Saturday, January 09, 2016

Anti-Presidents Day: Woodrow Wilson


The reputation of Woodrow Wilson, whom American historians once ranked among the greatest of U.S. presidents, has taken in the past year a well-deserved beating. Students at Princeton have requested the removal of Wilson's name from university buildings, and the New York Times published an op ed by Gordon Davis about his grandfather, an African-American civil servant broken and impoverished by Wilson's imposition of Jim Crow on of the executive branch. Wilson's anti-black racism seems beyond dispute. His pronounced admiration for Birth of a Nation, after all, stemmed not from his appreciation of D.W. Griffith's directorial skill but from Wilson's agreement with the movie's historical premise, that whites should not permit blacks to enjoy peace and equality. 

That Wilson also had little respect for non-Europeans living outside of the United States also deserves remembrance. The 28th president twice sent U.S. troops into Mexico and initiated the long and brutal American occupation of Haiti. And, while Wilson coined the phrase "self-determination" and urged the Allies in the First World War to extend it to Eastern European peoples*, he balked at proposing independence for Asians and Africans. Wilson instead persuaded Britain and France to place the dismembered Ottoman and German Empires under League of Nations mandates, ostensibly to "civilize" their subject peoples, in practice to permit their subordination and exploitation for thirty to fifty more years. 

The war that dismembered those empires, meanwhile, allowed Wilson and his officials to demonstrate how little they valued democracy at home, as they blanketed the nation in propaganda and jailed government critics like Eugene Debs. Indeed, the Wilson administration continued to curtail domestic civil liberties (e.g. the Palmer Raids) after the armistice, though it's hard to tell whether the stroked-out Wilson was fully aware of postwar developments. It's also hard to imagine Wilson's political rival Theodore Roosevelt, a pronounced critic of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, embracing so authoritarian a policy. Nor can I easily imagine Roosevelt or Taft (who needed northern blacks' votes) turfing out African-American civil servants and praising the Ku Klux Klan. Arguably the country would have been better off if one of Wilson's adversaries had won the 1912 election. Having passed the centennial of his election, and having gained enough of a collective social conscience to recognize the more repugnant features of his presidency, we would do well to stop praising Woodrow the Racist. 


* The Allies did grant independence to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia after the war, but I would argue democratic self-determination was only a minor motive. Britain and France also wanted to punish the Central Powers and erect a cordon sanitaire between Central Europe and Bolshevik Russia. Wilson may have been a sincere friend of Poles and Czechs, but they were among a very few aspirants for national independence he supported.

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