TOWARDS the close of Woodrow Wilson's campaign for reëlection to the Presidency of the United States, at a moment when prospects seemed unpromising, he remarked: "As compared with the verdict of the next 25 years, I do not care a peppercorn about the verdict of 1916." When those 25 years had passed, the verdict, if taken, would have been blurred by our intervention in the Second World War. How far has the situation been clarified at the present moment, 32 years after Wilson's death, 100 years after his birth? In the case of Abraham Lincoln, the perspective of far less elapsed time authorized his admission to the Valhalla of American greatness. The same is true, with varying emphasis, of the founding fathers of the Republic. But since the death of Lincoln, no clear-cut agreement on immortal greatness in the case of any American President has been achieved.

The claims of Wilson to inclusion in the select group cannot be summarily brushed aside. The significance of the reforms he advocated in vital phases of American life is hardly disputed. The nation has soberly accepted the purposes and the policies which at the time that he first urged them aroused a spirit of bitter controversy. This is true of his educational leadership and of the legislative program of his first term as President of the United States. The tide of history has made it true of the last phase, Wilson's heroic effort to bring the United States into a system of international coöperation. With little dissent, Americans have come to take it for granted that the counterpart of the League, the United Nations, is to be what Allen Dulles has called "our workshop of peace." Whatever the rebuffs at Princeton and in the United States Senate, succeeding years have vindicated his vision and his policy.

Thus it is eminently fitting that as political passions have cooled and personal prejudice softened, fresh consideration should be given to the position in American history that belongs to Woodrow Wilson. The verdict of public opinion as well as of the historian has not yet been rendered in unmistakable form. In what category and at what level is he finally to be placed?

The importance of Wilson as educational leader has become definitely established with the passing of the years. That leadership has not attracted the public attention in like degree with his direction of the movement for international organization. But in itself, and if he had never entered politics, it would have assured him permanent distinction. He brought an educational ideal to the college world at a moment when Princeton and the nation most needed it. It was not original with him, but there was no one who expressed it so clearly and persuasively. His courage in the rejection of the free elective system was matched by his insistence upon teaching quality which would stimulate the student to sincere interest in and positive enjoyment of study. Thus the main circus was to regain its dominance over the extracurricular sideshows. His preceptorial plan was only one of various methods by which the curiosity and intellectual effort of the student might be aroused. But it caught the imagination of the academic world. The enthusiasm of the young preceptors aroused their colleagues in other institutions. The power of Wilson's provocative arguments for the serious values of college life was infectious. Hence the influence of the Princeton experience served impressively in the general recrudescence of literary and intellectual interest on the American campus.

The controversies which Wilson encountered at Princeton would doubtless have been accepted by most college executives as an inevitable irritation incidental to the office. What seemed to him as defeat, however, coincided with the opportunity to enter politics, his early dream. Thus began, with his success in New Jersey and his astounding advance to the Presidency of the United States, the second phase of his public service. As at Princeton, the earlier aspects of his national political leadership were characterized by almost unbroken success. Indeed, no period of his career since his teaching days has aroused so little controversy and so much praise among historians. They are agreed upon the courage and skill with which he translated an ambitious program of reform into legislation.

In his formulation of the principles of the New Freedom, as well as in his successful demand upon Congress for their immediate political application, Wilson closely approached his own ideals of leadership as laid down in his essay of 1890. His sensitive ear caught the tone of national needs and the trend of popular hopes, which were given form and direction by his persuasive rhetoric. The program was progressive in its farewell to laissez-faire; it was conservative in its antisocialistic insistence that the authority of government should be used not for the operation, but for the liberation of business. Governor Stevenson points out that "he taught us to distinguish between governmental action that takes over the functions formerly discharged by individuals and governmental action that restores opportunity for individual action." Hence the significant subtitle of his collected campaign speeches: "A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People." He sought in the national arena the equality of opportunity which he had enjoined upon Princeton, the enlargement of the frontiers of freedom which was to be the watchword of his international crusade.

The legislation of the first two years of his Presidency dealt with crucial and contentious issues: the tariff, currency reform, the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act. Wilson's success in achievement in the face of bitter opposition astounded his contemporaries. "This man who was regarded as a pedagogue, a theorist," said Chauncey Depew, "is accomplishing the most astounding practical results."

Of greater historical importance than any contemporary estimate is the almost complete endorsement, over the years, of Wilson's reform program, one that went far towards creating a new social and economic atmosphere. The Federal Reserve is universally taken for granted as the pediment of our national financial structure. The use of federal authority to assure competitive conditions in trade has become a permanent aspect of our economic life. Public opinion has come to accept emancipation of labor, in its organization for the betterment of working conditions, from the restrictions designed to control monopolistic tendencies of capital. The solid permanence of Wilson's legislative achievement is impressive.

The march of events has brought it about that Wilson's position in history would be determined not by the contribution he made to American legislation, important as that was, but rather by the rôle he played on the international stage. There were three well-defined acts in the drama which began with the outbreak of the European War in August 1914. The first covered the period of American neutrality, the second that of the active participation of the United States in the war, the third that of the Peace Conference and its aftermath. Wilson's attitude and tactics underwent considerable change during the course of these three periods. But from beginning to end his main purpose was not altered. He was determined to bring the conscience and the power of America into a cooperative effort that would everywhere secure the liberty of all peoples. Whether as a neutral or belligerent or a peace commissioner, Wilson looked upon himself as leader in a crusade for international freedom.

A sense of responsibility to the rest of the world underlay his policy of determined neutrality. His emotions boiled with protest at the suggestion that he chose neutrality merely as the road to safety. It was imposed upon us, rather, in fulfillment of our duty as the only great neutral at peace, "the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend." His insistence was constant, and today it is recognized as sincere, that we would serve better by remaining outside the conflict. His determination to protect the rights of America against the attacks of the German submarines and the infringements of the British blockade led him finally to espouse the movement for national preparedness. But his call for military armament stressed not merely our rights, but our responsibility for the salvation of the equipoise of the world and "the redemption of the affairs of mankind."

Hence his persistent eagerness in the search for effective methods of mediation, and his constant encouragement to Colonel House in the effort to discover some basis for a compromise peace. Wilson's personal sympathy for the cause of the Entente Allies did not at any time during the period of our neutrality disturb his conviction that such a peace would prove the only sure basis of a permanent settlement. This conviction was at its firmest and clearest as he came to discuss specifically conditions essential to international security, immediately before the break with Germany, in January of 1917. His public suggestion of a "peace without victory" proved offensive to the belligerents and a diplomatic impossibility. But Wilson was quite right in maintaining that a victor's terms imposed upon the vanquished would be "accepted in humiliation, under duress . . . and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand." The quality of Wilson's foresight was amply borne out in the years that followed the Peace Conference and led to the Hitler régime.

There are few who would suggest today that our interests called for intervention in the war previous to the declaration of the intensive German submarine campaign. On the other hand, the band of critics who in later years assailed Wilson as responsible for unnecessary and ultimately disastrous participation in the war has diminished to the vanishing point. That criticism was most strident 20 years ago. It was stimulated by the sense of betrayal that captured American liberals after the Peace Conference as well as by the ill-documented propaganda emanating from the Nye Commission and culminating in the neutrality legislation of the mid-thirties. But it was short-lived. Even those who today believe that only a compromise peace would have provided the base for a permanent settlement admit that Wilson's hand was forced and that the Germans left him no alternative but to enter the war.

Contemporary criticism of the process by which a peaceful, ill-prepared nation was transformed into a fighting machine has been replaced by enthusiastic recognition of the quality of Wilson's leadership in the war. The unity of national effort which he inspired made possible the astounding contribution of American manpower, finance and supplies which turned the tide of battle in Europe. But his outstanding demonstration of leadership lay in the war of ideas. Inevitably the attitude of the President towards the belligerents was radically altered by our own belligerency. He could no longer imply that the war aims on either side were the same. It was not difficult for him to frame his indictment against Germany as an international criminal since he had been profoundly shocked, in a personal sense, by the declaration of submarine warfare. Against such a criminal it was necessary to use force without stint or limit. Henceforth he was unwilling to accept any peace except one based upon the absolute defeat of German militarism.

While Wilson as war leader cast his denunciatory and destructive thunderbolts against the German Government, he did not fail to stress constructively the ideals of his crusade for freedom, which he inherited from the period of neutrality and which he led on behalf of all peoples. In his Flag Day address of June 14, 1917, perhaps in itself the outstanding example of his wartime rhetoric, he drew the distinction between the "military masters of Germany [who] denied us the right to be neutral" and the German people, "themselves in the grip of the same sinister power that has . . . stretched its ugly talons out and drawn blood from us." He went on to reiterate his ultimate war aims: "This is the People's War, a war for freedom and justice and self-government amongst all the nations of the world, a war to make the world safe for the peoples who live upon it . . . the German peoples themselves included."

So also in his speech of the Fourteen Points, Wilson forged a weapon of psychological warfare at the same time that he drafted a charter of peace. The address failed in its primary purpose of dissuading Russia from negotiations with the enemy. But it drove a deeper wedge between the German Government and people and it presented the latter with the possibilities of an attractive program once their hopes of military victory faded. Germany was offered a place of equality and a guarantee of friendship, "if she is willing to associate herself with us and the other peace-loving nations of the world in covenants of justice and law and fair dealing." Small wonder that when they were confronted with an imminent military collapse, the Germans turned to Wilson, invoking the Fourteen Points and the succeeding speeches couched in similar terms.

Wilson's program as an instrument of political warfare thus achieved resounding success. It became a determining factor in Allied military victory in 1918. It gave to Wilson himself a moral position of such strength that willy-nilly the British and French leaders in their negotiations with House were compelled to endorse that program. But the Fourteen Points, a powerful weapon of war, were not so well fitted to serve as the design for an international peace settlement. They were at once too general in their statement of abstract principles and too specific in various geographical details. Furthermore, the very success of Wilson's psychological campaign enforced the nationalistic aspirations of the European peoples and thus raised powerful opposition to his international ideals.

Wilson went to the Peace Conference pledged to the fulfillment of a threefold and interlocking concept: the liberation of peoples, justice for all without distinction, the assurance of peace through international organization. In his mind, freedom and justice outweighed in their importance the assurance of peace; he always believed that "the right is more precious than peace." But it was clear that an organized system of security would be essential to the maintenance of a régime of freedom and justice. All three principles must be worked out together in a world-wide association of nations: "A universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."

Wilson's chief difficulty lay not so much in the opposition of Allied leaders in Paris, for few would dare openly to oppose such ideals, as in the inherent difficulty of applying general principles to concrete issues. For lack of an explicit program, there was at Paris a high degree of improvisation and of confusion in the effort to solve specific problems in the light of abstractions which were difficult to define.

The recurrent leitmotif of Wilson's policy lay in his ideal of freedom, whether of the individual or of the national group. But this ideal he found it impossible to formulate at Paris in terms that might find exact expression in an international agreement. The principles of self-government were rather vaguely considered in nineteenth century concepts, without any clear attempt to re-interpret them in contemporary terms or in the light of political and industrial conditions of Central and Southeastern Europe. The doctrine of self-determination, expressive of national freedom, Wilson soon discovered to be an untrustworthy guide, incapable of universal application. How was he to decide the validity of conflicting aspirations? Linguistic statistics often proved as unreliable a criterion as the rhetoric of partisan leaders. In various areas he found the principle of self-determination to be in clear conflict with other Wilsonian doctrines. It would seem to justify the separation of the German Sudetenland from Bohemia, an obvious disaster to the Czechoslovak state, itself founded upon the principle of self-determination. Its strict application would have cut in two an economic entity such as the Klagenfurt Basin.

In the approach to these and similar problems Wilson hoped for guidance from the application of the principle of justice, which he had stressed equally as an essential foundation of a liberating and a lasting peace. "It must be a justice that seeks no favorites and knows no standards but the equal rights of the several peoples concerned. No special or separate interest of any single nation or any group of nations can be made the basis of any part of the settlement which is not consistent with the common interest of all." As a principle this seemed indisputable.

But when he came to cases at Paris he discovered that there was a conflict of rights as well as of interests. Every government was bound to feel that justice to its own people demanded a protection of national security that often could be achieved only at the expense of another. Even the impartially-minded Americans could not with any confidence apply the principle of justice to specific problems. Crossing to Europe on the George Washington, Wilson had said to the members of The Inquiry: "Tell me what's right and I'll fight for it. Give me a guaranteed position." But whatever position they might try to guarantee on the basis of justice, a case could be found with which to dispute it. How did the justice of the Polish claim to the Corridor compare with the injustice done to Germany in its establishment? Was the separation of the Saar from the Reich a justifiable reparation for the wanton damage inflicted by German troops on the coal mines of Lens and Valen-ciennes? As Wilson met Allied leaders day after day, despite the personal irritation of debate, his own attitude towards the strict application of the principle of justice became more fluid.

Wilson's expanding appreciation of the inexorable realities of European politics was manifest in his changed outlook upon the problem of security. This is not to imply that he ever wavered in his conviction that the old system was bankrupt and that the new must be based upon the principle of collective security as expressed in the League of Nations. To that cause he devoted his most impassioned efforts. At the opening of the Conference it seemed doubtful whether he could withstand pressure for postponement of the League in favor of the "practical" aspects of the settlement; whether, also, he could secure incorporation of the Covenant as the first and essential portion of the treaty with Germany and the others to follow. His triumph was clear-cut. The League became the cornerstone of the treaties. It would serve, Wilson believed, not merely to safeguard the peace but to correct the inequities that were bound to creep into any settlement.

But in the intimate discussions of the Council of Four he came to realize the justified anxiety of the French as to security and the validity of their demand for special guarantees of protection, at least until the League had demonstrated its effective authority. One must read the recently-published notes of Professor Mantoux[i] in order to appreciate the emotional and the logical force of the appeal from Clemenceau. The latter's concept of "strategic security," based upon a demilitarized Rhineland and the fortified bastion of Bohemia in the hands of the Czechs, was recognized by Wilson not as a substitute for but as a regional supplement to collective security. And Wilson was further willing to buttress the defense of France by the agreement that the United States would join with Great Britain, in case of attack by Germany, to defend the French frontier.

These departures from ideological perfection have been pictured as constituting a moral and political surrender by Wilson. But he was indebted to Clemenceau for his acquiescence in the League of Nations and he had to acknowledge that conditions in Europe went far to justify the latter's policy. Indeed, that policy, properly implemented, might have sufficed to contain Hitler. The same sort of defense can be offered in behalf of various other compromises that Wilson accepted. They were, in his opinion, essential to the completion of the treaties, upon which the revival of the economic as well as the political life of the world depended. Whether Wilson might have salvaged more of his original program is a question still in doubt. On the whole, historical opinion has come to the conclusion that the settlement as agreed upon, had it actually been carried into effect, would have proved practicable and enduring.

The decision of Wilson to adjust to circumstances which he could not alter was made to appear in certain quarters as the bankruptcy of his entire program. The indictment against him was in part the expression of partisan prejudice; but it was chiefly inspired by disappointment. He had aroused hopes that his vision of Utopia could obliterate political facts. He now paid the price for the enthusiasm his program had evoked while it was still in the stage of generalities. His position would doubtless have been stronger had he not attempted to rationalize the compromises into such a form that they would fit into the design of his abstract principles. He thereby opened himself to the charge of hypocrisy and to the attack of perfectionists who joined with American isolationists in denunciation of the Versailles Treaty.

But his prestige on the return to Washington in July of 1919 was still sufficient to assure ratification of the Treaty and American participation in the League, assuming a reasonably sagacious political approach. At that time Senator Lodge himself, determined that the Republican Party should not be split in two, hardly hoped for more than the reservations that would enable him to insist that he and his Party had saved American independence from Wilsonian internationalism. But ratification depended upon conciliation of the Republican mild reservationists in such numbers as would compel Lodge to compromise.

The President could not bring himself to make the necessary concessions. His determination was hardened by the psychological effects of his illness and by his isolation from experienced political advisers. When it became clear that a two-thirds vote in the Senate could not be secured except upon the basis of the Lodge reservations, he would have been wise, without endorsing these reservations, to permit his followers to accept them and thus assure ratification. Historical opinion has tended towards the conclusion that since he had compromised in Paris he made a fatal mistake in refusing the compromises in Washington necessary to ratification. It was fatal, at least, in the sense that he thereby destroyed the crowning success of his policies, so nearly achieved, and his own immediate glorification. The action of the Senate, fortified, as it was made to appear, by the election of 1920, not merely kept the United States out of the League but apart from the close participation in European affairs upon which the Versailles Treaty was predicated. The consequences of that withdrawal upon the authority of the League were momentous; no less so upon the relationships of the Great Powers with Germany and among themselves. In the debâcle of the thirties, Europe and ultimately the United States paid a heavy price.

Woodrow Wilson completed his term as President in the shadow of political disaster. The endorsement of his program for which he called in the election of 1920 was refused him by an overwhelming vote. The dignity of his attitude in retirement and the pathos of his physical collapse assured him nation-wide sympathy. But his dream of American leadership in world organization was dead and in a practical sense forgotten. Comfortably and blindly the United States fell back into the spirit of isolationism.

Abroad, the reputation of Wilson has never recovered from the reaction that followed the Peace Conference and the political disappearance of its leaders. His memory was summarily dismissed by conservative impatience at his attempt to inoculate Europe with his visionary principles and by liberal disappointment consequent upon his readiness to compromise them. Only in Geneva was adequate honor still paid him. The rise and fall of his hold on popular affection may be traced in the streets and squares that were named in tribute to his efforts on behalf of freedom, only to be renamed for some subsequent hero.

On this side of the Atlantic the upswing of opinion in Wilson's favor has been definite. But it has not yet become universal. He has suffered from the clash of contradictory elements in his temperament which affected not only his political career but the later judgement of history. It is by no means easy for the analytical historian to reach clear-cut conclusions in an estimate of Wilson in view of the fact that his political defects proceeded largely and often directly from his personal talents.

His outstanding characteristic as leader was an almost uncanny genius for persuasion, whether by the written or by the spoken word. In both respects Wilson greatly excelled. Through his peculiar and abiding influence upon individuals and upon small groups of high intelligence he exercised unheralded and permanent power in the nation. His outstanding capacity for persuading mankind in the large accounts in chief measure for the emphatic success of his legislative program on behalf of the New Freedom. But there was always the danger that by the very magic of his eloquence he would, like less distinguished evangelists in the religious field, bring his congregation into a process of conversion that was not to prove permanent. Thus he won the enthusiastic support of the people for the League as the chief buttress of American foreign policy; it was a revolutionary but a temporary achievement. Popular devotion to Wilson's great ideal turned out to be merely skin-deep and was soon lost in the other issues that beclouded the ill-fated election of 1920.

Another paradox in the public life of Wilson, when one comes to making up the main account, lies in the fact that his noblest attribute, an undeviating faith in principles, became a primary factor in the miscarriage of his plans for establishing them as a directive influence in the affairs of the world. No statesman has given to mankind a more cogent and elevated exposition of the infinite power and the enduring righteousness of justice and freedom. But his illusion that such ideals could obliterate the stubborn facts of political life unsettled his policy at Paris and led directly to the disaster which he suffered at the hands of Senator Lodge.

Wilson's reputation has inevitably been heightened by the events of the quarter-century that followed his death. The world received a terrible confirmation of his prophetic vision of the cataclysm which the League of Nations was designed to avert. The establishment of the United Nations consecrated the validity of his leadership, which had been mutilated at Paris and spurned by the United States Senate. Thus the defeat of 1920 became a sacrificial step towards his ultimate justification, and the failure of his League "a necessary part of the stumbling process," as Secretary Dulles puts it, "by which humanity develops the means for its own self-preservation."

But it would be a grievous error to permit the historical position of Wilson to depend upon the fortunes of any single institution no matter how impressive. It rests rather upon an invincible idea "so greatly conceived and set forth," as Edwin Alderman insisted immediately after Wilson's death, "that it must continue to grow into new and finer form and his fame must grow with it." Entirely apart from his contribution to a tangible instrument of political idealism, whether permanent or fugitive, Wilson is justified by faith. Magnificent in his leadership, he was too far in advance of his time. Men were not ready for the sacrifice of self-interest, the revolution in national outlook which his ideals demanded. But the inspiration of those ideals is permanent and no one has issued a more compelling call than Wilson's to devotion in their behalf, or more moving an example of undeviating faith in their nobility. Regardless of the ebb and flow of political and historical opinion, he stands forth as among the greatest of all prophets in the cause of international justice and freedom.

Long before entering active politics, in his address on Leaders of Men, Wilson provided a clue to his own future claim to immortality. "Great reformers," he said, "do not, indeed, observe times and circumstances. Theirs is not a service of opportunity. They have no thought for occasion, no capacity for compromise. They are early vehicles of the Spirit of the Age. They are born of the very times that oppose them . . . theirs to hear the inarticulate voices that stir in the night-watches, apprising the lonely sentinel of what the day will bring forth."

[i] Paul Mantoux, "Les Délibérations du Conseil des Quatre (24 mars-28 juin 1919)." Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1955, 2 v.

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  • CHARLES SEYMOUR, President Emeritus of Yale University; editor of "The Intimate Papers of Colonel House;" author of "American Diplomacy During the World War"
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