Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson; drawing by David Levine


During the past dozen years the image of Woodrow Wilson has undergone a remarkable transformation. The saintly idealist inspired by utopian visions of global brotherhood has been given a new identity as a crusading imperialist warrior. To the chagrin of his old liberal admirers and the applause of his new neoconservative celebrants, Wilson has been invoked as the patron saint of the Iraq war.

What has happened? Has Wilson been hijacked, his name cruelly taken in vain? Or did we misunderstand him all along? Liberals prefer to think that their Wilson, the prophet of a democratic peace through international cooperation, would never have sanctioned a unilateral war for resources, for “preemption,” or even for democracy. Is he not rightly celebrated as one of the most ardent advocates of internationalism, of a “community of power” to replace the balance of power, of a global parliament of nations to keep the peace?

Yes, but…Wilson’s internationalism was always of a special kind. For two and a half years he kept the US out of the European war until both sides were so weakened that he believed he could dictate the peace. And when he did instruct Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917, he insisted that the US would have an absolutely free hand: it would not join the Entente as an ally but as an “associated power” with its own separate military command and political objectives. Even his plan for the League of Nations assumed that it would remodel the world on American lines.

Some hawks of the Iraq war are at least partly right. Woodrow Wilson, the quintessential liberal icon, was a very convincing imperialist crusader. It is sobering to reflect that for decades Wilson’s name has been invoked to sanctify virtually every military action that an American president has chosen to pursue, including the current war in Iraq. And considering that the US has been in a state of war in one place or another almost con-tinually since 1941, that is no mean accomplishment.

Woodrow Wilson today is rightly honored not as the prince of peace but as the inspiration for constructing the world according to American principles. If any one person can be said to exemplify both the idealism and the hubris of the American Century, it is Wilson. The galvanizing terrorist attack of 2001, just sixty years after the similarly galvanizing Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, has given him new relevance.

Wilsonian rhetoric has been widely invoked to justify America’s current global crusade. When George W. Bush declared that “liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause,” and that the American war would inaugurate a drive to “bring the hope of democracy…to every corner of the world,” he was speaking in the language of Wilson. An editor of The New Republic said that such declared goals make Bush “the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself,” and “the influence of Wilsonian ideals may be gleaned in everything from the administration’s plan to use Iraq as a pivot for democratizing the Arab world to its broader strategy of transforming rather than coexisting with totalitarian regimes.”1

The rhetorical link between Wilson and today’s neoconservative expansionists is not coincidental—any more than it was between Wilson and the architects of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Wilson’s inspiring language, at once so flattering and so stirring, is a powerfully effective instrument for winning public support.

The war in Iraq has been described by its neoconservative enthusiasts as a Wilsonian war in that it vows to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and far beyond. This is appealing to many liberals as well, for it plays upon their eagerness to use American power for virtuous ends. In seeking these virtuous ends, they embrace questionable means.

Liberals and neoconservatives may both be correct in considering themselves to be Wilsonians. In truth they are more alike than they admit in their ideological ambitions and their moral justifications. But this should not be surprising, for some of today’s neoconservatives were yesterday’s liberals. In practice the difference between the interventionist liberals and the interventionist neoconservatives is more a matter of degree than of principle. It rests on how much exercise of military power the liberals will rationalize, and how much deference to liberal clichés the neoconservatives will tolerate.

In seeking justification for the use of military force, the word “democracy” is the mantra. When Wilson insisted that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” he was expressing not a hope but a mandate. For Wilsonians the democratic imperative is not negotiable. Like most other faiths, it is intolerant of every system other than itself. The paradox of democracy is that it can be intolerant in its absolutist demand for tolerance. It does not hesitate, whether under liberals or conservatives, to use military power to enforce surrender to its imperative. In this it is like other crusading monotheistic faiths. To be indifferent to the spread of American-style democracy is to be unpatriotic. To ask why the world must be made safe for democracy is a subversive question.


But Wilson, like Scripture, can be quoted for many uses. His pronouncements are so expansive as to make him a veritable ism unto himself. And the parts do not all neatly attach themselves to one another. Wilsonianism is a cloak that fits many sizes, shapes, and needs. Unilateral intervention? Certainly Wilsonian. Just ask the Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans, and Nicaraguans to whom he sent the Marines, as he famously said, to “teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Also Wilsonian are self-determination, anticolonialism, free trade, internationalism, and globalization.

Yet war, too, can be Wilsonian, if for the right purposes, along with neocolonialism, nationalism, and even imperialism. Democracy, no matter how loosely defined, is of course just about always Wilsonian. This is true even when it comes in the garb of intervention and authoritarianism—as Reagan’s UN envoy Jeane Kirkpatrick erroneously maintained in her celebrated pre-1989 explanation of why right-wing dictatorships can evolve into democracies, but left-wing ones presumably never.

It might be deemed unfair to describe Wilsonianism as simply a pretext for a cynical imperialism that uses virtuous precepts as a moral cover for its endless expansion. Rather, Wilsonianism can be viewed as a bottomless cornucopia from which policymakers can snatch an idealistic justification, complete with inspiring rhetoric, for pursuing whatever strategy suits them. In this sense it is the quasi-theological counterpart of that other immensely useful, though totally indefinable, abstraction, the “national interest.”

In seeking to justify the policy of the day, whatever that might be, pol-iticians have found Wilson’s homilies immensely useful. Nixon often invoked “Wilsonian rhetoric to explain his goals while appealing to national interest to sustain his tactics,” Henry Kissinger informs us. “…In Nixon’s mind Wilsonianism and Realpolitik would merge.”2

They have merged for others as well. In his important study America’s Mission, the political scientist Tony Smith argues that Wilson’s emphasis on democracy rested not on woolly idealism but on “the conviction that American national interests could best be pursued by promoting democracy worldwide.”3 The theory behind this is that democracies tend not to launch aggressive wars—at least not against one another. Thus does Smith provocatively bring together two seemingly incompatible traditions: classical realism with its emphasis on power and liberal internationalism with its concern for democracy.

However interpreted, Wilson’s political genius, from which his successors have learned much, was to formulate a policy that corresponded perfectly with America’s strategic and political interests, and to phrase it in a vocabulary that made it seem idealistic and self-denying. In finding that the Lord blessed what self-interest dictated, this preacher’s son did not break new ground. But he set a high standard to which his predecessors are compared and his successors aspire.

What is required for a Wilsonian diplomacy is not merely the desire to reshape the world, but also a reasonable conviction that the US has the power to do so. Thus the Wilsonian impulse has ebbed and flowed in proportion to the belief of American leaders in their ability to mold events. Recently it has been flourishing, although that could change if the costs of the current military adventure in Iraq spiral out of control and the promised benefits prove illusory—as they did in Vietnam and are becoming in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.

The first American blueprint for a “new world order” was that enunciated by Wilson in his Fourteen Points address of January 1918. There he laid out the principles of an American-designed peace to all the European belligerents, and followed it up at the Paris Peace Conference where he tried to impose it on America’s recalcitrant allies. Following Wilson’s failure the US withdrew into the excitement of the stock market boom, and then into the morning-after of the Great Depression.

It was not until the victory over Germany and Japan in 1945 that Americans dreamed once again of transforming the world. The half-century war with Soviet and Chinese communism provided the incentive, and the absence of any other serious rivals offered the opportunity. That long conflict, with its succession of overt and covert wars along the frontiers where the “free” and “Communist” worlds met, marked the period that has been labeled the American Century. It culminated on a note of triumphalism at communism’s collapse, and found its perfect expression in Francis Fukuyama’s premature celebration of the “end of history” and the eternal reign of democratic capitalism.

Now that we are back in history the Bush administration is engaged in the construction of another new world order. In this endeavor Wilson serves as a guiding inspiration. “Wilson’s intellectual victory proved more seminal than any political triumph could have been,” to cite again the ever-quotable Kissinger. “For, whenever America has faced the task of constructing a new world order, it has returned in one way or another to Woodrow Wilson’s precepts.”


Wilson’s sermons embraced the principles of self-determination, democracy, the Open Door (i.e., free trade), globalization, collective security, and a faith in progressive history leading to a better world. American presidents, each in their own fashion, regardless of their actual behavior, have all made obeisance to these precepts. They are part of our national ritual.

But they have not been without their critics. The historian Lloyd Ambrosius, in his stimulating collection of essays, Wilsonianism, argues that Wilson “failed to provide a realistic vision or legacy for the United States in world affairs.” In large part this was owing to Wilson’s conviction that his principles were universal, when in fact they were as parochial as those he opposed. “Equating Americanism with internationalism,” both Wilson and George W. Bush “championed a system of globalization under US leadership. But neither of them understood the backlash against it,” Ambrosius writes of the dangerous fallacy that connects Wilson to today’s neo-Wilsonians.


To make sense of Wilson’s diplomacy it helps to know something about his life. A “man’s philosophy is his autobiography,” as the young Walter Lippmann wrote during Wilson’s presidency, “You may read in it the story of his conflict with life.” For no one is this more true than for Wilson. In Woodrow Wilson, his compact and graceful biography, the prolific historian H.W. Brands, though covering no new ground, provides clues to the way that Wilson’s Southern heritage, his strict Presbyterian upbringing, his fear of weakness, his need to impose his will on others, his yearning for applause and respect, and his half-conscious quest for martyrdom contributed to both his triumphs and his failures.4

A deeply religious man, Wilson believed that it was his calling to improve the world along lines revealed to him by the Creator and perfected in the United States. “America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of the Holy Scriptures,” he offered in explanation of why the war was a holy crusade. His religious conviction gave him great strength in the struggle against opponents. But it also made him inflexible on issues he cared about deeply. In such cases—like the Senate fight over the League of Nations—he saw compromise as tantamount to humiliation.

This was evident even before he became president—most notably in his quixotic fight with the trustees of Princeton over the location of the new graduate school. That too was a battle that his stubbornness turned into defeat. Wilson came to the White House in 1913 as a domestic reformer with Progressive leanings. But the outbreak of the European war the following year provided him with the wider stage that his ambitions craved. For two years he tried to mediate between rival imperial coalitions, each intent on total victory: the British, French, and Russians on one side, and the Germans (with their fissiparous Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman partners) on the other. Early in the war he urged a compromise “peace without victory,” and even when US merchant ships were being attacked by the warring parties, declared (to hoots of derision from Theodore Roosevelt and the war hawks) that “there is such a thing as a nation being too proud to fight.”

For Wilson the fighting was only the means to a far greater end: the abolition of war through the creation of an international structure to enforce the peace. Americans were undertaking, he told the nation in his April 1917 call for a war declaration, a noble goal, a “war to end all war.” In January 1918 he went beyond even that to proclaim the “final war for human liberty.” It was also an ambitious goal, particularly since America’s allies in the great crusade—Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and Italy—had other objectives.

Some of these objectives had been laid out in the treaties which the members of the Entente had arranged among themselves to divvy up the spoils once they had defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Making “the world safe for democracy” was not on their agenda. These treaties had understandably been negotiated in great secrecy. But when the Bolsheviks, after seizing power in Russia in November 1917, revealed them to the world, the virtue of America’s new wartime partners became seriously tainted.

To neutralize the impact of the secret treaties on American public opinion, Wilson hastily put together his own peace plan. In January 1918 he unveiled his Fourteen Points. Eight of them dealt with territorial claims and adjustments (restoring Belgian independence, returning Alsace-Lorraine to France, etc). But at the heart of his plan lay six general principles for the reorganization of the world.

They were high-sounding principles: freedom of the seas, open diplomacy, free trade, arms control, rights for colonial peoples, and an association of nations to keep the peace. However, they also conflicted with the ambitions of America’s allies, who found them to be intolerable and indeed risible. No matter, Wilson told his chief adviser, Colonel Edward House. America’s economic position at the end of the war would be so strong that the Allied leaders would have to go along with a just peace plan. It would all be ironed out at the peace conference in Paris. There he would be the architect of a Novus Ordo Seculorum for the world, just as the Founding Fathers had been for the American republic nearly a century and a half earlier. He would be their heir and successor.

The key to this new world order would be an assembly of states that would confront aggressors with the power of a united world community. Wilson did not invent the idea. It had been bandied about for years, most notably by the League to Enforce Peace, which was headed by former president William Howard Taft in 1915 and, in 1916, sponsored speeches by Henry Cabot Lodge as well as Wilson. But he was its most eloquent and important exponent. His faith in the redemptive power of the League was total. And it lay at the heart of his ultimate, largely self-inflicted, defeat.

The peace treaty hammered out in Paris during the first six months of 1919 by the victors was neither idealistic nor even practical. The Germans were excluded, as if their defeat had made them irrelevant to Europe’s future, and so were the Russians, in punishment for their revolution. But Paris provided a field day for a gaggle of greedy petitioners, each coveting the territory of its neighbors and citing historical grievances and claims going back centuries.

The cynical bartering and shady deals, the dismemberment of existing states, the distribution of booty among the victors, the carving up of empires, the horse-trading of ancient civilizations, and the bondage of colonial peoples were not only unjust, which was to be expected in the circumstances, but also self-destructive. They made a mockery of Wilson’s ethereal rhetoric and spawned a generation of cynics among both the victors and the defeated. In the end their legacy was not Wilson’s “war to end all wars” but an even more terrible one.

The editors of the progressive New Republic5 in 1917 had excitedly endorsed the war, promising a “transvaluation of values as radical as anything in the history of intellect.” Two years later, when the victors finished their handiwork and presented the Versailles Treaty to the defeated, the same editors described it as “the most shameless and, we hope, the last of those treaties which, while they pretend to bring peace to a mortified world, merely write the specifications for future revolution and war.”6

Ironically, the war for democratic values abroad became, under Wilson, a war that resulted in their suppression at home. After Congress passed the war declaration his administration enacted a series of repressive laws restricting freedom within America’s own borders. Under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, what was labeled “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the American government, or any words likely to bring it into “contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute,” including remarks questioning the war or the wisdom of its leaders, were outlawed. Offenders were subject to deportation or prison. The labor leader Emma Goldman was sent to Russia. Eugene Debs, the socialist candidate for president in 1912, was jailed for criticizing the war and not released until Wilson was replaced by Harding in 1921. Wilson’s intolerance of opposition, along with his sympathies for racial segregation, made him an ineffective and even unwilling opponent of the erosion of civil liberties during the war and its aftermath.

The disillusionment with the war and the peace came soon enough. But at the beginning there was hope everywhere, as the University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan shows in Paris 1919, her meticulous reconstruction of the conference. Unlike many other books dealing with this momentous event she has no strong cause to plead, axe to grind, or even analytical frame on which to hang her chronicle of events. But in an agreeably old-fashioned style she tells her story in graceful, illuminating, and balanced prose.

She recounts in colorful detail the long and sometimes acrimonious negotiations among the three key leaders, Wilson, Georges Clemenceau of France, and David Lloyd George of Great Britain, along with brief appearances by such flamboyant supplicants and manipulators as Gabriele d’Annunzio and Eleutherios Venizelos. She has a gift for relating a complicated story vividly, with an ability to capture the essence of her characters in deft portraits.

If you want to know how the hybrid state of Yugoslavia came into being, why Romania came out of the war twice as big as it went in by absorbing a huge piece of Hungary, how Japan was allowed to gobble up the Shantung province of China, how the Italians took a chunk of German-speaking Austria but lost their bid to gain both shores of the Adriatic, how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk put together a Turkish state from the detritus of the Ottoman Empire and kept the Greeks from seizing Constantinople, and, particularly timely, how the British carved four Arab states—Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, not to mention a few kingdoms and principalities—from Ottoman territories and installed a Sunni prince on the throne in Baghdad, this is the place to find it.

Much of the later criticism of the conference focused on the victors’ treatment of Germany, which was stripped not only of its colonies but of a good part of its own territory, and then suffered punitive reparations that contributed to the democratic Weimar Republic’s political instability. MacMillan argues that Germany’s punishment was not unreasonable, and that the reparations were not so onerous as they seemed—a view that has now become conventional in academic studies. However, it is worth noting that Germany’s treatment after World War II was dramatically different, and that the Bundesrepublik turned out to be not only far better than Weimar, but an admirable, peaceful democracy.

However, the question remains: Why did Wilson not do a better job of defending his principles of a “peace without victory”? The hard negotiations over Germany’s “war guilt” and the price that should be exacted from it took place largely between Lloyd George and Clemenceau. The crafty old French leader, whose memories went back to the humiliating defeat of 1871, was convinced that France could be secure only if Germany was greatly and permanently weakened—and even reduced in size by the amputation of the Rhineland as well as German-speaking areas in the new Poland and Czechoslovakia.7

Wilson was concerned about the dangers of a vindictive territorial settlement, and about the exaggerated claims of supplicants with ancient grievances that they demanded be settled in their favor. But the League was for him an overriding priority, and he knew that to get what he wanted he also had to give. In the end he sacrificed too many of his principles because he believed that the peace treaty, no matter how flawed, could be redeemed by the League.

It was a dangerous gamble. And he need not have made it. What he seems not to have realized was that it was his negotiating partners, the British and the French, who needed the League, not the US. It was they who depended on American power and support for security against a restored Germany and the threat of revolution sweeping across Europe from Russia. The US could, and did, do quite well without the League. But those directly threatened by the ambitions of rising militarized regimes could not.

Instead of buying the League from his wartime allies he should have sold it to them. Instead of acquiescing in their territorial grabs as the price of their acceptance of the League, he should have said that the US would agree to join the League only if they would accept an equitable and non-punitive peace. But he wanted the League too desperately, for it alone could justify his decision to enter a war that he had earlier denounced as madness. And he paid far too much for it.

In proudly presenting his fatally flawed treaty to the Senate for ratification, he delivered one of his sermons:

The stage is set, the destiny is disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way…. It was of this that we dreamed at our birth.

The stage was indeed indisputably set, but not for what Wilson anticipated.

Wilson is generally portrayed as a martyr to the League, his noble dream thwarted by a handful of willful, isolationist senators who blocked ratification of the treaty and thereby condemned the world to another terrible war. In fact Wilson’s chief opponent in the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, espoused a qualified internationalism—as John Milton Cooper shows in Breaking the Heart of the World, his admirably balanced study of the League fight—and even before the war had joined Theodore Roosevelt in seeking a “League of Peace” to prevent war.

The question before the Senate was not whether the United States should engage with the world, but on what terms. Wilson believed that his formula was perfect as it stood, that it could not suffer the slightest amendment. To ensure that he would have total control over his handiwork he had refused to appoint a single Republican to his team in Paris. This foolishly gave the party no stake in the agreement. When he presented the treaty to the Senate in July 1919 he laid it down as if it were a gauntlet. “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?” he demanded.

Phrased in those terms, it became not a question of a reasonable path to a deeper international engagement on which both parties agreed but a test of wills. There was a large area of agreement that could have resulted in a compromise settlement, Cooper convincingly demonstrates, were it not for Wilson’s rigidity and self-righteousness.

Refusing to accept a single amendment to his covenant, and unable to win the requisite Senate majority, Wilson took the issue directly to the people. Believing that his rhetorical skills could force the recalcitrant senators to support him, he set out on a grueling transcontinental whistle-stop tour to sell his treaty. While on this misguided trip he suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him for the rest of his life and made him a president in name only.

From October 1919 to the end of his term in March 1921 he was kept in virtual seclusion in the White House. For all practical purposes the acting president, as Phyllis Lee Levin demonstrates in her engrossing study of this period of constitutional crisis, was his formidable second wife, Edith Galt. With insight and a sure sense of drama, Levin reveals a Potemkin village presidency, whose inner workings and orchestrated public performances echo those of an imperial Chinese court. Edith and Woodrow, in addition to being a taut and dramatically told political drama, is a valuable addition to our knowledge of a concealed chapter of American history. Her book deserves a wider and more respectful audience than it is likely to attract because of its trivializing title.

Aside from the drama of smoke and mirrors, with a near-moribund Wilson largely kept from public view and his wife judging and signing legislation in his name, did Wilson’s collapse affect the fight over the League? Cooper maintains that it did, that had Wilson been in full possession of his senses he would have brokered a deal with the Senate that gave him the essence of what he sought. Perhaps.

But Wilson never showed the slightest interest in compromise before his stroke. It would be his way or nothing, the treaty pure of amendments or no treaty at all. Given the choice between partial surrender and martyrdom, Wilson chose martyrdom. In so doing he blocked a modified American international political engagement that might have had a greater effect on history than his utopian visions. If anyone, to use his melodramatic language, broke the heart of the world, it was he.

In the end it may not have greatly mattered whether or not the US joined the League. None of the democracies, united or separately, had any stomach for defying the aggressors. This was dramatized at Munich in 1938 when Britain and France tried to cut a deal with Hitler by channeling his aggression toward the east at Czechoslovakia’s, and ultimately Russia’s, expense. It was not America’s absence from the League that fed the dictators’ aggressions. It was the refusal to create a workable balance of power to contain them—a refusal rooted in Wilsonian utopianism.

Once again we are in a Wilsonian mood to remake the world in the American image—though in this case George W. Bush initially rejected the cooperation with the League’s successor, the United Nations, that he now seeks. Strikingly the admiration for Wilson has only grown with the triumph of American power. This is perfectly understandable once one realizes that Wilsonianism is not primarily the doctrine of democracy or of internationalism. It is the doctrine of American exceptionalism. It is the “city on the hill” expanded to global dimensions, the ideological companion to American hegemony.

Americans were not ready for that great adventure in 1919 when Wilson proposed it. Since the late 1940s we have embraced Wilson’s intoxicating rhetoric for remaking the world according to American values. His plan for a new world order, he told the Senate in January 1917, rested firmly on “American principles.” These were not negotiable, he maintained, for “they are the principles of mankind and must prevail.” This is why Wilson is honored today not as a failed idealist but as an imperial figure for a nation in the flush of an imperial age.

This Issue

November 20, 2003