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Power Without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment

In This Review

Power Without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment
By Trygve Throntveit
University of Chicago Press, 2017
416 pp.

In recent decades, historians and pundits have not been kind to Woodrow Wilson. He is remembered at home for his paternalistic liberalism and complicity in racial injustice and abroad for his naive idealism. But this groundbreaking book by Throntveit, a young historian, tells a different and more sympathetic story; it is an extraordinary effort to recover and illuminate the thinking behind Wilson’s internationalist vision. Throntveit argues that Wilson was not actually a “Wilsonian,” if that term implies imposing American-style democracy on other countries. What Wilson actually sought was the gradual and collective development of a system of global governance geared toward the promotion of justice and peaceful change. It was a vision, Throntveit maintains, that was deeply influenced by the American wing of the philosophical school of pragmatism, particularly the ideas of William James. Wilson’s views were also shaped by the Anglo-American progressive tradition and its many public intellectuals, including Jane Addams, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. Wilson’s thinking was certainly eclectic, with ideas drawn from British constitutional theorists, the American founders, and Christian ethicists. But Throntveit makes a powerful case that Wilson developed a pragmatic and sensible internationalist vision—an accomplishment that should not be obscured by Wilson’s moral and political failings.

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