On the Nov. 11 100th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War I, I’m celebrating the heroism of American warriors in Europe. Perhaps 116,000 of them died in that struggle. Their commander in chief, Woodrow Wilson, did not match the quality of their service. During the conflict, Wilson made serious mistakes as a political leader that should never be forgotten.
Wilson’s missteps in wartime were hardly his only defects. His most disgraceful flaw was his racism. Given his high-flown rhetoric as a professor about elevating humankind, Wilson especially stood out in his white supremacy. He was not a man of his time but a throwback. His two predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, had looked far kindlier on African Americans and their rights.
In 1916, Wilson, a Democrat, narrowly won reelection, campaigning under false pretenses with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Privately, however, he knew it was quite possible that he would take the nation into the European struggle soon after starting his second term.
As an academic, Wilson had emphasized the need for presidents to explain military setbacks and other complex or mystifying events to Americans. Yet he spent much of 1917, the first year of U.S. engagement in the war, in kingly isolation, rarely using his luminous oratorical gifts to explain to his countrymen why they needed to make severe sacrifices for a conflict that wasn’t an obvious, direct threat to America’s national security.
Wilson, who preened as a civil libertarian, persuaded Congress to pass the Espionage Act, giving him extraordinary power to retaliate against Americans who opposed him and his wartime behavior. That same law today enables presidents to harass their political adversaries. Wilson’s Justice Department also convicted almost a thousand people for using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” against the government, the military or the flag. Wilson is an excellent example of how presidents can exploit wars to increase authoritarian power and restrict freedom, some arguing that criticizing the commander in chief amounts to criticizing soldiers in the field.
In the 1918 midterms, with the Great War heading to its climax, Wilson shamelessly exploited the military struggle for domestic politics, urging voters to support his party “for the sake of the nation itself” because Republicans were trying to take “the conduct of the war out of my hands.” This cheap maneuver backfired. Roosevelt and Taft charged that Wilson was asking for “unlimited control over the settlement of a peace that will affect them for a century.” Partly out of disgust with Wilson’s presumptuousness, voters switched control of both the House and Senate to the Republicans.
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I regard Wilson as one of the worst presidents in American history.
(Note: I am still traveling and comments remain on moderation. I hope to be back on a more regular basis Wednesday.)