28 - Woodrow Wilson
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Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper
Wilson: Great Lives Observed by John Braeman.
Wilson was the first president to hold a press conference.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for his efforts in seeking peace after World War I and supporting the League of Nations.
Wilson detonated the final explosives to clear the Panama Canal. He sent the signal all the way from New York!
Wilson was the first president to have earned a Ph.D.
He was the first president to cross the Atlantic Ocean while in office.
His wife, Edith Wilson, was his connection with the outside world after he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his left side. She is considered the most powerful first lady there ever was.
An avid golfer, Wilson used black golf balls when playing in the snow.
His second wife, Edith, was a great-grandaughter of Pocahontas, seven times removed
Wilson was the second president to personally address Congress. (the first being Washington)
In 1895 he suffered a retinal hemorrhage which left him blind in his right eye.
Wilson is the only president buried in Washington D.C. (Taft and Kennedy are buried in Arlington, but it's in Virginia.)
I also have, but have not yet read, Arthur S. Link's short bio of Wilson, Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Since Link wrote the multi-volume bio of Wilson, it's probably good.
-idealistic and dogmatic, a "one-track" mind
-"even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right."
-assumed over-confidently that the United States would get its way simply by applying financial pressure
-God was content with Ten Commandments, Wilson insisted on Fourteen Points!
-quick to see the inconsistencies in others while remaining blind to his own
-his heavy-handedness and unwillingness to compromise cost him several votes in the Senate, especially among moderate Republicans, that could have otherwise provided the two-thirds majority he needed for ratification of the League of Nation treaty and the Treaty of Versailles
-insisted on adhering to his fourteen points some of the time, but reneged when it suited him to do so
-his refusal to support Japan in its quest for racial equality soured relations and deepened distrust with that country and helped fuel the next war
"Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act after making what the district attorney of Canton, Ohio called an anti-war speech in 1918. Debs in fact only mentioned the war once, but under this repressive new law, was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary. Nominated for a fifth time as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate in 1920, Debs campaigned from his jail cell and garnered over a million votes. Despite repeated pleas from Debs' supporters, President Wilson refused to release Debs from prison. President Harding finally ordered him set free on Christmas Day 1921."
(from the American Experience website)
Incidentally, fellow progressive Teddy Roosevelt despised Wilson, and TR was a fine judge of character in most cases.
That was the mood in those days ....
I found Wilson's story to be a fascinating one. Before entering politics, Wilson was a political scholar and the president of Princeton University. He was elected President of the United States in 1912, defeating the incumbent William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. His early years in office were marked by a focus on domestic legislation that advanced the Progressive cause. His first term was marred by the death of his wife Ellen. Just over a year later, he married Edith Gault. Although Wilson tried to maintain the U.S.'s neutrality, in 1917 the U.S. entered World War I. After World War I, Wilson traveled to Paris to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty that would prevent future wars. He advocated for a League of Nations. However, as he was traveling through the U.S. to gain support for the treaty, he suffered a stroke. Although he remained in office until the end of his term, Wilson's power was diminished, and the peace treaty was not ratified by Congress. Three years after leaving office, Wilson died and was buried in the basement of the future Washington National Cathedral.
With such an eventful presidency, it's hard to imagine a biography of Wilson that wouldn't be fascinating. Cooper did a good job of provide detail and context for the major events of Wilson's life. He pays special attention to Wilson's relationships with a number of close aides and with his wife, Edith, who was very involved in political affairs, especially after Wilson's stroke.
Cooper presents a mostly favorable portrait of Wilson. Several of the more negative assessments of Wilson that are mentioned by others in this thread (his views on race, his assaults on civil liberties) are mentioned only briefly. Cooper does contrast his views with less favorable portrayals by others scholars, but I would have liked to have seen more support for his conclusions. It would have helped provide a more balanced view. Cooper does present a more complex view of Wilson during the Paris Peace Negotiations and after his stroke.
Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a complete look at the life of this fascinating President.
I think one positive about him is that he tried to get Britain and France to forego reparations, recognizing that such punitive treatment would only cause problems in the future. He wasn't able to convince them, obviously, but he had a pretty progressive view of world politics, and the League of Nations was a step toward a different method of international relations.
I also think that putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII is at least as bad, if not worse, than the restrictions on free speech imposed at the end of WWI. I'm not saying what Wilson did with respect to free speech was good or excusable, only that it's not that different from what other presidents have done.
The internment of Japanese during World War II was appaling and it is perhaps the one real blot on FDR's overall record. However, with respect, no other president came EVEN CLOSE to Wilson's crackdown on civil liberties . . .ever ...
What are the other restrictions on civil liberties you are referring to? I am not asking to be snarky; I'm just interested in history and am not aware of others.
"The biggest black mark against Wilson, as far as liberals go, was the assault on civil liberties dating from the United States’ entry into World War I, and it is this part of Woodrow Wilson that also speaks to our own time. The Espionage and Sedation Acts in 1917 and 1918 outlawed criticism of government policy, including—absurdly enough—anyone who obstructed the sale of liberty bonds. “By arousing public opinion to such a pitch of excitement,” writes George Tindall in America: A Narrative History, “the war effort channeled the crusading zeal of progressivism into grotesque campaigns of ‘Americanism’ and witch-hunting.” German books were banned from schools, German music from local auditoriums. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.” Thousands of socialists, communists, unionists, and “suspicious” foreigners were arrested, some without warrants, and a number were imprisoned and deported. Socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for speaking against the war, and he would run for president from prison in 1920. Wilson refused to pardon him, leaving the task to Republican Warren G. Harding (proving that even a bad president can do a good deed)."
You owe it to yourself to do some further reading on Wilson and this entire era because there are contemporary parallels to the Bush era, though even the Bush Administration with Guantanamo, rendition, and torture never really came close to the mostly forgotten Wilsonian persecution of Americans who dared to express even minimal dissent during his term. Wilson was a despicable individual IMHO
A tidbit that might be of interest to you--in a bio of TR that I read recently (Theodore Rex) there was a mention of complaints about US forces using waterboarding in the Philippines. I thought that was a recent development, but obviously not.
Wilson: Great Lives Observed by John Braeman. I DO NOT recommend this book, especially as a starting point on Wilson. Find something else, and only if you are very, very interested, read this one. See my review here: http://www.librarything.com/work/8057324/reviews/66503963
Mr. Daniels was President Wilson's Secretary of the Navy throughout both of his administration periods; he was, I believe, the only member of the Executive who did serve throughout both. Accordingly, as a biographer of his President, he could be expected to be somewhat sycophantic. He was! The book could have done with better editing and the pedestrian writing style made it hard to get to know who Mr. Wilson really was. It was disappointing because of that.
In message 19 above, Garp notes a George Tindall quote of the time: “By arousing public opinion to such a pitch of excitement, the war effort channeled the crusading zeal of progressivism into grotesque campaigns of ‘Americanism’ and witch-hunting.” Our esteemed and all-pervasive Media has taken up responsibility for that kind of influence and it has a perfectly gullible target population that can be molded into a reactive mess that has been a laughing stock in the international community. Witness: George Wallace, Joe McCarthy, Watergate, O. J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Elian Gonzales, Princess Diana (not even of this hemisphere), Pat Tillman, the Tea Party.
On the Tea Party, will they have an effect similar to the Free Soilers and the Know Nothings and split the votes giving rise to another less-than-competent President?
Back to the subject, I got a satisfactory picture of President Wilson from Mr. Daniels. I have no wish to read more about him or the period at this time.
by A. Scott Berg
I picked up this book with prejudice. You see, in my younger years, all I knew about Woodrow Wilson that he was president during World War I and had been credited with some progressive reforms. Then I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, which has a nice little section on Woodrow Wilson. After that, I knew that Wilson was a racist @#$&!% president during World War I and had been credited with some progressive reforms. So I wasn't all that excited when I got to this biography in my reading list.
But words have the power to change minds. Mr. Berg didn't deny, or seek to excuse Wilson's racist views, nor did he dwell on them. He simply accepted Wilson and his society as they were and told the tale of his life. The portrait he painted was one of a great man. Not a saint, but rather as a man who attempted and accomplished a lot in his lifetime. The book does an excellent job of recounting Wilson's life and the world around him. I could easily relate to and empathize with Thomas Woodrow Wilson from childhood through his career in academia, his political years, his role on the world stage, and finally to his final years as "a broken piece of machinery". I'd still like to travel back 100 years and present Wilson with an Obama bumper sticker, but I think that after reading Wilson, I'd also have to thank him for those reforms he accomplished and his advocacy for peace.
Really, check it out. This has to be one of the best biographies I've read.
Wilson was our most controversial president since Jefferson in my opinion. Cooper captures this dynamic president who passed such measures as the Federal Reserve Act, the Income Tax, the FTC, a lower tariff, etc. but floundered like LBJ in the foreign policy arena. According to Cooper, he would not be stampeded into war like James Madison was in 1812. In essence like our current President Obama he essentially drew a line in the sand for Kaiser's Germany, I.e., no unrestricted submarine warfare and no sinking of American merchant ships. Unfortunately for Wilson, Germany crossed the line in an attempt to knock the UK out of the War in 1917 with indiscriminate submarine warfare. Wilson then led America into WW I (the war to end all wars). Unfortunately, Wilson would not tolerate dissent in WW I and condoned the persecution of the Wobblies and Eugene Deb and the country reached a new low in civil liberties. At the same time like Jefferson Wilson according to the author was perhaps the worst president for the black man since Andrew Johnson. He allowed segregation of federal offices, southern lynchings of blacks, and the crushing of black riots. At the same time he advocated a "peace without victory" in WW I and his famous Fourteen Points which included the League of Nations. Unfortunately, the early Wilson who was able to pass tremendous domestic legislation lost his political barometer when it came to the League of Nations. First, he failed to take any prominent Republican Senators to Paris for the negotiations. Second, he even failed to take along such prominent Republican League sympathizers as Root and Taft, head of the League for Peace. Third, he failed in his attempts to prevent France from imposing a punitive peace on Germany and he failed to protect China from the Japanese. Fourth, when he brought the Treaty before the U.S. Senate he failed to compromise when some reasonable compromises especially in Article X might have achieved ratification. Fifth, he went on a whistle stop tour of America thinking he could turn public opinion not realizing the American public was sinking back into isolationism. Sixth, his health failed and he suffered s stroke. Even if he had enjoyed good health, he would have had to return to the Wilson of 1912 to achieve passage of the Treaty. Cooper seems to think a healthy dynamic Wilson would have obtained passage of the treaty. Seventh, in 1918 the Republicans captured both houses of Congress. This was a new reality that Wilson (unlike perhaps Bill Clinton)'did not seem to recognize. Finally, Wilson in addition to his racism was guilty of personal vindictiveness. Even though Colonel House served Wilson faithfully for years, he cut Wilson off completely after Paris in 1919. After the War, he failed to pardon Eugene Debs. Part of this was due to his health. Even though he cut off Colonel House he failed to rid himself of the disloyal Secretary of State Lansing until 1919.
Cooper is sympathetic to Wilson but nonetheless does not fail portray his failures as well as his achievements. In the preface Cooper says the end of WW I was Wilson's triumph and tragedy. It was a triumph because the armistice saved lives. It did not work out because the punitive peace laid the seeds for WW II. Cooper definitely thinks Wilson's term would have ended differently if he had not had his stroke. I am not sure I agree. I doubt the League would ever have passed with the Republican majority in the Senate and the need for a two thirds vote for treaties.
He adored the first Mrs. Wilson and often stayed with her, as her husband's request when he had a State Dinner (taking another agent with him), as he was Mrs. Wilson's favorite. He would make sure she was warm with a fire, covered with a blanket and comfortably reading. She would often engage him in conversation. Starling grieved when Mrs. Wilson died.
However, it didn't take Wilson too long to meet the next Mrs. Wilson, some years younger than himself. This is a quote from the book, "The President was encircled by his daughters, especially Miss Margaret, who was unmarried. "Miss Margaret ran with a crowd of liberals, and was apt to show up with all sorts of long-haired, wild-eyed persons as her guests. She also sang, in a soprano voice that was not too good. Often it flooded the White House with its questionable beauty, creating a strange tension among the members of the staff."
Then Mrs. Gait appeared. "She's a looker," said the presidential doorkeeper. "He's a goner," said the presidential valet. Sometimes as the Colonel dutifully trailed the lovers on their walks, they would glance back at him, "she with the frank laughter of a woman who is enjoying the predicament of both men. She was having a wonderful time."
Starling recounts that Wilson often danced and sang and loved nothing more than to take the new Mrs. Wilson out dancing. But he also recounts that they would often walk places impromptu and this gave him fits, especially when they would take short-cuts that he knew nothing about.
As to WWI, Starling claims that Wilson was pressured into declaring war on Germany after the sinking of the Luisitania. He says that Wilson felt "bad" about it as he had ran his campaign on the slogan "He kept us out of war." However, he was counting on Black Jack Pershing to delay troop arrival as long as possible, and he did just that. The AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) only fought one major battle, the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the largest, most deadly, and most decisive battle of the Great War.
The 2nd book talks more of Wilson's stroke and the aftermath. Wilson's wife, Edith, blamed the Republicans in Congress for her husband's stroke, as they often resorted to character assassination in the protests against the League of Nations. The Republicans also wanted to repeal the highest taxes this country had ever seen. Mrs. Wilson didn't even trust the vice president at this point and she severley restricted access to her husband. She insisted on screening all of the Presidents paperwork and it was noticed that the President's "signature" changed from that time forward. Following the end of WWI, there was a Congressional Committee formed to study just why America went to war. It's scathing result was that we were forced into by gun and weapons manufacturers. (Nye Committee).