The most inspirational of American presidents, Woodrow Wilson is also in some ways the most representative. In his idealism, his moralizing, and his insatiable tinkering to make everything better for everyone’s own good, he is America’s inner self. That is why we can never escape him. Nor is there any current interest in doing so. The recent revival of interest in his schemes for global democratization as an instrument of American influence give him a special relevance.
Wilson’s reputation has ebbed and risen over the decades since he left office in 1921, depending on the power that Americans felt they had to shape the world. During World War I, when the United States came to the rescue of the self-destructive Europeans, he was hailed as a savior. But following the war, when the Allies turned down his blueprint for a just peace and the US Senate rejected his vision of an embryonic world government, he lost his audience and soon his pulpit.
During the 1930s, with the US burrowed in depression and totalitarian dictatorships riding high in Europe, he was dismissed as an idle dreamer, if not a self-deluded megalomaniac. Interest in him was slight, although William Bullitt, who had once served and then turned against him, persuaded Sigmund Freud to collaborate on writing a withering biography. America’s entry into World War II revived his fortunes. It was the exuberance of 1917 all over again, except that this time the enemy was truly evil, not merely aggressive.
Here was a second chance, idealists believed, to build a more perfect world. President Franklin Roosevelt, a crafty politician who understood the weakness of Americans for grandiose schemes, had himself been a junior official in Wilson’s cabinet, and Cordell Hull, FDR’s own secretary of state, was an ardent Wilsonian. Together they put together a Wilson-inspired structure for world betterment under US leadership: the Atlantic Charter, the Bretton Woods accords, and the United Nations. But the Russians had other ideas. “One World,” to use the title of Wendell Willkie’s inspirational book popular at the time, soon split into two, and then more. Wilson was put back on the shelf.
The cold war took a heavy toll on his reputation. His schemes for universal peace and democracy were mercilessly ridiculed by such analysts of power politics as George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Hans Morgenthau, and, later, Henry Kissinger. To them, in an age of hot ideologies, delicate military balances, and proxy wars, Wilson’s dream of a democratic world bound together by free trade and collective peacekeeping seemed simply irrelevant. And for the most part it was.
But the end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union changed all that. In the absence of any serious military challengers or rival ideologies the US today reigns, for however long, supreme. The whole world looks to America for instruction. Not in democracy, as Wilsonians imagine. Rather they look to Silicon Valley and to Hollywood. People everywhere …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.