Published November 9, 2018
It’s been a century since President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Europe, weeks after the Armistice ending World War I. A crowd of 2 million cheered him in Paris. The papers called him the “God of Peace,” the “Savior of Humanity,” a “Moses from America.” He bowed, he tipped his silk top hat—the newsreel images come flickering to us from an earlier world. He sat down with Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George and the others to hash out the fiasco of the Versailles Treaty. He returned home to the fatal wrangle over the League of Nations with Henry Cabot Lodge in the Senate. Then came the cross-country tour to sell the treaty to the American people, his collapse on the train near Wichita, and, back in Washington, the terrible stroke and the long twilight—a sequence that led, further down the road, to Warren G. Harding and, in the fullness of time, to Adolf Hitler and World War II.
The Woodrow Wilson story is an American classic—a set piece, like the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy, or the fable of John F. Kennedy. Of Wilson, the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Since Americans are not, by and large, a people associated with tragedy, it is strange and unexpected that the most tragic figure in modern history—judged by the greatness of expectations and the measure of the falling off—should have been an American.”
People speak of “settled science.” One might also speak of “settled myth.” (The Kennedys are one of those.) But Wilson’s myth remains vexed and unsettled. He persists, in American memory, as a sort of botched paragon—a man who remains almost irritatingly alive and imperfect and somehow touching. The respect that he deserves is complicated—and so is the contempt. The same has been said of American idealism itself.
As with America, there are two basic versions of Wilson: the sacred and the profane. Was his greatness real or fake? He ranks in polls in the top quarter of American presidents, but with a dissenting asterisk. Was he the superbly effective Progressive president (who introduced the Federal Reserve and the graduated income tax and much else) and the prophet of twentieth-century internationalism? (Wait: Are we to thank Wilson for Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan?) Or was he the last fling of nineteenth-century moralism and hypocrisy—a Southern-born racist or near-racist, and a brute on the subject of civil liberties? (He tossed Eugene V. Debs in jail merely for disagreeing with him on the war, leaving it to Warren G. Harding to pardon Debs.) Some said that his mind was a Sunday school; others, that it was the pool of Narcissus. Yet he managed to be a great man all the same. It’s too bad that he did not leave the presidency, one way or another, in 1919, after the damage from his stroke became evident. Amazingly, even in the summer of 1920, the broken man had delusions of running for a third term. He felt embittered and betrayed when the Democratic nomination went to Governor James Cox of Ohio. Woodrow Wilson’s ego died harder than Rasputin.
An indispensable aspect of Wilson’s genius—and a key, perhaps, to his failure—was his lambent but vaguely narcissistic prose style, sweet in its clarities but sometimes too supple and manipulative. Unlike most presidents, he wrote his own speeches. He governed a good deal by means of language, and he used words to impose his will or to conjure up an ideal world that might be mistaken, from a distance, for the Kingdom of God. He was also a theatrical man, an actor, an excellent mimic: a performer. Was he Prospero? Or was he, in the end, Christ crucified? People spoke routinely of his messiah complex. At one point during the Paris Peace Conference, he seemed to suggest that he was actually an improvement on the messiah. Lloyd George listened in amazement as Wilson observed that organized religion had yet to devise practical solutions to the problems of the world. Christ had articulated the ideal, Wilson said, but he had offered no instructions on how to attain it. “That is the reason why I am proposing a practical scheme to carry out his aims.” Self-righteousness is tiresome in the end. Many concluded that Wilson should be remembered, without appeals to either religion or literature, as the stiff-necked, hypochondriacal son of a Presbyterian minister, led astray by his own moral vanity—either that, or as the uxorious hero of ladies’ teas. He loved the companionship of doting women but not necessarily that of strong men.
Clemenceau (left), Wilson (center), and Lloyd George (right) at Versailles (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
He has invited fancy conjecture. In one book, Sigmund Freud and the author-diplomat William Bullitt gave him the Viennese once-over and concluded that Wilson was disabled by an unwholesome fixation on his father. That problem, it seems, produced in “little Tommy Wilson,” as Freud and Bullitt called him, an unappeasable perfectionism that in the denouement with Henry Cabot Lodge boomeranged as a death wish. “He was so serious about himself that others took him seriously. To make fun of him was easy,” wrote Freud and Bullitt. “To ignore him was impossible. He was a prig; but a prime prig.” Freud was 28 years dead when the book, Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-Eighth President of the United States—A Psychological Study, was published in 1967. It was not clear that Freud ever said the things that his friend and sometime patient Bullitt claimed that he had said about Wilson.
The most recent Wilson study is Patricia O’Toole’s The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made, a brisk, efficient, and hardheaded assessment of the positives, the negatives, and the ironies of Wilson’s life. The book’s index oddly contains no entries for Freud or for D. W. Griffith, the great early filmmaker whose Birth of a Nation would be screened at the Wilson White House. O’Toole has the facts of Wilson down; perhaps wisely, she decided to avoid the areas of conjecture and mirage. Wilson’s “moralism,” as her title proclaims, serves as her narrative spine. He was not merely a moralist, of course—and in fairness, O’Toole never claims so. But one is always aware that, beneath the surface of events, off in the zones of conjecture, he was a uniquely savory and suggestive American character—an unexpectedly representative man—in whom fundamental American traits and problems converged in prismatic ways: in the drama of race, for example, and in the sometimes satanic dilemmas of great power (dilemmas that, a generation later, would come to blossom, one might say, over Hiroshima, on that morning when Curtis LeMay triumphed over Jesus Christ). Was Hiroshima a triumph or a tragedy? Or just a necessity? There is disagreement still.
Wilson, in his time, also starred in a great Allied victory, another tragedy that explored the conflict in the American conscience between the precepts of Christ, on the one hand, and the ideas of Machiavelli, on the other. In the context of Wilson’s war—the world war that we would later stipulate with the Roman numeral I—did the Prince of Peace have anything useful to say about the idiotic slaughter on the Western Front? A related question: What would the upshot be if an American president attempted to function—as Wilson tried to do—in the roles of both Christ and Caesar? Who would render what unto whom? By whose rules—Christ’s or Caesar’s—was the game to be played?
Or did Wilson somehow fuse Christ and Caesar (Prince of Peace and Prince of War) in such a way that he ushered into the world the American naiveté-plus-power that led Graham Greene, years later, to state that “their innocence makes Americans the most dangerous people in the world”? Greene made that remark in the 1950s, in the context of Dien Bien Phu, as the French colonials bailed out of Indochina. The Americans would arrive in Vietnam soon enough, to squander their billions and their blood and their Wilsonian illusions.
On the other hand, is American idealism always wrong? One might say that there is good idealism and bad idealism. You may rattle on theologically about Hiroshima (and Hiroshima is not indefensible, even on moral grounds), but doesn’t the American role in the world sometimes mobilize better angels than the Enola Gay—like, say, the Marshall Plan?
It’s not often that the country gets a doctor of philosophy in the White House (Wilson’s the only one, in fact), or a character as dramatic, as able, and as baffling as he. He represented contradictory American meanings—the best and the worst, in a way. “Men die,” he told Colonel House one day in Paris. “Ideas live.” Great hopes live, and great ideals; and great illusions and great pathologies, too. Two Wilsonian themes seem crucially American: race and the missionary impulse.
Wilson had Southern roots—shallow roots, but Southern all the same. He was born in Staunton, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, four years before the Civil War began, the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers. His mother, Janet Woodrow, was the English-born daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. His father, the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, son of Scottish immigrants, came from Ohio, but he fell in readily and fervently with the Southern way of life and the Southern cause and, it seemed, with its moral reasoning. (It’s still amazing to read the speeches of Jefferson Davis and to note how often he uses the word “freedom” to justify breaking up the United States in order to preserve the right of white people to own black slaves.)
Woodrow Wilson spent his first 14 years in Augusta, Georgia, where his father became pastor of Augusta Presbyterian Church. His family did not own slaves but rather, leased them from parishioners, a distinction without a difference: a genteel, morally evasive arrangement. Leasing slaves might be explained—if explanation were necessary—as the Wilsons’ solution to the servant problem. Anyway, there was no question of overseers or beatings or runaways or paddy-rollers or any such wickedness. If, in matters of moral style, Confederate men may be divided between two caricatures—those of Ashley Wilkes and Simon Legree—then Reverend Wilson was an Ashley Wilkes type.
Tommy Wilson (he was called Tommy until, in his first year of law school, he changed it to Woodrow, in honor of his mother’s family name) enjoyed what seemed to be a sleepy Southern boyhood—except that it occurred amid the Civil War. One of Wilson’s most learned biographers, John Milton Cooper, Jr., decided that if the war left a psychological mark on Wilson, it was buried too deep for detection. But how was that possible? Wilson said of his childhood: “I lived a dream life.” His biographer H. W. Brands observed that “he displayed an uncanny ability to view life as if from outside.” It’s true that Augusta was relatively lucky (Sherman’s bummers burned through Georgia on a slightly different trajectory). But the wounded from bloody battles like Chickamauga were carried into Augusta, and the pews were removed to transform Augusta Presbyterian Church into a military hospital. Augusta’s Confederate Powder Works produced 2.75 million pounds of gunpowder for the cause: Augusta powder killed a great many Yankees. Reverend Wilson served briefly in the Confederate Army as a chaplain and became a leader of the Southern Presbyterians who broke away from the Northern branch of the church because of the war. The reverend bore an eerie resemblance, it seems, to old Dr. Cameron, the paterfamilias of the genteel white Southern family in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
Cast your mind forward half a century: it was on the evening of February 9, 1915 (amid the Great War in Europe), that President Wilson screened The Birth of a Nation for his cabinet and their wives in the East Room of the White House. It was the first time that a movie had been shown at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And what a movie: over three hours long, a work of genius in its pioneering camera techniques and editing and its epic narrative energies.
Some say that Wilson was tricked into showing it, convinced by an old schoolmate that it should be screened at the White House because it was a brilliant example of the new motion-picture medium. Others say that Wilson was well aware that The Birth of a Nation was a white Southerner’s Iliad whose heroes wore white sheets and terrorized former slaves and rescued white civilization from carpetbaggers, scalawags, and lust-crazed blacks (most played by white actors in shoe polish).
Wilson’s reaction to the film remains in doubt. Twenty-two years later, a magazine writer claimed that Wilson not only approved it but said: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” According to Cooper, “it is extremely doubtful that Wilson uttered those words.” Someone else claimed that Wilson pronounced the film “unfortunate.” Cooper says that the last person then living who had been at the screening remembered that the president did not seem to pay much attention to the movie and left when it was over without saying a word. In any case, the film must have been an evocative experience for Wilson. D. W. Griffith’s “Piedmont, South Carolina,” where most of the action occurs, would not have been far from Wilson’s boyhood Augusta, or from Columbia, South Carolina, where Wilson lived as a teenager. Sherman burned down Columbia pretty thoroughly when he came through on his way to the sea. The Birth of a Nation’s Cameron family (whose son Phil dreams up the idea of white sheets and leads the Klan on vigilante rides against blacks) strongly resembled Reverend Wilson’s family, with all the furnishings and manners and language of gentility—they were not plantation owners like the O’Haras or the Wilkeses in Gone with the Wind but rather village professionals, leasing slaves as house servants rather than owning numerous field hands for purposes of picking cotton. But the silver-screen Camerons, like the O’Haras, had a stereotypical Mammy and other faithful “black” retainers who invariably took the white family’s part against carpetbaggers and Bad Negroes.
A still from “The Birth of a Nation,” D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, which was screened at the White House (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
I imagined, at first, that there must have been moral turmoil in Wilson’s mind as he watched all this on the screen in the White House in 1915. Now I doubt it. I’m not certain that Wilson quite regarded race as a moral category. His moralism was theatrical, even Shakespearean, and enacted itself on a large historical scale. I don’t believe that he considered that blacks possessed sufficient moral stature to be players on the great stage of history or, at least, on the great stage of his own mind. Given his Southern background and his father’s Confederate affinities, Wilson could not quite assimilate blacks to his moral romance of America, or, for that matter, to his practice of government. He acquiesced in the racial segregation of civil servants in his administration, in the Post Office and the Treasury and other agencies. When black leaders protested, he expressed his regret, but he needed to pacify Southern Democrats in the Senate to get his legislative program passed. (Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy would have recourse to the same rationale.)
Half a century earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe had proposed such an immense racial story line (Uncle Tom as Christ crucified) that Lincoln joked that her book provoked the Civil War. The Birth of a Nation was the white South’s (and not only the white South’s) reply to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Birth of a Nation was the counter-myth. Stowe portrayed blacks as victims and whites as monsters. Griffith turned the epic upside-down and presented whites as victims and blacks as monsters. The movie had such a powerful effect that it sparked a revival of the Klan. In 1925, some 30,000 members of the KKK, wearing full regalia, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Apattern of titanic metaphysical inversion repeats itself sometimes in the American conscience. Consider Moby Dick. In the American moral imagination or, at least, in Herman Melville’s, a white whale becomes a principle of vast, inscrutable evil; Ahab and other whaling men were to be seen as the victims of the great whale’s malevolence. In actuality, American whaling ships scoured the oceans and slaughtered the defenseless creatures by the thousands in order to light the nation’s lamps and supply its corset stays. You behold something of the same inversion in reading Theodore Roosevelt’s book African Game Trails—a record of the epic African safari that he undertook after leaving the presidency in 1909. In actuality, Roosevelt, like the whalers of Nantucket and New Bedford, committed slaughter. Roosevelt—a nearsighted hunter who expended many bullets, spraying them myopically (nicking animals’ ears and smashing their knees and bloodying their rumps before he finally finished off a poor rhino or wildebeest or Grant’s gazelle)—described the Dark Continent’s “beasts of raven” as murderous and metaphysical in their savagery and, like the white whale, somehow allied with Nature’s powers of wild and exhilarating evil. It’s my view that the white American imagination (under intense psychological pressure to exonerate itself and rationalize the sin of slavery) performed a similar trick of inversion—and has, from the start, told itself similar stories about the (possibly satanic) menace of African-Americans.
Now consider the missionary aspect of Wilson’s mind. When Henry Luce was still in his teens, some years before he and Briton Hadden started Time magazine, he wrote to his parents, Presbyterian missionaries in China, to announce that he intended to become a journalist. “By that way,” he explained with adolescent grandeur, “I can come closest to the heart of the world.”
Woodrow Wilson, the Presbyterian minister’s son, used that same term—“the heart of the world.” He said that if the peace treaty and the League of Nations failed, “it would break the heart of the world.” He was attracted to the word “heart”—used sometimes in a romantic sense and sometimes in a metaphysical or theological context. “The heart of the world” summarized the sentimental universalism that appealed to the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Protestant mind, under the influence of the Social Gospel. Such theologians as Horace Bushnell and Walter Rauschenbusch redirected Protestantism away from introspective Calvinist austerities (the anguished and sin-ridden personal conscience) toward an embracing commitment to imitate Christ through service to fellow men. The involvement would be emotional and yet schoolmasterly: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Wilson was a college professor and president of Princeton before he went into politics; in the White House, he was still professor-in-chief, exemplar of the Presbyterian’s “light and leading.”
Henry Luce and Woodrow Wilson were formed by some of the same moral and spiritual influences. Luce’s father, Henry Winters Luce of Scranton, Pennsylvania, had heard the cry out of Macedonia (Acts 16:9: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia and help us”). Young Henry Winters Luce embraced the ministry, with an eye to the foreign missions, in May 1892, during a long afternoon of meditation and prayer in his dormitory room at Yale, just before graduation. He plunged into the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) that was then sweeping the country, enlisting young people to become foreign missionaries, with the extraordinary goal of “evangelizing the world in one generation.” Horace “Pit” Pitkin, one of Luce’s Yale roommates, would die in his Shandong mission, beheaded by the Boxers in the summer of 1900; the Reverend Luce, with his wife, Elizabeth, and newborn baby Emmavail and two-year-old son (the future magazine mogul, called “Harry,” as his father was), fled the marauding Boxers, barely escaping. They made their way to the harbor and clambered aboard the gunboat of a sympathetic Christian Chinese captain who took them to safety out in the Yellow Sea.
The Wilsonian worldview had a strong connection to the SVM’s evangelistic impulse. Teddy Roosevelt’s worldview was a more belligerent version of the same imperial phenomenon. TR cried out for the “moralization of the world”—whatever that meant. He told the Bull Moose convention in 1912: “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!”—whatever that meant. Was such language the mere bombast of American overconfidence? Or was it also the “go anywhere, pay any price” idea that would turn up in John Kennedy’s inaugural address—the premonition of Vietnam?
In 1896, Indiana’s young Albert Beveridge, running for the Senate, gave a speech in Indianapolis that captured the bracing, slightly terrifying naiveté of the emergent imperial moment:
It is a noble land [America] that God has given us . . . a land set like a sentinel between the two imperial oceans of the globe, a greater England with a nobler destiny. It is a mighty people that he has planted on this soil; a people sprung from the most masterful blood of history; a people perpetually revitalized by the virile, man-producing working folk of all the earth; a people imperial by virtue of their power, by right of their institutions, by authority of their heaven-directed purposes—the propagandists and not the misers of liberty. It is a glorious history our God has bestowed upon his Chosen People. . . .
The Twentieth Century will be American. American thought will dominate it, American progress will give it color and direction. American deeds will make it illustrious.
Civilization will never lose its hold on Shanghai. Civilization will never depart from Hong Kong. The gates of Peking will never again be closed to the methods of modern man. The regeneration of the world, physical as well as moral, has begun, and revolutions never move backwards.
Actually, revolutions almost always reverse themselves, one way or another, and their leaders are apt to become travesties of those whom they overthrew. It was not too many years later that Beveridge—and his hero, Teddy Roosevelt—went so far to the left that they started sounding like Communists. In a backwash of Wilson’s collapse, the 1920s repudiated the former dispensation—Progressivism and internationalism and idealism (which had gone rancid, anyway, in the White House sickroom and in the Palmer Raids)—and went on a spree that lasted until 1929.
America’s moral claims in the world have always been shadowed by its racial predicament at home. Samuel Johnson jeered at the hypocrisy when he observed—just before a Virginia slave-owner wrote the Declaration of Independence—that the loudest yelps for liberty are emitted by “the drivers of negroes.” Some missionaries went out to China from the American South to escape from being asked to fight to defend slavery, only to find themselves stranded on the other side of the world when their funds from home dried up because of the war. They had gone out to China in search of a moral purity that the homeland, because of race, could never give them. The discrepancy between the squalors of slavery and Jim Crow, on the one hand, and the visions of Wilsonian idealism, on the other, would torment American self-esteem and its missionary projects for generations. In our time, the old discrepancy has come to critical mass in American politics and culture.