The War to End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson's Leadership | Jeff Bullock

The War to End All Wars

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  Part of the reason for the carnage was that the new technology designed for killing far outpaced the outdated tactics of conventional warfare.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:

“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all of the brains that I can borrow.” - Woodrow Wilson Click To Tweet

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” - Woodrow Wilson Click To Tweet

6 Comments

  1. I agree; history is repeating itself, but in a vastly different world. Wilson is indeed a paradox in thought and action. I would also suggest checking out a periodical, The Wilson Quarterly, as it is at once, intellectually challenging and far ranging in its topics covered.

    Besides being called, “The World War,” we should also recall other contemporary names for WWI were, “The Great War” and “The War To End All Wars.” There certainly is nothing “great” about war and it sure did not end war, but neither did the invention of the crossbow, despite predictions at that time.

    Parallels of isolationism and ethnocentric, xenophobia aside, Wilson was a Progressive (Southern Democrat) that won the presidential election by a sizable electoral and popular vote because the Republican split created a three-way race, e.g. the Bull Moose Party. That was something I was hoping for in 2016, as I could not bring myself to vote “for the lesser of two evils.”

    Besides the concept of the League of Nations failure, emerging into the United Nations, we should not forget another Wilson quote in his request to Congress for a declaration of war, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” This lasting legacy continues to make America act as “policeman of the world” to our peril and continual drain of blood and money into cultures that have no historical framework or values and mores to plug-into democratic governance or capitalism.

    On the other-hand, because the world has become smaller and financially interconnected, I do not know how the United States can just ignore the atrocities governments/groups carryout and starvation/natural catastrophes that occur and not do anything. Then again, I will never forget the blind eye America gave to Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Prague to quash the liberalizing Dubcek government in the face and iron grip of the Cold War USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations. We neither said nor did anything; even after a student, Jan Palach, performed self-immolation in Wenceslas Square as a supreme act of political protest.

    Alas, another world change is Politics… in the nuclear age.

  2. I too believe that history continues to repeat itself with no apparent easy way to break the continous cycle. This past summer I started reading The Federalist Papers and found what was creating turmoil in our relatively new country. Many of the points made by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in these papers to the people of the State of New York at the critical time of ratifying the U.S. Constitution are very much the same today. We can only hope that our leaders of today will apply the values established in 1787 continuously referred to by leaders such as Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and others.

    • Mark,
      Sorry this is so late. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and comments. Yes…history does have a way of repeating itself!
      Jeff

    • Brad,
      Sorry this response is so late. I’ve not yet seen the PBS mini-series, but will need to do so. And, yes….the many paradoxes of our own lives and leadership. Enough said.
      Thanks!
      Jeff

  3. Thanks, Jeffrey. I haven’t read the book, but I watched the PBS mini-series on World War 1 and, in addition to noticing the similarities between the issues of a century ago and today, I, too, was struck by his paradoxes – his strong faith background and high morals, side-by-side with “traditional” views that we would view today as racist, sexist, etc. It may have taken Wilson off of whatever pedestal I might have held him on before, but it also reminded me to consider the paradoxes in my own life and leadership!

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