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Thursday, January 24, 2013

January 24, 2013: Second Terms: Woodrow Wilson

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ll be highlighting some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, your responses, thoughts, and other ideas, on Obama’s second term or any other one, will be appreciated for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what made Wilson’s second term pretty bad—and why that’s not even close to the worst part.
I nominated Woodrow Wilson for a Memory Day because, as I wrote there, I think he’s gotten a bit of a bad rap. Granted, I’m primed to defend anybody whom Glenn Beck describes as a “President You Should Hate,” and it’s true that much of what bothers Beck about Wilson—his academic background and temperament, his connections to the Progressive movement and its goals for making the federal government bigger and more responsive to Americans’ needs, his anti-war and internationalist efforts with the League of Nations—are to my mind among his best qualities and efforts instead. But I also think Wilson stands out, and looks even better, in direct contrast to his most explicit political adversaries: Teddy Roosevelt, with his uber-masculine ethos and often racist worldview; and the Republican Party of Calvin Coolidge, with its extreme laissez faire and pro-industry policies. For national political leaders of his era, Wilson was probably as good as it gets.
On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that Wilson’s second term as president included two of the more troubling and even shameful elements of any presidential administration. The more famous of the two is also one of the most quick and hypocritical changes in policy in our history: having run for reeelection on a platform of neutrality with respect to World War I, and with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson then decided to, well, go to war; he severed diplomatic relations with Germany less than two weeks after his inauguration, and then, addressing Congress about two months later, asked for and received a War Resolution. I’m not arguing that there wasn’t cause to go to war, nor that it was the wrong decision, necessarily; as with any international conflict, things were complicated and evolving and the U.S. may well have had little choice by 1917 but to join the war. But the simple fact is that Wilson had to know, at least by the end of the campaign, that the situation was changing and that his second term policy likely would have to follow, and so to continue running on the neutrality slogan was, at least, a deceptive and hypocritical choice (and at worst a betrayal of any and all pacifists or opponents of the war who voted for him for that reason).
If his World War I policy represented a sudden and (in at least those ways) shameful shift at the start of his second term, however, the moment within that term that I’d call Wilson’s low point was unfortunately more consistent with his administration’s policies. Despite having run for office as a Progressive on race relations, Wilson had instead become the first president to segregate the federal civil service, and his record on issues and questions of race did not improve from there. But to my mind the low point came in 1919, and directly relates to the racist “race riots” that swept the nation in what came to be called the “Red Summer.”  Those riots were precipitated not only by the usual racial tensions and problems, but also by a combination of racist worries about returning African American soldiers and anti-communist fears (which would lead to the Red Scare soon afterward). And Wilson played into all of those racist and xenophobic fears, noting in a White House conversation that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.” One of the least presidential moments I know of, and part of a pretty bad second term all the way around.
Final second term tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Wilson, on Obama, or on any other president’s second term?


  1. Ok. Woodrow Wilson DOES get a bad rap.
    Disclaimer up front: he is one of my favorite Presidents, because of his complexity and yet...because of a certain attractive simplicity in his worldview--which envisioned a world of justice and peace. One must always take into account his personal AND historical context vis a vis being the first Southern president elected since the end of the Civil War, and the fact his formative memories included the landscape of southern devastation.

    That he was a prisoner of his personal and historical time in terms of race relations (or with ferreting out the "Reds") is of course not laudable, but it is also not unusual nor is it beyond understanding.

    Civil liberties of US citizens have been violated repeatedly by governing bodies and Presidents great and mediocre since the establishment of government.

    As for the war involvement...well...that is far too complex a subject to address here in nuanced argument but my bottom line is that I respectfully object to the argument that hypocrisy entered into his decision to go to war.

    Faults or not, mistakes or not, in my opinion he waged a heartbreaking, admirable, and difficult subsequent campaign to bring people to the table with words rather than swords, and his very failure to bring the US into the League of Nations nevertheless laid the seeds which saw fruition later in the establishment of the UN.

    Such is often the case in human a garden plant, death must occur to nourish the soil for new plants to thrive.

    I have way more to say here but suffice to say I do not see Wilson's second term as a failure. And as an addendum, I truly believe his illness had much to do with the sorrows of this term, more than a failure of character or political will.

  2. Thanks so much for this thorough and thoughtful comment. As with almost any post here, I was only able to present a few aspects and (mostly) one side or take on them, and I really appreciate your perspective and take.


  3. I know. Wilson's era is so complex, so important, as we both know, and blogs aren't conducive to nuanced or comprehensive analysis...but thanks for bringing up one of my fave prezs and fave eras!