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The Poltergeist of Woodrow Wilson

We still live with the consequences of the 28th president’s fuzzy thinking.

Credit: Everett Collection

Richard Nixon made an odd request after his election to the presidency in 1969. The veteran politician wanted Woodrow Wilson’s old desk to be brought out of storage and into the Oval Office. Nixon had worked from the same desk while serving as Eisenhower’s vice president, and now that he held the highest office in the land, he wanted both the desk and a portrait of Wilson to hang in the Cabinet Room alongside Ike and Lincoln. 

It might seem odd that Richard Nixon, an ultra-realist, admired Woodrow Wilson, long-regarded as one of our nation’s most idealistic presidents. Indeed, Nixon’s national security adviser and future secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, later registered his disapproval. Yet it speaks volumes about the enduring legacy of Wilson, who died one hundred years ago this month, on February 3, 1924.


Wilson hasn’t lost the ability to divide. In 2020, for example, Princeton University announced that it would be removing Wilson’s name from its vaunted school of public affairs, citing the late president’s “racist thinking and policies.” Much of the controversy around Wilson centers on his retrograde views on race—as president he resegregated the federal workforce—or his dramatic expansion of the administrative state. In Woodrow Wilson, there is a little bit of something for both conservatives and liberals to hate.

If Woodrow Wilson should be remembered for anything, however, it is his foreign policy. Wilson, the historian John Milton Cooper noted, “is the president who really takes” the United States “into the world.” As his biographer, A. Scott Berg, rightly observed, Wilson brought forward “a new epoch, one that would carry the name of a man whose ideas and ideals would extend well into the next century.” The 20th century is often called the “American century,” but it might rightly be regarded as belonging to Wilson as much as anyone else.

Many of his supporters, both then and now, have argued that Wilson’s strident support for liberal internationalism was ahead of his time. In this telling, Wilson was a prophet, arguing for post-war measures that, had they been adopted, could have prevented another World War. “Isolationists” in the U.S. Senate, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts who headed the Foreign Relations Committee, were short-sighted men who thwarted Wilson’s ambitions, notably his cherished League of Nations. Wilson “looked over the heads of other men, above the confusion of contemporary events, to distant horizons,” his son-in-law and Treasury Secretary William McAdoo claimed.

But history isn’t always a Greek tragedy. Wilson’s opponents weren’t “isolationists.” Rather, they had “reservations” about Wilson subverting American sovereignty—and they were right to have them. Wilson’s failures were consequential. In the final analysis, blame rests with the 28th president himself. The man was not up to the moment.


When Wilson took office in 1913, much of the world was ruled by anciens regimes that had held power for centuries: the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs, Ottomans, and others. The age of empire was at its height. By the time that he left the presidency eight years later, the world was as broken as he was. Communism had been born, kings slaughtered, and dynasties undone. 

“It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,” the incoming president told a friend days before he was sworn in. That is precisely what happened. Lincoln once admitted, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Wilson would be thrust into dealing with a global conflagration, when World War I erupted a little more than a year after he was sworn in. 

Unlike Lincoln, Wilson would oversee not only the war effort, but the peace. Conventional wisdom has it that he largely succeeded in the former and failed at the latter. This is true, but it is important to understand why. 

Wilson is often caricatured as a starry-eyed idealist; the truth is close, but less kind. The real Wilson was a romantic whose thinking in foreign affairs was replete with half-baked ideas. Many of those ideas have lived on long after his death.

Indeed, Wilson’s foreign policy was not dominated so much by idealism as by fuzzy-headed thinking. As one of his best biographers, Arthur Herman, thoroughly documented, Wilson advocated for policies that he himself often couldn’t define or weren’t fully formed. Concepts like self-determination and their application to distant parts of the world were not well thought out. “When the President talks of ‘self-determination,’” his Secretary of State Robert Lansing asked, “what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community…. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives.”

Wilson’s vision of collective security was similarly hazy. As Herman recounts, when making his case for the League of Nations to Senator Lodge, Wilson couldn’t even articulate the differences between a “moral” and “legal” obligation that would necessitate the United States’ military intervention. 

Wilson viewed the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I not as a loss for Germany “but of an entire way of organizing the world,” Herman observes. “Balance of power, armed alliances, secret treaties…would now be thrown out,” and a new world order “based on self-determination, peace and democracy would take their place.” 

That is not how the world works, either then or now.

The French statesman George Clemenceau, who would spar with Wilson over peace terms in Paris, noted that the American president “believed you could do everything with formulas and fourteen points.”

“Please do not misunderstand me,” Clemenceau told Wilson, “We too came into the world with the noble instincts and the lofty aspirations that you express so often and so eloquently.” Yet, France, like the rest of Europe, “had been shaped by the rough hand of the world in which we have to live.”

Wilson often failed to see reality. He initially dismissed the Bolshevik coup in Russia “as an extreme form of democratic anti-imperialist idealism.” As Herman notes, Wilson “saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks as essentially liberals who had lost their way and embraced extremism,” remaining convinced that their “ultimate objective was democracy as well as peace.”

Recent scholarship makes a convincing case that one of Wilson’s preeminent failures was staffing. Philip Zelikow and Robert Zoellick have argued that top advisers like Lansing and Col. Edward House often worked against Wilson’s objectives, thwarting a chance to broker a peace between warring powers even before the U.S. entered the Great War. Personnel is policy, and Wilson chose the wrong men to implement his wishes.

An older critique, that Wilson was incapable of compromise, also retains validity. Harold Nicholson, a British diplomat and observer at the peace negotiations, believed that Wilson had a “one-track mind” that “rendered him blindly impervious, not merely to human character but also to shades of difference. He possessed no gift for differentiation, no capacity for adjustment to circumstances. It was his spiritual and mental rigidity that proved his undoing.”

Wilson’s inability to compromise, and his failure to reckon with Republican gains in the 1918 elections, would cost him, ending his hopes for a League of Nations and, the president said, “breaking the heart of the world.” Yet it wasn’t the world that was at stake—America’s core national interests were never going to be simpatico with those of other nations—and Wilson’s failure to understand this reality doomed his agenda. It did not, however, doom his ideals, which would be resuscitated in the wake of World War II, reincarnated in organizations like the United Nations.

American involvement in the League, as well as Wilson himself, went down in defeat. In October 1919, while touring the country to promote the League, Wilson suffered a series of crippling strokes that left him an invalid for the remainder of both his presidency and his life. He died less than four years after he left office. “The machinery is broken,” he said in his final moments. Yet Wilson’s dream lives on.

Amid World War II, the notion that United States membership in the League could somehow have prevented another war gained traction, spurring decades of bipartisan American support for the United Nations, little more than a third-world dictator’s debating society that often subverts U.S. interests. Concepts like an “international community,” while not uniquely Wilson’s, are now mainstream. 

“I would rather lose in the cause that I know one day will triumph than to triumph in the cause that I know will one day fail,” Wilson had rued. 

As Kissinger lamented: “Wilson’s principles have remained the bedrock of American foreign-policy thinking.” Wilson himself seemed to understand the stakes, telling one Senator in 1918: “I am playing for one hundred years hence.” More than a century later, it can be argued that, far from losing, Wilson’s ideas have won out—and we are largely the worse for it.