Pity poor Woodrow Wilson. The man who tried to save the world from tyranny is now being excoriated as a liberal fascist by the likes of Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg and other conservatives.
The attacks on Wilson make mildly entertaining parlor polemics, and they serve the partisan purpose of those who would trace a line of descent from Wilson’s alleged fascism to the efforts of fellow Democrat Barack Obama to reform health care and otherwise expand the role of government.
But like most such attempts to transpose labels from one era to another, the tagging of Wilson as a fascist obscures far more than it reveals. And it’s not as though Wilson doesn’t have a lot to answer for already. As a child and a young man growing up in the South during and after the Civil War, he imbibed the racist attitudes of his time and place -- attitudes that inspired his decision to extend the Jim Crow system of segregation from private industry to the federal workforce.
To be sure, the idea wasn’t Wilson’s alone: The impetus came from white Southern Democrats whose support Wilson required to implement policies having nothing to do with race. But he could have resisted the demands for segregation, and he did not.
Wilson can also be charged, quite credibly, with being a hypocrite. During his campaign against Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912, Wilson portrayed himself as a free- market progressive, one who would employ antitrust laws to break up monopolistic corporations but would then step back and let the competitive forces of capitalism work their wonders. Yet once elected, Wilson adopted the kinds of regulatory measures he had criticized when Roosevelt proposed them.
Of course, Wilson was neither the first nor last successful candidate to decide that power was less threatening in his own hands than in those of the rascals he defeated. Still, purists could wish for better from one who made such an issue of the corrupting influence of power.
Wilson often seemed a self-righteous prig. His flavor of Presbyterianism allowed him to speak as though he possessed a hot line to Heaven. After his 1912 victory, he received a visit from the head of the Democratic national committee, who hinted that the president-elect might want to reward some of the people who had worked hard for his election. Wilson cut him short.
“God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States,” he reportedly said. “Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented that.” Doubtless Wilson believed this; doubtless, too, he realized that such a stance was a convenient and effective posture for discouraging office seekers. But as in similar cases when he mounted his pulpit, it made him come across as horribly high and mighty.
Wilson dismayed many of his liberal supporters by his expansion of government powers during World War I.
“It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,” he said before his 1913 inauguration. At the time, the world was quiescent and fate kept its ironies to itself. But the following year, Europe erupted into war, and the U.S. was gradually drawn into the maelstrom.
Wilson struggled to keep America neutral, and as late as the autumn of 1916 he was able to campaign for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Six months later, he led the U.S. into World War I, after German submarines began sinking American ships. And having taken the fateful step, he did everything he could to enhance the war effort, including commandeering large sectors of the economy, trampling certain civil liberties, and prosecuting opponents of his war policies.
This expansion of government power forms the heart of the conservative case against Wilson as a liberal fascist. And if a fascist is anyone who believes that the demands of national security during wartime can justify the expansion of government beyond the norms of peacetime, perhaps even beyond the bounds of the Constitution, then Wilson qualifies. But so do Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. In every war America has fought, the federal government has grown more powerful, often in ways that seemed embarrassingly regrettable after the crisis passed.
In one respect, in particular, Wilson was exactly the opposite of a fascist. The essence of his approach to the postwar settlement was a new structure of international relations centered on the League of Nations, which would require a surrender of a portion of American sovereignty. Members of the League would commit themselves to enforce order and good behavior in the world arena, even if the enforcement didn’t benefit the enforcers in a direct way.
This commitment was what provoked most of the opposition to the League and the Treaty of Versailles, and it was what ultimately caused the Senate, despite Wilson’s efforts, to reject the treaty and block U.S. membership in the League.
Whichever way one views Wilson’s vision, it was the diametric opposite of what any fascist would have proposed. Fascism is, among other things, nationalism run amok; the real fascists of the first half of the 20th century -- Mussolini, Hitler, Franco -- had nothing but scorn for the kind of internationalism Wilson proposed.
Josef Stalin -- a fascist of the left, in some constructions of the term -- was equally disdainful. Strikingly, on this point, some modern American conservatives, including those who are so critical of Wilson, take the line of the odious dictators.
This suggests again the silliness of the fight over how to label Wilson. Debate his policies, disagree with his position on this or that, impugn his motives if you will. But refrain from name-calling, which reduces history to simplistic sloganeering.
(H. W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin, has written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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