Book Review Thursday – Woodrow Wilson, A Biography

Woodrow Wilson - A Biography

Woodrow Wilson – A Biography
by John Milton Cooper, Jr.

It’s probably safe to say that the author is a big fan of Woodrow Wilson, having written more than one book on the subject of Wilson and the early 20th century.  He is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, who specializes in late 19th- and early 20th-century American diplomatic history.

Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations
Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920
The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
The Vanity of Power: American Isolationism and the First World War, 1914-1917

I wanted to read this book to find out more about what made Woodrow Wilson tick and why did he become a progressive.  I was also curious to see if I could find any information about his ancestry, because I’ve been told he is somehow distantly related to my family (that I’ve not been able to trace, however).

Woodrow Wilson was a political neophyte, having served just two years as governor of New Jersey prior to becoming President of the United States.  His background before politics was academia, serving as President of Princeton University.

Some of his actions might remind you of another president (or two or three).  Here are a few I read about in this book:

  • According to the author, many people thought of Wilson as a “secular messiah or a naive, woolly-headed idealist”.
  • He did almost nothing to address the inequalities encountered by African Americans, even when racial violence broke out he said little or nothing.
  • His foreign policy included leading the country through World War I (although he did try for an extended time to avoid involving the United States in the overseas war).  He wrote plans for a “new world order” and yet, didn’t see himself as over-reaching.
  • During the war, Wilson pushed for laws to restrict free speech and civil liberties — even refusing to intervene when the Postmaster General denied use of the Postal Service if used to express a dissenting opinion.  Congress had passed the Espionage Act.  A series of amendments known as the Sedition Act were subsequently passed, “that broadly prohibited many kinds of expression in speech and print and conferred censorship powers on the postmaster general.”
  • He didn’t seem to be a fan of constitutional government, but rather favored a parliamentary style of governing.
  • From the book (p. 442-443, Kindle version):  Remarking to his brother-in-law, Wilson said, “Now the world is going to change radically, and I am satisfied that governments will have to do many things which are now left to individuals and corporations.  I am satisfied for instance that the government will have to take over all the great natural resources[;] … all the water power; all the coal mines; all the oil fields, etc.  They will have to be government-owned.”  He then added, “Now if I should say that outside, people would call me a socialist, but I am not a socialist.”
  • The League of Nations was a major part of Wilson’s idea of a “new world order”.  Throughout the process of treaty negotiations (Versailles Treaty) and the formation of the League, Wilson was especially sensitive to racial and cultural differences and prejudices.  It made me think of the Progressive/Liberal tendency to want Utopia or “heaven on earth”.
  • While in Paris, crowds swooned over Wilson, many people wanting to just touch him or shake hands.

Some of his legislative accomplishments included The Federal Reserve, income tax, The Federal Trade Commission and the first child labor law.  After the War he was anxious for the Versailles Treaty to be ratified by the Senate and the League of Nations to be solidly established.  There were many with reservations, in particular, about Article X of the Treaty which gave war powers to the League of Nations (and thus usurping the constitutional powers of the United States Congress).  And, of course, Wilson blamed the Republicans!

While campaigning for treaty ratification, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, which was further complicated by other ailments.  His doctors and colleagues covered for him but it was clear that he wasn’t up to the task of fulfilling his duties as President; however, he did not step aside.

At this point, his actions began to look desperate since it was obvious he was not well at all.  It is certainly conceivable that the effects of the stroke had a huge impact on his emotional well being and his ability to make sound judgments.  My thoughts were that he wanted so desperately to have a “legacy” – not unusual for a President to have those aspirations.  But this one would do damage to the United States, especially in regards to constitutional standards and laws.

There were others who had issues with the Versailles Treaty, most notably Japan and Italy, who both had expansionist plans (as we saw later in World War II).  Germany was certainly not happy with the terms of the Treaty (reparations, territorial concessions), and I believe that it was a bitter pill to swallow, leading to the rise of Hitler and his Nazi regime.

The book is a lengthy one and is obviously well-researched.  My rating below is not a resounding endorsement of the book, however, as I’m not a fan of Woodrow Wilson and his progressivism.  For historical content and value, however, I would bump it up another half star and make it four stars.

What do you think?  Did the Versailles Treaty, with its harsh terms, give rise to Hitler and the Nazis?

Rating:   ★★★-1/2

Everybody have a great day — someday it will be history!

7 Comments

  1. Did the book talk about why he was so progressive?

    I see where the treaty contributed to the the popularity and easy rise of National Socialist German Worker’s Party. I don’t know if we can place 100% of the blame for that on the treaty.

    Reply
    • No, not 100% of the blame, but certainly contributory. Regarding his being so progressive, I think it was just a “trend” of the day… Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft preceded him. Of course, around this time in history (late 1800s and early 1900s) the country was changing culturally and social change was on the rise (women’s suffrage, government regulation, more education population, etc.).

      Reply
  2. Excellent review, I always heard we were related to him but, guess a connection hasn’t Ben found. Have to ask Aunt Joy about that. Take time to rad this people and share please, and Thank you!

    Reply
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