One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went to the Capitol to secure support to commit the United States to what became known as World War I. Anyone who visits Washington, D.C. today and tours the historical sites will see a memorial to “The World War,” the expectation being that what we now know as WWI was it. Over 35 million people—soldiers and civilians—lost their lives during this four years of carnage.
That’s roughly 24,000 people a day, or about 17 people every minute. Part of the reason for the carnage was that the new technology designed for killing far outpaced the outdated tactics of conventional warfare. The introduction of chemical weapons, not to mention the superior technology of bombs and bullets, made for death and destruction like never before.
A Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson titled Wilson is a thorough, well-researched, and exhaustive introduction to this period of American—and world—history. Berg chronicle’s Wilson’s life from the time when he, as a young boy, along with the rest of Augusta, Georgia, witnessed with shame as Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, was being marched through the streets of the city while being surrounded by federal guards, to Wilson’s signing the Treaty of Versailles in France on June 28, 1919.
He fairly represents the political debate that surrounded America’s coming to terms with the fact that it was now on the verge of being a world leader rather than an isolationist country, and the maturation of Wilson’s own thinking from a leader whose second term election slogan was “I kept you out of the War” to being the first President to lead the United States into a World War. Berg brings to life such towering figures as Teddy Roosevelt, former President and perpetual Wilson critique, and John Cabot Lodge, Wilson’s other nemesis; the senior senator from Massachusetts and leader in the effort to block the President from signing the Treaty of Versailles—the treaty where he, Wilson, was the primary author.
There is no question that Wilson was a brilliant man. He came from a family of Presbyterian ministers who served in both the United States, and in Scotland. But rather than pursue the ministry, Wilson first studied the law, and eventually settled on earning a Ph.D. in a new academic field called political science.
After achieving his degree from Princeton University, he went on to teach at several small colleges, working his way back to Princeton where he was easily the most popular member of the faculty. Wilson became President of Princeton in which capacity he served for over a decade, and then became Governor of New Jersey, a post he held for under two years before he was elected President of the United States.
Like many presidents before and after him, Wilson ran on a domestic policy agenda but ended up spending the majority of his time on international affairs. He created an income tax to pay for the War, was President when Prohibition began, and oversaw the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which secured the right for women to vote.
He was the most powerful man in the world for about six years of his presidency but then, after suffering a debilitating stroke and a humiliating defeat, he spent the last year-and-a-half of his presidency in relative isolation. The Senate’s failure to ratify the Treaty and join the League of Nations, ultimately, killed him. Wilson died at the age 67—less than three years after leaving office.
So why is this book about Woodrow Wilson important?
Candidly, prior to reading Berg’s biography, I knew very little about either Woodrow Wilson or this period of American history. A friend of mine gave me a copy of the book and, after a start and stop or two, I couldn’t put it down.
In retrospect, I was captured by many of the parallels between that time in American history one-hundred years ago—and today. Debates between nationalism and broader world engagement, existential concerns about other cultures (xenophobia), technology replacing the jobs of factory workers, the economy, and the relationship between the “free market” and “government controls” were all as real then as they are now.
Though not a direct parallel, there are parts of history that are repeating itself, and from which we can learn.
Wilson can best be described as a complex leader. He was as humble as he was arrogant; as privileged as he was tempered by having spent much time in “sorrow’s kitchen.” He was the last President to write his own speeches, and he gave many of them, most of them as brilliant as they were eloquent, without the aid of amplification or mass distribution.
Had the radio existed, Wilson, rather than Roosevelt, would have introduced the “Fireside Chat.” He could often be cruel and condescending. He was incapable of letting go of a grudge and, after his stroke, he became more paranoid and petty. The Presidency made him—and the Presidency broke him. End of story.
Nevertheless, today’s leaders can learn a lot by reading this biography of Woodrow Wilson. It will take an investment of time and intellectual curiosity, as most constructive endeavors usually do. By the conclusion, I suspect that you’ll come away, as I did, having witnessed a paradox in leadership; a person who was as visionary as he was naïve; a well-intended prophet of his time, before his time, who, on balance, was more often right than he was wrong.
Through him, you’ll experience the maturation of our nation from adolescence to adulthood, and all of the challenges and opportunities that come with it.
Some well-known quotations attributed to Woodrow Wilson: