Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, September 23, 2016

Recommended: One View of Wilsonianism

(This is the most succinct and devastating critique of Woodrow Wilson's world view that I've run into. If someone has a comparably concise positive view, I'd be happy to present it as a response. I made this offer once before in our newsletter, the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, and didn't get any takers. The editor does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in these "Recommended" articles but does believe that they are thought-provoking and worthy of our readers' attention.)

President Wilson and His Peace Commissioners, Paris 1919

Wilsonianism views human conflict as an expungeable by-product of greed, militarism, oppression, secret diplomacy, and idolatrous worship of the balance of power. Wilson imagined a world born again as a democratic league practicing disarmament, free trade, arbitration, and collective security. Of those tenets, freedom of trade and open sea lanes remain vital interests that the U.S. Navy alone can defend. Wilson's "open covenants" did not survive the first week of his own conference, disarmament is the quickest way for the United States to lose its friends and encourage its enemies, and self-determination (as Wilson's secretary of state, Robert Lansing, predicted) is a Pandora's box that spews forth new horrors to this day. Finally, however much Wilson fudged the fact, the League of Nations implied an abridgment of the unilateralism that most Americans still cherish. Wilson's dream, as Henry Kissinger rightly notes, has even less of a chance in the era to come, since the ranks of the major powers may soon include Russia, China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Iran, and Nigeria [?], none of which has a tradition of Western jurisprudence. 

In historical perspective, Wilsonianism may well come to be seen as the product of one narrow strain of turn-of-the-century, Anglo-American, Progressive, Protestant thought. 

Walter A. McDougall
"Back to Bedrock: The Eight Traditions of American Statecraft," 
Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr 1997

Professor McDougall's full article can be found here (registration required to read for free):


  1. And don't forget that he also resegregated federal employees and the DC school system. All in all, a dreadful, shortsighted, narrowminded person and a worse politician. On the positive side, he did write beautifully ardent love letters to his future second wife. And sent my wife's great-grandfather to Paris to do PR.

  2. I've often said how I'd punch President Wilson in the nose when I run into him in hell!

  3. No need to put a question mark after Nigeria. The country is oil rich and if they can control the Muslim incursion, they have the means to be successful. The average Nigerian immigrant in the US makes more money than the average white person, so Nigerians have the drive and the talent to become a great power.

  4. This sent me back to a favorite book, Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan, from which come the following two excerpts on Wilson:

    From Page 5: "Wilson's career was a series of triumphs, but there were darker moments, both personal and political,fits of depression and sudden and baffling illnesses. Moreover, he left behind him a trail of enemies, many of them former friends. ... [Quoting House:] 'Once the decision is made it is final and there is an absolute end to all advice and suggestion.' ... What was admirable to some was a dangerous egotism to others. The French ambassador in Washington saw 'a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong."

    From Page 14-15: "It is also easy to forget how important his principles were in 1919 and how many people, and not just in the United States, wanted to believe in his great dream of a better world. They had, after all, a terrible reference point in the ruin left by the Great War. ... What Wilson had to say struck a chord, not just with liberals or pacifists but also among Europe's political and diplomatic elites. ... Wilson himself found it exhilarating but also terrifying. [Speaking to George Creel on the George Washington, he said] "What I seem to see -- with all my heart I hope that I am wrong -- is a tragedy of disappointment."

    A complex fellow, to say the least.

  5. First of all, thank you for introducing me to Professor McDougall. I had to go back and read his full article in the '97 issue of Foreign Affairs. He is a powerful and provocative writer, and I will have to read his book on this subject.

    I will take on the task of saying some favorable words about Woodrow Wilson. First, I will concede he was racist, and second, that many of his ideas were too idealistic. He was a very skilled politician in his first term, less so in his second. At times, he was way in over his head at the Paris Peace Conference. Since I left college about 45 years ago, the two presidents that have declined the most in my appreciation are Wilson and Jefferson.

    I went to the Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, and an entry written by Tony Smith to get a definition of Wilsonianism. Smith says there were 4 elements - 1. promotion of democracy, 2. promotion of liberal, capitalist economies, 3. multilateralism (collective security), and 4. US leadership of world affairs. None of these sound bad to me, and they seem to still be the guiding principals of US foreign policy, at least since World War II. Sometimes our policies based on these principals have been successful and sometimes not. Certainly our efforts in Western Europe after World War II were examples of the successful implementation of Wilson's ideals; Vietnam and Iraq are examples of failed attempts. The lesson I draw from this is that some nations are more open to these principals than others. Successful leaders are the ones that recognize which is which. I would have to say the world in the first decade of the 21st century was more in line with Wilson's principals than any time in the past. Over half the worlds nations claim to be democracies, and virtually everyone practices capitalism. Not a bad legacy.

  6. And the League of Nations was a first attempt at an international forum for discussion of all world issues. While it failed do to many of the combatants desires to get their 'just revenge', it did lead to today's UN and the realization that such a forum is needed. Such a forum will always succeed or fail based on the participation of the larger powers and respect for ideal differences of the minor powers. Sadly with today's UN, it is simply ignored or circumvented as need by all, including the US and Russia - two major powers leading blocks most needed to make it work.