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Woodrow Wilson’s Ideals Today

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

Woodrow Wilson as the Camera Saw Him Then and as We Begin io See Hint Today. By Gerald W. Johnson. Harper and Brothers. $2.00. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace. By Thomas A. Bailey. The Macmillan Company. $3.00.

Woodrow Wilson has come into his own. His vision of world peace has been caught by mankind. Those who opposed the entrance of the United States into the League of Nations in 1919-20, and those who were indifferent when Wilson invoked a “solemn referendum,” have learned by the tragedies of this war how fatal was the mistake of not following where Wilson led, and now see how true was his prophecy made in 1919:

I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another war if the nations of the world do not concert the method to prevent it. I do not hesitate to say that the war we have just been through is not to be compared with the war we will have to face next time.

In July the spirit of Woodrow Wilson brooded over the Platform Committee in the Democratic convention as it wrote a declaration as clear as crystal embodying Wilson’s goal, and that great convention paused to pay tribute to Wilson as it unanimously adopted a resolution which had these words: “We highly resolve to complete the tragically unfinished task” that Wilson had envisioned;1 and also these words: “Wilson foretold the tragedy of this global war when his plan, which would have prevented war, was rejected and denied.”

Recently in New York there was the first showing of the Wilson film, which depicts strikingly the high lights in Wilson’s career. These incidents and the simultaneous publication of the two Wilson books reviewed here, along with the invoking of Wilson’s spirit in the fashioning of lasting peace when the fighting ends, are proofs of the regret that the United States did not take its seat at Geneva after the last World War. If the seed are not again sown for another holocaust twenty-five years hence, the nation must follow the Wilson spirit in organizing the nations for the sort of substitute for war that Wilson proposed in the League of Nations, with such changes as postwar conditions make wise.


Gerald Johnson’s “Woodrow Wilson” is the best condensed pen picture and appraisement of Wilson that has appeared. He tells the story of Wilson’s background and preparation for his great task admirably. You see his forebears and what went into the making of the great war President, his ideal home life, the influence of the South in his boyhood, which was never lost, his contribution to education on democratic lines, and his emergence as a great executive with a world vision.

Mr. Johnson holds that Wilson was right in the great covenant he brought back from Paris and that time has proved those wrong who opposed it. He sees evidence of proof that Wilson was right in “the dead men scattered from Solomon Islands to Italy,” in “the fine ships by hundreds shattered and sunk”; in “the billions upon uncounted billions wrung from our own toil, mourning in every city and town, in crowded tenements and lonely farmhouses, weeping women and prematurely old men, ‘blood and toil and sweat and tears’ suggest that we have been wrong.” Mr. Johnson adds: “When events seem to prove that a nation has been wrong, that nation, like a man, should examine the conscience.”

Mr. Johnson’s brief biography and appraisement of Wilson is illumined by the inclusion of the pictorial life of Wilson, embracing 250 pages of revealing photographs, supplemented by Mr. Johnson’s telling captions. The camera, as well as the written word, tells the story of Wilson’s life from Princeton days through the political struggles, the World War, the battle for peace in Paris and in America, where a minority of Senators blocked the ratification of Wilson’s Covenant of Peace, and his last days when, though stricken, he never lost faith that his dream would come true.

The illustrations are the result of collaboration with Look magazine. Mr. Johnson tells the story of a great man in a great way, and Look lets all .see Wilson in action in the high days when he won immortality.

It was a happy idea to give in lucid combination of camera and writing the story of Wilson from the elimination of the bosses in New Jersey to the birth of the New Freedom, of high lights in domestic policies, the successful prosecution of the war, the fight for peace in the struggle for the League of Nations, down to the days of invalidism. It is biography in a new form, illustrating the text with speaking pictures.


Dr. Bailey’s “Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace” is, according to the writer, presented in the hope that by exposing past errors, mistakes may be avoided after this war. He says: “Last time we won the war but lost the peace,” and “This time there are already ominous signs that we may again run the same tragic cycle of disillusionment and repudiation.”

Dr. Bailey details what he thinks were Wilson’s mistakes —-and he was not free from them—and makes more mistakes of judgment than he attributes to Wilson. He attributes “a noble vision” to Wilson. He wisely concludes that “the Constitution should be amended so as to reduce the great obstructive powers of one-third of the Senate.” He calls House, Lansing, Rliss, and White the “messenger boys” of Wilson, and gives a critical review of the peace negotiation and its errors. The writer is professor of history at Stanford University, and a scholar and writer of reputation. This book shows how the author thinks peace was lost after World War No. 1, and how he thinks it can be saved after World War No. 2.

The author, who for years gave himself to delivering pontifical lectures on the mistakes of Wilson, went to as great extremes as did Bob Ingersoll on “The Mistakes of Moses.” His book is a critical interpretation of Wilson’s settlement of 1919, and he regards it as an attempt to educate public opinion so that this time peace will be secured and perpetuated. He evidently thinks his aim will be accomplished by magnifying what he regards as errors in Wilson’s policies in ,1918-19-20. He holds “great admiration for many Wilson qualities,” though seeing nothing good or wise in the course he pursued. He understands that what he says will “prove offensive to those who hold the memory of Wilson in reverence.” The truth is that except for giving him credit for lofty aims, Dr. Bailey sees Wilson wrong all the way, not even seeing virtue in his Fourteen Points, pointedly objecting to his including the fundamental American doctrine of Freedom of the Seas. He even says the Armistice was not an armistice, though all America celebrated it as deliverance until the present war. He criticizes Wilson for not listening to politicians and for almost everything that he undertook and accomplished. He repeats the old slander that Wilson thought Republicans were good enough to help fight the war but were not good enough to help make the peace. When the Republican Senate had the opportunity to make the peace, they sabotaged it. Why? He says: “How the Republicans hated Wilson!” It was this hatred and parochial-mindedness that kept us out of peace and not any of Wilson’s so-called mistakes.

Dr. Bailey not only criticizes Wilson’s great Fourteen Points, which the Allies accepted, but thinks he ought not to have gone to Paris. He approves European charges that Wilson was “an ignorant fumbler” who was “bamboozled.” He thinks Wilson’s appointees were small men —mere messenger boys—whereas Bliss and White were among the greatest military statesmen and diplomats of their day. Lansing was an able international lawyer and House was an efficient adjuster of differences when he followed Wilson’s ideals. It would have been better if an active Republican had been on the Peace Commission, but Wilson would have given mortal offense if he had named any other than Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. And to appoint Lodge would have been to convert the American delegation into a debating society. Wilson believed that, inasmuch as the Executive negotiated treaties which the Senate was to act upon, it was not wise to name members of the legislative branch to perform duties assigned the Executive.

Dr. Railey even criticizes Wilson for not visiting all the devastated areas. His reason was that he “did not wish to see red,” and he did not want to make a treaty of peace out of passionate vengeance. Bailey regards the selection of Paris as the site of the conference as “a cardinal misfortune” and magnifies the incorrect charge often made that Wilson went to Paris without a plan. He even goes so far as to charge Wilson with untruthfulness. He thinks it was error to take away any colonies from Germany. He regards forcing the covenant into the treaty as “tragic.” Step by step the critic undertakes to prove that everything that Wilson did was “a budget of blunders.” And finally) of course, the author calls the Treaty of Versailles “fatal,” though admitting there was some good in it.

The truth is that while it was not perfect, everything in it that militated against lasting justice and peace could and would have been corrected if the United States had not been Absent without Leave when the League was organized at Geneva. Lloyd George truly says that most of the failures of the treaty must be laid at the door of the men who failed to carry it out in the spirit with which it was framed.

The remarkable achievement of Wilson at Paris is not that the covenant was not 100 per cent pure, but that, considering the attitude of the countries repesented by Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando, he was able to get the signatures on a document that had so much practical illumination. Lloyd George went to the conference instructed to “make Germany pay the entire cost of the war, shilling for shilling” and to hold on to all British colonies; Clemenceau, to render Germany impotent and compel enough reparations to France to rebuild the devastated places, and to secure an agreement from the Allied nations to come to the assistance of France if attacked; and Orlando, to get for Italy more territory, including Fiume, than Britain and France had promised when Italy agreed to desert its pact with Germany and go into the war with the Allies. And Wilson wanted nothing for his country except a guarantee of a warless world. He had to lose that goal or acquiesce in objectionable secret treaties entered into before the United States entered the war. He was distressed that Britain would not willingly stand by the Freedom of the Seas, and was disturbed at the hate and vengefulness which governed some of his colleagues. But he got the prime objective—a League to end war and provisions that would, if Uncle Sam had taken his seat at Geneva, have softened every hard provision in the treaty. Wilson won the greatest diplomatic victory in history, which Lodge and Reed and Harding and the other parochial so-called statesmen sabotaged. The only monumental and irredeemable mistake was that the United States, through the machinations of isolationist senators, betrayed the pledge to the men who fought and died in what they truly believed was “a war against war.”

The author expresses the belief that by bringing for-ward every act of Wilson as unwise this information—or rather misinformation—will help to procure a world organization unlike that which wrecked the League of Nations. It is not a man he wants to write the next treaty, but a God. As Wilson once said: “It is not a man you want me to name, but a God, and unfortunately we have no God at our disposal.”

Instead of helping in securing a better treaty, Dy. Bailey’s jargon of so-called mistakes—most of what he calls error was the soundest wisdom—if read would tend to make people lose hope that we can get anything better than Harding and normalcy.

The people have long ago forgotten Bob Ingersoll’s lecture on “The Mistakes of Moses,” but Moses is still revered as the great lawgiver.

The Bailey “Mistakes of Wilson” will meet the fate of Ingersoll’s agnosticism. The greatness and practical vision of Wilson is already the inspiration of all who truly love peace and are willing to venture to achieve it. It points the way for securing lasting peace after the fighting ceases. No man can write that treaty who does not share the faith and spirit of Woodrow Wilson.


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