Arthur S Link. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, is the only chief executive who has given scholarly attention to the presidency before undertaking the duties of that office. Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on 28 December 1856, the son of Janet Woodrow Wilson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a founder of the southern Presbyterian Church. He was graduated from Princeton University (1879), studied law at the University of Virginia (1879-1880), practiced law in Atlanta (1882-1883), and thereafter did graduate work in political science, history, and economics at The Johns Hopkins University, where he received the Ph.D. in 1886.
From his youth onward, Wilson was intensely interested in the problems of modern democracy from a practical, not a theoretical, point of view. Presidential power was at a low ebb in the mid-1880s, and Wilson, in his first book, Congressional Government (1885), virtually ignored the presidency and focused on the obstacles that then existed to searching debate and discussion of great national issues. He singled out for particular criticism the committees of the House of Representatives, which, he said, effectively stifled free discussion. The surest way to guarantee that such debate would take place, Wilson said, would be to adopt the British cabinet system and make cabinet members ministers of state responsible to Congress.
Throughout his years as a professor of history, politics, and constitutional law at Bryn Mawr College (1885-1888), Wesleyan University (1888-1890), and Princeton University (1890-1910; president, 1902-1910), Wilson paid close attention to developments in American politics. He admired what he perceived as Cleveland’s assertion of the moral leadership of the presidency and noted the impact on that office of the war with Spain and the entry of the United States on the world stage as a colonial and naval power.
It was Theodore Roosevelt’s revivification of the presidential office that helped Wilson to come to his mature and definitive understanding of the potential powers of the chief executive. Those powers are described in Wilson’s Constitutional Government in the United States (1908) in what is perhaps the classic view of the modern presidency. The president, Wilson wrote, is the one single spokesman of the nation:
Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. His position takes the imagination of the country. He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people. When he speaks in his true character, he speaks for no special interest. If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible; and the country never feels the zest of action so much as when he is of such insight and calibre.
Wilson as Maker and Leader of Public Opinion
This was the kind of president that Wilson was determined to be after his victory on 5 November 1912 over the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft; the Republican insurgent, or Progressive, Theodore Roosevelt; and the Socialist, Eugene Victor Debs. During the first days of his administration, Wilson moved quickly and decisively to establish himself as the chief maker, educator, and organizer of public opinion to support his domestic and foreign policies.
His first move—to hold regularly scheduled press conferences with the Washington press corps—was an innovation. Wilson appealed to the reporters assembled in the East Room of the White House for his first press conference, on 22 March 1913, to join him in partnership by interpreting the public opinion of the country to him. Wilson’s intentions were, of course, to control the flow of information from the capital to the country and to use it to shape public opinion. And this he did successfully, on the whole. Wilson discontinued the regular press conferences in June 1915 because of increasing diplomatic responsibilities. He held only a few afterward—one in September 1916, a few in late 1916 and early 1917, and the final one on 10 July 1919.
Wilson also sought to educate and shape public opinion through state papers, addresses, and public statements. No president in American history has used these media with such remarkable power and success as Wilson did. He rivaled Jefferson and Lincoln in his mastery of the English language, but he used the spoken and printed word far more than they had done to shape the course of events. On the highest level of discourse—when he sought to end the war in Europe, to enunciate American war aims, or to plead for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles—Wilson claimed to speak not for himself but for the American people. In his annual message of 8 December 1914 he said:
I have tried to know what America is, what her people think, what they are, what they most cherish and hold dear. I hope that some of their finer passions are in my own heart—some of the great conceptions and desires which gave birth to this Government and which have made the voice of this people a voice of peace and hope and liberty among the peoples of the world, and that, in speaking my own thoughts, I shall, at least in part, speak theirs also.
However one judges Wilson’s claim, it is beyond doubt that he used the “bully pulpit” of the White House to educate and shape public opinion with remarkable success. And because he invoked Judeo-Christian traditions and appealed to the minds and spirits of people, his rhetoric literally changed the course of history. For example, it is doubtful that any American, other than Wilson, could have so successfully united the people of the United States behind the great war effort of 1917-1918.
Long study of Anglo-American politics had convinced Wilson that party responsibility was the key to effective government in a democracy. Parties had to enunciate and stand for principles, and a party platform was a covenant with the people. But parties could not play their essential role without leaders. As governor of New Jersey (1911-1913), Wilson had confounded many cynics by fulfilling every pledge in the New Jersey Democratic platform of 1910. He had also invigorated and substantially transformed the Democratic party in his state.
Wilson was determined to unite the fragmented and hitherto leaderless Democrats in Congress into a disciplined phalanx. As he wrote on the eve of his inauguration in 1913, the president is expected by the nation to be the leader of his party as well as the chief executive officer of the government, and the country will take no excuses from him … He must be the prime minister, as much concerned with the guidance of legislation as with the just and orderly execution of law.
The White House announced a few days after Wilson’s inauguration that the new “prime minister” would help to frame legislation and would confer frequently with Democratic leaders in Congress in the President’s Room in the Capitol. This Wilson did throughout his administration. He planned the first legislative program with his spokesmen in Congress even before he was inaugurated. He then broke a precedent, established by Jefferson, by going in person before a joint session of Congress on 8 April 1913 to deliver his message on tariff reform. Wilson kept in close touch with congressional leaders, and no detail of legislation escaped his eye; virtually no legislation was adopted without his prior approval.
Wilson established his leadership of the Democrats in Congress usually through sheer force of personality and moral leadership, by simply reminding them of their obligations to the country. He was courteous, even deferential, in discourse and disarmed potential dissidents by affirming that they, as much as he, wanted to do their duty. As Samuel G. Blythe wrote at the time, he was agreeable, mild-mannered, even solicitous about it all, “but … he is firmly and entirely the leader, and insists upon complete recognition as such … The Democratic party revolves around him. He is the center of it; the biggest Democrat in the country—the leader and the chief.”
Wilson succeeded as a parliamentary leader mainly because Democratic members admired him intensely, recognized his elevated motives and purposes, and wanted to make their party an effective instrument of government. It was silly to talk about his bending Congress to his indomitable will, Wilson said, for “Congress is made up of thinking men who want the party to succeed as much as I do, and who wish to serve the country effectively and intelligently.. . . They are using me; I am not driving them.”
In summation, Wilson was the parliamentary leader par excellence in the history of the American presidency. During the period when he enjoyed a majority in Congress (1913-1919), he broke down the wall between the executive and legislative branches, focused executive and legislative leadership in his own person, and established himself as the spokesman of the American people in domestic and international affairs.
Wilson’s first cabinet reflected the geographical distribution of Democratic strength across the United States and the various factions of the party. The secretary of state, Willam Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, had three times been the Democratic presidential candidate and represented particularly agrarian interests. The secretary of the treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo of New York, spoke for the independent, anti-Wall Street financial elements. The attorney general, James C. McReynolds of New York, had the reputation of a relentless trust-buster. The secretary of war, Lindley M. Garrison, was a New Jersey judge with no political base. The secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels of North Carolina, represented southern progressivism. Albert S. Burleson of Texas, the postmaster general, had served many terms in the House of Representatives. The secretary of labor, William B. Wilson of Pennsylvania, had been secretary-treasurer of the United Workers of America and was the frank spokesman of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L). Wilson chose the remaining three cabinet members—Franklin K. Lane of California, secretary of the interior; David E Houston of Texas, secretary of agriculture; and William C. Redfield of New York, secretary of commerce—more for their expertise than for their political influence.
There were several changes in the cabinet during the Wilson administration. Bryan resigned in 1915 and was replaced by Robert Lansing of New York, a professional international lawyer. Wilson dismissed Lansing in early 1920 and appointed Bain-bridge Colby of New York to succeed him. Garrison resigned in 1916 and was replaced by an Ohio progressive, Newton D. Baker. Carter Glass of Virginia, and then Houston, succeeded McAdoo at the Treasury Department in 1918 and 1920, respectively. McReynolds resigned in 1914 to accept appointment to the Supreme Court. He was succeeded by Thomas W. Gregory of Texas and, in 1919, by Alexander M. Palmer of Pennsylvania. Lane left the cabinet in 1920 and was succeeded by John B. Payne of Illinois. When Houston went to the treasury in 1920, Edwin T. Meredith of Iowa took his place as secretary of agriculture.
Wilson worked closely with his cabinet officers but gave them considerable freedom and initiative and always supported them so long as they executed policies that had his approval. Cabinet meetings, which usually took place once a week, were informal affairs at which Wilson would discuss current problems and seek, as he put it, “common counsel.” Wilson formally requested the advice of the cabinet on a specific issue only once—on 20 March 1917, on the question of whether he should ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
A strong cabinet, composed for the most part of activists, carried out policies that were nearly as important as the legislative achievements for which the Wilson administration is more famous. (Since Wilson tended to make and control foreign policy in all important areas himself, his secretaries of state will be discussed in the sections on foreign policies.)
McAdoo was the most dynamic and vigorous member of the administration; he also had an undisguised lust for power and a habit of invading the jurisdictions of other cabinet officers. His bold and original mind was wedded to a strong determination to make the United States treasury the dominant force in controlling credit, interest rates, and the money supply. He tried, but failed, to make the new Federal Reserve system an adjunct of the treasury. Once the United States entered World War I, McAdoo made the treasury into an all-powerful engine of credit. With the creation in 1918 of the War Finance Corporation, McAdoo enjoyed control of an agency capable of lending money on a large scale. Along parallel lines, the Justice Department, under both McReynolds and Gregory, relentlessly and successfully pursued one single policy: to restore competition through the dissolution of monopolies. Lane, in the Interior Department, took the lead in building the federally owned Alaskan Railroad and in the adoption of a coal-leasing bill for Alaska. Lane was caught between the cross fire of extreme conservationists and private interests in a long struggle for legislation to permit development of hydroelectric power on navigable rivers and public lands and the exploitation of oil and mineral deposits in the public domain. The adoption of the Water Power and General Leasing acts of 1920 vindicated Lane’s long struggle just at the time that he left the cabinet.
Because they were relatively new, the departments of agriculture, labor, and commerce took the lead in the expansion of governmental activities. Secretary of Labor William Wilson in 1913 established an informal conciliation service that frequently settled labor disputes, whenever possible upon the basis of the recognition of the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively. In this matter, the Labor Department was only nominally evenhanded. The secretary also played an active role in attempts to prevent or control child labor. Throughout his tenure, William Wilson maintained a close alliance with Samuel Gompers, president of the AF of L.
Little has been written about Redfield and his work in the Commerce Department. A vigorous free trader, he was also a zealous champion of American business enterprise who sought ardently to stimulate American enterprise abroad. Indeed, Redfield took many of the initiatives in support of American business for which Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1928, is usually given credit.
Finally, the quiet academic David F. Houston led the Agriculture Department in the most important expansion of the activities of any single department during the Wilson administration. Houston supervised the establishment of the Federal Farm Loan system, created by the Rural Credits Act of 1916. Houston also helped to draft the measures that vastly enlarged the rural service of the federal government: the Cotton Futures Act, the Grain Standards Act, and the Warehouse Act, all of 1916. Even more important were the Agricultural Educational Act of that same year, which provided funds to place agents of land-grant colleges in every agricultural county in the United States; the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which provided for federal assistance to vocational and agricultural education in public schools; and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916, which was designed at first to benefit rural areas and later became the legislative authority for the construction of a nationwide system of modern highways.
The New Freedom at Home
Wilson came to the presidency in 1913 with clear and precise ideas about the urgent agenda for the reconstruction of the American political economy. Fortunately for him, the Democratic platform of 1912, largely written by Bryan, was either in conformity with Wilson’s views or was sufficiently general in language to validate them as pure Democratic doctrine. Wilson believed deeply in the resourcefulness and capacities of the American people. He also believed that the energies of the aspiring middle classes had been stifled by industrial, commercial, and financial monopolists. Wilson laid out his program for reform, which he called the New Freedom, clearly and eloquently during the presidential campaign of 1912.
The first item on Wilson’s legislative agenda was, inevitably, a drastic lowering of the high rates of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909. Low tariffs, to benefit consumers and stimulate competition, had been the most important Democratic policy since the Civil War, and Wilson had pressed the issue vigorously during the campaign of 1912. Moreover, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff stood as the single most glaring symbol of the power of special-interest groups over legislative policy.
Wilson sounded the call for reform in his address to Congress of 8 April 1913: “We must abolish everything that bears even the semblance of privilege or of any kind of artificial advantage.” The House of Representatives was ready and eager to act. The Ways and Means Committee, led by Oscar W. Under-wood of Alabama, had already introduced a measure that cut most rates drastically, put most consumer goods and articles used by farmers on the free list, and (at Wilson’s demand) put farm products, including wool and later sugar, on the free list. The Under-wood bill reduced the average ad valorem rates of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff from about 40 percent to about 29 percent; these figures do not take into account the additional reductions effected by the vast expansion of the free list. Finally, in order to compensate for the anticipated decrease in customs receipts, the Underwood bill imposed a modest income tax, the first under the Sixteenth Amendment. The House Democratic caucus made the bill a party measure, and Underwood pushed it through the House by a vote of 281 to 139 on 8 May 1913.
The main danger now was that the slim Democratic majority in the Senate would vanish if senators from the sugar- and wool-producing states bolted. But Wilson stood firm, and he enjoyed the full support of the Finance Committee, headed by Furnifold M. Simmons of North Carolina. Wilson, in a public statement on 26 May 1913, denounced the lobbyists who were hard at work trying to wreck tariff reform. This charge led to a Senate investigation of the private interests of senators that might be affected by tariff reductions. Under the white heat of this investigation and Wilson’s steady pressure, Democratic opposition melted, and the Senate, on 9 September, approved what was now called the Underwood-Simmons bill by a vote of 44 to 37. The Senate bill actually decreased the rates of the Underwood bill by 4 percent and brought the general ad valorem rates to a level of about 26 percent; in addition, the Senate bill increased the maximum income tax in the Under-wood bill from 4 percent to 7 percent. The House accepted these changes, and Wilson signed the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act on 3 October 1913.
The measure marked a significant change in federal economic policy. It reflected certain underlying changes in the American economy that had been taking place since the late 1890s, the most important of which was the transformation of the United States from an importer of goods and capital into the leading manufacturing nation of the world, with a surplus of capital and goods that had to be invested and sold abroad.
Much more complex, difficult, and urgent than tariff reform was the restructuring of the nation’s banking and currency systems so as to assure a money supply adequate for the needs of a dynamic and growing economy and to open the channels of credit to all worthy borrowers. Bankers, businessmen, and economists had long pointed to the grave weaknesses of the national banking system, established during the Civil War. It tied the money supply in large degree to the gold supply and the bonded indebtedness of the United States, provided only a primitive means of mobilizing and transferring banking reserves from one section to another, and encouraged the concentration of reserves in Wall Street. The National Monetary Commission, headed by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, Republican of Rhode Island, had exposed these weaknesses in its report to Congress of 1912, but its solution—a single national reserve bank, with branches, owned and controlled by the banks—only intensified the widespread fear that Wall Street wanted to fasten its control over the credit resources of the country.
Wilson had the main outlines of a currency and banking bill in mind at least by November 1912. He explained them a month later to Carter Glass, who would be the next chairman of the House Banking Committee. Wilson proposed the creation of a number of regional reserve banks owned and controlled by member banks. The “capstone,” as Wilson called it, would be the Federal Reserve Board, which would control the money supply, determine interest rates, and perform all the functions of a central bank. Moreover, the legislation would provide for new currency, Federal Reserve notes, to be issued by the Federal Reserve banks upon a basis of gold and commercial assets so that the money supply would expand or contract according to the needs of producers and businessmen. Glass and his committee and technical advisers set to work and, about 1 May 1913, completed a draft of a banking and currency bill that conformed to Wilson’s concepts.
Circulation of this draft set off a fierce controversy. Bryan could not accept the Glass bill because it stipulated that Federal Reserve notes would be the obligation of the reserve banks, not of the federal government. Neo-Populists in Congress went even further and demanded a reserve and currency system owned and controlled exclusively by the federal government. They were also adamantly opposed to the Glass bill’s stipulation that three of the nine members of the Federal Reserve Board should be bankers chosen by the regional banks. McAdoo muddied the waters by drafting a bill that made the Federal Reserve system an adjunct of the United States treasury. Wilson moved decisively but calmly to regain control. He conceded Bryan’s point and won his support. Wilson also accepted the advice of Louis D. Brandeis, progressive lawyer and economist of Boston, to the effect that all members of the Federal Reserve Board should be appointed by the president. Glass revised the bill accordingly.
Wilson went again in person before a joint session of Congress on 23 June 1913: “I have come to you, as head of the Government and the responsible leader of the party in power, to urge action now.” Glass and Robert L. Owen of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, introduced identical bills in their respective houses on 26 June.
By this time, conservatives and many large-city bankers had mounted a furious assault on the Federal Reserve bill. They charged that it was socialistic because it deprived bankers of control over their own property, and they also said that the measure would politicize the banking and currency systems. Other assaults came from agrarian spokesmen because the Federal Reserve bill made no provision for the rediscounting of agricultural paper. Wilson quickly conceded the demand of the agrarians but held firm in his adherence to the principle of public control. The House passed the Federal Reserve bill by an overwhelming majority on 18 September. Wilson waited patiently as conservative Senate Republicans and obstructionist Democrats wore themselves out. The Federal Reserve bill passed the Senate by a vote of 54 to 34 on 19 December. Wilson signed the measure on 23 December 1913.
The Federal Reserve Act was the most important legislation of the Wilson era and one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. The cornerstone of the new progressive political economy, it attempted to combine private initiative with public control. The act has been amended significantly only once, in 1935, in order to strengthen the Federal Reserve Board’s power over interest rates and the money supply. The Federal Reserve system is still the most important economic instrumentality of the United States.
Achievement of Wilson’s third great New Freedom goal—legislation to clarify and strengthen the generalities of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890—proved to be nearly as difficult as the writing and enactment of the Federal Reserve Act, but not because of any significant opposition to a stronger federal antitrust policy. The administration’s original program was embodied in the antitrust bill introduced by Representative Henry D. Clayton of Alabama on 14 April 1914; in a measure to create an interstate commerce commission with no power to enforce its decrees, introduced by Representative James H. Covington of Maryland on 16 March 1914; and in a measure to give the Interstate Commerce Commission authority over the issuance of securities by the railroads, introduced by Representative Sam Rayburn of Texas on 7 May 1914.
The keystone of the administration’s program, the Clayton bill, attempted to outlaw all known methods and devices used to strangle competition and achieve monopoly. It at once drew the fire of the leaders of the AF of L because it did not specifically exempt labor unions from prosecution for acts that the Supreme Court had said violated the Sherman Act. Wilson assuaged labor by permitting the addition of provisions that stipulated that labor unions and agricultural cooperatives should not be deemed to be conspiracies in restraint of trade and that sought to protect labor unions against indiscriminate court injunctions in strikes. The House passed the Clayton, Covington, and Rayburn bills by a huge majority, all on 5 June 1914.
Opposition to the Clayton bill came quickly and vociferously from small businessmen, who claimed that the measure provided jail terms for their day-today practices, and from legal authorities, who argued that it was impossible to legislate against every conceivable restraint of trade. Wilson again sought the advice of Brandeis, who urged him to take up a measure that he and a friend had drafted. Known as the Stevens bill, it outlawed all “unfair” competition and established the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate alleged unfair trade practices; most important, the Stevens bill authorized the FTC to issue cease and desist orders, which would have the force of court injunctions, to alleged perpetrators of unfair competition.
Wilson took up the Stevens bill at once, and a relieved House adopted it as a substitute for the Covington bill on 12 June 1914. Then the Senate undertook the task of generalizing the Clayton bill. The final text may not have “clarified” the Sherman Act, but it strengthened the Sherman Act in two important ways. It made corporation officials personally and criminally liable for the acts of their companies, and it gave individuals and corporations the benefit of decisions in antitrust cases instituted by the government. This meant they could almost automatically collect threefold damages from companies that had injured them once the government had won a suit against the latter. The Rayburn bill was abandoned when the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 totally demoralized the securities markets, but would be revived and incorporated in the Transportation Act of 1920. Wilson signed the Federal Trade Commission bill on 26 September 1914 and the Clayton bill on 15 October 1914. The reconstruction of the American political economy was now complete.
Labor and farm organizations and social reformers now increased their pressure upon Wilson and Congress for legislation to benefit special interests and protect disadvantaged groups. Wilson at first yielded gracefully and then championed their causes in 1916, in part because he would need the support of progressive Republicans in the presidential election of 1916 and in part because he was becoming increasingly convinced that federal authority alone could cope with some of the urgent social and economic problems of the day.
Wilson had nothing to do with the origins and passage of the two important pieces of social legislation in 1915. One was the Burnett immigration bill, which attempted to restrict immigration by imposing a literacy test upon newcomers. Organized labor had long demanded this legislation, but social workers and reformers were badly divided over it. Wilson lost no standing with progressives when he vetoed the Burnett bill on 28 January 1915. It was reenacted over his veto in 1917.
The second measure was the Seamen’s Act, drafted by Andrew Furuseth, president of the International Seamen’s Union, and championed in Congress by Senator Robert M. La Follette, progressive Republican from Wisconsin. The United States was obliged by treaties with twenty-two maritime nations to arrest their seamen when they deserted in American ports and to return them to their ships. The Seamen’s Act freed all seamen in American ports from bondage to their labor contracts; in other words, once seamen were on American soil, they were free to leave their ships and accept whatever employment they chose. Bryan talked to La Follette and Furuseth on 2 March 1915. Wilson was so moved by Furuseth’s plea and by the justice of the seamen’s claims that he signed the bill on 4 March 1915, and the State Department duly abrogated the treaties.
The pace of Wilsonian reform quickened as the two great parties prepared for their national conventions in 1916. As has been said, Wilson pushed adoption of a comprehensive program to provide to farmers long-term credit, educational and other assistance, and good roads. He advocated and obtained congressional approval for the establishment of the Federal Tariff Commission, which progressives had long demanded. He appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court and won the Senate’s approval of the nomination after a grueling battle. Soon after the adjournment of the Democratic National Convention, Wilson pushed the Keating-Owen child-labor bill and a measure for federal workmen’s compensation through the Senate, where they had been stalled for months. In late August and early September, he obtained quick passage of the Adamson Act, which established the eight-hour workday on interstate railroads, thus averting a disastrous nationwide rail strike. At the same time, Wilson approved a Revenue Act that drastically increased taxes upon incomes and estates.
The Democratic platform of 1912 demanded enlarged self-government and early independence for the Philippine Islands and territorial self-government for Puerto Rico. Wilson, who had long since shed whatever imperialistic sentiments he might once have had, became in fact the first de-colonizer among the statesmen of the twentieth century. The Jones Act of 29 August 1916 affirmed the intention of the United States to withdraw entirely from the Philippines as soon as a stable indigenous government was established, created an elective senate to supplant presidential appointees as the upper house of the Philippine legislature, and provided that the governor-general should appoint heads of executive departments, except the Department of Public Instruction, with the consent of the Philippine Senate.
The all-Filipino legislature, which met on 16 October 1916, was the first autonomous legislature established by a colonial power in an overseas possession, except for the self-governing dominions of the British Empire. Moreover, Wilson’s governor-general, Francis Burton Harrison, was an ardent anti-imperialist. He transferred virtually all powers of local government to Filipinos, so that the Philippine Islands enjoyed dominion status in fact, if not in name, by the end of the Wilson administration.
For Puerto Rico, Wilson pushed through Congress, and signed on 2 March 1917, the second Jones Act. It gave Puerto Rico territorial status, conferred American citizenship upon residents of the island, and created a virtually autonomous two-house legislature elected by the people.
The New Freedom Abroad
Among all the statesmen of the modern era, Woodrow Wilson stands out as the preeminent champion of liberal humanitarian international ideals. He believed, to the point of religious commitment, that the United States had been created to serve mankind. He detested imperialism and the exploitation of helpless people by the strong and ruthless. He believed in the right of all peoples to govern themselves and in the peaceful settlement of international disputes. He abhorred the use of violence to protect American material interests abroad. Secretary of State Bryan, who shared all of Wilson’s views, was easily the leading opponent of imperialism in the United States and was also in the vanguard of the movement to advance peace through arbitration and conciliation. Both Wilson and Bryan were determined to make a new beginning in foreign policy in 1913.
With Wilson’s blessing, Bryan, in 1913 and 1914, negotiated with thirty nations—including Great Britain, France, and Italy—treaties that established elaborate machinery to prevent war. Additional evidence of Wilson and Bryan’s intentions in foreign policy came early in the new administration, with a forthright repudiation of the “dollar diplomacy” of the Taft administration. At the insistence of the State Department, an American banking group had been admitted in 1911 to an international consortium to finance the construction of the Hukuang Railway in China. Wilson, on 18 March 1913, announced that he could not approve the loan agreement because it would lead to unacceptable outside interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and so the consortium collapsed. Then, on 2 May 1913, Wilson extended diplomatic recognition to the fledgling Republic of China without prior consultation with the other great powers.
A crisis in Japanese-American relations erupted in the spring of 1913, when the legislature of California began to deliberate a bill that forbade persons “ineligible to citizenship” (that is, Orientals) to own land in the state. Wilson sent Bryan to Sacramento to plead with the governor and leaders of the legislature of California to avoid this open insult to the Japanese. But Wilson and Bryan could not budge the intransigent Californians; moreover, the latter put the president and secretary of state in an awkward position when they added to the bill a provision that declared null and void any part of the measure that violated the treaty obligations of the United States.
The Japanese government protested strongly, and there was talk of war on both sides, particularly among American naval leaders; but Wilson and Bryan’s conciliatory diplomacy defused the crisis at once. Wilson and Bryan also seemed prepared, in spite of all the obvious political risks at home, to negotiate a treaty with Japan to guarantee the mutual right of landownership. Then, in the early weeks of 1915, a new crisis broke out when the Japanese attempted to impose upon China a treaty that would have made that country a virtual protectorate of Japan. Wilson resisted this assault upon Chinese independence and the Open Door so vigorously that the Japanese gave up their extreme demands.
Another demonstration of Wilson’s determination to do the “right” thing in international relations in spite of heavy political risks came out in a controversy with Great Britain in 1913 and 1914. With the Panama Canal nearing completion, Congress, in August 1912, passed legislation that exempted American ships engaged in the coastwise trade from the payment of tolls for use of the canal. The Democratic platform of 1912 had also endorsed such exemption. The British government, soon after Taft signed the Panama Canal Act, sent to Washington a solemn note that argued that the exemption violated the Anglo-American Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901, which stipulated that the Panama Canal should be open on equal terms to the ships of all nations.
Wilson was convinced, even before his inauguration, that the British were right, but he did not dare to act until the success of his domestic program was assured. Then, on 5 March 1914, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress and asked for repeal of the exemption provision. “The large thing to do is the only thing we can afford to do,” he said, “a voluntary withdrawal from a position everywhere questioned and misunderstood.”
It was actually one of Wilson’s most courageous moves during his presidency. The entire Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives opposed him, and he risked his leadership of Congress and his party by repudiating a prominent plank of the platform of 1912. The British ambassador in Washington believed that Wilson faced certain defeat. However, the House and the Senate approved repeal of the exemption provision on 31 March and 11 June 1914, by votes of 247-162 and 50-35, respectively. “When I think of the obstacles you have encountered and overcome in this conflict for the national honor,” one friend wrote to Wilson on 16 June 1914, “the victory seems colossal.” It was also a victory over anglo-phobes and chauvinists, and it secured Wilson’s leadership of the Democratic party in Congress.
Wilson and Bryan wanted ardently to draw the two continents of the western hemisphere into intimate economic and diplomatic relationships. As a first step, they negotiated a treaty with the Colombian government to repair the moral and diplomatic damage done by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, when he encouraged and supported the Panamanian “revolution” that tore the province of Panama from Colombia. The Treaty of Bogotá, signed on 6 April 1914, not only awarded Colombia an indemnity of $25 million, for the loss of Panama; it also expressed the “sincere regret” of the United States that anything should have happened to impair good relations between the two countries. The sight of a great power apologizing to a small country for a wrong done in the past evoked warm approval throughout Latin America. However, Theodore Roosevelt’s friends in the Senate were able to block ratification. The Harding administration, in 1921, negotiated a new treaty, which was ratified, that awarded Colombia the $25 million but omitted the apology.
Wilson’s great goal in Latin America was the negotiation of a pact to unite all the American republics in an alliance binding them to respect one another’s territorial integrity, guarantee one another’s political independence, and settle all disputes among themselves by peaceful methods. Such a treaty would in effect have mutualized the Monroe Doctrine, and Wilson, in an address to a Pan-American conference in Washington on 6 January 1916, announced his intention to take this then-radical step. The Monroe Doctrine, he said, was proclaimed by the United States on its own authority; it was a unilateral policy, and it did not restrain the United States in the western hemisphere. Doubts about this matter had to be removed and would be removed by the Pan-American pact, for it was based upon the “handsome principle of self-restraint and respect for the rights of everybody.” Wilson’s hopes for the Pan-American pact were spoiled by the opposition of Chile, which had an old border dispute with Peru that it would not submit to arbitration.
Whatever their thoughts were about Latin American policy in general, Wilson and Bryan (and subsequent secretaries of state to 1921) regarded defense of the Caribbean area and of the Panama Canal as one of the main objectives of the foreign policy of the United States. They tried to inculcate respect for democratic government among the leaders of the countries in the Caribbean; they also refused, insofar as it was within their power to do so, to permit American business interests to obtain concessions and American bankers loans that would unfairly exploit the people of the Caribbean basin. Nonetheless, Wilson and his secretaries of state deemed the stability of the area to be absolutely essential to the security of the United States and were prepared to take all measures necessary to guarantee that stability.
Bryan continued the Taft administration’s support of a corrupt and conservative regime in Nicaragua, not by armed intervention, which Taft had resorted to, but by a treaty that provided for the payment of $3 million to Nicaragua for an option on its canal route and stipulated (at the insistence of the Nicaraguan government) that the United States might intervene in Nicaragua to preserve order, protect property, and defend Nicaraguan independence. The latter provision was unacceptable to anti-imperialists in the Senate. Only when the provision was removed from the treaty in 1916 would they consent to its ratification.
The republic of Haiti had always contrived to preserve its independence, but it came on evil times in 1914 and 1915 as governments fell in quick succession to revolutionists with their eyes on the custom-houses. The only remedy seemed to be American control of the Haitian customs, but the Haitians refused to take this strong medicine when Wilson sent a commission to Haiti to offer it. An enraged mob murdered the Haitian president in Port-au-Prince on 27 July 1915; anarchy and starvation threatened. Wilson was reluctant to intervene, but he thought that he had no choice but to rescue the hapless Haitian people. As he wrote to Lansing on 4 August 1915, “I suppose there is nothing for it but to take the bull by the horns and restore order.” American marines and sailors occupied Port-au-Prince on 28 July 1915. The American navy proceeded to pacify the country, to set up a puppet government, and to impose upon the Haitian Senate a treaty that made Haiti a protectorate of the United States.
The United States had collected and disbursed the customs revenues of the Dominican Republic since 1905, but Wilson’s warnings and Bryan’s exhortations failed to prevent the same fatal cycle of revolutions in the Dominican Republic that had devastated Haiti. To Wilson and his advisers, there seemed to be no alternative but to impose peace upon the country. American military forces occupied Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, on 15 May 1916, and established a military government in the following November.
American marines occupied the Dominican Republic until 1924 and Haiti until 1934. They put an end to revolutions and built schools, roads, and sanitary facilities, and the Dominican and Haitian peoples enjoyed greater peace and protection of their lives and property than they had known before.
Denmark, in desperate straits on account of World War I, indicated in 1915 that it might be willing to sell its West Indian islands, with their potential for naval bases, to the United States if the price was right. Wilson, worried by the possibility that Germany might, by one means or another, force Denmark to cede it the Danish West Indies, was in no mood to haggle over the price of even run-down real estate. The two governments agreed upon a purchase price of $25 million; the treaty was signed on 4 August 1916 and ratified on 17 January 1917; and an American naval commander accepted transfer of the islands from the Danish governor on 31 March 1917.
Wilson fought his first battle against imperialism while dealing with events in Mexico, the country in which imperialism had reached its apogee. Porfirio Díaz, dictator of Mexico since 1877, had given away much of the birthright of the Mexican people to foreigners by 1910. Reformers, led by Francisco Indalecio Madero, drove the senile Díaz into exile and installed Madero in the presidential palace in November 1911. But Madero proved to be an inept ruler, and when the inevitable counterrevolution began on 9 February 1913, the head of the army, Victoriano Huerta, joined the rebels; had Madero murdered; and assumed power as acting president on 18 February. Huerta perpetrated his treachery with the full knowledge and, to some degree, the complicity of Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador in Mexico City. Great Britain, Germany, and France, whose citizens owned extensive properties in Mexico, recognized Huerta as the constitutional de facto president, as did Japan and many other nations.
This, then, was the situation in Mexico when Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office on 4 March 1913. Wilson recoiled in disgust at what he called “a government of butchers” and was distressed beyond description when he learned a few months later about Henry Lane Wilson’s complicity in Huerta’s coup. Woodrow Wilson’s goal from March to October 1913 was clear, consistent, and, initially, naive. It was the reestablishment of constitutional government in Mexico through free elections in which Huerta would not be a candidate for president. Wilson’s only weapons during those months were moral pressure and the influence that inhered in his power to extend recognition or to withhold it. Thus, he recalled Henry Lane Wilson and, in August 1913, sent John Lind, a former Democratic governor of Minnesota, to Mexico City to offer what amounted to de facto recognition and Washington’s approval of a large loan to the Mexican government if Huerta would agree to hold an “early and free” election. The American president also asked for an immediate armistice in the civil war that had begun soon after Huerta’s coup, when a large group of Madero’s followers, called Constitutionalists, had taken to the field under Venustiano Carranza, governor of the state of Coahuila.
Huerta bluffed and feinted, but by then he had the outright support of the British government and no intention of abdicating. On the contrary, he arrested most of the members of the Chamber of Deputies and instituted an outright military dictatorship on 10 October 1913.
Huerta’s move forced Wilson to adopt a policy that took account of the hard realities of the Mexican situation. Support of the usurper was simply not an option with Wilson. There was the possibility of cooperation with Carranza, but the First Chief, as he was called, said plainly that he and his followers did not want Wilson’s help, had no interest in “constitutional” elections at this time, and were determined to purge Mexico by the sword. Wilson did not shrink from accepting the logic of his implacable opposition to Huerta. He announced his policy to the powers on 24 November:
The present policy of the Government of the United States is to isolate General Huerta entirely; to cut him off from foreign sympathy and aid and from domestic credit, whether moral or material, and so to force him out. It hopes and believes that isolation will accomplish this end, and shall await the results without irritation or impatience. If General Huerta does not retire by force of circumstances, it will become the duty of the United States to use less useful peaceful means to put him out.
Wilson could write so confidently because he had just forced the British government to withdraw support from Huerta. When the Constitutionalist campaign faltered, Wilson, on 3 February 1914, lifted the arms embargo against the Constitutionalists that Taft had imposed a year before. Most important, Wilson accepted the Mexican Revolution upon its own terms. Settlement by a civil war was a terrible thing, he wrote in a circular note to the powers on 31 January 1914, “but it must come now whether we wish it or not.” From this moment until the end of his administration, Wilson was committed personally and morally to the cause of the Mexican Revolution, “a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France.” Wilson’s support of the Constitutionalists caused the Roman Catholic Church, the bankers, and the large landowners in Mexico to rally to Huerta’s standard, so that the dictator was actually stronger by the spring of 1914 than he had been when Wilson hurled his threats at him. There was no choice now for Wilson but to resort to a show of force. But how could he do this without making open war, which Congress and the American people would probably not support and which Carranza would probably resist? The opportunity came when a Huertista officer arrested the crew of a boat from the USS Dolphin at Tampico on 9 April 1914 and the commander of the American fleet in Mexican waters demanded a formal apology and a salute to the American flag with twenty-one guns. When (fortunately for the American president) Huerta balked at rendering the salute, Wilson, on 21 April 1914, ordered the fleet to seize Veracruz, Mexico’s largest port. Wilson expected no resistance because the Huertista commander at Vera-cruz had promised to withdraw from the city before the Americans landed. He did so, but cadets from the Mexican naval academy and others resisted bravely, and 126 Mexicans and 19 Americans died before the Americans secured their control of Veracruz.
When Carranza denounced the American invasion as angrily as Huerta, what could Wilson do but launch a strike toward Mexico City? But he was determined to avoid general war with Mexico. Wilson was saved from this dilemma by Huerta’s acceptance of an offer by the ABC powers—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—to mediate the controversy. American and Mexican commissioners met at Niagara Falls, Canada, from 20 May to 2 July 1914. Wilson had no intention of submitting to a genuine mediation; on the contrary, he prolonged the charade at Niagara Falls until the Constitutionalists had beaten the weakened, isolated, and weary Huerta. The dictator fled to Spain on 15 July, and Carranza occupied Mexico City on 20 August 1914.
The revolutionary forces had divided even before Carranza rode into Mexico City on his white horse. Carranza faced two bitter foes—Francisco (“Pancho”) Villa, former brigand and now commander of the Division of the North, and Emiliano Zapata, leader of a peasant revolt in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City. Villa and Zapata dominated a convention of revolutionary generals that met at Aguascalientes in October and November 1914. It deposed Carranza and installed a puppet regime in Mexico City. Carranza and the divisions loyal to him retired to Veracruz, which Wilson had recently evacuated.
Wilson tried to persuade the two factions to unite; when this effort failed, he simply withdrew from active interference in Mexican affairs and awaited the outcome of the new civil war. Bryan tried to persuade Wilson to recognize the Villa-Zapata government in Mexico City, but Wilson refused to take sides. Then, when Carranza’s chief general, Álvaro Obregón, nearly destroyed the Division of the North in April 1915, several counter-revolutionary Mexican leaders appeared in Washington to seek American assistance. Wilson would have nothing to do with them. As the summer wore on and Carranza gained strength, Robert Lansing, who had replaced Bryan in June and who regarded Carranza as a dire threat to foreign interests in Mexico, concocted a scheme to eliminate the First Chief through Pan-American mediation of the Mexican civil war. Wilson turned Lansing’s scheme aside and accorded de facto recognition to the Carranza regime on 19 October 1915.
Villa, who had retreated northward with a small but loyal force, retaliated against Wilson’s recognition of Carranza by murdering sixteen Americans in northern Mexico on 11 January 1916. When this act failed to provoke Wilson into military intervention, Villa struck at an army camp at Columbus, New Mexico, on 9 March 1916, burning the town and killing nineteen inhabitants. Wilson did the least that he could in the circumstances: he sent a force of some seven thousand men under General John Joseph Pershing to capture Villa and bring him to justice.
Before he sent Pershing into Mexico, Wilson thought that he had obtained Carranza’s tacit consent to the entry of what was called the Punitive Expedition. The problem was the wily Villa, who eluded Pershing and drew him 350 miles southward into Mexico. Carranza, who probably would have been very glad if Pershing had captured Villa, now had to deal with a Mexican public opinion outraged by Pershing’s move into the heart of Mexico. In response, the First Chief demanded that Wilson withdraw the Punitive Expedition from Mexican soil. Wilson did withdraw the expedition to the northernmost part of Mexico, but fighting broke out on 21 June 1916, when an American cavalry force attacked a detachment of Mexican regulars at Carrizal. First reports told of a treacherous ambush by the Mexicans, and Wilson wrote an address in which he asked Congress for authority to occupy all of northern Mexico. But both Carranza and Wilson desperately wanted to avoid war. Wilson cried out in a speech on 30 June 1916: “Do you think the glory of America would be enhanced by a war of conquest? Do you think that any act of violence by a powerful nation like this against a weak distracted neighbor would reflect distinction upon the annals of the United States?”
Carranza, on 4 July, proposed that a joint high commission be appointed to investigate and recommend, and Wilson jumped at the chance to seek a diplomatic solution. The commission met at various places in the United States from 6 September 1916 to 15 January 1917, when it broke up because Carranza would accept no agreement that did not provide for the complete withdrawal of all of Pershing’s force on a specific date, a promise the Americans were unwilling to make. Wilson, determined to escape from the Mexican imbroglio, called the Punitive Expedition back to the United States on 18 January 1917. Then Wilson sent a new ambassador to Mexico and, on 3 March, accorded de facto recognition to Carranza and the constitutional government that he had just established at Querétaro.
Through all the confused period in Mexican-American relations from 1914 to 1917, Wilson prevented any counterrevolutionary movements from being hatched on American soil and kept a close watch over American bankers and businessmen who, he suspected, wanted to take advantage of a helpless nation. Over and over, Wilson insisted that the Mexican people had the right to solve their problems in their own way. Ironically, the man who provoked Mexican ill will by his occupation of Veracruz and the dispatch of the Punitive Expedition was in fact the chief defender and guardian of the Mexican Revolution.
American Neutrality, 1914-1916
With the outbreak of a general war in Europe in early August 1914, the great majority of Americans gave thanks for the Atlantic Ocean. Wilson and his advisers acted quickly to establish formal neutrality and to meet the rude shocks caused by the total disorganization of world markets and trade. In addition, Wilson, on 17 August 1914, appealed to his “fellow countrymen” to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.”
Wilson then turned his attention to British encroachments against neutral trade with Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers). He first tried to persuade the British to adhere to the Declaration of London of 1909, which purported to codify existing international law and was extremely protective of neutral commerce. But the British were determined to use their overwhelming sea power to cut Germany off from life-giving supplies, and Wilson had no recourse but to fall back upon ambiguous international law to protect American trading rights. This he did in a note to the British Foreign Office on 26 December 1914.
The European theater of war was in delicate balance by the end of 1914. The British controlled the seas, and the French and British armies had repelled a German advance toward Paris. German armies in the east were on the move in Poland, but they were still far from their main eastern enemy, Russia. In these circumstances of stalemate, American neutrality seemed secure.
The announcement by the German government on 4 February 1915 that it would thereafter use its small submarine fleet to sink all Allied ships within a broad war zone without warning posed a grave threat to American neutrality, since the Germans also said that, because submarine commanders would sometimes find it impossible to discriminate between enemy and neutral ships, neutral ships would not be safe from torpedoes. Wilson, on 10 February, sent a conventional warning to Berlin to the effect that the United States would hold Germany to a “strict accountability” for the destruction of American ships and lives on the high seas. What that warning meant in practical terms, no one, including the leaders in Washington, knew. For example, when a submarine sank a British passenger ship without warning off the coast of Africa on 28 March 1915 and caused the death of one American, Wilson decided not to act or even to protest. However, it was impossible to do nothing when a submarine sank the great British liner Lusitania without warning on 7 May 1915, causing the death of more than 1,200 noncombatants, including 128 Americans.
Wilson was in a dilemma worse than the one occasioned by his occupation of Veracruz. It was obvious that the American people wanted him to defend their right to travel in safety upon the seas; it was also obvious that a majority of Americans and of the members of Congress did not want to go to war to vindicate this right. Moreover, the cabinet and Wilson’s advisers in the State Department were about evenly divided over a wise and proper response to the sinking of the Lusitania. Secretary of State Bryan pleaded with Wilson to acquiesce in the submarine blockade by warning Americans not to travel on Allied ships. Robert Lansing, then second in command of the State Department, pressed Wilson to send a peremptory demand to Germany for an apology, a disavowal, and a promise that submarines in the future would obey international law—that is, commanders would have to warn ships and permit passengers and crews to escape before the ships were sunk.
Wilson, taking high humanitarian ground, addressed two appeals to the German government to abandon the entire submarine campaign, at least against unarmed and unresisting liners and merchantmen. When the German government refused, Wilson, on 21 July, sent a third note, which admitted that it was possible to conduct a submarine campaign in substantial accordance with international law. But the note ended with the warning that the United States government would hereafter regard ruthless attacks on merchant ships and liners, when they affected American citizens, as “deliberately unfriendly”—that is, as an act of war.
Wilson desperately wanted to avoid war. At the very time that he was writing the Lusitania notes, he sent two moving appeals to the German government to join him in a campaign to establish real freedom of the seas—that is, to force the British to observe international law. Wilson also planned to rally the other neutrals to win the same objective. But the civilian leaders in Berlin were engaged in a desperate struggle with military and naval leaders over submarine policy and could not return a positive response to Wilson’s overtures. Had they done so, the outcome of the war might well have been very different.
Bryan resigned as secretary of state on 8 June rather than continue a correspondence that he said might eventuate in hostilities with Germany. Wilson, somewhat reluctantly, appointed Lansing to succeed Bryan. Wilson continued to maintain close personal control over important foreign policies, but it was hard to do this with Lansing in command at the State Department because the new secretary, bent on war with Germany, tried at critical points to thwart or undermine Wilson’s diplomacy. Lansing was also, by Wilson’s standards, legalistic and reactionary.
The crisis with Germany came to a sudden head when the commander who had sent the Lusitaniato the bottom sank another large British liner, the Arabic, without warning on 19 August 1915, with forty-four casualties, including two Americans. Wilson did not resort to public correspondence, but he made it clear to the German government that he would break diplomatic relations if it did not disavow the sinking of the Arabic and promise that submarines would thereafter warn unarmed passenger ships and provide for the safety of their passengers and crews before sinking them. Kaiser Wilhelm II finally hardened his courage and, on 30 August 1915, ordered his naval commanders to cease the submarine campaign against all passenger ships. Under instructions from his superiors, the German ambassador in Washington, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, informed Lansing on 1 September, “Liners will not be sunk by our submarines without warning and without safety of the lives of noncombatants, provided that the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.”
Americans hailed the so-called Arabic pledge as a great triumph for their president. Actually, what Wilson had done was to narrow the submarine dispute to the sole issue of the safety of unarmed passenger ships. Submarines were still free to prowl the seas and sink merchantmen without warning. The kaiser called all submarines back to their bases temporarily, in order to avoid any further incidents. But the Germans had not renounced the important aspects of the underseas campaign—the war against merchant shipping—and Wilson had in effect withdrawn his demand that they do so.
Confusion and Crises, 1916
The submarine controversy with Germany and disputes with Great Britain over neutral trade convinced Wilson and many other Americans that the world was a jungle, a place where force was more powerful than reason and law, and that the United States, with its limited armed forces, was unable to protect its own security, to say nothing of its worldwide interests.
The administration’s plan to strengthen the army was devised by Secretary Garrison and the General Staff. It provided for a 400,000-man reserve force, called the continental army, and for a modest increase in the regular army. In contrast, the plan for naval expansion proposed a five-year building program, aimed obviously at Great Britain and Japan, to give the United States a two-ocean fleet capable of challenging the former and overwhelming the latter. Wilson opened the campaign for these programs in New York on 4 November 1915. Opposition from antimilitarists, pacifists, labor organizations, and Socialists developed very quickly. To complicate matters further for Wilson, the House Military Affairs Committee adamantly opposed the plan for the continental army, mainly because it would replace the National Guard as the first line of defense.
Wilson set out upon a speaking tour in the Middle West in late January to stir up public support for his program. He returned to Washington to find congressional Democrats as stubbornly opposed as ever to the continental army. Wilson was not committed to any single plan to strengthen the land forces; hence, he scuttled the continental army plan and accepted the House committee’s demand that the National Guard be greatly strengthened and brought under comprehensive federal control. Garrison’s resignation on 10 February, in protest against Wilson’s move, cleared the way for easy passage of the revised Army Reorganization Act, signed by Wilson on 3 June. Wilson’s great personal achievement was passage of the Naval Appropriations Act, signed by him on 29 August 1916. It provided for the completion of the Navy Department’s building program in three, rather than five, years. “Let us build a navy bigger than hers [Britain’s], and do what we please,” Wilson said to his confidant, Colonel Edward M. House.
The failure of Wilson and Lansing to coordinate their foreign policies during the early months of 1916 led to confusions and crises that nearly caused Wilson to lose control of foreign policy to Congress. Wilson sent Colonel House to Europe in early January 1916 to work out a plan for Anglo-American cooperation for peace. House went through the formalities of talking with French and German leaders, but he spent most of his time in London. His peace plan stipulated that Wilson should convoke a peace conference in the near future. If the Germans refused to attend, the United States would probably enter the war on the side of the Allies. If a peace conference met and Germany refused to accept a “reasonable” settlement, the United States would probably enter the war on the Allied side. Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, on 22 February 1916 initialed a memorandum that embodied the plan, but he stipulated that the British, in agreement with the French, should decide when the House-Grey Memorandum was to be implemented.
Meanwhile, Lansing had launched an initiative that threatened to wreck House’s negotiations. On 18 January 1916 the secretary of state proposed to the Allies that they disarm their merchant ships in return for a pledge by Germany that submarines would sink merchantmen only after warning them and providing for the safety of their crews. As Grey said, the Allies were being asked to permit submarines to sink their entire merchant fleets. Protests from Grey and House in London caused Wilson and Lansing to reverse course at once. The secretary of state announced on 15 February 1916 that the administration would follow customary rules and require submarines to warn defensively armed merchant ships before attacking them.
The intimation that the United States might break relations or go to war with Germany over the safety of armed ships set off a panic among Democrats in Congress, who threatened to take control of foreign policy by approving resolutions warning Americans against traveling on any armed ships. Wilson responded with his usual boldness, and the Senate and House tabled the resolutions on 3 March and 7 March, respectively. Actually, the safety of armed ships never became an issue between the American and German governments.
When a submarine torpedoed the packet Sussex without warning in the English Channel with heavy loss of life on 24 March 1916, Wilson decided to use the incident to force the submarine issue to a clear resolution. He went before a joint session of Congress on 19 April and read the terms of an ultimatum he had just sent to Berlin: if the Germans did not at once abandon their ruthless submarine campaign, he would break diplomatic relations with the German government. The Germans did not yet have enough submarines to conduct a successful blockade; consequently they replied on 4 May that submarines would thereafter observe the rules of visit and search when they attacked merchant ships. Maintenance of this pledge would be contingent upon the success of the United States in forcing Great Britain to observe international law in matters of trade.
Relations with Germany were almost cordial following the so-called Sussex pledge, and Americans could turn undistracted attention to the forthcoming national conventions and presidential campaign. The Republicans nominated Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes, former governor of New York. The Democrats of course renominated Wilson. Repeated demonstrations for peace rocked the Democratic convention hall, and the Democrats adopted a platform plank that hailed Wilson because he had preserved national honor and “kept us out of war.”
In the campaign, Hughes appeared petty, legalistic, and quarrelsome. Wilson, in contrast, was never better as a campaigner. Highlighting the themes of progressivism and peace, he kept Hughes on the defensive. Bryan joined other Democrats in trumpeting the cry “He kept us out of war” through the Middle West, the Plains states, and the Far West. In the election on 7 November 1916, Wilson carried New Hampshire, Ohio, the South, and virtually all trans-Mississippi states for a narrow victory (277-254) in the electoral college. Wilson’s increase in popular votes in 1916 of nearly 50 percent over his popular vote in 1912 was one of the great electoral achievements in American history.
From Mediation to War, 1916-1917
All through the spring and summer of 1916, Wilson and House tried to persuade Sir Edward Grey to put the House-Grey Memorandum into effect. Grey adamantly refused, and Wilson abandoned all hope of peace through Anglo-American cooperation. This development and others embittered Anglo-American relations and caused Wilson to believe that the British were prolonging the war for conquest and revenge. Ever since the outbreak of the war, Wilson had hoped to bring it to an end. By late 1916, the conflict seemed about to destroy the very fabric of European society; moreover, Wilson knew that both sides would intensify their efforts to end the bloody struggle, and intensification of the war at sea would probably force the United States into the conflict.
To bring peace to the world and to avert the possibility of American participation, Wilson appealed to the belligerents on 18 December 1916 to disclose the terms upon which they would agree to end the fighting. The Germans refused to divulge their terms. The Allies—emboldened by Lansing’s assurances, made secretly to the French and British ambassadors, that Wilson was pro-Ally—announced terms that could be achieved only by complete defeat of the Central Powers. Undaunted, Wilson opened secret negotiations with the German government. He was, he told Berlin, prepared to be an independent and impartial mediator, and he could force the Allies to the peace table because they were now totally dependent upon American credit and supplies. While he waited for a reply from Berlin, Wilson went before the Senate on 22 January 1917 to describe the kind of a peace settlement that the United States was prepared to work for and support. It had to be a “peace without victory,” he said, one without indemnities and annexations. Above all, it had to be based upon a league of nations to preserve peace.
The Germans were as much determined upon total victory as the Allies. They abhorred the idea of Wilson’s mediation and believed that their now large fleet of long-range submarines could bring the British to their knees long before the United States could send a single soldier to France. Hence, they rejected Wilson’s hand of friendship, accepted the prospect of war with the United States, and announced on 31 January 1917 that they would begin, the following day, a ruthless submarine campaign against all merchant shipping in European waters.
Wilson was stunned, and he broke diplomatic relations with the German Empire on 3 February. Even so, he said that he hoped that no German aggressions against American ships would force the United States to take sterner measures of protection. American ships refused to enter the war zone, and the nation waited expectantly. Then, in late February, the British disclosed a telegram from the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German minister in Mexico. The “Zimmermann telegram” instructed the minister, in the event that the United States entered the war against Germany, to offer to the Mexican government an alliance by which Mexico would go to war against the United States and would receive in return “the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”
Events thereafter led inexorably to war between the United States and Germany. On 9 March, Wilson announced that the navy would place guns and gun crews on American merchantmen. It soon became obvious that armed neutrality would not suffice to protect American rights, and Wilson, after much agonizing, on 2 April asked Congress to recognize that a state of war already existed between the United States and Germany on account of German aggressions. In a moving peroration, Wilson declared that the world had to be made “safe for democracy” and freed from the threat of German militarism. Congress complied after a brief debate, and Wilson signed the war resolution on 6 April 1917.
The United States at War, 1917-1918
With only recent British experience to guide him, Wilson led Congress, his administration, and the entire American people in one of the speediest and most successful mobilizations for war in history. Congress approved a selective service bill on 18 May 1917, and the War Department set about systematically raising an army of 3 million men. Congress gave Wilson full power over the production, distribution, and prices of food and fuel supplies in the Lever Act of 10 August 1917. Food and fuel administrations mobilized and stimulated production to such an efficient degree that there was never any real danger of critical shortages of fuel and food for the American people, the American army, and the Allies. Through various instrumentalities, but most notably the War Industries Board, Wilson maintained a steady supply of raw materials to war industries. Substantial labor peace was maintained in 1917 through the Labor Department and in 1918 through the National War Labor Board. Wilson launched a large shipbuilding program at the outset of belligerency and, in December 1917, took over operation of the railroads. To pay for this gigantic mobilization, the Treasury Department raised some $23 billion through the sale of bonds and an additional $10.5 billion through heavy taxes on incomes and business profits.
To persuade the public, still badly divided over the wisdom of participation, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information to undertake a nationwide program to convince Americans that they were fighting for justice, peace, democracy, and their own security in the world. To stamp out active opposition to the war effort, Congress adopted the Espionage Act of 15 June 1917 and the Sedition Act of 16 May 1918.
The direct threat to the American and Allied cause in the spring of 1917 was the German submarine campaign, the results of which at first exceeded German expectations. Against British opposition, Wilson insisted upon the institution of the convoy system. Wilson had his way in July, and the Navy Department suspended construction of capital ships and concentrated upon destroyers and smaller antisubmarine craft. The convoy system brought the submarine menace under control by the autumn of 1917 and eliminated it almost entirely by the spring of 1918. In addition, pooled American and British shipping transported nearly 2 million American soldiers safely to France and maintained the flow of American supplies to the Allies.
The American Expeditionary Force, under General Pershing, first saw active service before Paris during the Second Battle of the Marne (21 March-6 August 1918). In mid-August, Pershing’s First Army, some 550,000 strong, joined the British and French in a broad counterattack against the German lines. By late September, Pershing’s force numbered 1.2 million men; by 1 November it was near the German frontier. American manpower gave the Allied-American armies a predominance of 600,000 soldiers on the western front and turned the tide of battle decisively against Germany.
In his war message to Congress, Wilson had declared that the war aims of the United States were the same as the ones he had enunciated in his Peace Without Victory Address of 22 January 1917. Thus, from the outset of American belligerency, Wilson dissociated his government from the secret treaties and war aims of the Allies and declared that the United States was an associated, not an Allied, power. This meant, theoretically, that the United States was free to wage its own war and to conclude a separate peace when it had achieved its ends. Of course, it was not possible to be so disengaged. The United States was also committed to total defeat of Germany if necessary, and the only way to wage a total war in the circumstances was through close cooperation, diplomatic as well as military, with Britain and France.
This fact became clear when Pope Benedict XV, on 1 August 1917, called for peace very much along the lines of Wilson’s Peace Without Victory Address. Wilson responded as warmly as he thought prudent; when Britain and France rebuffed the pontiff, Wilson had to console himself with the thought that the Allies would be in his hands “financially” at the end of the war and that he could force them to accept his own peace terms.
Wilson was spurred to an independent peace campaign in response to the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in early November 1917. The Bolsheviks, or Communists, appealed to the war-weary peoples of Europe to stop the fighting, called for a general peace conference, and opened separate peace negotiations with the Central Powers. Unable to persuade the Allies to join him in returning a positive response, Wilson went before Congress on 8 January 1918 to announce in precise terms what the United States was fighting for. This peace program, embodied in fourteen points, called for, among other things, an end to secret diplomacy, freedom of the seas, drastic reduction in armaments, an independent Poland, and a “general association of nations … affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
The Fourteen Points Address at once became the great ideological manifesto of the war and the rallying cry of liberal and labor groups throughout the world. Moreover, in subsequent addresses Wilson challenged the German and Austrian governments to avow their war aims and, better still, to join him in an irresistible campaign for a reasonable peace. The Austrian emperor, Charles, responded warmly and seemed ready to conclude a separate peace based upon the Fourteen Points. However, the French government finessed Charles’s move by announcing to the world that the Austrian emperor was eager for peace. Charles could now only proclaim fervent loyalty to his ally, Germany.
The Germans responded to Wilson’s appeal with the imposition of the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk upon Russia on 3 March 1918 and with their own peace offensive—the Second Battle of the Marne, designed to knock France out of the war before substantial American help could arrive. As Wilson said sadly in an address on 6 April, the war now had to be fought to its bitter conclusion. And so it was. As has been said, the second German Marne offensive failed, and the Allies, in July 1918, began a broad counterattack that ended with the armistice.
During the height of the Second Battle of the Marne, the hard-pressed British and French put heavy pressure upon Wilson to join the Japanese in opening a second front in Siberia, in order to prevent the transfer of German troops from Russia to the western front. Wilson suspected, rightly, that the Allies wanted the United States and Japan to make war against the Bolshevik regime. Wilson thought that Allied hopes to reestablish the eastern front were futile and foolish. He also believed very deeply that the Russian people had the right to work out their own destiny and to establish any kind of government that they pleased, without any outside influence or pressure whatsoever. Hence, he vetoed all suggestions for a Siberian operation.
Wilson relented slightly under the pressure of events in the summer of 1918. A force of seventy thousand Czechs, former Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war in Russia, had banded together in what was called the Czech Legion and were fighting to escape along a route from Russia proper to the Siberian port of Vladivostok. Wilson, in a memorandum of 17 July 1918, announced that he would send a small force to Vladivostok to guarantee the safe exit of the Czechs; he also invited the Japanese to join him in this limited operation. In the same memorandum, Wilson reiterated his intention to oppose all efforts to interfere in Russian internal affairs.
Wilson was motivated in large part by the suspicion, which turned out to be well grounded, that the Japanese had designs on Siberia. Thus, Wilson, while he sent only seven thousand men to Vladivostok, did his best to keep the Japanese contingent to the same size. However, the Japanese government eventually sent in seventy thousand men and seized northern Manchuria and eastern Siberia. Wilson, in August 1918, also sent four battalions from Pershing’s force to Murmansk and Archangel in northern Russia to cooperate with British and Czech forces there to safeguard large munitions supplies against capture by the Germans.
As British, French, and American armies neared the German frontier in early October 1918, the German government, now in the control of liberals and antimilitarists, appealed to Wilson for an armistice based upon the Fourteen Points Address and subsequent speeches by Wilson. Wilson kept in close touch with Allied leaders during the negotiations that followed. Once Wilson was convinced that the German government was prepared to admit defeat, he sent Colonel House to London to obtain British and French consent to an armistice agreement. House claimed that he had won a diplomatic triumph when the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, and the French premier, Georges Clemenceau, agreed to make peace upon the basis of the Fourteen Points. The British said, though, that they would not be bound by the point concerning freedom of the seas, and the French won House’s and Wilson’s approval for a stipulation to the effect that the Germans should be liable for all civilian damages caused by their aggression. More important, the military and naval terms of the armistice agreement left the Germans powerless to wage even defensive war in the future. Nonetheless, German representatives signed the armistice agreement on 11 November 1918.
Wilson now faced the awesome problems of peace-making and the reconstruction of the world order. Yet, even before the guns were silent on the western front, he had gravely impaired his standing by appealing for the election of a Democratic Congress in the off-year election of 1918, on the ground that the return of a Republican majority to either house of Congress would be interpreted in Europe as a repudiation of his leadership. The voters, on 6 November, elected a Congress with slight Republican majorities in both houses. Whether repudiated or not, Wilson proceeded with his own plans for the peace conference without seeking Republican cooperation and support. On 18 November he announced that he would go to the peace conference, scheduled to meet in Paris in January 1919, as the head of an American delegation that was not to contain a single prominent Republican.
Wilson went to Paris in December 1918 determined to achieve a just and lasting peace based upon principles of justice, humanity, and self-determination and upon an effective world organization. All the Allied leaders at Paris were motivated by particular selfish interests. The French wanted large reparations from Germany and a settlement that would remove forever the threat of German militarism from Europe. The British wanted to exact huge payments from Germany, to annex former German colonies, and to destroy the German navy but not destroy the balance of power on the Continent entirely. The Italians had their eyes on former Austrian territory in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast. The Japanese demanded former German colonies in the Pacific and the former German concession in the Chinese province of Shantung.
By all accounts, Wilson was the only disinterested principal leader at the peace conference. He wanted nothing for the United States except a just peace that would endure and a world organization that could maintain peace in the future. Wilson fought as hard as any person could to achieve these objectives. With British support, he was able to prevent the dismemberment of Germany in the west, which the French demanded, and vetoed French plans for a “great crusade” to crush the Bolshevik regime. With British and French support, Wilson successfully resisted Italian demands for territory along the Adriatic coast that was essential to the new state of Yugoslavia.
Since Wilson had only one vote in the councils at Paris, his one alternative to yielding or to compromising when the British and French ganged up against him was to withdraw from the conference and make a separate peace with Germany. During the direst controversy with the French, Wilson threatened to leave the conference. But, as Wilson knew, the cure in this case was worse than the disease. His withdrawal would wreck his plans for a postwar world organization and result in a Carthaginian peace imposed by the French.
Thus, Wilson yielded on the key question of reparations (the British and French were permitted to demand potentially astronomical payments from Germany) and compromised on the equally important question of French control of the coal-rich Saar Valley of Germany. Moreover, the conferees at Paris said nothing about disarmament. Even so, Wilson was able to vindicate most of his Fourteen Points. Belgium, brutally overrun and occupied by Germany in 1914, was restored. An independent Poland with access to the sea came back into the family of nations. The claims of the Central European peoples to self-determination were satisfied. Alsace-Lorraine was restored to France.
Wilson’s most important achievement at Paris was the creation of the League of Nations and the inclusion of its covenant in the Treaty of Versailles between the United States and the former Allies and Germany. The covenant created elaborate machinery for the settlement of international disputes and for united action against aggressors. Moreover, the League was designated as the instrument to carry out the Versailles and other treaties concluded at Paris.
The Treaty Fight in the United States, 1919-1920
Wilson presented the Versailles treaty to the Senate on 10 July 1919, in the supreme confidence that that body would not dare to refuse to give its consent to ratification. There were many signs of danger ahead. One was the persistence of the tradition of isolationism, which before 1914 had been the cornerstone of American foreign policy. Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles would carry heavy new international responsibilities for the United States: Article 10 of the covenant guaranteed the political independence and territorial integrity of all member nations, and support of the covenant’s peacekeeping machinery might well entail the risk of war. Moreover, Republicans controlled the Senate, and Wilson’s implacable personal and political foe, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Lodge would have preferred to reject the treaty outright, but in order to preserve unity within his party, he accepted a plan offered by more moderate Republicans—to approve the treaty subject to certain reservations. The most important of these was a reservation to Article 10 that stipulated that the United States assumed no obligation under this article unless Congress, by joint resolution or otherwise, should specifically assume such obligation.
Saying that the enemies of the League were poisoning the wells of public opinion, Wilson set out upon a tour of the West in order to purify them. In one of the great forensic efforts in American history, he traveled eight thousand miles and delivered thirty-two major addresses between 3 and 25 September 1919. During the early hours of 26 September, Wilson suffered a stroke warning, which ended his tour. Then, on 2 October, after his return to Washington, Wilson suffered a devastating stroke that paralyzed his left side and for a time threatened his life.
This stroke was only the worst manifestation of cerebrovascular disease that had victimized Wilson at least since 1896, when he suffered loss of dexterity in his right hand for about eight months. Then came small strokes and a serious vascular accident in his left eye in 1906. Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the distinguished neurologist of Philadelphia, examined Wilson soon after the election of 1912 and reported to the White House physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, that he thought Wilson would not live out his first term. Grayson kept Wilson on a regime of simple diet, exercise, and avoidance of stress, but the tasks of overseeing the American war effort blew Grayson’s regimen to pieces. Wilson, now suffering from uncontrolled hypertension, went to Paris unwell. There he suffered a viral infection and another small stroke in April 1919. This was followed by a more severe small stroke on 19 July. By the time Wilson went out West, his hypertension was fulminant. The specialist who examined Wilson after his large stroke of October reported that he had long suffered from hyper-tension, atherosclerosis, and carotid artery disease and was in the lacunar state as a result of small strokes. Wilson was almost completely disabled, both physically and psychologically, from October through December 1919.
A healthy Wilson would almost certainly have found a high ground of compromise with pro-League Republicans and put the treaty across, probably by October 1919. But the sick Wilson, isolated in the White House, was incapable of comprehending political realities, or even of thinking abstractly or strategically. When the treaty came up for a vote in the Senate on 19 November, Wilson commanded Democrats in the Senate to vote against ratification with reservations. The reservation to Article 10, Wilson said, amounted to nullification, not ratification, of the treaty. The Republicans defeated ratification without the reservations; the Democrats then defeated ratification with the reservations.
Democrats tried to find some compromise, but Lodge would not budge on the all-important reservation to Article 10. For his part, Wilson not only refused to yield an inch of ground, but in a public letter (drafted, actually, by his chief of staff, Joseph P. Tumulty), on 8 January 1920 he also made the League issue a partisan question by saying that the coming presidential election should be a “great and solemn referendum” on the question of ratification of the Versailles treaty. Actually, all hopes for Senate approval were by now dead unless enough Democrats were prepared to defy Wilson and join the Republicans to form a two-thirds majority in favor of ratification with reservations. And if that had happened, Wilson would have killed the treaty himself by refusing to go through the process of ratification. But Wilson did not have to do this. In one of the most important presidential letters in history (drafted for the most part by Tumulty), written to his spokesman in the Senate on 8 March 1920, Wilson commanded Democratic senators to vote against ratification with any reservations whatsoever. A second vote in the Senate, on 19 March 1920, failed to find two-thirds of the senators in favor of the treaty in any form. Wilson was only momentarily downcast, if at all. He planned to secure his renomination and to run again for the presidency on a pro-League platform.
The End of the Wilson Administration, 1919-1921
Wilson had passed through the dangerous aftereffects of his stroke and achieved a slight recovery by the end of 1919, but for the balance of his term, he remained a sick man, his physical constitution, psyche, and sense of reality shattered. He continued to function on a low level, but he could sit up or concentrate upon a subject for only short periods. He also suffered from severe changes in mood and from some paranoia. Consequently, Wilson was incapable of giving leadership to his party, to Congress, and to the people during one of the most critical periods in American history.
The myth still persists that Edith Bolting Wilson, Wilson’s second wife (his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, had died on 6 August 1914), ran the presidential office after his first stroke. Edith Wilson, in consultation with Dr. Grayson, did determine to a large degree the persons whom Wilson saw and for how long. She also took important state papers into Wilson’s room, read them to him, and recorded her husband’s instructions in the margins of the documents. But she neither knew how to serve as an acting president nor wanted to be one. She was interested only in the health and happiness of her husband, whom she worshiped. Mrs. Wilson did make two decisions of momentous importance: in mid-October 1919 she vetoed a plan by Dr. Grayson and his chief consultant, Dr. Francis X. Dercum of Philadelphia, to make a complete disclosure of Wilson’s condition. Later, in January 1920, Dr. Grayson persuaded Wilson to resign, and Mrs. Wilson blocked this initiative.
Power in these circumstances fell to Tumulty, who assumed general oversight of the executive office, and to the various departmental heads. Lansing, as the premier of the group, held unauthorized cabinet meetings on his own from October 1919 until Wilson dismissed him on 12 February 1920.
Lansing’s successor was Bainbridge Colby, a New York lawyer, appointed on 25 February 1920. The two men presented a study in contrasts. Whereas Lansing was conservative in political outlook, Colby was an advanced progressive who had followed Roosevelt in 1912 and supported Wilson in 1916. Lansing was a professional “realist”; Colby was an idealist and an amateur, at least at the beginning of his incumbency.
When a group of generals led by Álvaro Obregón overthrew Carranza on 8 May 1920, Colby moved at once to mend Mexican-American relations preparatory to a recognition of the Obregón government, but the new rulers in Mexico City were then too afraid of domestic public opinion to come to any understanding with the United States. They deferred serious negotiations until the inauguration of Warren G. Harding.
Wilson seemed to want to wash his hands of European problems after the Senate’s second rejection of the Versailles treaty, and the United States government sat on the sidelines while the Allies tidied up the map of Europe. Wilson and Colby also continued the administration’s policy of strict noninterference in Russian affairs. The United States, for example, refused to recognize the independence of the new Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Colby coupled the policy of noninterference with one of adamant refusal to recognize the Bolshevik government, on the ground that it did not represent the Russian people.
Departmental heads and Congress met the problems of demobilization without much guidance from the White House. The new attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, on 8 November 1919, secured an injunction that prevented a nationwide coal strike by the United Mine Workers of America. A federal arbitration commission soon granted most of the miners’ demands. Palmer, with an eye on the White House and in response to a mounting fear of Communism, had federal agents, on 1 January 1920, execute a gigantic raid on Communist headquarters throughout the country. It is doubtful if Wilson knew anything about Palmer’s raid.
Wilson announced on 24 December 1919 that he would return the railroads to their owners on 1 March 1920 unless Congress instructed otherwise. Congress responded with the Transportation Act of 1920, which affirmed the principle of private ownership but also established comprehensive federal control over all aspects of the railroad business. At the same time, before he left office, Secretary of the Interior Lane was assured of passage of the Water Power and General Leasing acts by Congress in early 1920. Their adoption brought to an end controversies that had worried the Wilson administration since 1913. One of the crowning achievements of the Wilson administration—the Nineteenth Amendment, which conferred the vote upon women—came to fulfillment with ratification of the amendment on 26 August 1920. Finally, Wilson vetoed, on 27 May 1920, a joint resolution ending the war with Germany. A separate peace, he said, “would place ineffable stain upon the gallantry and honor of the United States.” (A joint resolution to end the state of war was approved by President Harding in July 1921.) Wilson vetoed, unsuccessfully, the Volstead Act of 1919 for the enforcement of national prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment. In his last important act as president, he vetoed emergency bills to increase tariff rates and severely limit the admission of immigrants. Congress passed both measures again in May 1921, and the new president signed them.
The Significance of the Wilson Presidency
Wilson and Warren Gamaliel Harding rode together from the White House to the Capitol for the latter’s inauguration on 4 March 1921. Wilson, aged and infirm, was a living mind in a dying body; Harding, majestic in appearance, looked every inch a leader. Appearances were never more deceiving. Harding would soon reveal his moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and Wilson lived to attend his funeral services.
Wilson, who died at his home in Washington on 3 February 1924, set an example of leadership, both of public opinion and of Congress, that challenges every incumbent of the White House. His reconstruction of the American political economy still survives in all its important features. Wilson’s conviction that the state and federal governments should work actively to protect the weak and disadvantaged remains the main theme of Democratic politics.
The Wilsonian legacy in foreign policy is clear, but the degree to which it continues to guide American foreign policy is ambiguous. Wilson believed very deeply that the United States was called to serve mankind through leadership for peace, democracy, and the uplift of the peoples of the world. But this leadership had to be essentially of the spirit, not of the sword. It may be that the Wilsonian legacy is now only the conscience of American foreign policy.