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Profile - Woodrow Wilson, Scholar in the White House

The only president to have held a doctorate, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), college professor, political and social reformer, and pacifist, reluctantly – or cleverly – led the United States into World War I in the hope of securing a “world safe for democracy.”

In contrast to most earlier presidents, Wilson had relatively shallow roots in the United States. The Wilson family were of so-called “Scots-Irish” and British descent.  The president’s grandfather, James Wilson, migrated from County Tyrone, Ireland, to Pennsylvania in 1807, when he was about 19.  He became a printer, married, and moved to Ohio, where he became a newspaperman and the father of ten children, one of whom was Joseph Ruggles Wilson, the president’s father.  Joseph R. Wilson became a Presbyterian minister and college professor, and married Jessie Janet Woodrow, an immigrant from Carlisle, England.  The pair settled in Virginia in the 1850s, where the future president was born. Woodrow Wilson was the third child of an immigrant to attain the presidency, after Jackson and Arthur.  Soon afterwards, the Reverend Wilson and his family moved to Augusta, Georgia.  During the Civil War, Reverend Wilson served as a volunteer chaplain for the Confederate Army.  As with so many American families at the time, the Wilsons were divided in their loyalties.  Most of Joseph’s brothers and sisters supported the Union. 

A Wilson family tradition, often repeated in biographies of the president, has it that two of Joseph’s brothers were generals in the Union Army.  This is untrue, but the tale has interesting roots.  In one of his few appointments as president, in March of 1841 William Henry Harrison named the eldest Wilson brother, William Duane (a journalist and politician in Ohio) “General Superintendent of Lighthouses” on the Great Lakes.  Although he later gave up the post and moved to Iowa, as was the custom of the times William Duane was ever afterwards commonly addressed as “General Wilson,” short for “General Superintendent Wilson.”  During the Civil War he supported the Union and helped raise and train several regiments: Company B of the 39th Iowa was known as the “Wilson Company” in his honor.  Another of Joseph’s brothers, Henry Clay Wilson, did serve.  A clerk in the Treasury when the Civil War broke out, he was for a time a volunteer purser in the Navy, and then became a captain and “assistant commissary general” in the army (that is, an officer in charge of managing rations for the troops); hence the second “General Wilson”.

Woodrow Wilson – his name was actually Thomas Woodrow Wilson, but he dropped the Thomas early – was raised in comfortable circumstances, his family being rather prosperous.  He attended the University of Virginia, became a lawyer, and later obtained a Ph.D. in history.  He began an academic career, teaching in colleges and writing extensively on history and politics.  In 1902 he became president of Princeton University.  Wilson entered politics and in 1910 was elected governor of New Jersey.  He proved so popular that in 1912 he won the Democratic nomination for president.  In a three-way race, Wilson defeated President William Howard Taft and former-president Theodore Roosevelt.

Although generally a reformer (carrying on many of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Progressive Era” programs), Wilson’s record on race was abysmal.  He segregated government offices in Washington for the first time in history and pressed to bar black personnel from the Armed Forces with some success.

In office little more than a year when World War I broke out in Europe, Wilson lacked any military experience, and despite being an historian seems to have read little in military history or theory.  Moreover, he was a committed pacifist, who had appointed pacifists as his secretaries of War and the Navy, who prohibited any preparations for war, and even staff studies of the European conflict.  Despite this, Wilson acted aggressively against Mexico in 1914 in the Vera Cruz crisis and again in 1916, when he authorized the Pershing Expedition against Pancho Villa.  And after a series of incidents in which Americans died (notably the sinking of the Lusitania and later the Sussex), he took a surprisingly strong stand against the German adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which forced them to back down for a time.  But public hostility toward Germany was growing, fueled in part by clear evidence of German-inspired sabotage in the U.S.  In 1916 Wilson was re-elected using the slogan “He kept us out of war”.  By then, however, he was becoming convinced that the United States might have to enter the war in order to break the stalemate in Europe and to have a voice in the final settlement.  As things turned out, not long after the election, and even before he took the oath for his second term, Germany announced it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, and then attempted to involve Mexico and even Japan in a war against the United States.  After renewed submarine attacks on neutral vessels, on April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, which was granted on April 6, 1917.

Although the United States was almost wholly unprepared for a major war, it proved surprisingly effective in getting on a war footing.  A sweeping program was instituted to raise and train an army (which was not fully realized before the end of the war), to mobilize industry and public opinion, and to secure funds.  Although the Navy was in action in European waters by the end of May 1917, and some American troops reached France in June, it was not until the spring of 1918 that American forces began to play a noticeable role in the war, when some four divisions supported the Allied defensive against a series of German offensives.  By summer, stronger American forces were at sea and in the field, and by September the American Expeditionary Forces had assumed control of a major sector of the Western Front, where they conducted offensives at St. Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne, the latter involving some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, due partly to the fact that the U.S. Army was still rather ill-prepared.

Meanwhile, Wilson undertook a major diplomatic offensive, issuing the “Fourteen Points” as the basis for a “just” peace.  The Germans, although defeated by August, hung on until their armies and country began to disintegrate in November, and then called for an Armistice based on Wilson’s “Points”.  The Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918.

At the Versailles Peace Conference, in early 1919, Wilson proved unable to secure most of his goals, since the Allies wanted vengeance on Germany, and the Germans were coyly trying to pretend they hadn’t intended a draconian peace if they’d won.  Perhaps as a reflection of his pacifism, although Wilson was in Europe twice during the war and the peace negotiations, he never visited troops in the field.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. many Americans were beginning to think entering the war had been a bad idea.  In September of 1919, while campaigning to get the U.S. to ratify the treaty, including the League of Nations, Wilson suffered a stroke.  During his long recovery, the extent of his disability was concealed, and his second wife seems to have exercised undue influence over his actions, so that even when opponents of the League offered some reasonable clarifications of the provisions of the League Charter to ease American membership, he rejected them outright.  Upon leaving office, Wilson lived quietly until his death.

Married twice, Wilson had three daughters with his first wife.  His two grandsons served in World War II; Francis B. Sayre Jr., was a chaplain in the Navy and was later Dean of the National Cathedral, while Woodrow Wilson Sayre was a captain in the Army Air Forces, and later became a philosophy professor and noted mountain climber.

 


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