Edited by Gerald Boerner



We examine today the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson to institute a lasting peace after World War I. Wilson saw this as the “war to end all wars” and sought an honorable eace among the combatants through his FOURTEEN POINTS. This was a lofty idea.

However, France and Great Britain manipulated Wilson to effectively restore and extend their empire. Concurrently, these two powers wanted to saddle the Germn people and their leaders with the full blame and cost of the conflict. Wilson and the United States were considered a junior partner in the Allied cause. They seemingly accepted Wilson’s FOURTEEN POINTS and the founding of the League of Nations.

This situation was further complicated by the Republicans gaining a majority status in the U.S. Senate. This led to a failure to ratify the Versailles Treaty and the joining of the League of Nations. America was withdrawing back into its cocoon of isolationism that would last until the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

NOTE: To cover this topic, my post today is a bit longer than normal. It was not possible to set forth this story in a shorter post

So, let’s start our exploration of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and efforts to forge a fair and lasting peace…  GLB

These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2010 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved

[ 4784 Words ]


Quotations Related to WOODROW WILSON

“A conservative is a man who just sits and thinks, mostly sits.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“Absolute identity with one’s cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“America lives in the heart of every man everywhere who wishes to find a region where he will be free to work out his destiny as he chooses.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“America was established not to create wealth but to realize a vision, to realize an ideal – to discover and maintain liberty among men.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“At every crisis in one’s life, it is absolute salvation to have some sympathetic friend to whom you can think aloud without restraint or misgiving.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“Business underlies everything in our national life, including our spiritual life. Witness the fact that in the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach.”
— Woodrow Wilson


Woodrow Wilson — Navigating the U.S. into International Waters


Thomas_Woodrow_Wilson,_Harris_&_Ewing_bw_photo_portrait,_1919Thomas Woodrow Wilson
(1856 – 1924) was the 28th President of the United States. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. With Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft dividing the Republican Party vote, Wilson was elected President as a Democrat in 1912. He is the only U.S. President to hold a Ph.D. degree, which he obtained from Johns Hopkins University.

In his first term, Wilson persuaded a Democratic Congress to pass the Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act and America’s first-ever federal progressive income tax in the Revenue Act of 1913. Wilson brought many white Southerners into his administration, and tolerated their expansion of segregation in many federal agencies.

Narrowly re-elected in 1916, Wilson’s second term centered on World War I. He based his re-election campaign around the slogan "he kept us out of war", but U.S. neutrality was challenged in early 1917 when the German government proposed to Mexico a military alliance in a war against the U.S., and began unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking, without warning, every American merchant ship its submarines could find. Wilson in April 1917 asked Congress to declare war.

He focused on diplomacy and financial considerations, leaving the waging of the war primarily in the hands of the Army. On the home front in 1917, he began the United States’ first draft since the American Civil War, raised billions of dollars in war funding through Liberty Bonds, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union growth, supervised agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took over control of the railroads, enacted the first federal drug prohibition, and suppressed anti-war movements. He did not encourage the wave of anti-German sentiment sweeping the country in 1917-18, but did nothing to stop it.

In the late stages of the war, Wilson took personal control of negotiations with Germany, including the armistice. He issued his Fourteen Points, his view of a post-war world that could avoid another terrible conflict. He went to Paris in 1919 to create the League of Nations and shape the Treaty of Versailles, with special attention on creating new nations out of defunct empires. Largely for his efforts to form the League, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1919, during the bitter fight with the Republican-controlled Senate over the U.S. joining the League of Nations, Wilson collapsed with a debilitating stroke. He refused to compromise, effectively destroying any chance for ratification. The League of Nations was established anyway, but the United States never joined.

A Presbyterian of deep religious faith, he appealed to a gospel of service and infused a profound sense of moralism into Wilsonianism. Wilson’s idealistic internationalism, now referred to as "Wilsonianism", which calls for the United States to enter the world arena to fight for democracy, has been a contentious position in American foreign policy, serving as a model for "idealists" to emulate and "realists" to reject ever since. Because of his leadership in World War I he is ranked as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents.


Writings on Government and Politics

Government Systems

Under the influence of Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, Wilson saw the United States Constitution as pre-modern, cumbersome, and open to corruption. An admirer of Parliament, Wilson favored a parliamentary system for the United States. Writing in the early 1880s:

I ask you to put this question to yourselves, should we not draw the Executive and Legislature closer together? Should we not, on the one hand, give the individual leaders of opinion in Congress a better chance to have an intimate party in determining who should be president, and the president, on the other hand, a better chance to approve himself a statesman, and his advisers capable men of affairs, in the guidance of Congress

Wilson started Congressional Government, his best known political work, as an argument for a parliamentary system, but he was impressed by Grover Cleveland, and Congressional Government emerged as a critical description of America’s system, with frequent negative comparisons to Westminster. He said, "I am pointing out facts—diagnosing, not prescribing remedies."

Wilson believed that America’s intricate system of checks and balances was the cause of the problems in American governance. He said that the divided power made it impossible for voters to see who was accountable. If government behaved badly, Wilson asked:

How is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping? … Power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government… It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does. The main purpose of the Convention of 1787 seems to have been to accomplish this grievous mistake. The "literary theory" of checks and balances is simply a consistent account of what our Constitution makers tried to do; and those checks and balances have proved mischievous just to the extent which they have succeeded in establishing themselves.

Wilson singled out the United States House of Representatives for particular criticism:

… divided up, as it were, into forty-seven seignories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord-proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach [of] the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself.

Wilson said that the Congressional committee system was fundamentally undemocratic in that committee chairs, who ruled by seniority, determined national policy although they were responsible to no one except their constituents; and that it facilitated corruption.

Evolving views

By the time Wilson finished Congressional Government, Grover Cleveland was President, and Wilson’s faith in the United States government was restored. When William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination from Cleveland’s supporters in 1896, however, Wilson refused to support the ticket. Instead, he cast his ballot for John M. Palmer, the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Party, or Gold Democrats, a short-lived party that supported a gold standard, low tariffs, and limited government.

After experiencing the vigorous presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson no longer entertained thoughts of parliamentary government for the United States. In his last scholarly work in 1908, Constitutional Government of the United States, Wilson said that the presidency "will be as big as and as influential as the man who occupies it". By the time of his presidency, Wilson merely hoped that Presidents could be party leaders in the same way British prime ministers were. Wilson also hoped that the parties could be reorganized along ideological, not geographic, lines. He wrote, "Eight words contain the sum of the present degradation of our political parties: No leaders, no principles; no principles, no parties."

Election of 1912

Wilson’s popularity as governor and his status in the national media gave impetus to his presidential campaign in 1912. He selected William Frank McCombs, a New York lawyer and a friend from college days, to manage his campaign. Much of Wilson’s support came from the South, especially from young progressives in that region, especially intellectuals, editors and lawyers. Wilson managed to maneuver through the complexities of local politics. For example, in Tennessee the Democratic Party was divided on the issue of prohibition. Wilson was progressive and sober, but not a dry, and appealed to both sides. They united behind him to win the presidential election in the state, but divided over state politics and lost the gubernatorial election.

Pump1913Wilson uses tariff, currency and anti-trust laws
to prime the pump and get the economy working…
1913 political cartoon

The convention deadlocked for more than 40 ballots as no candidate could reach the two-thirds vote required to win the nomination. A leading contender was House Speaker Champ Clark, a prominent progressive strongest in the border states. Other contenders were Governor Judson Harmon of Ohio, and Representative Oscar Underwood of Alabama. They lacked Wilson’s charisma and dynamism. Publisher William Randolph Hearst, a leader of the left-wing of the party, supported Clark. William Jennings Bryan, the nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908, played a critical role in opposition to any candidate who had the support of "the financiers of Wall Street". He finally announced for Wilson, who won on the 46th ballot.

In the campaign Wilson promoted the "New Freedom", emphasizing limited federal government and opposition to monopoly powers, often after consultation with his chief advisor Louis D. Brandeis.

In a bitter contest for the Republican nomination, President William Howard Taft defeated former president Theodore Roosevelt, but when Roosevelt walked out of the Republican convention and ran as a third party candidate, Wilson’s success in the electoral college was assured. He won 41.8% of the popular vote.


Presidency, 1913–1921

First term, 1913–1917

Wilson is the only President to hold a Ph.D. degree and the only President to serve in a political office in New Jersey before election to the Presidency. He was the first person identified with the South to be elected President since Zachary Taylor and the first Southerner in the White House since Andrew Johnson left in 1868. Wilson had a strong base of support in the South. He was the first president to deliver his State of the Union address before Congress personally since John Adams in 1799. Wilson was also the first Democrat elected to the presidency since Grover Cleveland in 1892 and only the second Democrat in the White House since the Civil War.

Woodrow_Wilson_addressing_Congress_(LOC)Wilson addressing the U.S. Congress, April 8, 1913

In resolving economic policy issues, he had to manage the conflict between two wings of his party, the agrarian wing led by Bryan and the pro-business wing. With large Democratic majorities in Congress and a healthy economy, he promptly seized the opportunity to implement his agenda. Wilson experienced early success by implementing his "New Freedom" pledges of antitrust modification, tariff revision, and reform in banking and currency matters. He held the first modern presidential press conference, on March 15, 1913, in which reporters were allowed to ask him questions.


Election of 1916

Renominated in 1916, Wilson used as a major campaign slogan "He kept us out of war", referring to his administration’s avoiding open conflict with Germany or Mexico while maintaining a firm national policy. Wilson, however, never promised to keep out of war regardless of provocation. In his acceptance speech on September 2, 1916, Wilson pointedly warned Germany that submarine warfare that took American lives would not be tolerated, saying "The nation that violates these essential rights must expect to be checked and called to account by direct challenge and resistance. It at once makes the quarrel in part our own."

Wilson narrowly won the election, defeating Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes. As governor of New York from 1907–1910, Hughes had a progressive record, strikingly similar to Wilson’s as governor of New Jersey. Theodore Roosevelt would comment that the only thing different between Hughes and Wilson was a shave. However, Hughes had to try to hold together a coalition of conservative Taft supporters and progressive Roosevelt partisans and so his campaign never seemed to take a definite form. Wilson ran on his record and ignored Hughes, reserving his attacks for Roosevelt. When asked why he did not attack Hughes directly, Wilson told a friend to "Never murder a man who is committing suicide."[81]

The result was exceptionally close and the outcome was in doubt for several days. The vote came down to several close states. Wilson won California by 3,773 votes out of almost a million votes cast and New Hampshire by 54 votes. Hughes won Minnesota by 393 votes out of over 358,000. In the final count, Wilson had 277 electoral votes vs. Hughes 254. Wilson was able to win reelection in 1916 by picking up many votes that had gone to Teddy Roosevelt or Eugene V. Debs in 1912.


Second term, 1917–1921

Decision for War, 1917

Before entering the war in 1917, the U.S. had made a declaration of neutrality in 1914. During this time of neutrality, President Wilson warned citizens not to take sides in the war in fear of endangering wider U.S. policy. In his address to congress in 1914, Wilson states, "Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend."

The U.S. maintained neutrality despite increasing pressure placed on Wilson after the sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania with American citizens on board. This neutrality would deteriorate when Germany began to initiate its unrestricted submarine warfare threatening U.S. commercial shipping. When Germany started unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, despite the promises made in the Arabic pledge and the Sussex pledge, and attempted to enlist Mexico as an ally (see Zimmermann Telegram), Wilson took America into World War I as a war to make "the world safe for democracy". He did not sign a formal alliance with the United Kingdom or France but operated as an "associated" power. He raised a massive army through conscription and gave command to General John J. Pershing, allowing Pershing a free hand as to tactics, strategy and even diplomacy.

Woodrow Wilson had decided by then that the war had become a real threat to humanity. Unless the U.S. threw its weight into the war, as he stated in his declaration of war speech on April 2, 1917, western civilization itself could be destroyed. His statement announcing a "war to end war" meant that he wanted to build a basis for peace that would prevent future catastrophic wars and needless death and destruction. This provided the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were intended to resolve territorial disputes, ensure free trade and commerce, and establish a peacemaking organization. Included in these fourteen points was the proposal of the League of Nations.

War Message

775px-President_Woodrow_Wilson_asking_Congress_to_declare_war_on_Germany,_2_April_1917President Wilson delivering his
war message before Congress.
April 2, 1917.

Woodrow Wilson delivered his War Message to Congress on the evening of April 2, 1917. Introduced to great applause, he remained intense and almost motionless for the entire speech, only raising one arm as his only bodily movement.

Wilson announced that his previous position of "armed neutrality" was no longer tenable now that the Imperial German Government had announced that it would use its submarines to sink any vessel approaching the ports of Great Britain, Ireland or any of the Western Coasts of Europe. He advised Congress to declare that the recent course of action taken by the Imperial German Government constituted an act of war. He proposed that the United States enter the war to "vindicate principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power". He also charged that Germany had "filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity of counsel, our peace within and without our industries and our commerce". Furthermore, the United States had intercepted a telegram sent to the German ambassador in Mexico City that evidenced Germany’s attempt to instigate a Mexican attack upon the U.S. The German government, Wilson said, "means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors". Wilson closed with the statement that the world must be again safe for democracy.

With 50 Representatives and 6 Senators in opposition, the declaration of war by the United States against Germany was passed by the Congress on April 4, 1917, and was approved by the President on April 6, 1917.

The Fourteen Points

Postcard21000SoldiersCreateImageofPresidentWilsonCampShermanOH1918-commonsImage of Wilson created by 21,000
soldiers at Camp Sherman,
Chillicothe, Ohio, 1918

In a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson articulated America’s war aims. It was the clearest expression of intention made by any of the belligerent nations. The speech, authored principally by Walter Lippmann, expressed Wilson’s progressive domestic policies into comparably idealistic equivalents for the international arena: self-determination, open agreements, international cooperation. Promptly dubbed the Fourteen Points, Wilson attempted to make them the basis for the treaty that would mark the end of the war. They ranged from the most generic principles like the prohibition of secret treaties to such detailed outcomes as the creation of an independent Poland with access to the sea.

Home Front

To counter opposition to the war at home, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 through Congress to suppress anti-British, pro-German, or anti-war opinions. He welcomed socialists who supported the war and pushed for deportation of foreign-born radicals. Citing the Espionage Act, the U.S. Post Office refused to carry any written materials that could be deemed critical of the U. S. war effort. Some sixty newspapers were deprived of their second-class mailing rights.

His wartime policies were strongly pro-labor. He worked closely with Samuel Gompers and the AFL, while suppressing antiwar groups trying to impede the war effort. The American Federation of Labor, the railroad brotherhoods and other ‘moderate’ unions saw enormous growth in membership and wages during Wilson’s administration. There was no rationing, so consumer prices soared. As income taxes increased, white-collar workers suffered. Appeals to buy war bonds were highly successful, however. Bonds had the result of shifting the cost of the war to the affluent 1920s.

Wilson set up the first western propaganda office, the United States Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel (thus its popular name, Creel Commission), which filled the country with patriotic anti-German appeals and conducted various forms of censorship. In 1917, Congress authorized ex-President Theodore Roosevelt to raise four divisions of volunteers to fight in France- Roosevelt’s World War I volunteers; Wilson refused to accept this offer from his political enemy. Other areas of the war effort were incorporated into the government along with propaganda. The War Industries Board headed by Bernard Baruch set war goals and policies for American factories. Future President Herbert Hoover was appointed to head the Food Administration which encouraged Americans to participate in "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" to conserve food for the troops overseas. The Federal Fuel Administration run by Henry Garfield introduced daylight savings time and rationed fuel supplies such as coal and oil to keep the US military supplied. These and many other boards and administrations were headed by businessmen recruited by Wilson for a dollar a day salary to make the government more efficient in the war effort.

After Russia left the war following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Allies sent troops there to prevent a German or Bolshevik takeover of allied-provided weapons, munitions and other supplies, previously shipped as aid to the pre-revolutionary government. Wilson sent armed forces to assist the withdrawal of Czech and Slovak prisoners along the Trans-Siberian Railway, hold key port cities at Arkangel and Vladivostok. Though not sent to engage the Bolsheviks, the U.S. forces engaged in several armed conflicts against forces of the new Russian government. Despite the apparent innocuousness of Wilson’s motives, revolutionaries in Russia resented the American intrusion. As Robert Maddox puts it, "The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society." Wilson withdrew most of the soldiers on April 1, 1920, though some remained until as late as 1922.

In 1919 Wilson guided American foreign policy to "acquiesce" in the Balfour Declaration without supporting Zionism in an official way. Wilson expressed sympathy for the plight of Jews, especially in Poland and in France.

In May 1920, after the Senate passed a resolution unanimously expressing sympathy for Armenia’s suffering, Wilson sent a proposal to Congress to establish an American mandate over Armenia. It failed in the Senate with only 23 votes for and 52 against. He later requested an appropriation to underwrite a loan to Armenia, but got no response from Congress.

Peace Conference 1919

After World War I, Wilson participated in negotiations with the stated aim of assuring statehood for formerly oppressed nations and an equitable peace. On January 8, 1918, Wilson made his famous Fourteen Points address, introducing the idea of a League of Nations, an organization with a stated goal of helping to preserve territorial integrity and political independence among large and small nations alike.

Wilson intended the Fourteen Points as a means toward ending the war and achieving an equitable peace for all the nations. He spent six months in Paris for the Peace Conference (making him the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office). He worked tirelessly to promote his plan. The charter of the proposed League of Nations was incorporated into the conference’s Treaty of Versailles. The stipulation of racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations was proposed and supported by a large majority of countries, however Wilson vetoed, then in the United States, racial riots occurred as reaction.

WoodrowWilsonVersaillesWilson returning from the
Versailles Peace Conference,

For his peace-making efforts, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, however, he failed to even win US Senate support for ratification. The United States never joined the League. Republicans under Henry Cabot Lodge controlled the Senate after the 1918 elections, but Wilson refused to give them a voice at Paris and refused to agree to Lodge’s proposed changes. The key point of disagreement was whether the League would diminish the power of Congress to declare war. During this period, Wilson became less trustful of the press and stopped holding press conferences for them, preferring to use his propaganda unit, the Committee for Public Information, instead.

A poll of historians in 2006 cited Wilson’s failure to compromise with the Republicans on U.S. entry into the League as one of the 10 largest errors on the part of an American president. The extensive restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles left the German populace with a resentment against the treaty and ultimately contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II.

When Wilson traveled to Europe to settle the peace terms, he visited Pope Benedict XV in Rome, making Wilson the first American President to visit the Pope while in office.

Post war: 1919–20

Wilson’s administration did not plan for the process of demobilization at the war’s end. Though some advisers tried to engage the President’s attention to what they called "reconstruction", his tepid support for a federal commission evaporated with the election of 1918. Republican gains in the Senate meant that his opposition would have to consent to the appointment of commission members. Instead, Wilson favored the prompt dismantling of wartime boards and regulatory agencies.

Demobilization proved chaotic and violent. Four million soldiers were sent home with little planning, little money, and few benefits. A wartime bubble in prices of farmland burst, leaving many farmers bankrupt or deeply in debt after they purchased new land. Major strikes in steel, coal, and meatpacking followed in 1919. Serious race riots hit Chicago, Omaha and two dozen other cities. As the election of 1920 approached, Wilson imagined that a deadlocked Democratic convention might turn to him as the only candidate who would make U.S. participation in the League of Nations the dominant issue. He imagined and sometimes pretended he was healthy enough for the effort, but several times admitted that he knew he could not survive a campaign. No one around the President dared tell him that he was incapable and that the campaign for the League was already lost. At the Convention in late June, 1920, some Wilson partisans made efforts on his behalf and sent Wilson hopeful reports, but they were quashed by Wilson’s wiser friends.


Please take time to further explore more about WOODROW WILSON,
by accessing the Wikipedia articles
referenced below…




Other Events on this Day:

  • In 1636…
    The Massachusetts Bay Colony organizes militia units into three regiments, an event the National Guard recognizes as its birthday.

  • In 1862…
    Confederate forces win a major victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

  • In 1918…
    Woodrow Wilson becomes the first U.S. president in office to visit Europe when he arrives in France for the post-World War I peace conference

  • In 1937…
    Imperial Japanese troops capture the city of Nanking, China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, beginning a brutal six-week long onslaught against the Chinese population. An estimated 300,000 civilians and disarmed Chinese soldiers will be murdered over the next few months, and tens of thousands of women raped, in the massacre commonly known as the "Rape of Nanking."

  • In 1989…
    South African President F.W. de Klerk meets with jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela for the first time, at de Klerk’s presidential residence in Cape Town, to discuss bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa. Mandela will be released from prison two months later, after serving 27 years.

  • In 2003…
    American soldiers discover former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit, nine months after the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Hussein will be found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal and executed on Dec. 30, 2006.


Dates and events based on:

William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)


Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Woodrow Wilson…

Wikipedia: United States Presidential Election, 1912…

Wikipedia: United States Presidential Election, 1916

Wikipedia: Paris Peace Conference, 1919…

Wikipedia: Fourteen Points…

WikiSource: Fourteen Points…

Brainy Quote: WOODROW WILSON Quotes…


Other Posts on this Topic:

Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Senate Fails to Ratify Treaty of Versailles & League of Nations…