Mystery Man Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States. Oscar White/Corbis

One hundred years ago this week, Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office, and still, after all this time, Americans cannot make up their minds about him.

Wilson was the great idealist whose first inaugural address lamented the "groans and agony" of the "men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden" of industrialization had fallen, who made himself the voice of "the solemn, moving undertone of our life, coming up out of the mines and factories."

Wilson was also the most disdainful racist to hold the presidency since Andrew Johnson in the 1860s. Wilson's administration sought to remove black Americans from all but the most menial federal employment. Those who could not be removed were required to work in spaces screened from public view and to use segregated lunchrooms and toilets. When a black newspaper editor led a delegation to Washington to protest the introduction of Southern Jim Crow into the national government, Wilson—a slaveholder's son—retorted that segregation "was not humiliating, but a benefit" to black people.

Wilson led the United States into the First World War in April 1917, justifying his decision in characteristically idealistic language: "to make the world safe for democracy." Only five months before, he had won reelection on an antiwar platform: "he kept us out of war."

Wilson's detractors accused him of hypocrisy: talking peace while preparing for war. Yet the truth is even worse. Wilson utterly failed to prepare for war. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who used the delayed U.S. entry into World War II to mobilize and train, Wilson was caught off guard by the resumption of German submarine warfare. In World War II, the United States would serve as the great arsenal of democracy. In World War I, American troops crossed the Atlantic protected by British warships; American pilots flew French airplanes. Wilson's chosen commander, John Pershing, refused to learn from the fearful experience of the Allied armies, instead ordering U.S. forces into the terrible battles of 1918 using the tactics that had so horribly failed the French and British in 1915 and 1916. The result: American troops took far heavier casualties to win much poorer results than their British, Canadian, and Australian counterparts did during the decisive 100 days' campaign of August–November 1918.

At home, the Wilson administration led the country to important financial reforms. It was during the Wilson years that the United States at last got a proper central bank, the Federal Reserve. Wilson also signed laws passed by a Democratic Congress cutting tariffs and substituting an income tax as the federal government's main revenue source.

Abroad, though, Wilson's financial policy was a failure that put the world on the road to depression and another war. The war ended with Germany owing huge sums to France and Belgium as "reparations." France and Italy owed huge sums to Britain as war debts. Britain owed huge sums to the United States, again as debts.

Americans disliked the reparations imposed on Germany, but there was no way to eliminate them except as part of a general debt settlement. Wilson, however, had little interest in tedious negotiations over dollars and cents. He delighted in the lofty grandeur of his League of Nations—and counted on the idealistic politicians of the future to solve the problems bequeathed by the grubby politicians of the present day.

The league was included in the Treaty of Versailles sent to the Senate for ratification in 1919. The battle over that issue transfixed Americans in a way few foreign-policy debates ever have. In the end, of course, Wilson lost. He lost more than the vote: his arduous personal campaigning for ratification brought on the stroke that left him physically paralyzed and mentally impaired for the last 17 months of his presidency. This personal catastrophe was kept secret by Wilson's wife and doctor. Wilson's admirers—like the young Franklin Roosevelt, who later claimed to have made an incredible 800 speeches in favor of the League of Nations—spoke of Wilson as a martyr to peace and justice. Sumner Welles, a great figure in the FDR State Department, reminisced in the 1940s about how Wilson's campaign had stirred his generation "to the depths of our intellectual and emotional being."

Yet these same admirers also quietly came to see Wilson as the very model of how not to be president: as a dogmatist, a chatterbox, and, ultimately, a loser. When it came their turn to decide issues of war and peace, they praised Wilson—then did just the opposite. That seems likely to be the lasting verdict of history, too.