Woodrow Wilson Literature Review

World War One was not the primary concern of the United States at its start. American foreign policy was officially neutral until 1917 when they joined the war and fought to victory alongside Britain, France, and Russia against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The reason for exploration of Woodrow Wilson and his impact on the First World War is twofold: first, he campaigned in 1916 with the promise of keeping America out of war; second, Wilson’s personal issues and motivations for the war are questionable according to many historians. Wilson’s presidency was littered with moral hypocriticisms, civil-rights abuses (or those that can now be considered as such), and questionable military decisions, especially regarding preparation for war. Because of these factors, a literature review of Wilson’s relationship to American involvement in the War seemed a fruitful line of study. This proved to be correct.

The historiography relating to Woodrow Wilson’s contribution to the Great War and its resolution is vast, and quite divisive. At the start of the conflict, before American troops were in Europe, Wilson hoped to be a mediator. He obviously assumed that to be a mediator and have any real impact or sway with European powers, he needed to appear neutral. If he had sided with Germany, any mediation and peace brokering with England would most likely fail. For that reason he created an officially neutral United States foreign policy—though American munitions were being sold to almost everyone except the Central Powers.

The evidence would suggest that Wilson’s decision making relating to the war was easily swayed by his second wife, Edith Galt, which is an important aspect that historians have debated since the war. In addition to Galt’s influence was the constant presence of Edward “Colonel” House, Wilson’s closest friend and most trusted adviser. Similar dialogue about the degree of House’s power has been, and is still, taking place. The historiography in relation to Wilson’s personal weakness and the ease with which pragmatism was replaced by dogmatism and ambition is central to the debate over Wilson’s effectiveness as a national leader.

The literature on the topic is overwhelmingly anti-Wilsonian; it finds many faults in Wilson, the man and the leader. However, some works exist which attempt to vindicate Wilson and they largely rely on his background as an academic who meticulously planned his political strategies in order to achieve certain results. The undeniable failings of certain administrative plans, the pro-Wilson historians argue, is due to unfortunate circumstances and events beyond Wilson’s control. Therefore the historical debate surrounding Wilson is between those who see him as incompetent and those who see him as tragic.

Of the historians who have written about Woodrow Wilson, the strangest is George Sylvester Viereck, known as George “Swastika” Viereck to his Jewish friends. Viereck’s The Strangest Friendship in History, published in 1932, presents a very unique view of Wilson’s actions leading up to and before American involvement in Europe in 1917. The reason for this is, as Viereck explains in his opening paragraph, that “Emperor William and Colonel House read and revised my account of their momentous interview which almost stopped the World War.”[1] It is also an important account because of who Viereck is. He is perhaps the only author to write on this topic with a background that, once learned, makes the reader catch their breath. Apart from Herbert Hoover, who also wrote on Woodrow Wilson, Viereck presents one of the most unique views of the subject. Viereck was a Nazi, founder of two Nazi-Propaganda publications, close friends with Nikola Tesla, and started the Gay Pulp Fiction genre of literature after his time in an American prison for being an unregistered Nazi agent. Besides his non-literary life (which includes the publication of a vampire novel in 1907), Viereck was also interested in American politics. His life allowed him to get close to the people and events that later authors are forced to use evidence instead of experience. Viereck described his bias as “somewhat more intimate than that of the historian, because [he has] met and known personally many of the personages who stalk through [the book]: Woodrow Wilson…President Roosevelt, Colonel House, William II, etc.”[2] While Viereck’s book focuses on the friendship between Colonel House and Woodrow Wilson, it nevertheless offers critical insight to Wilson’s reluctance to go to war in 1917. Viereck’s book also has the luxury of being written not long after the events took place. For this reason the readers can find in Viereck’s work a complicated and critical praise for Wilson, though Viereck explained his position in the introduction: “When I began my study I looked upon Woodrow Wilson as the villain of the ensuing dogma…he gradually assumed some aspects of a martyr and a saint.”[3] This short analysis is immensely helpful of Viereck to do as it highlights his overall opinion of Wilson, which is heavily based on what Viereck sees as House’s dominance of American politics from behind the scenes. Viereck claims that it is House, not Wilson, who is mostly responsible for the famous Fourteen Points. Viereck also indicates that Edith Galt-Wilson dominated the President’s life and decisions, at one time literally. Of Edith Galt-Wilson’s being the “Woman [who] was President of the United States”[4] Viereck’s criticism is scathing: “Edith Bolling Wilson had no political ambitions” but because of Wilson’s health “Events conspired with her vanity to perpetuate her reign.”[5] Viereck verifies that “Even before [Wilson] came under the sway of Edith Galt, [he] was strongly susceptible to wifely influence.”[6] If the Nazi, Viereck, is worth anything to the historiography of Wilson (and his contentions are generally in line with Richard Striner’s 2014 Woodrow Wilson and World War One), it is because of his analysis of Wilson’s personal relationships which clearly reveals the weakness in character of Wilson.

In contrast to the strangest author to write about Woodrow Wilson and the First World War, President Herbert Hoover is probably the most famous on the list of Wilson historians. Though it must be said that Hoover was not an academic historian and presents a view quite biased by personal relationships. It is nevertheless one of the important works in the literature because of how it ascribes to the thesis of this paper, and demonstrates with historical evidence an alternate suggestion to Viereck’s, and indeed to Striner and later historians. Hoover published his The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson in 1958. While Viereck’s book is a personal account that criticizes Wilson’s failings, Hoover’s is a personal account that attempts to vindicate Wilson’s legacy. Hoover uses Edith Wilson’s memoirs as one of his sources. This is interesting because they were published only in 1939 and were thus unavailable to Viereck. How this might have affected both of the works is debatable, but its influence cannot be ignored. While Viereck’s examination of Edith Wilson is known, Hoover defines her by “her devotion and her intelligence. She was an effective guardian over him.”[7] The bias of Hoover is as evident as that of Viereck’s. Hoover, who admired Wilson as a political hero, writes that the story of Wilson’s presidency is a tragedy—an idea that may explain Hoover’s reason for writing the book, as his own presidency was not very successful. Hoover offers that both his and Wilson’s motivations were honorable, or even holy when he writes that the story of Wilson was also “the story of the leader of [a] Crusade.”[8] Further evidence of Hoover’s positive assessment of Wilson is seen in his defense of Wilson’s character in the introduction to his book:

 

In evaluating Mr. Wilson’s make-up there are a few phenomena to bear in mind. He frequently has been described as ‘obstinate.’ In my view this was not true. His mind ran to ‘moral principles,’ ‘justice’ and ‘right.’ In them he held deep convictions. In some phases of character he partook of the original Presbyterians—what they concluded was right, was thereafter right as against all comers.[9]

 

Though Hoover saw this character trait as honorable, Viereck would see it as stubborn. The difference between these two men in their portrayals of Wilson is interesting because the personal touch is absent from Striner’s Woodrow Wilson and World War One[10], as well as other later works on the topic.

The period of time between Viereck’s book in 1932 and Hoover’s publication is insignificant in relation to how much has been written on Wilson in the interim. Many works were published and a literature review of the topic cannot include every detail. Let it be known that the works on Wilson and World War One are not homogenous. Many opinions have been published, and while Viereck’s analysis was complicated and largely negative, positive works also emerged, such as Harley Notter’s The Origins of the Foreign Policy of Woodrow Wilson[11] published in 1937. Because World War Two also occurred in that time span, the lack of focus on Wilson and the First World War is understandable.

A final note on the identity of the historian being pertinent to the accuracy of the writings that they produce can be found in John Dos Passos’ 1962 book, Mr. Wilson’s War. In this analysis of the topic, Dos Passos speaks briefly about Viereck and his credibility by revealing that Viereck was being trailed by “two secretservice agents (sic) [who found out that Viereck was] in the pay of the German Government.”[12] Besides this brief mention Viereck comes up seldom in other World War One literature. However, he is not entirely absent.  Viereck is cited in Arthur S. Link’s 1960 Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality[13], a well-known book on the topic (which was proofread by historian, Ernst R. May). Link refers, in the third volume of his Wilson biography, only to Viereck’s work for the German government, which is the way in which he is a character in Dos Passos’ book—that is, Viereck is known to history not as a historian of any kind, but a propagandist. Viereck is not at all mentioned in John Milton Cooper Jr.’s very well received 2009 biography Woodrow Wilson[14]. This is important to the historiography of the literature because Cooper’s work was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is seen as an excellent biography of Wilson by most reviewers. Of course not all secondary sources can be reviewed and cited in any book of any topic, but as such a fascinating author it is remarkable that Viereck gets no mention, either positive or negative, in some of the most important works on the topic. Link’s works, on the other hand, are cited in nearly every work after it.

This lack of total representation of previous historians’ work in the literature is not surprising. Woodrow Wilson represents a part of the American involvement in World War One, and American involvement itself is only a small part of a largely European conflict. The lack of mention of a single author, Viereck, in a book on the topic is interesting, but the topic itself is not widely celebrated as the most relevant. For example, Jay Winter & Antoine Prost’s 2005 book The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies 1914 to the Present has only four mentions of Wilson, all of them largely unrelated to his personal triumphs or failings. An exception is presented early in the book when Wilson’s “belief in self-determination” is brought up.[15] This, however, is only to elucidate a larger topic concerning how historians’ attitudes have changed in relation to the topics being emphasized (eg, how the study of the Treaty of Paris has evolved over the decades).

Further contrast to Hoover’s work on Wilson happened in more recent years. Striner’s book takes the stance that Wilson was not a very effective leader and his hope to become a great mediator led directly to the United States not being incredibly prepared militarily—much to the annoyance of Teddy Roosevelt and the militant wing of United States politics, and for other reasons to the annoyance of the dovish wing of politics that included Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. In his 2002 book Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations, Lloyd E. Ambrosius takes a critical, but fair, approach to the topic. Ambrosius approaches Wilson with the notion that “responsible exercise of power requires more than affirmation of liberal values in the abstract; it also involves their fulfillment in practice. Good intentions are not enough.”[16] Ambrosius furthers his point by conceding that Wilson “emphasized global independence but neglected to take into account the world’s diversity. He failed to understand…the central paradox of human history. It thwarted his ability to reconcile or even comprehend the competing claims of the Allies at Paris or the Germans at Versailles.”[17] Ambrosius also writes of Wilson’s “[interpretation]…within the framework of his Christian faith”[18] and makes note of other historians’ attitudes towards “Wilson’s utopian plan for permanent peace.”[19]  This confirms the part of the thesis that declares Wilson a tragic character rather than strictly incompetent. Wilson’s goals and ideals were virtuous, Ambrosius says, but his methods were lacking.

Daniel D. Stid’s 1998 book The President as Statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the Constitution shows that Stid agrees with the thesis that Wilson scholars are divided along lines of tragedy or incompetence. Stid explains that early in the 20th century, “many of [Wilson’s] biographers…saw him as an innovative and effective leader. But more recent work by political scientists concentrated on Wilson’s political theory and led to the conclusion that he had established an unstable form of democratic leadership.”[20] Wilson also bore a certain degree of egotism, which Stid makes note of: “House made note of Wilson’s intention, after leaving the presidency, to write a book entitled Statesmanship, in which he would explore the ‘essence of government.’”[21] This reveals an opinion of Wilson’s incompetence, rather than of his tragic nature.

There is a book of articles entitled Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace from 2008 which was edited by Cooper. Ambrosius has an article in it called Democracy, Peace, and World Order[22] in which he analyzes Wilson’s version of peacemaking. Ambrosius continues to affirm in this article that Wilson was a diplomat first, rather than someone who was controlled by his friends and allies as Viereck argued. The fourteen points are brought up and no mention of Colonel House’s influence is found. This is peculiar in that House should have at least been mentioned as an influence if not, as Viereck says, the primary author. This also indicates that when approaching the topic of Wilson from the tragic paradigm, mentions of House are limited. In the same book of articles Cooper wrote Making a Case for Wilson which, as its title suggests, is of the pro-Wilson faction of the literature. Though it deals with more than just the Great War (in terms of describing Wilson’s accomplishments as President), it still fails to mention any influence from either Edith Galt-Wilson or Colonel House. The one mention of House in Cooper’s article is about his irritation in regard to “[Wilson’s] solitary practices.”[23] As such, and as is evident by the title, this work falls into the pro-Wilson camp.

These last two examples of pro-Wilson literature present the interesting case that when authors are drawn to the idea that Wilson was tragic, rather than incompetent, they ascribe his accomplishments to no one but Wilson. Though Viereck’s work must be criticized for its author (after all it should be at least considered that the author was a fascist and a criminal), it still presents a view in line with mainstream historians such as Striner in that Wilson was incompetent and easily swayed by the personal relationships in his life. The literature seems, therefore, to be divided along lines of strict pro or anti Wilson opinions with little middle ground. That is not to say that either side of the historical debate cannot or do not present fair arguments, because they both do, but that the topic is a naturally divisive one that seems unbounded or constrained by the time in which they were written.

Bibliography

 

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. “Democracy, Peace, and World Order.” In Reconsidering Woodrow

Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace, by John Milton. Cooper.

Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008.

 

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign

Relations. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

 

Cooper, John Milton. “Making a Case for Woodrow Wilson.” In Reconsidering Woodrow

Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow

Wilson Center Press, 2008.

 

Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

 

Hoover, Herbert. The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958.

 

Link, Arthur Stanley. Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press, 1960.

 

Notter, Harley. The Origins of the Foreign Policy of Woodrow Wilson. Baltimore, MD, 1937.

 

Passos, John Dos. Mr. Wilson’s War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.

 

Stid, Daniel D. The President as Statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the Constitution. Lawrence,

Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

 

Striner, Richard. Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear. Rowman &

Littlefield, 2014.

 

Viereck, George Sylvester. The Strangest Friendship in History; Woodrow Wilson and Colonel

House. New York: Liveright, 1932.

 

Winter, J. M., and Antoine Prost. The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to

the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

 

Ian Scott Wilson

[1] George Sylvester Viereck. The Strangest Friendship in History; Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House (New York: Liveright, 1932) Xi.

 

[2] Ibid, xii.

[3] Ibid, xiv.

[4] Ibid, 319.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 320.

[7] Herbert Hoover. The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958) 272.

[8] Ibid, ix.

[9] Ibid, viii.

[10] Richard Striner. Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great to Bear (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

[11] Harley Notter. The Origins of the Foreign Policy of Woodrow Wilson (Baltimore, MD, 1937)

[12] John Dos Passos. Mr. Wilson’s War (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962) 138.

[13] Arthur Stanley Link. Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 1960.

[14] John Milton Cooper. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 2009.

[15] J. M. Winter, and Antoine Prost. The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2005.

[16] Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign

Relations. (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan) 2002. 1.

[17] Ibid, 5.

[18] Ibid, 143.

[19] Ibid, 99.

[20] Daniel D Stid. The President as Statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the Constitution (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas) 1998. Viii.

[21] Ibid, 2.

[22] Lloyd E Ambrosius. “Democracy, Peace, and World Order.” In Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace, by John Milton. Cooper. (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press) 2008.

[23] John Milton Cooper. “Making a Case for Woodrow Wilson.” In Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press) 2008. 20.

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