Woodrow Wilson always fancied himself as a progressive at heart. Prior to his election in 1912, he had been the head of Princeton and Governor of New Jersey. He considered himself an expert in domestic affairs and a novice at foreign affairs. He often noted it would be a shame if he had to strictly deal with foreign affairs. During Wilson’s eight years, a number of financial and social reforms were passed, including four amendments to the constitution, but it was foreign affairs which dominated his presidency, and thus, his legacy. When one begins to look at what lessons once can draw from Wilson’s eight years in office, it is a cautionary tale of avoidance at all costs.
Lesson One – Get Re-elected
Wilson was originally elected on his pledge for “A New Freedom”. This domestic agenda included financial, currency, income taxes, and trust reform as well as tariff reform. Unfortunately for Wilson, what took up most of his time was the Mexican Revolution. Events south of the border required Wilson to act before it spread onto American soil. Up to this point in time, the United States had operated under the auspices of the Monroe Doctrine that this our hemisphere. Teddy Roosevelt had added his Roosevelt Corollary and his successor, William Howard Taft, just threw money at the problem in what became known as Dollar Diplomacy. As 1913 drew on, Wilson followed a policy of what he called “Watchful Waiting”. He knew with all the players in Mexico (Carranza, Huerta, Obregon, Villa, and Zapata), there was no one to trust.
As events in Mexico began to play themselves out, events in Europe quickly boiled over and a regional conflict in the Balkans blew up like a powder keg and most of Europe was involved in less than a month. Wilson knew the United States could not get involved. He declared the US Neutral. Over the next two and half years, the economic interests of the US collided with the military interests of German U-boats in the North Atlantic. US ships began to be sunk, followed by a pledge, followed by another ship, and followed by a pledge, etc.
When Wilson campaigned for President in 1916, he campaigned and was re-elected on the fact he kept us out of the Great War. However, before he could be sworn in for his second term, Germany ratcheted up war fervor when the Zimmerman Telegram was published. The Telegram warned Mexico that the Germans would unleash unrestricted submarine warfare on the Atlantic . The note also pleaded with the new Mexican government to join Germany in a war against the Americans and in return they would get the Mexican cession back. To most Americans, they were outraged. However, Mexico was having a hard time fighting its own revolution let alone a war overseas. In April of 1917, war fever had spread across the US and the Congress would declare war on Germany.
Regardless of what any first term Presidents wants to do, their first priority is to get re-elected. Wilson proved that. However, once re-elected, all bets and promises are off.
Lesson Two – World Organizations are Bad…Maybe
Americans don’t want anyone telling them what to do. When the Great War was over in 1918, Woodrow Wilson left to go to Paris as part of the Peace Conference. His 14 Points had captured the imagination of the populace and turned him into a rock star President. However, soon after the peace process began, rather than follow his 14 Points, Britain and France wanted revenge for the war. The resulting treaty was brutal towards Germany and helped set up World War II with its reparations and mandates, but it was never passed. The US was never going to give up its autonomy on foreign affairs to some European group. Led by Senator Lodge, the US Senate never approved the treaty and would sign a separate treaty later. The unwillingness of the US to sign the treaty would make the League powerless to stop Hitler some 17 years later.
While Wilson’s 14 Points could have averted another war, we will never know. What we do know is the Versailles Peace Treaty “screwed the pooch”. Whether it was Britain’s and France’s incessant need for revenge or the Lodge reservations need for autonomy, we were no longer living in a world where the Monroe Doctrine would apply. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, America would go in an isolationist frenzy. No matter what we might think, America could no longer stick its head in the sand and ignore what is taking place in the world. The long-term consequences of doing so are too dangerous. After World War II, Wilson’s 14 Points would become a reality in a new United Nations.
Lesson Three – Don’t Tell the People What They Can and Can Not Do
Wilson often fancied himself an expert when it came to his domestic agenda. Only two Presidents passed more legislation in US History, FDR and LBJ. From anti-trust regulation to child labor laws to women’s right to vote to prohibition, Wilson was at the forefront of an idealist time in America. His 14 Points were part of the idealism, but Prohibition was one of America’s biggest mistakes. The amendment that made the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol illegal would be repealed in the early 1930s. However in the years in between, organized crime gained control of the industry and a crime wave unlike any America has ever seen took place.
To legislate morality, or anything for that matter, is to try to control the masses. By stipulating that the citizenry can do this or can not do that is promote tyranny on our shores. Americans have never liked being told what to do and what not to do as far back as the 1760s and the events leading up to the Revolution. Maybe the health care plan will work itself out next year, maybe it won’t. Who knows what will happen. But if you want a clue, look at the reaction of the public during prohibition. It could be that reform and regulation of the Industry might have been the more historically accurate choice rather legislating that every American have health care. We will have to wait and see how it plays out. Otherwise, lesson number one will be for naught.
Other Presidential Lessons for Obama Series
John F. Kennedy
George H.W. Bush