The Missionary

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,”…

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