The enduring spirit of Wilson's progressive ideal

The 28th president still influences America's agenda

It's almost 80 years since his death, but Woodrow Wilson has never seemed more relevant. Wilson was the first American president whose administration was defined by its foreign policy. Indeed, the very word "Wilsonian" has come to mean a certain kind of foreign policy, one promoting human rights, democracy, and collective security. Much of President Bush's current activity, especially regarding Iraq, is pure Wilsonian in its idealism.

Renowned historian H.W. Brands, who has written important biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, skillfully tells the whole story of Wilson's life and casts him as one of the most important US presidents. And Brands does all this in fewer than 200 pages, making his smooth-flowing narrative easily accessible to the general reader.

Brands shows that Woodrow Wilson was destined to be an idealist. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and young Woodrow would practice speaking to an empty church after his father had preached to a full one. At Princeton University, he excelled at writing and oratory. He thought about becoming a lawyer, but hated law school and quit before graduating. Wilson's true love, Brands stresses, was studying how governments functioned.

Wilson's early career was as an academic, teaching at a couple of colleges before landing the presidency of Princeton in 1902. Brands describes how Wilson's type of liberalism fitted in perfectly with the reformist attitudes of the age: He championed education and spoke out against corruption in high places. With impeccable progressive credentials and no political baggage, he was selected by the Democratic Party bosses as a potential presidential candidate for 1912.

Brands points out the irony inherent in Wilson's selection by these party bosses. Here was Wilson speaking out against political corruption and party machines, yet he owed the beginnings of his political career to the very machine politics he railed against.

The bosses were proven right: Wilson was a great candidate and also, as Brands points out, a fortunate one. The Republicans split prior to the 1912 election. When the party nominated William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt bolted and ran as a third-party candidate. With the opposition divided, Wilson was elected.

Brands skillfully depicts Wilson as the last political champion of the Progressive era. Wilson's reformist victories included the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which established criminal penalties for corporate predatory practices. He also reformed the nation's banking by creating the Federal Reserve System. Just as significant, he enacted a graduated income tax.

Yet Wilson would be defined by foreign affairs, especially by World War I. Brands describes how hard Wilson tried to keep America out of the war. Yet with German submarines repeatedly sinking neutral American shipping, US entry into the war was probably inevitable. Wilson's first priority, however, would be ensuring the peace rather than continuing the war.

On Jan. 18, 1918, Wilson addressed Congress and presented his famous Fourteen Points, which called for the self-determination of all nations and collective security through "a general association of nations." Wilson the idealist believed firmly in the ability of nations acting collectively to avoid wars. He rejected the philosophy of realpolitik and balance of power.

Wilson called for a post-World War I peace based on "disinterested justice" that would be enforced collectively by a League of Nations. Thus, as Brands points out, he would become the grandfather of today's United Nations.

Unfortunately, he lost his battle for a peace based on impartial justice. In Paris in 1919, the British and French demanded that Germany be punished for the war.

Wilson was outmaneuvered in Washington, too. The Republican Congress, fearing that the League of Nations would place a straitjacket on America's ability to pursue its national interests (the same arguments we hear today about the United Nations), rejected the treaty and the league.

Wilson lost the most important political battle of his life, and his reputation has suffered enormously for it. Yet his idealism has remained a constant strain in American politics. When Mr. Bush speaks today about allowing the people of Iraq to establish their own democratic government, he's echoing one of Wilson's Fourteen Points.

Brand has written a highly accessible and insightful biography that should appeal particularly to readers interested in one of the great architects of American foreign policy.

Chuck Leddy, of Quincy, Mass., regularly reviews history books for Publishers Weekly.

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