreat behind its oceans again, and there it would stay until the rise of fascism and military dictatorship in Germany and Japan pulled it out into the world again.
The final year and a half of Wilson’s presidency were a rudderless disappointment. With Wilson sequestered in his White House residence, unable to lead, but unable to let go, the nation lacked leadership during its precarious transition from a centralized war economy back to a decentralized peace economy. As a result, things started slipping through the cracks. Inflation took off like a rocket. A recession took hold. Labor unrest followed. No fewer than 20 race riots broke out as white Americans attacked their black neighbors. Anarchists attempted to assassinate attorney general Mitchell Palmer, John D Rockefeller, and more than a dozen others with mail bombs.
With Wilson effectively out of the picture, the overzealous Mitchell Palmer, angling for the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination on a law and order platform, reacted like a dog off its leash. Palmer launched a series of raids that winter that resulted in more than 3,000 arrests and 556 deportations, often of dubious merit and brutal methodology. Public opinion soon turned against the raids, ending Palmer’s presidential ambitions and contributing to the formation of the ACLU in 1920.
Needless to say, as Wilson’s second term neared its end, things weren’t too hot. Inflation, a recession, race riots, the first red scare, and the president was being propped up by smoke and mirrors as those closest to him pretended he hadn’t suffered a debilitating stroke.
When the Democratic national convention of 1920 came around, Wilson was convinced of the futility of running again. A man named James Cox was nominated instead, with a young, promising assistant naval secretary named Franklin Roosevelt as his vice presidential nominee. But they couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and Wilson, and the Democrats were again driven from power.
Wilson lived another three years, being tended by his wife Edith the whole time. He dreamed of running again in 1924, but everyone knew it was folly. He eventually died of stroke complications on February 3, 1924. He was 67 years old.
So how had America changed during the 8 years of the Wilson administration? Well, politically, A TON. Four constitutional amendments were passed during Wilson’s administration, and Wilson had almost nothing to do with ANY of them. Which is really weird! I mean, we’ve passed 27 amendments total and the first 10 are the bill of rights. Four in one administration is crazy. They included:
Also, Wilson nominated and the senate confirmed the first jewish american to the supreme court, judge Louis Brandeis, one of the great advocates of free speech and a right to privacy.
As for how the world had changed during Wilson’s presidency, man, how long do you got? World War I resulted in the end of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. The Mexican revolution was finally over. The Russian empire was gone, replaced with a soviet one. Socialism was on the world stage now, though it would soon be corrupted to old-fashioned dictatorship. Red scares, reactionary fascism, famine - it’s going to be a rough 20th century.
And those ideas about national self determination for colonized people? They weren’t going away. Down in India, a lawyer named Mahatma Ghandi was launching a “non-cooperation movement” - the start of a drive that would one day lead to India’s independence from the British Empire.
But, let’s come back to Wilson.
I’d you’re going to remember 3 things about Wilson, I recommend
As for what we can learn from Woodrow Wilson, I’m going to go with… know when you need to retire. You might say this is a lesson some of our current octogenarian senators could benefit from. After Wilson suffered his stroke on October 2, 1919, he was never the same again, and yet he clung to the presidency, doing a great disservice to the nation in the process. This not only contributed to the defeat of his league of nations - might a healthy president have found a compromise that could have secured its passage? - it also meant the nation was rudderless as it transitioned from war to peace and the nation started to come apart as a result.
Every leader needs to accept that there will come a time when they need to step down, pass the baton, and trust someone else to lead. Succession planning is as important as any other aspect of leadership, or all you’ve accomplished could be washed away when you are gone.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Oscar Brand from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made, by Patricia O’Toole.
In our next episode, let’s talk about that spanish flu! An interview with John Barry, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.