Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Woodrow Wilson: Tragic Hero

Robert Langbaum offers a fresh evaluation of Woodrow Wilson, based on a body of recent historical research. 




It is a sign of Woodrow Wilson’s greatness that he has remained, since his death in 1924, both a living issue in American politics and a living figure in the American consciousness. We can almost define American foreign policy between the two world wars as a reaction against and a qualified return to Wilsonian idealism. After the relapse into isolationism, we were slowly forced back to the realization that as Wilson had warned, we could stay out of European affairs only at our peril. And when we did enter World War II, it was again in order to “end war” and “make the world safe for democracy.”

By the time of World War II just about every one—most Republicans at home and most of democratic opinion abroad—had been converted to Wilson’s program. Roosevelt did not, like Wilson, have to fight the Republicans for the Atlantic Charter or the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Nor did he, like Wilson, have to persuade the British and French not to use the victory for colonial or economic aggrandizement. Even reparations—the issue on which Wilson had been routed by the other Allies—were managed this time with such care that Germany, Italy, and Japan have come out of World War II more prosperous than when they went into it. If we leave out of account the Soviet side of the peace settlement, we can say that we have had this time something like a Wilsonian “peace without victory.”

But if we went into the last war to finish Wilson’s job, we were also determined to avoid his mistakes. Thus Roosevelt made sure, as Wilson had not, to secure in advance bipartisan commitment to the peace settlement. The Allies demanded unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan so that they could not complain, as Germany did after Versailles when she said she had been tricked into surrendering by Wilson’s Fourteen Points. And if at Yalta the Big Three agreed to organize the United Nations, they also made alternate arrangements based on power and an almost frank recognition of de facto spheres of influence. “That Roosevelt ever had deep faith in the United Nations as an agency of world peace is doubtful,” says Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition (1948). “His original and spontaneous reaction was to seek for peace and stability not through a general concert of all the nations but rather through a four-power establishment of the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and China, which was to police the world.” This was to take Clemenceau’s line against Wilson.

A changed attitude to power defines the difference between Wilson’s America and Roosevelt’s. Wilson would have liked the nations to start by surrendering their power to the League, to allow the League to make the peace by settling all questions on the basis of pure justice. But we have learned the lesson Clemenceau tried to drive through Wilson’s head when he insisted that France needed protection while the League was evolving, that power cannot be surrendered to a vacuum. We have also learned that there are, as George F. Kennan has pointed out, few international disputes which even an impartial authority could settle on a basis of pure justice (think of Cyprus and Palestine), that power and justice are inextricable.

We learned these lessons because, with the decline of British power, we had to take over. But it was also easier to learn them in 1945 than in 1919 because we had easier consciences about World War II than about World War I. Wilson was reluctant to enter the war because he could see no clear line of right on either side; and once (for reasons which are still obscure) we did get in, he did all he could to purify the war, to turn an old-fashioned imperialistic war into an ideological war. But he did this singlehandedly, without much regard for Britain and France or for the secret treaties in which the Allies had arranged to divide up enemy territories. Wilson went to Paris prepared to do battle for his own personal “just” peace against the “selfish” designs of countries he never was willing to call our allies but only our associates. They and we had not fought the same war.

World War II seemed by contrast a model of ideological clarity—fascism versus democracy, aggressors versus victims—and our own motives for entering were rendered unequivocal by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt therefore saw no conflict between power and ideals. Power had been in the wrong hands, it was now in the right hands. The question was to keep it there for the right ends. The four-power establishment he envisioned at Yalta has, since the break with Russia, evolved into NATO, which operates as an effective international community within the still nominal world community.



Since World War II we have realized many of Wilson’s ideals. Never before have we been so active in world affairs, never before have we done so much for other countries. Yet we are faced with the curious paradox that we seem less idealistic now than in Wilson’s day—to the world and to ourselves as well. Although we have helped to bring many new nations into being since the last war, we have been forced by our responsibility for world order to qualify our support of the Wilsonian principle of self-determination. The result is that Russia, which profits by disorder, can pose as the unqualified champion of self-determination; while India, which plays the neutral role in world affairs we used to play, enjoys the kind of moral prestige we used to enjoy. Wilsonian idealism seems to have passed from our hands. We no longer feel in touch with the revolutionary side of things, and the realization that this is so comes as a shock to a country used to thinking of itself as revolutionary.

The realization may account for the general air of moral discouragement at a time when America has reached a peak of power and prosperity. It accounts, I think, for the double attitude toward Woodrow Wilson to be found in the latest books on him. If we take a representative sampling1 of the many books on Wilson which have appeared since 1956, the centenary year of his birth, we find them largely critical of the blindness, the obstinacy, even the hypocrisy of Wilson’s idealism. But we also gather that the worst of the reaction against Wilson is over. We find a respect for the moral intensity, the self-consistency, the grand style of Wilson’s life and rhetoric, for the kind of public figure who at the height of his popularity prepared himself for the day when he would have to stand alone against everybody for what he believed to be right. Wilson begins to emerge as an admonitory figure, a reminder of lost moral grandeur, of the price we have paid for our new realism, maturity, and responsibility. But since the emphasis is on Wilson’s final failure and the reasons for it, he emerges as what we can in the strictest sense call a tragic figure—as at once a model of our American virtues and a terrible example of what can happen when our virtues collide with reality.

These books contain many surprises for the reader who, having made no special study of Wilson’s life, thinks of him as simply a great liberal idealist who failed because he was ahead of his time. They remind us that Wilson’s idealism was not unalloyed with a great deal of personal ambition and a considerable capacity for political maneuver; that he had substantially less interest in minorities (Irish, Jews, Negroes) and labor unions than liberals do nowadays; that he sent troops into Mexico; that pacifists and German-Americans were treated harshly under his wartime administration; that the notorious Red-baiting Palmer raids were conducted by his Attorney-General. Indeed, the dominant line of scholarly opinion seems to be that, far from being ahead of his time, Wilson failed because he tried to apply 19th-century ideas and ideals to 20th-century realities.



Most shocking of all to the non-specialist is the judgment in almost all these books that Wilson himself was finally responsible for the defeat of the League in the Senate. Wilson’s enemy, Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, did everything he could to engineer the defeat. But as Lodge himself boasted, he could not have managed it without Wilson’s help. When Wilson came back from Paris, public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of the League and the Senate was ready to ratify the Treaty. Lodge’s strategy therefore was to defeat the Treaty not, as he put it, “by direct frontal attack but by the indirect method” of attaching reservations to the resolution of ratification. On the face of it, all Lodge wanted was to reserve explicitly certain national rights which Wilson felt were already implicitly reserved in the League Covenant—the right to withdraw from the League, the exclusion of domestic questions from League jurisdiction, the validity of the Monroe Doctrine, and most important the exclusive right of Congress to order the use of American military and economic resources for punishment of aggressors. Wilson was willing to make these reservations explicit in four interpretations of the Covenant. But he would not have these interpretations written into the resolution of ratification, for this, he argued, would open the Treaty to further amendment by all the signatory nations. The French and British, however, urged Wilson to accept the reservations, and scholars generally agree that the reservations would not have had any practical effect on our participation in the League.

If we remember that it was not the machinery of the United Nations but Truman’s bold and decisive use of the machinery that made the Korean action possible, we realize that the Lodge reservations would not have made the League technically any weaker than it already was. The strength of the League, like that of the United Nations, ultimately depended on the strength and determination with which the great powers used its machinery to enforce peace. If the League failed to stop the aggressions of Japan, Italy, and Germany (countries which, before they united, were so much less powerful than Russia is today), it was only because Britain and France were not strong and determined enough to do so. Since American isolation was largely responsible for their lack of strength and determination, we must conclude that the fight over the Lodge reservations was a catastrophic quibble and that Wilson was indeed Lodge’s principal ally in killing the Treaty.

Republican Senator Watson expressed to Lodge the fear that Wilson might after all accept his reservations, “Then we are in the League, and once in, our reservations become purely fiction.” “But my dear James,” Lodge smiled, “you do not take into consideration the hatred that Woodrow Wilson has for me personally. Never under any set of circumstances in this world could he be induced to accept a treaty with Lodge reservations appended to it.” Watson claims in his memoirs that when he told Wilson that the only way the United States could join the League would be by accepting the Lodge reservations, Wilson retorted in a fury, “The Lodge reservations! Never! Never! I’ll never consent to any policy with which that impossible name is so prominently identified.”

Had Wilson allowed his own interpretations of the League Covenant to be written into the resolution of ratification, he could have patched up an alliance with the “mild reservationist” Republicans and probably defeated Lodge. But instead of negotiating with Senators to secure Senate ratification of the Treaty, he decided to take his case to the country, and against every one’s advice embarked on the disastrous Western tour which ended at Pueblo, Colorado, with the stroke that finally incapacitated him. When Wilson returned, paralyzed, from Pueblo, it was the Treaty with Lodge’s reservations which came up for ratification in the Senate.

As the day for the vote approached, Wilson’s closest friends broke into the sickroom to urge concessions, but he remained adamant. And so on November 19, 1919, the Treaty was defeated. All through December and January frantic attempts were made to reach a compromise, but Wilson was immovable. He proposed a “solemn referendum” on the issue in the Presidential election of 1920. He even challenged the fifty Senators who had opposed him to resign and seek re-election on the Treaty issue; if a majority of them were re-elected, Wilson promised that he would resign. To the French Ambassador who urged concessions, he said, “I shall consent to nothing, the Senate must take its medicine.”

When on March 19, 1920, the Treaty came up again for the last time, twenty-one Democrats bolted and voted with the Republican reservationists for the Treaty as amended. This made a majority but not the necessary two-thirds. It is ironic to think that if seven more Democrats had been disloyal to Wilson the United States would have joined the League. After the vote, one of Lodge’s allies in the Senate said to him, “We can always depend on Mr. Wilson. He never has failed us.”



To ask why Wilson acted as he did, why he was so obstinate, why he made the Western tour instead of negotiating the Treaty through the Senate, is to raise all the fundamental questions about him. After all the heartbreaking compromises at Paris, was it not more than he could bear to submit to another round of compromises at home? Was he not defending against Senatorial encroachment the Constitutional right of the President to conduct foreign affairs? The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, Wilson saw himself, as Arthur Walworth suggests in his two-volume Woodrow Wilson: American Prophet and World Prophet (1958), as a kind of secular prophet appointed to express the “will of the people,” not only of the American people but of all people. At Paris he fought for the people of Europe against their leaders, and at home he fought for the American people against Senators who “do not know what the people are thinking. They are as far from the people, the great mass of the people, as I am from Mars.” Earlier in his career he had held out obstinately for what he felt to be right and had won. Had he not every reason to believe he could win again this time?

Critics of Wilson, however, see him as either befogged by his democratic mysticism, or else as rationalizing a desire for power by identifying his own will with that of the people. In Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality (1956), John Morton Blum blames Wilson’s failure on an uncompromising Protestant and liberal moralism which made him incapable of dealing with people or the realities of 20th-century politics. “He was at once the keeper of a rigid conscience and the creature of a political system that worked only when he bent that conscience to conform to the narrow set of public tolerances.” “Wilson’s was a nineteenth-century intelligence, obsolescing at a rapid rate.”

This is the dominant line of criticism. Richard Hofstadter (American Political Tradition) sums up Wilson’s career this way: “Just as the New Freedom had been, under the idealistic form of a crusade for the rights and opportunities of the small man, an effort to restore the archaic conditions of nineteenth-century competition, so the treaty and the League Covenant were an attempt, in the language of democracy, peace, and self-determination, to retain the competitive national state system of the nineteenth century without removing the admitted source of its rivalries and animosities. It had always been Wilson’s aim to preserve the essentials of the status quo by reforming it; but failing essentially to reform, he was unable to preserve.”

The only trouble with this line of criticism is that it can be said of all people that they derive their morality from the past and that their vision into the future has its limits. It was after all as an innovator that Wilson was remarkable—as President of Princeton, as Governor of New Jersey, as President of the United States, as world leader. Is not the aim of reform (as distinct from revolution) to make the established system work, and are we not still interested in the small businessman and farmer?

Wilson’s moralism was undoubtedly his weakness, but it was also his main strength. He understood, before other non-revolutionary statesmen, the importance of ideology as a weapon in 20th-century warfare and the potency of the appeal to foreign peoples over the heads of their governments. The Fourteen Points were promulgated as a hard-headed instrument of war—to meet the Bolshevik charge that the war was imperialistic and that Russia should therefore withdraw and the common soldiers on both sides lay down their arms. At Paris he made the world give official recognition to forces which have turned out to be dominant forces of our time—the nationalism of colonial peoples and the desire for an international order.

To the dominant line of criticism, that Wilson’s moralism was outdated, we must add another subsidiary line, that Wilson’s moralism concealed a psychological flaw. In Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (1956), Alexander and Juliette George make much of Wilson’s exaggerated desire, recognized to some degree by all his biographers, to excel and dominate. He felt guilty about this desire, they suggest, because it was unconsciously a desire to defeat his father. Hence the emphasis on altruistic service, to rationalize his desire for power. Hence his hatred of power and “selfish” motives. Wilson’s moralism caused his failure in situations which touched off his unconscious motives to the point where he could no longer control them.

The League fight was such a situation. First, because it presented to a man bent on greater and greater achievement the chance to reform the whole world, to change the rest of history; so that Wilson had to win. Second, because in the fight with the Senate, there was Lodge who, having challenged him personally, touched off an unconscious recollection of his father; so that Lodge had to be defeated.

In fighting for the League, Wilson lost out abroad and at home because he made the League idea—an idea he had learned from others, chiefly from Republicans—so belligerently his own. Seeing his personal involvement, the other negotiators at Paris made him grant concessions to secure their agreement to a project they had either subscribed to already or else didn’t care about; while at home it was largely Wilson’s League that Lodge and his friends opposed. In their psychoanalysis of the Senate fight, the Georges are hard on Wilson. It was because he knew deep down that he was jeopardizing the League for those “selfish” motives he so deplored that he became more and more obstinate and—suicidal. The Western tour, undertaken against the advice of his doctor, was thus an attempt to secure self-purification through martyrdom. “Even though in my condition, it might mean the giving up of my life, I will gladly make the sacrifice to save the Treaty.” On the tour he protested, “If I felt that I personally in any way stood in the way of this settlement, I would be glad to die that it might be consummated.” And again, “I thank God that on this occasion the whole issue has nothing to do with me.”



Such an interpretation is perhaps too schematic to be entirely convincing. But we don’t have to go along with the Freudian technicalities to find in it a generally valid portrait of a man who failed because he wanted too much. Most of the books on Wilson discern roughly the same pattern of failure in his life. The pattern takes its main shape from the correspondence which everyone finds between Wilson’s career as president of Princeton and his career as President of the United States. As president of Princeton, Wilson started by sweeping all before him, gaining for the presidency unprecedented power and making drastic changes in curriculum and departmental organization. This period corresponds to his amazingly successful first term in Washington during which he put through the whole New Freedom program. But as in Washington, the people at Princeton whom he ignored or offended gathered into an opposition and there soon appeared as leader of the opposition Andrew Fleming West, the man who played the role which was, as everyone agrees, later to be played by Lodge.

This role was, according to the Georges, that of “father image”; it was, according to John Morton Blum, that of “satanic figure” in Wilson’s black-and-white moral system. As with Lodge, the controversy with West became bitterly personal. It was over the location of a graduate school of which West was to be dean. West, who wanted an autonomous empire, wanted the school built three miles off campus. Wilson, who wanted to keep control, wanted it on campus. West was like Lodge a brilliant aristocratic foe who fought deviously. He obtained for the graduate school a half-million dollar donation which stipulated that the school be built according to his plan. This gave Wilson the chance to moralize the issue as democracy versus money and privilege.

Wilson could have defeated West had he known when to stop. He was about to have his way when he declared that the controversy was not over a site at all but over aristocratic versus democratic ideals of education. And though West had stayed on at Princeton only because Wilson had promised him the graduate school, Wilson now insisted on West’s resignation as dean. When this shocked even Wilson’s friends and, together with the loss of the half-million, stiffened the opposition against him, Wilson laid the issue before the American people in a speech which made headlines across the country. The publicity cost him so much support at Princeton that when a friend of West’s died and left several millions for a graduate school, naming West as executor, Wilson made a complete retreat, invited a renewal of the original half-million donation, and prepared to resign. With his own hands he destroyed his career at Princeton. But his ability to capture headlines called him to the attention of certain Democratic leaders, and there were those who said he had exploited the graduate school controversy for just that purpose.

With the large pattern established, we see the rest of Wilson’s life as conforming to it. The years as Governor of New Jersey belong to the upward swing which culminated in the first term in Washington. During these years, we see Wilson dealing masterfully with men and events; it is after he has achieved all he set out for that his energies turn self-destructive. “It is necessary,” say the Georges, “to distinguish Wilson the power-seeker from Wilson the power-holder.” “Success does not appease him,” says his authorized biographer, Ray Stan-nard Baker (Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters, 1927), “it only scourges him to harder effort and during the latter part of his course at Hopkins, with triumph on every hand, he is constantly driving himself beyond his strength, he has ‘ominous headaches.’” In his first years at Princeton, Mr. Blum tells us, Wilson “exercised extraordinary talents of persuasion. . . . But in his later years, taxing his environment beyond its immediate tolerances, he permitted his temperament to dull his discernment of men and situations. . . . He had lived in microcosm there the pattern that would characterize his public career.”

“The Princeton period,” says Arthur S. Link (Wilson: The Road to the White House, 1947), “was the microcosm of a later macrocosm. . . . His refusal to compromise in the graduate college controversy was almost Princeton’s undoing; his refusal to compromise in the fight in the Senate over the League of Nations was the nation’s undoing. Both controversies assume the character and proportion of a Greek tragedy.” Both taken together do. For it is the pattern of adumbration and fulfillment, together with the pattern of rise and fall, which give to Wilson’s career its tragic curve.

Speaking of Wilson’s “passionate pride,” the literary critic, Edmund Wilson, plots this curve in reviewing Baker’s biography in 1927. “As President of the United States, he repeated after the War his whole tragedy as president of Princeton. . . . It is possible to observe in certain lives, where conspicuously superior abilities are united with serious deficiencies, not the progress in a career or vocation that carries the talented man to a solid position or a definite goal, but a curve plotted over and over again and always dropping from some flight of achievement to a steep descent into failure.” The tragic hero is, according to the classical prescriptions, a good man of superior abilities who fails because of a flaw which is both the sign of, and the price he pays for, his superiority. This flaw is the tragic flaw of pride which he demonstrates by committing the tragic sin of overreaching.



Wilson as tragic hero—that view of him emerges from the essentially literary pattern into which so many of these non-literary studies seem naturally to fall. The tragic view of Wilson has this advantage, that you can absorb into it both Mr. Blum’s moralistic and the Georges’ psychological interpretations. You can also believe that Wilson’s failure was caused both by historical conditions and his own character, that fate was, to use the language of tragedy, both external and internal. For tragedy is all at once about character, morality, and politics, about spirit in the world and in the individual. It is because the story of Wilson’s failure has all these kinds of significance that it falls so naturally into tragic shape.

But most important is the public significance of Wilson’s failure. It is significant not only because of its effect on history but also because Wilson carried our characteristically American virtues to that verge where they collide with reality. His mystical appeal to the “will of the people,” his desperate need to separate righteousness from power and self-interest, stem from an ideology in which government rests on the consent of the governed and any coercion smacks of illegitimacy. It also stems from our wealth and fortunate geographical position, which has given us the idea that in international affairs we, unlike other nations, have no selfish interests. It stems from the essential American idea which, shaping our characters as well as our politics, has been the source of our greatness and our foolishness—the idea that our fate is not to be like that of other nations, that having started anew on a new continent we will avoid their mistakes and sins. If we remember that tragedy is not about vice but about virtue, we see that Wilson’s story could, if it were adequately imagined by some master playwright or novelist, make the representative tragedy of American idealism.

In trying to define the quintessential American as opposed to the European Idea, Lionel Trilling says that the European sees the world as inhospitable to spirit and concludes that man must place the highest value on whatever good he can find or create in it. The American instead sees the world as continuous with spirit. “For the American consciousness the world is the natural field for the spirit, laid out to be just that, as a baseball diamond or a tennis court is laid out for a particular kind of activity.” The result is that the American devaluates material things and in the end life itself more than the European. For with the American it is all or nothing. He cannot tolerate anything which remains resistant to spiritualization, for he has not like the European started by breaking his heart “on the idea of the hardness of the world.” Thus, we might add, the American isolationist shuns depraved Europe’s endless squabbles, the American intellectual disdains mere sordid politics, and Wilson, in order to be the exceptional “professor in politics,” had to transform politics into a spiritual activity.

Trilling’s contrast is beautifully illustrated by Lloyd George’s description, in his Memoirs of the Peace Conference, of Clemenceau opening “his great eyes in twinkling wonder” over the “idealistic President” who must really have “regarded himself as a missionary whose function it was to rescue the poor European heathen from their age-long worship of false and fiery gods.” Wilson’s “most extraordinary outburst was when he was developing some theme—I rather think it was connected with the League of Nations—which led him to explain the failure of Christianity to achieve its highest ideals. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘has Jesus Christ so far not succeeded in inducing the world to follow His teaching in these matters? It is because He taught the ideal without devising any practical means of attaining it. That is the reason why I am proposing a practical scheme to carry out His aims.’ Clemenceau slowly opened his dark eyes to their widest dimensions and swept them round the Assembly to see how the Christians gathered around the table enjoyed this exposure of the futility of their Master.”

The passage reads like a Henry James story about American innocence versus European experience. It is significant that the Georges quote the passage in order to criticize Wilson but that Herbert Hoover, whose Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson (1958) reads after the other books like a throwback to the Wilsonian frame of mind, quotes parts of the same passage, as evidence of European ingratitude and cynicism. The difference is a measure of our increased “Europeanization,” for the other authors sympathize on the whole with the Europeans and with the worldly, compromising Colonel House (I found myself relishing even Lodge and West) as against Wilson when he is being unworldly and uncompromising.



The difference makes possible the tragic view of Wilson. For Wilson figured as a martyr to those who believed in his ideals uncritically. He becomes a tragic hero when we recognize his ideals as still ours but as conflicting with reality—when we come to understand that a man or nation might do good for selfish motives and might by abdicating power or adhering inopportunely to the letter of the law destroy the world. Wilson’s is the tragedy of a man who could not face such ambivalence, and it offers a sobering lesson to a nation emerging not only from physical and political but also from spiritual isolation. We can no longer separate our destiny from that of other nations, or suppose that we can exercise paramount influence without also exercising paramount power, without taking our moral chances and like everyone else dipping our hands in the world’s mixture of good and evil.

But Wilson’s tragedy offers an even more important lesson—that, after everything has been said, Wilson was in the longest run right about everything. Great men are usually attacked for not having that just proportion of moderate virtues which would make them little men. Without his imbalance and blind spots, Wilson would not have had the moral energy to set so many forces in motion. He was certainly right in seeing that politics had in the long run to be transcended, that new institutions would not be enough without a change in our whole view of international relations. He was right in refusing to give in to reality, for only in that way have men changed reality.

We respond to tragedy with awe, with a combination of reverence and fear—reverence in this case for the fire and inner truth of Wilson’s ideals, fear for the inevitable clash of such ideals with an alien reality. The tragic lesson is always twofold. We have to learn all the little “realistic” truths to appreciate in the end the big truth in Wilson’s remark soon before he died: “The world is run by ideals. Only the fool thinks otherwise.”




1 John Morton Blum, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality (Little, Brown, 215 pp., $3.50); Alexander L. and Juliette L. George, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (John Day, 362 pp., $6.00); Herbert Hoover, The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson (McGraw-Hill, 318 pp., $6.00); Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The New Freedom (Princeton University Press, 504 pp., $7.50); Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson, American Prophet and World Prophet (Longmans, Green, 2 Vols., 439 pp., 436 pp., $15.00).

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