108. Woodrow Wilson’s Racist Liberalism

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 12 July 2020
Publication:The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Library of Congress

Last month, one of America’s most prestigious universities – Princeton – decided, following a five-year student-led campaign by the Black Justice League, to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs, as well as from an undergraduate hall of residence. This was the most striking toppling of an icon in the recent global ferment against discredited historical figures. Princeton’s trustees devastatingly noted that “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time…. [his] racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake.”

Wilson was a former president of the United States (1913-1920) and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. He also served as President of Princeton (1902-1910) where he had been a Professor and an undergraduate. So, was this decision justified?  Woodrow Wilson was born in the American South a decade before the country’s civil war (1861-1865) into a family that employed slave labour, and a pastor-father who defended slavery on biblical grounds. This was the bone-deep racism that a young Woodrow inherited, a prejudice that he found difficult to shake off because it would have been akin to betraying his faith. Ironically, Wilson also remains the most intellectually accomplished American president, having obtained a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and published nine books on American politics and history. He further taught at several American liberal arts colleges, eventually rising to become a full Professor at Princeton.

Wilson identified strongly with the “Lost Cause” movement which promoted a revisionist view of the history of the American Civil War that portrayed the Southern Confederacy as decent people seeking to preserve an agrarian lifestyle against Northern industrialists, rather than the slavery-supporting white supremacists they were. Slaves were depicted by this movement as “happy”. Many of the Confederate monuments currently being toppled were erected by Lost Cause adherents in the early 1900s during Wilson’s own political ascendancy.

While I was studying International Relations at Oxford University in the 1990s, Wilson was held up as the patron saint of a liberal international order and an anti-imperial prophet of national self-determination. But there was also much that our Eurocentric curriculum had left unsaid. We were not, for example, taught that Wilson did not recognise the most basic rights of his black citizens, and that he believed that the US should follow the model of his British cousins by assisting “less civilized” peoples to attain the “habit of law and obedience.” 

Wilson’s racism was already evident while president of Princeton when he refused to admit black students at a time when Harvard and Yale were doing so. As Governor of New Jersey, he refused to hire blacks into the state’s service. As president, Wilson attacked the modest progress of African Americans under the decade of Reconstruction (1866-1876) by observing that “the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded…It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint.” He praised “docile” slaves who stayed with their masters, contrasting them favourably with “vagrants, looking for pleasure and gratuitous fortune” who inevitably “turned thieves or importunate beggars.” He described the end of Reconstruction as “the natural, inevitable ascendancy of the whites, the responsible class,” writing that blacks were being denied the vote in the South not because their skin was dark, but because their minds were dark.  

Wilson’s most egregious racism as president was to introduce discriminatory practices that led to the unfair and widespread retrenchment and demotion of black workers from government service. His resegregation of the federal civil service, which had been desegregated for decades, led to apartheid practices in offices – in some cases, black workers worked in cages like animals in a zoo – toilets, canteens, and dressing rooms. The cynical introduction of photo identification for applications into the civil service further resulted in open discrimination against black applicants.

Wilson was sympathetic to the murderous Ku Klux Klan: arsonist, hooded terrorists and white supremacists who emerged to oppose black progress during the decade of Reconstruction. The US president effusively endorsed the notorious 1915 film, The Birth of A Nation, screening it at the White House. The movie – which elicited protests in Boston, New York and other major American cities – provided a positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, helping to revive it as an active movement, and portrayed blacks as an inferior race and lecherous assaulters of white women.  

But despite his racism, Wilson did have some domestic achievements, including creating the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. Some of his contemporary supporters have sought to excuse his racism by citing his supposedly liberal foreign policy. But even in this sphere, Wilson was a blatant imperialist, engaging in “gunboat diplomacy” in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Mexico. Though Wilson became famous for championing “peace without victory” and “making the world safe for democracy” in 1917 during the First World War, as well as opposing secret agreements between European imperial powers, he was naïve in placing too much faith in idealism over the Realpolitik of European leaders during Paris peace negotiations in 1919. In the end, the peace adopted was a punitive one that helped trigger the grievances exploited by German dictator, Adolf Hitler, to sweep aside the fledgling Weimar Republic, resulting in the Second World War. The 1919 Versailles Treaty itself was dead-on-arrival in an isolationist US Senate.

Wilson’s appeals to “world public opinion” also had a quixotic air to it, since flag-waving European publics had enthusiastically supported their countries’ entry into the First World War. The League of Nations failed not just because it lacked American participation, it was based on an unrealistic reflection of power politics and national interests, and also excluded two critical powers: Germany and Soviet Russia. The world body thus epitomized the very “Victor’s Justice” that the US president had consistently sought to avoid. 

Wilson died in February 1924. Two foundations, numerous schools, a government-funded think tank, a navy submarine, and the Geneva-based headquarters of the UN refugee agency all still bear his name. Despite Wilson being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, he however failed to convince his own country to join the international organisation set up to preserve the post-war peace. Due to the failure of the League of Nations and the outbreak of another global conflict, Wilson’s international reputation had been badly damaged by 1939.

After 1945, his legacy was, however, resurrected by crusading “Wilsonian” American foreign policy jingoists seeking to spread a gospel of democracy and human rights around the world, while often hypocritically doing everything possible to prevent its practice in much of  Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia by supporting brutal autocrats. Based on the history we have just recounted, there was nothing progressive or liberal about Wilson’s career. He remained until his death a dyed-in-the-wool racist, even by the moral standards of his own age. Princeton’s action in expunging his name from two major buildings thus provides an ideal opportunity to start writing a more accurate, inclusive, and complex version of history than the one I was taught at Oxford.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.