Pushing Wilson off His Pedestal

By Wynne Kerridge ’16

One of the more striking aspects of Princeton is its veneration of Woodrow Wilson. With a residential college and one of the most popular majors on campus named in his honor, the University proverbially, and, in the case of the Triangle Show, literally sings his praises.
This worship, however, is often conducted merely on the basis of Wilson having been the President of our University and then the President of the United States. Little thought is given to whether or not his actions as president actually deserve respect. This impulsive honoring of Wilson is not simply unjustified; it is contrary to what he deserves.
It is certainly telling that Wilson is rarely discussed in relation to his domestic policy.  While Wilson initially attempted to enact a domestic policy agenda called the New Freedom, political pressures forced him to modify it to a rather forgettable amalgamation of different ideas resembling Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.   Especially given the possible role of the farm loan scheme in creating a farming bubble, Wilson’s actions in this area are insufficient to warrant reverence.
World War I predominates thought about Wilson, but this was not the only manifestation of his foreign policy vision. He was highly active in Latin America for much of the beginning of his presidency. He simultaneously criticized imperialism as an idea, yet sent troops to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico. His intentions were not to narrowly benefit the US, though Americans held large amounts of property there; rather, he expressed his purpose as being to “teach South American Republics to elect good men.” Clearly, this was an instructional effort on behalf of America, the very essence of imperialism that detractors so vociferously fought against.
When World War I broke out, Wilson, like most of the country, initially wanted to follow the American tradition of neutrality in European wars. However, as the war wore on and both sides impinged on our merchants’ neutral rights, Wilson’s tendency to prefer democracies inevitably influenced his responses.  The administration reacted mildly when the British seized American vessels bringing food to the neutral Netherlands lest the food interfere with the British effort to starve the German civilian population into submission.  When the Germans reacted to this violation of international law by using submarines to attack British shipping, inevitably resulting in the deaths of American passengers, Wilson vehemently protested. He did not pressure the British into ceasing their self-described “Starvation Policy,” which was both odious and the initial cause of the American losses, but rather lashed out against the Germans when they retaliated.
These tensions stemmed from Wilson’s dual standards for democratic and autocratic regimes and eventually resulted in war. Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany and asked Congress for a declaration of war upon discovering the Zimmerman Telegram, a correspondence in which Germany asked Mexico if they would be interested in an alliance in the event of a war between the United States and Germany. Given Wilson’s bellicose response to a hypothetical world where Germany and America were already at war, it seems likely that a substantial part of his motivation was to bring democracy to Central Europe. Indeed, his explicit aims at democratic construction after the war, manifest in his Fourteen Points, speak strongly to this point.
While World War I and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles failed to create any lasting democracies, with the questionable exception of Czechoslovakia, Wilson helped establish the promotion of democracy abroad as a goal of the US military. Previously, the military had been used only defensively and, to immense scandal, imperialistically in the Philippines after the Spanish American War. Wilson, however, removed that taboo not merely in terms of partaking in large foreign wars, but also for toppling regimes of which we disapprove.
As time passed, Wilson’s idealism eventually served to legitimate a new idea that fed on his predilection for bringing democracy, even through war conducted on relatively minimal pretexts. This ideology, later adopted by neoconservativism, preferred actions on a multilateral basis when possible, but, as with Wilson in Latin America, was unafraid to go at it alone when doing so was militarily practical.
Interestingly, most of those who support Wilson would find this particular legacy to be quite unfortunate, and even those who support this aspect tend to find Wilson’s policies objectionable for other reasons. Regardless, we must remember that much of the foreign adventurism prevalent in American policy today hearkens back to deep Wilsonian roots.
Given Wilson’s arguably poor policy, his veneration is baseless. However, not only do we lack good reasons to revere him, but we also have strong reasons not to honor him. This is most clear when we remember that Wilson was a virulent racist who held and enforced grossly anti-black views.
Most famously, he hosted a showing of the unashamedly pro Ku Klux Klan film, A Birth of a Nation, in the White House.  He is even alleged to have commented on it favorably, although his exact wording is subject to debate.
This racism was not limited to a passive view, but was a persistent and strong aspect of Wilson. Indeed, it so warped his research as a historian that he opined, “The white men were aroused by a mere instinct of self-preservation — until at last there sprung into existence a great Klu Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”  Nor was Wilson’s racism even limited to expressions of opinion. In his role as President of Princeton, he opposed the admission of blacks, an influence that persisted even after his departure through his appointed admissions officials.
Likewise, Woodrow Wilson’s racism continued to influence him as President of the United States. Despite Wilson’s substantial efforts to court the black vote in the 1912 election, the administration started a policy of segregation in the civil service, the very area for which the Woodrow Wilson School aims to prepare its students. In a variety of federal departments, most notably the post office, black workers were separated either physically or through the use of screens from white workers. Restrooms and lunchrooms were also assigned on the basis of race, with the unsurprising result that black workers received inferior accommodations. Additionally, in 1914, applicants were required to submit a photograph when applying for a job in the civil service. This was intended to help employers “form some opinion in regard to the eligibles certified.” While at first it was not clear whether Wilson was behind the segregation efforts, he soon made his support clear when defending the segregation from a swarm of criticism from groups ranging from church leagues to the NAACP, claiming that segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit.
Wilson’s second questionable policy was his blatant restriction on free speech. Wilson requested, signed, and enforced the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which prohibited a broad range of dissent that in any way impeded military recruitment. Most famously, Eugene Debs was imprisoned for ten years for giving a speech suggesting the war was caused by the greed of Wall Street. He merely emphasized how “the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the wars.” Many others, primarily socialists and critics of conscription, were also jailed.
Criminal prosecution was not even limited to direct criticisms of the war or war in general. Under the Espionage Act, the film producer Robert Goldstein was imprisoned for ten years for producing and showing The Spirit of ’76. The federal government worried that showing British atrocities from the Revolutionary War might undermine support for the current war. To be fair, Wilson eventually decided that making a movie was not a horribly egregious offense, so he commuted the sentence to only three years in prison.
The attacks on free speech were by no means restricted to direct jailing of dissidents. The government’s monopoly postal service and wartime economic controls were also used to indirectly harass critical newspapers. As they tended to criticize the war, Socialist publications were often either not mailed or intentionally delivered incorrectly. When limiting supplies to the newspaper seemed too obvious, brewers were told that if they advertised in the wrong newspaper, they would lose access to hops.
Finally, we should acknowledge Wilson’s role in fostering anti-German hysteria, even before US involvement in WWI. Wilson used his speeches throughout 1915 to attack hyphenated Americans, a dog whistle for referring to those who retained links to their Irish and German cultures. He also used his 1916 Flag Day speech to urge active intolerance of those who did not honor the American Flag as an individual duty of all citizens. In his next Flag Day speech, Wilson urged watchfulness against German spies. While Wilson’s Committee on Public Information took efforts to reach out to Americans of German descent, it fostered a growing hatred of all things Germanic. Most importantly, private violence was legitimized when the American Protective League, a volunteer private group that engaged in surveillance and harassment of potentially disloyal Americans, was classified as an auxiliary branch of the Department of Justice. Finally, by muzzling critics of the war, Wilson silenced the natural critics of domestic jingoism.
These actions taken by Wilson ignited a firestorm of anti-German hatred. Some aspects were largely harmless such as the renaming of streets, places, animals, food, and diseases. Similarly, German and Austrian music were abandoned. However, other aspects were far more distressing. German language instruction was banned in many places, and its teachers were harassed. Those with German names were subject to employment discrimination. People speaking in German or reading German language magazines were subject to physical harassment. People who purchased fewer War Bonds than was expected of them were liable to have their home covered with yellow paint, especially if they were of German origin. This marked them for further brutalization. Mobs would enact various forms of “justice” on those deemed disloyal. Punishment included vandalism, whipping, tarring and feathering, beatings, exile, and forced displays of patriotism. Surprisingly, given the pervasive nature of violence, only one German American was lynched during the entire war.
On the Federal level, Wilson required all German aliens 14 years and older to register with the federal government and forbade them from places which might have military significance and from traveling without permission. Their property was also subject to government management for the duration of the war if it was deemed to threaten national security. While this law initially had a limited impact, when Wilson delegated control to the future Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, the latter proceeded to attempt revenge on the primarily German brewing industry for its organized opposition to prohibition.
Wilson was clearly not the only one responsible or even perhaps the most responsible for any of these actions. This is especially true in the harassment of Germans, which was largely committed by local authorities or private citizens and would have occurred to a lesser extent without Wilson’s support. Nor was active racism, suppression of free speech, and wartime persecution unique to Wilson. We ought, nevertheless, to hold Woodrow Wilson culpable as his actions were clearly wrong and by themselves caused substantial suffering.
While I am not advocating starting a campaign to rename the major and residential college, it is important to recognize all aspects of Wilson’s presidency. Not merely because it is unfortunate that an iniquitous man is so prominently honored, but also expunging the faults of past leaders leads to an unrealistic belief in the goodness of our government.


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One thought on “Pushing Wilson off His Pedestal

  • March 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    I agree with Mr. Alsbach. Next step: junior paper.


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