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TR and Wilson
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Page 1234

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[picture of Woodrow Wilson]

Wilson was only the second Democrat to move into the White Houses since the Civil War and the first to have been born in the South. His father was a Presbyterian minister, his mother the daughter of another. Every day of his youth, Woodrow Wilson heard God's word as filtered through the strictly moralistic teachings of John Calvin, and he grew up to believe that he had a special obligation to serve both God and his fellow man. From Calvin, he learned the traits that would characterize him as president: scholarly detachment, orderly conduct, self-righteousness, and an intense personal discipline.

When he entered the White House, therefore, he came across as a complete novice, as a stern schoolmaster out to scold the nation. With his set jaw, humorless disposition, and twinkle-free gaze through a pince-nez, Wilson was the farthest thing from a populist politician America has ever produced.

But as with Roosevelt, when Wilson was president no one ever questioned who was in charge. And also like Roosevelt, in many ways Wilson carried the imperial presidency too far. He kept U.S. diplomacy largely to himself, thereby weakening the morale at the State Department and among its foreign service officers. Not that this should have come as a surprise: throughout his writings on government Wilson had expressed an exalted view of executive leadership, going so far as to remark that presidential authority in foreign affairs was "virtually the power to control them absolutely."

As wildly different as they were in temperament, Roosevelt and Wilson shared the firm belief that democratic capitalism was the best form of government, bar none. To both men, capitalism represented nothing less than freedom and democracy through economics, a system that allowed all citizens -- provided that they were male -- rather than any single elite to determine a nation's destiny. Both presidents honestly believed in the United States as a superior nation perfectly suited to lead the world. Unburdened with militarism, unentangled in Old World realpolitik, and uninterested, for the most part, in the ugly competition for colonies, America remained the "shining city on the hill" John Winthrop had prophesied.

But unlike the pragmatic, realistic Roosevelt, it was a missionary idealism that fired Woodrow Wilson, a bedrock certainty that it was America's national duty to provide the world with strong moral leadership. While earlier presidents had attempted to broaden the scope of U.S. interests, none since the passing of the Revolutionary generation had done so in the name of spreading "the American way" to other nations. Presidents James K. Polk, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt had pushed the U.S. agenda in the names of the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, and what British poet Rudyard Kipling had dubbed the "white man's burden," but Wilson harbored an almost messianic belief in the spread of democracy. A belief that it could save the world from humanity's worst instincts.

World War I

Wilson's presidency must, of course, be assessed in the context of the First World War, which overwhelmed his attention for nearly his entire two terms. Throughout those war years, Wilson spent many sleepless nights pondering the gravest challenge to face any president since Abraham Lincoln. He seized his role as spokesman for the nation, and as its leader made all the major decisions himself. His influence, however, appeared less in the decision to enter the war than in the rationalization for the intervention: that this was a war that the United States now had no choice but to fight.

In 1914, when World War I began, America had little concern about how the conflict had started or how it might end. Some two and a half years later, however, the nation's young men were trained into doughboys and sent to fight. Many, like millions of Europeans before them, died in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium. With Germany torpedoing American ships on the high sea, Wilson decided it was just impossible to stay neutral.

Formally abandoning neutrality on April 2, 1917, Wilson delivered a stunning 36-minute war message to Congress. In it he declared that America's first objective would be to crush the German military command, but its long-range goal was to "end all wars" and make the world "safe for democracy." In words worthy of Thomas Jefferson in their grace and power, Wilson proclaimed that it was America's righteous mission to return to the Old World of Europe and bring it a democratic peace. Even Roosevelt, who was no admirer of Wilson, admitted that it was an inspiring bit of oratory. Congress quickly declared war against Germany.

Many Americans disagreed and argued for peace at all costs. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, would vote against entering World War I, stating: "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war."

America's leading industrialists felt the same way, if partly out of the belief that an overseas war would hurt business at home. Andrew Carnegie of U.S. Steel bankrolled several peace groups, while the bumptious Henry Ford, beloved for his affordable automobiles, went so far as to dispatch a "peace ship" to Europe in 1915.

[picture of U.S. troops in trenches]

The preacher-in-chief, however, proved to be an able commander-in-chief. But victory came at an enormous price. America's participation in World War I lasted nineteen months and sent more than two million Americans overseas, 1.4 million of them to serve in France. More than 53,000 U.S. troops died in combat, while another 63,000 perished from disease and other causes. In addition to the incalculable human loss, in today's dollars the financial cost of World War I to America amounted to some $32.7 billion.


[picture of Wilson in a post-war parade]

But we did win, and after the war President Wilson was hailed as a hero nearly everywhere he went on his way to the Paris Peace Conference. Once there, his status as savior enabled him to win substantial concessions from the Allies, including self-determination for a dozen new countries from Austria to Yugoslavia and the formation of his beloved League of Nations, an international body the U.S. president had long dreamed of establishing.

In the end, Wilson got much of what he wanted in the Treaty of Versailles, although he did not manage to keep the Allies from imposing a harsh peace on Germany that permanently barred any rearmament and assessed reparations of $32 billion. A resigned Wilson, unsure if his leadership at Versailles had been successful, sighed to his wife, "Well, it is finished, and as no one is satisfied, it makes me hope we have made a just peace; but it is all in the lap of the gods."

Unfortunately for Wilson, the gods had abandoned him. The Senate twice failed to ratify the treaty, and the United States never joined the League of Nations. On October 2, 1919, in the midst of his public campaign for the treaty, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed him on one side and left him an invalid.

For the next seven months his wife, Edith Galt Wilson, isolated her ailing husband, and kept the public from learning that she was in effect carrying out the business of the presidency.

When told by his physician that the Senate had voted the treaty down, Wilson replied, "Doctor, the devil is a very busy man." But Wilson's peace efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1919 he joined Theodore Roosevelt as one of only two American presidents to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


Through the rest of the century, every succeeding Chief Executive would look to the Warrior and the Minister as models of ambitious leadership. In foreign affairs, Roosevelt became the embodiment of realpolitik; Wilson, the founder of the global human rights movement, his failed League of Nations -- the precursor to today's United Nations. On the domestic side, both men made it clear that the president, not the Congress, truly leads the nation.

These two presidents, equally learned in theory and accomplished in practice of democratic government, but from opposite sides of the fence, are credited with major ideological bents of 20th century Western politics. The "Warrior" and the "Minister" put the United States on the world map.

These two intellectuals, with such starkly different personalities, define the practice of 20th century democracy, its possibilities and its limitations, as surely as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had for their day.

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