Woodrow Wilson as CINC

Although no pacifist, President Wilson long resisted demands that he get the U.S. involved in World War I. He narrowly won reelection in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” but German unrestricted submarine warfare and the revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram shifted public opinion. Wilson then asked Congress for a declaration of war, which it promptly gave him, and the U.S. entered World War I on the side of Britain and France. In just two years, the Allies were victorious and the war was over.

Wilson’s Great War leadership as commander in chief doesn’t get nearly the ink that Lincoln does for the Civil War, FDR does for World War II or (far less praiseworthy) LBJ does for the Vietnam War.

Why do you think that is? Because of the limited timeframe (just 1917-18)? The bad odor from Wilson’s later, futile campaign for U.S. membership in the League of Nations? Because Wilson was a hands-off CINC who let Gen. John Pershing pretty much call the shots?

Or something else?

His incapacitation by stroke, too. But all of the above, probably.

Wilson has (methinks) a generally bad reputation for his wartime (and postwar) leadership.

The Army was unready for war. American troops fought flying French airplanes, with French artillery pieces and even French machine guns. Wilson should have done better in preparedness.

During the War, he did let Pershing fight it. Credit where credit is due. He did make at least one political-general appointment, I forget the guy’s name. He tried to talk for America at conference, but Pershing slapped him down real good.

During the War, he clamped down on free speech in the US. The Palmer Raids and all that. His race policies reflected his times (and his Southern roots) that was bad.

After the War, (as my old Sergeant Major would say) his mouth wrote checks his a$$ couldn’t cash. His scheme for a League of Nations was the prime example.

On the plus side, he promoted the free determination of all sorts of minor nationalities, and so the breakup of empires. That was a traditional American goal.

His paternalism towards Latin America was typical of his age, but it beings him down two full notches in my estimation of him due to my love of the region.

If you are into alternate (or alternative) history, Wilson came the closest (IMHO) to being an American dictator. He was typical of the blue-nosed puritan attitude that brought on an age of Prohibition, Nativism and Isolation.

All in all, he was not one of our best.

I pretty much agree with Paul. The Allies won the war despite Wilson, not because of him, and he thoroughly botched the peace. (His stroke, by the way, didn’t occur until nearly a year after the war was over.)

During the runup to war, Wilson made it sound as if an American Expeditionary Force to fight in Europe might not even be necessary. After the declaration, he reversed course, asked for and got conscription, and drafted a huge force which the nation was woefully unprepared to equip or train. Massive death from the influenza epidemic at hastily prepared, understaffed army training camps was one of the results.

At the Peace Conference, Wilson was worse than useless. Rather than fight to mitigate the punitive clauses of the peace treaties, which ultimately caused World War II, he bargained away everything so that the Allies would agree to his cherished League of Nations. Then he refused to compromise with the Senate to allow the mild reservations with which the Senate would have ratified the treaty, and as a result got nothing.

His persecution of opponents of the war, his well-known bigotry, his cover-up of his health problems, and his mismanagement of the postwar economy (high taxes, inflation, and rampant labor unrest leading to the 1919 “Red Scare”) did nothing to enhance his reputation. Most presidential second terms are a struggle, but Wilson’s was Disaster Central, redeemed only by the fact that we did win the war. For what it was worth.

Someone should point out that American “neutrality” was hardly neutral. The Kaiser nce remarked ruefully, “The central fact of this century will be that Americans speak English.” Wilson honored the Allied embargo of Germany and Austria, but not the German embargo of England. Of course, international law said that an embargo had to be effective in order to have any force. This is why the Germans used submarines. The sinking of the Lusitania, for example, was justified at the time. Wi;lson obviously favored the Allies over the Central Powers.
Another thing to remember about neutrality is that Wilson was trying not to anger the German- and Irish-Americans who held sway in the Democratic party. In 1916, he still lost Massachusets, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin. So there wasn’t a whole lot to threaten him with after that.

Wilson suffered his stroke in October 1919. The war ended in November 1918.

Let’s be fair. Wilson wasn’t going to get anywhere mitigating the punitive clauses of peace treaties because nobody was interested in giving Germany a break.
France and England had no intention of giving up their chance to reap whatever reparations they could from Germany. They forced Germany to unfairly accept blame for the entire war and France especially wanted to ensure that Germany would never be a threat to them again. The bulk of the blame for the treaties that led to WWII rest squarely on the leaders of Europe not on Wilson.


If Britain and France were unwilling to bend, Wilson could have threatened to walk out of the peace conference and negotiate a separate peace with Germany. In December 1918, he warned the American delegation that such a step might be necessary. But when the time came, he didn’t dare do it, because then the Allies would sink his League.

Wilson entered the peace conference with two objectives–to secure a peace, as he put it, with “no annexations, no contributions, and no punitive damages”; and to create a strong League of Nations with American participation.

Yes, he deserves credit for (alone among world leaders) having the first objective, and primary blame for the guilt and reparations clauses lies elsewhere. But Wilson mistakenly judged the second objective to be more important than the first, and through his diplomatic and political bungling, achieved neither.

It wasn’t a matter of preference - the British controlled the Atlantic. The U.S. could have traded with them or with no-one.

Wilson’s problems as a world leader involved a general failure to understand (or acknowledge) the deeply held convictions of leaders of other nations. His attempts at negotiations during the war were doomed by his insistence that everyone walk away without gains (given the incredible suffering, no one was willing to settle for nothing). He did not listen to good advisers (think of Col. House) and was famous for ignoring top officials who held inconvenient views. His failure in getting the U.S. into the League of Nations helped doom that organization.

As an aside, the Palmer Raids actually began in late 1919.

I’d just like to briefly address this- although Wilson did attempt to promote self-determination for European states (with an extremely mixed outcome- often, as in the creation of the “Polish corridor” his good intentions did far more harm than good) he was unashamedly racist in his approach to Germany and Turkey’s former colonies, which he essentially handed over to Britain and France. His double standards in failing to fight for the independence of “protectorates” like (what would become) Iraq and Syria seriously undermine his status as “great American liberator”, in my eyes.

Remember, when the shooting stopped in Nov. 11th, the Germans didn’t know they’d been defeated: they were under the assumption that it was an armistice, based on Wilson’s 14 Points. They accepted them in good faith, and their exhausted army dissolved. The British and French armies stayed intact, and soon they had a victory on actual terms that the Germans would never have accepted had they seen coming.

So Wilson spouted pacifist pieties while American business made money had-over-fist selling war products to the Allies, then spouted belligerent pieties when the Germans sank the ships carrying those materials, and after the war he ignored the interests of the non-white word. Not only can we trace the Second World War to this incomptence, but the Vietnam War and the Arab conflict of today. If only he hadn’t had the stroke and left the League of Nations ratifications orphaned? I think he’d have only screwed things up worse.

Oh, and he liked Birth of a Nation.

Don’t forget his vitriolic anti-Communism that led to him excluding the USSR from the League when it might have done some good and ignoring the Bill of Rights in his persecution of trade union activists. Also don’t forget his series of vicious incursions into South America.