When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, setting off a chain of events that would plunge Europe into war, it was the great misfortune of the modern world that Woodrow Wilson happened to be president of the United States.
In the end, it would also turn out to be the great misfortune of Wilson himself. A scholar of American government whose only experience in public office prior to winning the presidency in 1912 was a two-year stint as governor of New Jersey, Wilson came to the White House ill prepared for foreign crises, let alone the cataclysm of World War I. He knew it, too. On the eve of his inauguration in 1913, Wilson remarked, “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”
An irony, because Wilson had spent years studying domestic policy and came into office with a clear agenda for reform. His so-called New Freedom program included tariff reduction and a corresponding income tax, the creation of the Federal Reserve system, and major antitrust legislation — most of which would get passed in the first year and a half of his presidency. No previous administration had achieved so many legislative victories so quickly.
But Wilson had not thought deeply about foreign affairs, and when the war came, his inexperience showed. From the phony neutrality he insisted on before belatedly taking America to war in 1917, to the vague and contradictory Fourteen Points he brought to the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson was out of his depth. It’s fashionable today to lionize Wilson as an internationalist visionary whose foreign-policy ideas were ahead of his time, but the truth is that he had only half-formed notions about how Europe should be reordered after the war. To make matters worse, Wilson combined his shallow thinking on foreign affairs with the moral absolutism he’d practiced in domestic politics. Whether he was arguing for a central bank or a League of Nations, Wilson tended to cast political disputes in moral terms — and he rarely compromised. If you disagreed with him, you were either a fool or a traitor.
This moral absolutism is the theme of an enlightening new biography of Wilson by Patricia O’Toole, appropriately titled “The Moralist.” O’Toole, a skilled biographer whose previous subjects have included Theodore Roosevelt (When Trumpets Call) and Henry Adams (The Five of Hearts), has written a commentary-infused biography that illuminates an ugly and reckless side of Wilson. Her book stands as a welcome corrective to a pair of sympathetic Wilson biographies from 2011 and 2013 — by John Milton Cooper Jr. and A. Scott Berg, respectively — that helped rehabilitate the 28th president’s reputation by putting flesh and emotion on what had long been a cold icon of the man.
O’Toole narrows her focus to unpack Wilson’s moralism, and what she reveals is a reclusive academic with rigid ideals, one who never questions his moral certitude and who comes to the presidency in 1913 having never learned the basic political skills of negotiation and compromise. Indeed, Wilson’s early successes, combined with his smug self-righteousness, guaranteed that he would never learn them. He entered office believing “he would be able to govern the country and win the cooperation of Congress through oratory,” writes O’Toole. “Happenstance allowed him to start near the top of the political ladder, giving him a governorship on his first try and the presidency on his second. What was Woodrow Wilson supposed to learn from that?”
It turns out he learned all the wrong things — that he didn’t need anyone’s help and that he was always right. As president, Wilson “showed no interest in mastering the arts of friendship, collaboration, and disagreement.” He rarely met with members of Congress and eschewed cultivating relationships even with lawmakers in his own party. Instead, he insulated himself. His closest advisers were his physician, Rear Admiral Cary Grayson, and his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty. Both men were a generation younger than Wilson and, notes O’Toole, “had nothing to gain by pitting themselves against him.” Wilson’s other intimate, the hapless Colonel Edward House, “was hardly the tough-minded counselor he imagined himself to be. Reluctant to argue with Wilson, he generally contented himself with noting their differences in his diary. House’s greatest gift to Wilson was not counsel but sympathy.”
Like the current occupant of the White House, Wilson didn’t have much use for experts — or even members of his own cabinet. If they disagreed with him, Wilson shut them out. Robert Lansing, who became Wilson’s secretary of state after William Jennings Bryan resigned in protest in 1915, had ample experience in international law and arbitration prior to joining the administration. He was a bona fide expert in foreign affairs, with decades of experience, yet Wilson and House routinely dismissed his ideas and concerns. As the nominal head of the U.S. Commission to the Paris Peace Conference, Lansing had deep misgivings about Wilson’s insistence that the final peace settlement should be contingent on the establishment of the League of Nations.
He also feared that Wilson’s vaunted Fourteen Points, especially his notions about self-determination for national minorities, would lead to disaster. “The phrase is loaded with dynamite,” Lansing wrote weeks before the Peace Conference began. “It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called a dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.”
Wilson’s disdain for experts would not serve him well in Paris. After his triumphant arrival in Europe, he proved to be no match for French premier Georges Clemenceau and British prime minister David Lloyd George at the negotiating table. O’Toole chronicles how they outmaneuvered him at every turn, often by flattering him and feigning to care about his internationalist project. Indeed, Wilson’s insistence on the League of Nations put him in a terrible negotiating position from the outset. He told England and France that they could not have a peace treaty with Germany unless he got his League. “After they paid his price, he was obliged to pay theirs,” writes O’Toole, “compromising again and again, for without the treaty, there would be no League.”
The inconsistencies and compromises Wilson accepted in the resulting Treaty of Versailles were, for an avowed moral absolutist, appalling. He stood, writes O’Toole, “for self-determination in Fiume but not South Tyrol. In the dispute over Shantung, he abandoned self-determination altogether, bowing to the Great Power politics he abhorred.” Lansing, writing to a friend, lamented Wilson’s foolish choice to confer with the Allied leaders on his own in private and observed that “the president has been outplayed and persuaded to do a lot of things he would six months ago have flatly refused to do. . . . I wonder what verdict history will pass upon this epoch-making Congress of the Nations.”
Wilson, convinced that the treaty and the League of Nations would usher in an era of peace, returned to America confident that the Senate would ratify his scheme despite ample warnings that Senate Republicans, who had gained a majority in the 1918 midterm elections, were deeply skeptical of the League. They proposed to ratify Wilson’s treaty with certain reservations attached to it, especially regarding Article X of the League’s covenant, which called on member states to come to the aid of other members in cases of external aggression. Republicans (and many Democrats) wanted to know exactly what the United States would be committed to if Article X were invoked. Wilson could not tell them other than by drawing foggy distinctions between “legal obligations” and “moral obligations” and insisting that America would decide on a case-by-case basis.
But Wilson was unwilling to countenance anything except the exact treaty he brought back from Paris, word for word. He refused to consider passing a version of it with reservations, even though the Republicans’ proposed changes did not substantively alter the treaty, and even though France and England signaled that they would accept a treaty with reservations attached. Wilson declared that he would “consent to nothing. The Senate must take its medicine.”
Of course, the Senate famously did not take its medicine, despite Wilson’s pronouncements. When the Senate at last ratified a separate peace treaty with Germany (excluding the League) during the first year of the Harding administration, after he had suffered a debilitating stroke and an ignominious departure from office, Wilson turned on members of his own party, denouncing Democrats who supported the treaty as “the most partisan, prejudiced and unpatriotic coterie that has ever misled the Senate of the United States.”
But Lansing was right: Wilson’s muddled notions of self-determination and disarmament, coming in the wake of the collapse of four empires, would cost lives — not thousands but hundreds of thousands. The program for peace he foisted on Europe would play no small part in sowing the seeds for the next world war. By devoting a biographical study to Wilson’s exaggerated sense of moral rectitude, O’Toole has done students of American history a great service. She has exposed, in meticulous detail, the vanity and vacuity of Wilson the moralist.