First in peace

A full-blooded portrait of the 28th president as scholar, progressive leader, and man

Woodrow Wilson, shown here bidding farewell to France, is often associated primarily with foreign affairs, but was also as a leader on domestic issues. Woodrow Wilson, shown here bidding farewell to France, is often associated primarily with foreign affairs, but was also as a leader on domestic issues. (Woodrow Wilson House)
By Erez Manela
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921, has long been counted among the most fascinating, transformative, and tragic presidents in American history. Though he successfully pushed through significant domestic reforms, it is his legacy in foreign policy that is best remembered. He led the nation into World War I, and he articulated a radical vision for the postwar peace, a League of Nations with the United States at its center. And though his plans met with failure, his ideas have remained influential - cited, elaborated, criticized, and often misconstrued - ever since.

John Milton Cooper Jr.’s much-anticipated biography finally gives Wilson his due. The preeminent living historian of Wilson and his era, Cooper has studied the man and his times for decades. Having written several books about aspects of Wilson’s career, he now presents us with his magnum opus. This book is deeply, indeed exhaustively researched, and beautifully, often movingly narrated. It is far and away the best biography of the 28th president we have, and as such it is unlikely to be surpassed.

Born in 1856 in Virginia, Thomas Woodrow Wilson spent most of his childhood (when he was known as “Tommy’’) in Augusta, Ga. In brisk, illuminating chapters, Cooper covers Wilson’s childhood and education and traces his career as a scholar of American politics and leading academic reformer who, as president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, began its transformation from a finishing school for Southern gentlemen into a major university.

Cooper lays the groundwork for understanding Wilson’s politics by taking seriously his scholarship, analyzing his writings on the workings of American government and the structures of political power. The only president to hold a PhD, Wilson thought and wrote more deeply about politics than any president outside the founding generation. Though he entered politics, as governor of New Jersey, only two years before his ascent to the White House, he stands among the best prepared presidents to exercise the powers of his office.

Readers who associate Wilson’s presidency primarily with foreign affairs will discover him as a forceful leader on domestic issues, in every way equaling - Cooper would argue, besting - his famously vigorous rival, Theodore Roosevelt. His legislative legacy included the Federal Reserve Act, the income tax, major antitrust laws, and the first laws on child labor, federal aid to farmers, and the eight-hour workday.

Wilson’s fight against Wall Street, in particular, offers poignant parallels with our own time. The big banks, then as now, fought fiercely against regulation, and Wilson’s adviser, Boston’s “people’s lawyer’’ Louis D. Brandeis, presciently warned that the conflict between reform and the “desires of the financiers’’ was “irreconcilable’’ and counseled him to stand firm. In fact, Wilson’s most lasting blow for the cause of reform may well have been his historic appointment of Brandeis to the Supreme Court.

In foreign policy, and particularly with regard to the Great War and the peace that followed, Cooper is more cautious in drawing the outline of an ideological crusade around Wilson’s policies and pronouncements, such as the famous Fourteen Points. The president, he gently chides those who would debate endlessly the precise meaning of “Wilsonianism,’’ “was no Wilsonian, just Woodrow Wilson.’’

This book dispels many of the caricatures of Wilson prevalent in the public mind ever since his time. Far from a straight-laced preacher’s son, Wilson was a man of deep romantic and sexual passions, who once reminded his first wife, Ellen, to bring along “the little bundle of rubbers in the bottom drawer of the washstand.’’ Views of Wilson as a naïve and ineffectual politician will not survive Cooper’s account of his bold leadership in domestic reform and wartime mobilization. Finally, contrary to the common misperception, Wilson never called for spreading democracy everywhere, least of all by military force.

Like many biographers who have spent decades with their subject, Cooper writes with great sympathy for his. He is not, however, an uncritical admirer. He judges Wilson’s willful disregard for the rights of African-Americans and his consistent refusal to act against racial violence as the greatest stain on his record as president, rivaled only by his administration’s repression of dissent and curtailment of civil liberties during the war years.

The final chapters of the book tell a story as tragic as any in the history of the American presidency. His health strained by the grueling negotiations in Europe over the peace treaty and the fight with a Republican Senate opposed to his League of Nations, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke on Oct. 2, 1919. The stroke crippled him physically and mentally and yet, incredibly, his condition was kept secret, and he served out his term for another 17 months.

In his altered mental state - at times he seemed “to verge on mental instability, if not insanity’’ - Wilson actively buried any hope of a compromise on the League while ignoring all other affairs of state even as the economy plunged into recession, racial violence spread in the cities, and political repression reached fever pitch. This was by far the worst crisis of presidential incapacity in American history. It was a tragedy for Wilson himself, but even more so for the nation, and for the world.

Still, Wilson’s most lasting legacy, his articulation of a vision for a liberal international order with the United States at its core, has remained both influential and controversial. In our present condition, as Americans continue to puzzle over the terms of their engagement with a fast-changing world, we would do well to think deeply about the ideas, challenges, and failures of Woodrow Wilson.

Erez Manela, professor of history at Harvard, is the author of “The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism.’’

WOODROW WILSON By John Milton Cooper Jr.

Knopf, 720 pp., illustrated, $35

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