I am pretty well educated (three degrees from some fancy schools), well traveled and getting a bit long in the tooth. Still, I was stunned last week by an appalling gap in my education: the odious racism of Woodrow Wilson. For most students of foreign affairs, Wilson was a failed idealist who was unable to get the United States to join the League of Nations, his project for world peace. Despite that failure, he is often ranked among the best of U.S. presidents.
In recent weeks, however, Wilson’s image has been recast. His image as an international visionary, promoter of democracy and equality, is being replaced with that of a stone-cold racist, extreme even for his time. This episode is another reminder of the need to remain engaged with our past, to reckon with it and to strike an appropriate balance between honor and opprobrium that serves us as well today as it does that history. It is never right, nor good, to ignore or discard parts of the past that we do not like or would prefer to forget.
Wilson was the 28th president of the U.S., taking office in 1913 and serving eight years, until 1921. He had previously been president of Princeton University, which he used to launch his political career. He revived the Democratic Party in New Jersey when he was elected governor of that state in 1911. He used that position to win national status and standing and parlayed them into a successful run for the White House in the 1912 presidential election.
Wilson’s domestic agenda has been characterized as progressive while his foreign policy rejected (at least rhetorically) the adventurism and imperialism of his GOP predecessors, although he often intervened in Latin America, famously warning that “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”
Wilson is best known for steering his country through World War I, first by remaining neutral and then in 1917 joining the allied effort; his stewardship of the Paris Peace Conference that followed; and his inability to convince the Senate to back U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the multinational body he dreamed up to prevent future conflagrations.
Central to his vision of postwar order was “The Fourteen Points,” a statement of principles intended to guide postwar negotiations. They included open (as opposed to secret) diplomacy, free trade, democracy and self-determination.
Historian Walter Russell Mead identifies four schools of U.S. foreign policy: the Hamiltonian, which emphasized mercantilism or the marriage of capital and the state; the Jeffersonian, which focused on the image that the U.S. projected to the world, a “shining city on a hill”; the Jacksonian, which highlighted the “don’t tread on me” populism that emerged when the country was angered; and the Wilsonian, which pursued bold and sweeping ideals and rested on four pillars: democracy, capitalism, self-determination and collective security.
That idealism was blemished by Wilson’s failure to promote self-determination for the subjugated peoples in Europe’s colonies and his rejection of Japan’s call for equality among all nations — the foundation of true democracy — in the Paris peace talks. I, like many others, thought that his resistance to those proposals reflected a deference to realpolitik and the need to maintain unity among the victorious powers (or a desire to avoid weakening or antagonizing his partners).
Last week I learned that I was wrong — very wrong. Wilson’s antipathy toward those principles was not the product of high-handed political maneuverings or even crude, behind-the-scenes horse-trading, but instead emerged from the simplest and basest of human motivations: racism.
Wilson was an avid supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, and rejected the idea that slave owners should feel “moral guilt” because slaves were treated “indulgently” and “affectionately” by their masters. He believed Southern Black people were an “ignorant and inferior race” who couldn’t be trusted with political power. He resegregated the U.S. government, physically separating the races in offices and replacing many African-American officials with white counterparts.
His attitude toward the Paris negotiations was foreshadowed by “A History of the American People,” a five-volume study published in 1902 that historian Colin Woodward calls “poorly written and shoddily researched.” It labeled immigration “a problem” because new immigrants no longer came from “the sturdy stocks of the North of Europe” but contained “multitudes of men of the lowest classes from the South of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland.” He slurred Chinese people “with their yellow skin and strange, debasing habits of life,” who seemed “hardly fellow men at all, but evil spirits.”
For Wilson, democracy and self-determination applied only to Europeans and Anglo-Saxons; in other words, white people. The result was the League of Nations mandate system for territories of nations that lost World War I. Article 22 of the Peace Treaty of Versailles noted that people living in those areas were not “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” and as a result, their tutelage should be “entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility.”
Perhaps more revealing was Wilson’s response to Japan’s call for the inclusion of the principle of racial equality in the League of Nations mandate, which he opposed because he believed it would require the U.S. to treat all citizens equally within the U.S. While the measure was approved by a 11-5 majority at the conference — no delegation voted against the proposal, but the five did not vote for it — Wilson, who chaired the meeting, declared it had failed because it didn’t pass unanimously, even though there was no such requirement and he passed several other resolutions without unanimous support. (Japan was awarded islands from Germany’s colonial possessions in compensation.)
In the usual telling of this episode, Wilson kills the measure to ensure British support for the League. With a fuller appreciation of Wilson’s thinking and behavior, it is hard not to believe that his racist beliefs didn’t weigh heavily on his thinking as well.
Princeton University has for several years faced calls to remove Wilson’s name from its prestigious School of Public and International Affairs. Last month, the university decided to do so because, as Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber explained, “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.” That toxic legacy is especially damaging to Princeton’s students of color who must daily deal with the message it conveys about them and their place in society.
Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at The New York Times, professes to some schadenfreude at this turn of events, confessing that “When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter.” His anger stemmed from that idealism — “the messianic style that gave us Vietnam and Iraq” — and Wilson’s expansive view of presidential power.
Douthat goes on to observe, however, that we should distinguish the particular from the general, noting that “our monuments and honorifics exist primarily to honor deeds, not to issue canonizations — to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.” The Wilson School extols Wilson’s view of international relations and it exists to train individuals to perpetuate that outlook — not the racism that colored other parts of his life and politics.
My sympathies lie with students (and others) who are conflicted, angered or diminished by Wilson’s racism. While others may disagree and outcomes may differ upon context, we must in this case — and others — acknowledge the wisdom of Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of Oxford, who insists that “hiding our history is not the route to enlightenment.” Even when facing our darkest pasts, we must understand that history and how it emerged. We are never better off ignoring the ugliness of the past, no matter how painful. Only with knowledge can we hope to avoid repeating mistakes and build a better tomorrow.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."