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Woodrow Wilson, Part One

Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg
TTBW 1230 Woodrow Wilson, Part One
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WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Woodrow Wilson rose in just 10 years from college professor, to president of Princeton, to governor of New Jersey, to President of the United States, to ultimately the most admired man in the world. He was a progressive who banned child labor and introduced the federal income tax. Wilson led America through the first World War. He proposed the League of Nations, fore-runner to the UN. But it was his willingness to use American military power to further democratic ideals that makes him so relevant today - with America at war, using similar means for similar ends. Who was Woodrow Wilson? And how has Wilsonian idealism shaped American foreign policy? To find out, Think Tank is joined by H. W. Brands, the Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A & M University and the author of 19 books, including the new biography 'Woodrow Wilson'; and Kendrick Clements, professor of American diplomatic history at the University of South Carolina and the author of 'The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson' and 'Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman.' The topic before the house: Woodrow Wilson, Part One. This week on Think Tank.

(musical break)

WATTENBERG: Gentlemen. Ken Clements, Bill Brands; welcome to Think Tank. We are here in the Library of President Woodrow Wilsonís home where he lived after he became a president. Itís a terrific room. Itís a terrific house, except it suffers from the Washington heat, which is why this is the first program, I think, since Iíve been doing this for eleven years, where I am not wearing a jacket. But in any event...you have both written one-volume biographies of Woodrow Wilson, which have been highly acclaimed, and suppose we start out with sort of a biographical take on Wilsonís life. Bill, why donít we start with you and I can signal you and...

BRANDS: Well he was born in Virginia and he spent the first couple years of his life in Virginia.

WATTENBERG: In rural Virginia, right?

BRANDS: In the Shenandoah Valley. In Staunton, Virginia. Thatís where he was born. His father was a Presbyterian minister who got a job at a Presbyterian church in a seminary actually in Augusta, Georgia where the family moved when Wilson was young. And he spent most of his childhood growing up in Georgia. And while he was there he experienced vicariously the Civil War which came through the area, which came through Georgia.

WATTENBERG: What year was he born?



BRANDS: Okay. So he would have been ten years old.

WATTENBERG: He was actually a little tot when the Civil War was going on.

BRANDS: Right. Right. The Civil War was a real presence in Wilsonís childhood and it was something that he could reflect on when he grew up.

WATTENBERG: Ken, he really regarded himself and was regarded as a southerner, wasnít he?

CLEMENTS: I have some mixed feelings about that. He certainly - he always said he thought of himself as a southerner and he always said the south was the one place that nothing had to be explained to him. But in fact of course, he didnít live most of his life there and he really lost his southern accent and itís hard for me to see what he did that was really southern aside from racial policies.

BRANDS: Well I think that was one of the things that was a key to his political success, because he was a southerner by birth, but he made his name in the north. And so in the early part of the 20th century he could appeal to both sections at a time when it would have probably been difficult for a purely southerner, for example, to get the nomination; get elected. Wilson was somebody who could bridge that gap and almost in his person bring the union back together.

CLEMENTS: And southerners were absolutely delighted when he became president. They thought this was a chance to sort of redeem themselves and have a new shot at the power of the government.

WATTENBERG: As I understand it he was very late in learning how to read.

CLEMENTS: There is a theory that he had dyslexia and I think he was nine before he learned the alphabet and he was eleven or twelve before he learned to read. And he was always a very slow reader. And he later learned shorthand and apparently one of the things dyslexics can do is to use shorthand instead of trying to write things out; itís easier for them.

BRANDS: But its always been a puzzle to me why he chose the career he did because if reading is difficult an academic career seems to me to be about the last thing youíd want to decide on.

WATTENBERG: And thatís what he was prior to becoming president. He was an academic.

BRANDS: Thatís it. Thatís it. He was a college professor. And then he was a college president, but that was his entire career.

WATTENBERG: So he becomes a professor at Princeton?


WATTENBERG: 1890. So heís a professor for how long?

CLEMENTS: Until 1902 when he became president of Princeton.

WATTENBERG: And then so he takes this jump from being a professor with twelve years of tenure and boom, they make him president.



CLEMENTS: He was the most popular most popular professor at Princeton, the highest paid professor at Princeton and he also had a very substantial national reputation as a sort of a pundit on a variety of contemporary topics.

WATTENBERG: He was a great speaker I gather.

CLEMENTS: He was supposed to be a wonderful speaker.

BRANDS: I think one of the reasons he was named president was it was a way for the trustees of Princeton to keep him, because he was constantly being offered jobs elsewhere. He had advanced about as far as he could as a regular professor and heís - his kin said he was the highest paid professor on campus. Well, the only other thing they could do to make his job more attractive, to give them an excuse to pay him more was to make him president. And also of course, he was a constitutional scholar. He was a student of government and so presumably what he had learned about governments - American and foreign - might apply to the governance of a university. At least that was the hope.

CLEMENTS: I donít think it hurt that a lot of his friends were on the board of trustees, either. He had a lot of very wealthy friends from his Princeton days and many of them were on the board by that time.

WATTENBERG: And yet heís regarded as somewhat uneducated in foreign policy. I mean he did very little traveling; he was not a...

CLEMENTS: His field was in political science and the study of the American government really.

WATTENBERG: And history. And American history, I guess.

CLEMENTS: His PhD was in history and political science at that point.

BRANDS: And his published work was mostly in political theory but he applied it to historical circumstances. But he was really dealing with domestic politics. He had little to say about foreign affairs. He was not well-traveled; he was not facile in foreign languages and thereís not a whole lot of evidence that he really paid much attention to the world beyond the United States except in the - sort of the comparative political realm.

WATTENBERG: Now, was Princeton then regarded as Princeton is now regarded as one of the great schools in America?

CLEMENTS: I would say not.


BRANDS: It might have regarded itself that way, but Iím not sure...

CLEMENTS: It didnít become a university until 1896.


CLEMENTS: So it really was not a major - it was not a competitor of Harvard or Yale at that time.

WATTENBERG: Or the University of South Carolina, University of Texas. Not in that high...

CLEMENTS: Not quite.

BRANDS: But university presidents had a national presence and so for someone like Wilson who was beginning to feel that he wanted to speak out on important political issues and important issues of the day, being president of Princeton was really - it was a good soapbox to have.

WATTENBERG: He was not regarded as a nice guy, was he?

CLEMENTS: By nice guy you mean a sort of backslapping politician; he certainly wasnít that. A lot of people thought he was a cold fish.


CLEMENTS: He was - on the other hand with people who knew him well he was very nice and warm and you know, told stories and sang. Loved to sing. Had a good voice for singing and apparently was very much fun, but...

BRANDS: He didnít exude charisma in the sense that politicians sometimes do. In fact I think he would have had a good personality, a good temperament for television. Didnít work so well with the - the kind of media that were - he had at hand. He was often compared to Theodore Roosevelt who was the great public figure of his day. And Roosevelt was one of these outsized personalities; one who just filled up any room he entered. Wilson wasnít that way. He was much - he was much cooler. He had a cooler temperament, which probably would have come across pretty well on television.

WATTENBERG: Now he gets elected to the presidency in 1912 under most unusual circumstances. Maybe you can...

CLEMENTS: It was a three-way race.


CLEMENTS: In which the incumbent president, William Howard Taft, ran for reelection as a republican but Theodore Roosevelt had by that time broken with Taft and decided that he was going to go on his own so he created his own party, the progressive party or the Bull Moose party because he said he felt like a Bull Moose. And Wilson himself got the nomination as a sort of divided division among historians as to whether that helped him or hurt him actually.

WATTENBERG: Do you recall the numbers by which he won?

CLEMENTS: Itís about 43% of the popular vote, I think.


WATTENBERG: And with Roosevelt in second place.


WATTENBERG: And the incumbent who should have all the advantages finishing third.


BRANDS: Yes. And so it wasnít exactly an overwhelming vote of approval for Wilson. It was a vote of approval for the idea of reform because both Wilson and Roosevelt ran as progressive reformers against the conservative stand-pat Taft. And so if you add up all the reform votes, the progressive votes - Roosevelt plus Wilson - it was certainly an endorsement of reform.

WATTENBERG: Just as a little sidebar, for a man who has this organizing principle of democracy he is ambivalent or really on the side of the segregationists in terms of American domestic politics. Is that correct?

BRANDS: Sure. Wilson was a son of the south. Wilson was the one who accepted a decision by his postmaster general to segregate the federal workforce. So, like Thomas Jefferson, Wilson could talk about democracy without necessarily feeling that it applied to everybody even in the United States.

CLEMENTS: But I think there are variations here. Wilson came out of the upper class of the south and thereís a very big difference between the upper class of the south and those southern rednecks who were talking about lynching and forcing the segregation...

WATTENBERG: And he was a genteel...

CLEMENTS: It isnít necessarily fair...

WATTENBERG: Genteel segregationist.

CLEMENTS: Yes. Itís not necessarily better and he in fact told darkie stories on the boat going over to Europe apparently, with his friends. So this is not - itís not - I wonít say that heís a modern thinker in this, but he certainly is different from the worst of the segregationists of his era.

BRANDS: At the same time, itís probably worth remembering that Wilson was a Democratic president; the Democratic Party was dominated by the south and even if Wilson had had advanced views on race, which he didnít, he wouldnít have been able to implement them. Certainly not over the resistance of his own party.

CLEMENTS: And I would go even further, that I donít think that Civil Rights - individual rights - were of terribly great importance to him. During the war, you know, there were restrictions on freedom of speech and so on, all of which he was extremely insensitive to.

WATTENBERG: Insensitive.

CLEMENTS: Insensitive to.

WATTENBERG: And in this discussion the only thing we have to be aware of is the sin of what do they call it? Presentism? Is regarding him through our eyes. I mean, you can do it with Jefferson; you can do it with a lot of people. And itís clearly correct that he had these segregationist leanings, but it was not as if it were today.

BRANDS: No. Precisely. And it wasnít particularly remarkable for his day.

WATTENBERG: When did his first wife die? When did he marry his second wife?

CLEMENTS: His first wife died in August, 1914 and then he remarried...

WATTENBERG: Thatís just a couple of years after he becomes president.

BRANDS: Right.

CLEMENTS: And right on the eve of World War I and it has a lot to do with what happened at the - this policy.

WATTENBERG: And this just breaks him up.

CLEMENTS: It does.

BRANDS: Oh, itís astonishing. Wilson was cast into the darkest depression for several months, so that sometimes his friends and aides wondered if he would be able to get through this. And here he was trying to run the country at a time when he could hardly pull himself together.

WATTENBERG: At a time when war is brewing in Europe - actually started in Europe.

BRANDS: Exactly.

CLEMENTS: He was almost totally immobilized, really for months.

BRANDS: And so out of concern for Wilsonís own interest, but also out of concern for the national interest, his friends decided to set him up with a wealthy widow.


BRANDS: Who was said to be the first woman to drive a car in Washington, D.C.

CLEMENTS: Allegedly a descendent of Pocahontas.

WATTENBERG: Is that right?

CLEMENTS: So the story goes.

BRANDS: And there was a whirlwind romance. They met in March of 1915. This is what, about not quite a year; maybe nine months after Ellen, his first wife dies. They meet in March, he proposes to her by May of 1915 and this is...

WATTENBERG: March, April, May.

BRANDS: Right. This is smack in the middle of the Lusitania Crisis thatís going on in the first world war.

WATTENBERG: The Lusitania is the...

BRANDS: This is the British liner that a German submarine sinks.

WATTENBERG: With a lot of Americans on board.

CLEMENTS: Over 100 Americans said to be on board.

BRANDS: Right. And so Wilson has to decide what to do about it and if you read Wilsonís letters, during the very days when heís trying to decide how the United States government should respond to what was seen as this German outrage, heís writing three or four times a day to Edith and heís trying to get Edith to marry him.

CLEMENTS: What to us is a bit shocking, he was sending her some of the diplomatic correspondence, which he thought would woo her with the whiff of power, I assume.

BRANDS: The second marriage...

WATTENBERG: Not an unfamiliar line.

BRANDS: The second marriage was quite different than the first. Ellen was content to leave the politics to her husband, Wilson. Edith on the other hand wanted to play a role. And she did.

WATTENBERG: Okay. So weíre going through this - this fascinating American life; Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States. He becomes president in 1912. World War I starts in 1914. Can you set the stage for me? I mean, World War I is sort of regarded as this mystery war that nobody knows why it happened, what it was about. Letís make believe that Iím someone who doesnít understand about anything about World War I, and that will be very easy to do, because I donít. What was that whole thing about? Because it then leads into Wilsonís most important idea; this idea of spreading and expanding and encouraging democracy around the world. So give us a little flavor of that.

BRANDS: Well the first thing to bear in mind is that it wasnít called World War I at the time. In fact, it wasnít even called a World War. It was called the Great War and it was conceived as a European war, and thatís the way Americans looked at it. It was a war among the great European powers, which in the previous 15 or 20 years had divided up into opposing alliance systems. And when these alliances went to war in 1914 with the British and the French on one side primarily, and the Germans and the Austrians on the other side, then Americans looked at that...

WATTENBERG: And the Ottomans...

BRANDS: And the Ottomans, yes.

WATTENBERG: On the German side.

BRANDS: Right. And the Russians are on the allied side also, to bring in the last of them. When Americans looked at that, they said this is more of European politics and it reminds us why we left Europe and came to America. Itís not our fight. Wilson took this view from the very beginning and he essentially declared American neutrality and went beyond simply asking Americans to be neutral in - in act, but to be neutral in thought as well. This was Europeís fight; this wasnít Americaís fight. That was Wilsonís position; that was the American position.

WATTENBERG: And Americans, at that time, was a nation principally of European settlers.

CLEMENTS: This was one of the periods when an American population was the highest in the percentage of immigrants.


CLEMENTS: Something like one...

WATTENBERG: But they were immigrants from Europe. It was the second wave or a third wave of European...

CLEMENTS: It was something like one out of every seven Americans was European born in this period.

WATTENBERG: Right. And youíre talking now about eastern Europeans, Italian, Jews, Poles... thatís where this second wave...


WATTENBERG:... Russians. Thatís where the - the Ukrainian immigration. Thatís all coming in at about this time.


CLEMENTS: One of the things Wilson was obviously worried about was that these people would still feel ties to their homelands who were now at war with each other and that therefore this would be a dividing sort of thing that would be impossible to have a unified American policy.

BRANDS: And that was exactly the weak part of his policy. It was one thing to say the United States government is going to remain neutral, but to ask these folks to remain neutral emotionally, while their homelands were going at it was really more than he could reasonably expect.

WATTENBERG: Well, I guess thatís right. I mean there was some of that sort of tension, but when you look back on it considering that these were for the most part people whose parents or grandparents had done the immigrating, it wasnít so - I mean basically people in America stood by the U.S. government position.

CLEMENTS: Itís also true that Wilson and his advisors didnít entirely feel neutral, either. They had very strong ties, as indeed most upper-class Americans at that point had very strong ties to Britain and France.


CLEMENTS: English culture was really still very dominant in the United States and Wilson - the literature Wilson read all his life was English literature. The poets and writers...

WATTENBERG: There was an earlier period in America - I mean at about the time of the revolution where there was really a competition between the English and the Germans, the balance of population of demographic power in America was much closer. But by this time itís really English...

CLEMENTS: It really is the dominant culture. At least for the upper classes of America.

BRANDS: And Americaís economic connections to Britain especially, and France also, were better developed than they were with the countries of the opposing side. There were American connections to Germany; thatís true. But, they didnít compare with those the United States had with Britain.

WATTENBERG: Right. So what was that war about from a European perspective? What were they fighting about?

CLEMENTS: We both - here we sit in silence.

BRANDS: We can tell you how it started.

WATTENBERG: Yes. It started with the...

BRANDS: The Austrian Archduke was assassinated and the various countries on either side of this alliance system decided that they needed to put pressure and get support to their various allies. You know, itís sort of like this is the spark that set things off. But there had - for twenty years or so - been a feeling in Germany that Germany was being elbowed aside in the race for colonies, for example, and the status that was accorded great powers. So there was a sense on the part of the Germans that the Germans needed to make a statement. There was a fear of Germany...

WATTENBERG: But this was by the elites, by the Kaiser. This was not - or was it - a feeling of the masses of people?

BRANDS: Well, now see thatís really hard to say. But itís also one of the reasons that the United States, that Americans, tended to feel a greater affinity for Britain and France than for the German empire. Because they were more like the United States politically. It was - you could have a better chance saying what the British people felt or what the French people felt. Or the German people felt...

WATTENBERG: They were the democracies.

BRANDS: Exactly. Exactly. And so one of the things that attracted Wilson to the side of the allied powers was this notion that they share our political values and that would be probably as important as anything in making Wilson decide that the United States ultimately needed to go on into the war on the side of the allies. It had long been an aspect of American diplomacy, that freedom of the seas was something the United States needed to defend by war if necessary. And freedom of the seas meant that the United States could trade with both belligerents in a war. If the United States remained neutral, it ought to be able to trade with the British; it ought to be able to trade with the Germans; it ought to be able to trade with any party to the war. The trouble was that the British and the Germans didnít see things that way. And the British thought that the Americans ought to trade with Britain and its allies...

WATTENBERG: Exclusively.

BRANDS: Exclusively. And they clamped a blockade down on Germany. The Germans thought that the Americans ought to trade with them, but not with the other side. Now, it was in the nature of Britainís naval superiority that it was much better able to enforce its view on transatlantic trade than the Germans were.

WATTENBERG: I mean that was the era of Britannia rules the waves.

BRANDS: Thatís it. The British had...

CLEMENTS: And not only could they enforce it...

WATTENBERG: Later changed to Britannia waives the rules.

CLEMENTS: Not only could they enforce a blockade but they could do it in a way that was not so damaging to American interest. They could stop American ships; they could seize them; they could bring them into port. Nobody lost their lives; no ships were destroyed; property wasnít lost. The Germans on the other hand, when they tried to blockade England, had to come up with a different method for doing it because they didnít have a big navy to do it with. So they used a submarine and the submarine, really in that era, was so slow and so delicate that they couldnít possibly surface without being vulnerable and that meant then that the only way the submarine could work was to sink the ships.

WATTENBERG: But it was a revolutionary instrument of warfare.

CLEMENTS: Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: I mean it really...

BRANDS: It was.

WATTENBERG: You could go underwater and nail a ship ten times your size.

BRANDS: And from a strictly military standpoint it tended to even the odd between Germany and Britain. But from the standpoint of public relations, which is what would involve the United States, it gave Britain a great advantage over Germany, because when the Germans interdicted commerce by sinking ships, it meant that people were killed. When the British interdicted commerce it meant that they would simply force the ship to stop, they would tow the ship to port, no one would get hurt and people would go on about their business.

CLEMENTS: And indeed, the British even paid for the goods they seized.


WATTENBERG: So we have this vicious slaughter, almost unexplainable going on in Europe and Wilson is being pressured to get in the war and when he ultimately does which is toward the very end of it, he has developed a belief system, which is centered on one word, which is democracy. Where does that come from in his life? When does he adopt that as his organizing principle? Because particularly as we see it today with whatís going on in Iraq and what President Bush is saying, like it or not. I mean, thatís what his lasting impact on American life is. So where does that come from?

CLEMENTS: I think itís something that had been with him really from the very beginning. Thatís what he had studied as a student; itís what he had grown up believing. He was an American patriot; a believer in nationalism and in that sense unusual for southerners of his generation and certainly had always thought that this was - it was the best possible way to go and as president before the war even he had been primed to expand American democracy in Latin America, pushing it out there, hoping to see it expand in China. So this is a - this is the fundamental balk of his foreign policy from the very outset. Itís nothing new in 1917.

BRANDS: Except Wilsonís insight - and this is something that he learned during the first two-and-a-half years of the war - was that American democracy - this was the highest value in Wilsonís political universe. American democracy would be endangered if democracy didnít survive in Europe. Until Wilson came along it was easy for Americans to think that what happened in Europe didnít have much to do with what happened in the United States. And the United States, which is separated by 3,000 miles of ocean and lots of separate history, could happily ignore whether the Germans won; whether the French won; what happened in Russia and all that sort of thing. What Wilson concluded by April of 1917 when he asked for a declaration of war, was that American democracy couldnít survive on its own and in his request for war he says the United States needs to go to war to make the world safe for democracy. That was - that was the phrase that stuck because - and what he was thinking about was not necessarily making every country in the world democratic. But the world at first had to be made safe for those countries that were democratic, starting with the United States. But that required a forward defense of American interest in this case in Europe.

WATTENBERG: Okay, on that note, Ken Clements and Bill Brands, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you. Please remember to join us in a future episode for Part Two of our discussion of Woodrow Wilson. And remember to send us your comments via e-mail. It helps us make the program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for Think Tank is provided by...

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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