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.1 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 want to be rich, hip, and wired, and America sets the pace. This may not exactly be Wilson’s vision, but it is a powerful one.

Today virtually every American concerned with international issues is, or at least claims to be, a Wilsonian. By this they mean that they favor open market economies, self-determination for restive ethnic or nationality groups, collective security, and democratic governments. 2 Dusted off after decades of neglect and ridicule, Wilson is now hailed as the prophet of the age. His goals, so firmly repudiated in his own day, have become the watchwords of our own time. This is not so because of the force of Wilson’s personality, or because of his often overstrained eloquence, although these clearly played a part, but because he so perfectly captured the innocent, even self-righteous, idealism of the American yearning to reshape other societies. Louis Auchincloss’s elegant short biography helps us greatly to understand the pervasive and enduring impact of this exasperating and inescapable man.

Wilson would be a rich subject for a biographer even were his ideas not so currently fashionable. He was a man in love with power, which he could justify to himself only by insisting that he was exercising it for noble objectives. The son, and also the son-in-law, of Southern Presbyterian clergymen, he believed that his actions were never self-serving but were divinely ordained by God. Passionately committed to whatever goal he persuaded himself was right, he was a man of inflexible self-righteousness. However suitable for a prophet, this was not an ideal trait for a politician. His rigid refusal to compromise was more a reflection of arrogance and pride than of principle, and it ensured his defeat on the issues that mattered to him greatly.

It takes a novelist’s sensibility to probe the conflicting currents of this complex character and to show how they affected his actions. No one is better equipped for this task than Louis Auchincloss, our most discerning analyst of the world of power and privilege.3 Indeed Wilson seems almost tailor-made for one of Auchincloss’s own novels: a proud and idealistic man who enthralled millions but was ultimately undone by himself. Concise, sensitive, and discerning, Woodrow Wilson is an illuminating portrait.


Wilson had a mission. But despite his ecclesiastic heritage, he was not a missionary. He wanted to be in the world and to be a leader of men. Initially he thought he could do this through the law. But a year of desultory practice after law school so bored him that he enrolled in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins to get an advanced degree in history, politics, and economics. His goal, as he wrote in a letter at the time, was “…to become an invigorating and enlightening power in the world of political thought.”

His path to power lay not only through knowledge, but through persuasion. He lived in an age when oratory was highly prized, and a politician like William Jennings Bryan, who today would be considered a windbag fit only for a career as a TV evangelist, mesmerized crowds for hours with his mellifluous prose. Although Wilson despised Bryan, he respected his oratorical skill. “We would acquire knowledge that we might have power,” as he described a “solemn covenant” with a classmate, and “would drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion but especially in oratory…that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes.” He was considered a brilliant speaker: a major reason for his success as a politician.

Today money and connections grease the path to political power. Wilson thought he could do it with intellect and oratory. And he did. In 1890, after teaching for five years at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, he won a coveted chair at Princeton, where he had done most of his undergraduate studies. There he laid the groundwork for his political career with a campaign built on public lectures and books. “I was born a politician,” he wrote in a note to himself at the time, “and must be at the tasks for which, by means of my historical writing, I have all these years been in training.” He was a popular lecturer and able administrator, and in 1902 was tapped to become president of the university. He used this position skillfully to attract national attention.

Politics is about leadership, and Wilson exercised it vigorously. In his first and best-known book, Congressional Government, he extolled a powerful chief executive on the British model, and deplored the power of Congress to obstruct reform. This was a preview of the way he would run his presidency. But politics is also about meeting one’s opponents partway; and Wilson was most inept in making compromises and even averse to them. This rigidity led to the two major defeats of his Princeton tenure, and the far greater one that ended the crusade of his life.

At Princeton he fought bitterly with the faculty and alumni over two issues of less than cosmic importance. The first was new housing for undergraduates that would reduce the social power of the “eating clubs.” The second was the location of a new graduate school that, contrary to Wilson’s wishes, a rich patron was willing to finance only if it were built outside the college campus. What is instructive is not that he lost both fights, but how he handled his defeat. Instead of seeking a middle ground that might have appeased his opponents, he insisted that his position was the only morally justifiable one. Wrapped in his virtue he traveled the country in search of alumni support to overrule the faculty’s decisions. He did not limit his rhetoric to Princeton’s affairs: “If she loses her self-possession,” he told one alumni group, “America will stagger…through fields of blood before she finds peace and prosperity under the leadership of men who understand her needs.” The fight with the Princeton faculty exhilarated him. But the exhilaration made no difference in the outcome.

To Wilson a principled defeat was always better than a victory on any but his own terms. In defeat he could retain the conviction that he was right. Compromise would convey lack of conviction. This rigidity reflects what Auchincloss calls, citing an earlier study by August Heckscher,4 the dual nature of his personality. The sensitive man who at times could see all sides of a question in which he was not emotionally engaged, at other times could hardly imagine that he might be wrong. With a self-righteousness reinforced by a religious conviction that he was carrying out God’s will, he tended, in Auchincloss’s words, “to regard opposition as malicious betrayal.”


Wilson was rescued from his embarrassment at Princeton in 1910 when the Democratic bosses of New Jersey, impressed by his reputation as a moderate reformer and in search of a candidate who appeared progressive but would not threaten their interests, nominated him for governor. To their dismay he displayed no gratitude, and once elected pushed through legislation that weakened their power.

Two years later the Democrats, desperate for a new face after having gone down to defeat three times in a row with the orotund Bryan as their candidate, nominated Wilson for president. Fortune smiled. What would have been a sure win for the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft turned into a three-way race when Theodore Roosevelt bolted the GOP and ran as a progressive on his Bull Moose ticket. Wilson squeezed through with 43 percent of the vote: not exactly a mandate, but enough. He was not surprised. “Remember,” he told an astonished politician, “that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” And for a purpose, to be sure, for as he told voters during the campaign, “I believe that God presided over the inception of this nation [and] …that we are chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Pursuing an anti-monopoly, reformist program that he called the New Freedom, he pushed through Congress an impressive program of new legislation including major tariff reform, a progressive income tax, child labor laws, and the Federal Reserve system, which denied Wall Street its monopoly over credit. Crucial to Wilson’s success was the help of “Colonel” (the title was honorific) Edward House, a skillful behind-the-scenes adviser who possessed all the human skills of flattery and compromise in dealing with politicians that the stiffly intellectual Wilson lacked. And Wilson gave him his full confidence. House, he once explained, “is my second personality…my independent self.” This trust would last only so long as House did not take Wilson’s expressed confidence too seriously.

Wilson’s reformist zeal extended to societies other than his own. When General Victoriano Huerta seized power in Mexico in 1913 and civil war broke out, Wilson sided with the rebel leader, Venustiano Carranza, and lifted the arms embargo to help the self-described “Constitutionalists.” Carranza, however, showed neither gratitude nor much interest in defending constitutional rights. Undeterred, Wilson persisted in his “benevolent intervention,” to avert revolution and promote reform by creating a safe terrain for American investment. In 1914, after Mexican officials failed to offer a sufficiently abject apology for briefly jailing an American sailor who had gone ashore without authorization, he ordered the occupation of the port of Veracruz. This gesture took the lives of 126 Mexicans and 19 Americans. When asked by a puzzled British emissary to explain USpolicy, he replied: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” In pursuit of the same goal, as well as of the wider one of protecting US business interests, he ordered the occupation of Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916.

But if he was an interventionist in the hemisphere, he was, like most Americans, initially opposed to involvement in the European war that erupted in August 1914. For two years he urged Americans to be “neutral in thought and in deed,” and declared in April 1915 to the disgust of the belligerent Theodore Roosevelt that “there is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight” and “such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” In an effort to break the stalemate on the Western front, he authorized House to try to broker a settlement, although most of his cabinet and the deeply Anglophile East Coast establishment were committed to the Allied cause. Successfully running for reelection on the slogan that “he kept us out of war,” he called in January 1917 for a “peace without victory” that would reward neither side.

Neutrality, however, was increasingly difficult to sustain. The growing weight of pro-British sentiment, pressure from American banks and businesses with a stake in an Allied victory, and German submarine warfare against US merchant ships bound for Allied ports combined to force his hand. On April 2 he went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war.

Characteristically, in this reversal of his previous principle of non-intervention, he found justification in idealism. The US would not, like other nations, fight to protect its interests, but to change the world. What he promised was not punishment, but transformation and even redemption. “We are glad…to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience,” he pledged in his famous peroration. “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

Wilson was intent on separating America’s war aims from those of its partners. For this reason he insisted that the US was not an ally of Britain and France but rather an associate with its own independent military units and its own objectives. Having rejected war for more than two years, he now embraced it as an opportunity to shape the peace and rebuild the world according to his own liberal values.

To set the stage for a just peace he instructed House to put together a team of scholars cryptically dubbed “The Inquiry.” Its purpose was to draw up the outlines of the postwar world in such a way as to ensure justice for all peoples, alleviate the causes of war, and contribute—as Walter Lippmann, a youthful member of the group, told Wilson—to “that general purification of aims which must precede a fine peace.”

Such purification was particularly urgent because the Bolshevik government of Russia had in late 1917 revealed from seized tsarist archives the treaties secretly concluded by the Allies—Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Japan—to carve up the territory and colonies of Germany and its allies. These accords mocked Wilson’s rhetoric and his intentions. He denied any official knowledge of them, and under rigid wartime censorship was largely able to suppress the story. But Wilson’s Fourteen Points address of January 1918, where he laid out America’s terms for peace and a new international order, was specifically designed to undercut the secret treaties and put the Allies on notice that the US would not support their territorial ambitions.

Wilson, however, was playing from a weak hand. Convinced of his powers of persuasion by the compelling force of his beliefs, and by his personal popularity as America’s leader with the peoples of Europe, he had neglected to gain the Allies’ acceptance of his goals as a condition for American entry into the war. By the time he got to theParis peace conference he had given away his trump card. The Allied leaders had their own war-weary publics to appease.They had to produce something to justify the sacrifices they had sought in the name of pride and honor.

Wilson, as he had in the Princeton fight, thought he could go over their heads and appeal directly to the people. But the same crowds that had cheered him as a conquering hero turned away when he told them they would gain nothing for their losses. On issue after issue, border after border, he gave way to the demands of the Allied leaders. It was the price he paid for the prize he cared about most: the creation of the League of Nations.

Yet it was tragically unnecessary. Wilson had failed to realize that American participation in the League was far more important to the security of Britain and France than it was to the United States. He could have gained a generous settlement for Germany in return for American involvement in European affairs. Instead he accepted a botched peace on the assumption that this was the price required to persuade Europeans to enter the League. So desperate was he to rebuild the world that he gave away what he should have sold.

When he returned to Washington from the final negotiations in Paris it was not in triumph but as a compromised man. Liberals were angry at the Draconian terms of the peace treaty, and conservatives distrusted the League. The Republicans had captured Congress in the November 1918 elections and needed to be conciliated. Here Wilson made a characteristic mistake. Rather than woo Republican leaders and give them a stake in treaty ratification, he virtually ignored them. He needed no help, he believed, and wanted no interference in his plan to end all wars. Just as at Princeton he had miscalculated his strength. His worst political fault, as Auchincloss observes, “lay in his faith that he had, more than other leaders, a sense of the will of the common people, and that he was divinely ordained to carry it out.”

Ultimately, of course, he lost his fight for Senate ratification of the treaty and American accession to the League, which he insisted on linking. For the most part the public supported both, although many liberals were offended by the harsh treatment of Germany and by Wilson’s surrender at Paris of the high principles of the Fourteen Points. But a small though influential band of senators, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, the patrician Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, balked at Article Ten of the treaty. This required all League members to preserve against aggression the territorial integrity of any member when called upon to do so by the League Council. Objecting that this contravened the power of Congress to declare war, they sought to attach what they called a “reservation” to the treaty establishing that any such request required congressional approval.

It was a reasonable demand. No Congress today would surrender such power, nor would the American people support it. But Wilson was intransigent, demanding that the Senate accept the treaty exactly as he had submitted it, or not at all. “Anyone who opposes me on that, I’ll crush!” he assured an adviser. His view, as he had long ago written during his scholarly days, was that in foreign affairs the president’s will was supreme.

That was the British system that he so admired, but it was not the American one. Had he agreed to Lodge’s compromise the Senate would have approved both the treaty and the League by the required two-thirds margin. But he would not budge, and a combination of moderate “reservationists” and isolationist “irreconcilables”blocked it. As he had after losing his battle over the graduate school at Princeton, he thought he could overrule his adversaries by taking his case to the public which he was sure would vindicate him.

Partway through a grueling month-long whistle-stop tour of the West he was felled by a stroke which later crippled him. For the rest of his term he was president in name only, shielded from the public and from Congress by his jealously protective second wife, Edith Gall,5 and his private doctor, Cary Grayson. Preferring no treaty at all to one modified by any hand but his own, he was—not for the first time—the agent of his own defeat. Georges Clemenceau, willing to accept for France an amended treaty, described Wilson and Lodge as “two stubborn old mules kicking each other around.”

History has been kind to Wilson and unforgiving of his opponents. Had the US joined the League, some historians claim, the fascist aggressors of the 1930s would have been blocked and World War II avoided. But this seems unrealistic. The League, to which most of the other major nations belonged, had few teeth, and its members little stomach for challenging—even with serious economic sanctions—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and militaristic Japan. Nor is it likely that America in the League would have been much more willing to join in Europe’s quarrels than it was as an independent actor. Indeed, in addition to home-grown isolationism there was a good deal of sympathy in all of the democratic states—Britain, France, and even the US—for the vigorous New Order of both the fascist and Communist dictatorships.

Wilson today has achieved the triumphant martyrdom that always seemed to be his preferred alternative to victory on anything other than his own terms. In this way he could be assured of the purity of his vision and its divine inspiration of which he had no hesitation in reminding his doubters. As he informed Congress during the fight over the treaty, it could make no changes in his perfect blueprint because “the hand of God…led us into this way.We cannot turn back.”

Wilson’s self-righteousness and rigid authoritarianism inevitably raise questions regarding the psychological origins of his intellectual positions, and particularly of his schemes for democracy and world order. What impelled him to conduct a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” when he was so intolerant of contrary opinion? Democracy—if it is to be anything more than the “guided” kind that today is the obligatory mask for authoritarian regimes seeking foreign investment and international aid—is predicated on the notion of equality, and the validity of the judgment of an informed majority. This was contrary to Wilson’s nature and the cause of his ultimate, and wholly unnecessary, defeats, first at Princeton and then as president. He would not accept the moral validity of any judgment that was contrary to his objectives.

Perhaps his “crusade” for democracy can best be understood as a means of atonement or of rationalization. The only way that such a pious and yet ambitious man could deal with his aggressions and will to power was by finding a morally approved outlet for them. He would be strong in order to do right, he would be stubborn so that he might be just, he would be authoritarian so that he might achieve democracy. But the same needs that drove him to justify his will to power by doing good also caused him to be intolerant when he encountered opposition, and for that reason he was at times unable to achieve his goals. The more his frustrations mounted, the more self-righteous he became.

Today’s revival of interest is less in Wilson the man, fascinating though he is, than in Wilson the ism. His formula for open markets, self-determination, and democracy is directly in line with American interests at a time when there are few restraints on the ability of the United States to pursue them. Free trade and open markets may be good things in themselves, depending on how this objective is interpreted and practiced.But they can also lead to foreign control of weak societies. This is why the British in the nineteenth century were accused by the United States and other developing nations of practicing “free market imperialism.”

The same is true of the other two basic principles of Wilsonianism: self-determination and democracy. As interpreted by Wilsonians they are profoundly interventionist, and threat-ening not only to the internal cohesion of a good many friendly states (such as pre-Khomeini Iran) but at times even to desired democratic transitions. Military force and economic sanctions used in the name of democracy against such dictators as Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and Slobodan Milosevic appear to have strengthened rather than weakened them. What might in some circumstances be considered as aggression or as a means of restoring the balance of power can be described as “peacekeeping” and “democratization.” The bombing of Serbia by US-led forces was justified in this way and, for a time, US support for dissident and separatist groups in China was explained on grounds of democratic principle.While such actions may at times be required for reasons of national interest, they are customarily explained as matters of principle, though applied only selectively. This, of course, is very Wilsonian. “When Wilson compromised,” as Auchincloss reminds us of various deviations from his principles, “he tried very hard to convince himself that he was still acting morally.” This is why he “was a man whom his enemies distrusted as a hypocrite.”

Wilsonianism can serve as a cloak for the pursuit of a dominant nation’s ideology, and thus its political and strategic goals.And it does so in the name of morality. As such it is the ideal instrument of post-cold war American global leadership—or what its critics would call American hegemony. It is therefore not surprising that those who conduct abroad a crusade for American values and practices in the name of democracy should consider themselves Wilsonians.

Wilson was not merely a dreamer, but a man, who found moral reasons, as he said, for “leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes.” He has never been more relevant.

This Issue

October 5, 2000