I am a man who hates Woodrow Wilson. That is a central part of my identity. This may not be a thing to be proud of, but it is a thing that is true nevertheless. There’s been a shift in recent years, with President Wilson’s prior status as a progressive icon substantially revised, but I don’t think this revisionism goes far enough. Thus, I will take on the heavy burden myself. Today, in my magnum opus, I will attempt to enumerate the many reasons that Wilson was a Bad Person.
(1) Woodrow Wilson Was A White Supremacist: Wilson believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race, and as President, he took actions to secure it. Under his administration, the Navy Department, the Treasury, and the Post Office were segregated for the first time. He was an open supporter of segregation throughout the south, declaring that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen” when African-American leaders protested the discriminatory treatment of Black soldiers in the U.S. Army during the Great War. Though 100,000s of African-Americans served during the war, they were kept segregated in units with all-white officers and the vast majority were placed in noncombat positions. Wilson also wrote defenses of the KKK and of public lynchings, believing them to be necessary for the defense of the South during Reconstruction. Internationally, Wilson opposed all efforts at decolonization or self-determination for anyone who was not white. Misconception over this in East Asia had unfortunate results. W.E.B DuBois refereed to the Wilson Administration as “The worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that blacks had experienced since the Civil War.”
(2) Woodrow Wilson Hated Freedom: The U.S.’s 1917 entry into World War One was a violation of Wilson’s campaign promises and a Bad Idea. But the most farcical element of the USA’s attempt to pretend that a war between Empires for imperial hegemony was about defending democracy was domestic policy response, which took the form of the worst attack on civil liberties since the American Civil War. And it, must be noted, one with the least cause. The Civil War was a national crisis. Nothing can justify Japanese Internment, but it can be understood in the post-Pearl Harbor culture of fear. Say what you will about the War on Terror, it’s undeniable that Al-Qaeda actually did want to attack America. Imperial Germany did not care. The German Empire was very busy fighting all of Europe for it’s survival. It had no interest in fighting America. And yet, the Wilson Administration treated the war years as if the nation were in danger of imminent attack.
In 1918, the Wilson signed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, making it a crime punishable by up to twenty years imprisonment to criticize the government, the war effort, or the US armed forces. Over 1,000 people were convicted under these laws. He also signed the Immigration Act of 1918, banning any support for anarchism and giving the government sweeping powers of deportation. Over 4,000 people were deported under its terms. Wilson created a propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information, and the Justice Department worked with paramilitary groups to intimidate and harass opponents of the war, or anyone who criticized Wilson for that matter. To Wilson, any opposition was tantamount to treason, a charge he used with depressingly regularity. Pacifists, Communists, labor organizers, supporters of women’s suffrage, people with German names, anyone who thought that getting 100,000 Americans killed to preserve the British Empire was liable to be targeted by the full power of state and public coercion.
(3) Woodrow Wilson Was An Imperialist Maniac: In 1912, Wilson campaigned on an anti-Imperialist platform. This turned out to be a lie. One cannot really fault W.W for failing to put an end to American Imperialism in Latin America and the Pacific–with the best will in the world, it is virtually impossible to dismantle an Empire from the top down. But Wilson actually intensified and consolidated the Imperium Americana. U.S. troops invaded Mexico in 1914 and 1916, each time intervening in the ongoing Mexican Revolution. The 1916 expedition, sent to hunt down Pancho Villa, was generally competently-handled and at least theoretically justifiable. The 1914 Occupation of Veracruz was complete nonsense, carried out for unclear reasons and accomplishing nothing but infuriating of the Mexican populace. The U.S. Marines had maintained a garrison in Nicaragua since 1912, but Wilson formalized this in the 1916 Bryan-Chamorro Treaty. Worse, in negotiating the terms of that treaty Wilson caused the humiliation and collapse of the Central American Court of Justice, an international institution of the sort supposedly supported by Wilson, created by the U.S. in 1908.
Similarly, the nations of Hispaniola had been subject of intermittent U.S. interventions since the mid-19th century, but in 1915 the U.S. invaded and forced the Haitian congress to ratify a treaty establishing a U.S. protectorate and military occupation that would last until 1934. The next year, the Marines invaded the Dominican Republic as well, dissolving the government entirely and establishing a military regime that lasted until 1924. The U.S. occupation of the island was marked by a brutal and bloody counter-insurgency in both countries. And in Haiti, the traditional Haitian constitution was replaced by a new one promulgated in 1917 that allowed the country’s economy to become dominated by U.S. agricultural firms and banks, as well as legalizing corvée labor, seen by many as a reintroduction of slavery. Finally, in 1917, the U.S. government purchased the Caribbean island of St. Thomas (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) from Denmark.
(4) Woodrow Wilson Was Bad At Peace: Wilson gets a lot of credit in history as being the man who “could have prevented WWII”. The narrative goes that while European leaders liked Lloyd George and Clemenceau insisted on writing a vengeful peace treaty designed to humiliate and punish Germany, Wilson bravely fought for “peace without victory” for all. This is a lie. Both before and after America’s entry into the war Wilson claimed to support a general peace that would be advantageous to all sides and that would lead to a better world. This is completely belied by his actual positions. Whatever rhetoric W.W surrounded it with, Wilson consistently called for the dismantlement of the land-based European Empires and their replacement by ethnically-based nation-states. At the same time, he supported the worldwide European colonial empires and sought to prop them up through the moral authority of his League of Nations. This amounted to (devastating and complete) defeat for Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans, and victory for France and Britain. It should not be surprising that none of the Central Powers were eager to embrace arbitration by America in 1914-1916.
On most other issues, Wilson was closer aligned to the European consensus than is realized. Wilson supported the infamous War Guilt clause and was in favor of worldwide disarmament. The demand that Germany democratize before entering peace negotiations came from Wilson. It’s not at all clear to me that Wilson opposed reparations at all, and if he did so, he certainly did not make any sort of stand on the issue. John Maynard Keynes, who attended the conference and argued against reparations said of Wilson that “he was in many respects…ill-informed as to European conditions…his mind was slow and unadaptable…There can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the agilities of the council chamber.” In any case, Britain and France had no choice but to demand German reparations: they needed some method to repay their massive war debts to the United States. If Wilson had wanted to create a ‘lasting peace’, he could have offered forgiveness of debts in return for forgiveness of reparations.
Also, you need to understand that “free navigation of the seas” just meant ‘The U.S. has the God-given right to sell guns and munitions to one side of a conflict without any intervention from the other’.
Also, he let Colonel House control all U.S. foreign policy for some reason. That was another Bad Idea.
(5) Woodrow Wilson Was An Egomaniac: “At last the world knows America as the savior of the world!” Thus declared Wilson at the conclusion of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. This was stupid and untrue. By this point, the assembled heads of state of Europe hated Wilson, for his arrogance, for his ignorance, and for his pomposity. Wilson had an expansive view of his role in history, seeing himself as the Great Man who would save the world. This view was not always matched by reality, and it infuriated European politicians to see this American, ignorant of many of the complex details of Continental politics, attempting to dictate to them. Wilson has been described as a moralist politician, less interested in practical realities than in principles. This is true up to a point, but it must be acknowledged that Wilson tended to have a very binary view of the world: those who agreed with him were Righteous and Moral, those who opposed him were Devious Traitors. This explains how Wilson went from steadfast opposition to the War to full support of it overnight, instantly branding other opponents of the war as traitors. And, at least in my opinion, the main reason for Wilson’s sudden about-face was his determination to dictate the peace, by whatever means necessary. Wilson also tried to hold onto power forever. In 1920, despite his incapacity due to stroke and deep unpopularity, he attempted to convince the Democratic Party to nominate him for a third term. And after his retirement, he hoped to run again in 1924, a plan cut short by his death that year.
(6) Woodrow Wilson Was Alright On Domestic Policies I Have To Admit: Though it pains me to admit it out loud, Wilson’s first term saw the passage of numerous pieces of vital progressive legislation. In 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, resurrecting the National Bank so stupidly destroyed by Andrew Jackson. That same year the Revenue Act of 1913 was signed into law, creating a federal income tax. Wilson’s first years in office also saw the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, anti-trust acts, and efforts to extend loans and credit to small farmers. Though he spent years waffling on the issue, in 1918 he finally threw his support behind women’s suffrage and was instrumental in getting the 19th Amendment through Congress. Also, he reintroduced the spoken State of the Union, which may or not be a good thing depending on how much you like boring speeches.
Long story short, Woodrow Wilson is mankind’s greatest enemy and my personal nemesis. I hope you now understand why.
With Special Thanks to Santa Of History for his help in remembering details of Wilson’s perfidy!