One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States. His mark on the 20th century is writ so large that it does not seem that long ago. Perhaps that is because his major accomplishments still have a considerable effect on American life: the Federal Reserve system, the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, all created in his first term; and universal suffrage and the ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, in his second term. Yet all these achievements fade beside the major event of his presidency, the First World War and the failed peace that followed.
Wilson was a strong neutralist and had campaigned for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But less than a month after his second inauguration, after the German Empire had torpedoed more American ships, Wilson saw no other choice. He went to Congress and asked for war. It was a terrible decision for him. He was the descendant of a long line of Presbyterian ministers, and his first wife, Ellen, was the daughter of a minister. Peace was his natural bent. He wept when he returned to the White House after delivering his war message.
Scott Berg begins his biography of Woodrow Wilson after the war, on the eve of Wilson’s departure for the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson was seen as Europe’s savior, and his reception there was adulatory. As Wilson progressed through France, England, Belgium and Italy, the cheering crowds were overwhelming. But, as his triumph marched on, one almost wishes that, as in ancient Roman times, there had been a page at Wilson’s elbow, whispering into his ear, “Remember that you are only mortal.” Within two years, due to the vagaries of American politics, all of these accolades would be ashes in Wilson’s mouth.
The mark of a good historian is that he makes the times, the events, the people and places that he recounts come alive in the reader’s mind. Berg certainly does that for Wilson, the people who filled his life and the epoch in which he lived. Playing off Wilson’s own religious upbringing, Berg titles his chapters with scriptural references and quotations from the King James Bible that seem to imply a Christ-like status for Wilson. That is perhaps a verse too far. Wilson, after all, was a politician, a principled one, but nonetheless a politician who understood his base. Elected president primarily with Democratic votes from the “Solid South,” he had no trouble, for instance, allowing members of his cabinet to re-segregate the previously integrated Department of the Treasury and the Post Office, even while he himself made several key, but minor, appointments of black Americans.
Wilson’s times as professor and then president at Princeton are well-detailed, down to the fights with the faculty over piddling issues. Berg’s description of those days plays out that old saw that academic politics are so vicious because the prizes are so small. Engaged in a bitter disagreement about where to build a planned graduate college, Wilson jumped at the chance to leave Princeton when he was offered the nomination for New Jersey governor by Democratic party bosses (whom he later jettisoned). Wilson resigned from Princeton in October 1910, was elected governor of New Jersey that November, and within two years, in an astonishingly quick ascent to the national stage, was elected president of the United States.
Berg does not neglect Wilson’s uxoriousness. His first wife, Ellen, was the love of his life, and her picture remained on the mantle of his bedroom until the day he died. Their love letters to each other were the 19th-century versions of what young adults text to each other today. During that marriage, however, Wilson developed a deep friendship with Mary Allen Peck, although Berg disagrees with the assessment of Wilson’s detractors that their relationship was sexual. Just over a year after Ellen’s death, Wilson had met and married his second wife, Edith Bolling. Wilson had time to write Edith two or three love letters a day during the summer of 1915, including the day that the Lusitania was sunk.
If there are Christ-like characters in the book, apart from Berg’s designation of Wilson, one is the Dickensian-named, long-suffering Joseph Tumulty, a lawyer and New Jersey assemblyman who followed Wilson to the White House and devoted years to him as his secretary and adviser. Another is Cary Grayson, the Navy admiral who became Wilson’s personal physician and who saw Wilson through physical mishaps, hypochondria and the tragic effects of the stroke in October 1919 that left Wilson paralyzed on the left side of his body. As did Tumulty, Grayson allowed Wilson’s needs to subsume his own life. After Wilson’s stroke, Tumulty, Grayson and Edith conspired to hide the president’s incapacity from the people and from Congress.
The stroke was a direct result of Wilson’s over-exhaustion from barnstorming the country in a failed attempt to get Congress to accept the peace terms he had negotiated in Paris, especially the League of Nations. His political nemesis was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who was hostile to the treaty more out of personal dislike for Wilson than anything else. Lodge’s weapon was the big lie: the League would result in a loss of American sovereignty, he argued. In fact, as Wilson predicted, without American presence in the League, it would prove to be an ineffective tool to combat the rise of new aggression in Europe, and World War II simply started where World War I had left off. Lodge’s animus for Wilson cost the United States and the world a very high price.
It also cost Wilson. He died less than three years after leaving the White House, a defeated man, with the cheers of his victory tour of Europe ringing hollowly in his ears. Berg’s description of Wilson’s last years is touching, an effective end to a very effective retelling of Wilson’s life.