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"Absolute identity with one's cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership."—Woodrow Wilson
"The world must be made safe for democracy."
President of the United States, 1913-1921. First elected in 1912 beating two former presidents - incumbent Republican Taft, and Progressive Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt (a former Republican). Re-elected to his second term largely on the slogan, "He Kept Us Out Of War"; shortly into that term he got us into war. Suffered a stroke in 1919 and spent the rest of his term with his wife effectively running the government for him, rather than handing over power to the Vice President. This was a possible factor for the 19th amendment to the Constitution (women's suffrage) being ratified during this time (though Wilson had announced his support before the stroke). Later the 25th amendment (presidential succession) was definitely ratified with Wilson's stroke used as an instrumental (but negative) example.
Although modern perceptions of Wilson remember him more for his foreign policy and involvement in the First World War, Wilson's first term was largely domestically-oriented. It should be noted that these policies before the war were significant to say the least (whether for better or for worse). Like his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Wilson was president during the so-called Progressive Movement of the early 1900s, a liberal reaction against the staunchly conservative excesses of the Gilded Age that had preceded it. Also like Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson brought his own policies regarding big businesses and trusts to the presidency. Unlike Roosevelt and Taft, both of whom were inclined to support government confrontation of trusts, Wilson's "New Freedom" approach favored small businesses bolstered by competition laws to prevent unfair consolidation by trusts. In theory, Wilson's New Freedom was intended to limit government intervention in the affairs of business. However, in practice, Wilson also established the Federal Trade Commission along with the Federal Reserve, both of which are key regulatory agencies that remain important economic regulatory agencies for the federal government to this day.
However, larger events abroad would eventually come to overshadow Wilson's domestic affairs. World War One broke out two years after the election of Woodrow Wilson. At the time, American public opinion was largely opposed to any sort of serious involvement by the United States. It was by and far not an American affair, and as the war worsened and became a truly global conflict stretching from the fields of France and Flanders in the West all the way to German colonies in the Pacific, American opposition to entering the war only increased. However, as the war dragged on and the Central Powers grew increasingly more desperate to defeat the Allies, it became clear that American neutrality was not to last. German policies, "unrestricted submarine warfare" in particular, were a point of contention in German-American relations. After the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner which was carrying American passengers, a diplomatic crisis erupted between the US and Germany. In the end, Wilson kept his cool, and the crisis died down without war between the US and Germany.
However, the Lusitania would not be the only vessel carrying Americans to be sank by German vessels, and ultimately what would push the US into a war against Germany would come in the form of a telegram sent by German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government. The telegram reflected sentiments in German leadership at the time that America's involvement in the conflict in Mexico at the time was something large enough to distract America's attention and prevent the possibility of an American entry into WWI. Thus, Zimmermann's telegram promised Mexico that if it attacked the United States, Germany would pledge support and return the territories that had been taken from Mexico by America in the Mexican-American War. For Wilson and for America, this was the final straw. The Lusitania had angered people, but ultimately, sentiment had been against intervention at the time. Now, Germany had crossed the line. Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war upon Germany, and the rest is history.
He holds the dubious honour of being one of only two 20th century presidents to win twice without ever gaining 50% of the vote (the other was Bill Clinton). In 1912, Wilson won only 41.8% of the vote, the lowest margin of votes a winning candidate received since the American Civil War. His 1916 victory was much more respectable but still only represented 49.2%.
Wilson was arguably the first president who was a trained politician; he was educated in diplomacy, governance, and statecraft. Whenever he couldn't find a job in those fields, he scuttled back to Princeton to teach them. He was president of Princeton before becoming the other sort of President - definitely an egghead.
Wilson's Fourteen Points would form the basis for the later Treaty Of Versailles, which the US never actually ratified. In addition, his Fourteen Points served as one of the inspirations for the League of Nations, which the US also never joined. Wilson won a Nobel Peace Prize while still in office.
Wilson's reputation has declined slightly since his lifetime, possibly due to his views on race and the constitutional murkiness of his post-stroke incapacity. (Basically, his second wife, Edith Wilson, essentially ran the country for a period of time, deciding what he was told and who he would see, rather than having power pass to the veep. In a way, she can be considered the unofficial first female President.) Though still viewed highly by academics, who often rate him in the top ten presidents (albeit usually at number nine), the public is less keen on him. A 2007 poll found that only 56% of Americans had a favorable impression of him, as against 84% for Theodore Roosevelt and a suprisingly high 57% for the seemingly-forgotten Taft.
Wilson's legacy as time has passed is largely a mixed one. While many of Wilson's ideas are admired and many of the agencies and policies he created are still important parts of American policy today, Wilson also had some notably poor policies. Although he did not have a segregationist background, he appointed Southern Democrats to many political positions and tolerated their spreading of segregation to parts of the civil service and armed forces. He could be at times a very self-assured, prideful individual whose disposition made him a difficult character to deal with. This aspect of his personality, combined with the fact that Wilson suffered perhaps the most ill-timed stroke in American history, helped make sure that the United States failed to join the League of Nations, and in so doing, fundamentally weaken the organization as a governing international body when strong action would be needed to deal with future issues such as the rise of fascist regimes in Europe and the rearmament of Germany.
While Wilson had in his past demonstrated a consistent ability to compromise with the most intransigent of opposition (if quarreling, embittered European nations at Versailles were anything to go by), opinion in Congress, largely dominated by anti-League Republicans, was not amenable to Wilson's plans as he had spurned them at the Treaty of Versailles (mostly out of a personal hatred for Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, the obvious choice for a Republican member of the US delegation). Wilson went on a massive nationwide campaign to appeal directly to the American people, and by extension Congress' constituents, so as to drum up support for the Fourteen Points. Wilson's doctor had advised him not to overexert himself on the campaign, but Wilson did anyway and suffered a debilitating stroke that largely incapacitated him for the rest of his presidency. This, combined with an already intractable political situation that desperately needed executive action to resolve, in effect destroyed any chance the USA would ever have of joining the League of Nations. While nobody can ever know for sure what would have happened if the USA had joined the League of Nations and if the tensions and conflicts that eventually lead to another world war could have been prevented by such an event, everyone knows what happened when the USA failed to join the League.
The League largely proved itself to be a toothless, impotent organization hopelessly matched up against issues it could not hope to resolve and would not stand up to the likes of ambitious, aggressive leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. The League's successor, the United Nations, was designed in many ways to avoid the weaknesses that had plagued the League of Nations, even though the failures of the UN and the common criticisms addressed to it were largely the same as those that had been addressed to the League in years past (too weak, couldn't always enforce its rulings, etc.).
Domestically, Wilson's legacy is also called into question by the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts and what history would come to call the First Red Scare. The former were pieces of legislation passed by Congress (but approved of by Wilson) that, to make an incredibly complicated bill very simple: meted out punishments such as imprisonment for people who did so much as criticize the American government or its war effort. Many protesters who were otherwise peaceful were locked up in jail, notably the Socialist Eugene Victor Debs, who was not deterred by his imprisonment and ran for president from his jail cell. Wilson's policies of repression at home continued with the Red Scare of the latter years of his second administration. Mostly persecuted by then Attorney General Palmer, the Red Scare rounded up radical leftists and others viewed as threatening to national security, many wound up being deported from the United States.
Wilson was the first president to give the State of the Union address in person since John Adams in 1799. Thomas Jefferson had ended the practice of speaking in person and instead had a clerk read out the speech in Congress as he had felt it to resemble the British monarch's speech from the throne.
For some of the other controversies surrounding Wilson, see the analysis page.
Provided Real Life examples of:
- Arc Words: Upon hearing the final fate of the League of Nations in one of periods of coherence after his stroke, Wilson is reported to have said "They have shamed us in the eyes of the world".
- Badass Bookworm: While not necessarily of the "badass" variety, Woodrow Wilson was a titanic figure on the international stage who was perfectly willing to exert the force and authority of the then-rising power of the United States of America.
- Determinator: Worked himself to the point of an incapacitating stroke, just to drum up support for his Fourteen Points, and apparently still died believing their implementation was the only hope for peace.
- Deadpan Snarker: "Don't interfere while your enemy is destroying himself." Which he said in reference to his campaign for President. The fact he was obscenely right (courtesy of a sizable majority of the Electoral College) only makes it better.
- Fantastic Racism: He was instrumental in rejecting Japan's Racial Equality Proposal... even though 16 out of 20 countries voted for it.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Some his ideas and actions are admittedly... disputable to say the least. And then there are those who somehow take these and morph Wilson into either an Illuminati stooge or the honorary founder of the Third Reich. Seriously. Even in much more sensible circles, some scholars criticize his naivety in Versailles, his blatant racism (even for his time), and the arrests made during the war.
- Glenn Beck has pushed this angle a great deal, and he and other right-wing figures have made much of Conspiracy Theories regarding Wilson's implementation of the Federal Reserve System to stabilize the US economy.
- The Irish Question: Wilson was initially much praised by Irish nationalists (and Irish Americans) who wanted him to support their own national aspirations at Versailles. When he ignored them he was subject to much bitter recrimination.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The Treaty of Versailles, though what came out of Versailles was exactly the kind of punishing, harsh treaty that Wilson had argued AGAINST for the duration of his time at Versailles, he did wind up compromising on a great many of his points to obtain the creation of the League of Nations however, which gave more leeway to more vengeful nations such as France to kick Germany while she was down.
- Nice to the Waiter: He was a warm, charming man despite his cold, academic facade.
- Our Presidents Are Different: President Iron, definitely.
- Pet the Dog: Wilson was outspoken about aiding the Armenians suffering from a genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War One, and even helped set the boundaries for an independent (though short-lived) Armenian state after the war. However, it was only because the Armenians were mostly Christians that he wanted to help them.
- The Professor: He was the President of Princeton before he ran for President, and is also the only U.S. president who held a Ph.D.
- Sucky School: He was responsible for the creation of a government school system with the intent to create factory workers, rather than an educated populace. This trope was the result.
- Values Dissonance: He segregated the government racially. When blacks complained about it, he said "If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it." He was also unabashedly anti-immigrant and criticized Irish immigrants harshly.
- He also launched the Espionage Act of 1918, which punished "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" against the US government that served the purpose of arresting those against World War I. This order was ironic -- he spent his academic days complaining about the US government and the constitution and wished to persecute as president those who preached the same things he once did.
- Some argue that he was highly racist even for his own time. Of course, he was born during The American Civil War in Virginia, not too far from the Confederate capital at Richmond, so...what do you expect?
- Well, when you set desegregation back a good few decades. In the case of the Navy, he barred them from a service that was at times more than 1/3 African American going back to the revolutionary war.
- Vindicated by History: For all of his faults, he called World War II way before anyone else. “For, I tell you, my fellow citizens, I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.” (Sept. 8, 1919)
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Critics accuse Wilson of being this, proponents say Wilson's idealism was just what everyone needed at a dark and cynical time. The real answer is somewhere in between: try telling a Czech or a Serb just how "overly idealistic" the man who helped them gain independence was without starting a heated argument, but on the other hand, Wilson's idealism could occasionally steer him astray, and cause him to make politically unwise decisions and assuming the American people would unite behind him all the time, one of his biggest mistakes was the failure to realize that this was not the case.
Wilson in fiction:
- The character of Lazarus Long from various Robert A. Heinlein novels is revealed to have been named after Wilson: His birth name is Woodrow Wilson Smith.
- In The Simpsons, Bart pranks Mrs. Krabapel by sending her love letter from a guy with Gordie Howe's face and Pres. Wilson's ("Woody") name.
- Alexander Knox played him in the 1944 Biopic Wilson.
- Wilson's ominous second term is chronicled in Gore Vidal's Hollywood.
- Wilson is president of the Confederacy during the Great War in Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 series.
- He appears several times and dies prematurely in 1915 in Swarm On the Somme.
- Gus Dewar, one of the main characters in Ken Follett's Doorstopper novel Fall of Giants, works for President Wilson.
- He (or rather, his ghost) shows up in The Venture Brothers to briefly play a celebrity perfume guessing game with 21.
- The Birth of a Nation contains a quote from him on an intertitle.