Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
This excellent biography offers a much-needed adjustment of Woodrow Wilson’s place in popular history.
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In the second part of his presidency, he led the US into World War I and performed a “miracle of mobilization” that sent 2 million soldiers to France, helping to bring the war to a swift conclusion. The impact, according to Cooper, was profound: “He shortened World War I, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people owed their lives to him.”Skip to next paragraph
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But it was the third part of his presidency – the Paris Peace Conference and the unsuccessful effort to convince the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations – that defines his presidency.
Wilson thought that his “Fourteen Points” would provide the basis for a fair and just peace, but the Allies wanted a harsh settlement to punish Germany for starting the war. The result, writes Cooper, was a treaty “which left sore winners and unrepentant losers.” It also left the president worn out physically and emotionally, and probably contributed to the massive stroke he suffered while on a nationwide speaking tour trying to generate popular support for the Treaty and the League of Nations.
The extent of his illness – he was an invalid for the rest of his presidency – was carefully kept from the public and even the cabinet. Equally important, the stroke altered his personality. It rendered Wilson “an emotionally unstable, delusional creature.” The gifted leader became a “stubborn, self-righteous spoiler who blocked reasonable compromises.” When he refused to consider any changes to the agreements, the Senate rejected the treaty.
Cooper’s rich, thoughtful, extensively researched biography provides a complete picture of this seminal figure in American history. This is a much-needed and welcome addition to the literature of American political history.
If there is a shortcoming to the volume, it is that Cooper is almost too sympathetic to his subject. Outside of all of Wilson’s great accomplishments, there were significant missteps even before illness altered his judgment. His administration segregated federal agencies in an effort to reduce racial mingling. Grievous violations of civil liberties also mar his record. He pushed for the Espionage Act, which punished dissident opinions; allowed his postmaster general to deny the use of the mail to radical publications; and did not object when Attorney General Mitchell Palmer launched his attacks on those suspected of Bolshevik sympathies.
Cooper attributes these incidents to Wilson’s desire to give his cabinet officers considerable latitude to manage their agencies. Maybe. But none of these would have occurred if the White House had objected. At best, Wilson tolerated these actions. At worst, he condoned them.
All important political leaders are complex, gifted individuals with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Their careers usually reflect both successes and failures. Unfortunately, a single failure has come to define Wilson’s presidency and, as a result, undermines popular appreciation of his historical significance. John Milton Cooper’s powerful biography will help increase popular understanding of Woodrow Wilson and restore him – faults and all – to his place in the pantheon of leading American presidents.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.