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Woodrow Wilson a century on

By Peter Run - posted Friday, 31 January 2014

I recently copied a wonderful practice from a friend: to read a biography of an American president every summer. You may be surprised to learn that quite a few new ones emerge on old characters every year. This summer, the choice is A. Scott Berg's new biography of Woodrow Wilson, simply titled Wilson. At 818 pages, the imposing popular (as opposed to scholarly) biography was released in late 2013, a century since Wilson first entered the White House.

The book is a sympathetic tribute to a man who turned a good number of his friends into enemies in the process of championing relentlessly progressive and reactionary change. "If you want to make enemies", Wilson realised, "try to change something." It is a completely underwhelming observation from a man who loved the works of Walter Bagehot and Edmund Burke and a historian of American civil war to boot.

Now considered a great president, Wilson did struggle to make his name at first. In fact, had there been no World War I, it is quite possible that he would have been remembered for minor policy achievements such as the establishment of the Federal Reserve but his mistakes would have mostly eclipsed his legacy. The Great War – which Wilson called "the war to end all wars" – made the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.


Thomas Woodrow Wilson entered politic in 1910 after presiding over Princeton University. Three years later he was the President of the United States of America. It would be a mistake to suggest that his lack of experience was a liability. His business as a political scientist and historian was to study the art and science of government and he did it well.

Before nominating for the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Wilson had written extensively in favour of reforming the US Congress to more resemble the Westminster system. Indeed, after he was sworn in as president, Wilson operated like a prime minister by delivering speeches in front of joint seatings of both houses of congress. His interpretation of the constitution evolved to form the ritual of the State of the Union address that Obama – another big-eared Democrat – recently delivered.

One of Wilson's major topics between 1914 and 1917 was keeping the United States out of the European war. When former president and war hero, Theodore Roosevelt criticised Wilson for inaction while Germany was sinking merchant ships with Americans on board not to mention the threat to trade, Wilson declared that the United States was too "proud to fight." Berg acknowledges that it was an unfortunate phrase.

However, the democratic base loved the idea. Wilson would win his second term with the mantra: "He kept us out of war." As the Americans were chanting "He kept us out of war", British spies intercepted a message in which Germany was promising Mexico territorial restoration in exchange for alliance in a war against the United States. This particular realisation that isolation makes the United States vulnerable to external strategic thinking forced Wilson into World War I and would again push his protégé, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, into another world war in the rudest way possible: an attack on American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

At the start of World War I in 1914, the United States was still adhering to its founding foreign policy ideals of which George Washington warned the young nation "to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world" while Thomas Jefferson, Wilson's hero, wanted America to be friends with every country and pursue "entangling alliances with none."

President Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the first to face congress to assure them and the American people that the founding fathers were right about everything, but things had changed. In advocating war, Wilson clearly put his political scientist hat on. He did not stop from reversing the nation's foreign policy platform; he also sought to reverse its attitude towards defence.


The American founding fathers were opposed to a standing army. They (especially James Madison) reasoned that such an extension of the executive branch of government was incompatible with individual liberty because standing armies posed the temptation of being put to use. Wilson himself agreed with this 18th Century views but accepted that things had changed. As a result, he saw it fit to reverse these attitudes and consequently converted the United States into a global power.

It is noteworthy that Wilson attempted every way possible to keep the United States out of the war. Even after he received unanimous pro-war counsel from his cabinet, Wilson still took time to think. He retreated to his study a lot and played some golf, his only form of exercise.

Berg connects Wilson's attitudes to war to the president's childhood in Georgia where he saw the effects of the American civil war. He writes that Wilson was scarred by the civil war and the experience shaped his attitudes to the war in Cuba, the Philippines, Mexico and the one he was about to order across the Atlantic.

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About the Author

Peter Run is a PhD student and tutor at The School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. He holds an MA in Journalism from the University of South Australia and is the Author of Theorising Cultural Conflict, VDM Publishing (2010).

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