"Woodrow Wilson: A Biography"
By John Milton Cooper, Jr.
andom House, 2009, 702 pages, $35
President Woodrow Wilson, a confidant confided in his diary shortly after World War I, "will probably go down in history as the greatest figure of his time, and I hope, of all time." As it turned out, such a prediction could hardly be farther off the mark. Even before the Armistice, Wilson's political fortunes faltered. The 1918 elections delivered a severe blow, resulting in a Republican sweep. And American participation in his cherished League of Nations his hope to prevent future wars through collaboration among nations perished at the hands of Senatorial opponents. Wilsonian internationalism quickly gave way to an intense isolationism that viewed U.S. involvement in World War I as a grave mistake and sought to keep the nation out of the next European war. Wilson's final years in office and in retirement were bitter ones for a man whose grandiose dreams had been utterly dashed.
John Milton Cooper, Jr., a presidential scholar and author of a monumental new biography of the 28th president, seeks to rescue Wilson's reputation and restore him to his place as one of America's finest leaders. Wilson was a bold, sophisticated idealist who could be "hardheaded" and pragmatic, he argues; his domestic record in office makes him "one of the greatest legislative leaders ever to occupy the White House." A man who had given little thought to world affairs became a resolute wartime president whose shortening of the Great War meant that "hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people owed their lives to him."
The son of a Presbyterian minister who was born and raised in the South, Wilson rejected the ministry as a career and walked away from the practice of law to pursue life in the academy. With a doctorate in political science from Johns Hopkins, Wilson published well-regarded books, taught at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton, and became president of that institution in 1902. Determined to transform Princeton's reputation for a "lack of seriousness," he raised money, upgraded curriculum, and challenged social discrimination by Princeton's clubs. The latter in particular got him into trouble with alumni and staff. His impatience, rigidity, and "combativeness toward critics" all characteristics he displayed later as president provoked his opponents into successfully blocking some of his ambitious plans.
Leaving behind academic combat for real-world politics, Wilson became governor of New Jersey in 1910. Allied earlier with the Democratic party's conservative wing, Wilson now donned the mantle of "progressive" and joined forces with reformers in the heyday of the "Progressive Era." Both former conservative sponsors and "skeptical progressives" accused him of opportunism. Recognizing a degree of "opportunism and disingenuousness," Cooper finds the charge ultimately misleading, for Wilson's "intellect," commitment to ideas, approval of governmental activism, and "democratic vision" all played a part in his transformation.
The rise of Wilson the politician was meteoric. As "the most articulate person in American politics," Cooper contends, the professor was a natural on the campaign trail. Within two years of reaching the governor's office, he was selected as the Democratic nominee for president on the forty-sixth ballot. Winning the presidency with 42% of the popular vote in a three way race involving Republican President William Howard Taft and former Republican turned Bull-Moose candidate Theodore Roosevelt. Four years later, he again emerged victorious, this time in "one of the closest presidential contests in American history."
In Cooper's view, those victories were well deserved. In his first term as president, he argues, Wilson achieved an "awesome record of legislative accomplishments." His "New Freedom" involved the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Federal Trade Commission and the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act. According to Cooper, these feats would rank Wilson "among the greatest legislative presidents in the twentieth century, perhaps in all of American history. His only rivals would be Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson." In terms of enduring impact on the lives of Americans, however, Wilson's more technocratic reforms pale in comparison to Roosevelt's and Johnson's. Indeed, unlike his democratic successors, Cooper's Wilson appears cool and distant from the lives of the Americans he purportedly sought to improve.
Wilson's wartime record earned him his controversial place in history. Cooper embraces Wilson's internationalism and his "deep and sophisticated vision of war and peace." By bringing America into the European war, Wilson deserved "honor and gratitude," he insists. Deeply involved in the treaty negotiations to build an enduring peace, Wilson failed to convince his Congressional opponents of the wisdom of his vision.
In the "biggest political fight of his life," Wilson didn't help his own cause by refusing to compromise with Senate Republicans who held the fate of his treaty in their hands. Suffering first from "fatigue and nervous strain," and then a debilitating stroke and influenza, Wilson lost control of the debate. Now incapable of exercising the responsibilities of the presidency, Wilson was shielded from public scrutiny by his wife and doctor. Alternately defiant and delusional, he suffered dramatic mood swings; at times, he seemed "to verge on mental instability, if not insanity." By "any reasonable standard," Cooper concludes, "Wilson was not functioning as president." He lost the League fight and ended his days, in an admirer's view, a "broken, ruined old man."
As admiring as this biography is, Cooper does acknowledge Wilson's widely recognized flaws. On matters of race, Wilson was insensitive to African Americans' call for civil rights. When bloody race riots erupted during and after the war, the president said virtually nothing; when his cabinet officers sought to reintroduce segregation into the offices of the federal government, Wilson looked the other way.
Equally disturbing was Wilson's wartime record on civil liberties. Perhaps the president did fear the "war's effects at home." Once led into war, he predicted, the people would "forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance." But it was Wilson who surely forgot or ignored the nation's heritage of civil liberties. The President backed legislation that effectively criminalized dissent, allowing his cabinet officers to crush radical labor activists, arrest and imprison socialists, and squelch anti-war sentiment; even after the war he expressed no sympathy for granting amnesty to those imprisoned for their beliefs. In 1920, at his first cabinet meeting in seven months following his stroke, he instructed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer who needed no encouragement "not to let the country see red." The anti-radical crackdown continued. Finally, Wilson exhibited little leadership on the domestic front following the war. The country had descended into crisis: massive inflation, rising unemployment, race riots, and an unprecedented strike wave afflicted the nation. Wilson distracted by foreign affairs and then debilitated by illness did little. "If there have been times in the nation's history that have cried out for strong presidential leadership, this was one of them," Cooper concludes. "Instead, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came silence."
Yet Cooper, more often than not, lets Wilson off the hook. Exhaustion and ill health, a tendency to delegate too much authority, his fear of political passion, his southern upbringing these serve not merely to contextualize Wilson's moral and political failings but almost to excuse them. A touch of defensiveness comes across in Cooper's responses to Wilson's contemporary and scholarly critics. Do Wilson's "sins of omission and commission outweigh the good he did, or do his great words and deeds overshadow his transgressions?" he asks? Admitting to those sins, Cooper's answer is clearly the latter. If one is pressed to answer this question, readers of this biography can find more than enough evidence to arrive at a conclusion different from Cooper's.
Cooper's strengths lie in his bringing his subject to life and portraying the world through his eyes. As a study of Wilson's personal and political life, the meticulously researched "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography" is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. The biography, though, is far more about the man than his times, for the broader world of Progressive-era politics, the animating spirit of radicalism and reform, and the fierce social conflicts that divided Americans do not come fully into focus.
Eric Arnesen is professor of history at The George Washington University.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun